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Monday, 17 October 2016

Tales from Streatham Cemetery

Hi folks,

Below is the first blog post I recently contributed to my new spiritual home of a website, the wonderful Cemetery Club. I opted not to venture into the history of London’s cemeteries and the ever-growing need for burial space.  I don’t need to, as this topic has already been covered in the excellent existing posts by SheldonChristina and Caroline.

Instead I've posted mini biographies about two of the interesting characters I came across whilst researching Streatham Cemetery (located in Tooting and not to be confused with Streatham Park Cemetery, which I’ll be covering in my next blog). Sheldon and I only located one grave of the two people I’ll be writing about but we still enjoyed an excellent outing to a thoroughly lovely and well-maintained cemetery.

Hilda Wilson
A rather unconventional entertainer was interred at Streatham Cemetery on a dry and mild New Year’s Eve day in 1936.  A special platform was erected at the edge of the 4ft wide grave, the largest ever dug at the cemetery, and an additional six cemetery staff members were needed to help ease the huge coffin onto the pall. Surrounded by her fellow circus performers who came to pay their respects, this was the final resting spot of Mrs Hilda Wilson, 1936’s self-proclaimed “World’s Fattest Woman”.
Tod Browning’s film “Freaks” had provoked such public revulsion four years earlier but, even before that, the British and American public had already bought into question the morality of these once hugely popular 'freak shows'.  By the 1920s and 30s, the silver screen began eclipsing the allure of the circus with its featured human oddities and freak show audiences dwindled.

Could this downturn in popularity have prompted 63-year old Hilda Brown to relocate from Berlin to try her luck at the Fun Fair in London's Haymarket in mid-December 1936?  A living exhibit, she was 5’3” but weighed in at 46 stone with a waist that was 3 yards in circumference.  The widow of fellow carnival attraction John Wilson (a.k.a. “The English Giant”), Hilda had arrived in England only a fortnight earlier - no doubt she considered her fellow performers the closest thing she had to friends and family.
Travelling around London was problematic for Hilda, as the standard English rail carriages simply couldn’t accommodate her and she was forced to commute in the guard’s van.  While appearing at the Fun Fair on that fateful December day, Hilda collapsed and never awoke.
In death it reportedly took eight men to carry her body to the mortuary where it was determined that a pituitary gland disorder was responsible for her size, putting such strain on her 23oz heart that it could no longer support her frame.  The cause of death was recorded as “myocardial degeneration and adeposis”. Rather dramatically, the funeral very nearly didn’t take place as Hilda’s financial interests were still tied up in Germany, but luckily Hilda’s circus family generously chipped in to defray the cost of her burial. 
Captain Gibb Mapplebeck


Picture from Great War London

Gilbert “Gibb” William Roger Mapplebeck’s only calling was to be a pilot.  Even before the devastating outbreak of WWI Gibb had already learned to fly, earning his Royal Aero Club’s flying certificate at the tender age of 19. Following his father’s career path as a Liverpool dentist was not on the cards for Gibb who, at 6'3", was “possessed of a personal charm that endeared him to many”. Within the next two years, Gibb’s skill and courage made him a real life 'Top Gun' who enjoyed such distinctions of flying in the RFC’s seminal reconnaissance mission in August 1914, and later becoming the first pilot to bomb enemy lines in Flanders.
Not long afterwards, Gibb had the dubious honour of being the first British pilot to be injured in aerial combat. During a 6,000ft dog fight, he was hit by the rifle bullet of a German plane which sliced through the back of his right thigh, exiting the inner thigh and grazing his groin.  Against all odds, Gibb managed to reach British lines before lapsing into unconsciousness as the plane slowly filled up with his own blood.  Excellent medical care (involving multiple surgeries) and sheer force of will ensured his survival and 22-year old Gibb was awarded a DSO in the New Year’s Honours.
In March 1915 he spearheaded the first ever nocturnal air raid ever undertaken but things didn’t go according to plan.  Shot down over Lille and ensuring his survival only by burning what remained of his plane, Gibb laid low in a wood for three days before finding sanctuary in an abandoned house, sustaining himself only with the chocolate he carried with him.  Once again though, Lady Luck was on Gibb’s side – he happened to speak fluent French and charming the locals, he disguised himself a peasant as he made his way through France back to England, all while tearing up his own Wanted posters issued by the enemy.  Eventually passing through Holland to return to London, Captain Mapplebeck arrived on 4th April, presenting himself at Farnborough later the same day.  The man was unstoppable!

Gibb’s reputation as a daredevil preceded him and he performed mid-air tricks and stunts which sometimes got him into a spot of bother with his superiors (on one occasion he was disciplined for looping the loop in his plane.  As one does).  Whether or not this ‘devil may care’ attitude contributed to his death, we’ll never know.  On Tuesday 24th August 1915, Gibb was stationed in Kent testing a Morane Saulnier Type N “Bullet” fighter plane when, to the horror of witnesses, the aircraft banked, made a sharp right turn and then nose-dived straight into the ground.
Captain Gibb Mapplebeck was killed on impact, two days short of his 23rd birthday.  The Board of Inquiry found that “the accident was due to the machine ‘spinning’ on a heavily banked turn, the pilot not having sufficient height to regain control before hitting the earth.” Gibb’s possessions were returned to his family and he was buried with full military honours in Streatham Cemetery at 11h45 on Saturday 28th August 1915.
So highly regarded were her son’s heroics that his mother received personal condolences from Lord Stamfordham on behalf of King George V himself.  The message read, “His Majesty knows what gallant and distinguished services he has rendered during the war, and deeply regrets that a young life of such promise should have been thus cut short.”
Hilda and Gilbert - we salute you.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"All Hallows Eve by Lamplight" guided tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Hi everyone,

Join The Cemetery Club (as recently featured on BBC's Inside Out) for a very special tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on Sat 29th October 2016!  Join us on our most atmospheric historic guided walk yet as we take you around by lamplight to celebrate the lives of the cemetery's "permanent residents" who've come before us.

Marvel as the lamplight flickers over the graves of heroes, villains and mavericks as we simultaneously step back in time to explore Victorian customs associated with Hallowmas, and taste authentic Soul Cakes, made from a recipe from the time of old Queen Vic herself. It’ll finish on a song, too – a long forgotten ditty that many of the people buried here would have known and sung themselves.

With a choice of two time slots, the tours will commence at the War memorial, by the Soanes Centre. Please wear suitable footwear and wrap up warm... All Hallows Eve can be chilly!

Please see visit EventBrite for more information and to book your places.

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




Saturday, 2 April 2016

So many projects, so little time

I haven't posted in an age because I'm currently writing my first book, a (surprise surprise) historical biography.  It's taken a long time to research but the outcome will be worth it - my subject led a fascinating life! 

In addition to the book, I've undertaken a further two biographies which will be posted here once research is completed.  Once those are online, there's a very exciting history-related project waiting in the wings... I'm having a blast, be back soon! 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Alfred Frederick "Peggy" Bettinson (1862 - 1926)

On a lesser-explored pathway in Highgate Cemetery East lies a relatively modest grave.  The earth contained within the grave’s curb is hard, dry and without floral tributes.  The plain white letters inscribed on the headstone reveal only a name and dates of birth and death.  Yet, to historians and aficionados of the noble art of boxing, the man lying beneath commands colossal amounts of respect.  A posthumous inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, thanks to the immeasurable contribution he made toward revolutionising the rules and reputation of the sport, this is the final resting place of Arthur Frederick “Peggy” Bettinson. 
Born in Marylebone, Peggy grew up in Hampstead and was an avid sportsman throughout his life, partaking in competitive swimming while also enjoying rugby and cricket.  In his later years, he was also said to be an enthusiastic roller skater.  But boxing was always his first love and in 1882, aged 20, Peggy became the British Amateur Boxing Association's lightweight champion.  Peggy continued competing as an amateur in exhibition bouts, but it was shortly before his 29th birthday that his passion for pugilism steered him away from fighting and down a path that would leave his indelible mark on the sport for years to come. 
The Pelican Club on Gerrard Street opened its doors in 1887 as an entertainment venue for wealthy men of influence, but was soon frequented by rowdy rakish types who squandered their money on drink and gambling.  While its members (known as Pelicans) were no angels, the club boasted the largest boxing hall in London and hosted many a bout that featured the most illustrious fighters of the day.  The Pelican Club counted The Marquess of Queensberry as a member but despite such high level patronage, the club’s reputation suffered a blow in 1889 following its sponsorship of a bare-knuckled fight in Bruges between Jem Smith and Frank Slavin that ended in a riot.  The club’s standing was sullied further by the behaviour of the Pelicans themselves, who staggered out of the club into the surrounding streets of the West End in the early hours of almost every morning, inebriated and raucous.  In response, the sleep-deprived residents took out an injunction against the Pelican Club, resulting in the revocation of the club’s licence to host fights.  And so, just four years after its grand opening, the Pelican Club was declared bankrupt.

The steps and pillars outside what would later become the National Sporting Club are visible on the right (near centre) of Hogarth’s “Morning”, published in 1738 (see Additional Notes for more information on the building)

This presented Peggy with the perfect opportunity to establish a far more respectable boxing venue and, after ploughing a large amount of his own capital into the venture, he joined forces with the Pelican’s former manager, John Fleming.  Together they set up the fledgling organisation’s new headquarters at 43 King Street, Covent Garden and on Thursday 5 March 1891, the National Sporting Club opened its doors to a throng of excited sports lovers.
Peggy Bettinson                            John Fleming                         Lord Lonsdale

The interior of the club was impressive on an aesthetic level while simultaneously offering the utmost comfort to its members courtesy of the plush but elegant furnishings.   The grand entrance hall featured part of an ornately carved staircase that had once belonged to Lord Russell’s flagship, Britannia.  The Coffee Room was tastefully decorated, the walls adorned with portraits of notable sportsmen and other distinguished faces and complimented by a well-stocked bar.  Amongst the Club’s other attractions were the upstairs Billiard Room and the nostalgic London Room – the NSC even featured new-fangled electric lighting!

Images of the NSC entrance hall (above) and saloon (top) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

But the pièce de résistance was the boxing ring downstairs in the basement, which allowed up to 1,300 spectators and guests a good view from any angle in the room.  The Club’s first President was boxing royalty, gloved boxing enthusiast Hugh Cecil Lowther (a.k.a. the fifth Earl of Lonsdale) and, while the Club’s focus was mainly on boxing, matches were often punctuated by performances from the leading music hall artistes of the day, as well as the occasional literary and musical recital - rather fitting considering that prior to occupancy by the NSC, the building had previously been home to a music hall and a theatre.  

Images of the NSC boxing ring (above) and floor plan (below) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

From a business perspective Peggy ran the NSC in an exacting and unflinching fashion, taking responsibility for approving all fights, handpicking the original members and overseeing the general day-to-day mechanics of the club.  He is described in Andrew Horrall’s “Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918… ” as ‘opinionated’ and ‘outspoken’, while Arne K Lang noted him as being ‘autocratic’ in “Prizefighting: An American History”.  While Peggy may have ruled with a firm hand, it was this same single-mindedness that, in time, transformed the reputation of the sport from one linked with gambling and ne'er-do-wells to a respectable and noble art appreciated by gentlemen.   Under the NSC, Peggy also cemented the foundations for the British Boxing Board of Control as we know it today. 

 The NSC then and now
("Then" image (left) used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (, "Now" picture by Sam Perrin)
The etiquette expected of NSC members was a far cry from the pleasure-seeking antics of the Pelicans, with Peggy insisting that the NSC operate as a strictly private club which "was a businesslike undertaking of business men for other business men”.  Access to the club by non-members was by invitation only and a dress code (evening attire) was observed.  Following dinner, members would descend to the basement to observe bouts in decorous silence.  Even the fighters were expected to conduct themselves in a courteous manner, bowing to the audience after each bout - regardless of whether they had won or lost - and exercising the utmost compliance with any decision made by the referee. 

Images of NSC Programme (08 June 1914) and NSC logo used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (
In terms of the rules of the ring, a modified version of the Queensberry Rules was followed and no more than 20 rounds were permitted for championship fights.  Boxers were to wear padded gloves and a five-point round-by-round scoring system was now adhered to.  Overall, the standards of safety observed by the NSC were much higher than those of the boxing clubs of the past.  According to Graham Gordon in “Master of the Ring”, Peggy based the defence points system on the style of the great Jem Mace, who taught Lord Lonsdale to box and who both John Fleming and Peggy had observed for years.  Peggy was determined that the National Sporting Club instilled a sense of fairness, good sportsmanship and respect among fighters and club members alike. 

In 1897 John Fleming passed away unexpectedly and Peggy took over as Managing Director of the NSC.  Following his promotion, four fatalities occurred at the NSC in just as many years, resulting in a sea change for boxing rules as they then stood.  Peggy and the respective officials were hauled into court to defend themselves and the NSC against allegations of unlawful killing, culpable manslaughter and “felonious killing” of the deceased fighters.  However, in each and every instance, all were cleared of any wrongdoing.  After all the energy and effort Peggy and the NSC had put into transforming the sport’s image, these “not guilty” rulings essentially saved boxing from being outlawed.  One positive development that emerged as a result of the court cases was the implementation of a regulation in which a referee could now halt a bout as and when he saw fit.  Two types of knockouts (knockouts* and technical knockouts†) were also now clearly defined.

* Knockout (KO): When a competitor in the ring cannot get up from the floor without help by the count of ten
† Technical Knockout (TKO): When a competitor in the ring can no longer defend himself (or is unable to continue the fight due to being badly injured) and the referee stops the fight as a result

By 1909, the NSC’s influence within the boxing world was far-reaching.  It had begun regulating divisions, setting the bar for weight limits before the sanctioning of British title fights, as well as introducing the presentation of 22 carat gold and porcelain championship belts (donated by Lord Lonsdale) to the victors of all British title fights held at the NSC’s premises.  The belts were exclusive to the NSC, with Henry Cooper later being the first man to win three of them in succession.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 18 December 1909
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

With regard to Peggy’s personal life, he married Florence Mallet in 1890 and together they had two sons, Gerald and Lionel (Lionel would later succeed his father as Managing Director of the NSC).  However at some point, it appears that Florence and Peggy’s marriage broke down and the couple were living separately.  The census of 1911 confirms that Peggy was living at 59 Clifton Hill with Lionel (aged 18), niece Florence (aged 18) and two servants (Alice Reed and Bridget Ahearn).  However, there were also two other people living in the house: “Kate H Flint” (aged 33, single, no occupation noted) and “Ralph Gilbert Bettinson” (son, aged 3).  At the same time, Florence was noted as living with an uncle in Northdown, Kent, and was listed as still being married, while Gerald wasn’t recorded as residing at either of these residences.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 13 August 1910

(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

In 1911, despite the sport beginning to enjoy an increasing surge in popularity with the public, boxing became the focus of yet another court case.  A fight between Owen Moran and Jim Driscoll was scheduled to take place in Birmingham on 16 December 1911 and the stakes were high: the victor would’ve walked away with a purse of £1,560 (quite a sum in those days) and the title of Featherweight Champion of the World.  But before the fight could take place, each boxer was issued a summons and ordered to appear in court, the fight accused of being a now-illegal prize fight (as opposed to a sparring exhibition) and, as a result, a breach of the peace.   The promoter, Mr Gerald Austin, stood accused of soliciting and inciting the two boxers to partake in a prize fight and the safety of the sport was also microscopically scrutinised.  Once again Peggy and a number of officials rallied around in boxing’s defence, with the cost of the defence borne entirely by Lord Lonsdale.  Despite the testimony of numerous experts defending the sport, the fight was declared illegal and Moran and Driscoll were each fined £50 (as well as sureties of £25 each).  The newspapers of the day lamented that this ruling had sounded the death knell of professional boxing and an appeal was launched, but the Crown only withdrew the charges two years later.  And so, on 27 January 1913, Messrs Driscoll and Moran finally partook in the fight that should have taken place over two years earlier.  Hosted at the NSC (naturally) the fight was a 20-round battle that ended (much to the disappointment of the crowd) in a draw, with Driscoll retaining his title of Featherweight Champion of the World.
Peggy and co in court on the front cover of The Mirror of Life & Sport, 18 November 1911
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

1914 marked the start of The Great War.  Peggy wasn’t sent away to fight in the trenches because, at the age of 52, I suspect he may have been regarded as a little too ‘time-worn’ for combat.  This didn’t stop him from volunteering as a Special Constable though, while son Lionel enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment.  In the year following the end of the war, Florence Bettinson passed away (aged 46) and less than a fortnight later, Peggy made Harriet Flint his second wife in a ceremony in Hampstead. 

Peggy certainly didn’t rest on his laurels as an ex-amateur champion, manager, match-maker,  promoter and referee.  Even into middle age, he exuded a crackling energy and dedicated his spare time to authoring books dedicated to boxing and the NSC.  Along with Ben Bennison, he penned “Famous Fights and Fighters: From Jem Mace to Tommy Farr” (published 1913) and “The Home of Boxing” (published 1922).  ‘The Guv’nor’ (as he was known to many) was also responsible for writing “The National Sporting Club, Past and Present” with William Outram Tristram (published 1902).  Of all the luminaries within the sport, Peggy Bettinson possessed an encyclopaedic and multi-faceted knowledge of his subject matter, fuelled by a deep love of the sport and based on vast personal experience.

Peggy on the front cover of Boxing, 21 June 1922
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

In the weeks preceding his death, Peggy had been travelling through Europe and suffered a heart attack en route. After being hospitalised for a month, he was discharged and continued his journey through Italy.  However he suffered a further cardiac arrest, forcing him to return to England accompanied by his son, Gerald. 

Peggy passed away on Christmas Eve 1926 at his home on Fairfax Road, south Hampstead, aged 64.  The news of his death shocked and saddened the boxing world, both in the UK and internationally, and Peggy’s funeral was held at Highgate Cemetery on Wednesday 29 December 1926.  The cemetery seemed an especially fitting place for Peggy seeing as it is also the final resting place of Tom Sayers, who famously fought John C. Heenan back in 1860, and who Peggy was said to have held in high regard. 

The Daily Herald described Peggy’s funeral as being attended by “a gathering of men mostly with battered faces and gnarled ears but with hearts of gold” and his friends, colleagues and fellow boxing devotees and were certainly not restrained in their admiration and respect for Peggy and his contribution to the sport:

He did more than any other six men for professional boxing.  I have lost a good friend and sport has lost a great figure
John Douglas (referee)
A national figure in boxing has gone.  He was a good friend and the game has lost a great supporter.  He was more than a manager; he was an authority on the history of the game.  I am sure all boxers will join me in my deep regret
Bombardier” Billy Wells (former British heavyweight champion)

Billy Wells pictured above (centre) with Peggy (right, with bowler hat and ever-present cigar) in an earlier photograph
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (
It is bad news.  I met Mr Bettinson frequently and he always struck me as a man on whom one could rely for a fair deal.  He did professional boxing many services which none of us can forget
Jimmy Wilde (former flyweight champion of the world)

A multitude of wreaths were sent to Peggy’s home, the NSC and Highgate Cemetery, with an especially poignant tribute left by Jimmy Lambert made of violets and shaped as a boxing glove.  Modestly inscribed, Peggy’s headstone is a simple chunk of grey granite set at the head of the plot which, I think, sums up his character and legacy quite nicely: straightforward, tough and enduring.

Image by Sam Perrin

By 1933, seven years after he’d passed away, Peggy’s influence in the boxing world was still evident following the implementation of an idea he’d formulated 15 years earlier.  Peggy had been looking to promote the “institution of new boxing championships at the eight weights for belts such as offered in the British championships in a new series of British Empire titles.”  The 10 May 1933 edition of the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror reported that “the project will be sponsored by Lord Lonsdale and the trophies will be known as the Lonsdale Empire Belts.  Rules for the new championships are being framed.” 

Peggy had accomplished an astonishing PR coup by transforming public opinion so favourably of a sport that had once been viewed with disdain.  Nevertheless, boxing’s increasing popularity ironically contributed to the downfall of the once-mighty NSC by the end of the 1920s.  Boxers who’d once flocked to the venue described by Peggy as a “Temple of Sport” had learned and evolved, and were now positioned to command larger purses at bigger venues.  This impacted negatively on the NSC’s profitability and in 1928 the club had no option but to renege on its exclusivity as a private club by opening up to the public.  Unfortunately, this effort was long overdue and the club was forced to shut up shop at 43 King Street the following year and move to another premises.  Members of the NCS went on to form the British Boxing Board of Control, the organisation’s primary goal being to act as “the sole governing body for the professional sport”.  The Board reformed in 1929 and is still the governing body of professional boxers in the UK.  The National Sporting Club is also still in existence, the organisation now specialising in providing hospitality for corporate and sporting events.  Curiously, there is not a solitary mention of Peggy or John Fleming within the ‘History’ section of the NSC’s official website, with the inception of the club being credited solely to Lord Lonsdale. 

As for Peggy’s nickname, he offered up the following explanation not long before his death:

I was the baby of a large family, and as a youngster fresh to an infant school my mother tried to break me of left-handedness.  I always held my knife in the left hand and my fork in the right.  One day at dinner my mother said, “You’re not a boy; you must be a girl to eat your food like that.  We shall have to call you Peggy.

“My elder brothers, always glad to take it out of me, carried that name to school, where the other boys seized upon it, and it has stuck to me through a life-time, though it is years since anybody was curious enough to ask how I got it.”
Peggy Bettinson image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (


43 King Street
Originally designed by Thomas Archer, 43 King Street is the oldest surviving building in Covent Garden’s Piazza.  In June 2013, a proposal to award the building a commemorative green plaque was put forward to Westminster Council, which responded that “the nomination for a commemorative Green Plaque at 43 King Street, Covent Garden to commemorate the National Sporting Club, be approved subject to sponsorship in full”.  The official unveiling of the plaque to commemorate the NSC’s former headquarters as the “home of gloved boxing” is scheduled for May 2015 and the interior of the building is currently being renovated to house an upmarket shoe shop.

John Murray, first editor of “Boxing”
20 years after Peggy’s death, Highgate Cemetery would count John Murray, the first editor of “Boxing” (later known as “Boxing News”), as a permanent resident after he passed away following a long illness.  Like Peggy, John possessed an all-encompassing knowledge of (and was a great friend to) the sport.  Peggy featured on the cover of “Boxing” a number of times and it appears that both he and John Murray shared the same desire to make the sport fair and reputable.

Boxing News (as it later became known) remembers John Murray, 27 March 1946 
(Image used with the kind permission of Miles Templeton (

Sue Berdy
Prizefighting: An American History by Arne K. Lang
Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment by Andrew Horrall
SPORT AS HISTORY - COLLINS SOCIETY: Essays in Honour of Wray Vamplew, edited by Tony Collins
The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis by Linda Stratmann
The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book by James B. Roberts & Alexander G. Skutt
The National Sporting Club Past and Present by A.F. Bettinson
The Argus, 15 November 1911
The Spectator, 18 November 1911
The Straits Times, 16 December 1911
Kalgoorlie Miner, 28 December 1911
New York Times, 29 January 1913
Auckland Star, Volume XLIV, Issue 29, 3 February 1913
Sunday Post, 26 December 1926
Evening Telegraph, 27 December 1926
Daily Herald, 30 December 1926
Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 10 May 1933
Aberdeen Journal, 29 December 1937
Copyright © Sam Perrin September 2014

Monday, 23 June 2014

Highgate's Lost Girls by Rowan Lennon & Sam Perrin

Underage prostitution was as much a concern in Victorian times as it is now. Despite the veneer of respectability associated with Victorian society, underneath was a festering world of prostitution and destitution, often supported by those who outwardly appeared to be upstanding pillars of society.  Highgate, long associated with poets, artists and literary endeavour, was not immune from the realities of this underworld.

On the site of Hill Crest Estate, North Hill, once stood Park House, an early 19th Century mansion built by Mr Cooper on sixty acres of land.  Previously an asylum for the “mentally deficient”, Park House was leased to the London Diocesan Penitentiary in 1856 to house a penitentiary: not a prison but a reformatory for “fallen women”.  The majority of its inhabitants were under the age of twenty.

A council of the great and the good was established in 1856 by the Bishop of London, including the Marquis of Londonderry, to raise funds and the London Diocesan Penitentiary (also known as the Highgate penitentiary or House of Mercy) opened its doors.

To quote from their mission statement, “It has been recently stated in Parliament that there are 20,000 victims to prostitution in London.  It is established by hospital returns and confirmed by medical experience, that the average duration of the lives of these outcasts was from five to seven years; consequently at least 3,000 of them die every year.  Of the few reformatories in London two have been closed through want of support.

‘‘Further facts- It is found that numbers of these outcasts have been the victims of an organised trade, having been decoyed to London under the promise of honourable service.  Many of them have been ensnared under 15 years of age.  Many have returned home in their first remorse but have been thrown back again on their sinful life by harsh or injudicious treatment.  In the end they perish, chiefly from consumption and not infrequently from actual want and cold during the winter months.’’

The age of consent in the 19th Century was 12 until 1885 when it increased to 16, as a direct result of a campaign by W.T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.  All the blame fell on the girls for their condition, and they were faced the prospect of spiritual damnation should they not repent of their “sin”.

In the first census of the Penitentiary in 1861, the youngest girl listed is Emma Jones, aged just ten.  The enumerator has angrily scrawled across the census, “Penitents have all been prostitutes, for that reason their professions are not mentioned on schedule”.  Always these girls were being judged, but never their abusers.

So what happened to girls who were accepted into the Penitentiary?  They had to be referred by a clergyman or from other refuges.  The warden, Reverend John Olivier, apparently a strict but kindly man, was responsible for enabling the purchase of Park House instead of just leasing it, a shrewd financial move. The girls stayed for two years and in that time learned skills such as cleaning, sewing, and cooking, and literacy where needed, as well as receiving a regular diet of religious instruction.

The LDP's aim was the salvation of these women’s souls through spiritual guidance and vocational training, as opposed to punishment or reproach, and the first Annual Report noted that the “Council was unwilling to press any kind of labour as a means of profit, less an excess of work should give the inmates an aversion to the discipline of the house.”

The second Annual Report stated the work regime “was not produced from any particular theory, but wrought out by the dangers and difficulties of the work itself… There can be no system of coercion such as the law permits for every other class of public offenders.  The will of the inmates is only to be restrained by the quiet influence and teaching of the Warden and the sisters in charge, and when the waywardness of such inmates, their violent outbreaks of temper and general want of self-control are considered, it is a matter of wonder that a few inexperienced ladies could have succeeded in retaining in their first year... 43 out of 49."

If viewed with a 21st Century perspective, the regimen at the Highgate Penitentiary was harsh and restrictive, with the girls wearing uniforms and working in silence. However it wasn't as severe (by Victorian standards) when compared to institutions such as workhouses or prisons - the dropout rate at Park House was surprisingly low.  After their two-year reformation period girls were returned to their parents or went into service, while others went on to marry and lead perfectly respectable lives, such as Sarah Greatorex who married a policeman.  Others opted to become lay sisters at the Penitentiary, helping other girls.  Of course, the rigidity and discipline of the penitentiary wasn't for everyone and some couldn't help but revert back to their dubious pasts.

And then there were those for whom the prospect of life without the routine of the Penitentiary was unbearable: in October 1883, Ellen Keating, aged 17, appeared in court for attempting to commit suicide by using a length of ribbon to choke herself to death. Her reason? She believed she was about to be expelled from the Penitentiary for committing a minor misdemeanour and preferred to face death than be sent away (Ellen was readily received back by the Lady Superior on condition she didn't attempt such a thing again).

In 1866, it cost the LDP an annual average of £27 per head to keep each Highgate penitent fed, clothed and housed and public appeals from Rev. Oliver and the Church Penitentiary Association for donations were frequent.  By 1877 the Highgate penitentiary accommodated 60 inmates and by this point the demand for such institutions throughout the country had grown exponentially. In a letter to The Standard (19/05/1896) the Association wrote that in 1856, Houses of Mercy in England totalled only nine. By 1896 that number had increased to 91, with over 45,000 women and girls passing through the collective doors in that 40-period. The Highgate penitentiary in particular received high praise from the Charity Commissioners for the extremely encouraging results it achieved, and was commended by the Pall Mall Gazette for "the excellent domestic training given to the women" that provided a calibre of housemaids and servants for which demand exceeded the supply.

Christina Rossetti, the poet and an Anglican lay sister, was deeply involved in the Highgate penitentiary for twelve years.  Her contact with these women influenced her later poems about love and betrayal, and she regularly tried to secure employment for some of the reformed girls with her friends, as well as arranging regular fundraising events. Christina didn't discuss her work with the “fallen women” outside the penitentiary openly but worked tirelessly to ensure that they had a chance of a better life when they left.

As a result of the Whitechapel murders of prostitutes in 1888, the public’s attention was brought to the dangers faced by “unfortunates” plying their trade in the East End.  Their plight was raised by Rev. C.T. Ackland, the vicar of St Anne’s in Highgate, in his letter to The Times in October 1888 in an effort to appeal for funds to support the Highgate penitentiary.  

What happened to Emma Jones, the ten-year old girl listed on the 1861 census?  She died aged 12 and was the first inhabitant of a communal grave in Highgate Cemetery purchased by the London Diocesan Penitentiary in 1862 at a cost of £5. 5 shillings.  No marker is visible and ten girls lie in the grave – all that’s visible is a narrow space between two adjacent plots, in the middle of which a tree grows. These women and girls were not important enough to be named and shame followed them, even after death.  The occupants of the grave are no longer anonymous:

Emma Jones, died 1862 aged 12
Anna Williams, died 1869 aged 15
Caroline Harriet Rhodes, died 1874 aged 19
Emily Potter, died 1878 aged 21
Harriet Smith, died 1880 aged 17
Frances Iliffe, died 1881 aged 14
Maude Clabby, died 1882 aged 18
Rosetta Edwards, died 1900 aged 20
Ada Rebecca Ingram, died 1907 aged 40
Agnes Ellis, died 1909 aged 29

The Rev John Olivier lies in his family vault in Highgate West, as does Christina in her family plot.  Three of the penitentiary's Sisters are interred in the cemetery.  Yet the lost girls of the Highgate penitentiary lie unmarked and receive no recognition.

Copyright (C) Rowan Lennon & Sam Perrin June 2014