Nancy Wheeler, my 3 x great grandmother, was born in 1857 in Lambeth, London the twelfth and youngest child of Henry Wheeler, and the fourth child of his second wife, Mary Ann Thorpe.
As a teenager, Nancy worked as a servant for James W Micklefield, a lighterman, and his young family. Lightermen transferred goods to and from ships on the River Thames.
In May 1873, aged sixteen, Nancy left James W Micklefield’s employment because she was six months pregnant. On 1 June 1873, she married the baby’s father, twenty-five year old James Noulton, in St Mary’s, Lambeth.
Along with the social stigma of giving birth to an illegitimate child, Annie would have faced practical considerations for herself and her baby, therefore whatever her romantic feelings towards James Noulton marriage to him would have appeared the best option. Although the parish would have granted Annie some relief, without James’ support circumstances might have forced her to place the baby in a foundling hospital.
Illegitimacy in England was never common. During the post-medieval period the figure was under two per cent. That number increased to three per cent between 1590 and 1610 and rose again to three per cent in the 1700s. However, by the 1840s seven per cent of babies were born out of wedlock, a figure that decreased to four per cent in the 1890s. When Annie was pregnant with her first child she was not alone, for around a third of women were pregnant at the time they took their marriage vows.
Earlier, in 1866, eighteen year old James fell foul of the authorities and spent three months in Wandsworth Prison. His crime: he stole fifteen feet of lead. James’ prison record reveals that he was 4’ 10” tall with a lean left leg. Blue eyed and fair haired, he worked in the local pottery. James entered Wandsworth Prison weighing 6st 12lbs and left weighing 6st 8lbs. After his release, James does not appear in the criminal records, so presumably he’d learned his lesson.
On 31 August 1873, Nancy gave birth to James Henry Noulton, the first of six children she had with James. The family lived at 13 Salamanca Street, Lambeth, while James worked as a cement porter. Charles Booth’s poverty map of Victorian London reveals that Salamanca Street was a poor area with families existing on 18s. to 21s. a week.
After her marriage, Nancy changed not only her surname, but also her first name. She created a new identity for herself as Annie Noulton, and gave that name to her fourth child, my 2 x great grandmother, Annie Noulton.
Aged forty, James died on 20 December 1888 and on 22 May 1893 at St John the Evangelist, Walworth, Annie married widower, Frederick Thomas Canty, a stoker. The couple produced one daughter, Elizabeth.
On 8 May 1897, Frederick entered the county asylum. He died in the asylum on 20 June 1897.
After a hard life in a rough neighbourhood, Annie died on 27 July 1904 aged forty seven. In her forties, she lived at 39 Neville Street, Lambeth. On 6 August 1924, Eveline Downing died from an illegal operation in Neville Street. The Coroner said that it was “a very unsatisfactory case that would have to be left undecided because there was a conspiracy of silence to defeat the ends of justice.”
Eveline Downing’s death remains a mystery, but what of Annie Noulton; why did she change her name from Nancy Wheeler? Her parents and upbringing offer an explanation and I will explore that below.
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My 4 x great grandfather Henry Wheeler was born on 29 November 1797 in Westminster, London to Thomas Wheeler and Ann Fluin.
Henry married twice. First to Elizabeth Mitchell on 19 August 1817 then when Elizabeth died in 1844 he married Mary Ann Thorp of Colchester, Essex, a woman eighteen years his junior. Henry’s first marriage produced eight children while his second produced four, including my 3 x great grandmother Nancy Wheeler who changed her name to Annie Noulton.
Various censuses describe Henry as a labourer while Mary Ann’s mother, Hannah, was a straw hat maker, so maybe Mary Ann followed that trade. However, Henry also had another line of ‘work’, which resulted in regular visits to the Old Bailey.
The first evidence of Henry’s brushes with the law appear in 1817 when aged twenty in association with William Murray aged sixteen he was accused of stealing a set of harnesses value 20 shillings from Serach Atkinson. Henry duly stood trial and from the Old Bailey website https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ here is an account of that trial.
HENRY WHEELER and WILLIAM MURRAY were indicted for stealing, on the 13th of January, one set of chaise harness, value 20 shillings the property of Serach Atkinson.
SERACH ATKINSON. I am a plasterer, and live in New court, Chapel-street, Westminster. On the 13th of January, between six and seven o’clock, I missed my harness from my passage, where it usually hung. My brother had it out that day. That is all I know.
JAMES GILLMORE. On Monday evening, the 13th of January, the prosecutor came to me, stating that he had lost his harness, and who he suspected to have stolen it. About twenty minutes afterwards the prosecutor came to me with part of the harness, (the collar and traces), after that he sent for me to take Murray into custody-which I did. I went with Murray to Wheeler’s house, and took him into custody. Wheeler’s friends threatened to prosecute Murray, for inducing Wheeler to commit the robbery. The next morning the prosecutor brought me the other part of the harness, which he said, in the prisoner’s presence, was delivered to him by Wheeler’s friends.
(Property produced and sworn to).
ATKINSON re-examined by the Court. I got the harness from Murray. I had seen him that night. I do not know where the harness hung up that night. I do not know where it was.
Q. Did you never say, it hung behind the street door in the passage – A. I might. I do not know that it did
Q. Will you swear that it was not hanging there – A. I do not know. I did not see it there at all. I did not see it there that day; my brother had it out.
Q. Did you not tell the magistrate, that it hung up in the passage leading to the street door, and that the prisoner must go through that passage to go out – A. I do not know. I suspected Murray, by his calling on me; I missed it about half an hour afterwards. I had not seen it that evening.
Q. After you had seen Gillmore, where did you go to – A. Into Tothill-street, to Murray’s, he is a harness-maker, Wheeler was selling the harness there.
Q. How came you to tell me that you knew no more about it – A. It did not strike me then; I met him at this end of Tothill-street, the sadler’s is in the middle.
Q. Will you swear he was at the end of the street – A. Yes.
Q. How came you to swear that Murray was waiting at the other side of the street – A. Wheeler gave me part of the harness, and brought the other part home.
Q. Why did you not tell me this story before – A. I do not know.
Q. Is what you swore before the magistrate true or not? Which story do you stick by, what you swore before the magistrate, or what you say here – A. I stick by what I say here.
Second Middlesex Jury, before Mr. Recorder.
Henry disappeared from the historical record for gaps of several years. This is not unusual. However, the gaps between his first and second born children with Elizabeth Mitchell and Mary Ann Thorpe, nine years on each occasion, are very unusual. These women were fertile and produced children on average every two years. So why the infertile periods? The records don’t offer conclusive proof, but given Henry’s background it seems certain that he was in prison on each occasion.
The situation is easy to imagine: Henry married Elizabeth then she gave birth. Surviving on a pauper’s wages and with a wife and baby to feed he resorted to stealing. This exact pattern was repeated with Mary Ann. Stealing is of course criminally and morally wrong, but when societies encourage vast gulfs between the rich and poor then the poor are often forced to step outside the law simply to survive.
The Victorians were worried about the rising crime rate for good reason because offences shot up from around 5,000 per year in 1800 to around 20,000 per year in 1840. They were firm believers in punishment for criminals, but faced a problem: what should the punishment be?
Options included the often small and badly-run prisons, transportation to America, Australia or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), or execution: hundreds of offences carried the death penalty. By the 1830s society was having its doubts about these punishments and favoured the building of new, larger prisons.
The Victorians also insisted that these prisons should be unpleasant places, to deter people from committing crimes. Inmates had to face up to their crimes and to encourage this they were placed in solitary confinement or when in company restricted to vows of silence. Work too was hard and boring with spells on the treadmill and picking oakum as common punishments.
As my ancestor, I would like to think the best of Henry, and the pattern of his prison sentences suggest that he was stealing to support his wives and children. That said, he was an habitual criminal who did not feel inclined, or maybe did not have the opportunity, to mend his ways.
With Henry in prison, Elizabeth and Mary Ann must have struggled to survive. Yet, survive they did. There is no record of them entering the workhouse so somehow these women kept their families together.
Henry was buried on 19 October 1874. At 76, he lived a long life considering his background and periods of hardship. In the Regency era life expectancy for poor people was extremely low – in cities a lifespan of 13% for poor people compared to the wealthy. From medieval times, through Henry’s time to our time the ratio is 85% life expectancy for the poor compared to the rich.
A widow, Mary Ann lodged with relatives until her death in 1903, aged 87. Another remarkable age given her background. You wonder what attracted Mary Ann to Henry. Maybe it was love. Or maybe she sought companionship and freedom from loneliness. If it was the latter, this is ironic because Mary Ann and Henry spent at least a third of their married lives apart.
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My 6 x great grandfather Jasper Wheeler was born in 1745 in Westminster, London. He married Mary Cherien on 24 May 1773 and the couple had two children, including my direct ancestor, Thomas Wheeler.
At this stage, little is known about Mary. Further research is required. Her surname suggests French origin and the marriage and birth dates suggest that her son Thomas was born out of wedlock.
Jasper earned a living as a pawnbroker in Kew Road, Richmond. He rented a property from Henry Edmead and his rent at 16 shillings was considerably higher than the eight other tenants who rented property from Henry Edmead.
Richmond contained areas of great poverty, although on the whole it was well-to-do. I sense that Jasper and Mary straddled these two worlds, living in modest comfort while dealing in the main with people who had little money.
Pawnbrokers, with their distinctive symbols of three golden balls, were integral to working class life in the 1800s. Their symbols were initially associated with St Nicholas who, according to legend, saved three young girls from destitution by loaning them each a bag of gold, paving their way towards marriage.
Modern pawnbroking began with the Pawnbrokers Act of 1800. Lord Eldon, who promoted the Bill, admitted that he had used pawnshops in his youth. The Act increased the interest rate to 20 percent per year with licence fees set at £15 in London and £7 10 shillings in the countryside. Although sometimes associated with crime and stolen goods, a report in the Victorian era concluded that only one in 14,000 items were pawned dishonestly.
Often referred to as ‘Uncle’, quite often the pawnbroker was the difference between a regular meal and starvation. Indeed, some communities boasted more pawnbrokers than public houses, the pawnbroker lending money on anything from bedlinen to cutlery, from jewellery to furniture, from tools to the family’s Sunday best clothes.
With the workhouse an ever-present threat, pawning became acceptable, a way of life. Families, and pawnbrokers, recognised a regular pattern, centred on Saturdays and Mondays. A family, usually through the wife, would pledge its clothing on Monday then redeem it on Saturday, after pay day. Suitably dressed, the family would attend church on a Sunday, then resume the pawning cycle, the pawnbroker earning his living from the interest charged.
The entrance to a pawnbroker’s shop was usually via a side-street. In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens offered this description of a pawnshop near Drury Lane, ‘which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street’. The door, ‘half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then cautiously looking round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in…’
Although associated with the working class, a pawnbroker also received visits from the middle and upper classes in need of instant cash. Due to the sums involved, these clients offered the pawnbroker richer pickings and a chance to make sizeable profits from the transactions.
The pawnbroker was entitled to keep and sell items valued at under ten shillings once the redemption period of one year and seven days elapsed. Items valued at over ten shillings were sold at public auction.
No one described the scene better than Charles Dickens, ‘several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles…some gaudily-bound prayer books and testaments, two rows of silver watches…numerous old-fashioned tables and tea spoons….cards of rings and brooches….cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes…silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description…’
Did Jasper exploit the poor, or offer an essential service? He made a living from their poverty. However, he also placed food on their dining tables. With little support from the state, the pawnbroker was an essential member of the community.
Jasper’s Will – he died in late January 1812, aged 67, and was buried on 2 February – makes no mention of his wife Mary or his son Thomas. Instead, he bequeathed money to a widow, Elizabeth Tibbs, and her family. Was this bequest a business arrangement or the result of a romantic relationship? I suspect the latter. Given that Jasper and Mary only had two children it suggests that Mary died young. But what of Thomas?
Although there is no record of Jasper falling foul of the law, the Wheelers were regular visitors to the Old Bailey. More about that, and Thomas’ fate, next time.