Down by the riverside

Two of our first pupils hailed from East London within sight of the river. For one, her home in Shadwell was not just in sight but in sound and smell too! Mary Ann Ruscoe, daughter of Thomas and Mary, lived at 45 Bell Wharf.

Rocque’s map of 1746 shows Coal Stairs (on the left hand side of the shaded area) whilst the stairs on the right, Lower Stone Stairs, became Bell Wharf Stairs. But Bell Wharf itself does not appear on maps. One has to assume, however, that the eponymous stairs led to or from Bell Wharf.

The photo (from is Bell Wharf Stairs from the Thames foreshore.

Shadwell was often referred to as ‘Sailortown’ and represented as a poverty-stricken, run down area

 many of the houses had fallen into a very bad state caused by the occupiers of the tenements rather than by the wilful neglect of the owners of the property. (1)

It was an area redolent with the ‘specialist industries required in the eighteenth century to provide the supplies and services needed by the thousands of ships, schooners and colliers …’ (2) including ropeworks, cooperages, breweries and taverns. In the case of Mary Ann’s father, his trade of pipemaker, whilst not exclusive to sailors, no doubt gave him a business with the mariners arriving and departing.

Thomas Ruscoe applied for his daughter to attend the School and submitted her birth as 16 July 1780 and her baptism on 8 August 1780. The Rough Minute Book had this to say:

Mary Ann Ruscoe, b 16 Oct 1782, no certificate of Register Mr White G S to search for some – referred ‘till his answer is received, Mr White returns register’d, Mr Dennison

The ‘certificate of Register’ relates to Thomas’ registration as a Freemason rather than Mary Ann’s baptism. The reference to ‘Mr Dennison’ – P R Dennison, Governor of the School – is an indication of who supported the application.

Now the sharp-eyed amongst you will have spotted that we have a discrepancy in dates here. And there’s more to follow!

Mary Ann joined the other girls in the house at Somers Place East where everything presumably went swimmingly until 1793. On 27th December of that year, the Matron reported that conduct had been poor, with language ‘very obscene and improper’. The phrase to swear like a fishwife may be apt here. Quite possibly Mary Ann had been exposed to some fairly fruity language from her upbringing near the docks. We do not know what she said that the Matron thought ‘very obscene’ but we can guess that Mary Ann realised she had probably overstepped the mark linguistically and produced a defensive countermove. She announced that she was older than everyone thought as ‘her Friends had put her a year back’ to make her the proper age for admission. The baptismal register was sent for and compared with the documents produced by the parents, whereupon it was discovered that the presented documents had been forged. The girl’s baptism was shown to be 8 August 1779 when she was 24 days old and not 1780 as claimed (and then written as 1782 in error just to compound it).

From London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: P93/PAU3/004 via

The Committee therefore recommend to the General Court that from the extreme misconduct of Mary Ann Ruscoe and the dangerous tendency of her vicious and immoral conduct among the other girls together [great heavens – what had she done??] with the imposition practised on the charity by her parents that she be immediately dismissed and returned home to them.

Minute Book 1794

Despite this condemnation, it is later recorded that she was apprenticed to Mrs Andrews of Tichborne St [now Glasshouse St] and it seems strange that an apprenticeship – and the costs thereto – would be found by the School given the shadow under which she apparently left. She would have reached school-leaving age in July 1794 and so would have been apprenticed then but one has the impression that Mrs Andrews probably wasn’t informed of Mary Ann’s previous behaviour!

Of Mary Ann’s post-school, post-apprentice life, little can be ascertained. There are two possible marriages. Neither are in Shadwell which means one is interpreting generally and possibly wholly inaccurately. Even taking these into account, the 1841 census, the first in which individuals were named, doesn’t give any entries that one could say ‘Yes, that’s her’ so it all remains unsatisfactorily vague. We are left with a set of parents not above fact-massaging to get an advantage and the unholy impression of a child who had a few unsavoury turns of phrase in her armoury and wasn’t afraid to use them!

So let us turn aside from cussing and look at Frances Sansum, the other ‘Eastender’ who hailed from East Smithfield St. This, unlike Bell Wharf, does still exist but the modern version looks nothing like the one the Sansums would have known.


What is today East Smithfield leading into The Highway was previously Upper East Smithfield leading to St George St. The 1833 Schmollinger map shows the street skirting the edge of St Katherine’s docks.

Section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace” showing the location of the Royal Mint.

It is an ancient area, first recorded in Saxon times as an area for knightly combat. The name does not derive from ‘smith’, craft worker, but from ‘smooth field’, or open stretch of land. And if knights, possibly on horseback, were thundering up and down it, it must have been the equivalent of a sports arena today: ‘at a certain day in East Smithfield, they should run with spears against all comers’ (3)

The area was most notably used in the fourteenth century for two cemeteries in which London victims of the Black Death were interred: up to 200 people a day, in mass graves, stacked five deep.

The docks were constructed in 1828 and so would not have been there at the time Frances was resident. Presumably what she saw then in the area related to St Katherine’s Hospital.

East end of St Katharine’s Church, the chapel of the hospice

This 1750 map shows the area pre-docks. To the right, is what looks like a market garden area. Between 1800 and 1810, this became part of London docks but today it has once again been reclaimed as land for housing. So clearly this is an area of much change. The modern East Smithfield would leave Frances Sansum completely bewildered! Today it is a busy but nondescript stretch of road between Ratcliff Highway and the Tower of London and the London Marathon runs down it.

Frances had been christened on 25 December 1780 at St Botolph’s, Aldgate Without, the name indicating that the church lay outside the City Walls.

Copy of her baptismal record at St Botolph’s; image of church from

Her parents – Isaac and Elizabeth – had married in 1774 when he was 27 and she was 18. Frances was one of three daughters born to the couple but, sadly, the only one who did not die as a baby.

By trade, Isaac was a hosier, someone who made, or distributed, foot and legwear. During the second half of the 18th century, changes in fashion and competition from the cotton industry meant that the hosiery industry began to decline. Perhaps because of this he moved into apparel generally. In January 1786 we find ‘The Petition and Appeal of Isaac Sansum of the Parish of Saint Botolph Aldgate’ to appeal against a £20 fine ‘for having sold a Pair of Gloves not having a Stamp Affixed there to’ (London Metropolitan Archives LL ref: LMSMPS508060005). In we saw how Pitt’s tax on gloves may have caused hardship to the father of Ann Martin. Now we have another father caught out by political machinations. The hefty fine must have created a problem for the family finances.

Isaac’s name on the appeal.

However, in Frances’ case, her recommendation as a pupil, supported by Dr de Valangin and 11 more Governors, may be as much about her as her father. The Rough Minute Book records that she ‘has lost a leg’. At no point are we ever given any further information about how this had happened (e.g. accident, disease or congenital) or whether it created problems for her mobility. The subject is only mentioned one other time. When she was due to leave School, her mother expressed doubt that a suitable apprenticeship would be found because of the child’s missing leg.

In 1792, a problem arose concerning the child which appeared to have nothing to do with leglessness – at least it wasn’t mentioned so we presume not. In September, her Friends applied for Frances to have leave of absence. If ‘they’ (in reality likely to be her mother as she is the only parent later mentioned in School records) gave a reason for this application, it was not recorded. The reply from the Committee was decidedly frosty.

Leave of absence from the school ought not to be granted to any child on any pretence [my italics] whatever as the perseverance of good order in the school and the health and morals of the children especially depend on their never being suffered to go home to their Friends whilst under the protection of this Charity.

Furthermore, if her Friends applied again, Frances would be instantly dismissed. They didn’t.

Now the word ‘pretence’ above is interesting. Did the clerk mean to write ‘pretext’ which would fit the sense here? Or is the word ‘pretence’ a veiled indication of fraud? And if the reaction seems harsh, it should be remembered that a girl, once accepted, had everything she consumed paid for (food, clothing, education, living expenses) and received a good start in life along with gifts of clothing and money with which to depart the School. The Charity wanted to be very sure that no-one was taking advantage of them.

Three years after this episode, when Frances was of an age to leave, her mother thought that her daughter’s missing leg would be problematic. The rule, however, stated:

if a Child labours under any Infirmity which incapacitates her from Domestic Service, such Child shall be placed out, at the Discretion of the House Committee, to any Trade or Business which they shall think prudent, with a Premium not exceeding Ten Pounds

Half of this would be paid after 3 months and the remainder after half the term of years as long as the ‘Child has been and is properly taken care of.’

Frances eventually was found a position with Mrs Dorcas Grives of Fair St, Horsleydown, a schoolmistress. This street was so named as a fair used to be there (very literal our street namers).

Where Fair St joins Tooley St is a Grammar School where Dorcas Grives was listed as a Governor in 1825. By this point, it is likely that Frances had moved on. She remained south of the river apparently for the rest of her life and may have been trained as a teacher by Mrs Grives but we do not know that. In 1841, she is described as ‘independent’, a phrase indicating she had her own money. She was living in the gloriously named Baalzephon St, Bermondsey (later Weston St). By 1851, she was in Kynaston Row, Bermondsey, described as an annuitant which would clearly indicate that someone or some institution was providing a pension. She died in 1857.


And with her burial record we conclude the story of our two Eastenders.

Doof, doof, doof …


  1. From “The Copartnership Herald”, Vol. V, no. 57 (November 1935) cited by
  2. Derek Morris & Kenneth Cozens (2013) The Shadwell Waterfront in the Eighteenth Century, The Mariner’s Mirror
  3. (Allen, Thomas The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark, and parts adjacent pp.709–712 (George Virtue, 1839), as cited by Wikipedia)

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