Smiles and Tears:
Burman Cassin Goes Down to Kent



A portrait of the writer. Richard Rowe Passages from the Diary of an Early Methodist 1880.

A while ago I published two articles on the London Overlooked website in which an important character was a fellow by the name of Hoppety Bob. The first of these articles, which can be accessed by following this link, introduced the kind-hearted toymaker who was good to the neighbourhood children of the London slum in which he lived, teaching them to read and laying on wonderful entertainments. The second, which can be accessed by following this other link, identified the neighbourhood as Raymond’s Folly ‘in the wilderness of dingy brick on the Surrey side of the Thames’, although the very real possibility that such a place never existed is given full consideration.

In fact it may well be the case that Hoppety Bob himself never existed and that he was a fictional character created by a writer by the name of Richard Rowe. If that is the case, then we must conclude that Rowe, who was a Methodist minister, wanted Bob to be an embodiment of simple goodness. The character then became a sort of educational device, a conduit, as it were, for Rowe’s teachings.

There’s goodness too

Even if he is a fiction, Bob is a splendid fellow and on one occasion he took — or Rowe imagined him taking — a group of slum children on an outing from the Folly up to Highgate. His memory of the outing captures quite wonderfully an urban dweller’s sense of escape from his normally oppressive surroundings:

It was cur’ous to see how the little uns stared up the hill. The houses was so clean an’ so quiet, they thought the people couldn’t be up yet; an’ the ivy was hangin’ over the old wall t’other side o’ the way — it was a queer sight for us Folly folk. An’ then we went along the lane, an’ stopped to have a look down a-top o’ Highgate Archway. That pleased the young uns, too. I was afeared they’d topple over, or squeege theirselves through the balusters. There was the road ever so far down so lonely, an’ the birds was a-singin’, an’ the laylock was out in the gardens, and the sun was a-shinin’ quite hot where we was, an’ yet you could hardly see London for the smoke. It did look uncommon dreary. I couldn’t help pityin’ them that was left in it, an’ wishin’ they could ha’ been out enjoyin’ themselves like us.

Bob is made to think of Bunyan’s City of Destruction, and the Christian message — ‘There’s a deal o’ wickedness in London, but there’s goodness too’ — comes across loud and clear.

Hoppety Bob and young charges on an excursion to Highgate. The Sunday Magazine volume 5 1869.

Down to Kent

I first became interested in Hoppety Bob, quite accidentally, when writing about the Shoeblack Society, which worked alongside the ragged schools to educate poor boys from the slums and steer them towards gainful employment. The Society also had a pastoral role and saw it as important to offer the boys less rigorous activities — pleasant distractions, as it were, from the harsh reality of their lives. One such distraction was the magic lantern show, and I was intrigued to discover a curious parallel with the activities of Rowe’s avuncular toymaker, who organised similar entertainments for the neighbourhood children.

But that is not the end of the matter, for the Society also did for its children what Bob did for his by organising days out from the city. These outings all served the same purpose, which was to give underprivileged children an experience, albeit short-lived, that they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to enjoy. They were fuelled by the most generous of motives. However, they differed in scope and ambition, for whereas Hoppety Bob and his happy band undertook fairly local excursions — Highgate, as we have seen, or Greenwich — the South London Brigade of the Shoeblack Society went all the way to Herne Bay in Kent.

Of course, we need to remind ourselves that Bob was probably just a figment of Rowe’s fertile imagination. On the other hand the Shoeblack Society was very real, and its organisers and their charges were the genuine article, made of flesh and blood. What is more, the outing to Herne Bay, which took place every year in the summer, was real enough to warrant mentions in local newspapers, and for this reason we know exactly what the little Londoners got up to. As we shall see, they had a jolly good time. But there was also one very sad story and we must not shy away from that. In what follows there will be smiles and laughter, to be sure, but tears and heartbreak too.

Two young shoeblacks sporting their distinctive red uniform. The Ragged School Shoe-Black Society 1854.

At the Ship Inn

The day began early, and certainly in 1886, when a party of thirty-four travelled down to the coast, it began very early indeed, and we know this because The South London Press spotted the boys leaving their premises, accompanied by the adults in charge, at five-thirty in the morning. It was 29 July — a Thursday — and the weather in the south east of the country was fair. Even at that hour the streets of Borough, where the South London Brigade had its headquarters at 223 High Street, hard by the church of St George the Martyr, would have been bustling with activity as the working population went about its business.

Dressed in bright red blouses and caps, the boys marched off under the watchful eye of their superintendent, William Enoch Chandler, and their schoolmaster, a city missionary by the name of John James Steuart. At Elephant and Castle, where they were joined by Chandler’s wife and children and by one of Steuart’s three young sons, they boarded a train and spent the next three hours gazing happily at the passing scenery, until at about nine o’clock they arrived at Herne Bay. By then, of course, they were hungry. Falling in two abreast, they marched quickly through the town to the fourteenth-century Ship Inn on the seafront, where they devoured a substantial breakfast.

The boys spent the day taking full advantage of the many entertainments on offer. They rode donkeys and hired tricycles and occasionally fell flat on their backs. They went boating or joined an organised drive into the country. They ran around the town and along the beach, and their red uniforms poked out here and there from among the crowds of visitors and day-trippers. At one o’clock they were back at the Ship Inn, where they made short work of a lunch of meat and vegetables, blackcurrant tart and cherry pie.

Ship Inn in Herne Bay. Ralph Tuck & Sons early 20th century. Wikimedia.

And a beautiful day

While the boys were busy with the tart and the pie, six South London Brigade committee members appeared at the inn. They had set off from London in the middle of the morning and had arrived just in time to catch the shoeblacks before they dashed off for the afternoon’s entertainments. The Reverend Burman Cassin, the rector of St George the Martyr, said grace, and Mr Joseph Rockley, the treasurer, followed a time-honoured practice by giving each boy a shilling as spending money. Then they and their four companions settled down to their own meal — paid for out of their own pockets — after which they went for a drive through the town and its environs.

Even on a day trip to the Kent coast the Christian spirit of the Shoeblack Society was present, and the Reverend Cassin ended the afternoon on a properly spiritual note, addressing the boys when they gathered back at the Ship Inn for tea at five o’clock. According to The South London Press he

reminded them of God’s goodness to them in giving them kind friends and a beautiful day.

But at all times his good-heartedness shone through, and, as the boys waited for the train back to London, tired but happy, he handed round a small treat of gingerbread nuts. It was now just gone seven o’clock. When the train pulled into the station at Elephant and Castle at nine twenty, he gathered the boys around him for a final brief address. At his suggestion they burst into song — a hymn of praise — which must have surprised anyone walking along the platform.

Postcard showing the pier at Herne Bay. Detroit Publishing Co. late 19th century. Library of Congress.

A kind face

Burman Cassin, who was fifty-one at the time of the outing described above, was a familiar figure in and around Borough High Street. This had something to do with the fact that the Rector of St George the Martyr was blessed with a considerable girth. Charles Spurgeon, the renowned Baptist preacher, was once heard to say that

the greatest difficulty that he ever had to accommodate himself to the requirements of the Church was on one occasion when he tried to get into a hansom with the Rev Burman Cassin.

Spurgeon, who enjoyed his own ample proportions, conceded several inches to his friend from the Established Church.

But Cassin was known to many for the rather more serious reason that he was a man of great ability. Having studied at Trinity College Cambridge, he entered the Church of England ministry, serving two offices in South London and one in Lancashire before assuming the rectorship of St George the Martyr in his early forties. He was popular with his flock and was known to one and all as a man with a kind face.

In fact Cassin had two flocks, the one being his parishioners and the other his many children. In 1863 he had married Frances Ann Ready, whose father was also a Church of England cleric, and over the course of the years he became father to no fewer than ten offspring. He set up home at 11 The Paragon, a crescent off the south side of the New Kent Road, and presided over what must have been a bustling and lively household complete with a number of servants. But everything changed when in the autumn of 1884 one of the Cassin children, a boy by the name of George, was the victim of a terrible and tragic accident.

The Paragon, a residential crescent off the New Kent Road. c.1890.

In the Old Kent Road

On Monday 20 October the little boy, who was nine years old, went out at about eight o’clock in the evening to visit a friend. About an hour later he left his friend’s house to return home. Just as he reached Clarence Street, he heard something that made him stop dead in his tracks, looking up and down the Old Kent Road to see what was going on. What he saw was a fife and drum band marching along with a crowd of three or four hundred people following along behind. He joined the crowd, caught up in the noisy and joyful atmosphere and mesmerised by the clatter of the drums and the whistling of the fifes.

The procession was of course obstructing the traffic, and a fellow by the name of Thomas May, who was trying to drive a horse-drawn van along the road, was getting hot under the collar. In order to get clear of the crowd, May pulled over to the side of the road, and his van swung dangerously close to little George Cassin, who was marching happily along. He could not possibly see George: the van was covered. But one of the bandsmen realised what was about to happen and reached out to pull the boy out of harm’s way. As he did so, the boy fell backwards between the wheels of the van.

George was picked up and carried to the home of a local surgeon, Joseph Henry Frye, who tried to save his life. But it was hopeless: the van had run over George’s stomach and dislocated his spine. Frye admitted defeat. The little boy was dead.

Spectators enjoying the sight and sound of a fife and drum band as the Scots Guards cross Rotten Row in Hyde Park. The Graphic 8 April 1893.

The irony

The police were summoned but they were unable to perform their terrible duty, which was to inform the dead boy’s parents, as they found nothing in his clothing by which he could be identified. Instead they carried him to the mortuary in the churchyard of St George the Martyr, which, as we know, was the church presided over by the Reverend Burman Cassin. How dreadful an irony! And as if the tragedy were not painful enough already, it so happened that the poor rector was away from London at the time, having travelled up to Lancashire. He had been bereaved but did not yet realise it.

Nor was the Cassin household aware of what had happened. But as the hours passed there was growing anxiety over little George’s failure to return home from his outing. Eventually, at one o’clock in the morning, a servant went to the police station in Blackman Street and gave a description of the missing boy, as a result of which it became clear that it was he who had been run over that evening in the Old Kent Road.

Old Kent Road in Southwark. 1885. Wikimedia.

A brave face

George’s death was a cruel blow, and it would seem that the Cassins never really got over it. Frances died in 1891 at the age of fifty-one when her heart gave out, and Burman survived her only by months, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1892 at the age of fifty-eight. If, as seems likely, the wretched man was a heavy drinker, then the tragedy of 1884 may well have had something to do with it.

Burman was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, as was Frances, but he had died overlooking the sea at Margate, where he had gone in the hope of recovering from his illness. In Margate he was only ten or so miles along the coast from Herne Bay, and we would do better to remember the good rector not as a broken figure but as the happy fellow — the outwardly happy fellow — who took the young shoeblacks down to the sea in the summer of 1886. Somehow he managed to set aside thoughts of his own child, who had died only two years previously, in order to give other children — poor and underprivileged children — a glorious day out at the sea.

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