Destiny and Duty

My great grandmother Emma was born on 23rd July 1873 and was the fifth child and first daughter of Edward Levens and his wife Catherine (nee Finch). 

Catherine registered her daughter’s birth on 1st September but, as she could not read nor write, simply ‘made her mark’ by drawing a cross on the official record[i].  Emma was baptised the following week in Holy Trinity Church on Vauxhall Bridge Road, just around the corner from where she was born[ii].

A London cabbie with his hansom cab [1]

Emma’s father Edward Levens was a ‘cabbie’, driving a Hansom cab, which was a carriage for two passengers drawn by a single horse with the driver riding ‘on the box’ at the back with no protection from the elements apart from his ubiquitous hat and great coat.  Cabbies would ply their trade from a cabstand, the best of which were outside railway stations and the West End theatres.  Usually the best day for trade would be one with a fine morning and a wet afternoon, as people would get caught in the rain and seek a cab to get them to their destination.  A cabbie would generally work a twelve-hour shift in all weathers and pay for the hire of his vehicle and horse out of the fares he earned before making any profit for himself.  Many cabbies worked the night shift from 7pm until perhaps 8am the following morning with only one horse, which walked about 18 miles per shift, so it was pretty gruelling existence for both the driver and the unfortunate horse.[iii]  Generally, cab drivers did not have the best of reputations as they were notorious for overcharging when they thought they could get away with it, but in the days before state pensions many worked until they died or were forced by ill health into the workhouse.

Edward Levens’ wife Catherine died when Emma was 13 and it seems that he absolved himself of responsibility for his children because, by 1891, Emma and two of her siblings were living with their eldest brother and his wife[iv] in Fulham.  Emma’s father married again when he was 56 claiming to be a bachelor[v], but that’s for another story…

Soon Emma began keeping company with a lad nearly a year younger than her who lived just a few doors away in an area known as Sands End in the parish of St Matthews in Fulham.  The neighbourhood where they were both living was coloured light blue and dark blue on Charles Booth’s poverty map[vi]  indicating the residents were a mixture of families on the brink of poverty with others living below the poverty line.  Only a few years before, the area had been marshland with a few market gardens, but recently had become an industrial heartland providing employment to thousands of working-class Londoners living in the newly built terraced cottage.  Despite living in relatively new homes, the inhabitants would have experienced overcrowding, poor sanitation, and smoke pollution from the factories, gas works, and wharves lining the banks of the Thames.

Charles Booth Map of Sands End Fulham (1898-1899)[2]

Emma’s young suitor was Alfred George Mayhew, known as George, who was the third of twelve children three of whom had died in childhood.  This was quite typical for the late 19th century when one in every four children did not make it to their fifth birthday[vii].  His father Richard was a labourer at the local gas works, whilst his mother Annie took in washing as well as looking after the family.  The 1891 census lists twelve people, consisting of George’s parents and ten children aged 20 years down to 7 months living together in one house at 68 Victoria Road. 

Although most of these properties were demolished for slum clearance in the late 1950s, I bought my first home in the same area in 1980 as the houses on one side of Sandilands Road remained.  I was then unaware that my great-grandparents Emma and George had been living with their respective families in the next street a hundred years before!   

My own little house in Sandilands Road dressed as a palace for filming in 1984 | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

My house was a tiny flat fronted 2-up-2-down cottage built around 1885 with a steep staircase at right angles to the main entrance.  Fortunately, mine had been ‘modernised’ by the local authority so benefitted from a proper kitchen and bathroom.  The front room and two upstairs rooms were each 9ft x 9ft (less than 3m x 3m) and the back room was about 9ft by 12ft (less than 3m x 4m) but each room’s useable space was reduced by an inwards opening door and a fireplace to allow the possibility of heating in the winter.  The largest room, which families would have used as the eating and living area, was very dark and gloomy with little light from a single window looking out into the almost non-existent back yard containing a scullery with cold water for cooking and drinking, and an outside toilet.  Historically, coal for fuel and outgoing rubbish would have had to be taken through the house as there was no cellar for storage.  

Back of Sands End houses prior to demolition | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Traditionally, the front room in these homes would often have been reserved as a parlour where visitors could have been received.  However, with a large family, including adult children of both sexes, this space, as well as the two upstairs rooms, may have been used for sleeping.  Large families often had several young children of both sexes sharing the same bed, sometimes ‘topping and tailing’ with girls at one end and boys at the other.  Older children might a bedroom, with girls in one bed and boys in another with a curtain hanging between the two beds to afford a little privacy. 

We tend to associate the Victorian era with sexual prudishness, but of course sex before marriage still went on, despite courting couples having little chance to be alone and in private together.  I assume that, for Emma and George and most of their contemporaries, a date night would involve walking out together along by the river Thames, or perhaps a visit to a local public house.  However, despite a seeming lack of opportunity, and young women wearing a complicated array of drawers/bloomers, a chemise, corset, corset cover, and petticoats underneath their dress, topped off with a shawl and bonnet when they went out, many young couples still managed to find the time and space to indulge in a little more than a quick kiss and a squeeze and a fumble in the dark.

Emma and George’s first son Edward George arrived just three months after their marriage on 20th November 1892 when they were both just 19.  Whatever the circumstances of their courtship in the early part of 1892, George had ‘done the right thing’ and married Emma when her condition became obvious.  The young sweethearts were married after Banns in St James Church, Fulham, which meant that the proclamation of their intended union was read out in the church on three consecutive Sundays, giving anyone who might object to the marriage the chance to speak out.  Curiously, St James Church was not their local parish church, so they may have chosen to marry away from local neighbourhood gossip and speculation.  

At the time of their marriage, Emma and George were both living at 23 Victoria Road, where Edward was born on 27 February 1893[viii].  During her pregnancy Emma would not have received any antenatal care but would have relied upon advice and support from older female relatives, including her mother-in-law Annie and perhaps some of George’s older sisters.  Emma might have had a midwife in attendance during the last stages of labour and birth, although not all women could afford this luxury, and the most pain relief Emma could have hoped for would have been a towel fastened to the bedpost for her to pull on during labour.  Dr John Gunn’s “New Family Physician” [ix] published in 1867 suggests that the mother grab hold of the towel “which is commonly fastened to the bedpost for the purpose, and she bears down with all her might, exclaiming, ‘Oh! when will all of this be over?’”. Dr Gunn also recommends that “The parts of generation, during labour, should always be well oiled or greased with Lard, as it greatly assists and mitigates the suffering, and lubricates the parts or passage.” Then, after the child is born, “there is freedom from pain, and the mother feels rejoiced, and ‘thanks God’ for the sudden transition from pain and severe suffering to comparative ease”.

There was little in the way of birth control in the late 19th century, so most young wives could expect to be pregnant or breast-feeding for much of their married life.  It’s not therefore surprising that Emma and George’s second son, William John, arrived just fifteen months after his elder brother.[x]  At the time it was generally assumed that children ‘just came’ and there was little that could be done about it, so motherhood was seen as both destiny and duty.

Inside the Victoria Hospital for Children[3]

Emma and George had only just crossed the threshold into adulthood at 21 when their eldest son, aged just 2, tragically died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest in the Victoria Hospital for Children, Chelsea[xi].  Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs [xii]which, even in Victorian times, was rarely fatal in healthy children, but could be more dangerous to those who had been exhausted by other diseases or were malnourished and living in extreme poverty. 

Emma and George’s third son, also called George, was born in September 1896[xiii], but sadly he too died when he was just 11 months old.  The cause of his death was recorded as ‘Rickets, Gastro Enteritis, Convulsions’[xiv].   Rickets is a horrible disease which causes bones to weaken and soften in children.  It can be hereditary, but is usually due to vitamin D deficiency caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight and was particularly prevalent in poorer areas of Victorian cities where children often lived in narrow, smog-infested streets and didn’t get to play outside nor drink enough milk.  Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a bacterial or viral tummy bug resulting in diarrhoea and vomiting, which can lead to seizures or convulsions in an already weakened child.

George was fortunate to have regular employment as a sanitary wallpaper printer working in the Osborn & Shearman factory, where he had probably first served as an apprentice in the late 1880s.  Sanitary wallpapers were introduced in the 1870s and remained popular for halls, passageways, kitchens, sculleries, and bathrooms well into the 1930s. To emphasise the fact that they were washable, sanitary papers were often designed to imitate other hardwearing washable surfaces such as marble, wood panelling and tiling and these papers were machine-printed with oil pigment using engraved copper rollers powered by steam.  Working the machine would have been skilled work and George would have been bringing home a regular wage, so the young family’s standard of living should have been what we would describe today as ‘just about managing’. 

Emma, who herself may have been malnourished and not in the best of health, could have suffered a series of miscarriages, or given birth to one or more stillborn children, as there is a noticeable five-year gap until the birth of their first daughter Emma Catherine in June 1901. 

The main dangers for women in childbirth were prolonged birth, excessive bleeding, and infection.  Sometimes, when labour began, the unborn child was in the breech (bottom first), or far worse, transverse (sideways) position leading to a prolonged birth.  Desperate and agonising attempts would be made to ‘turn’ these babies, but rarely successfully.  Another common problem could be a narrow or deformed pelvis in the mother, caused by childhood rickets – a disease especially prevalent in poorer women.  In extreme cases, where it became clear after two or more days in labour that a child could not be born, a doctor might attempt to use instruments, either to try to pull the baby free or, as it may have died by this stage, to crush the unborn child to remove it. 

As she approached each confinement, Emma would probably have had help at home from other women, and her other children may have been sent to stay with friends or family, so that they would be spared the sound of their mother crying out in pain.  Husbands were not allowed in the room where their wife gave birth until after the delivery, so if George was not at work when Emma went into labour, he may have gone to the pub to stay out of the way.

My grandfather was born at home, just 16 months after his sister Emma.  His parents had by now been married for ten years and had moved to Estcourt Road, about a mile from Sands End.  The reason for the move is not known, but the family’s new home was certainly in a ‘better’ part of Fulham, and well away from the smog and pollution around the factories and wharves of Thameside Sands End where George would return to work each day.

Curiously, many of the Mayhew boys in my family were given a first name at birth and a second (middle) name by which they were known.  My grandfather’s birth certificate records that Richard Charles Mayhew[xv] was born on 27th October 1902 then, two weeks later, he was baptised as Charles Mayhew[xvi] in St John’s Church at the top of North End Road in Fulham.  Throughout his life he was known as Charlie.

The young family would soon move back to Sands End, perhaps to be closer to the wallpaper factory or their own extended families.  Their second daughter Rose Annie was born in May 1904, followed nearly three years later by a seventh child, another daughter Lily Violet Dorothy, born in March 1907.  By then, the older children, including my grandfather Charlie, had started at Langford Road School – which still exists today – and no doubt Emma would have been quite relieved to have at least some of the children out of the house during the day.

Hope by Frank Holl[4]

One Saturday evening just before Christmas in 1907, Emma had the horrible experience of being attacked, knocked to the ground and indecently assaulted.  Emma screamed for her husband who was a few yards in front of her and her assailant tried to run away but fell over and was apprehended.  The arresting policeman testified that the suspect was very drunk and had used bad language towards Emma at the police station.  Despite being pregnant once again, although very shaken, Emma was generally unhurt and her attacker, who denied any memory of the event, was taken to court.  The magistrate stated that only a jury could deal with the charge of indecent assault, so the prisoner pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of common assault and was sentenced to one month in jail.[xvii]

During Emma’s adult life, the care of mothers and their infants had greatly improved in the UK.  When Emma’s first child had been born sixteen years previously, most babies born to poor women were delivered by other women, or midwives who had undergone very little training, if any.   The first Midwives Act had come into force in 1902, and professional midwives now had to be certified for practice by an organisation such as the Obstetrical Society of London, or have had at least 1 year’s professional experience on the passing of the Act, and proof of ‘good character’.  The Notification of Births Act had also come into force requiring the health authorities to be notified of any birth within six hours so a health visitor could visit the home to advise the mother about general health and the proper care and feeding of children.

In April 1908, Emma would once again give birth at home, this time with a midwife in attendance but, despite the huge advances in care during childbirth in recent years, there were evidently terrible complications as the baby died and Emma, aged just 34, lost consciousness and bled to death.  In those days, there was virtually nothing a midwife or doctor could do to stop a post-birth haemorrhage, and George was called to Emma’s bedside so was present when his wife and their baby were pronounced dead[xviii].   Nowadays, despite modern drugs which can help control it, postpartum haemorrhage remains the second leading direct cause of maternal deaths in the UK and the leading cause of maternal mortality in the world[xix].

[1] From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith Creative Commons Licence

[2] Detail from Charles Booth’s London – Poverty Maps and Notebooks via the LSE last accessed 17 Jan 2023

[3] Image from the Silver Fete programme (1888) vial the Wellcome Collection

[4] Photo credit: Southampton City Art Gallery via last accessed 14 Jan 2023

[i] Emma Levens’ birth certificate

[ii] Emma Levens’ baptism via

[iii] Odd Journeys in and Out of London by John Hollingshead (1859) via last accessed 10 Jan 2023

[iv] 1891 Census England Class: RG12; Piece: 52; Folio 70; Page 23; GSU roll: 6095162

[v] London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P85/JNA3/081

[vi] Charles Booth’s London: Sands End, Fulham

[vii] Child mortality rate (under 5 years old) in the UK from 1800-2020 via last accessed 12 Jan 2023

[viii] George Mayhew and Emma Levens’s marriage certificate

[ix] Dr John Gunn: New Family Physician (1867) via

[x] William John Mayhew’s baptism record

[xi] Edward George Mayhew’s death certificate

[xii] Charles Booth’s London: Sands End, Fulham

[xiii] George Mayhew’s birth certificate

[xiv] George Mayhew’s death certificate

[xv] Richard Charles Mayhew’s birth certificate

[xvi] St John’s Church, Walham Green, Fulham, Baptisms 1902 via

[xvii] Fulham Chronicle 13 December 1907 via

[xviii] Emma Mayhew’s death certificate

[xix] Diagnosis and management of postpartum haemorrhage via last accessed 15 Jan 2023