Escaping the Workhouse

Mary Ann Finn was born in Saltwood, just up the hill from Hythe, in 1825 and baptised at the church of SS Peter and Paul there on 10 April the same year. Her parents were Thomas, a labourer and Margaret nee Norcock (though she often called herself Harriet). Thomas Finn had himself had a difficult start in life, having been left an orphan. The overseers of the Poor in Saltwood where he was born put him out as an apprentice and he later moved to Dover before returning to the Hythe area. He and his wife had two more daughters after Mary Ann, Emily and Esther. Esther was described in the census records as ‘an imbecile from birth.’ The family moved to Church Hill in Hythe, where they lived next door to a family called Piety.

Church Hill, Hythe, today

The Piety family comprised John, his wife Ann and two sons, John and Thomas, who like their father were labourers. John senior had also apparently diversified into smuggling, as did so many others. In 1832, he and his brother Thomas were caught landing smuggled goods near Fort Twiss in Hythe and sent for trial, but were released when the evidence of the leading witness was contradictory, as it was so often found to be.

But both smuggling and legitimate work were sometimes not to be had in the harsh economic climate of the 1830s and both John Piety and his neighbour Thomas Finn were obliged to throw themselves occasionally on the mercy of the Overseers of the Poor later in the decade. Ann Piety also received an annual gift of a gown from Mrs Ward’s charity.

The year 1845 brought a watershed for both families. John Piety senior had already died and now both his widow Ann and his next-door-neighbour Thomas Finn died. The widowed Margaret/Harriet Finn took Emily and Esther and went to live in Stade Street in Hythe , where they subsisted on ‘outdoor relief’ paid by the parish overseers. Mary Ann, however, stayed in Church Hill, moving in next door with John Piety junior, twenty years older than her, as his ‘housekeeper’.

The relationship was clearly more than that, however, and the couple married on 12 October 1851 at Saltwood parish church in a ceremony witnessed by John’s brother Thomas and Mary Ann’s sister Emily. None of the party were able to sign their names and made their marks on the marriage register. This is the last time that Thomas Piety appears in the records. He seems to have vanished, or more likely just changed his name and tried his luck elsewhere.

Mary Ann was pregnant when she married and her daughter, another Mary Ann, was born before the end of the year. Almost exactly two years after their marriage, John Piety died and was buried on 23 October 1853. Mary Ann was destitute. John had left no other family, and her own mother, living on parish relief and with a disabled daughter, was in no position to help.

Mary Ann took work as a charwoman when she could, but between 1854 and 1855 she often had to apply for relief from the Parish Overseers herself. Unlike her mother, she was sent to the Elham Union workhouse. This was in Etchinghill,  four miles north of Hythe, and opened in 1836. She was in and out of the establishment every two or three weeks, sometimes with her daughter, sometimes without (perhaps she left the child with her mother). Then on 16 March 1856, she gave birth again, in the workhouse this time, to a son, William Henry. He was baptised in the nearest church, at Lyminge, on 14 June 1857.

A sketch of Elham Union Workhouse at Etchinghill, now demolished

The pattern of frequent admission to the workhouse continued, usually with both the children. But the frustrations of her unsettled life began to tell. On 8 September 1859, she was sent to gaol for forty-two days for an unspecified offence. She was returned from prison to the workhouse, but in January of the next year she smashed seventy panes of glass at the workhouse over a two-day rampage, and in March was sent back to prison for another forty-two days’ hard labour at Canterbury prison.

St Augustine’s Prison and House of Correction, opened in 1808 in Canterbury

On her release – again back to the workhouse – Mary Ann tried another way to vent her feelings. On 15 May 1860 she was charged with damaging a bolster. Another inmate reported that during the night she ripped open the bolster, which was filled with straw, took it down to the courtyard and set fire to it with a candle. When asked what she was doing she replied that she was ‘burning the foreigners’. The workhouse medical officer reported that the last time he had seen Mary Ann she was dressed ‘in a singular style,’ behaving oddly and talking about selling vegetables and watercress which she believed she had in her possession. He believed that this was all an act as she had previously been reasonable. The master of the workhouse told the court that she was ‘eccentric and sometimes violent’. He said that if she was dissatisfied with her lot, she would work herself up into a rage. She was judged not to be insane and sent back to prison for another six weeks. This would have suited the Poor Law authorities very well, as, had she been sent to the County Asylum in Maidstone, they would have had to foot the bill for her care.

After that brief period – when she may well have been suffering from psychotic episodes – Mary Ann settled down, and, in 1862, got married again. Her choice of husband, John Finn Avery, may, to judge from his name, have been a kinsman, and was fourteen years younger than her, having been born in Dover in 1839. He was a labourer, and the couple lived together, apparently quietly, in Folkestone, and Mary Ann took in washing to make ends meet.

However, Mary Ann’s daughter was not included in the happy family and was left in the workhouse. On 15 May 1868, aged sixteen, she was ‘moved to the home at Dover’. She must have run away, because on 25 April 1870, she was readmitted to Elham Union workhouse under an order of removal from London, together with a child who had been born in February that year, although no record exists of its birth in London or anywhere else. She left the workhouse with her baby daughter two days later, and perhaps she did now go to her mother, for the child died in Folkestone shortly afterwards and was buried at Christ Church in the town on 5 May 1870.

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The tower of Christchurch, Folkestone. The rest of the church was destroyed by enemy action in 1940

Mary Ann junior then seems to have tried working as a servant for a living, but it didn’t work out. She was readmitted to the workhouse, destitute, on 6 Feb 1871. She somehow got herself out of the place and went back to London, where she met and married James Dabbs, a second-hand bookseller eleven years older than her. They married in Holborn, where they continued to live, in the Peabody Buildings there, and where they raised a family of three sons and three daughters. There was no more workhouse for Mary Ann Dabbs and her children. Frederick, the eldest, was apprenticed to an engineer but went into the printing trade; James and William became warehouse porters; Ruth worked as a machinist making children’s clothing; Mary Ann was an album binder; and Ellen, the youngest, kept house for her father after her mother’s death.

Mary Ann Dabbs nee Piety died in 1907. She had escaped the cycle of poverty and destitution and overcome her early mistakes and her upbringing. Meanwhile, her sisters had also died, Esther, the disabled child, in the workhouse. Her mother, widowed again in 1900 and too old now to take in washing, went back to the workhouse herself and died there in 1906.

And what became of her son, William Henry? He disappears from the records after his mother’s marriage. There is nothing in the censuses or the records of death and marriage. He appears not to have taken his step-father’s name either. Perhaps he was adopted, or sent abroad, or maybe even claimed by his natural father.

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Always a Man

William Lionel Man was born on 7 December 1832 at Halstead Hall, Halstead, Kent, the son of Harry Stoe Man and Louisa Caroline Man nee Fowle.  He was baptized on 13 January 1833 at St. Margaret’s, Halstead.

Halstead Hall was not the family seat. William’s father had bought it, using his wife’s money, in about 1828. He seems to have had little money of his own. He was declared bankrupt in 1818 and was incarcerated, for a while, in the Fleet prison in London. He paid his debts and was married the next year, but in 1824 was dismissed from his position as a purser in the Royal Navy for fiddling his expenses account. With the job went his navy pension. He was declared bankrupt again in 1843. Fortunately, the house was in his wife’s name.

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Halstead Hall

Harry was at best eccentric, at worst just plain bloody-minded.  He (illegally) drained and enclosed the village pond. He knocked down the gateposts of the church to make space for his wife’s carriage.  When angry, he whistled through the holes in his cheeks left by the passage of a pistol ball during a naval engagement with the French in 1802. His gravestone was inscribed:

I have said to corruption thou art my father/ to the worm thou art my mother and sister.

William was the couple’s eighth child of eleven.

The eldest, Eleanor, married in middle age to a Welshman who habitually talked to inanimate objects, including his boots. The next, Harry, became a  major in the Turkish Contingent and fought in the Crimean War. He never recovered from being thrown out of a window in St Petersburg and died aged forty-two. He always took off his hat when he saw a barrel of sugar because he had sugar investments. A younger brother, Septimus, got sunstroke in India, which, coupled with an unhappy love affair, unsettled his mind, though he succeeded in becoming a barrister.  He would walk about Paris dressed as an Admiral and when at Halstead Hall insisted on living in the basement where he played Spanish love songs on the guitar.

William started life conventionally enough, and he was articled to a solicitor in London. He then scandalised his family by marrying Rosa Cooper, who was not only an actress, but a Roman Catholic, too – or at least he said he did. There is no record of his marriage in England, Scotland or Wales, to ‘Rosa Cooper’, which may have been a stage name, or to anyone else.  So who was Rosa? She remains a mystery. She had been acting on the London stage since she was in her early teens, and some of her reviews refer to her as ‘the celebrated American comedienne.’ In 1850, she made her first appearance in a tragedy, as Lady Macbeth, with disastrous reviews, but she persevered until the reviews improved. She and William had a son, Horace, in 1856, but she continued to perform.

For a while, William combined the law with an interest in the stage.  At first, he seems to have acted as Rosa’s manager and publicist.

 

An 1856 advertisement for Rosa Cooper’s lectures. Her qualifications may have been exaggerated

By 1857, he had joined Rosa on the stage, performing as ‘Lionel Harding’. Perhaps he did not meet with huge initial success, as he left his lodgings in Swansea without paying he bill

 

In 1858, he and Rosa were performing in an entertainment entitled Matrimony at Greenwich.  Rosa’s performance was much praised. They then created the London Dramatic Company and went on tour, with mixed results. At Faversham they played to several near-empty houses in succession until they offered to give away a silver watch to one lucky audience member. The theatre that night was packed with boys and young men who cat-called and shouted ‘where’s the watch’ until the cast gave up and allegedly left town without paying for their lodgings. Better times came and in 1863 William and Rosa were performing together with William Montague’s company in Chelmsford and Cranbrook, where they were described as ‘popular favourites’ and Rosa ‘drew forth rapturous approbation’ as Lady Macbeth.

                                                                                Rosa Cooper as Lady Macbeth (www.manfamily.org)

Perhaps to the Man family’s relief, they then decided to perform in the colonies, leaving Horace with his paternal grandmother.  In 1865 they were in New Zealand, performing Shakespeare for the actor-manager Charles Dillon’s company. In 1870 they were in Sidney, where Rosa appeared in ‘her well-known and artistic realisation of the character of Lady Isabel in East Lynne’. This gave her the immortal lines: Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!

                                                                                   William Lionel Man as Hamlet (www.manfamily.org)

In 1872 they were giving ‘drawing-room entertainments’ in the Polytechnic Hall in Sidney with ‘very limited success’. It was a sad time for them: their son Horace had died the previous year aged fifteen. The circumstances of his death are unclear. According to his death certificate, he died of dropsy (oedema). This can be a symptom of heart or kidney disease. His death was not registered by a family member, of whom there were plenty at Halstead Hall, but by an unknown illiterate woman, Elizabeth Grosvenor,  who was ‘present at the death’.  The cause of death was not certified, which means he was not under the care of a doctor. His father, William, is described as ‘a lawyer’.

Five years later, Rosa was dead herself, of cholera, in Calcultta ( now Kolkata).

The next we hear of William is in 1880, when on 20 July at Holy Trinity church in Maidstone, he married Mary Fowle Starnes, a distant relation of his mother. They moved in with Mary’s aunt, Mary Cutbush, in King Street, Maidstone. William seems to have given up the stage on the death of Rosa: it was always she who drew the better reviews.  In 1881, he was making his living as a journalist.  He wrote under the pseudonym of ‘The Lounger’ commentaries which were syndicated to local newspapers. He also wrote a book Lecture on Shakespeare with the Reverend T. Archibald S. White, who delivered the lecture itself. The reverend gentleman’s full name was Thomas Archibald Starnes White, a relation of William’s wife.

William and Mary moved to Hythe in about 1890 and lived in Beaconsfield Terrace.

Beaconsfield Terrace, Hythe

Why Hythe? One attraction may have been the presence in nearby Sandgate of William’s brother, Edward Garnet Man, who lived in a house called ‘Halstead’.  He had spent much of his career in Burma and now passed his time writing letters to the newspapers, being a JP and supporting the Primrose League.

William did not go out of his way to make friends in Hythe and made it clear that he despised the mores  of polite society, the established church and humbug in general. He did, however, like the White Hart inn, which, according to his nephew Morrice, he frequented rather too often,  and he gave occasional recitations.

He died on 30 March 1904 at home in Hythe. An obituary published in the Folkestone Herald is fulsome. It tells us that he studied acting at Sadler’s Wells, where he met Rosa, who was then one of the stars of the company. The couple emigrated to Australia where they took a theatre in Melbourne.  His health had been broken by his experiences in India when Rosa died , so he retired to Hythe to improve his physical well-being. His later years were apparently spent trying to contact his old pals and help them:

Many a broken-down actor, poor scene shifter, and in one instance a poor old charwoman, who had formerly held some minor part in the Melbourne Theatre, can attribute the comparative ease and comfort of their declining years and their rescue from terrible poverty, to his kindness and generosity. 

Unfortunately, none of this chimes with what is verifiable about William’s life, and if he rescued ‘broken-down actors’ from lives of penury, then he was generous to a fault, as he left in his will only £399. 3s 9d. He was cremated on 6 April 1904 at Woking cemetery and his ashes were interred at St. Margaret’s, Halstead

Mary remained in Hythe until her death in1916. She left nearly £30,000 in her will. Perhaps it was her money that William was so generous with.

After her death, the couple’s nieces and nephews had a tablet erected to them in St Leonard’s church.

 

It is ironic that William is remembered in the church, a place he visited only to scoff at the clergy, but the plaque is at the back of the church, on the north aisle wall. It is above an area now used as a bar to serve wine and beer when concerts are held in the church. It seems an appropriate place for William.

There is a coat of arms on the plaque.

The motto reads Vir Semper – Always a Man. An expert in heraldry visited St Leonard’s church a few years ago and recorded all the coats of arms. His conclusion on the Man plaque was that ‘the arms, crest, and motto do not appear in the usual literature (BGA, GA2, Elvin, Fairbairn) in relation to the name Man’.

Sources: Millennial Halstead: A Kentish Villager History by Geoffrey Kitchener, M.A.

                http://www.manfamily.org  for details of William’s wider family. It also has a memoir of William by his nephew, Morrice.