MORGAN LIFE
1: The 1800s
by Bert Morgan


THERE were those of the Morgans who claimed that the family first drove a herd of prize cows all the way from Wales to set up a dairy business in the centre of London. Those of a less charitable disposition dismissed this claim arguing that first Morgan to arrive in London made a living by playing a concertina outside London pubs, one foot stuck in the public bar door just to keep it open. Neither one is true according to my research back to 1812. William Morgan was a carpenter when his sons William and John were christened on the same Sunday in 1812 at St Hallows All Saints, parish church of Stepney in East London. William and his wife Rebecca were married in the same church just two years earlier. That is as far back as my researches have taken me.

With an average lifespan of perhaps 70 years of so many people, how few facts are left behind, so often handed down verbally and glossed over or twisted in the telling. Elderly Victorian aunts hinted darkly that it would be better not to probe too deeply. Could the cupboards be so capacious so as hide so many skeletons? Even simple questions such as how much did you need to live on and where rarely received simple answers.

So how to search back with only handed down stories to fill the yawning gaps? A few remembered dates, birth and marriage certificates seemed the place to start. Many years ago, when I worked in Fleet Street, it was not very far to walk up to St Catherine's House and Somerset House to secure copies of certificates - in the 1960s a copy cost only 2/6 (twelve and a halfpence). After decimalisation in 1971 prices took off for everything.

To search into uncharted territory for names and dates took lots of calculations and thumbing through the two-foot high ledgers, quarter by quarter at Somerset House - and all handwritten with suitable pages for foundlings -abandoned babies) at the end of each ledger.

So to work and where better than life with father. Albert Joseph Morgan was born on November 8 1899 at the City of London lying-in hospital (the maternity hospital in City Road, Old Street). His parents lived just round the corner at 276 Guinness Trust buildings, Lever Street. These dwellings had probably been built for only 25 or 30 years when the philanthrophic families such as Guinness and the American George Peabody – he came from Boston Mass. - started to do something for the for the poor people living in back-to-back houses, front doors separated not by a road by courts - paved areas.

Albert's father was Alfred Morgan (a little more of him later). My grandfather died in 1926 aged 62, His family were rather proud that their dad was a coachman, which was a cut above a drayman or a bottom-of- the pile carter, or more familiarly a driver of a horse and cart. A coachman carried real people, although usually of a not much higher class. Alfred's wife was Matilda (nee Zimmer), who made umbrellas. (The 1881 census suggests that Matilda was baptised Miteldur even though she was born in London the eldest child of James and Mary Ann. At the time of the Census Matilda was 20 and working as a labourer as were her sister Mary Ann, 19, and brother Edward, 16. Her younger siblings, John, 14, Ellen 10 and Emley, 5, were at school and the family lived at 4AB Vincent Street.) Ed.) Alfred and Matilda lived in the shadow of the vast and gloomy St Luke's printing works, with Bank of England notes a speciality. Hitler effectively carried out a bit of industrial slum clearance at the print works during the 1939-45 war. And 276 Guinness Buildings too.

Alfred and my grandmother Matilda had six children: First son Alfred, of course. Nell, Bill (don't think he ever married) Ada, Emily, Albert and Kitty. Matilda gave birth to Ada in March 1892 and Ada was six years old before Emily came along in August 1898, and in a rather prolific three or four years also gave birth to Albert and baby Kitty. Matilda always referred to Emily, Albert and Kitty as being her 'younger' family. In those Victorian days it was probably quite a shock to become pregnant again after a six-year break.

Matilda was born in August 1860 so she was turned 40 before giving birth to Kitty. One can speculate forever on those infertile years, bearing in mind that birth control could only be achieved in one way and terminations in a bath of hot gin! Now father Alfred was getting on for being three years younger than his wife, although for the sake of society and propriety their marriage certificate on April 16 1882 both declared their age as being twenty. Seems young men in Victorian times - other than an adventurer - would want to be seen as marrying a (slightly) older woman. These social adjustments do not help researchers over a 100 years later.
In those times, families moved frequently but usually only round the corner. Curiously Ada was born in Bermondsey, south of the River Thames and far away by all of two miles from the family's stamping ground of Islington - only a few hundred yards from the City of London boundary at that, where short of being born at home it was the City of London Lying-in hospital. Nothing wrong in that. Moves were usually inspired by a cheaper rent, or owing the rent. Moving out at night before the bailiff or rent collector was due the following day was known as 'shooting the moon'.

My father told me pre-1914 they moved into a house in Shepherdess Walk off City Road late one evening (shooting the moon?). It happened to be next to a bakery and when the ovens starting warming up at 4am all the vermin saw it as time to get out of bed and visit the lathes and plaster walls of the house next door. Mice, bugs and so on, were all accepted as a part of life until the sheer numbers required some action: pokers and traps for mice, paraffin painted on bedframes for bed bugs.

If there was no immediate prospect of a move of abode, a tin can under each bed leg, filled with paraffin, would keep off floor-based bugs. My father said that with the rodent invasion, within hours of the house next to the bakers, his dad said don't bother to unpack: "We're moving out" - and they did.

As all transport was horse-drawn at the end of the 1800s, it was a major employment so everyone knew a relative, friend or neighbour whose job was driving a cart in the local area. Nobody paid a professional furniture mover and it was a quick job for any carter to do a moving job 'on the way back to the stables.' at the end of the day. Otherwise it was a handcart. Apart from the beds, kitchen table and chairs bulky possessions were few.

My grandfather ALFRED was born on February 27 1863 at 10 Pleasant Place, just off the Essex Road in Islington. Pleasant Place is still there in name and less than two miles from City Road where my own father was born. Alfred's father was John Morgan and mother Mary (nee Houlton). John was a porter-upholsterer. Two years before young Alfred's birth and In the National Census of 1861, John and Mary already had seven children.