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John James Magee  Before marriage

Deptford, Greenwich, Borough 1847-1866

The name Deptford is a corruption of Deep Ford - over the Deptford Creek (the Ravensbourne River) which runs into the River Thames at this point.  Its main industry was the Royal Naval Dockyard, and when John was born there was only a thin strip of habitation along the river, with fields behind, that grew asparagus, amongst other things.  So far I have not been able to find Brunswick Square on a map - it no longer exists, but I imagine it was not a particularly grand place.  I also cannot find a baptism for John James, or any of his siblings, but this is possibly because the family may have been Roman Catholic (his grandfather was) and Roman Catholic parish registers are a little harder to track down.  Or it may have been a religious conflict between husband and wife.

I doubt he had much education, though he could certainly write his own name, and my guess is that he somehow acquired a basic education.  Maybe at one of the Ragged Schools that were coming into being at the time - schools run by people with a charitable bent, sometimes every day, sometimes just in the evenings or at weekends.  It seems that their family was small - he had just one brother a couple of years younger than he, called, somewhat confusingly James - and another cause of confusion in Roger’s census returns.  He definitely existed, but because I cannot find any baptism records, I really am not clear what his actual name was - though I am pretty sure that it was James.  Then there were two sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth, who were possibly twins, and then another daughter called Charlotte Eliza in 1854, who died at the pitiful age of 8 months.  And that seems to be it.  Maybe Ann could have no more children - perhaps having twins did that to her, maybe the shock of losing a child was just too much.  On the plus side this would have meant fewer mouths to feed, and maybe when John’s father was working as a farm labourer in Greenwich he would have received food as part of his payment.

On 14th January - right in the middle of the winter - John James Magee, firstborn child and a son to boot, was born in Brunswick Lane, Deptford to Roger and Ann Magee.  I gather this was the year of the Irish potato famine, and a particularly harsh winter, so it cannot have been easy for the Magees.  The engraving below is of the London fog in 1847.  I wonder, also, how Irish they felt - Roger’s father was Irish  


“By 1847 too, English opinion was changing, fuelled by the tabloids of the day. The English public had stopped donating to Famine relief, many questioned why they had to feed the Irish, there were stories abounding that the Irish were buying guns with the relief money and the new English Prime Minister, John Russell, cut off all aid. Racism abounded; Irish emigrants to Britain were faced with fear and violence. By 1850 many racist books and literature began to appear depicting the Irish as 'biologically inferior'.” Essortment  I wonder whether this affected the Magees - very Irish name after all.

So John would have grown up on the streets - at first in Deptford, then in Greenwich, further down the river, though not literally on the streets.  He does have an actual address after all in each census.  But he certainly would have played there, and most probably thrived, considering his career as a policeman.  The wonderful Victorian London website has a rather apt description of poor children at play, by Edwin Pugh (The article is much longer than this extracts):


“Even the ill-used, half-starved child of the London slums can find surcease from the horrors of its lot in a world of make-believe. Rag dolls and paper balls serve the purpose just as well as the more elaborate toys of richer children and perhaps there is compensation for the lack of such luxuries in an inevitable quickening of the imagination. Of course there are things to be enjoyed in the streets of London that are, comparatively speaking, quite aristocratic of their kind and out of the reach of the very poorest. I refer to such subtle delights as riding in goat-shays, and flying kites and air-balloons even marbles, balls, tops, and skipping-ropes are not to be acquired without some small outlay. But effective substitutes for these things can often be made at home by means of a little ingenuity and some miscellaneous lumber. Carts and toboggans can be constructed out of soap-boxes and the wheels of disused perambulators. It is just as easy to be happy with a rusty iron tyre, a hoop off a butter-tub, a kite made out of a bit of cane and a page from a copy-hook, a tin lid with a piece of string passed through a hole in the centre that revolves merrily on its edge as you run, a lump of soft clay and a catapult or a rhubarb-bind, as with a genuine shop-made article."

At the age of 14 , at the time of the 1861 census, John was still not working, but neither is he marked as a scholar on the census return.  My guess is that around this time he would have been sent out to work to help with the family fortunes.  When he married  a few years later he was a Miller’s assistant, so no doubt he found work labouring in the local mill.  I think there were probably several mills in the area - the picture at right is of what was Mumford’s Mill - obviously a large establishment, and below it is an old photograph of workers in a smaller mill.  Whichever kind of mill it was, I am sure that it would have been hard physical work - probably humping large bags of flour or grain.  Maybe he was a big lad and this was a natural kind of work for him.  Or maybe it was just that this was where everyone worked locally - if you didn’t work in the dockyard that is.  I suspect the dockyard was a bit of a closed shop though, as most dockyards are.  Once he started work, the family fortunes would have been improved a little you would think, though, of course, the family was larger by now.

And then at the age of nineteen he marries Catharine Eliza Warner who is even younger - a mere eighteen.  She was pregnant and they were living at the same address as each other in Sail Street, Borough.  Now Borough is a fair way west of Deptford.  It is also a fair way south west of Spitalfields, where Catharine’s family were living at the time, so when and where did they meet?  They were married at the church of St George the Martyr in Southwark (between Borough and Deptford) and the marriage certificate states that they were both of full age, which they weren’t (full age is 21). There are no family witnesses at the marriage - in fact at least one of the witnesses is a ‘professional’ witness.  I can only assume that they had both left home for some reason, had met, struck up a liaison, she fell pregnant and they married.  Or they may simply have been young and in love!  We’ll never know (and their parents probably didn’t know at the time either).  They were under age, though they say they are of full age (21), so I suspect that nobody knew they were marrying.  

I know the picture is of a much better off young couple, but maybe the feeling is right.  It would be nice to think so would it not?  Life back then, was rarely so of course.


Deptford New Town:

From the excellent Ideal Homes site, comes this case study of Deptford New Town

Victorian London: A wonderful piece about children’s games by Edwin Pugh

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