James Earl Furness 1795 – 1876 of Bethnal Green
Baptism and Origins
James was born in about 1795, and his father Robert also a gardener, like James was to be, had James baptised in the church of St. Mary Whitechapel. This was a significant church which had been created as a chapel of ease in the 13th century, (a chapel of ease was a church building other than the parish church for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church conveniently). The White Chapel was painted with chalk and lime on the outside, hence its name. There were 3 St. Marys, the last one bombed in World War 2.
The church was originally called St Mary Matfelon, a name probably derived from the Hebrew word, Matfel, which signifies a woman born with a son i.e the Virgin Mary. It is significant that the second St. Mary’s had an outside pulpit from where, on occasion, the Vicar preached to Jewish parishioners in Yiddish; quite appropriate bearing in mind the large Jewish population from the mid nineteenth century.
The surname ‘Furness’ originated in the north west notably in the Furness peninsula but whereas there were many people with the surname in that area, there were refreshingly few in London in the early nineteenth century. I have details of a number of other Furnesses, especially in the East End, but so far I have not been able to definately link them as blood relatives.
James’ other forename ‘Earl’ meant warrior or nobleman and comes from the german ‘warrior king’ and which was sometimes used for servants of actual earls. It dates back to the 12th century in England.
James then followed in his father’s footsteps and became a gardener either working for and eventually taking over his father’s work or having land of his own in Bethnal Green.
In her PhD Thesis on gardening in the East End ‘Common Ground: Horticulture and the cultivation of open space in the East End 1840 – 1900’, Julia Matheson says that in 1840, when James was 45, Hackney was virtually all open land. By 1862, when James had 14 years yet to live, not much more than half the area had been built on.
Julia Matheson says that there were large areas of market gardens in Bethnal Green and points out that economic conditions were not as uniformly bleak as often portrayed.
In the census of 1840 644 men were listed as gardeners and even in 1891 there were still 423 gardeners similarly listed.
What sort of gardening did James do?
Three options are possible.
1. At the turn of the nineteenth century and for the next 30 years, Bethnal Green still had houses of the rich and famous; notably amongst these was Bishop Bonner’s Hall, the occasional residence of the Bishop of London. Bonner was the notorious bishop responsible for the burning of protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor. However even though Bonner Hall was pulled down in 1845 there were still large houses with gardens and there were institutions too which employed gardeners, though these were in decline.
2. Perhaps James was more important than that because surprisingly in Bethnal Green and in nearby Hackney there were a number of nurseries which employed quite large numbers of workers, such as Hugh Low who employed 61 men in 1851 and John Fraser, who in 1871 employed 145 men and 8 boys.
Exceptionally there was Loddiges in Hackney, which was so important that it supplied plants to Kew Gardens. Its nursery introduced 151 new plants to UK and there were also hothouses, an arboretum, and a palm house – the largest in the world. In 1830 Joseph Paxton designed a new palm house for them which became the design basis for the later Crystal Palace. Sadly, by 1852, the housing boom led to the loss of the lease for the company and inevitably the loss of the stock, which in the 1820s had 2500 species.
3. Finally there were employment opportunities in the development of the huge Victoria Park right on James’ doorstep.
Because of the dreadful poverty and overcrowded slums in parts of the area, and the huge amounts of illness and death, (even in 1856, on April 16th 1856 the priest at St. James the Less buried 14 people in one day!), it was agreed in 1840 to petition the Queen for the creation of a park for the people. The local land for this was bought through the selling off of crown land and included that surrounding Bishop Bonner’s Fields. There were also a number of market gardens which were purchased.
The resulting magnificent Victoria Park was opened in 1845 and on Good Friday that year 25000 visited it; even more on Easter Monday. The next year a lake was planned and huge areas of the park were given over to bedding plants, which, incidentally were given to the poor at the end of the season for their own gardens. So there was a huge opportunity for gardeners in this work alone.
This was therefore the environment James Earl Furness was working in.
In the edition of Lloyds Weekly on September 9th 1871 the following advertisement read ‘a pony for sale, fast trotting and its silver plated harness all going cheap and the place, 17 Essex Place’. This was James’ address and fits in with the inevitable decline of his health 5 years later and the consequent move to Providence Place where he was to die. So he must have been a market gardener and perhaps the land he farmed might have been to the east of Cambridge Heath Road, which was largely used for market gardening in 1838 and from where the gardeners took their produce for sale in Covent Garden. Another reason for the sale of the pony and its harness lies in the fact that James’ sons did not follow in their father’s profession and had already moved away from Bethnal Green.
What might James have looked like?
There were certainly no photographs of him but contemporary literature can give us some idea.
Henry Mayhew in ‘London Labour and London Poor’ describes the market gardener as follows:- the gardeners affect aprons and old straw hats. Their manner is less demonstrative and their tones less rusty and unmelodious. The navvies roar and the gardeners squeak. The gardener’s voice is meek and mild as of a gentle nature, trained to tend on fruits and flowers.
Then in ‘Sketches by Boz’ by Charles Dickens there is the description. ‘A jolly good tempered, hearty looking pair of togs, that excited our warmest regard; and we had got a fine, red faced, jovial fellow of a market gardener in them. There were his huge fat legs bulging over the togs and fitting them too tight to admit of his tucking in the loops he had pulled them on by; and his knee cords with an interval of stocking and his blue apron tucked up round his waist; and his red neckerchief and blue coat and a white hat stuck on the side of his head, and there he stood with a broad grin on his great red face. We had seen him coming up to Covent Garden in his green chaise cart with the fat tubby little horse, half a thousand times.
Mayhew suggests that there was a link between respectability and market gardening – a sign of good character and industrious habits.
Where did he live?
For most of his adult life he lived in 17 Essex Place. It is not possible to exactly pin point where this was but the marriage certificate of his daughter Ellen says that it was off the Old Bethnal Green Road. The map of 1864 Bethnal Green shows an Essex Street, so surely Essex Place was just off it. Additionally when James married for the second time in 1853 the ceremony was in St. James the Less church which is situated close to where Essex Place is thought to be. It does not necessarily mean, however, that St. James was his parish church since the priests of the 12 churches of Bethnal Green had a fairly active role in encouraging residents to marry in their church in order to make a bit of extra cash to supplement their very meagre stipends.
In the copies of Lloyds Weekly between 1866 and 1871 there are a number of advertisements offering items and services which indicate that Essex Place was a small shopping precinct and a respectable one at that. We have dried fish and milk for sale at number 4; a pony cart and harness for sale at number 6; wagons and carts for sale at number 11; an old established shop with a good trade in cake and bakings – the present people there for 3 years and now taking larger premises, living at number 13; a grinders business doing good trade with paying workshops at number 20; and reference to a fire at a beer shop – number 22.
In 1866 the shop at the corner is described as being in a populous neighbourhood. Clearly Essex Place was not in the sort of slum area we can easily find in other parts of Bethnal Green at this time.
So this was where James brought up his 9 children. Bethnal Green is where they were educated and all were literate save only one son, Charles, who signed his marriage certificate with his mark. The literacy rate for men in mid Victorian England was just over 50%.
I suggest that the children might have grown up in comparative working class affluence and from their later histories it is obvious that they had a clear sense of achievement and which they later displayed after moving away from Bethnal Green.
I imagine them taking advantage of the open spaces of Victoria Park. Even closer was the Regents Canal, which had been used for naked male bathing for some years, and which was banned in 1846. After that daily bathing was allowed in the lake in Victoria Park and Charles Paulson in his book on the Park says that in summer, and before 8 am, many thousands of men would be bathing – remember they didn’t have bathrooms at home.
In 1863 there was a successful petition for the allowing of cricket to be played on Saturdays and other days, but not on Sundays and it was from Victoria Park, in 1848, that the Chartists set out to deliver their petition to Parliament but where the torrential rain simply put so many off.
An increase in leisure time at the weekends meant that working class families could also go on picnic trips to popular places like Epping Forest or even a day’s excursion by rail to Margate or Ramsgate which left Victoria at 8 am and cost 5 shillings but without luggage.
In the 1871 James had moved to Providence Place. Perhaps he and his wife had fallen on hard times, after all he had sold his animal. Perhaps the railways had won and he had lost his lease and his livelihood or like other market gardeners he could not get sufficient produce into London faster and in great quantity. In 1862 market gardeners had been advised not to take out long leases because of the railways.
James had had a long life with a large family and love from two marriages. He died of pneumonia and heart failure on the 19th July 1876 aged 80.