John was a twin - the firstborn offspring of Robert Mollett and his first wife Elizabeth Fo(r)ster. Well his wife was called Elizabeth and I am about 98% certain at this stage (June 2018), that she is Elizabeth Foster (or Forster). I do not know whether he was the first or second born twin, but will guess second, because his brother was called Robert. I wonder were they identical twins? His mother probably died giving birth to his little brother William in 1806, as I cannot find any later children of this marriage and his father remarried in 1817. Maybe having twins as her first pregnancy was really what killed her, maybe their birth made her unable to survive another childbirth - even though, the baby of this second pregnancy, did in fact live. Frustratingly the pages of the Parish Register, that would show her burial, are missing. John and Robert, his brother, would have been just two years old and his father a mere twenty four years old with two year-old twins and a baby when his mother died. So he must have had a pretty forlorn childhood. Who knows who looked after him - grandparents maybe, aunts? I have not yet established whether there were grandparents around - I'm pretty sure that Robert's parents lived and died in Norwich and I'm still a bit uncertain about Elizabeth's parents. If they are who I think they are then I don't think they lived in the same part of London.
John Mollett Early childhood
But when he was born, his parents would have been blissfully unaware of the tragedy to come. They were young (Robert was 22) although if Elizabeth is the Elizabeth I think she is, she was quite a bit older than he by some ten years. Which is unusual - love? A pregnancy? Although John and Robert were not born until 10 months after the marriage. John (and Robert) were born in West Smithfield on 3rd December, 1804 and christened on 30th at the church of St. Sepulchre in Snow Hill. The church is the closest to Newgate prison and, indeed is sometimes called Holy Sepulchre at Newgate. The area is the heart of the City of London and was not terrifically salubrious, as it was (and is) the main meat market of London. The map at the right shows the City area, with St. Paul’s in the bottom right hand corner and Smithfield - that big empty space near the top.
This was the area in which John spent his early years with Dickens, elsewhere, describing the life of children of the area as follows:
“Hard by Snow Hill and Warwick Lane, you shall see the little children, inured to sights of brutality from their birth, trotting along the alleys, mingled with troops of horribly busy pigs, up to their ankles in blood but it makes the young rascals hardy.”
and another commentator Max Schlesinger wrote, admittedly of a somewhat later time in 1853:
“the appearance of that quarter of the town is curious but not agreeable. Surrounded by dirty streets, lanes, courts, and alleys, the haunts of poverty and crime, Smithfield is infested not only with fierce and savage cattle, but also with the still fiercer and more savage tribes of drivers and butchers. On market-days the passengers are in danger of being run over, trampled down, or tossed up by the drivers or “beasts”; at night, rapine and murder prowl in the lanes and alleys in the vicinity; and the police have more trouble with this part of the town than with the whole of Brompton, Kensington, and Bayswater. The crowd-ing of cattle in the centre of the town is an inexhaustible source of accidents. Men are run down, women are tossed, children are trampled to death. But these men, women, and children, belong to the lower classes. Persons of rank or wealth do not generally come to Smithfield early in the morning, if indeed, they ever come there at all. The child is buried on the following Sunday, when its parents are free from work; the man is taken to the apothecary’s shop close by, where the needful is done to his wound; the woman applies to some female quack for a plaister, and if she is in good luck she gets another plaister in the shape of a glass of gin from the owner of the cattle. The press takes notice of the accidents, people read the paragraph and are shocked; and the whole affair is forgotten even before the next market day.”
John grew up here. Smithfield meat market was huge - cattle were bought and sold in the large open square. In the 1860s the market was given a revamp in the form of the construction of a huge market hall, still there and in use today. But in John’s childhood it was an open-air market - cattle on Mondays and Fridays, hay on other days, with horses and pigs also sold. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes the market thus:
“It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above ... Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys , thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.”
British History Online - from the 1878 book Old and New London, comes this very detailed history of the Smithfield area.
Wikipedia - a more modern, briefer, but less colourful history
So obviously not a ‘posh’ area to put it mildly. Why they were there I will leave to my story of Robert, his father, but suffice to say that John’s beginnings were not promising for all manner of reasons, probably much like the children in the engraving below, and yet he rose above all of this to become a wealthy man.
Holborn and Skinner Street