Chapter Four

Mary’s childhood – Reading – Gypsies – Running away – General naughtiness


My father was much with us at Dover, and devoted his time to teaching my brother William, 18 months my senior, and between five and six years old, to read. William was the happiest and most merry of boys, but neither then, nor ever after, was he fond of learning. At last my father lost patience under the repeated failures, and one day exclaimed, “I believe Willy, your little sister could tell me this word.” I was playing near him, and said at once, “It is cat, Papa, I know all the words.” Having listened to Willy’s lessons, my father then took me as his pupil, and I read at once. I am not sure if it was good, as I became so devoted to reading, that it was no easy matter in these days when books meant money, to supply me with them. When four years old, I recollect having two or three paper-covered books, such as would now cost 3d. or less, colored pictures of the Kings and Queens of England with rhymes under each – then I had four small square books, bound in red leather, two on the Old and two on the New Testament, with Woodcuts. As time went on I had a few more books, for it was found that I was only out of trouble, when buried in a book.

Rye Lane 1815

Rye Lane 1815, photograph of a watercolour by J.B. Cuming (Southwark Local History Library)

Early in 1827 when the Fair was held at Peckham our three servants were allowed to take William and me to see the wonderful shows, and buy gilt gingerbread, great figures of people and animals made of gingerbread, covered with gilding. Somehow the servants forgot me, and I strayed away. When it was time to go, to their horror, I was missing. The fair was searched through, and as we were so well known, it was soon every one’s affair that “little Miss Mary was lost”. Jane Salmon ran home to Hanover House, to see if I had gone back to my mother, another to Uncle George’s lest I should have walked away to my Aunt. But no one had seen me. By this time our village constable and the shop keepers were all excited and no one knew what to do.

At last some person who had been in the Fair said they noticed a little girl, who was dressed nicely, following a Gipsy woman on towards the Old Kent Road, and who was picking up colored straws. At that time the Gipsies were dreaded, numbers lived about in the woods where Norwood and Sydenham now stand in their bricks and mortar, and children were supposed to be kidnapped by them and robbed of their clothes. All the people with our servants therefore hastened in the direction named, and about two miles from Peckham a child was descried in the then lonely road, and a Gipsy in the distance. Directly the woman saw the little group of people she fled with such rapidity that no one could overtake her, and I was captured by our James, and carried home, to be alternately petted and scolded, no doubt.

In the summer of this year my sister Jane was born on the 16th June, my mother had been very unwell all winter. I remember the christening which took place as usual, then, in the drawing room of the house, and I can see myself now, standing then drest for the occasion, at the window of our nursery, to watch the arrival of the guests. Her godfather was a Mr. James Cook, and when the carriage drew up at the gate we saw a great round ball on a high stand, lifted out with difficulty followed by a second rather different in color. Our amazement was extreme, and when we had to go down for the christening my only thought was of the wonderful things taken out of Mr. Cook’s carriage, and when I saw them actually in the drawing room, I was perfectly engrossed by these novelties. Later on, the mysterious creatures proved to be a very large pair of Globes, designed as Jane’s christening gift, and a fertile source of interest they proved to be to me, when ill-taught governesses tried to work out problems on them. I always, of course, associated these globes with their donor, a man who had risen from a very low position, and somehow (by a marriage with the second Aunt George’s sister principally) had made a fortune, and his way into society, but he was universally disliked by all our family, and his purse-proud tone and manners, prevented his being respected. He lost a fortune in “Truman Cook & Co” later, but regained it.

During the course of 1827 and 1828, I often went to stay in Swithin’s Lane with Aunt John. She always took me to Church with her, and on one occasion when only five years old, or rather less, I recollect going with her to Newgate to hear the great benefactress of the prisons, address the convicts there. I can perfectly remember the sweet yet grave and dignified “Friend” as she came in, and noticed me. When the door opened to admit the female prisoners, I was greatly alarmed by their course, rough appearance, but Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, took me from my Aunt, and placing me on her knee, called some of the women forward to shake my hand. I was soon soothed by her gentle voice, and she kept me on her knee during the whole service.

Sometimes, young as I was, I have been with my Aunt and Lady Bigland who was my godmother, to St. Paul’s Cathedral to hear Evensong when we sat in the stalls. Lady Bigland was the wife of Sir Ralph Bigland then Garter Principal King at Arms, and who lived in the Herald’s College near St. Paul’s. At my christening my godmother had given me a coral necklace and sleeve bands of the same, which Sir Ralph called a most foolish gift, so on his next visit, he brought a pair of very heavy silver Gravy spoons engraved M.P. on the back, of these I was very proud, and use them still. He was a very curious old man, had been one of the Prince Regent’s set, but would not allow his wife to go to Court when the Prince became George IV. On the accession of William and Adelaide, Sir Ralph offered to have her presented, but she refused, saying he ought to have relied on her discretion before. He was a great bon vivant. On one occasion when dining at Hanover House, there was a dish of delicious cheesecakes, a specialty of our cook. He took one – then drew the dish to him, and eat the centres of every cheesecake, then laying a sovereign on the dish, he said to our man. “Take this down to Jane Hornbuckle, and say she must make some more when I next dine with her master.” Poor old man, he had a suffering deathbed. When I went as a child to say goodbye to him, the bed shook with his agony.

I have a clear recollection of old London Bridge in the last years of its existence, the present Bridge was opened by William IV and his Queen Adelaide in 1830, just after his accession. A disserted puzzle was given to me at the time, representing the ceremony. The old Bridge was very low over the water, and no vessels save barges or pleasure boats could have gone under its arches. Steam boats were unknown and few large sailing vessels came up the Thames above Greenwich. My father used to take me for a walk on old London Bridge, and there were little shops and houses on it in the recesses on each side of the footpath. I remember he used to buy for me always, a kind of sliding picture, which was pulled up and down by a string, so that it showed two designs, also gingerbread nuts, and gilt gingerbread were sold in one of these little shops.

The new London Bridge being built next to the old one, from the City end, 1830. Because it was an important route across the river, it could not just be demolished for rebuilding.

The new London Bridge being built next to the old one, from the City end, 1830. Because it was an important route across the river, it could not just be demolished for rebuilding (Southwark Local History Library)


I omitted saying that in December 1826 Uncle Charles Pearce married a Miss Chadwick [my great great great grandparents]. The service was at St. Giles, Camberwell afterwards burnt down, we children were in a pew in the gallery – Emma Bean and her sisters in the next one, and to the disgust of our Nurse, I would shake hands with Emma.

When my mother could leave home, we had a very pretty cottage for the summer holidays at Caversham near Reading, a sweet country spot on the Thames. There occurred the disgraceful episode of the eating up all Dame Wheeler’s damsons of which Willy and I were invited to take a few; and the horrible dose, which our mother administered to neutralize the possible damage. It is still in my memory, that the night nursery being very small, Willy and I had our mattresses on the floor as the weather was so hot, and slept near the windows. I hated this, as earwigs crawled in from the ivy outside on to our beds. After a little time Grandmother Pearce had been very ill, so my father asked her to stay with us, she hardly liked the journey, however, she drove down to Reading where my father met her. She got better every day, and stayed some time.

One day we all went over to Summer Hill for a picnic Grandmama took my mother, Louie, the baby and Nurse, in her carriage, I and my brothers, with Jane Salmon, went in the boat with my father and Freebody the boatman. We were to catch fish for our dinner, which we did.

We all climbed the hill, the carriage party had come by the road, a hole was dug, lined with bricks, and Mrs. Salmon had a frying pan, in which were cooked all the delicious gudgeons and perch we had caught. We had a good dinner, and then went off to play, leaving our parents and grandmamma. She only had a chair, every other person sat on the grass, the heat was intense, and gradually she became sleepy, as did my father. Grandmamma roused occasionally and each time she moved, pushed back her chair a little, so as not to appear asleep. At last the leg of the chair suddenly was pushed into a deep hole, which the grass concealed, and with a loud cry, grandmamma and chair, formed a heap on the grass. Of course, my father woke, and called out and mother screamed, servants and children hurried up, and grandmamma did not speak. My father lifted her up, and found her silence was caused only by such a convulsion of laughter at her mishap, that she could not articulate, so all was well.

(I forgot to say my Grandfather died in 1824, he was very fond of me).

The garden was large, and I remember we had a see-saw boat on the grass. It is singular how the pleasures of that summer made such an impression on my mind. I can see the cottage now, but the place is covered with houses, I hear. One circumstance I relate, the holidays were near, and we were looking for the return of our eldest brother Stewart who was at school at Uxbridge, at Dr. Beasley’s. Dr. Beasley had been a school fellow of my father’s and was devoted to him and to Stewart. One day he suddenly appeared at Caversham and told my parents he was in great distress, Stewart had failed to tell the truth, and Dr. Beasley hesitated to make it known as Stewart was so esteemed and highly thought of. Dr. Beasley came to tell my father and said it could be condoned, as the holidays were so near. “I cannot flog your son Mr. Pearce, and disgrace him before the school”. My father said, “If the boy were your own son, what course would you pursue?” “I should flog him at once”, said the Dr. “Then flog my son”, was my father’s answer, and it was done. Ah, if only such firmness had been subsequently practised with my dear, clever brother, what sad failure and misery might have been spared him, and all – indeed, how different a career might have been secured to him, what blessings to others.

In 1828 my mother had another illness and was away from Peckham for some time. Her sisters Eliza and Emma Barton sometimes came to stay and sleep with us, and very often I used to go to Brooksly’s Walk, Homerton, a Country village, to old Mrs. Barton’s. My tricks and escapades in climbing trees, or mounting the copings at the corners of our house, or getting on the top of the old Summer house, rendered me a torment in the nursery. I met with all sorts of accidents, but nothing kept me quiet or reduced me to order, excepting a new book.

At last a governess came, a Miss Gibbs, but her reign was short. A poor creature who declined all food at meal times, but paid nightly visits to Jane Hornbuckle’s larder. She soon left. A Miss Pike succeeded, who in the distance appears to me as even more feeble than Miss Gibbs. William and I regarded her as a mark for all our tricks, but Willie, though full of fun was never rude to her. One day she ordered us to sit still in the dining room after some escapades, and went to fetch books for a punishment lesson. I, finding this dull, began to spring across the room from my chair to a sofa opposite, and as the chair slipped back, I was thrown on to the sharp edge of the sofa, and it cut deeply into my head, across the eyebrow; it was a serious blow, and the scar still remains. Mr. Bean was sent for and sewed up the wide cut, but I was ill, and for many years, suffered much from severe headache, to relieve which, leeches were often applied. Miss Pike left very soon, and William also went to Uxbridge to Dr. Beasley’s with Stewart. A Miss Schmidt was recommended to Mamma by our old friend Mr. Keyser, an amiable girl of 18, without any capabilities of being a governess, my father cultivated in her some taste for reading, and she could hear our lessons, that was all.

I often went to my Uncle George’s who lived quite near us, and to whose wife, Elizabeth (Pellatt) I was devoted. When at their house, I was always happy, and no doubt fairly good, though my Aunt, much as she loved me, was exacting as to my obedience and conduct. She took me with her to visit the poor, and to the Sunday School, and I usually sat in their pew at Church. After 11 years of married life, she had a son, of whom I was as fond and proud as though he were my brother. He was very lovely, but after some months, was attacked by a terrible eruption from head to foot, which was a great distress. When he was about a year old in 1829, he had whooping cough, and this eruption entirely disappeared, but it was fatal, and he died in a fortnight. I can remember his poor mother taking me to see him asleep.

In 1829 my father was ill and the whole family went to Margate for some months, letting Hanover House to a Dr. Lewis. In those days, but few people thought change of air essential as now all do, and it was considered almost derogatory to let a private dwelling house, however, my mother determined on so doing.

We had a house on the Fort at Margate, and my Grandmother came to stay with us. My father was better, and spent much time in boating and fishing, which he loved. At the end of the Autumn my father was more ill, and it was thought best to put him under the care of a London physician, as well as of Dr. Bean. As my Uncle and Aunt John were spending the winter at Hampstead where they had a house during the summer, we all went to 10, St. Swithin’s Lane, as more convenient for medical attendances.

Pearce Family Vault, Bunhill Fields

The Pearce family vault (centre) in Bunhill Fields, where Uncle George’s wife Elizabeth and baby son are buried, as well as (later) Mary’s father and Uncle Charles.

Throughout this long trial, my dear father maintained his sweet temper and cheerfulness, and even when he knew he must bear the trial during all his life, did not complain. We went back to Hanover House in the early spring of 1830, and were at home all the summer. I was much with Aunt George, and on the 29th August her little daughter Elizabeth was born. My Aunt was very ill, on the 3rd September I remember seeing my mother send from our dinner table the bones of a sucking pig, to give the baby. I felt quite aghast at such a thing, but they said it saved the baby. Nothing could save the dear mother, she died on the 3rd September. When I was told of it, I was quite distracted, and was so ill that for days I was delirious. The morning of the funeral I became conscious, and hearing the tramp of many horses feet, crept out of my little bed to the window, and saw the long funeral procession of those days passing by. I was again ill, but remember Uncle George coming up in the evening to see me, and praying for us all at my bedside.

When I was better I was accustomed to go to his house every Sunday to pour out his coffee and breakfast with him, then nurse my little cousin, and go to the Sunday School and Church with him, usually he dined with us. He was very fond of me, and I have some verses he wrote me on this subject many years afterwards. My cousin grew up, but was always delicate. I have said she married a Mr. Owen (afterwards a clergyman) and died in America. We think children very independent and audacious in this day, but my memory convicts me of much the same. I said my Uncle Charles, after his marriage still always wished us often to be at his house where my Grandmother lived, but no doubt Aunt Charles might not be so disposed.

On one occasion in July 1830, the third child was to be christened, my cousin Merisco, all the family were to dine, and I and my two brothers were to be present at the ceremony in the drawing room, and then come into the dessert, the room being filled up by the elders. After the christening I was on my way to the nursery to see the baby, when, passing my Aunt’s room, I heard her say to Aunt John, “It is tiresome that Charles will have Stewart’s children come into dessert when the table is full. He always asks them, and another time would have been better than crowding everyone.” Aunt John made some reply, agreeing in the fact, that our presence was a decided inconvenience.

The Rye

The Rye

I was in a storm of wrath on hearing this, and forgetting the baby, flew downstairs into the garden, where my brothers had gone, and I daresay, very furiously denounced Aunt Charle’s meanness in not wishing us to go into dessert. Stewart and Willie shared my sentiments, and then we discussed plans. We decided to leave the place where we were so treated, and go home to Hanover House, take off our best clothes and get Stewart’s new Kite, then go off to the fields to fly it, and be quite happy. To avoid the dining room windows, we ran down one of the kitchen gardens, through the stable yard, and so out on to the common. It took a few minutes to run down the Rye Lane, go quietly in by the garden door, and carry out our scheme, which we did, meeting no-one. The evening was lovely, and we forgot all our sins.

But retribution came with the dessert, chairs for us were squeezed in at the corners of the table, and Uncle Charles sent our footman to fetch the children. He returned shortly, saying there was no sign of us anywhere in fields or gardens. Uncle Charles went into the hall, shouting for us to come down, but no response. All present were uncomfortable and at last my father took his man James, and walked home to our house. On summoning our cook, Jane Hornbuckle, she could tell them nothing, nor could the Nurse, but on searching the house, all our best clothes were found carefully laid aside, and the usual ones gone. Then began a search all over Peckham, and at last someone said that three children were in a distant field, flying a kite. Hither came the pursuers, and the unhappy culprits were seized, and driven home to bed in dire disgrace. I am quite sure I should have braved it out, and defended myself. My brothers were less violent, and certainly the story I had to tell of the cause of our misdoing, offered a slight excuse, however, we were punished severely. It was no doubt, a very uncomfortable story which my father had to tell to Uncle Charles, and both thought the wiser plan would be to say little about it, but we had to go up to the Rye, and make our apologies to my Aunt and Grandmamma for running away so rudely. Uncle Charles was very kind to us about it, and we never told my Aunt of the dialogue which had resulted in such misdemeanours on our part. I don’t think children of this day would have more resented what they felt to be an insult.

My mother so disliked the hard, sarcastic manner of my Uncles and they did not quite approve of her love of society, or expensive ways in dress and house, that we often heard this feeling expressed to my father’s relatives, and in after years, none of the family, excepting myself, were happy in staying at our Uncle’s house. I think I was far more of a Pearce than the others, and my Uncles were such generous and clever men, I loved them spite of their harsh ways at times. The same spirit came out again in my own children, specially when dear Margaret left home on Whit Sunday 1863 to follow her brother Stewart to China, but in her case, it was more the result of overwrought emotional feelings – in mine, pure mischief and wilfulness.

All our friends said I was a thorough tomboy, and should become unbearable, but when I had more occupation, and was better taught, I subsided. My dear father was always so good to me, probably he remembered his own youth had seen some escapades and rebellion against direction and control – so he was pitiful. Neither Louie nor Jane in any way followed my bad example fortunately, three such children would have been impossible. Louie was always then, my mother’s favourite, her delicacy no doubt was partly the cause, and our father was devoted to his “Jenny Lover” as he always called Jane. She was a pretty child, and I was not, but my father liked my quickness and sharp answers, which mother considered very impertinent. However, when I recollect her youthful tricks, setting fire to the farm in Cheshire etc., and her speeches, she would excuse me. When I recollect all, or some, of my own outbreaks, I do not wonder much at the similar naughtiness of children in this day, indeed, I am inclined to think they are the results of a too excitable and vigorous nature, to be preferred to the “dolce far niente” of the present day.

I recollect my Grandmother gave me a fascinating book called “The Young Wanderer’s Cave”, a story of two boys running away and living as Robinson Crusoe. This book I lent to Emma Bean, and persuaded her, that such a life would be far better than our dull routine of Governesses and lessons. So we arranged to go off, and find such a cave, though as our houses were 70 or 80 miles from the sea, it was a doubtful quest. I put up a bundle of clothes, my few pence, and some bread and cheese, coaxed from Jane Hornbuckle on false pretexts. So I waited ready to start at 6 p.m. on a fine summer evening to meet Emma. But as the time of leaving home drew nigh, Emma’s heart failed her, and at last, she broke down and confessed the whole plot to her mother. She was sent off to bed, Mr. Bean called in to consult, and he with Aunt Bean set off to Hanover House to arrest me. I was lurking near the garden door, when captured by a servant, and conveyed to the drawing room to be confronted by my parents, and a very angry Mr. and Mrs. Bean.

Of course, the whole blame was laid on me by them, and no doubt I was proud of it. My punishment followed and Emma and I were parted for a long time.

Punishments were more severe then, and perhaps did more good. On one occasion I would not learn my French Grammar for a Miss Boyle who taught us, so she sent me with my book, to my mother in her bedroom to have the lesson doubled. I took the book with the fresh quantity marked, and then hurled the book over my mother’s head into her cold bath standing in her dressing room. For this offence I was kept for three days in a room, on bread and water. Our footman used to put it down, and always said, “Oh, Miss Mary, do say you will be good, and come out”, but I went on to the end.

Rear of the site where Hanover House stood, now the car park behind Burger King

Rear of the site where Hanover House stood, now the car park behind Burger King

I climbed trees – I clambered up the brick clamps which bound the corners of our house, without shoes on, and only just an inch or two for hold of toes and fingers. Once I remember doing this, and when above the top of 1st floor windows, calling to my mother in the room. She looked down the garden, saw no one, and then I spoke close to her above her head. She was terribly alarmed, but very prudently said only, “Go down my dear, I want you.” Had she screamed or frightened me, it might have been serious.

About the end of 1830, perhaps earlier, our governess Miss Schmidt married a Mr. B. Williams Benjamin. It was a good thing for her, though he was much older than she. They lived with great comfort, and had several children, and were always most attentive to my parents.

A cousin of my mother’s, Mary Anne Sherer, came in her place, the eldest of a large family, whose parents I never knew, the father Henry Sherer being somewhat out of harmony with his family. Mary Anne had good principles, and common sense, but was not a very refined or highly educated person; she was young, and no doubt was only chosen for our governess in order to advance her prospects. The winter of 1830 was spent as usual in Hanover House, and the Xmas Holidays brought the ordinary gaiety, but in March 1831, I fancy my mother’s dislike to Peckham, and her idea that her health would improve elsewhere, made my parents decide to leave. No house was found to suit their wants, and in the spring, it was settled as Hanover House was let, that we should go to Tottenham and occupy for the summer a house belonging to my mother’s uncle Mr. Sherer whilst a permanent one was sought for. I did not care for so small a house as this, old-fashioned and inconvenient after Hanover House, but it had very large kitchen gardens, and opened into fields, there was also large stabling and yards.

We used to go often down to Broxbourne about ten miles, where my father enjoyed good fishing, and we liked the holiday, and the fun of dining in the little sanded parlour at Tom Want’s. There was a very fine old church at Tottenham, and a large house, Bruce Castle, which had belonged to a noble family, and the Keep of the still more ancient Castle was still a picturesque ivy-covered ruin.

In July 1831 a house was taken at Stratford, in Essex, a comfortable house enough, but in an ugly part of the Broadway, opposite to the church, built whilst we occupied it. From the drawing room windows only a small piece of lane and trees was seen, but further on there was a lane of 80 yards, with flower borders, shrubbery and trees, with large kitchen gardens on two sides, melon pits, etc., and an avenue of fine elms of 120 yards along the whole length, dividing the garden from the fields beyond. The house had good kitchens in a wing, over which was our schoolroom and dressing rooms, a landing connected these with the staircase of the house. We all liked the place and had a great deal of archery on the lawn, there were pleasant people living near us. Among others on Stratford Green, a pretty wooded part, just off the high road, the Loxleys, Allcards, who always remained our friends. In 1832 our house was to be sold and my father bought it after he had done so, quite unexpectedly another claimant appeared who had a mortgage on it from the owner, who had kept it a secret, and this person foreclosed the mortgage and became the owner, without my father knowing of it, or being able to prevent it. It was a great vexation to us, for it was a convenient, though ugly outskirt of London.

Whilst we were there my Uncle George Pearce, married a second time, a Mrs. Dipnall, with one daughter, now Mrs. Carr. I was furiously angry when I learnt this, and entreated to write and remonstrate with my Uncle, to whom I sent some suitable lines copied from a book. When the family came to dine with the Bride elect, I refused to be dressed or go into the drawing room. Mrs. Dipnall was very plain, and had a squint, but she was a good woman, and I became very fond of her. She was a mother to my little cousin and a good wife.


Continue to Chapter Five: Move to Harper Street – Cholera – Omnibuses – A Walpole