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Roger James Magee  Old age

In the 1881 census Ann and Roger are at last alone - a loving old couple, a quarrelling old couple or a couple just resigned to each other’s presence?  We shall never know these things.  One thing is for sure - a life of hardship will either bring people together or drive them apart.  And they do stay together until the end - an end which happens for both within a short space of time.  And did they see much of their grandchildren?  Their son James lived with them for a time after his marriage and their other children were not far away, so hopefully they did.  As a grandparent myself I know how much joy grandchildren bring in the later years.

So what sort of story can we assemble from the facts of the last 16 years of Roger’s life.  That he probably worked until around 1887 - he would have been 73 - a goodly age for the times.  That he worked as a gardener in these years - apart from the census record of 1881 two of his children, John James at the time of his marriage, and Sarah, at the time of her father’s death, refer to him as a gardener.  Does this imply that, in fact, most of his labouring life was done in gardens?


Lewisham was rather more rural then than now, although already the suburban sprawl was growing.  But there were plenty of larger houses in the neighbourhood that needed a garden - and one of those aforementioned records says he was a gardener (domestic).  Families such as the Molletts - his granddaughter’s in-laws, would have had a gardener.  And if he didn’t see much of his own grandchildren, he may well have seen more of the children of the household he worked for.   Gardening is perhaps slightly less strenuous than building roads or railways, but it was still pretty hard work as the engraving at left shows.  But even this became too much and he must have been unable to continue.  Where else to go than the Workhouse if you have no money and your family are unable or unwilling to support you?  His children were not wealthy either, but still, one does have to wonder. 

However, unlike we lucky people who live in a welfare state, there was no hope of retirement for Roger and Ann.  Roger had to go on working or they had no money - no pensions for the working poor then.  You just worked as long as you could, because you surely would not have saved anything for old age.


Starting with the facts we know that they spent their last years in Lewisham and neighbouring Kennington.  In 1881 they were living at 11 Ennersdale Road, with another family - a plasterer, so it was probably just a couple of rooms.  In 1887 they are both admitted to the Lewisham Workhouse.  In 1891 they are in St. Peter’s House in Kennington described as a home for the aged poor and run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.  On November 18th 1896 Ann dies in the Lewisham Union Infirmary (the Workhouse again) and in the following year in October Roger does too. 

Kennington and Lewisham 1881-1897

Whatever the reason, both Ann and Roger seem to have been admitted to the Lewisham Workhouse on September 22nd 1887.  It was a large institution and part of it is shown in the modern photograph at right.  I know this from the Religious Creed Register in which they are both listed - well a James and Ann Magee are admitted.


There is no date given for their discharge in the provided space, but by the 1891 census they are at St. Peter’s House in Kennington, so may not have been in the Workhouse for too long.  The wonderful Workhouse site has a page about the Lewisham Workhouse including the report of a medical inspection team.  As it says - Lewisham gets a pass - good in lots of respects, though lacking in some.   One thing it did point out however, was that the inmates seemed to be mostly elderly.  There are various records online at Ancestry for the workhouse and associated schools, but they are not complete.

So how did Roger and Ann come to be at St Peter’s (on left) in 1891 I wonder?  Maybe one of the children arranged for them to be moved - one has to assume that this would have been a better place to be than the Workhouse.  At the Workhouse they would have been separated - the men and women were housed separately.  Would this have been good or bad I wonder?  Were they ever allowed to meet?  Maybe at St. Peter’s they would have had more opportunity to be together - it was a much smaller establishment after all.  It was an establishment run by nuns of the order of the Sisters of the Poor, whose mission in life was to provide comfort for the aged poor - and there must have been many of them (as there are increasingly now).  I do not know how long they stayed there.  

What I do know is that in 1896 Ann died - in the Lewisham Union Infirmary.  For as the medical report I mentioned above states - the Lewisham Workhouse seemed to be largely operating as a hospital (as it still does).  She died of chronic bronchitis and cardiac failure and her husband (James) was with her when she died.  So it can’t have been that unfriendly a place.  He still cannot write his name.

Alone and with his senses failing, poor Roger was officially registered as a lunatic at the workhouse on 22nd October 1897.  Well I am assuming this is he, even though his name is given as James McGee, for a few days later on 31st October he dies of senile dementia and exhaustion.  No doubt he had been losing his wits for some time and had eventually had to be actually certified.  Maybe this was why he and Ann had left St. Peter’s.  He was 83 and his daughter Sarah, now married, was with him when he died - as Roger.

In many ways, Roger was a confused man.  He consistently reports a different birthplace on all of the census records - Norwich, Shotley Tower, Woolwich, are just some of the options.  He is sometimes James, sometimes Roger, sometimes Roger James - and it has to be said, that his parents began that particular confusion by first of all christening him as James and then as Roger James.  He even confused his own sons on one census record, naming John as the younger and James as the older.  And then there was his religion - baptised into both the Catholic and Established church, he married once in the Established Church and once in the Catholic one.  That religious census has him state his religion as Church of England, but then he spent some time in a Catholic home for old people being nursed by nuns - not that that proves anything of course.  So maybe he was none too bright.  Maybe he was just contrary.  Maybe none of these things mattered to him.  


Lewisham Workhouse - From the wonderful Workhouse site this page tells you everything about Lewisham’s workhouse.

A History of Lewisham Hospital - From the campaign to save Lewisham Hospital comes this article on the history of the hospital

I would like to think of him like the gardener in the engraving on this page. or Paul Cézanne's gardener below - a gentle old man, salt of the earth, obviously much loved by children.  Did he ever think back to his young first wife and his two dead sons?  He seems to have chosen his second wife well though - she stuck to him through thick and thin and there must have been a lot of thin.  I must say I still think of him as a gardener, and his children seem to have too - they referred to him as a gardener on their marriage certificates, and his death certificate - Roger is a gardening sort of name somehow.


Before marriage

Marriage no.1

Marriage no.2

Old age

The children


Roger James Magee

John Magee

Sarah Fuller

Ann Berry

John James Magee





Labourers - Agricultural and Urban

The Workhouse

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