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A Theatrical Undertaker: Theophilus Dunkley

Theophilus Dunkley was described by those who knew him as convivial, clubbable, charitable and very fond of the music hall, not qualities one immediately associates—perhaps unfairly—with the Victorian undertaker.  Theo lived on and around Westminster Bridge Road all his life, and now rests in Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting among the many variety performers who were both his friends and clients. …

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Strangers on a Train, or, A Curious Encounter on the North Kent Line

At the heart of this little story is a young woman who is an overlooked Londoner in the strictest sense.  She is in fact so overlooked that nothing is known about her beyond the details that follow.  All incidentals—her name, her age, her occupation—have been lost forever.  But she has not, thanks to a remarkable encounter on a train. The …

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Making a Splash: John Sackhouse at Sadler’s Wells

If you read my recent post on John Sackhouse, you will remember that I referred to the mysterious incident that took place in the Royal Dockyard in Deptford.  What follows is the full story. First, a brief recapitulation.  Sackhouse was an Inuit who travelled to Scotland from his native Greenland on board a whaling vessel in 1816.  He made a …

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The Not-So-Famous Ethel Cox: Fashioning an Education

On what is International Women’s Day I want to recognise the life and achievements of the not-so-famous Ethel Cox—rather than her namesake, the suffragette Ethel Cox. What the lesser known Ethel thought about female suffrage I don’t know, but, as she spent her working life improving the education of thousands of largely working-class girls, I can only imagine she was …

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Facing the Music: Mr Rawlins and the Organ Grinding Nuisance

Noise nuisance, it would appear, is not a modern problem.  The soundscape of Victorian London was redolent with the clatter of horse-drawn vehicles, bustling railway stations, cries of costermongers, barking stray dogs and incessant street music—all of which, particularly the last, could drive Londoners, such as Mr Thomas James Rawlins, to distraction. In 1861 Henry Mayhew estimated that there were …

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John Sackhouse, or, An Inuit Comes to London

If you read our recent post on Valentine’s Day postmen, you will see a connection with this next item in the rather sad twist at the end! We start, though, on a chilly Saturday late in March, 1818. Although the temperature in London would not rise above 47 degrees Fahrenheit, a large crowd had gathered in the Royal Dockyard in …

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Drunk on Love: A Victorian Postman’s Experience of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day was as significant in the Victorian calendar as it is today.  The Globe newspaper of 1855 estimated that, if all the cards delivered in London were stacked on top of each other, they would be taller than the Monument, at 62 metres.  If laid in a line, they would run from London to Dover, a distance of 68 …

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Reynolds’s Lost Children: The Strawberry Girl and Others

It is hard not to be captivated by Joshua Reynolds’s painting The Strawberry Girl, which hangs in the Wallace Collection at Hertford House in Manchester Square. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773, Horace Walpole jotted down in his copy of the catalogue the single word “charming”, and we can see what that eminent man of taste …

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The Rat-Catcher’s Daughters

Unlike many school leavers neither Nell or Kitty Jarvis of Camberwell in London had to worry about what to do next.  For they were destined to join their father in the noble art of rat-catching. This necessary occupation attracted the attention of the journalist Henry Mayhew, who wrote extensively about rat-catchers in London Labour and the London Poor.  He gave …