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The Early Years Of Charles Robert Owen Jarvis

Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, my great great grandfather, was born on 31st August 1831, the fifth and final child of the marriage of William Jarvis and Elizabeth Frazier. He was named after a leading social reformer of the day, and hero of the poor - Robert Owen. Three years later he was baptized on October 20th 1834 in St Dunstan In The East, Stepney. His sister, Sarah, was baptised at the same time - you can find their baptism records on the middle of the left page below.

Baptism record for Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, October 20th 1834

Charles was an East Ender - a true cockney - a person born in the London Borough Of Tower Hamlets, an area of 7.6 square miles that incorporates Stepney, Bethnal Green, Limehouse and Poplar. More generally, the term East End wasn’t actually coined until the late 19th century to refer to the area to the east of the City Of London. So it’s possible to come from the East End but not be considered a true East Ender. For the purposes of this book, we’ll refer to Limehouse, Stepney and Poplar as the East End even though that moniker did not exist at the time of Charles’ life.

Charles was born into an extremely dangerous part of London - at the time of his birth it was considered to be the most deprived Borough in London. Crime went unreported and unsolved. The Metropolitan Police were in their infancy, having only been formed in 1829. The first intake of policemen left much to be desired, with many of them being quickly dismissed for drunkenness on duty. Many victims of theft or mugging didn’t report the crimes because they knew it was pointless. Those that did get caught had plenty to be concerned about - transportation of criminals to Australia reached its peak in the early 1830s.

The Black Ditch which ran from Spitalfields to Limehouse Dock.

Accounts of the living conditions in the East End paint a picture of overflowing cesspits, pigs in backyards and inadequate drainage or water supply. Many of the sewers were open ditches and those that did run underground were not maintained so they blocked up. The worst drain was known as the Black Ditch which ran from Spitalfields and emptied into Limehouse dock. It became so blocked up that attempts to divert the flow actually made the stream stagnant and more offensive.

Water was supplied to the streets by the East London Water Company, which took its water directly from the River Lea north of Bow - an area with its own problems of sanitation. Mains piping was generally made of wood at the time, which allowed bacteria to form before the water was delivered to the home. A third of the houses were supplied directly but most people relied on pumps installed in the streets.

It is with this as a backdrop that Charles faced his first test of life: a Cholera epidemic broke out in East London in 1832. Cholera forms when a bacteria commonly found in sewage gets into the drinking water. But doctors didn’t understand that - they believed that cholera spread through the unpleasant or unhealthy smell of London - transmitted through the miasma. Once afflicted, the prevailing belief in the medical profession was to restrict fluid intake and prescribe purgatives to try to “equalize the circulation”. This treatment ultimately proved fatal to thousands. In truth cholera is not actually a serious disease if those afflicted are given vast quantities of water and salts to replace that lost through vomiting and diarrhoea.

A satirical cartoon of the time lampooning the medical confusion over how to treat cholera.

With Charles crawling, walking and touching everything, cholera was a potential silent killer. In Poplar, the Board Of Health issued a free supply of brushes, buckets and unslaked lime to poorer residents so that streets could be washed down. At the London docks, arriving sailors were quarantined below decks for 10 days. And as the deaths continued, those that died were rapidly buried in deep graves in the corner of graveyards. In all, approximately 40,000 people died of cholera in London between 1831 and 1866, with 6,536 dying in Limehouse alone in 1831. Charles survived, but as you will see later in our story, the Jarvis family were not immune to the spread of cholera.

In actual fact, tuberculosis was the main killer in the slums of East London but the cholera epidemic became a zeitgeist and evoked a quick social response. With the prevailing belief that cholera transmitted itself through the unhealthy smell of East London, efforts to improve the environmental impact of a growing population were soon in full swing across East London. With Queen Victoria poised to take the throne, the government started to debate the need for building the drainage, sewage and water treatment facilities that would eradicate the unpleasant atmosphere.

Charles thus grew up at a time when people were thinking big about the growing needs of society. Social unrest due to working conditions resulted in the creation of trades unions. Rising crime resulted in the formation of the Metropolitan Police. The need to move people and goods across Britain drove the construction of an enormous rail network to connect cities and towns. And the growing need to educate the population prompted the government to invest in the construction of schools for the first time in 1833. And having been named after a popular social reformer, I am sure that Charles’ father William talked at length to his son about the importance of living up to his namesake and making his mark.

Charles was born on Rich Street in Limehouse, a street described in Charles Booth’s Poverty Map as occupied by the “lowest class, vicious semi-criminal”. It was a neighbourhood of occasional labourers, street sellers and loafers. His father William Jarvis was not poor although he wasn’t rich either. William was working as a Master Hairdresser and had a share in the business of John Scott who ran a salon on nearby Three Colt Street. The family didn’t struggle with money as much as the families around them and William had no intention of letting the surroundings influence his youngest son, so Charles began his education in 1834 at the age of 3 by attending a private school on Church Lane in Limehouse under the tutelage of a Mr. Lay.

In 1840, he moved to a further private school at Ropemaker’s Fields in Limehouse where he remained until 1842 attending a Mr. Glover’s class . As well as the usual instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, Charles was taught shoemaking, tailoring, carpentering and spinning. Church Lane School also taught girls laundry, housework, sewing and knitting. A full-sized ships mast and rigging was erected in the grounds of the school and a seaman was employed to drill and train the boys. They were also taught to swim and a boys’ military-style band had been established to open up the possibility of a career in the army or navy.

By the age of 9, Charles saw a London abuzz with progress. Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne in 1837 and in 1840 she married her first cousin, Prince Albert. Construction of the new Houses Of Parliament had begun. Trafalgar Square and the foundation of Nelson’s column were being laid, and Charles Dickens was the toast of London with his latest work, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Victoria and Albert. 1840

By June 1841, Charles was still living with his family on Gill Street in Limehouse, just around the corner from Rich Street where he was born. Like Rich Street, it was another neighbourhood of the lowest class of the East End. His father William at this time was 60. William’s wife Elizabeth was 51 and occupied with the duties of home. Their children Mary aged 20, Martha, 16 ; and Sarah, 13 were still at home, along with 9 year old Charles. William Jarvis’s eldest son, William, had left home and was already married.

The family did not live in the small house on Gill Street alone, however. The two-up two-down terraced house was actually home to four families. There was Mary Ford, a laundry woman, and her two children Emma and Daniel; the widow Sophia Gurney and her three children; and Walter Harwood, a blacksmith, and his wife Margaret and their three children. And finally, a 13 year old orphan named Charles Homer also called it home. In total, the small house with only four rooms and no indoor plumbing or bathroom was home to 19 people.

William Jarvis’s work, on Three Colt Street, was 500 feet from his home. That short walk showed two distinct neighbourhoods. While his home on Gill Street was very poor and inhabited by the lowest criminal classes, Three Colt Street was a thriving middle-class thoroughfare of commerce, perhaps the nicest small street in the whole of Limehouse. It was in the second half of 1841 that William moved his family closer to his work, and they settled into a house at 6 Three Colt Street. William was getting old and he only had a short walk to work now.

Three Colt Street in Limehouse.  The nicest street around.  This photo from around 1900

And then in early 1842, Charles experienced his first loss when his father died at 6 Three Colt Street on February 10th 1842. William Jarvis had worked till the day he died yet had been instrumental in encouraging his son to make something of himself. With the living conditions and hard life in the East End, I am sure the loss was palpable for the whole family. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St Anne’s Church in Limehouse.

William Jarvis left his wife with an annuity. There are no records to show what she had or how she was given it, but in order to make ends meet, his mother took in lodgers to support her family, but she could no longer afford private school for Charles so he was sent to the Limehouse National School in Copenhagen Place, where he graduated in January 1845 at the age of 13 ½. It was time for Charles to find a job.

It may not have been obvious at the time, but William Jarvis’s efforts to educate his son would have a very critical impact on his life. In 1851 the census would reveal that half of all the children aged 5-15 in England and Wales - 2,347,291 children - were receiving no formal education whatsoever. William’s early focus on educating his son would pay dividends as he matured and sought work in an increasingly competitive work environment.

To read more about Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, check out my post on his apprenticeship and early career.

Map of London from 1840.  Limehouse is right on the fringe of London.

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