A few months back I researched other relatives who were recipients of the charitable work of Dr Barnado. Another child from a different family emerged as being sent from her home in Dartmouth, Devon around 1912 to Canada. She was Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Pengelly, one of the children of Mary Jane and Samuel Pengelly. In 1911 she was an inmate of the Barnado’s Girls Village Home Barkingside, Essex attending school there. A little later in 1912 at age 11 she was a passenger taking the 10 day trip to Peterborough, Ontario Canada. She amongst the 153 girls aged 8-16 leaving from Liverpool on the Tunisian being sent as “farm or family servants”. I felt a little uneasy about this in view of accusations of sex and child abuse sometimes levelled against charities. More about her fate later.
I had assumed it had come to this due to the untimely death of her father Samuel Pengelly, a navy pensioner and her mother Mary Jane Pengelly nee Ackrell living in widowhood.
Recently I was emailed some newspaper transcriptions relating to the family circumstances. Mary Elizabeth Pengelley was the last of a string of children to parents Mary Jane and Samuel Pengelley. The stories told me such sad story about Mary Elizabeth ‘s upbringing and I began to see that Mary Elizabeth might have been in a better place on that ship to Canada. No doubt the recent widow had fallen on hard times but I soon found out about her negligent and sad behaviour.
In the midst of Covid Isolation I received an email from a lovely Devon Genuki transcriber, Lindsey who said I might be interested in the sad circumstances of Samuel Pengelly’s death. The emails kept coming revealing the sad and sorry story of Mary Jane, her husband, children and her sister.
Mary Jane had been reported in the West Morning News several times, once was for drunkenness in 1903. During this time Mary Jane’s father had lived in Silver Street with his both his daughters and their families until his death in 1908. Her father‘s name was William Ackrell .
|Bake Hill at the entrance to Silver St Dartmouth c 1906|
A further article says Mary Jane had been warned of the filthy state of her house when the police advocate previously called at the house. Her husband died in July 1910 after being not right in his mind for about four years. The newspaper article reported he had been living in dirty bed clothing and suffering from chronic bronchitis and a dilated heart. It was considered that his death was contributed to by the want of proper nourishment and lack of care on the part of the widow.
Apparently, the only food found in this hellhole was only four pieces of decomposed meat and two or three small Whiting. The inquest into her husband’s death on 28 September 1910 was reported on and the articles wrote extensively about the state of the notorious Silver Street premises which Mary Jane had lived in for most of her married life. Despite Samuels’s condition she had spent her last penny on beer that morning!!
Transcription from the West Morning News 30/9/1910
Western Morning News, Friday 30 September 1910
DARTMOUTH - A Dartmouth Slum. Doctor's Statement At An Inquest. - At Dartmouth Guildhall yesterday Mr A. M. Davson held an Inquest on SAMUEL PENGELLY, a naval pensioner, of Silver-street. - MARY JANE PENGELLY, the widow, said deceased was sixty-one years of age, and had been bad for four years. Six months ago he was attended by Dr Soper. At 1.30 a.m. on Wednesday her husband was smoking a pipe in bed and six hours later she found him dead. - In answer to the Coroner, witness asserted that her husband, who was not right in his mind, had had all the food he required. - Emma Sandford said she had heard deceased ask constantly for food and had seen MRS PENGILLY give him what he had asked for. - Mary Smith said that on one occasion she had heard deceased cry bitterly for a piece of bread, but his wife did not give him any. - Francis Blake, Clarence-street, said he had heard deceased ask for food. - P.S. Rogers said that on three occasions he had told MRS PENGELLY her husband was ill and had advised her to send for a doctor. In June, on going to the house, he found deceased dirty and told his wife he did not consider she was looking after him. - By the Coroner: Deceased had never complained to him. After the death he went to the house and found everything in an extremely dirty condition. He asked to see the food in the house and MRS PENGELLY showed him four pieces of decomposed meat and two or three small whiting. - Dr G. M. Soper said he saw the body. It was emaciated and the bed clothing, mattresses, &c., were all dirty. Death was due to chronic bronchitis and a dilated hart. Having been given permission to say something further about Silver-street, Dr Soper said he was certain that if one went over the whole of England, including large cities and the London slums, it would be difficult to equal the condition of the street. He thought it was an absolute disgrace to the town, and he was perfectly convinced that if something was not done it would react on the town, and the health of the inhabitants would suffer from it. It was absolutely in a filthy state. In conclusion, Dr Soper made it clear that he was not referring so much to the buildings themselves as to the condition of the interior of some and the way in which the tenants lived. - The Coroner concurred in Dr Soper's remarks. - The Jury found that the cause of death was as given in the medical evidence and added a rider that they considered death was accelerated by want of proper nourishment and lack of care on the part of the widow. They concurred with the remarks of Dr Soper as to the condition of deceased's house. Addressing MRS PENGELLY, the Coroner said she had heard the opinion of the Jury that her husband's death had been accelerated by her neglect. He did not know what her feelings must be. She had had a narrow escape of a journey to Exeter.
A few days later more transcriptions were received. These were for an earlier incident. On 4 October 1895 she and her husband had been charged with neglecting their infant son Alfred Pengelley. He despite his father‘s earnings (pension plus coal lugger) was terribly emaciated and starved looking according to neighbours. Mary Jane was said to have left the child crying and alone while she went dancing and drinking in pubs with her widowed sister Betsy who lived two doors down. The doctor was aware of the child’s weight after visits for vaccination.
By the 8th October 1895 little Alfred had died and the coroner found that his death was due to insufficient feeding and want of proper care. The coroner found a verdict of manslaughter against Mary Jane and severely admonished Samuel for not seeing the child receive the proper care he needed. The paper says the parents were fined a combined 5 pounds. Were they claiming insurance on the little soul’s death?
Western Times, Friday 4 October 1895
Dartmouth, Neglecting A Child. - On Tuesday at the Petty Sessions, MARY PENGELLY and SAMUEL PENGELLY, Silver Street, pensioner, her husband, were charged with neglecting their infant son, ALBERT, [Note; In another paper, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, it gave the child's name as Alfred] aged five months. Defendants pleaded not guilty. - Mr O. S. Bartlett, appeared for the N.S.P.C.C. and, opening the case, said a very black feature was that the child was insured in the Prudential Insurance Company. The male defendant was in receipt of a pension of 17s. per week from the Navy and he earned a good deal of money by coal lumping as well. Inspector Ashby (Torquay) said he visited the house on September 16th and saw the child in a perambulator wrapped in a dirty blanket. It was terribly emaciated and looked as though it was starved. - P.S. Stentiford was able to prove that the female prisoner left the child in the house alone, crying and screaming while she went dancing on the New Ground, or visiting public-houses with her sister. - Dr J. H. Harris said when defendant brought the child to be vaccinated on July 16 he warned her of its state. When he saw it on September 16 it appeared to be starved. It only weighed 7 3/4 lbs, whereas the normal weight of a child five months old should be 14lbs. Two neighbours of the defendants testified as to the woman frequently going out and leaving the child alone. - Defendants had very little to say and the Bench fined the female defendant £3 inclusive and the male £2. They were granted until Thursday to pay the money.
To make matters worse sister Betty got in on the act.
BESSIE SALISBURY(sic), sister of the previous female defendant, was charged with assaulting Kathleen Harris, one of the witnesses. Mr O.S. Bartlett who prosecuted said the N.S.P.C.C. were determined that those who came forward to give evidence should be protected. After hearing the evidence, the Board convicted the defendant and fined her 21s. inclusive.
Next appeared another article mentioning Mary Jane’s sister Betsey Soulsby. It seems Mary Jane’s sister had had similar tragedies and bad habits. Betsey ‘s husband was also a naval man. Betty and he lived a few doors down in the same notorious Silver St. He had mysteriously gone missing from the scene several years before maybe through illness (asylum), desertion or death at sea.
Express and Echo, Tuesday 15 October 1895
Another Child Dead At Dartmouth. - At five a.m. today BESSIE SALISBURY (sic), married, residing at Silver-street, awoke to find he seven weeks' old baby, William Percy, lying dead by her side. The woman has been living apart from her husband for nearly five years. It is a singular coincidence that she is a sister of MRS PENGELLY who is at present in Exeter gaol awaiting her trial on a charge of manslaughter of her five months' old child, ALFRED, by neglect. Mrs Salisbury's child has not been ailing in any way. The Coroner (Mr R. W. Prideaux) will hold an Inquest probably tomorrow.
A couple of years later another child called Alfred was born to the Pengellys and died. After these events another baby Mary Elizabeth Pengelly was born in 1900. She was the last and eighth child that I know off.
The scenes of the state of Samuel’s living conditions remained in the minds of the police and soon after his death little Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) aged 10 was removed. So again in 1910 the recently widowed Mary Jane was in trouble for child neglect.
Western Morning News, Wednesday 2 November 1910
Child Neglect. Bad Case At Dartmouth. At Dartmouth yesterday MARY JANE PENGELLY widow of a naval pensioner, was charged with neglecting her daughter, Bessie, aged 10, in such a manner as to cause her unnecessary suffering and injury to her health. The Magistrates present were the Mayor (Mr J. Brown), and Messrs. A. H. Bridson, T. Wilton, W. P. Ditcham, W. H. Angel, L, Karslake, G. Clift and Dr F. A. Davson. - Mr P. H. W. Almy prosecuted and explained that the proceedings, being taken under the Childrens' Act, it was not necessary to prove that the child had actually suffered in health, it being sufficient if it was shown that the conditions under which she lived were such as were likely to cause unnecessary injury to her health. Physically the child had not suffered to any great extent. Defendant's husband died some time since under circumstances within the recollection of the Bench. With the child and a son, aged 25, the woman lived in Silver-street, a locality which was somewhat notorious in the district. The son was a coal lumper and his average earnings were about 15s. a week. The case had been under the observation of the society for several years. So long ago as 1908 the inspector visited the defendant's house and found things in a very bad state indeed and things did not improve later. On October 7th last, the house was found to be in a shocking condition of filth. There was no complaint that the child was ill-nourished, but that the conditions under which she lived were injurious to her health. A fortnight later the inspector again visited the house, and, if it was possible, the condition of affairs was worse. The rooms had the appearance of not having been cleaned for the 16 or 17 years that defendant had occupied the house. It was alleged that the real cause of the neglect was defendant's drunken habits and if she were sent to prison for a time it would be good for her, for the child and for the community at large. - Inspector Jones, N.S.P.C.C. confirmed the statement as to the dirty and verminous condition of the child and her clothing and the filthy state of the house, and also as to finding defendant under the influence of drink. - P.S. Rogers, who accompanied the Inspector on two of his visits, corroborated. He added that when he was in the house on September 28th, the day on which the husband died, defendant admitted that she had spent her last penny in beer that morning. At the Inquest the next day defendant was censured by the Coroner and Jury because of the filthy state of the house, but from what he saw subsequently she took no notice of these warnings. - Dr J. H. Harris said on October 21st, after the visit of the Inspector, he went to defendant's house with P.S. Rogers. The woman had scrubbed the floor of the living-room, but everything else was filthy. In his opinion the conditions under which the child lived were detrimental to her health. - "A Bad Case." - In reply to the Bench, Dr Harris said he would not say it was the worst case he had ever come across, but it was a bad case. The sanitary appliances for the houses were very good for tenements; but this was superficial filth. The best thing to be done was to pull all these houses down. - The Mayor differed, saying he knew that in many of the houses there was every appliance and that water was laid on. - Dr Harris said there was water laid on; it was obtained from the conduits. - The Mayor said water was laid on in four or five of the houses, as he had examined them. - Dr Harris said there was no water laid on in defendant's house. - Mr Wilton pointed out that they were only dealing with this particular house. - The Mayor said when Dr Harris stated that none of the houses had water laid on he said that some of them had. Statements like this made it very bad for the community. - Defendant said she had lived in the house for 25 years and it was very old. She suffered from bad legs and had done her best to keep the place clean. - The Mayor said the Bench regarded the case as a very bad one and sentenced defendant to four months' hard labour. - Upon the application of Mr Almy, the Magistrates granted an order for the removal of the child to the Workhouse pending other arrangements being made by the society and they also remitted the costs of the prosecution.
Well it seems Bessie was not malnourished but the house was in such a state as to be injurious to her health. Twenty five years of filth had accumulated and while Mary Jane had access to water there was no water laid into the house. Perhaps the age of the premises, poverty Mary Jane’s drinking habit and subsequently corresponding ill-health did not allow her to keep up with keeping the place clean. Little Bessie was moved to the work house pending other arrangements being made by the Childrens’ Society.
Both Mary Jane and Betty are the sisters of my husband’s great grandmother Alice Ford nee Barter (Ackrell). She certainly dodged a bullet when after being sent away to work as a servant when her sisters were young, she married a young sailor named George Ford previously Wilks. Alice and George had 9 healthy children and a seemingly happy life living in various locations around England and Ireland while George worked on Coastguard locations.
Mary Jane and Betty’s history is not a glamorous one. What it highlights is the importance of social housing, the fate of the renter and in previous times the difficulties of widows or separated partners. Age old vices of alcohol abuse, mental illness and the poverty that comes with it are perhaps reduced by built in social assistance in modern economies. Development of the Children’s Society in the late 19th century by the Church of England and places like Barnados and which spread across the world are still important in today’s society.
Other support services in place in our society today are available because of cases like this which highlight alcoholism, sickness and mental illness.
Thanks to those taking the time to transcribe the newspaper articles of Devon /Dartmouth and to Lindsey from Devon Genuki who intrigued by the case she was transcribing checked the family out on Ancestry and supplied the details to me. I’ve done a little transcribing – without transcription by volunteers there would be far fewer supporting records for those pursuing family histories.
Mary Jane lived until Jan 1924. Three of her children out lived her-Margaret May until 1928, George until 1930 and Mabel until 1964. Two others I discovered -William Samuel died 1899 and Phillip died 1891. It seems Betsy may have teamed up with another man, James Bryan as her daughter is living with a step father in the 1911 census. No sign of Betsy after that.
|Bessie Pengelly's marriage to Ernest Grant|
What was the fate of little Mary Elizabeth? We see Mary Elizabeth in 1911 in the census as an inmate of the Barnado’s school at Barkingside. Her travelling to Canada on the Tunisia was part of the Barnado’s homes schemes to provide servants, labour and wives to settlers. Fast forward to 1921 Census in Canada. She is married to Ernest Grant and living in Mersea, Ontario After working as a servant she had married a farmer where she had a boy and two girls.
Working as a volunteer in Welfare areas I see lots of sad cases like this. Thank goodness for social services, charities and free education which scoops up the most vulnerable to help them lead a better life.