Introducing her talk at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green tomorrow night, Contributing Writer Sarah Wise (author of The Blackest Streets) considers the work of one of the East End’s less-known Victorian philanthropists, Annie Macpherson. Click here to book a ticket.
Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner
In 1866, London’s fourth and final major cholera epidemic arrived, killing five and a half thousand Londoners. Out of that public health disaster emerged three hugely influential East London charitable bodies – the Salvation Army, Dr Barnardo’s, and the less-renowned Annie Macpherson Home of Industry. Miss Macpherson was an evangelical Scottish Presbyterian who set up a large-scale programme of shipping London’s orphans and street children across the Atlantic for new lives in Canada.
Born in 1833, Miss Macpherson arrived in London in 1862 and joined a loose-knit group of wealthy evangelicals involved in assisting the destitute. In February 1869, she rented a warehouse at 60 Commercial St in Spitalfields which had formerly been put to use as a cholera ‘hospital’ by the Sisters of Mercy, the Church of England sisterhood. She called her refuge for children ‘The Bee Hive’ (later also referring to it as ‘The Home of Industry’). The building is still there, on the southern corner of Commercial St and Flower & Dean St.
Miss Macpherson found herself on the edge of one of the most deprived pockets of the East End – she estimated that four people each week starved to death in the surrounding streets and official figures confirm her estimate. In 1869, 154,000 Londoners were reliant on parish ‘welfare’ relief (out of a population of 3.9 million), but many thousands never came forward for help. Estimates of London children living rough are as high as 30,000, and one such individual, Maggie Fritz, aged twelve, arrived at The Bee Hive one night close to midnight. She was brought in by a girl even younger who could not bear to see homeless Maggie sleeping night after night on a doorstep. The final straw had been witnessing other homeless girls kicking Maggie so they could take the doorstep to sleep on. Maggie was freezing, wet and hungry, with a filthy tear-stained face and matted hair. Miss Macpherson took her in and trained her to become a housemaid.
Elsewhere in her notes, Miss Macpherson refers to a boy she took in named Hugh, whose widowed mother had three other children, another on the way, an aged mother and a learning disabled eighteen-year-old-sister, all to provide for from her pitiful wages as a cigar-maker.
Another lad, named ‘Punch’, about ten, was discovered one night by Miss Macpherson, asleep in a barrel at Billingsgate Market alongside his dog, Little Dosser. Punch made a living of sorts by doing acrobatic tricks and ventriloquism in East End gin palaces.
Annie Macpherson’s approach to charity was to offer food, shelter and some kind of industrial or domestic training to children – initially boys, but later also girls, wives and mothers. Among the skills for which she offered training at The Bee Hive were tailoring and shoe-mending for the boys, and sewing and domestic service for girls and women. On Sundays, after the children had a breakfast of bread and treacle and a mug of coffee, Miss Macpherson would lead them up Commercial St and under the Wheler St arch to the animal and bird fair at Club Row, where they played the harmonium and sang rousing hymns. Over the next thirty years, Macpherson and her Bee Hive boys and girls became a noted feature of this part of the Bethnal Green Rd.
For Annie Macpherson, Satan was no mere figure of speech – in her eyes, the Devil literally haunted slum areas, and the exploitation and human misery that she witnessed were His work. These were districts, she wrote ‘where Satan reigns openly, in which ‘the subtle deceiver’ would continually put obstacles in her way — which was the way of the Lord. Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green were, in Annie’s words, ‘the Enemy’s territory.’
Years of personal observation of the malfunctioning labour market and the appalling housing shortage prompted her to write ‘God is watching the grasping capitalists and the oppressors of the poor, the grinding taskmasters who cannot wring another farthing out of the toilers.’ Yet, in her view, politics was not the arena in which social evil should be fought. Instead, evangelical revivalists regarded such mass poverty as the forerunner to the Apocalypse. As Scripture foretold, the world had to be in ruins before the Messiah returns to establish His kingdom. These things were divinely ordained and, though the alleviation of human suffering was a Christian’s purpose, it was only divine power that could right all wrongs and mete out appropriate punishments.
Miss Macpherson was a believer in the controversial practice of emigrationism — transporting of poor British children to far-flung imperial colonies for re-settlement. Such schemes were tried earlier in the century but abandoned, largely because of worries about potential labour shortages in Britain, but also because of the risks of abuse and neglect for unsupervised youngsters sent halfway around the globe. However, the cholera crisis of 1866, together with a run of bad harvests, bitter winters and a recession saw the government change its mind. A number of charitable bodies were permitted to send both workhouse and street children abroad to work — unpaid — as either farm labourers or domestic servants. By the time of her death in 1904, Annie Macpherson had exported over 12,000 London children to Canada.
By 1874, worrying reports began to appear in the Canadian press about English street children who had run away or been dismissed by their employers, and who were to be found living rough, engaged in petty crime or even in jail.
The government sent over an inspector in 1875. He was horrified by the lack of follow-up inspection on the part of Miss Macpherson and other emigrating agencies. Without questioning Miss Macpherson’s integrity, the inspector criticised her scheme, among others, for its naïve trust in human nature, placing children with scarcely-vetted Canadian families. The children’s lives, he wrote, were ‘hard and lonely… the little emigrants have been set afloat, and too many of them left to paddle their own canoes.’
Artist and illustrator George Cruikshank was another, early, critic of child emigration. In his pamphlet, ‘Our Gutter Children’, he declared the ‘transportation of innocent…children a disgrace to the Christian world.’ His illustration showed small infants being shovelled up out of the London gutter and into a cart, for export, ‘like so much guano, or like so many cattle for a foreign market.’
Annie Macpherson accepted the criticisms and made all the improvements suggested. But attacks on child emigration started from another source – the various left-wing or ‘progressive’ voices that grew louder from the eighteen-eighties onwards. Why should poverty be a reason for a child to be exiled from its country of birth? Why should a child do ‘slave’ work for no pay except their board and lodging? One anarchist collective, based in Boundary St, Shoreditch, printed a pamphlet entitled ‘Are We Overpopulated?’, which called for the forced emigration of the idle rich only, since they – rather than the poor – were a parasitical drain on the resources of Britain.
In the late eighteen-eighties, Miss Macpherson moved The Bee Hive north to the corner of Club Row and Bethnal Green Rd, on the edge of the Old Nichol slum. By now, she was attracting over five hundred people to her regular Gospel evenings — astonishing in an area in which many parish churches struggled to match such attendance levels. Yet, upon her death, Annie Macpherson’s work was taken over by Dr Barnardo’s charity and her name simply slipped into history.
Annie Macpherson (1833-1904)
Annie Macpherson’s first Home of Industry at 60 C0mmercial St
Annie Macpherson’s second Home of Industry at 29 Bethnal Green Rd
George Cruickshank published ‘Our Gutter Children’ in 1869 (Click image to enlarge)
Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner
Sarah Wise’s lecture ‘A Disgrace to the Christian World?’ is at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green on Thursday 26th November at 7pm. Click here to book a ticket.
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Lost in Old London – Rose Alley, Southwark, c. 1910
When I first came to live in London, I had few friends, no job and little money, but I managed to rent a basement room in Portobello. For a year, I wandered the city on foot, exploring London without any bus fare. I think I never felt so alone as when I drifted aimlessly in the freezing fog in Hyde Park in 1983. As I walked, I used to puzzle how I could ever find my life in London. Then I went back and sat in my tiny room for countless hours and struggled to write, without success.
Today, I am often haunted by the spectre of my pitiful former self as I travel around London and, while examining the thousands of glass slides created by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for educational lectures at the Bishopsgate Institute a century ago, I am struck by the lone figures isolated in the cityscape. The photographers may have included these solitary people to give a sense of human scale – but my response to these pictures is emotional, I cannot resist seeing them as a catalogue of the loneliness of old London.
Alone outside Shepherd’s Bush Empire, c. 1920
Alone at the Chelsea Hospital, c. 1910
Alone in Hyde Park, c. 1910
Alone on Hampstead Heath, c. 1910
Alone in Thames St, 1920
Alone at the Orangery, Kensington Palace, c. 1910
Alone at the Albert Hall, c. 1910
Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
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It has been five years in the making but – thanks to the generous support of the readers of Spitalfields Life - I am almost ready to publish the first full-colour illustrated history of the CRIES OF LONDON, just in time for Christmas.
This ambitious book sets out to reclaim an entire cultural tradition which I believe is an essential part of the identity of London as a city founded upon its markets. In the capital, those who had no means of income could always sell wares in the street and, by turning their presence into performance through song, they won the hearts of generations and came to embody the spirit of London itself.
Designed by David Pearson, recently acclaimed as Britain’s most-influential book designer, CRIES OF LONDON is a handsome cloth-bound green hardback with a gilded cover containing hundreds of beautiful illustrations of London street traders spanning four centuries, together with stories of the artists and the hawkers, and an extended introduction by yours truly.
I am celebrating with a LAUNCH at Waterstones Piccadilly on 3rd December, a CONCERT at Shoreditch Church on 4th December, a PEDLARS CONFERENCE on 5th December and ILLUSTRATED LECTURES on 10th & 11th December at Bishopsgate Institute – you will find all the information and booking details below. I look forward to welcoming you to these events, where I shall be signing books and giving away prints of CRIES OF LONDON to all comers.
Peepshow in Piccadilly, 1804
I am proud to be launching CRIES OF LONDON at WATERSTONES PICCADILLY on THURSDAY 3rd DECEMBER from 6:30pm with cakes, cocktails, live music, dancing & a host of famous authors. There is no need to book, please come along to join the party!
Hair Brooms outside Shoreditch Church, 1804
I am delighted to be introducing a concert of CRIES OF LONDON by Orlando Gibbons & others, performed by Fretwork & Red Byrd, presented by Spitalfields Music on FRIDAY 4th DECEMBER at ST LEONARD’S CHURCH, SHOREDITCH. Click here to book for the concert & pre-concert talk.
Cats & Dogs’ Meat in Bishopsgate, 1804
I am thrilled to be hosting a PEDLARS CONFERENCE on SATURDAY 5th DECEMBER at 2pm and giving ILLUSTRATED LECTURES on THURSDAY 10th & FRIDAY 11th DECEMBER at 7:30pm at BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE. Please click here to book.
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It is with a heavy heart that I announce the death of Rodney Archer – one of Spitalfields best-loved residents – yesterday morning at St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he was admitted on Friday
Rodney Archer, the Aesthete of Fournier St
When I first met him, Rodney Archer kindly took me to lunch at E.Pellicci, but – before we set out – I went round to his eighteenth century house in Fournier St to take this portrait of him in front of his cherished fireplace that once belonged to Oscar Wilde.
One day in 1970, Rodney was visiting an old friend who lived in Tite St next to Wilde’s house and saw the builders were doing renovations, so he seized the opportunity to walk through the door of the house that had once been the great writer’s dwelling. The fireplace had been torn out of the wall in Wilde’s living room as part of a modernisation of the property and the workmen were about to carry it away, so Rodney offered to buy it on the spot.
For ten pounds he acquired a literary relic of the highest order, the fine pilastered fireplace with tall overmantle that you see above, and which become a shrine to Wilde in Rodney’s first floor living room in Fournier St. You can see Spy’s famous caricature of Wilde up on the chimneypiece, but the gem of Rodney’s Wilde collection was a copy of Lord Alfred Douglas’ poems with pencil annotations by Douglas himself. Encountering these artifacts in this environment – that already possess such a potent poetry of their own, amplified by their proximity to each other – was especially enchanting.
Rodney allowed the patina of ages to remain in his house, enhanced by his sensational collection of pictures, carpets, furniture, books, china and god-knows-what, accumulated over all the years he lived in it, which transformed the house into three-dimensional map of his vigorous mind, crammed with images, stories and all manner of cultural enthusiasms. In Rodney’s house, anyone would feel at home the minute they walked in the door because the result of all these accretions was that everything arrived in its natural place, yet nothing felt arranged. It was a relaxing place, with reflected light everywhere, and although there was so much to look at and so many stories to learn, it was peaceful and benign, like Rodney himself. Rodney’s style can never be replicated by anyone else, unless you became Rodney and you could live through those years again.
Rodney made his home in London’s most magical street in 1980. It came about after his mother fell down a well at The Roundhouse and broke her hip while visiting a performance of “The Homosexual (or The Difficulty of Sexpressing Yourself)” by Copi in which Rodney was starring. It was the culmination of Rodney’s distinguished career of just eight years as an actor, that included playing the Player Queen in Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic in a production with Richard Pasco in the title role and featuring Patrick Stewart as Horatio.
After she broke her hip, Rodney’s mother told him that her doctor insisted she live with her son, much to Rodney’s surprise. Gamely, Rodney agreed, on the condition they find somewhere large enough to live their own lives with some degree of independence, and rang up his friends Riccardo and Eric who lived in Fournier St, asking them to keep their eyes open for any house that went on sale. Within three months, a house came up. It was the only one they looked at and Rodney lived there happily ever after.
Thirty years ago, Spitalfields was not the desirable location it is today, “My mother thought I was joking when I told her where I wanted live,” declared Rodney to me, raising his eyebrows, “Now it would nice if there were more people living here who were not millionaires. I visit people in houses today where there are ghosts of people I used to know and the new people don’t know who they were, it’s sad.”
Rodney’s roots were in East London, he was born in Gidea Park, but once his father (a flying officer in the RAF) was killed in action over Malta in 1943, his mother took Rodney and his sister away to Toronto when they were tiny children and brought them up there on her own. Rodney came back to London in 1962 with the rich Canadian accent (which sounded almost Scottish to me) that he retained his whole life, in spite of the actor’s voice training he received at LAMDA which imparted such a mellifluous tone to his speech. After his brief years treading the boards, Rodney became a teacher of drama at the City Lit and ran the Operating Theatre Company, staging his own play “The Harlot’s Curse” (co-authored with Powell Jones) in the Princelet St Synagogue with great success.
“When I retired, I decided to do whatever I wanted to do,“ announced Rodney with a twinkly smile, at that point in his life story. “Now I am having a wonderful third act. Writing about that time, my mother, the cats and me…” he said, introducing the long-awaited trilogy of autobiographical fiction that he was working on, in which the first volume would cover his first eight years in Spitalfields concluding with the death of his mother in 1988, the second volume would conclude with the death of his friend Dennis Severs in 1999 and the third with the death of Eric Elstob. (Elstob was a banker who loved architecture and left a fortune for the refurbishment of Christ Church, Spitalfields.) “There is something about the nature of Spitalfields, that fact becomes fiction – as you become involved with the lives of people here, it gets you telling stories,” explained Rodney, expressing a sentiment that is close to my own heart too.
Then it was time for lunch and, as we walked hungrily up Brick Lane that day towards Bethnal Green in the Spring sunshine, the postman saluted Rodney and, on cue, the owner of the eel and pie shop leaned out of the doorway to give him a cheery wave too, then, as if to mark the occasion as auspicious, we saw the first shiny new train run along the recently-completed East London Line, gliding across the newly-constructed bridge, glinting in the sunlight as it passed over our heads and sliding away across Allen Gardens towards Whitechapel. “This is the elegant world of Rodney Archer,” I thought.
Turning the corner into Bethnal Green Rd, I asked Rodney about the origin of his passion for Wilde and when he revealed he once played Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at school, his intense grey-blue eyes shone with excitement. It made perfect sense, because I felt as if I was meeting a senior version of Algernon who retained all the wit, charm and sagacity of his earlier years, now having “a wonderful third act” in an apocryphal lost manuscript by Oscar Wilde, recently discovered amongst all the glorious clutter in a beautiful old house in Fournier St, Spitalfields.
Rodney in his study
Rodney and his cat Fitzroy (portrait by Chris Kelly)
Rodney played Edward II for the Save Norton Folgate Campaign
Rodney sings ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ at Pellicci’s Christmas Party (portrait by Colin O’Brien)
Rodney - “I come to Pelliccis every Wednesday and Saturday. On Wednesday I am the gay mascot for the Repton Boxers and on Saturday we bet on the horses.” (portrait by Colin O’Brien)
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The temperature is plunging and I can feel the velvet darkness falling upon London. As dusk gathers in the ancient churches and the dusty old museums in the late afternoon, the distinction between past and present becomes almost permeable at this time of year. Then, once the daylight fades and the streetlights flicker into life, I feel the desire to go walking out into the dark in search of the long nights of old London.
Examining hundreds of glass plates – many more than a century old – once used by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society for magic lantern shows at the Bishopsgate Institute, I am in thrall to these images of night long ago in London. They set my imagination racing with nocturnal visions of the gloom and the glamour of our city in darkness, where mist hangs in the air eternally, casting an aura round each lamp, where the full moon is always breaking through the clouds and where the recent downpour glistens upon every pavement – where old London has become an apparition that coalesced out of the fog.
Somewhere out there, they are loading the mail onto trains, and the presses are rolling in Fleet St, and the lorries are setting out with the early editions, and the barrows are rolling into Spitalfields and Covent Garden, and the Billingsgate porters are running helter-skelter down St Mary at Hill with crates of fish on their heads, and the horns are blaring along the river as Tower Bridge opens in the moonlight to admit another cargo vessel into the crowded pool of London. Meanwhile, across the empty city, Londoners slumber and dream while footsteps of lonely policemen on the beat echo in the dark deserted streets.
Glass slides courtesy Bishopsgate Institute
Read my other nocturnal stories
Other stories of Old London