Category Archives: London research

“Greatest dramas are about ordinary people”

In Brian Blessed’s preview for Who Do You Think You Are? this evening, he says:

‘I’m not looking for crowns and coronets and the glittering prizes. I’m looking for humanity. On television the greatest dramas are about ordinary people, ordinary relationships. That is where you learn so much, that has great meaning and that’s what I’m looking for.’

I couldn’t agree more Brian. Looking forward to a Blessed drama this evening. 9pm BBC 1.


I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.

Vivid description of PC Ryeland

Sometimes in my research I find something that makes me laugh out loud, as did this extract from Charles Booth’s notebooks:

Walk with police constable W R Ryeland of the Hoxton subdivision of the G or Finsbury division of the Metropolitan Police…..

Ryeland is a man between 40-45. Has been 20 years in the police force. Always in Hoxton. Was on the GWR before joining. Brown short beard and moustache, teetotaller, pay 34/- per week. Rather over medium height. Black soft felt hat. Knows district well. Offends a little by his self-conscious righteousness but is really good, I think.

Charles Booth researched his poverty map of London in 1898-1899 by walking the beat with local police officers and learning about the type of people who lived in each street. I’m not sure what value there was to recording such detail about a police constable. Perhaps it was to help remind himself of the place when he has returned to his desk to revisit his notes and complete his maps. Or perhaps it was simply for personal amusement?

The Charles Booth online archive holds digitised versions of the notebooks. These aren’t transcribed, but if there is a Metropolitan Police Constable in your family tree, and you know which division they served with, it might be worth browsing the notebooks to see if they met Charles Booth and what he had to say about them. Hopefully your ancestor won’t ‘offend’ at all!

Booth maps a boon for London ancestors

I found this entry in the Charles Booth notebooks during my research recently:

Richardson’s Place, Greenwich:
‘At the entrance is a 3 storied house kept by a  ‘Chimney cleaner’. House well kept – flowers etc. Beyond this are 11 houses. 2 storied, 2 rooms, in courtyard with washhouses and 6 W.Co near entrance. Everything filthy. Rent 4/6 a week and have to buy key for W.C. Three navvies and gas stoker. DB [the classification is dark blue – very poor, casual income, chronic want]. Some girls (about 12 years of age) were playing schools in the court. It was a singing lesson. Before they noticed us, we were able to hear them sing two pieces, a negro melody and ‘The old folks at home’. They had good voices and sang the pieces well both as to time and tune. The only bright thing about the place, it was a tribute to the value of our Board Schools.’

Charles Booth undertook a survey of life and labour in London between 1886 and 1903. Every street in London was visited and notes were taken about the standard of living, types of property and types of people who lived there.

The original notebooks are available online for free, as is the poverty map of London. See Charles Booth online archive. The poverty map was produced in 1898-9, based on information gathered in the survey and each road is classified according to the income and social class of its inhabitants.

It can take a while to find the right street, but once you have, the information can paint a picture of the neighbourhood in a way that a census return or baptismal record rarely can.