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A Military Romance: The Life of Elisha George Pithers – Part One

My Line to Elisha Pithers

My 3x Great-Grandfather, Elisha George Pithers was born in the month we traditionally associate with romance, his birthday being two days after Valentines Day on 16th February 1849 in Kensington, London. The son of Elisha George Pithers (born c. 1823) and Elizabeth Rebecca Neate (born 06/07/1823), Elisha was the 2nd eldest child, and one of nine children, born to the couple.

Elisha grew up in the Notting Dale area of Notting Hill. Known as the “piggeries and potteries”, the area was a slum of notorious infamy; it’s nickname gleamed from the prolific number of pig-keepers and clay brick fields. At the time of Elisha’s birth, Notting Hill was still semi-rural, but had already developed a bad reputation. Ditches dominated the landscape and, fed by the clay pits, they became pools of dirty stagnant water. These lagoons soon filled with pig excrement and one became so large that it was referred to as “the ocean”. Open sewers ran past the housing. The streets were unpaved. The roads a quagmire of mud and human detritus. Many gypsies camped in the area and poor Irish immigrants, fleeing Ireland due to the potato famine. The houses were hastily and poorly erected, forming a sort of shanty town, of damp, drafty “homes”.

In this terrible environment, the odds of Elisha’s survival past infancy were stacked against him. Only a short time before he was born a cholera epidemic swept through London and lingered on, with deaths being recorded throughout the 1840s and beyond.

quote

By 1846-50, typhus joined cholera as both diseases ravaged the population, “the mortality rate reached the enormous figure of 60 per 1,000 living, compared with the average for all London of 25–4 per 1,000” (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp340-355)

Caricature published in Punch at the time of the “Great Stink”. The River Thames introduces his children – diphtheria, scrofula and cholera – to the city of London, showing some understanding that the river was a danger to health. Source: Punch 35: 5. 1858.

Among all this filth, disease and death, Elisha was baptised on 2nd June 1850 in the newly built St John the Evangelist church, which had opened only five years before. Located in Ladbrooke Grove, on the site of a failed hippodrome, the surroundings were still quite rural, and Elisha’s parents probably referred to the church as the “Hippodrome Church” or “St John’s in the hay-fields”.

St John the Evangelist, Notting Hill

Photo © John Salmon (cc-by-sa/2.0)

During Elisha’s early childhood his father worked as a labourer and the family can be found on the 1851 and 1861 census residing at 4 Anderson Cottages, Camden Place. The cottages may have looked something like this:

Tucker's Cottage, Oldest House in Kensington Potteries

Image from: Bayly, Mary. Ragged Homes and How to Mend Them. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1864. Print. Retrieved from: MSU Libraries

Elisha’s father was never recorded as a “pig-keeper” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t keep a few swine as a small sideline. The Victorians were notorious for diversifying (I have one ancestor that was a fish monger and an umbrella maker)! But, even if Elisha’s family didn’t keep pigs themselves, they would have been surrounded by the animals. Some reports suggest that in the first half of the 1800s there were more pigs in Notting Dale than there were people.

It’s no wonder, living in these awful conditions, that Elisha looked to escape.


Escaping the Slums

As a young adult Elisha worked as a brick-maker, but obviously saw little opportunity for future self improvement within that poorly paid occupation. Aged just 19 he joined the army, perhaps deciding that the military was his best route out of the slums. On 19th September 1868 he enlisted with the 40th Regiment of Foot for a £1 bounty. At the time the regiment was based in Aldershot, but they were soon on the move, and Elisha found himself being sent to Carlisle, Cumberland.

Elisha’s first year in the army seemed to be rather uneventful. Several of his fellow soldiers were fined for drunkenness, but Elisha’s name was never among them. He was never reprimanded for lateness, or any other sort of punishable offense. It seemed like he stood a good chance of having a military career. Perhaps over time he’d advance up the ranks? But something changed for Elisha. Sometime between enlisting in 1868 and the spring of 1869, he met and (I presume) fell head-over-heels in love with, my 3x Great-Grandmother, Eliza Geraldine Fathers (chr. 16 May 1853).

In October 1869, for the first time in his (admittedly short) military career, Elisha was in trouble. He was absent without leave for 4 days in early October and was punished with a months confinement in the cells, in addition to forfeiting a months pay. What could have been worth such a severe reprimand? And where had Elisha been?

Well, on his first day of reported absence, Elisha would have been found in another type of institution – a civil one. On 2nd October 1869 he married Eliza at Carlisle Registry Office. He gave his address as The Castle, Carlisle which was the location of the army barracks. Eliza gave her address as South George Street, Carlisle.

The Inner Ward, Carlisle Castle

Photo © Bill Henderson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Perhaps Elisha had asked his superiors for permission to marry Eliza and been denied? Perhaps this was the reason for a registry office ceremony (rather than a church one, where banns would have been read for 3 weeks prior)? Or perhaps he didn’t even wait to ask for permission? Perhaps he felt he had to rush through the marriage? There may well have been a sense of urgency, because at the time of the wedding, Eliza was already about 6 months pregnant.

Despite being newly-wed, Elisha was still not in control of his destiny. Not long after his wedding, Elisha’s found himself on the move. The 40th Regiment traveled via Holyhead to Dublin arriving there on 11th December 1869. Eliza, despite being heavily pregnant, must have made the journey too, as the couple’s first child, a daughter named Emma Emily Pithers was born on 20th January 1870 in Dublin.

From Dublin, Elisha traveled to Mulligan. He was on furlough (or a march) for much of the first quarter of the New Year. He behaved himself, with no absences being recorded for this period, within the Muster Rolls. His superiors may have thought that Elisha had learnt his lesson, but they would have been wrong.

Eight months, and almost a year after the birth of Emma, on 5th August 1870, Elisha was reported as missing. It soon becomes evident that he had no plans on returning – Elisha had deserted. He left suddenly, with what appears to be no warning, and without collecting the last of his pay.

Elisha George Pithers Muster Roll

Image from Muster Rolls (Jul-Aug 1870) National Archives Ref: WO12/5390

It was a risky move. A deserter, if caught, could face prison time and the military posted rewards for those that caught deserters.


The In-Laws

Elisha’s desertion was even riskier than most, because his wife, Eliza came from a military family. Her father Robert Fathers (born c. Jan 1813) served in a number of infantry regiments throughout the whole of his adult life – being in the 6th Regiment of Foot and based in Carlisle at the time of Elisha’s marriage to Eliza. In the past he had actually received a promotion for apprehending a deserter.

Robert was one of the witnesses to Elisha and Eliza’s marriage. Did he approve of the match, or was he relieved that his heavily pregnant daughter had married before she had given birth to their daughter – and thus avoided the stigma of being an unmarried mother?

By the time of Elisha’s desertion, Robert was retired and living in Kilmainham, Dublin as a pensioner. Eliza’s older brother, Edward Robert Fathers (born c. Q4 1841) was also in the military and was serving in the 55th Regiment of Foot in India. Edward would feature in Elisha and Eliza’s lives later, in the form of a landlord….Perhaps Elisha fibbed and told his wife’s family that he’d been discharged from service? Or perhaps they knew and turned a blind eye for the sake of Eliza?


Returning Home

By April 1871, Elisha, Eliza and their daughter Emma were living back in Kensington, at 18 Bolton Street. They lived with a number of other families, including Elisha’s parents and his younger siblings. A total of 14 persons (including children) are recorded as residing at the address on the night of the census. Life was hard, and Elisha no longer had the steady income of a soldier. Instead, Elisha was working as a labourer, and Elisha was having to work too, as a haymaker.

But at least they were living with family, and I suspect the extended family looked after each other, perhaps even pooling wages. Elisha looks to have had a close relationship to his older brother, Henry Pithers (born c. Dec Q 1846) as he was recorded as a witness to Henry’s marriage to Emma Gibbons in 1875. Both brothers signed their names with an X, suggesting they may have been illiterate. (Although Elisha did sign his marriage record, so perhaps he was able to write his own name?)

It would appear Elisha’s children had small hope of a better education. The only child I have found attending any school is Emma – although I have by no means exhausted all the sources I could check. Emma was enrolled on 20 March 1879 at the local Board school, Saunders Road, but her admission record notes that she had no previous schooling. By this time she was nine years old. Her time at Saunders does not last long, and she left there on 20 August 1880, being admitted to St Clement’s Road on 13 September 1880. It is unclear how long she stayed at this school.

Emma’s admission records reveal that by 1879, Elisha was living on Bangor Street. This road was infamously bad, considered one of the worst streets in the whole of the Potteries.

School Record extract

Extract of School Record

By 1880, Notting Hill had lost it’s pigs, and gained a far bigger human population. Fine multistory buildings had been erected to try and entice the middle-classes into Kensington, but in the Dale these had been turned into huge lodging houses with many inhabitants sharing one room. Elisha, Eliza and their children were now living in a rookery.

To find out more about Elisha, keep your eyes peeled for Part Two, coming soon!


References & Further Reading:

Bayly, Mary. Ragged Homes and How to Mend Them. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1864. Print. (Available on Google Books to read online)

http://www.stjohnsorganproject.com/exhibitions.html

Wikipedia, St John the Evangelist, Notting Hill

Worley Family, Notting Dale

British History Online

Historical records of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) regiment

by Smythies, Raymond Henry Raymond, 1860. Published 1894. Retrieved: Internet Archive

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