It was already dark and Harriet lit another candle at 39a Southampton Street, Clerkenwell. Margaret was in full labour and the time to deliver was close. She had come to her when her labour pains had started earlier in the day and Harriet was praying that all would go well. It was a risky pregnancy, as Margaret was carrying not just one baby but two. Still, she was not yet thirty, and relatively strong. Harriet waited anxiously, squeezing Margaret's hand, for it was nearly time. Finally, a baby's head crowned and at 8.15 pm, a baby boy was born, notifying the whole world of his arrival with his lusty cries. Soon after, he was followed by his brother at 8.30 pm. This baby was a little smaller and not quite so strong. Margaret was exhausted and in a difficult situation but Harriet would be there for her.
Lewis England, the husband of my great great aunt, grew up as a nurse child, never knowing his parents or certain of where he had been born. Rumours swirled in the family that he was the illegitimate son of a lord, and that information on his birth, recorded on a sheet of paper in the family bible, had been burnt, so scandalous were the contents. In this blog post, I have set out to discover the truth about his mother, Margaret.
Margaret Ann England was born in Islington in 1838, the eldest daughter and second child of James Robert England, a master watch and clock maker from Whitechapel, and his wife, Clara, who was from Finsbury. By the age of 12, little Margaret was working as a house servant and the family were living at 40 Britannia Street in St Pancras when the 1851 census was taken:
Sadly, tragedy was on the horizon. That summer Clara, the wife of James Robert England, died leaving seven children without a mother. Unsurprisingly, in the following spring, Margaret’s father married again. Seeing her mother’s place taken by another woman may have made an early marriage a more attractive prospect for Margaret. When she had met John Fenn, a law writer, she saw her opportunity to leave home and the couple got married in 1858 when Margaret was aged only nineteen:
No doubt Margaret was proud that she could write her own name in the register as her husband, John, had very good penmanship, hence his job as a law writer. John Fenn had served an apprenticeship with a law stationer and made copies of legal documents for a living, probably working for a lawyer on Chancery Lane or at one of the Inns of Court. It would have taken him around half an hour to walk to work from Rodney Street, where he was living with his parents. Margaret was living around the corner from him at 2 Southampton Street, (now Calshot Road). This may have been the England family home at the time:
A little over a year later, in the summer of 1859, John and Margaret had a son, Samuel John Fenn. He was named Samuel after his maternal grandfather, and John after his father and is recorded living with his parents at 84 Fetter Lane, in Farringdon when the 1861 census was taken. The family may well have moved to be closer to John’s place of work, as Chancery Lane was only a few minutes walk away from their new home:
Margaret was working as a dress maker, providing some additional income for the family to supplement her husband’s work as a law writer.
One cannot be certain what happened to Margaret over the next few years. Was her marriage to John Fenn unhappy? Whatever the circumstances, by 1865, Margaret had met a footman named William Basing. A relationship developed between them and that summer, Margaret found herself to be pregnant. This would have been difficult to conceal for long, as she was carrying twins. On the night of March 14th 1866, she gave birth to twin boys at 39a Southampton Street, the same street she had been living on when she had married eight years earlier. She called the first boy Lewis, the second boy, William Basing, after his father.
Southampton Street consisted of regular, three storey houses numbered 1-40, typically housing three families, perhaps one on each floor. Between house number 39 and house number 40, are three dwellings, numbered 39a, 39b and 39c in the 1861 and 1871 census. They appear to have their own entrances (hence the separate addresses) but were very tiny, judging by the small number of occupants recorded. Was 39a Southampton Street the family home of John and Margaret Fenn or lodging that Margaret had found for herself?
Just over a month later, Margaret registered the boys’ births. With most illegitimate births, there is a blank where the father’s name would normally be written. Sometimes, couples would pretend to be married and register the birth together, but rarely did a father accompany an unmarried mother and acknowledge his paternity. However, between 1837 and 1875, if the mother informed the registrar of an illegitimate child’s birth and gave the father’s name, the registrar could record him as the father on the certificate. From 1875, a man could only be named as the father with his consent, if he was present when the birth was registered.
Margaret England visited the registrar on April 18th 1866 and claimed that William Basing, a footman, was the father of both Lewis and William Basing. Here is Lewis’ birth certificate:
Margaret England signed her name, just as she had on her marriage certificate.
Incidentally, the births of both Lewis and William Basing were registered in the original indexes of the General Register Office (GRO) under both Basing and England. You can see two entries for each child in the birth indexes at FreeBMD- www.freebmd.org.uk. However, on the GRO website www.gro.gov.uk, the births of illegitimate children are only indexed under the father’s name when this is given. This is the GRO’s policy, despite the fact that illegitimate children usually took the surname of their mother. When searching for the birth certificate of an illegitimate child, it is therefore necessary to search the original birth indexes too.
As family historians, it is necessary to read between the lines and try our best to work out what really happened. It would seem that Margaret wanted to conceal the fact that she was married, so used her maiden name of England. In a large city parish, the registrar would not know everyone personally so this could be done without much fear of discovery. Margaret appears determined to publicly name William Basing as the father, perhaps because she needed financial support from him. In Victorian society, there was a lot of stigma associated with illegitimacy, and if the father of your child (or in this case, children), was someone other than your husband, this would be deeply shameful for a married woman. Why did Margaret therefore not pass off John Fenn, her husband, as the father of the twins? Many husbands would be none the wiser and this must have happened frequently when a married woman found themselves pregnant by a lover. Had Margaret’s marriage broken down and was she living apart from John when she became pregnant? Had her affair with William Basing become common knowledge, making it impossible to hide his paternity?
One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Margaret. She would not have been living with William Basing, as his job as a footman would have meant that he lived in the house of his employer. Did she have her young son, Samuel John, with her? Was William Basing providing her with any money? Had her husband cut off his financial support? It is interesting to note that Margaret says she was working a domestic servant at this time. Perhaps Margaret and John were struggling to live on John’s income as a law writer. If they had split up as a couple, Margaret may have needed to find a job to support herself and her young son. Possibly William Basing worked in the same household and this is how they had met and formed a relationship.
The next reference we have to Margaret is a sad one, as it is the death certificate of her baby son, William Basing, a few months later. He had died at the age of 11 weeks of mesenteric disease and convulsions for four hours:
It looks as if baby William had failed to thrive, as mesenteric disease indicates digestion problems. If might have been difficult for Margaret to feed both of her babies and cow’s milk was often contaminated, particularly in the cities and in hot weather. Margaret was still living at 39a Southampton Street looking after her babies, but the informant was Harriet Lake of the same address, who was present at the death. Who was Harriet?
My first thought was that Margaret might have had a married sister who she was living with. However, I have found no evidence that she had a sister named Harriet. In the 1861 census there is a Harriet Lake living a few streets north from Southampton Street, across the Regent’s Canal, at Twyford Street. She was living with her husband, Arthur Lake, a boot and shoemaker and their family. She would have been a contemporary of Margaret and had also been born in Clerkenwell. Significantly, in the 1871 census, Harriet and Arthur have a daughter named Clara, a relatively unusual name and the name of Margaret’s mother. Perhaps Harriet and Margaret were indeed related. It is heartening to see that Margaret was not completely alone with Harriet taking on the sad task of registering the death of baby William.
Margaret had already lost one baby and sadly, she was not able to keep baby Lewis. One can imagine her predicament. Margaret would have found it very difficult to support herself and baby Lewis on her own and her husband, John Fenn, was unlikely to be willing to take another man’s child into their home. Of course, she also had her son, Samuel John, to think of, who would only have been around seven years old at this time. She therefore took the decision to place baby Lewis with a foster mother who would be able to take care of him. It must have been very hard for her to give her child up: she probably felt she had no choice.
When the 1871 census came round, Margaret was living with her son, Samuel John, on Northampton Row and working as a laundress. Although she said she was married, there is no sign of her husband. Certainly, John Fenn was not recorded as being at home on the night of the census, nor can I trace him elsewhere. Interestingly, there are two other women living in the same house who were similarly described as married but their husbands are absent. Were these women living together to support each other if they had separated from their husbands? Was John away just that night? Had he travelled overseas?
If Margaret had separated from her husband it was not permanent, as they were recorded living together (only with their initials), when the 1881 census was taken. Their address was 39 Mount Pleasant, Clerkenwell, which was a house of multiple occupants:
John Fenn’s occupation as a law writer makes him easy to identify. Margaret was working as an ironer. Their son, Samuel John, was no longer with them.
The last census that records Margaret and John Fenn is the 1891 census. This couple always seem to be on the move, taking lodgings in one place after another but staying in the Clerkenwell area. At this time they were living at 1 Anns Place along with their son, Samuel John:
Ann’s Place, now Cynthia Street, is the road running parallel to Rodney Street, in the Pentonville area of north Clerkenwell, where John Fenn was living with his parents when he married in 1858 and a few streets away from Southampton Street, where Margaret had her twins.
There was no sign of John and Margaret Fenn in the 1901 census but instead, I found their burials in the registers of the parish church of St Pancras. Intriguingly, they were both buried on the same day, November 22nd 1898:
To be buried on the same day seemed such a coincidence. Had John and Margaret both died of a contagious disease or alternatively, had there been an accident? My imagination was going wild and I even wondered if a murderous act been committed. I decided to get the death certificate of Margaret and found her death registered in the General Register Office (GRO) indexes in the December quarter of 1898. The certificate is below:
Margaret Ann Fenn died of albuminuria (kidney disease) and a cerebral haemorrhage at 2 Derry Street. Derry Street was close to Grays Inn and in an area of predominately poor, Irish families, full of slum housing. She is described as the wife of John Fenn, so he probably met his own demise shortly afterwards. I have yet to order a copy of his death certificate and discover the cause of his death. Interestingly, the informant was Margaret’s son, J. Fenn. Was J. Fenn her son, Samuel John? I have found no other children from Margaret’s marriage to John Fenn.
I am confident that Margaret England, the mother of Lewis and William Basing England, was the wife of John Fenn and the daughter of James Robert England, a clock and watch maker. Ultimately though, DNA evidence may be the only way to provide irrefutable proof. When I first began searching for her, I looked at both the 1861 and 1871 censuses, to see if I could find a Margaret England of an appropriate age in the Clerkenwell area. In 1861, there are eleven women named Margaret England living in England and Wales, who are of an appropriate age to give birth in 1866. Of these, two are married and nine are single. There are none in London and most are living with their families in the north of England, particularly Yorkshire. Over the next 10 years, three of the single girls in Yorkshire get married there and one dies. Margaret England, born in Ireland and living in Orpington, Kent, is the only candidate who lives anywhere near London. I think she is unlikely to be the mother of twins born in Clerkenwell in 1866; her marriage to John Bristow is recorded in the registration district of Bromley in July 1864 and she is living with him in the 1871 census in Orpington with their three children aged four and under. There is only one Margaret England marriage in Middlesex between 1861 and 1871. This Margaret England married James Fraser on 1st February 1866 in Paddington. As this marriage took place only six weeks before the twins were born, it seems most improbable that this Margaret was their mother.
In the 1871 census, most of the Margaret Englands alive at this date are married and there are none living in London. Although young single women did come to London to seek employment from all parts of the country, there is no evidence that any of the Margarets who were recorded in the 1861 census had moved to London by the time of the 1871 census. One candidate who did catch my eye is Margaret England, a domestic servant born in Doynton, Gloucestershire ca. 1842, who was working in Ozleworth, Gloucestershire when the 1861 census was taken. In 1871, she is still working as a domestic servant but in Kingston on Thames, Surrey. (Her place of birth is given as Bath). In 1882, she marries a widower and innkeeper, William White, in her home village of Doynton and she spends the rest of her life in nearby Tetbury. However, there is no evidence that she ever lived in the Clerkenwell area.
Having found no likely candidate for Margaret England in either the 1861 or 1871 census, nor a marriage for her between 1866 and 1871, I searched more widely. I then found Margaret England, the 12 year old daughter of James England, living with her family on Britannia Street, in St Pancras, only a few minutes walk away from Southampton Street where the twins were born. When Margaret marries John Fenn in 1858, her address is Southampton Street, albeit a different house. This Margaret was obviously local to the area and all her life lived in Clerkenwell or in the near vicinity. Given the fact that she was married, but not to the father of her twins, she had a strong motive to use her maiden name, rather than her married name when she registered her sons’ births. Harriet Lake, the informant on the death certificate of Margaret’s son, William Basing England, may well have been related to Margaret. The Harriet Lake who was living at Twyford Street nearby, had a daughter named Clara, the name perhaps chosen to commemorate Margaret’s mother. There is also a hint of marital problems as Margaret is recorded on her own, though married, with her young son, Samuel John, when the 1871 census was taken. Perhaps she had separated from her husband after the birth of the twins.
At this point, you may be wondering what happened to baby Lewis. Since his twin brother died in July 1866 on Southampton Street, we can assume that Lewis spent at least the first couple of months of his life with his mother. However, by the time of the 1871 census, he was living in Betchworth, Surrey with Charles Matthews, a gardener, his wife Jane and their two children. He was five years old and described as a nurse child, which suggests money had been given to this couple to look after him. Ten years later, when the 1881 census was taken, he was still living in Betchworth but working as a servant and assistant baker for James Bowyer, a grocer and a baker. This must be where Lewis learnt to bake and run a business, as later on in life, Lewis was a baker and confectioner, eventually becoming a restaurant proprietor in Southend, Essex. When he was a nurse child, his place of birth was given as “London”, and when he was fifteen, in 1881, it was stated to be “City Road, London”, which was pretty close to the truth, as Southampton Street was just off the City Road in the Pentonville area of the City. However, thereafter, Lewis states that his place of birth was Dorking, or Putney, in Surrey. When he marries in 1892, he says his father was Frederick England, a carpenter who was deceased. Lewis undoubtedly had no idea who his father was so made up an identity for him.
Lots of questions still remain. Why did Margaret choose to name William Basing as the father, rather than pass the twins off as children of her husband? How did she support herself at this time? Did John Fenn take her back as his wife after a separation? Who was Harriet Lake and did she take care of Margaret? How did Margaret feel after losing one baby, William Basing, to illness and then having to give up her surviving child for fostering? These questions still play on my mind, as I think about her life. It is important to look at the evidence, figure out the motivations, and attempt to understand what our ancestors really experienced in their lives. These are some of the biggest challenges for the family historian.
In my next blog post, I will be revealing the identity of William Basing, the mysterious footman and the father of Lewis England. Do subscribe to my blog to find out more.
© Judith Batchelor 2020