Thursday, 17 May 2018

Annie Morris, Ram Alley and more stories of Eltham in the 19th century

Annie and her son William in 1877
I back with Annie Morris whose life in Eltham pretty much covered the period when the place shifted from a rural backwater to a suburb of London.

She was born Annie Rice Foster in Pound Place in 1848 and her grandfather and father were blacksmiths on the High Street.

She would have known and gone to school with many children whose parents still made a living from the land, either as farmers, agricultural labourers or trades associated with the rural economy.

Her husband John was a carpenter and joiner, and his father variously described himself as a labourer, groom, gamekeeper and gardener.

John had been born in Yorkshire and his father was from Wales, and during the years before 1851 the family moved back to Wales before settling in Eltham which rather contradicts that old school’s history idea that people seldom travelled.

Judging by the census records the lanes of Eltham would have been full of different accents.  Annie’s grandfather had been born in the North West, her father in law in Wales and her mother in law in Yorkshire.

And looking at the at the servants employed in the grand houses around Eltham they also were drawn from across the country which shouldn’t surprise us given that few of these wealthy families would choose to employ local girls.

In the same way Annie and John moved around a bit, having started their married life in Plumstead in 1875, they were back in Eltham by 1880 and lived in a succession of cottages.

Ram Alley in 1909
Of these I am drawn to their time in Ram Alley which consisted of four cottages by the High Street.

Now I doubt that these properties were ever that wonderful to live in.

Three of the four had just two rooms while the fourth consisted of three. In 1895 they were all condemned as unfit to live in but in the way of these things they were not demolished for another forty-three years.

Annie and John were there in Ram Alley by 1891 bringing up six children in just two rooms.

And it is easy to brush over that simple fact but eight people is difficult enough especially given that the four boys ranged in age from sixteen down to four and there was a daughter under two.

That said Court Yard where they were living a decade later was only marginally less of a squeeze for while it had five rooms there were still eight of them and young Mabel was now 11.

But such was the lot of many working class families in both rural and urban areas and throughout the 19th century commentators reported on the ingenious ways families coped with such overcrowding, ranging from the simple blanket hung across the upstairs room to sharing out children with neighbours or grandparents.

I suppose there was always that simple observation that soon enough the children would move on.  By 1911 Annie and John were sharing Court Yard with just two of their children while up at Ram Alley, three of the four properties were occupied by just one person and the fourth with its three rooms was the home of George Meakin and his lodger Elizabeth Lumley.

Detail of Annie and William
Annie was to record her memories of growing up in Eltham to a local newspaper in 1931 and in the fullness of time I will revisit the stories she had to tell.

But I shall close with another look at the photograph of Annie as a proud mother in 1877.

She is sitting with her eldest son William and the picture was taken in Woolwich.

Now this must have amounted to quite a financial outlay for a working family and I rather think there will not be that many from this period or from their class.

And it is the detail that draws you in.

William is dressed in his finest baby wear but it is Annie who makes the lasting impression with that carefully prepared hair and the striking dress.

She would have been 29.

Location; Eltham, London

Pictures; Annie Morris with her eldest son William courtesy of Jean Gammons, and Ram Alley from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers,

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