top of page

John James Magee  The last years

Peckham 1894-1915

So after twenty five years ‘on the beat’ doing the hard yards of policing in Victorian London John James is out of a job.  What did he do?  Well he seems to have become a church verger, although I do not know at which church.  Well I know it was St. Saviours, but wouldn’t you know - there are three to choose from - the catholic one in Lewisham High Street, (above) though I suspect that this one may not have been built as yet, Southwark Cathedral, which is a St. Saviour’s or the rather more humble one in Forest Hill (the two on the right).  I lean towards this one, because it’s the closest, and was definitely there - it was built in 1866, but it’s tempting to wonder whether he returned to his catholic roots isn’t it?  (His Irish grandfather was a catholic.)  And Lewisham High Street is only a little further away. 

What may you ask is a verger?  I confess I thought it was just a voluntary and purely ceremonial position, but these days, anyway, it’s an official administrative post.  Let’s hope it was paid back then too - at least enough to supplement his meagre police pension.  Basically the job of the verger is to help look after the church building, keep it safe and in good condition, maybe do a spot of grave digging, maybe help with the church administration - keeping the books, and leading the priest down the aisle for any kind of service.  Sort of the Church Secretary and Odd Job Man really.  The virge - or staff that gives the office its name is carried by the verger as he carries out his ceremonial duties.  I suppose it implies that John was a god-fearing man, although I also suppose it is possible that it was just something that came up.  And it would surely have been a rather more tranquil job than policing.

Another thing to note in this period is the death of his parents in 1896 and 1897, shortly after he left the police force.  Well parents die you may say, but these parents both died in the workhouse and, indeed, had been there since at least 1891.  I have pondered on what this means with respect to John James (and his siblings as well).  Does it indicate that he was just too poor himself to do anything to help?  Does it indicate that he had a strained relationship with his parents?  Or was it simply that they needed hospital care that nobody in the family could provide - Roger did indeed die of senile dementia (one of his symptoms), so it is highly likely that the workhouse hospital was really the only place that he could be.  But what of John’s mother?  She doesn’t appear to have had dementia.  Why didn’t John James or one of his siblings take her in and care for her?   Questions, questions, always questions that just can’t be answered.

With respect to John James’ life, the children gradually left home, as they do, though Florence was still living with them in 1911.  There was not an abundance of grandchildren, so you would think that those they had (my father and his siblings) would have been precious.  Yet I never heard my father speak of them.  Possibly Catherine, John and William had children too, but I have yet to find this out.  In 1911 John James and Catharine Eliza were living in Peckham, with John still working as a verger.  It is also noted that he was a police pensioner, so he must have received the pension even though his service fell just short of that vital 25 years.  He died on 17th December 1915 of bronchitis and heart failure, his daughter Florence, who registered the death, stated that he was a verger, so he must have worked right to the end.  He was sixty eight when he died and World War One was in its early stages.  His wife lived on until 1933!

So a tough life, but no doubt it was occasionally rewarding, and maybe the years as a verger were tranquil and respectable.  As always let us hope this is how it was, rather than like the couple in the pub, looking bored and defeated in the painting by Degas on the left.

bottom of page