Our own “Dickens Story”: Part Two of Four

Scraping a living: Thomas Benjamin Kennington's painting, The Pinch of Poverty, shows a young girl selling bunches of flowers on the street
The Pinch of Poverty, a painting by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Marian Baker, born in Surrey, England in 1858, married a Grocer from Scotland named John Ronald, in December of 1883. Seven months later, their first daughter was born: Cecilia Ellen Jessie Ronald. Roderick William John followed in June 1886 and Grace Victoria Louise in April 1887. The three children were baptized on the same day in the Church of England, St. John’s Parish, Surrey in September of 1890 and then . . .

. . . well, then their father, John Ronald, took off on them.

He decided to go to seek his fortune in South Africa and left Marian with three little ones and no household income. His mother in Scotland apparently had a couple of letters from him in South Africa but after a year’s time, her letters were returned and nothing more is known of him.

Now, Victorian England was not an easy place to live, especially for the poor and especially in the cities. The industrial revolution brought increased coal mining, immigration from other European nations, overpopulation, housing shortages, child labour in factories, inadequate sanitation and brutal poverty. In 1834 The Poor Law was passed that basically made being without work punishable by law. And the workhouses were the punishment for being homeless, sick, insane, physically disabled, old or destitute.

That is where Marian and her children ended up in Christmas week of 1891: a workhouse — the Kingston and Chelsea Workhouse in Surrey on Britten Street in SW London, to be exact. Without a regular income, Marian would have been unable to afford any kind of housing or food for herself and her children. She had family in the area but it appears they were unable or unwilling to take them in. Thus as winter settled in, Marian had to take herself and her children to a workhouse where they were promptly separated from each other and variously put to work. The brief video below provides an introduction to workhouses.

We have records that indicate that the Ronalds were discharged after some months but that the children were re-admitted to the same workhouse in June of 1893 and then again in November of 1893.  They also spent some time in Workhouses in nearby Banstead and Epsom, although we have no direct records. It was John Ronald’s sister Jessie Ronald in Edinburgh who eventually came up with a proposal to change this grim situation.

To be continued . . .

Linda's Siggy

Click HERE to view Part One of this four part series

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3 thoughts on “Our own “Dickens Story”: Part Two of Four

  1. Thanks, Linda. These are really well-written. However, the film clip about the poorhouses does not show on my computer. It may simply be a techno problem, but I thought I should alert you to it.

    Also, I was invited to preach the 186th anniversary service at Margie Bell’s church in the country south of St. Thomas. She was asking if you had done any more research on the Ronald’s, as she says they are also in her family tree. It was October 16th when I was down there, so that was before we received either of your “Dickens Story” blogs. I wonder if she would be interested in this, even though it may eventually leave the Ronalds behind?

    Also, due to his interest in the underdog, I think Daniel might be interested. He isn’t a Watson by birth, but he is one by choice (his choice as well as ours). In his role with the B.C. government, he was telling us just the other night of some of the appalling treatment accorded to indigenous people in this country – some of which he was able to at least partially alleviate in B.C. The subject had come up because of a conference Marg and I attended last weekend at which a variety of native speakers, most of whom were professed Christians, shared with us the lasting negative influence that some of our nation’s policies has had on their people. I had written to our four telling them how moved Marg and I were by the conference, and, while we are proud to be called their parents, we regret the brutal way native children were dragged from their homes and surroundings to be put up for adoption or to be sent to residential schools. Suffice it to say that there was some discrepancy between the real facts of the case and what we were led to believe. We may never know the impact all that might have made, if not on our children directly, at least on their people.

    The pain you are imagining in the hearts of our ancestors would probably have been similar to that suffered by native Canadian families in our time. It isn’t a pretty picture either.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    Blessings

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  2. Hi, all! This is, indeed, a sad commentary on what transpired in Europe for those of British/Scottish descent, as well as on Canadian soil, for First Nations peoples! In both instances, there are parallels with the current refugee/immigrant crisis. Just like our ancestors, and the First Nations children, these individuals are also forced to leave everything, and almost everyone they know and love, behind! For the record, I was able to view the entire video, re: poorhouses!

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