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.
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):
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”.
It’s no wonder, living in these awful conditions, that Elisha looked to escape.
Escaping the Slums
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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)
Historical records of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) regiment
by Smythies, Raymond Henry Raymond, 1860. Published 1894. Retrieved: Internet Archive
Genealogy research rabbit holes are fun! Nothing beats the joy of finding yourself utterly fascinated by some random part of
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