Ellen’s three youngest children outside the Chelsea house, c 1921

Perhaps the most valuable reason for examining individual lives during the First World War is the opportunity given to emphasise unique sets of circumstances. My first two studies (Part One) (Part Two) have looked at the lives of two women whose husbands went away to war and the hardships that they and their families endured on the home front. This one is about Ellen – the third of my great grandmothers – whose husband did not go to the Front and alongside whom she worked to bring up their children and make a living in the most trying of circumstances. As for so many women, the war made a hard existence harder, as life  – and death – went on regardless.

Ellen’s story

Ellen was born in Chelsea in 1873, to working class parents in one of the poorest parts of the borough. As she grew up, she lived with her family in a series of subdivided houses near the Thames, in streets where, according to Charles Booth, in the 1890s, residents’ earnings were tumbling into his ‘poor’ category (incomes between 18 and 21 shillings a week).[1] Overcrowding in Chelsea, as in so many parts of London, was rife; by 1901 it was not uncommon in this part of the borough for more than twenty people to be living in houses with as few as seven rooms.  When trade union campaigner, Gertrude Tuckwell, took up her first teaching post at Park Walk Board School in the 1880s, she brought the children home to tea in her Chelsea flat, remembering that the thing that struck them most was that she had a bedroom all to herself.

The search for affordable accommodation was to be a constant feature of Ellen’s early married life. When she married John in 1893, she was a domestic servant and he a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, based in London. After the wedding, the couple was not admitted onto the Army’s tightly controlled accommodation register and as a result had no entitlement to live in barracks. Much of John’s pay as a private (a maximum of one shilling and two pence a day) would therefore have gone on renting private rooms. In her study of working class families in Lambeth (across the river from Chelsea), published in 1913, Maud Pember Reeves noted that a rent of under six shillings a week (unless for a single room) generally signified very poor, small, ground floor or basement rooms. [2]  If they sought to avoid this, Ellen, at least until the birth of their first surviving child in 1895, almost certainly had to continue to work in whatever capacity she could.

So, they  lived in the heart of Booth’s declining Chelsea. When John was released into the Reserves, his only army pay was an annual three pounds retainer. There was, according to Booth, a great deal of prejudice directed at Reservists and ex-soldiers by employers, partly because of the risk of their being recalled at short notice but also because their ‘aptitudes for civil employment are not very great in any direction and in very many are absolutely non-existent’.[3] John worked as a stoker at the gas works, with the potential for decent earnings but as the work was seasonal, many stokers, led ‘irregular, uncertain’ lives.[4] By the time their third child was born in 1898, John had been recalled to the Army, just ahead of heavy military action in Sudan. He remained in London, however, and was now permitted to be on the ‘married roll’, his growing family accommodated in army quarters in Francis Street, Westminster.

Although the army provided medical expenses for soldiers’ families, there was generally little privacy or space in barracks for the delivery of a baby, particularly if there were already children in the family and so Ellen returned to Chelsea to give birth, possibly staying with a relative or someone recommended by other women in the barracks.[5] In 1901 John was permanently discharged on grounds of ill health, with no pension but a one off payment of 26 pounds. They returned to Limerick, his home town, where the family lived for two years, perhaps with John’s mother, getting back on their feet, before returning to Chelsea in late 1904 or early 1905. They now had six children.

On return, they lived in a rundown part of Chelsea in a square which, along with its adjacent courts were cleared after the First World War and where much of the housing was in a poor state of repair. When they moved in, 15 houses in an adjoining courtyard had already been condemned. Despite the fact that the houses had no through light or ventilation, were ‘old, worn out and dilapidated’ with damp walls, defective roofs, rotten plaster and woodwork, dirty and verminous rooms, the Medical Officer of Health still blamed the ‘frequently choked and overflowing’ WCs on the neglect and carelessness of the tenants.[6] But there was little that tenants in substandard, overcrowded accommodation could do to persuade landlords to undertake essential repairs, which were often neglected until  public health legislation forced improvements or closure of the premises.  Tenants kept quiet about deficiencies and outstanding repairs due to fear, not just of eviction but of increased rent to cover the cost of repairs. Maud Pember Reeves noted that tenants might be more assertive if they understood their rights but instead ‘they put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid to find new quarters if they make too much fuss’.[7]

By 1914 it was estimated that about 25% of Chelsea’s working class population lived either in model or industrial dwellings owned by the Borough or by philanthropic building companies such as Peabody or the Guinness Trust. In such dwellings, Pember Reeves noted that children could grow up free from damp and bugs, with running water, light and good ventilation. Other advantages included moderate rents ranging in one block from three and a half shillings for a one bedroomed tenement to nine and a half shillings for three bedrooms.[8] Some had electric lighting, laundry rooms, modern cooking appliances and fitted cupboards[9] , facilities often lacking in the private rented sector, even if rents were comparable.  [10] In 1907 the Medical Officer for Health concluded that infant mortality here was a third lower than that of Chelsea’s poorest streets.[11]  But the majority of the flats had just two to three rooms and were too small for large families like Ellen’s. In addition, tenancy terms were strict, forbidding subletting or the taking in of washing, both of which might sustain a family in times of unemployment, short time working or illness.[12]. The prompt paying of rent was imperative and without flexible arrangements or the ability to negotiate arrears payments with the landlord in order to remain in the property until things improved, workers in irregular employment dare not risk taking on a municipal tenancy.[13]

For those needing space for a growing family or for home working, therefore, private tenancies might be more practical, if less secure. In early 20th century Chelsea, with limited opportunities for regular paid work for mothers, some families sought houses rather than rooms, with a plan to take in lodgers to cover the higher rent and supplement the family income. If property owners were prevented by the terms of their leases from converting their houses into flats, many turned a blind eye to their tenants subletting, as long as the rent was paid on time.[14] The risks to the primary tenant, however, were considerable, never knowing for sure whether lodgers would pay on time, or whether they would be a suitable fit within a household in which full self-containment was never possible due to shared toilet and washing facilities. If meals and washing were not included in the rent, access to the family’s cooking and laundry spaces was expected. Pember Reeves noted the stress that forcing the ejection of an unsatisfactory tenant placed on the subletting landlady, as well as the risk to her own family when rent was not paid.[15]

In 1908, Ellen and John moved into Park Walk, which runs between Kings Road and Fulham Road, to take on the largest house they had rented so far, with a basement kitchen and scullery, two rooms on each of its three floors, a tap and an outside WC in a small backyard. From local newspaper advertisements, it seems unlikely that the cost of renting a house of this size in this part of Chelsea would have been less than around 15 shillings a week and could be, depending on its condition and facilities, several shillings more. The family, however, could never reap the benefits of the extra space. By 1911 Ellen had nine children and four lodgers, maintaining her unofficial role as landlady until the 1930s.[16]

How much could be charged depended on what a landlady was prepared to provide. In her work on landladies and lodgers, Leonore Davidoff found that the basic services provided in lodgings included cleaning, fetching water and coal, laying fires and running errands, lighting and fuel. In London, the general rule was that the landlady provided bedding in furnished rooms which the lodger agreed to wash.[17] Some landladies offered ‘Sunday meals if required’ or evening meals, often combined with the ability to make simple meals for oneself.[18] This was not, however, without its risks for both tenant and landlady; the Common Lodging Houses Act of the 1850s allowed for inspections of premises but with so many casual arrangements in place, it was difficult for local authorities to be aware of all lodgings and many dangers went unheeded for both lodgers and hosts.[19]  In the 1930s, a frail elderly woman was burned to death whilst preparing her breakfast in her rented room in Ellen’s house with fire or smoke damage spreading to other rooms.[20]

Ellen’s resourcefulness with the family budget was long remembered by her children, two of whom were interviewed by my dad in the 1960s (this is also referred to in my blog, ‘Ellen and Sylvia’). ‘It’s marvellous, you know, what the Old Lady done, really’, one of them told him, ‘how she got by with all them [sic] kids’.[21] Her Irish potato cakes, consisting entirely of the two cheapest of ingredients – bread and potatoes – were a family staple when times were hard. Nonetheless, they were not enough and Francis recalled that food was sometimes so hard to come by that his younger brother, Patrick, ‘grew rickets, you know. His legs were like a hoop…and in the end he was taken into St George’s Hospital to have his legs broken. Twice they did it and the bones were sort of re-set to straighten them out’. He piggy backed him to school in the mornings and back home at the end of the day. [22] A combination of a diet lacking in Vitamin D (fish oils, animal fats, eggs and dairy produce) and poor accommodation with restricted sunlight, made rickets a serious risk for children, in turn reducing their ability to resist respiratory infections.[23]

Some help appears to have been offered to the family from the Catholic Church. By Easter 1907, ten year old Mary and eight year old Frank were boarders at a school in Herefordshire run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). Founded in England in 1844, SVP worked amongst poor families offering Catholic guidance in the form of schools, youth groups and ‘protection from corruption’ for those children forced by economic necessity to work away from home.[24] I don’t know how long the two children were at the school; a very formal letter from Frank informs his parents that ‘we did very well when the Inspector came in  last week and Ma Soeur gave us a half holiday. We go to Mass every morning and we learn Hymns in school’.[25] He ends his letter with a plea to his mum to send him some picture postcards from home.



In the early months of the War, Ellen, aged 41, gave birth to her tenth surviving child. Her husband, at nearly 50, was too old for active service and in indifferent health. His employment record was chequered. The job as school caretaker had been exchanged for domestic service (at one time he was a valet although I don’t know whether this was in a private household or a hotel, for instance) and in 1916 he was working as an army clothing packer, unskilled work, likely to have been excluded from the negotiated rates of pay awarded within the more obvious (or narrowly defined) types of industrial war work, such as munitions production.

With the cost of living soaring, the family – as was common – looked to the earnings of their eldest children. In this family, however, emigration and war ensured that there was to be no such support. When first out of school, the eldest, John, had worked as a servant in a household in affluent Evelyn Gardens, just a few minutes’ walk from Park Walk.[26] Yet, like so many young men from his class and generation, he decided that London offered him too few opportunities and at an unknown date before the war, he set sail for a new life in Australia. In early 1915, aged 20, he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Forces and embarked from Sydney on board the Ceramic, a requisitioned ocean liner. During military campaigns, he sustained serious injuries, returning to Australia in September 1918, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Ellen and John’s second son, Francis, although not quite 16 when war began, actually beat his older brother to the recruitment office and in December 1914, was accepted into the City of London Yeomanry. He had added just over two years on to his age and was sent to nearby Barnes to do his initial cavalry training before going with the regiment to Norfolk. As the number of adult volunteers decreased after the initial surge, it became easier for underage recruits to be accepted and providing they passed a medical, were of minimum height (5 foot, 3 inches) with a minimum chest size of 34 inches, many boys – up to 250,000 in total – got away with it. Francis was posted abroad in early 1917 and later that year, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he became an air mechanic. After serving in Salonika, Greece, he came home to Park Walk in 1919, so ill with malaria that, according to family folklore, he received the last rites, before making a full recovery.

Francis, aged 16 or 17, 1915

As in so many families, the details of fathers’ and sons’ military records are proudly remembered whilst nothing is known about what the wives and daughters did during the war (more on this in the next blog). Mary, the eldest daughter, was 17 when war was declared but the only surviving evidence of her possible war time work is that in 1916 she lived at Northern Hospital, Winchmore Hill in north London. Whether she was a nurse or a domestic servant, for example, is unclear because the source of the information – a death certificate – reveals only her address. On March 8th this young woman was with her 12 year old brother, Joseph, when he died at the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Chelsea. All that is known about the young boy’s past medical condition comes from my own chance discovery that in 1905, aged just 18 months, he had spent 75 days in Great Ormond Street Hospital being treated for meningitis. The chronic hydrocephalus and cerebral compression recorded as the cause of death may have resulted from this earlier illness but there is no way of knowing whether this was indeed so, whether the hydrocephalus was congenital or whether it was a relatively recent affliction. His pain, however, and the grief that his family experienced, are in no doubt.

There are so many possible reasons why neither Ellen nor John was at their son’s bedside when he died. Perhaps it had been a long vigil and, as mother to four under 8 year olds (including a toddler) and landlady to at least three lodgers, there were times when Ellen had little choice but to go home and do her best to care for her family and keep up the running of the household. With John at work and two teenage sons (16 and 14) also probably in employment, Ellen had cause to rely on her eldest daughter to help when and where she was needed. Mary’s employment was of course much more likely to be interrupted by domestic and caring responsibilities than that of her father or brothers.

Ellen had another reason to be grateful to Mary; at the time of Joseph’s death, Ellen was just over a month away from giving birth to her eleventh child, a girl, baptized Josephine. As I write this, the simple recording of these facts strikes me as wholly inadequate but I really don’t have the words to describe the anguish that this mother must have faced. Within just over 14 months, two of her sons had joined up to fight in a war that was becoming more entrenched, another son had died and she had given birth to a daughter. Throughout all of this, she was a landlady, working out how to cope with rises in food and fuel prices, needing every extra penny that might come the family’s way.

It is hard, then, to imagine the anxiety she felt when, in the days between Joseph’s death and Josephine’s birth, her husband was summoned before the magistrates for failing to keep a register of ‘alien’ lodgers at their address. He was fined 40 shillings, an amount quite probably equivalent to two week’s wages at the army clothing factory where he worked. According to the newspaper in which this was reported, a police constable had called at the house and discovered that of the three lodgers found there, one was German and one was Danish.[27] Under the Aliens Restrictions Act of August 1914, all foreign nationals had to register with the police and from November, everyone living in lodging houses, whether British or foreign, was required to register. John’s defence was that he had no idea that he had to keep a register, that he had no time to read the newspapers to find out about the legislation and that he had received no instructions about the need for registration. When it transpired that he could neither  read nor write, the magistrate expressed exasperation rather than sympathy, waved aside John’s insistence that he did not keep a lodging house because he only had three lodgers and imposed the fine. It is likely that the only way that this could be paid, unless the couple borrowed the money from elsewhere, was paid in weekly instalments.

This was a disaster. Because Ellen and John were themselves tenants, they sublet on a very informal basis. Because of John’s illiteracy, it seems that Ellen was largely in charge of all official family paperwork; it was, for example, always Ellen who registered the birth of their children. But, as John was listed as the rent and ratepayer, he was, in the eyes of the law, the head of the household and so it was he who appeared in court. Perhaps neither of them thought that the legislation applied to their situation for this was undoubtedly a family home, and, in their eyes, they merely had a few lodgers to bring in a little extra revenue.

This is, I suppose, just another tale of family life in early 20th century London – a working class woman, pregnant at least 12 times in twenty years, raising children, caring for them in sickness and in death, watching them go off to fight (by 1918 three of her sons were in the Forces) and then, once the war was over and the years rolled on, saying goodbye to more of them who followed their oldest brother to Australia, knowing that she would most likely never see them again.  Ellen lost none of her children in the Great War but she suffered losses regardless, and, like countless women before and after her, remained the one on which everyone depended, from the moment she became a married woman.

Ellen as an older woman, date unknown

Widowed in 1933, she remained in Park Walk for several more years, still providing rooms for tenants, taking on cooking and cleaning jobs where possible before sharing the house with her son, Francis, his wife and children when the Depression destroyed their chances of keeping on their home and business in Twickenham.  She died in hospital in Kent in 1946, by which time her son had given up the tenancy on the old house, which was damaged during Second World War air raids and moved to nearby Putney. We still need as many stories like this as possible to remind us of the realities of working class motherhood in times of war.





[1] Charles Booth, Maps Descriptive, 1888, 1889-90

[2] Maud Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About A Pound A Week,  London, Virago , 35

[3] Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 2nd series ,volume 4,  67

[4] Booth, Life and Labour, 2nd series, volume 3,  459

[5] Myna Trustram, 1984, Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army (Cambridge, CUP),  84. Sincere thanks also to Dr Spencer Jones for his expert advice on the Guards’ Regiments

[6] Annual Report (AR), Medical Officer for Health (MoH) Chelsea, 1904

[7] Pember Reeves, 1913, Round About ,  38

[8] AR MoH 1904

[9] Anthony Wohl, 1977, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London,London, Edward Arnold,  41

[10]‘Settlement and Building’, VCH, pp 79-90, [accessed February 4th 2016]

[11] AR MoH 1907

[12] Ibid,  40

[13] Pember Reeves, Round About, 34-5

[14] ‘Settlement and Building’  79-90

[15] Pember Reeves, Round About,   38

[16] 1911 Census England and Wales

[17] Leonore Davidoff, 1979 ‘The Separation of Home and Work? Landladies and Lodgers in 19th and 20th Century England’ in Sandra Burman (ed) Fit Work for Women (London, Croom Helm) p 82

[18] West London Press 1905-10, British Newspaper Archive

[19]‘ Lodgers and Lodging in Victorian and Edwardian England’, London Metropolitan Archives,  accessed June 12 2016

[20] Western Daily Press, 19 August 1935, British Newspaper Archive

[21] ‘Childhood in Chelsea: Frank and Henry Gibbons on life in and around Park Walk from c 1905’, transcript of conversation recorded 1969. Thanks to JC Gibbons for permissions

[22] ‘Childhood’’

[23] Lara Marks, 1996, Metropolitan Maternity,: Maternal and Infant Welfare Services in Early twentieth Century London, Amsterdam, Rodopi ,101-2

[24] accessed May 11th 2016

[25] Family papers, March 18th 1907

[26] ‘Childhood’

[27] West London Press, March 17 1916, British Newspaper Archive

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