A Young Father:
Shocking Immorality in the Pentonville Road



A 19th century maid. Advertisement 1896.

On Wednesday 23 March 1870 regular visitors to the Thames Police Court in Arbour Street in Stepney witnessed the sadly common sight of a young woman bringing a summons for support against the father of her illegitimate child.

Like Mr Franklin Lushington, the attending magistrate, they no doubt sat back waiting for the usual story of seduction and betrayal, particularly when the twenty-year old mother explained that her lover was the son of the household where she was employed as a maid of all work.

Abuses of power

Domestic service was the main occupation of uneducated working-class girls in the Victorian period. Most were badly paid and overworked, and many found themselves vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Girls as young as twelve might work as live-in maids and find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous male employers who assumed a right to both domestic and sexual services. Failure to please an employer could result in summary dismissal, and, if no ‘character’ or reference was forthcoming, a girl would find it difficult to get another job and might be forced into prostitution.

Up to a point this story illustrates nothing unusual. The girl in question, Jemima Watts, gained nothing from giving satisfaction. Her lover, William Lewis Barrett, suffered no more than a blip in an otherwise successful life and career.

But the story is not quite as straightforward as it might seem. Even though the age of consent in 1870 was twelve and would remain twelve until 1885, and even though at the time of conception Jemima was eighteen, the disturbing fact is that her lover was not yet fourteen.

Pentonville Road. John O’Connor 1884. Museum of London.

The Barretts of Pentonville

Jemima Watts was born in Limehouse on 12 December 1850. She was the youngest of eight siblings. Her father, a warehouseman, died when she was only two. In 1861 the family he left behind were living at 7 James Street: his widow was a laundress, the daughters worked as a seamstress and vest maker, and the sons were a labourer, a butcher and a sailmaker. But by the time Jemima was fifteen, in 1866, her mother had also died. And it may have been this second death that pushed Jemima into the life of a live-in maid.

The Barrett family were more comfortable than the Watts. William Barrett came from fairly humble stock as the son of a Spitalfields carpenter, but he had done well for himself as a shoe and bootmaker. In 1861, when he was thirty-one, he was employing three men, three women and three children, and when our story begins in 1869 he had a shop at 213 Poplar High Street, another at 15 New King Street in Deptford and yet another at 190 Pentonville Road in Islington, where the family lived.

The Pentonville Road property had a shop front with a plate glass window on the ground floor and eight rooms. The household consisted of Barrett, his wife Louisa, who was thirty-three, and their three sons. Of these the eldest, William, was about thirteen and a half. William’s brothers, Ward and Sydney, were nine and four.

Poplar High Street. c.1890. Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

An impure familiarity

One cannot say with certainty when the affair started. But by about March or April 1869 Jemima and William had started sleeping together. Another three months had passed before Mrs Barrett noticed that William was spending a lot of time in the kitchen, which led her to suspect what she described as an ‘impure familiarity’ between her son and the maid.

In court Mrs Barrett related how at some point in the middle of May she had a strange dream about the maid. On waking she got out of bed and by the light of a candle went to Jemima’s bedroom, only to see her son climbing in through an open window for some impure familiarities.

I have to admit that I do not know the layout of 190 Pentonville Road. But servants often slept in basements — either in the kitchen or next to it — and so William may have climbed in from outside. We may be pretty certain that Jemima would have been immediately dismissed without a reference.

A precocious juvenile

Jemima may not have known that she was expecting: she was only about two months gone. In 1869 the only ‘test’ of pregnancy was cessation of periods, and even that was not always conclusive, as undernourished working-class girls might not have been able to menstruate, or might have had irregular cycles. Nor is it impossible that Jemima did not know how babies were conceived.

Even if she did know, she and William might have thought that he was too young to get her pregnant. Contemporary newspaper reports expressed not only disgust but also surprise at William’s youthful virility. ‘A Young Father — shocking immorality!’ fumed one headline. ‘Juvenile precocity!’ expostulated another. ‘A youthful father at fourteen!’ spluttered a third.

Whatever she knew, or however she found out, Jemima gave birth to a daughter, Nellie, in late December. Unlike many young women, Jemima was fortunate in having the support of a married older brother. He was William Thomas Watts, and his wife was Matilda. They lived in the part of Ratcliffe that lay above the Commercial Road, and Jemima lodged with them on and off over the next few years. The baby was baptised at St James Church in Ratcliffe, and her parents were identified as William Watts, bootmaker, and Jemima Watts.

Little Nellie or little Louise? Neither, sadly. German postcard printed in Saxony.

A hanging offence

Now, Matilda took it upon herself to visit Mrs Barrett to discuss her son’s wickedness and presumably to ask for financial support for little Nellie. When she arrived she found that Mrs Barrett had a new-born of her own, a daughter called Louise. William refused to speak to Matilda, and his mother tried to wash her hands of the matter by saying that she could not help it — presumably her son’s behaviour — and that the best thing would be to hang the child. The child that needed to be hanged might have been her errant son, but equally it might have been her innocent granddaughter.

When the direct approach failed to produce results, the Watts decided that either William Barrett or his comfortably-off family must contribute to little Nellie’s upkeep. Hence their appearance at the police court. Jemima gave her evidence, including the detail that Master William regularly made love to her on Sunday evenings, which makes one wonder if these intimacies coincided with the rest of the family being in church. It was also made clear that William had been her first lover.

Charles Young, the solicitor for the defence, said that it was useless to make an order against the boy as he was still at school, and that school was the best place for him to be. The judge, after listening to Jemima’s story, which was corroborated by Mrs Barrett’s evidence, made up his mind that William was indeed the father and that he must pay 1s. 6d. a week towards the child’s upkeep and 4d. costs. As 1s. 6d. was not exactly a lavish sum of money, Jemima was obliged to carry on working.

Horse-drawn tram. c.1890. Wikimedia.

Nine in all

The Barretts were not alone in feeling the impact of the case. A near neighbour, Mr James John Barrett of 130 Pentonville Road, wrote an angry letter to the Clerkenwell Gazette to complain that his confectionary business was suffering. People assumed that he was related to William Lewis Barrett, and he wanted to make it clear that this was not the case.

No doubt to escape this local bad feeling, the Barretts left Pentonville Road, and at the time of the 1871 census they were living in Whitechapel. Rather surprisingly their maid of all work was another very young girl, a sixteen-year-old by the name of Martha Rawson. One assumes that William was no longer allowed into the kitchen. In any case he was fully occupied elsewhere. He had been apprenticed to a civil engineer by the name of Thomas S. Farrar, and the details of his career — tramways, waterworks in Jamaica, sewage farms in Croydon — afford an interesting view of improvements in the nineteenth-century civil infrastructure.

In 1878 Mr Barrett died and was buried in Brompton Cemetery. His widow and her younger sons kept the boot and shoemaking business going for a while. In 1887 William married Emily Louisa Coote. He was thirty-one and she was twenty-four, and they lived most of their married life in Sussex. They had eight children, bringing William’s total output up to nine. I wonder if he ever thought about child No. 1.

Entrance to Brompton Cemetery. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 1878.

Are you my Aunt Jemima?

And what of this first of William’s many children? Nellie would appear to have been brought up as their daughter by her uncle and aunt. As they had no children of their own, William and Matilda Watts may have been very happy to have ‘adopted’ her. In 1881 they were living in Rotherhithe, and Jemima, who was working as a machinist, was lodging with them. Did Nellie grow up thinking of Jemima as her aunt? And if so, how did this make Jemima feel?

One might think that Jemima finally found happiness when in 1885 she married William Baker, a wheelwright. They lived next door to William and Matilda and Nellie Watts. But any happiness was short-lived, because Jemima died two years later at the age of thirty-six. She was buried in the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

Nor did Nellie make old bones. In the 1891 census she was living with her adoptive parents. She was a paper-folder. She died on 17 December 1892 — just before her twenty-third birthday — and was buried in the same cemetery as her mother.

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