I am fairly certain that John lived in or around Skinner Street for most of his childhood, and I will speak more about the street when I come to his father. Suffice to say that directory entries for his father, who was a pastry cook/confectioner, have been found as early as 1809 with the address of Skinner Street.
Skinner Street is no more, and was, in fact short-lived - a Victorian development that did not succeed and which was demolished to make way for the Holborn viaduct. But more about that when I come to Robert, his father. Robert was still living and/or working on Skinner Street, long after John left home, so it is reasonable to believe that this is where he spent his childhood - in the very house illustrated at left - no.54. The picture is from The City of London’s Collage collection of images, which unfortunately has a large watermark on it, unless you buy it. The picture is the design for several of the houses on the street, including no.54. It looks fairly substantial, so one can only assume that Robert had either been very frugal, come into some money, or made a success of his previous business. A few doors down lived one William Beckwith, a gunsmith. John later married Jane Elizabeth Beckwith, but the extensive and busy Beckwith clan have not yet worked out her relationship with William. There must have been one. The picture above is of Skinner Street itself complete with the sort of advertisements that would have adorned the shops along it. And the picture below is also of the street.
John Mollett Later childhood
Skinner Street, Holborn 1809-1823?
Anyway, to illustrate the sort of thing to which John must have been exposed in his youth, there is an incident - called the Spafield Riots, part of which took place in the street (the day before his twelfth birthday, in 1816). It involved the theft of guns from William Beckwith’s shop and the shooting of his assistant, followed by the subsequent hanging of one of the perpetrators outside the shop. John must have seen all this - can you imagine? He may well have seen other hangings too, as Newgate was just around the corner. The riots themselves were part of the larger Chartist movement which was seeking Parliamentary Reform. This was the age of revolution after all. The pictures on the right show the Spafield Riots. There is a lengthy contemporary account of the entire incident, some of which I am printing below:
“On reaching Skinner-street, one of the body advancing before the rest entered the shop of Mr Beckwith, the gun-smith, calling out ‘Arms, arms!’ A gentleman who happened to be in the shop, named Platt, affably attempting to remonstrate, said, ‘My friend, you are mistaken; this is not the place for arms.’ The ruffian instantly drew forth a pistol, and lodged the contents of it in the hip or groin of Mr Platt, but the wound was happily not mortal. The shop-door was instantly closed upon the assassin, whom Mr Beckwith’s shopman with great spirit seized, and hurried into the back shop, where he was given in charge to a constable, who negligently permitted the prisoner to go upstairs. The latter instantly sprung to the window, threw up the sash, waved his handkerchief, and addressing the mob, assured them that they had nothing to fear, as there were but few persons in the house, and he might easily be rescued. Hereupon the mob attacked the house, and, besides committing various ravages, carried off the prisoner. On their departure they also plundered the shop of a quantity of guns, pistols, &c. Fortunately a number of fire-arms were deposited out of sight, which they did not find. ..
So that’s what life was like on Skinner Street - tough and confronting. One hopes that Robert did not allow his children to see all of this.
Cashman was executed on the 12th of March, and to make the example the more striking, it was determined that his punishment should take place where his crime had been committed. At a quarter before five in the morning the platform was drawn from the session’s house-yard to Skinner-street, and placed in front of Mr Beckwith’s house. At six, one of the gentlemen who sat up with Cashman quitted his cell. The wretched man, during the early part of the night, indulged himself in observations on the injustice of his sentence, and the hardship with which he had been treated by government, as well as on his adventures; but towards morning he became more composed, having had about two hours sleep. Clean linen being brought him, he changed his shirt and drawers, put on a sailor’s blue jacket, and white trousers, and tied a black silk handkerchief round his neck; he then expressed his readiness to die, and as the door of his cell opened to admit the sheriffs, stepped forward with alacrity, and said, “Am I to go now? About ten minutes before eight, he took his seat in the cart between the executioner and his assistant; his firmness was unabated, and not a muscle of his face betrayed any internal fear.
As the sheriffs came forward, the mob expressed the strongest feelings of indignation; groans and hisses burst from every quarter, and attempts were made to rush forward. The officers, however, stood firm to their posts, and being supported by the wooden rails, succeeded in preventing mischief. This conduct was frequently repeated before the cart reached its destination, Cashman joining with the multitude, and saying, “Hurrah, my boys, I’ll die like a man!” On his quitting the cart, and ascending the scaffold, the groans were redoubled, and the criminal seemed fully to enter into the spirit of the spectators -- he joined in their cries with a horrible shout, and repeated his observations on the hardship of his case. His face was at first towards Holborn, but he afterwards turned round to greet the multitude on every side of him, crying, “Hurra, my hearties in the cause -- success -- cheer up.”
When the executioner advanced to put the rope round his neck, the tumult increased to an alarming degree, and exclamations of disgust burst forth with greater violence than before. On the night-cap being put over his face, he said, “For God’s sake let me see till the last -- I want no cap;” in this wish he was indulged, by the cap being withdrawn, when he immediately turned towards Mr Beckwith’s house, and said “I’ll be with you there” as if to signify that he would haunt the house after his death; and then, addressing the crowd again, he said, “I am the last of seven of us that fought for our king and country; I could not get my own, and that has brought me here.”
The executioner having quitted the platform to perform his office underneath it, the miserable man addressed that part of the crowd nearest to him, exclaiming, “Now you give me three cheers when I trip hurra, you --!” and then calling to the executioner, he cried “Come, Jack, let go the jib-boom.” The remaining short period of his existence he employed in a similar manner, and was in the act of cheering when the board fell from under his feet -- the cap was then drawn over his face, and he died with a very slight struggle. A dead silence instantly prevailed; but, after the lapse of a few minutes, expressions of indignation were again heard against every person who had taken any part in the awful scene. Cries of “murder!, murder!” “shame!, shame!” were heard from innumerable mouths; “Where are the conspirators? Why not hang them?” That part of the crowd most distant from the platform, soon began to retire, but many thousands remained until the body was cut down. At nine o’clock, a black deal shell was brought, and the body was placed in it by the executioner, under direction of the sheriffs; on seeing which, the populace made an attempt to get underneath the barriers, but were successfully resisted.”
On a more personal front, in 1817, John’s father remarried - the much younger, (10 years) Lucy Farr. John and his brother Robert would have been around twelve years old. I sometimes wonder, whether Lucy had been one of the people brought in to look after Robert’s three young sons when their mother died, but I guess we shall never know. She would only have been a young girl, but then young girls did that sort of thing. She definitely wouldn’t have been a wet nurse for William though, as she would have been too young. In any case John seems to have got on well with her and with his new family of stepbrothers and sisters, some of whom he worked with. Indeed one of his daughters (Katherine) was given Lucy as a middle name. She must have brought some stability to the family, and some home comforts, maybe even some mother love. They lived at the same address as Robert’s shop, so above the shop - somewhere down on the far left-hand side of the street in the wonderful picture at the top of the page.
William Henri Colchester Mollett
Austin Friars, Adams Court and Finch Lane
Holborn and Skinner Street
The Baltic Exchange and The Russia Company
Life on Skinner Street was possibly less dire than life in Smithfield, but not without it’s challenges nevertheless. A motherless childhood, a busy father with not much time for his children, a shopkeeper’s son who probably took his turn helping out either in the kitchen or in the shop. Later a big brother to a new family of young children, initially three more boys, and then at last, two sisters. From this side of his life he would have learnt street smarts, but he also needed education,