Chapter Two

Mary’s parents’ marriage -Fire at the Custom House – Mary born – Hanover House – Night terrors and a beetle


As my father Stewart Pearce was a lawyer and a younger son, he could not live at Peckham Rye, being in the office, and therefore remained with his brother John, and his young wife. Naturally it happened that my Uncles became very popular in the Barton Household in Tower Street, and in course of time my father was attracted by the bright cheerful eldest daughter Louisa, who afterwards became his wife. As neither of these daughters had any fortune, and there was so large a second family, it was not a satisfaction to old Mr. and Mrs. Pearce that another son would marry the eldest daughter as he was not in so independent a position as his brother John. I believe they all liked my mother, indeed I remember Mrs. Pearce being fond of her long afterwards, but she was lively, fond of pleasure, and quick in speech, sometimes therefore jarring on more old-fashioned prejudices. They had a long engagement, and at last married in 1817 when my father was 28, she 23.

During the time they were engaged, happened the great Fire at the Custom House, which was burnt to the ground – caused by the carelessness of the governess with a candle at night, when not sober. From my grandfather’s house in Tower Street, all was visible, and the whole family were on the flat roof, watching the awful scene. Two servants were burnt, their shrieks for help at the windows being awful. My father had a chair on the edge of the roof in Tower Street, suddenly someone dragged him forward, and the chair fell down, the lead gutters having melted from the intense heat.

Entrance to the former churchyard of St Swithin's Church, where Mary's parents were married.

Entrance to the former churchyard of St Swithin’s Church, where Mary’s parents were married.

In 1817 my parents married – the ceremony took place at the Old Church of St. Swithin’s – London Stone, Cannon Street. The Rev. Henry Watkins, Rector officiated. Some progress had been made now as to “Bridal form.” My grand-parents had driven down to Epping Forest in a post-chaise, spending the day at the old Inn, returning to St. Swithin’s Lane in the evening. The principal bridesmaid accompanied the happy pair. Uncle John Pearce was to have taken his bride away for a few days, but as there was a dance held in the evening of the wedding day, Aunt John absolutely refused to go, until like Sir Charles Grandison and his Harriet, she had enjoyed her share of this amusement.

My father and mother posted down to the Sussex Hotel at Tunbridge Wells, to enjoy the Pantiles and the lovely Kent country for their June holiday – weather however, was bad. A house was taken for the young couple in Bury Court, St Mary Avenue, E.C. but we must not pity them for living in such a place. In those days many very wealthy people lived in the city, at that time a place where ladies could walk about leisurely and go to market, and the streets, though many of them were narrower, and some present ones did not exist, still crowds were not known, and excepting a few Hackney coaches there were but waggons or carts passing. Omnibuses and cabs unknown.

My aunt and mother walked well, and made no difficulty in walking from the city to Peckham Rye a four mile walk, early in the day, to walk home at night with their husbands who were always desirous to visit their father and mother. Aunt John had no children, so was able to go out more. On the 10th April 1818 my eldest brother Stewart was born, and in June 1819 the second son William Barton. He was a beautiful and too precocious a child, could walk and even say some words at ten months old, but on 15th April 1820 he was excited by my father showing him a new toy, and died suddenly in a convulsion.

In January 5th 1821, a third son, William was born, and either just before that time, or early in 1821, my father removed his family from London to a small house in Peckham Park, close to the village of Peckham about three quarters of a mile from my grandfather, Uncle George Pearce had lived for some time with my parents in Bury Court, and now married, about 1822 or 23, Elizabeth Pellatt, and they also took a small, pretty house in the Rye Lane Peckham. And as Uncle Charles lived now with his parents, there were collected all the family except Uncle John.

Our house in Peckham Park, was semi-detached, with a garden, and there on the 24th September 1822, I was born. In the adjoining house, there was a family named Cannon, about my parents’ ages, who had then two children, Stephen and Fanny co-eval with my brother Stewart and myself. He was on the Stock Exchange and the friendship begun then, had lasted to this date, now centred between me, Mrs. Allcard and Mrs. Charlesley.

I must go back for a little to my other grandfather, who in the interval since my mother’s marriage had gone through much trouble. His large family and the state of business at that time had seriously lessened his means. I think he must have been a very affectionate, but not strong-minded man. Indeed this last, was not characteristic of his family as far as I knew then, and his eldest son, Uncle John Barton had given him much uneasiness. He had again removed his family to Hackney, when Mrs. Barton was surrounded by Unitarian and musical friends – he used to ride into London every morning to his office, returning in the evening.

Further misfortunes followed him resulting from the failure of Kensington’s Bank, in which he had a large sum as balance, when the failure took place. My grandfather met every engagement to the extent of this balance but then had to put all into the hands of his few remaining creditors. The sum was not large, but in those days 70 years since, the present gigantic failures were unknown. When a meeting was held to arrange his affairs, Mr. Barton as was then usual in a Bankruptcy case, laid his gold watch and his purse on the table before the Chairman. This gentleman took them up saying, “Let me return your property Sir, adding our testimony to that of all your friends, that only the errors or faults of others, could have brought you to this painful position.”

But the troubles were too hard for my grandfather. One summer’s evening in 1822 his second son, Jonathan was going home to Hackney, after dining in Swithin’s Lane with his sister, Mrs. John Pearce when he saw a crowd assembled, and a saddle horse held by a man. Pushing his way through the crowd, recognising the horse, he saw his father, Mr. Barton, senseless on the ground. His heart had failed, and he slipped dead from his horse. At that time Jonathan was 15. And the eldest son John had been obliged hastily to leave the Stock Exchange, and had sailed for South America, hence the tragedy I have related.

My Uncle John Barton remained in South America until January 1841. Mrs. Barton and her own family of seven children took a house in Brock’s Walk, Homerton, then a country village, and my Uncle John Pearce acted towards them all, in the kindest and most liberal manner. The eldest son Edmund, carried on his father’s business and married a Miss Sophie Russell in about 1826 or 1828 – but never prospered – indolence being the family failing. In 1835 or 36 having entirely lost his friends, he went out to Adelaide N.S.W., with his wife and four boys. They all, I recollect slept at my father’s house in 16, Harper Street, Bloomsbury, on the last night before they sailed from England.

The eldest boy, Russell Barton still lives in Sydney and is a man of large means – he has had twelve children, of whom my son Basil has married one. Mr. Pearce took Jonathan Barton to live with them and treated him as a son – the eldest daughters, Eliza and Emma spent much of their time with their half-sisters – Eliza taught music well – Emma drawing.

Eventually in 1829 and in 1832 they married the brothers Thomas and John Wickstead. Joshua went to America and must have died there. Henry was musical and never successful. Lucy died young. I shall only occasionally mention the Bartons as they came in touch with me, they are now all passed from my knowledge.

I said that my parents left London, and lived in Peckham Park until the end of 1823, when I was a year and a quarter old. Stewart had grown up a clever child, the absolute idol of old Mr. and Mrs. Pearce. I remember a large portrait of my grandmother, with Stewart leaning against her knee, a blue eyed, fair-haired boy in a grey-blue tight-fitting suit with a falling collar, but he was spoilt, being the eldest of the family and nearly three years between him and William [this may be the picture referred to here]. He was little more than 3 ½ years old when he went to a day school kept by the Misses Thomas in Peckham. Just after I was born, my mother took as a cook, our good old servant Jane Hornbuckle. She came from a high family, just for a rest, to recruit her health, but stayed for two years, when she married, George Salmon a butcher. We were just like her own children, and she was a good and valued servant to my parents, though of a hasty temper. Years afterwards, she became my husband’s housekeeper in Mark Lane, and to her death we always looked on her as a friend.

Another old servant was “Betsy Bowyer”, she was housemaid to my mother and married George Bowyer a ship’s carpenter, she became a widow, and we often had her to work for us, whilst able to do so, and helped her at the end. Then my father had my old nurse, Mrs. Fisher, who lived with his parents for years. Her daughters, Rebecca Sproston and Susan Hill, were servants from their youth with some member of the family, and we always regarded them as belonging to us whilst they lived. There are few families now, who can speak of such long standing and devoted service as was rendered by servants 50 to 100 years since, and but few persons now can therefore, have the happiness of providing for those in their old age who have so well served in their earlier years.

Towards the end of 1823 or January 1824, we removed from Peckham Park into an old-fashioned house in Peckham, at the end of the Rye Lane, on the way to my grandfather’s at Peckham Rye. This word “Rye” may be a corruption of “Rise” as the road gradually ascended to the hills beyond the common. Years afterwards I lived at Dalston Rise – Hanover House was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, in the latter part of the 17th century.

Hanover House, copy of watercolour from Lambeth Archives

Hanover House, copy of watercolour from Lambeth Archives

It was of red brick with clamps of brick or stone work upon the four corners, the walls were so solid that though large on the outside in the rooms was not great space. It stood in a garden and had a high gate of wood and iron work over the road, a stone flagged path to the door, at the top of several low, broad stone steps, with balustrades of stone, the hall door was arched round in brick and stone, and led into a wide hall, on each side, pillars to the roof and at the end a few steps down to the garden door, and a broad staircase in three sets of stairs, of dark mahogany, with long narrow windows to the garden. On each side of the hall, were two rooms, one large and a smaller one to the back. I recollect that the two rooms on the right were made into a large dining room. There were two windows to the front in each large room, on the first floor, five windows, on the upper floor six, but not so large as below, the centre of this top floor window was a deep niche in the solid thickness of the walls, in which hung an alarm bell, on each side of this a small window to closet rooms, and two windows in each nursery at the sides.

Map showing Hanover House at the south west junction of Rye Lane and Peckham High St

Map showing Hanover House at the south west junction of Rye Lane and Peckham High St. (Greenwood map of 1830, Southwark Local History Library)

My parents’ bedroom had two dressing rooms, my mother’s to the front over the hall, my father’s a nice room over the spare bedroom and dressing room. The first flight of stairs was very wide and handsome – on the landing, between the bedrooms was a large linen and store-room. The upper flight of stairs were also in three sets like the first ones – but very narrow. Upstairs was a good landing, nurseries and servants’ rooms, and those little closets were for coals, shoes or nursery supplies. The stone steps from hall to garden were also low and broad – on either side was stone work, ending in a solid slab, and our delight was to see who could be the best “Statue” on these bases, standing longest without movement.

Of course I now write from after memories of this dear old house, which now, as I write, is as vividly present to me as it was 70 years ago. It was pulled down about 1835 I think, and shops erected on the site of house and stable yard at the side. There was in the garden, at the end of the broad grand from garden door, a large summer house, such as was called, “Queen Annes” containing as much stone and brick as would now build two or three modern cottages. In the coach yard were all the buildings then needed for a family – Brew house – Bake house – Laundry etc., there were on one side of the house made the third, and a wall to the lane completed it.

Rye Lane

Top of Rye Lane looking north. Hanover House would have been about where the bus stop on the left is.

About the year 1825 when my brother John was a year old, my health failed suddenly, and no cause was found for it. Being the only girl in the family I was much regarded, and great anxiety was felt. After a while, medicine being of no use, and I was daily pining away, our old servant Betsy Bower, told my mother one day, that if she would go quietly into one of the little closet rooms, “When,” she said, “Nurse had put Miss Mary to bed, you will find out why she is ill.”

My mother took the advice, and heard this wicked Nurse threatening me with the most awful visitations from black men with coffins, and other such horrors, if I moved or cried, until she came back. It was her habit to do this each night, and then steal out, leaving me paralysed with terror. Of course Betsy was with my mother, and then to the great discomfort of the Nurse, they appeared on the scene, all was changed. My father instantly sent the woman away, and Betsy took charge of me – but great mischief had been done – nothing could dispel my agonised fears as the night came on, and I thought of the trees outside my nursery, in which these horrors were concealed. Eventually as I became worse, it was advised to send me away from home, and for some time, old Mrs Pearce took me away to Ramsgate, far from trees, and in a perfectly new surrounding, when by degrees the past faded.

Cottages in Rye Lane 1810

Cottages in Rye Lane 1810

In May 1825 my sister Louie was born, always a delicate child but very sweet looking. This year was noted as being one of great financial troubles, and many large fortunes were lost. Among those who suffered most were the West India proprietors but as their losses were connected with emancipating the Negroes, it will be better explained in histories of the times. My mother was not in very good health all this year, and did not think Peckham suited her, it must have been damp, and I have a distinct recollection of water standing in the cellarage of Hanover House. I said my Uncle George Pearce had married a Miss Pellatt in 1822 and lived in a pretty house in the Rye Lane, only a few hundred yards from our house. Aunt George had no children, and I became her great favourite. In our nursery I was certainly not popular, from always playing with boys I was more of one than was good, always in mischief and very wilful and audacious, so that Aunt George was at liberty to carry me off to her house as she pleased, and I loved her dearly, she did not spoil me as others did, but I obeyed her.

In 1826 my mother being very unwell – our house was let for a few months and we all went to Dover. I think mother had been there with Aunt Sherer the Autumn previously. I was then four years old, but perfectly remember the house at Dover over the Marine Library – the Marine Parade was then the only set of houses by the sea. Many visitors came to stay. I remember one night being woken by a scream, and saw my Aunt John Pearce, and Mary Woolley, a friend from Peckham standing on chairs. At the door my parents and George Pearce all gathered to learn the cause of the uproar, which proved to be caused by the advent of a mouse or a black beetle – I forget which.

In the adjoining house, our balconies meeting, was a family named Henry. The father had been a man of high position in the West Indies, but had lost much. They described the condition of the Negroes on their plantations as being quite happy, and Mrs Henry said, she used to lend the women her own jewellery and dresses to wear at their own grand parties – they all looked upon Mr Henry as their father and best friend – of course all depended upon the disposition of the master and owner.


Continue to Chapter Three: Smugglers