Heritage: Two worlds meet in South Weald thanks to Algernon and Chuckles

Rural South Weald seemed the perfect holiday retreat for Victorian children from the Bethnal Green s

Rural South Weald seemed the perfect holiday retreat for Victorian children from the Bethnal Green slums. Photo: James Dawson - Credit: citizenside.com

Ragged urchins from the slums of Bethnal Green were treated to a holiday in South Weald in 1890, as Prof Ged Martin discovers

For a fortnight in 1890, two very different Englands met at South Weald. Its cottages were only fifteen miles from the slums of Bethnal Green, but their inhabitants might have lived on separate planets.

The poverty-stricken parish of St Andrew lay across Weavers Fields, the open space that you can see from the railway near Bethnal Green Station.

Two dynamic young clergymen arrived there in the late 1880s. The Honourable Algernon Lawley, heir to a peerage, was the vicar.

Helping him were serious young men from Oxford University, led by the dynamic Arthur Winnington-Ingram (nicknamed “Chuckles”).

Algernon and Chuckles persuaded the vicar of South Weald to sponsor a holiday trip, so that twenty ragged urchins could breathe some country air.

Still active in his mid-seventies, Canon Duncan Fraser assured the people of South Weald that the young visitors would be “carefully selected” by the St Andrew’s clergy, to exclude “children of depraved tastes and habits” from their village.

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Money was quickly raised. Local schoolchildren, “of their own free will”, collected seven shillings (35p), in pennies.

The strange little aliens from the alleys of Bethnal Green “were, for the most part, very kindly received” in South Weald.

The masterful vicar persuaded villagers to open their cottages: after all, he offered a shilling a day for bed and breakfast.

The village was hardly luxurious: few homes had access to tap water, none to sewerage.

But the country people were shocked by the poverty of their visitors. One “somewhat rough” girl revealed that her family slept seven in a bed, “three at the bottom and four at the top”.

A boy of sixteen, “delicate and diminutive” as a twelve year-old, refused to stay for long.

He supported himself and his widowed mother by selling newspapers outside Bethnal Green Station, and feared losing his pitch.

His story had a happy ending: a local employer spotted his “quickness and intelligence” and gave him a job in the country.

Canon Fraser was astonished at how much these wild creatures cared about one another. They possessed real human emotions!

“Little Charlie”, seven years old, was one of sixteen children. Seven had already died, and Charlie was “in a decline”.

The others showered him “with tenderness and love”, wheeling him around in a miniature carriage, and helping him “to gather blackberries from the hedgerows”.

Twelve year-old Nellie suffered from an endemic chest infection. Her mother wanted her to work in the local Bryant and May match factory, hoping the scent of the wood used to make matchboxes would cure her.

In fact, the phosphorus used to make matches caused major health problems. In 1888, the heroic matchgirls had staged a long strike in protest against working conditions.

Soon after her arrival, a postcard summoned Nellie home to her little brother’s deathbed.

Reflecting on the visit, Canon Fraser urged South Weald children to be grateful for the comfort (such as it was) of their cottage homes.

He hoped too that acts of kindness might rescue even these “gutter children” of the slums “from a life of sin and shame” and make them “good citizens”.

It didn’t occur to Fraser that anything might be done to improve their lives. Indeed, he feared that “little Charlie” would soon follow his brothers and sisters to their “untimely graves”.

In 1890, the London County Council (forerunner of today’s GLA) began slum clearance in Bethnal Green. It took fifty years (and Hitler’s bombs) to regenerate the area.

St Andrew’s church was demolished in 1958. In 1918, Algernon Lawley inherited the family peerage, becoming Lord Wenlock.

“Chuckles” Winnington-Ingram was appointed Bishop of London in 1901. Nearly forty years in office, his bouncing bone-headedness steadily became a liability to the diocese.

The fate of the young visitors from Bethnal Green is unknown.