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The Scrivener: Hard Times

"There is a great deal more to a family tree than merely a list of names and dates. These are real people who lived hard lives in a world very different from ours,'' writes Brian Barratt, revealing a time of cholera and typhus, exacerbated by polluted rivers, rubbish rotting in the streets, open sewers, and poor sanitation as he delves into family history.

This is one of the inscriptions in the front of my great-grandmother Anne Barratt's Bible:

William George Barret
Was born March 26
¼ before 5 in

It seems to mean that my grandfather William George Barratt arrived at 4.45 A.M. The spelling could be Barret or Barrat — the last letters are not clear. Spelling was still pretty irregular in those times. Although this is Anne's Bible, she did not write the inscriptions. From another source, we know that she was illiterate.

My great-grandfather William Barratt was born on 13 July 1816 (at 6.15am) and was privately baptised at the parish church of St Phillips and St Jacobs. He was afterward baptised again at the parish church of Armitage, Staffordshire. This double baptism could indicate that he was born a sickly child, and not expected to live. |As it turned out, he had a relatively short life. He died in Armitage, Staffordshire, in about 1842 aged only 28, when his son William George was about four years old.
William Barratt had been a bookseller in Albion Buildings in London. At that time, there were also two printers and a bookbinder on the premises. Later, in 1861 Albion Buildings in Bartholomew Close was described as several old buildings which had been ‘fitted up so as to lodge decently about twenty-four families’.

William and Anne had two other children besides William George. Inscriptions in the back of Anne's Bible record that their daughter Ann died aged 20 months and Mary died aged 21 months, in 1840 and 1842, at Albion Buildings. This was a time of cholera and typhus, exacerbated by polluted rivers, rubbish rotting in the streets, open sewers, and poor sanitation.

At the time, it was believed that cholera was caused and spread by 'miasma', foul air. It was not until the late 1850s that work commenced on building a proper underground sewerage system in London in response to repeated cholera epidemics, after it had been shown that the polluted water and filth of the River Thames was the major cause.

During the first half of the 19th century, the population of Britain doubled from 9 million to 18 million. It is more than likely that these two Barratt children, as well as their father, died as a consequence of cholera in unhygienic living conditions in overcrowded accommodation.

The baby girls were interred at New Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, established in 1665 for people whom the established Church of England refused to bury in its church grounds because they were Dissenters or belonged to other faiths.

By 1848, with over 120,000 bodies and receiving over 1,500 bodies per year, the burial ground itself had become a risk to health. It was cleared up and closed down in 1852. The graves of many famous Nonconformists were left in place and part of the area is still preserved as a public park. Some of the well-known people who were buried there are listed here:

After the death of his father, William George Barratt, aged around four or five years, was sent to the Blue-coat School at Oxford. My father, his son, used to speak proudly of this, but perhaps he didn’t know about the status of children who went to Blue-coat schools. The most well known was originally Christ’s Hospital, a public school founded in 1553 for the education of poor children, and financed by the citizens of London. The buildings were at Grey Friars Monastery, Newgate Street, London. The school at Oxford would also have been supported by generous citizens. My grandfather went to a school supported by charity. Evidently his widowed mother could not afford to look after him.

He then attended Radley College, Berkshire, from about 1851 to 1854. This was a Church of England public school for boys, founded in 1847 by the Rev. William Sewell. My father was very proud of this, too. What he did not realise was that his father, my grandfather, was not a pupil but a servitor, meaning he was deemed to be of inferior social status and destined for life as a servant.

Servitors were drawn from the lower class ‘which sadly requires improvement’. Although put through a ‘privileged curriculum’, they performed ‘domestic duties as servants in addition to being trained as choristers and given a religious education. Food, lodging and clothing were provided. Their names were listed after those of the students but before the maidservants. A description of ‘five little naked Irish boys’ arriving at the school confirms that the servitors were certainly not children of wealthy families — if they had families at all.

My great-grandmother Anne Barratt moved north from London to Wellesbourne in Warwickshire. She married again, fourteen years after William died. Not to another bookseller, but to a sawyer — a labourer who sawed timber — who was himself a widower. She died aged 84 in about 1890, just eleven years before her son William George Barratt, my grandfather, who died at the age of 63.

There is a great deal more to a family tree than merely a list of names and dates. These are real people who lived hard lives in a world very different from ours.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2011


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