A Military Romance: The Life of Elisha George Pithers; Part Two

This is Part Two of the life of Elisha George Pithers. Please read Part One first.

Elisha’s childhood neighbourhood had grown considerably since his birth in 1849, soaring from a population of about 26,800 in 1841 to 166,300 by 1881. North Kensington was a sprawling mass of buildings, with no overarching vision, a chaotic jumble of poorly built dwellings. Town planners and building companies tried to attract a more up-market clientele to the area by building large, grand houses. But the middle-classes were understandably reluctant to move into homes that neighboured brick farms, pig sties and laundry factories. Instead, these houses were carved up into multi-storey flats and lodging houses, swamped by the working-classes and the desperately poor. Families huddled in shared rooms, and some furnished lodgings were hired by the night – occupants had to leave during the day, and re-hire in the evening, living a semi-homeless existence but avoiding the workhouse. A newspaper in 1882 lamented that Bangor Street, was “principally let out in cheap lodgings, but without resident landlords. In one house in this street there have been two or three hundred changes amongst the tenants in a year…Many of the tenants in these houses pay nightly for their lodgings.” (London Evening Standard, 21 September 1882, page 2). Some of these lodging houses were almost semi-derelict buildings. Many a building company went bust, leaving the most crudely of built houses and giving Notting Hill the nickname, “Rotten Hill”.
Elisha’s occupation was no doubt tied up with building work. He was recorded at various times as brick-maker, labourer and scaffolder. Taking the clay from the local clay pits, it would have moulded been into a brick and fired in the huge kilns built on the streets in the area. These kilns bellowed smoke out, directly onto the local residents. The air was just as filthy as the water, and the roads, and the houses.
Walmer Road Kiln
Kiln on Walmer Road, Notting Hill. Photo by Alexander Williams (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)] Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the large and transient population of Notting Dale (along with Elisha’s family ties to the district) was one of the reasons that he chose to settle back in the area. In Kensington, Elisha could hide among the vast numbers of people, another anonymous face in a sea of workers. Yet, living in a crowd came with it’s own risks – any one of them might have reported him for desertion.

Descriptions of deserters were advertised in the Police Gazette and a handsome reward of 20s offered for their apprehension. There was a real risk that someone might report Elisha. I guess he must have had a good relationship with his immediate and extended family. He trusted them not to turn him in, no matter how desperate they were for money.

Elisha probably didn’t know it, but his name was not listed in the Police Gazette, perhaps because he left without collecting his final pay?

Police Gazette extract
Image cropped from Police Gazette sourced at: Ancestry.com. UK, Police Gazettes, 1812-1902, 1921-1927 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. This collection was indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors.Original data: Private donor.

Did Elisha know that no one was searching for him? Perhaps I’ll never know, but I suspect Elisha may have been sympathetic (or frightened?) when on 18th October 1879, his neighbour, John Lineham, was arrested for desertion. Elisha lived at No 32 Bangor Street, John Lineham at nearby No 11. Luckily for John, this was a case of mistaken identify. It’s ironic to think that only a few doors down a real deserter was hiding in plain sight. (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 19 October 1879, page 12)

Seeing the police in Notting Dale was hardly unusual. In fact, the bobbies were kept so busy by the high levels of crime, that a rather desperate Vicar, George T. Palmer M.A., of St James’, Norland, wrote to the Kensington Vestry, pleading with them to support his request to the Chief Commissioner for a new police station. The letter dated 21st August 1872 stated that; “St. Katherine’s Road, Crescent Street, Bangor Street, and St Clement’s Road… are well-known… in connection with pauperism…There is probably no part of Kensington where crime is so abundant or pauperism more unmanageable”.

Notting Hill Police Station, Ladbroke Grove
Notting Hill Police Station Photo © Danny P Robinson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

That same day the Vestry also pondered the high rate of deaths in the ‘Potteries’. They seem to have had very little sympathy for the poor within their parish, commenting that although “the largest amount of infant mortality from diarrhea occurred in the neighbourhood of the Potteries”, the Dr (a member of the Vestry), “was persuaded that half the number might have been saved by proper attention on the part of the mothers”, this Dr proposed to circulate “guidance of mothers during the hot season”. However, Vestry member, Mr Hobbs “said it was not in the province of the Vestry to take children under their care”. The comment was met with laughter. A full account of the Vestry minutes can be read at The West London Observer, Kensington Special Reporter and Westbourne Chronicle (established 1855), 31 August 1872, page 4.

It’s hard nowadays to imagine any local council laughing at any part of a conversation on infant mortality.

A Growing Family

In this impoverished place, Elisha’s own little family of three began to grow at a rapid pace. In total he and Eliza would have 10 children. As seen in Part One, eldest child Emma Emily was born in 1870, in Ireland. Back in Notting Hill, Eliza would give birth at a regular rate, with the youngest Richard Samuel Pithers born on 19th June 1894. That’s a 24 year age gap between youngest and oldest child! Eliza spent a staggering amount of her lifetime pregnant, giving birth, and (probably) breast-feeding.

(I am descended from the couple’s middle child, infant Number 5, George William Pithers born 24 March 1879)

I like to think that the vast number of children born to Elisha and Eliza was a testament to their deep love for each other, but this is just being romantic. In reality, the couple lived during a population boom and in an era before reliable birth control. Having 10 children was not particularly unusual. What was remarkable though was that out of 10 children born alive to the pair, only one died in infancy – Robert Thomas Pithers (chr. 20 Feb 1887 and died about March Quarter 1888). Considering the time and place that Elisha, Eliza and their children were living in – this is quite extraordinary. Historian Jerry White in London in the 19th Century states that, as late as 1896, “in benighted Notting Dale…forty-three children out of every 100 born there would die before their first birthday” (White, p 88).

With the number of hungry mouths to feed growing, Elisha’s wife, Eliza was also required to work – and she found employment as a laundress. Laundry work employed so many women (and some men) in North Kensington that it gained, yet another, nickname – “laundry land”. Eliza may have worked within a factory, or she may have worked from home. By 1911, several of her female children (now young adults) were working in the laundry industry, as machinists, in the factories.

Below is a description of “Laundry Land” from an article written by George Sims in 1904;

“In every house in street after street the blinds of the ground floor are down as though someone lay dead within. But if you look from the opposite side of the street you will see that in every room above the blinds lines are stretched from wall to wall, and from these lines wrung out details of the washing-tub are hanging. If you cross to the dilapidated railings of the sorry little patch that was once a front garden and peer into the basement you will see that laundry work is in full swing. The blinds of the ground-floor rooms are probably drawn because the hand laundresses do not like to be criticised too closely by the neighbours, who are also their business rivals.

…You may see again and again that broken down little front garden, with its stunted trees, strewn rubbish, and the little wooden, lopsided railing that looks as though it no longer thought the patch it once guarded worth standing up for. On the windowsill of the top floor of a score of houses you may see a lonely, empty flowerpot…The rain-sodden, blackened stucco meets you at every turn…Everybody in the houses is washing for other people, everything is conducted with scrupulous cleanliness and under official inspection, but there are plenty of streets adjacent to Laundry-Land in which only the cats make themselves conspicuously clean.

A little further away towards Latimer Road are the great steam laundries employing a small army of young women, who at the dinner hour will turn out and make every street in the Dale a forest of white aprons”.

It is highly likely that Eliza’s children were required to help their mother with her duties. The first 5 children born to the couple may have worked almost full-time, perhaps only attending a Sunday School, perhaps only learning to write their own names. However, after the 1880 Education Act this would have begun to change – the act made school attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 10. Although, even by 1890 only 82% of children were attending with the regularity that the Act dictated. Many parents simply couldn’t afford to relinquish the wage that their children earned. Literally every penny counted. Furthermore, education was not always free and fees were payable until a change in the law in 1891. It was not until 1899 that education became compulsory until age 12. The last 5 children born to the couple, between 1879 and 1894 likely had a more consistent form of education than their older siblings. But, even these children, would have been expected to work outside of their school hours.
Laundries would employ young children as sorters. Their pay was pitiably small – measuring only a few pence a day. Elisha and Eliza would have been poorly paid too, “as late as 1907 average London wages were thirteen shillings and six pence, and for hand laundries…twelve shillings and six pence” (Patricia E Malcolmson, English Laundresses: A Social History, p 14). At least 5 shillings a week out of the families earnings would have gone to paying the rent, leaving precious little left to feed and clothe the children. Eliza may also have received part payment for her work in beer, a problem that led to many laundresses becoming heavy drinkers:

The ‘London Life’ drinking section of Life and Labour detailed a typical night out in the Dale…At St Ann’s Road and Latimer Road the first brawl, between a man and a woman – both drunk, but kept apart and sent home with great tact by a policeman; the man would have gone quietly, but the woman would persist in calling him names. In St Ann’s Road 3 young women of laundry type, singing, arm-in-arm, reeling, noisily drunk; one with a small baby in her arms…” (Tom Vague, Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate: A Wet London Psychogeography Report)

With such accounts of drunkenness, and with the long hours that laundresses endured, the profession caught the eye of the Victorian and Edwardian philanthropists. Concern grew about the well-being of laundresses’ children. A Ragged School, Latymer Road Mission Rooms was opened in 1863 and an Infant Day Nursery was opened in 1880 to provide help to the many women employed in the local laundries:

“Each child, when admitted, shortly before 8 a.m., is undressed and washed. It is then dressed in clothes provided for the infants while in the nursery, a very necessary provision to secure that perfect cleanliness which is so absolutely essential to the health of the establishment. The Crèche itself consists of a large well-lighted and ventilated room upstairs, in which a number of cribs and cots are ranged along the walls, while swings of various sorts, toys and other devices for the amusement of children are to be seen on all sides. The usual attendance is about twenty-five babies of various ages, while as many as thirty-five have been received. The charge is sixpence a day for each child, and this includes food, while the child is cared for, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. if necessary.

The mothers are fully conscious of, and thankful for, these advantages, and know that they would not get such treatment for their children elsewhere for twice the money charged at the Crèche. The foundations of good health and improved life for children are truly worthy objects for charitable help”

(Malcolmson, p 35)

I’m hopeful that Elisha, Eliza and their children benefited from some of these philanthropic endeavors.
Photo from: https://northkensingtonhistories.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/latymer-mission-blechynden-street/
Certainly they could not always rely on help from Elisha’s parents. In late 1880 to early 1881, Elisha’s father (also called Elisha George) was in the Workhouse. He can be found there again in 1891, and 1901 and finally he dies in the Workhouse Infirmary on 29 May 1910 (aged 87).
Ancestry Search of: London, England, Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930; Kensington; Settlement Records Relating to Relief 1890: Jan – May; Entry 459

Elisha and Eliza seem to fair better than Elisha’s father. By 1886 they have moved from the terrible Bangor Street into nearby Latimer Road (No 281). They were still in the slum, but at least they were no longer on its worst street. By 1891 they had relocated (or perhaps the house numbers had been re-organised), and the family were residing at No 226 Latimer Road. The 1891 census shows that they were living with members of Eliza’s family, most notably her brother George Waterford Fathers (born 27 Feb 1851) and her mother, Mary Fathers nee Kirby (born 12 Sep 1819) .

I wonder whether George was helping to support the Pithers family. He was a former military man, and in 1891 was working as a Bank Messenger. Later electoral rolls reveal that 226 Latymer Road was on the second floor, unfurnished and contained two rooms. Elisha paid 5s a week to George Fathers, who also resided as the address. That means that in 1891 there were 10 people living in just two rooms.

By 1901, 226 Latimer Road was still occupied by 10 persons, although by this date, Eliza’s relatives are not amongst the number. Instead, Elisha’s daughter, Elizabeth Rebecca Pithers (born about Q December 1874) was living with the family along with her husband (Richard Greening) and their three children.

End of an Era

By the time of the 1901 census Elisha and family had entered the Edwardian era. Queen Victorian died on 22 January 1901. She had reigned for 63 years. Her death, and funeral was probably experienced by the population in a similar manner to the death of Lady Diana during our lifetime. Elisha and family may well have been among the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who lined the streets to watch Victoria’s funeral procession. I wonder though whether Elisha agreed with the comments of the Daily Chronicle, who stated “It seemed as though we had bidden farewell to an era, the greatness of which we can scarcely gauge” (Rennell, Last Days of Glory: The Death of Queen Victoria p 289)
I strongly suspect that, in many ways, life for the Pithers felt much the same. Besides, they would experience their own tragedies in the coming years….

Find out more in Part Three, coming soon.


London Evening Standard, 21 September 1882, page 2 (Retrieved from Find My Past: 10 October 2017)

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 19 October 1879, page 12), ‘Yesterday’s Law & Police’ (Retrieved from Find My Past; 13 October 2017)

The West London Observer, Kensington Special Reporter and Westbourne Chronicle (established 1855), 31 August 1872, page 4 (Retrieved from Find My Past: 10 October 2017)

‘Off the Track in London – in the Royal Borough of Kensington’ by George Sims, 1904 (first published in The Strand magazine 1904 as ‘Off the Track in London’, and as ‘The Avernus of Kensington – Highest Death Rate in London’ in St Clement’s parish magazine 1911)

Retrieved from: http://theundergroundmap.com/wp/off-the-track-in-london-in-the-royal-borough-of-kensington/

White, Jerry (2008), London in the 19th Century. Vintage: London


Vague, Tom (2012) Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate: A West London Psychogeography Report. Bread and Circuses Publishing

Malcolmson, Patricia E (1986) English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930: Working class in European history. University of Illinois Press


Rennell, Tony (2000). Last Days of Glory: The Death of Queen Victoria. Great Britain: Viking, Penguin Books, Ltd

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