Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Let me clip your dirty wings; William Henry Harding (1843-1878), Brompton Cemetery

Don't let him out of the cage! A parrot's bid for freedom leads to death for his erstwhile rescuer

A parrot on Sunday escaped from a house in Dean's- yard, Westminster, and flew as far as St. John's burial ground, where it alighted on one of the trees. A reward being offered, William Harding, a mason's labourer, of Horseferry-road, procured a ladder, and placing it against the tree on which the parrot was perched ascended it. He left the ladder and held on one of the branches which broke, and he fell head foremost on the edge of a tombstone with such violence that death was instantaneous.

Globe - Monday 01 July 1878

I am embarrassed to admit it but my initial reaction on reading of William Harding’s death was to laugh. The laconic version of the dead workman sketch in the Globe bears too close a resemblance to one of Wile E. Coyotes looney tune misadventures with Roadrunner not to raise a snigger; the breaking branch, the falling ladder, William’s stunned stare meeting impassive psittacine gaze whilst suspended mid-air for the split-second it always seems to take for gravity to start operating in Warner Brother cartoons.  And then the irony of braining yourself on a tombstone whilst in pursuit of a parrot. It is one of those ridiculous Victorian deaths, one to rival Henry Taylor getting himself killed by a coffin in Kensal Green or the poor Hickman’s managing to accidentally poison the entire family at Sunday lunch with arsenic stored in a flour bag.  A less frantic version of the same events in the York Herald of 3rd July, whilst still steeped in bathos, manages to at least sound like a misfortune;

SHOCKING OCCURRENCE IN WESTMINSTER. Yesterday morning the particulars of a shocking accident were forwarded to Mr Bedford, the coroner. During Sunday a valuable parrot effected its escape from a house in Deans-yard, West- minster, and flew as far as St. John's burial ground, which is situated between Horseferry-road and Page-street, where it alighted on one of the trees. A reward was offered for the capture of the bird, and many ineffectual attempts were made to regain it. The parrot still remaining at the spot, a man named William Harding, a mason's labourer, of 52, Horseferry-road, about eleven o'clock on Sunday night procured a ladder, and placing it against the tree on which the parrot was perched, ascended it. In order to get within reach of the bird, he left the ladder and held on by one of the branches, which broke with his weight, and he fell headforemost on the edge of a tombstone, with such violence that death was instantaneous. His body presented a most sickening appearance, the head being completely battered in. Deceased, who was about forty years of age, leaves a widow and five children.

William's burial record at Brompton Cemetery

William Henry Harding died on Sunday 30th June and was buried the following Saturday, the 6th July, in a common grave in Brompton Cemetery. The officiating clergyman was the Rev. Nathaniel Liberty, chaplain to the cemetery and to the Brompton Cancer Hospital (3 years later he buried George Borrow). The burial records confirms William’s address as 52 Horseferry Road but gives his age as 35 rather than the 40 reported in the newspapers. With a full name, an address, an accurate year of birth and a household containing a wife and five children I thought it would be relatively easy to track down records relating to the family.  There were more William Hardings than I imagined living in Westminster and just across the river in North Lambeth, but none of them lived at 52 Horseferry Lane or had 5 children living with them in the 1871 census. It transpired that William had a complicated, rather tragic, family life which took me some time and effort to unravel.

On census returns William Henry Harding gives 1843 as the year of his birth and says that he was born in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. His father Henry was a coachman but I wasn’t able to trace a baptism record for him or find out the name of his mother. In his early twenties he began a relationship with Sophia Ann Mary Cutler. Sophia was the same age as William and like him from Westminster, she was the second of five daughters born to Samuel and Fanny Cutler who lived in Clarks Cottages in Causton Street, just off of the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Sophia’s father was originally from Birmingham, a maker of military ornaments, but her mother was another Westminster native. William and Sophia evidently got on well, in February 1865 the pair were planning to get married as they had the banns read by the vicar at St. John the Evangelist in Smith Square. Perhaps the couple quarrelled because the wedding did not go ahead. But they then must have made up as the banns were read again in September the same year. The argumentative pair must have fallen out again because once more the actual wedding did not take place. Whatever the cause of the disagreement it did not keep them apart for too long; by January 1869 they were living together in Little Chapel Street Soho and proudly having their two daughters, Frances and Elizabeth (named after Sophia’s sister and her aunt) baptised at Christ Church on Broadway (destroyed in the blitz and now the site of Christ Church Gardens on Victoria Street). The following year another daughter, Jane Mary, was baptised at St Margaret’s, the church that stands in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. By the time of the 1871 census William and Sophia had moved out of London and were living in Trowbridge in Wiltshire with 5-year-old Elizabeth and 11-month-old Jane. Frances has disappeared, and has, as was all too common in the 19th century, most likely died. And then, very unexpectedly, the following year Sophia is admitted to Westminster workhouse taking with her not two but five children. There are no children’s names recorded in the workhouse records but her next of kin is given as her mother Frances Cutler of 19 Tufton Street. There had clearly been another break up with William but where had the additional three children come from? We simply don’t know. As always the rift between the couple was temporary and in 1873 theyr were back together again and this time finally going through with the wedding. They were married on 30 November 1873 at St Mary at Lambeth, the church next door to Lambeth Palace which is now the Garden Museum. Both were living at Mill Street in Lambeth. Almost exactly nine months to the day after the wedding Sophia and William celebrated a double first, the birth of their first legitimate child and first son, who was, of course, named William Henry after his father. The family were living at 77 Berwick Street and William père was listed as a Masons labourer. They had another son in 1877, Alfred Samuel, who seems not to have been baptised.  The family now had the 5 children mentioned in the newspaper reports of William’s death. With 5 children and a wife to support it is no surprise that William was prepared to scale ladders in a dark burial ground to try and rescue a parrot with a price on its head.

William and Sophia's marriage record at St Mary at Lambeth

William’s death was a disaster for the family; in straitened economic circumstances she was unable to support the five children and keep the family together. On December 21st 1879 she baptised another child at St John the Evangelist giving her address as 23 Romney Street and declaring William to the father despite him having died almost 18 months earlier. She told the vicar that her son, Leonard Joseph, was born on the 21st January which, if true, would have made it possible for William to be the posthumous father. As she did not go on to either have any other children or to remarry or live with another man, it seems likely that she was telling the truth and that at the time of William’s death she was three months pregnant. The records of the Westminster workhouse tell a sad story of increasing poverty and desperation on the part of Sophia. In October 1878 she had been admitted to the workhouse with just her two youngest children, two-year-old Alfred and the still unbaptised baby Leonard. The following month Alfred and Leonard were both left separately, and alone, at the workhouse. Whatever hardship and deprivation the family were going through proved too much for Leonard, he died in March 1881 and like his father was buried at Brompton Cemetery. In that year’s census Sophia was living at 19 Tufton Street, her mothers address, with Alfred. The only trace we have of the other children at this point is Elizabeth who is listed in the census as an inmate at the Sudbury Hall Home for Girls, on Harrow Road.  In 1887 Sophia is admitted to Westminster workhouse again this time in the company of 13-year-old William; Alfred has disappeared. They gave their address as 10 Wood Street.  In the 1891 census when William was 15 and Sophia 48, they were living at Lion Buildings in Tufton Street. He was working as errand boy, and his mother as a seamstress.  By June that year Sophia was back in the workhouse, this time ominously admitted as a lunatic. William ended up as an inmate at a boy’s home at 164 Shaftesbury Avenue. We glimpse him again in 1894 when he admits himself to the workhouse and we see 58-year-old Sophia on the 1901 census living at New Compton Street and still giving her occupation as seamstress. Alfred, although apparently given up by his mother before he was 10, was still alive in in 1902 when he married Eliza Thelner at St John the Baptist in Great Marlborough Street but after this, we lose sight of both him and his mother. 

The ordnance surveyof 1890 shows how small the area was in which William and Sophia spent their lives, St John's Gardens is the burial ground where William died and the map shows Horseferry Road, Tufton Street and Romney Sreet, all places where they had lived. 

The 30-year-old William Henry, William and Sophia’s first son, was married on August 7 1904 to 36-year-old widow Annie Sophia Murray, living in Cleveland Street Fitzrovia.  By the time of the 1911 census the couple were living at 62 Welbourne Road in Tottenham. They had no children and William was an out of work carman. During the first world war William joined the Army Service Corp. His records show that he was still with Annie and the couple had a daughter named after her grandmother, Sophia. William died in October 1916, his death registered at Edmonton. Did little Sophia ever know that her grandfather had died trying to save a parrot?

No comments:

Post a Comment