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Keeping it in the Family: The Infamous and Bigamous John Blair Wills

Sometime in 1850 a nineteen-year-old medic called John Blair Wills fell in love at first sight with a beautiful girl he spotted on a London omnibus.  Following the girl home he asked her mother, who was very surprised, for her daughter’s hand in marriage.  He explained that he had good prospects and was of respectable stock: his late father had …

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The Man with at least Two Faces, or, The Strange Story of Arthur Wicks

Readers of my most recent post will recall Lottie Chettle, who worked in Louisa Gross’s barber’s shop in Chancery Lane in the late Victorian era.  She was born Charlotte Chettle in Huntingdonshire in 1873, but later lived in Swansea, and when she turned nineteen she came up to London, where she became entangled with a young man by the name of …

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Laughter in Court, or, A History of the Victorian Female Barber

On the 28th of February 1894 a case was brought before Court no. 9 of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice in the Strand.  The plaintiff, Charlotte “Lottie” Chettle, a young woman in her early twenties from Swansea, was bringing a claim against Arthur Wicks, a self-styled barrister, for breach of a promise of marriage.  She was …

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Lighting up the Lives of Londoners

If you read my recent post on Peter Carpenter, you will recall that our knowledge of him rests largely on the journal kept by his mentor, Martin Ware.  In studying the journal for the year 1856—which was when the young Londoner enrolled in the navy as an apprentice—I came across an intriguing entry that has subsequently sent me off on …

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Madame Elise Kreutzer and the Crowded Room

On the night of Thursday the 9th of May 1895 seventeen young women were working on the couture gowns to be sold in the establishment of Madame Elise Kreutzer at 4 Holles Street off Oxford Street.  The girls, who were certainly poorly paid, had been working long hours in cramped conditions on a day when the temperature reached 70 degrees.  Many …

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Arsenic Poisoning in Kensal New Town: The Hickman Family Tragedy

The 30th of May 1847.  A Sunday morning.  In Middle Row in Kensal New Town the Hickmans, an ordinary working-class London family, were going about their ordinary Sunday business.  The father of the family, Thomas Hickman, was in the back garden putting up his wife’s washing poles.  His wife Harriet and her younger sister Caroline Bonamey were indoors preparing Sunday …

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Peter Carpenter, or, A Bloomsbury Boy in the Baltic

In my recent post on Robert Watts I described the work of the Shoeblack Society.  The Society, which had close links with the Ragged School movement, aimed to rescue young London boys from a life of poverty, and indeed of crime, by instilling in them the skills they needed to earn a living.  Much can be learnt about these boys from …

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Killed by a Corset? The Tragic Tale of Kitty Tyrrell, a Victorian Actress

The lives of most Victorian jobbing actresses are largely forgotten, their performances barely recorded apart from a few brief mentions in the theatrical papers.  And this would no doubt have been the fate of Kitty Tyrrell, if she had not had the misfortune to be killed by her corset. On Tuesday the 26th of December 1894 Kitty and her husband Harry …

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Trouble’s Afoot, or, The Rival Chiropodists of Regent Street

The newspapers tell us that on Tuesday the 18th of March 1856 Mr Bearnard was at work at No. 59 Regent Street in central London, waiting for clients to avail themselves of his skills.  These were proclaimed—rather grandiloquently—on a brass plate outside his door: G. F. Bearnard Surgeon-chiropodist Those of an unkind disposition might rather dismissively have called him a …

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The Mystery of the Blue Grave: Henry Budden of Lambeth

Opened in 1892, Streatham Cemetery in Tooting is a pleasant spot, in spite of being on a noisy and busy road leading to Wandsworth.  Scan the horizon and you will see that most of the older graves are of a uniform soft grey stone.  Then near the west chapel something incongruous meets the eye: a navy blue “something” that looks …