The Shoemaker’s Son
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 12 JUNE 2022
If you read Part One of the story of the shoemaker’s son, which can be accessed the London Overlooked website by following this link, you will remember that the central character is a boy by the name of Robert Collier. We can discover a great deal about Robert through the journals of Martin Ware, a teacher at the Brunswick Street Ragged School, and through the letters he himself wrote in later years, and the picture that emerges is of a struggle against poverty on the one hand and family discord on the other. Robert’s two older brothers were troubled lads who both spent time in jail, and looming over these unhappy lives was a father who was given to outbreaks of violent anger.
An example of the impact of these domestic tensions on Robert is an incident recorded by Ware in his journal for June 1862. Robert was about fourteen or fifteen at the time, and the older of his brothers, Harry, had recently started a six-month prison sentence for his part in the theft of a shawl, while the younger, William, had recently run away to Liverpool. Ware had previously visited the boys’ father — his name was also Henry — and was clearly unnerved by him. He described him as ‘a passionate man’ who ‘ill treats his boys’, and later events would suggest that he had read him like a book. Ware also noted that the shoemaker was a widower — his wife had died at some point in the 1850s — although this was not seen as any sort of explanation for the way he behaved.
Ware also recorded that Collier dismissed the crime that had landed his eldest son in prison as ‘only a drunken freak’. Although Ware added no comment of his own, one cannot help wondering if he felt that the man was abdicating his responsibilities as a parent. Ware certainly believed that it was incumbent on him in his role as a teacher to care for the moral well-being of his pupils. He may well have seen himself as providing the sort of advice and guidance that ought to be coming from a father.
They all want to leave
That was in May, but in June trouble flared up again. Ware wrote in his journal that Robert had come to him, begging to be taken into the lodging house attached to the school, which was run by a Mr Weeks. He said that William had returned from Liverpool and for some undisclosed reason had turned on him, treating him very roughly. His father had sided with William. Robert added that he had been thrown out of the house and had slept that night in the streets.
The following week Ware visited Robert’s father at his home in Brighton Street. One imagines that he was not exactly looking forward to the interview. During the course of their meeting Collier told Ware that Robert had a very bad temper — this cannot have helped matters — and he also expressed his annoyance at the fact that all three of his sons were keen to get away from home.
In fact a few days later Ware learnt that Collier had gone in search of Robert and had found him at the house of a Mrs Reed, whose son, William, was also a pupil at the Brunswick Street school. He had taken his son home with him, but not before noticing that eight or nine boys belonging to the Shoeblack Society were in the house playing cards and dominoes. This may seem to us to be a harmless way of passing the time, but Ware would have seen it differently and no doubt assumed that the boys were gambling. And probably he would have been right, for he noted in his journal that a few days previously Robert had lost four shillings he had saved to buy shirts. Ware was not amused: gambling did not sit happily with his stern Christian principles.
Violent and abusive
Worse was to come, though, on a Sunday in August 1862 that Ware described in his journal as ‘an excited and painful day’. The cause of the trouble was Robert’s decision to go to sea. He had taken himself down to Woolwich, where he had been given enlistment papers to complete, but, when he returned home, his father objected and refused to provide a signature. Ware does not give a reason for Henry Collier’s obstinacy, but it is reasonable to assume that he was expecting a son of his to work for him in some capacity, or, given that he was a widower, at least to be at home with him.
Ware decided that he had to pay Robert’s father another visit, and, on arriving at 20 Brighton Street, he assured Collier that he had not put Robert up to it and asked if he really objected to the boy’s decision to go to sea. Collier vehemently refused to give his consent, using what Ware described as the ‘most violent and abusive language’ to denigrate not only his sons, whose behaviour he considered to be beyond the pale, but also their late mother. While this was going on, Harry was standing in the room, listening to his father’s unbridled attack on his family.
What a life we lead
Eventually Collier calmed down, promising Ware that he would consider giving Robert his consent if he brought him the papers that had to be signed. At this point Robert came in — he had been out when Ware arrived — and his father immediately demanded the papers. When Robert said that he did not have them, all hell broke loose. Collier flew at the boy ‘like a tiger’ and began kicking him and hitting him hard with his fists. Ware seized hold of Collier, attempting to restrain him, as did Harry, who shouted to Robert to go while he could. Robert dashed out of the house, followed by his father, who had shaken off his captors and gone in hot pursuit, cursing and swearing in the foulest manner.
The aftermath was as distressing as the incident itself, as the entry in Ware’s journal makes abundantly clear:
Before I came back I asked Harry whether he did not think it would be best for Robert to go. He said (with tears) ‘Yes, it is a dreadful life that we lead’. When his father came back he said ‘I can’t bear the sight of him. He wants to be a swell like the rest of them & have fine clothes, but I will serve him out & anyone that helps him’. His language & threats were frightful.
Whether or not Robert wanted ‘to be a swell’ is something we cannot know. However, we can read between the lines and surmise that Henry Collier believed that his son looked down on him. Maybe he was right.
We saw earlier that the school had links with Weeks’s lodging house, and towards the end of 1862 Robert sheltered there. Once again he had run away. He explained to Ware that his brothers were always fighting, which made life at home intolerable. However, the lodging house presented difficulties of its own, and difficulties of a very different and decidedly sinister nature.
George Weeks was a shoemaker and a master at the industrial school in Constitution Row, which was the name given to the Gray’s Inn Road at its St Pancras end. He was in his early forties, and he and his wife, whose name was Ann, had a daughter and three sons. Ann also had a son by a previous marriage, a young shoemaker, who may well have been employed at the school. The Weekses were a Norfolk family — only the two youngest children had been born in London — a fact that is not without significance.
The significance of the Norfolk background is that one of the teachers at the Sunday School — an organisation that Ware mentions frequently in the journals — came from the same part of the country. He was a tailor and his name was James Baxter, and he knew George Weeks because as a boy he had been at school with him in Norwich. Now, as an adult, he had disturbing memories of Weeks, and he was able to tell Ware ‘strange stories’ about his shadowy past. In particular Weeks had been in trouble with the police before he left Norfolk for London, charged with robbing a man he worked for. Baxter’s dislike was compounded by the fact that Weeks was a practising Christian — publicly, at least — whose involvement with the Sunday School made him uneasy.
A dirty beast
But the more disturbing fact was that Weeks was a sexual predator. Ware heard about this from a boy at the school, and, although he found the subject distasteful, he felt compelled to record at least some of the details in the journals. The boy informed him that Weeks ‘had several times come into the bedroom and behaved indecently to him’.
And not only to him, for there were three other boys in the room, all of whom he also assaulted. He was caught in the act by his wife, who had the presence of mind to drive him out of the room, calling him a ‘dirty beast’ and using language that Ware chose not to record. Later that day he wandered the streets in a state of great agitation, having learnt that his assaults had been reported to Ware. He claimed that he had been drunk when he went into the bedroom and ‘could not quite remember what took place’.
Off to sea at last
Was Robert Collier also one of Weeks’s victims? We do not know. Happily, the next mention of him in Ware’s journals is in connection with his plans to go to sea, which had finally come to fruition. This was in January 1863, and it would appear that Ware helped him on his way, for in February he wrote to his former teacher to thank him for the gift of ten shillings. The letter is only brief but it is moving in its candour. Amidst the small personal details of his busy routine he confesses that he prefers the navy to his life at home in Brighton Street, and he communicates both respect and affection for the man who made this change in his circumstances possible.
At the time he wrote the letter, Robert was stationed on the training ship HMS Fisgard at Woolwich, but he was on board HMS Prince Consort when Ware next encountered him, which was in January 1864. He was on leave and had come back to visit the school in Brunswick Street. In the intervening months things had happened, as they always do, and, as we saw in Part One, his father had died.
The news reached him only a short while after he left home for the last time, and one wonders what feelings it stirred him. Harry was certainly upset by their father’s death, and we know this because Ware wrote a brief note in his journals. Ware had been informed of the death by Robert’s former schoolmate, Charles Clayton. By a sad irony Charles was soon to die himself: in October 1864 he was killed when he fell from scaffolding.
And there, for the moment, we must leave Robert. He must have felt that his difficult start in life was behind him and that finally he had prospects. The road ahead, though, had some twists and turns, as we shall see in the third and final part of the story … TO BE CONCLUDED