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Monday, 20 June 2016

The Lives of Highgate’s Lost Girls by Rowan Lennon

In 2014 Sam Perrin and I co-authored an article about Highgate's Lost Girls, the mainly teenage prostitutes buried in an unmarked grave in Highgate Cemetery West, who were inmates of Park House (known as the Highgate Penitentiary) which stood on North Hill where Hillcrest Estate now stands.  The Penitentiary opened in 1856 by the London Diocesan as a charitable trust to rescue girls from poverty and prostitution.
The Victorian vice trade operated on an almost industrial scale with certain brothels and keepers immune from the law and protected by the highest levels of society, the police and politicians.  In 1856 the age of consent was 12 and was later raised to 13 in 1875, and then 16 in 1885 due to the exposure of child prostitution by W.H Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.  The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon is still the most compelling and powerful piece of journalism and a landmark in the popular press that changed the law and the public perceptions of the vice trade.  The trade constantly needed a supply of fresh young girls and Mrs Jeffries, a notorious brothel keeper and white slaver gave evidence to Stead.  The girls were often recruited from the country, lured to London on the promise of work and taken to brothels.  Many children were taken from railway stations by ‘kindly old ladies’ who offered to ‘mind the children’ while parents were busy.  Some were drugged and transported in coffins to France.
The girls who ended up in the Penitentiary came from all over the country.  Naïve girls were lured to London and the only escape from the life on the streets was the Penitentiary and others like it.  They stayed two years learning life skills and conditions were strict but fair.  There were those for whom the prospect of life without the routine of the Penitentiary was unbearable: in October 1883, 17-year old Penitentiary inmate Ellen Keating attempted suicide by choking herself to death rather than face expulsion following a perceived misdemeanour.  Others who passed through the Penitentiary emigrated, some married and led respectable lives while others reverted to their old ways.  Prostitutes often described themselves as dressmakers and many dressmakers were involved in the vice trade by supplying dresses to brothel madams.  The average life span of a street prostitute was seven years.
So what of the lost girls?  I have been researching their lives.  We will never know the details of their downfall or how they became ensnared into the vice trade.  Their lives were anonymous, their backgrounds mundane (with one exception, Rosetta Edward).  It has been difficult to find information on the girls with as they have common surnames.  They all died horribly of tubercular-related illnesses at the Penitentiary, a condition resulting from poverty and starvation, and were all representatives of a wider problem in the nineteenth century.  Emma Jones, born in Sawbridgeworth Herts, was the first occupant of the grave in 1862.  Her age on the census of 1861 was just 11 years old while living in the penitentiary and she passed away at age 12.  Was this child a victim of the white slave trade?  I have been so far unable to verify her birth or death.
We have Anna Williams, who was 15 when she died in 1869.  A country girl, her father Charles was a cow keeper (deceased) and Anna suffered from tuberculosis and later died of pneumonia.  The life of Caroline Rhodes yields more information: she was born in the Union Workhouse in Walsall, Staffordshire in 1855 to father William Rhodes, a butcher, and mother Elizabeth (formerly Harrison).  To be born in a workhouse suggests great poverty in spite of her father’s trade.  He died in 1860 when she was just five, which lead to even greater hardship.  In the census of 1861 she was living with her 29-year old mother and two sisters (Anne, two, and Emily, 11 months) at the butchers shop in Upper Market Street, Walsall.  By 1871 she had disappeared entirely, presumably swallowed up by the great city, before ending up in Highgate destitute and ill.  She died in 1874 of tuberculosis and softening of the lungs at age 19.  21-year old Emily Potter died in 1878 of acute tuberculosis.  Her father, Thomas, was a labourer.  Harriet Smith died age 17 in 1880 of tuberculosis and pneumonia.  Her father Daniel was a hay binder.  Frances Illiffe died age 15 in 1881 of scrofula, tuberculosis and meningitis.  Born in Croydon in 1866, we have a glimpse of her in the 1871 census living at Rose Cottage with her 35-year old father and siblings, (Louisa 12, Arthur 10 and Minnie, eight). Her father John was a gardener and had been widowed that same year.  How did this child end up on the streets with a fate so different from her siblings?  Maud Clabby, daughter of Patrick, a soldier, was born in Guernsey and died in age 18 of tuberculosis and pneumonia.
Rosetta Edward died age 20 in 1900, her cause of death tuberculosis of the lungs and intestines and peritonitis.  She came from a fascinating and well-recorded family: born on 10 October in the district of St Savour, Southwark, her father (Andrew Duthrie Edward), a compositor, married Annie Rosetta Amelia Belasco at St James, Clerkenwell, in September 1879.  Annie was the daughter of Joseph Belasco, a clerk and a member of a colourful Sephardic Jewish family that included a popular actor, David James, co- founder of the Vaudeville Theatre, who was a cousin of her grandfather and Georgian boxer Abraham Belasco.  There were a couple of less salubrious relatives who had been in trouble with the law for running gambling dens and brothels.
Rosetta’s mother Annie died of tuberculosis age 25 at her father Joseph’s house when Rosetta was just three, no doubt a very traumatic moment for a child so young.  It is possible she was sent to live with a foster couple up north following the death of her mother and a census entry suggests she was returned to her father on his remarriage in 1886 in Camberwell to Frances Miriam Gunner, the daughter of printer William Gunner.  Rosetta is entered on the school records of Goodrich School, Dulwich, where her birth year is noted as being 1882 instead of 1880, deducting two years from her age - she was eight, not six.  Andrew is mentioned in electoral rolls in 1890/1 and also in the 1891 census, where he was noted as living with Miriam, 23, and Rosetta, 10, at 4 Vicarage Rd.  Andrew was 33-years old and owned a printing and publishing company called Photophane where he’d developed a ground breaking lithographic process for printing high quality books with photographic reproductions of great detail that did not fade.  Despite this innovative technique, the Photophane Printing and Publishing Company was dissolved and struck off the companies register in July 1890.  That did not hamper Andrew’s entrepreneurial skill and in 1891 he went into business with prominent Australian Mr H Glenny, a Justice of the Peace and writer under the name of Silverpen, of Ballerat, Victoria.  A gossip column in the Daily News of 19 August mentioned Glenny acquiring the patent rights to a new printing process called Photophane, for which a fledgling company was being formed.  The next record of Andrew is on a ship The Orizaba bound for Melbourne on 11 September 1891 travelling with Mr Glenny.  Had Andrew abandoned his family for a new life in Australia or did he promise to make his fortune and return?   An article in the Australian Daily Telegraph dated 27 February 1892 describes the development of the Photophane Company in Melbourne by Andrew Duthrie Edwards of London, who claimed he devised the process in 1887.  No death certificate for Andrew has been found in England or Australia but Frances remarried in 1894, describing herself as a widow.  She gave birth to a boy, Gordon, on 1 July 1892, claiming he was Andrew’s son, but Andrew was in Australia - her marriage may have been bigamous. Whatever the complications of her father and stepmother, it is clear that Rosetta endured a disrupted childhood and might not have gotten on with her stepmother.  Many middle class girls became victims of the vice trade.  It was no respecter of background, and the poor girls who lie in Highgate are the forgotten victims of a despicable trade.

Rowan Lennon © 2016




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