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Frederick John Ellis  Youth

Portsmouth sometime after 1879 to 1909

Sometime after Lily’s birth in 1879, for whatever reason, the family left Hastings and are next found in Portsmouth - in the Camber dock area.  They do not appear in the 1881 census - or perhaps I should say that we have not found them, in spite of intensive searches.  But in 1885 James’ wife, Ellen dies of TB and exhaustion.  The address is 3 Camber Alley, Portsmouth.  Had she had incipient TB all this time one wonders, considering that her daughter Letitia had died of it seven years earlier?  Was the exhaustion a result of the TB or just exhaustion from a life of poverty and hard grind?  Why did they move to Portsmouth one wonders?  James Henry consistently puts Portsmouth as his birthplace in later censuses, so we have to assume a return to his roots.  Had a family problem surfaced that required his presence, or did they all just need a change of scene?  And how did they get there?  Were they able to rustle together the railway fare, or did they travel by coach, did they even walk?  Apparently railway travel was comparatively cheap - and as Henri Daumier’s painting at right shows, the passengers in the third class carriage were obviously not well off, so I suppose the most likely scenario is a train trip, but then again James Henry was a hawker - a street seller, so maybe they just gradually wended their way there by foot.  But where did they sleep?  They had a small baby or toddler to care for and accommodation would surely have been expensive.  So yet another of the little unanswered questions of family history.

However they did it, managing somehow to avoid the 1881 census in the process, by 1895 they were in Portsmouth - specifically the Camber Dock area where Frederick’s father remained until his death in 1922.  Camber Dock is in Old Portsmouth.  They lived on the small, almost island, you can see in the centre of the aerial photograph at the top of the page, of the area in modern times.  The area appears to house the fishing fleet rather than the more imposing navy boats, and the ferries to the Isle of Wight and Gosport.  The almost island, which now simply contains a pub and a car park, was packed with small alleys and houses when Frederick and his family lived there, probably like the anonymous alley in the photo at left.  The other pictures show the area then and now.  Apologies for the quality of the old photograph at the top - it is a photograph of a photograph that I took when there on a recent visit but I think it gives a good impression of the crowded nature of the area.  In the modern photograph (also mine) you can just see the pub behind the fishing boats, and a part of the car park.  The road that goes round the outside of the entire island is East Street, where the Ellises lived for some of their time there, and where  Frederick’s father died.  Camber Alley, where his mother died cuts across the island.  It must have been a tight little community, separated as it was from the main part of Portsmouth by a narrow link.  And the Ellises lived there for many many years.  They must have been very well-known locals by the time James died.

But back to Frederick.  He was only twelve when his mother died, his sister Ellen just a year older and their baby sister Lily was only six.  No doubt Ellen would have had to step into the role of mother, and Frederick must have had to help his father with his flower selling.  Indeed the whole family probably helped.  For not only did the flowers have to be bought, but some would also have been made up into posies and bouquets - work that was probably done at home.   Maybe there were relatives living in the area who helped out, maybe the communal nature of the area was also a help.  At some point before 1891 Ellen left home and went ‘into service’ - i.e. she became a domestic servant far away in Devon.  Lily was sent away to school and James and Frederick were fending for themselves, carrying on the flower selling business.  But help is at hand in the form of Hannah Marshall, mangle lady (laundress), who is living in the same house, and who, in 1892 marries Frederick’s father (seven years after Ellen’s death).  They are both getting on in age - he is 52, she is 45, so it would have been a good solution for both of them.  And indeed for the rest of the family as well.  It  must have been hard for James bringing up children and keeping house on his own.  Hannah was known as Grandma Ellis to Frederick’s children, who did not realise until relatively late in life that she was not, in fact, their grandmother.  No doubt she was a godsend (but not as young and pretty as the girl in the photograph).

However, at some point he probably got fed up with this work because in 1901, though still living at home with his father and stepmother, he is now a coal heaver.  Why would you give up flowers for coal?  Well there could be a number of reasons.  Maybe he really didn’t like flowers.  Maybe he had had enough of working with his father - you would if you were in your teens wouldn’t you?  Heaving coal, though very hard work and dirty to boot, probably paid more, and it was definitely a more masculine activity.  Maybe he had been teased about selling flowers.  Coal was in demand.  This was the age of steam remember, and also every house in Britain probably had a coal fire somewhere.  I remember in my childhood counting the bags of coal that were delivered to our home by strong men with a massive sack of coal on their backs.  And every room in the house had a fireplace - not that they were all used.  The excerpt below is by Thomas Miller from the 1849 compendium Sketches of London Life and Character. It describes the work of a coal heaver - in this instance in London, but the same applies anywhere


“See him plant his foot upon the elastic plank that stretches across to the coal barge, and he is in a moment a new man. Unlike others, whose countenances are lighted up by the expression of the thought within, he looks more intellectual at every step he takes, as if his feet, which are so accustomed to action, had assumed the command both over the mind and the other members of the body, and that they alone looked to his steps, and took heed of his ways. As if conscious of this, he takes a particular pride in his legs, and clothes them at times in white stockings and well-fitting shoes or boots; above droops the dingy fan-tail and the dusty jacket, which seem but made as cushions for heavy burdens - for the upper part is but a mere resting-place for coal-sacks. Below all is free, and clean, and uncumbered [sic[; there lie the will and the command; it is their duty to see that the load is carried away safely and deposited in its allotted place; they are all eye, all life, all watchfulness. If they make a false step all is ever with "him," for they alone have the charge of the man. It is their look-out to see that he stumbles not, or is carried away by the current to be deposited under one of the arches of the bridge, or per-adventure borne onward to become a mere covering for the archway over the Thames Tunnel. No marvel he pats them at times, and that we err in supposing he is only beating out the coal-dust. He best knows how much he is beholden to them, and doubtless has his own way of expressing gratitude.

Only try to use his sharp-pointed concave shovel, and just fill single sack, and ten to one at the very first attempt you would strike upon a large lump of coal with such a blow as would make every fibre of the arm jar again; while he, by some peculiar turn of the elbow, throws up one shovelful after the other as if the whole barge was laden with smooth sand, and no such obstacles as lumps were to be found in the cargo. It would twist the spine of an unpractised man only to place one of those heavy sacks either upon the weighing-machine or in the wagon; while he, with his accustomed jerk, drops his burden with as much ease and safety as a gipsy-woman slides down her little sun-tanned brat from her back.”


And here is a recent discovery (thanks to John Alexander).  It seems that from 1892 to 1898 Frederick served in the Royal Hampshire 3rd Battalion (MIlitia).  The Militia was like the modern day Territorial Army, volunteers and part-time.  I started to investigate more, but gave up after a while.  I should look into it more.  I think it was entirely voluntary, even though Findmypast implies that every able-bodied man was obliged to serve.  (I can’t find any other ancestor in their records.)  There were various colonial wars going on at the time, but I cannot establish whether Frederick’s battalion was sent to any.  Many were, but not all.  So watch this space as far as history of his service goes.  However, what we do learn from the records available is that this is indeed him (his father’s name and address is given), and we also get a physical description:  5’ 8”, 117 lbs, 32 1/2 inch chest expands to 34 inches, fresh complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair.  He has a scar from bubos (lumps in lymph nodes - from an infection of some kind) in the groin (maybe mumps?) and most significant of all a dot tattoo on the back of his hand.  I say most significant, because, if it was a five dot tattoo, as shown in the illustration at right, it could signify either that he had been in prison (possible but we have no evidence of this) or was a Romany (or gypsy).  In our latest investigations into his father’s origins, this is a distinct possibility, and would certainly explain how the family escaped so many census records, as well as the missing marriage of his parents and birth of older sister Ellen. 


And here are a few pictures of militia of the time.  One shows a pretty official looking bunch - another a kind of dad’s army.  I obviously need to find out more about this!  The only other thing to say about this episode is that the attestation papers have his age as 21 (crossed out in one place and replaced by 18).  For he was only 18 when he joined up.  Whether the mistake was deliberate on his part or a clerical error we have no way of knowing.

I wonder how much education Frederick got with all of this going on?  Education did not become compulsory until 1880 and then it was only compulsory until the age of ten.  Frederick was seven in 1880, so unless his parents sent him to a ragged school he would only have been at school for a few years.  And I gather it was difficult to enforce school attendance amongst the poor anyway.  I’m sure he could read and write, but what he did with that it is hard to tell.  Of course, if you can read, then you can teach yourself an awful lot - and there were libraries.  My grandmother (his wife) was an enthusiastic user of libraries, so maybe he was too.  It is likely though that he spent his youth on the streets, selling flowers, which would have taught him maths, and also you would have thought it would teach things like verbal dexterity, charm and initiative, and above all else, confidence.  How else do you make a living on the street?

The writer of this article spends a lot of time elsewhere in his article, talking about how much the coal heaver enjoys a drink and a good meal in the pub, but it is unlikely that Frederick did, because he was a member of the Salvation Army - who were teetotallers.  At least I am 99% certain he was.  His father was, his wife was, and so it is entirely likely that he was, though when he actually joined them I do not know.  There would have been a lot of washing for Hannah though, and lots of baths in those old tin baths, though I’m not sure who would have scrubbed his back for him, as he was unmarried at this time.  I do remember that my grandmother had one of these baths (she had a plumbed in bath too), so maybe it was a leftover from her early marriage.  Heating up the water would have been a bit of a challenge too, and getting out all that coal dust must have been a really difficult job.  

Frederick John Ellis



The children

Meanwhile, in the real world, as it were, Frederick eventually graduated from coal heaver and by the time of his marriage in  1909 he was a stevedore.   Now this could simply mean that he was what I knew as a docker - a man who loaded and unloaded ships, but apparently in England in some ports, the term stevedore only referred to the highly skilled man in charge of a gang of dock workers.  Even if Frederick was not in this position at the time of his marriage, he certainly was afterwards as my uncle referred to his father choosing which people to employ for the day.  It was certainly the job he was to pursue for the next several years.  Maybe his experience in the militia had trained him to be efficient and responsible, although he never rose above the position of Private.

So around this time he met my grandmother - most probably at a Salvation Army meeting as they were both members of the army, resulting in marriage in 1909.  By the time he married he was 35, so surely she can’t have been his first love.  I wonder if there is a whole other story of lost loves there?

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