The Short and Sad and Troubled Life of Robert Watts



Lady Dedlock and Jo the crossing sweeper. Frederick Barnard / Charles Dickens Bleak House Household Edition 1873.

I am still investigating the identity of George Ruby, who, you will remember, was the young London crossing sweeper befriended by Charles Dickens. But I am beginning to wonder if he was not George Ruby after all. Is it possible that he was in fact George Roby?

Even if George Roby was not the crossing sweeper of Marylebone, he was an overlooked Londoner whose memory, like those of all overlooked Londoners, is worth at least a moment of our time. And in any case he will lead me on to the real subject of this post, also a poor London boy, whose name was Robert Watts.

George Yard Ragged School at St Jude’s in Whitechapel. 19th century. Wellcome Collection.

A born philanthropist

But to begin with Roby. We know quite a lot about him because quite a lot was written about him. This may appear surprising, given that he was born into poverty. But the fact is that he was of great interest to a man by the name of Martin Ware, who wrote a journal in which he recorded things done and said by young George.

Martin Ware was born in 1819, the son of an eye surgeon. He was called to the Bar in 1845, but his practice in Lincoln’s Inn was not a success, and he turned to law reporting. Of greater significance for us, though, is his volunteer work with the ragged school in Compton Place, near Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury.

Philanthropy was in his blood — his brothers Charles and Joseph were also involved in charity schools — and the list of the causes he supported is impressive. Interestingly — and this, I suppose, is really the subject of some other investigation — he enrolled as a special constable during the Chartist protests of 1848.

To light their careworn faces

But Ware was more than just a teacher at the Compton Place school. He had an organisational role as well, and in 1851, along with the philanthropist John ‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, he founded the Ragged School Shoeblack Society. MacGregor wrote an account of the occasion — just weeks before the Great Exhibition opened in Hyde Park — when the idea was first discussed. The ‘bright thought’ that had ‘lighted up thousands of careworn faces since’ was to train street urchins to black shoes and send them out in distinctive uniforms to ply their trade in the streets.

George Roby was one such street urchin. I like to think that his previous career had not been as colourful as that of the society’s first trainee, a young burglar with a bullet in his neck. But moral rehabilitation was an element of the enterprise, and the shoeblack boys, coming from lives of poverty and crime, were encouraged to follow respectable trades, or join the armed forces, or emigrate.

The Shoeblack Society grew so quickly that it had to be divided into individual ‘brigades’ operating in different parts of the capital. Each brigade had its own uniform — George would have gone out in a distinctive red jacket — and its pitches were allocated by the police. The boys, who were offered accommodation in purpose-built lodging houses, paid a third of their earnings into the Society’s funds. Another third they deposited in a bank account and the rest they pocketed as payment for their day’s work.

Shoeblacks of the Central or ‘Red’ Brigade. Evening Hours volume 1 1874.

Earnestly and affectionately

George’s schooling under Ware was not exactly an unqualified success. Although he started well, he was soon in trouble, having been caught with two other boys in a coffee shop. The misdemeanour, as Ware saw it, had less to do with liquid stimulants than with dishonesty. ‘I taxed him with keeping back money,’ he recorded in his journal for 1853 with obvious disappointment, ‘which he denied.’ He spoke to the boy ‘very earnestly & affectionately’, an admission that surely came from the heart of a good man who was doing his best to rescue children who would otherwise sink at the margins of Victorian society.

Following the interview Ware expelled George, upset that a boy who had been ‘more kindly treated’ than others had let him down in this way. Before long he took him back in, believing that he was penitent, but the poor behaviour continued. Nor was George only ‘keeping back’ money. He nearly caused a fire with a Catherine wheel, and he was hauled before the magistrate by a copper for taunting a woman in the street.

Then in 1857 he emigrated to Canada along with other boys from the Shoeblack Society. Kindness personified, Ware saw the boys off at Euston, where they caught the train to the Liverpool docks. He was clutching two souvenir photographs, one of which was of George, and he believed that ‘with God’s blessing’ the boys would do well.

So much anguish

But to return to Robert Watts. He too caused Ware a good deal of anguish, and the journal entries, when taken together, present a vivid picture of their relationship. However, Robert’s chequered career with the Shoeblack Society was not destined to end on the same buoyant note as George Roby’s.

Robert was born in about 1841. We know very little about his family background, although it is clear that his father worked at some point as a cabman, and that Robert had a sister and a half-brother. We can also be reasonably sure that, when Robert was in his mid teens, the family lived off the Tottenham Court Road in Upper Tottenham Place. This short street has a curious little history, in that Thomas James Barratt, who was the chairman of the soap manufacturer A. & F. Pears and a pioneer of advertising, was born there in 1841.

Pears’ soap advertisement. 1900. V & A.

Oh, the trouble you have caused me!

But what we do know — because Ware recorded the fact in his journal — is that poor young Robert had an unhappy childhood. He was treated cruelly by his father and stepmother. We can only guess what form this treatment took, but we have it on good authority from Ware that the boy harboured a strong dislike of his father.

Nor was his involvement with the Shoeblack Society entirely straightforward. He seems to have got into a scrape at his station in Whitechapel — the details are not that clear — and in a journal entry for 6 May 1857 Ware commented on the trouble the boy had caused him.

The two had evidently come to an understanding over the matter, for Ware noted that Robert seemed to him to feel remorse. But he was also thinking of withholding money from the boy’s savings, and, reading between the lines, one wonders if the ‘trouble’ revolved around the sort of dishonesty that George Roby had been guilty of.

God’s own children

But it is at about this time that we become aware of another dark cloud appearing on the horizon. For Robert, who was then about sixteen, was unwell. We know this because for several months he had been writing to Ware and giving as his address the Brompton Hospital in West London, where he was being treated for consumption.

The letters now reside in the Surrey History Centre in Woking, and I have to confess that, when I read them for the first time, they broke my heart. In them Robert asks after his fellow shoeblacks and sends respects to the kind adults to whom he felt he owed so much. He also longs for creature comforts, but they are few and modest, as a letter dated 30 January reveals:

I am in want of nothing except a little Butter & Sugar. I should like a few oranges if they will allow me to have them. I shall be very glad to see you any time you can make it convenient to come.

Robert also comments on the progress of his illness, and he assures Ware, who had strong Christian beliefs, that he is attentive to matters of faith. These admissions, so full of sad optimism, are nowhere more poignant than in a letter dated 3 March:

I have read the Testament all through, & I pray to God every night & morning to send Wealth & Happiness & to make me one of his own Children.

Brompton Consumption Hospital. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 1878.

I called this morning

Later that year Robert left hospital. But he was still very ill, and in the winter of 1858 the landlady of the lodging house where he was languishing called on Ware to give him the worrying news. A week later Ware realised that Robert was dying and he went to sit at his side, reading and praying with him.

The landlady, good woman that she was, said that they must try to get him into the hospital at once, but it was too late. ‘I called this morning to see Robert Watts,’ Ware wrote in his journal for Wednesday 3 February, ‘& found that the poor boy died on Monday night.’ He added an RIP in the margin.

Martin Ware. Late 19th century. Surrey History Centre.

The power of forgiveness

But there was a reconciliation. On the Monday he died Robert had been visited again — not by Ware but by a colleague whose name was Bowyer — and had been asked to forgive his father. His landlady recalled that at the very end he was saying his prayers and muttered several times something about forgiveness. ‘He was quite willing to die,’ Ware noted, ‘& appeared to have no fears.’

We must suppose that Robert was given a decent burial, for a coffin and a funeral were paid for. The money was taken from the boy’s shoeblack bank account, which in a rather grim way was as good a use of his savings as any. He at least left this world on a better note than many nineteenth-century children of his background, and he was accorded a sort of epitaph by the man who did more than anyone else to keep his memory alive. ‘Poor boy,’ Ware wrote. ‘I trust he has now found peace.’

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