You have mail – Postscript

Just as a PS should be, this posting is an add-on drawn from the main theme but at a tangent. In this case, it concerns the post-education life of the coachman’s daughter. Whilst we do not know what happened to Mary Simpson after she left the School in 1811, Mary Ann Skudder (because of the more unusual name) is more traceable. She was ‘returned to her mother’ in 1816 – the School parlance for when she left school – and the next record we find for her was her marriage four years later to Garnett Benjamin Francis, an undertaker by profession. They were to have at least five children and we can follow their progress through the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns. Interestingly, none of the sons followed their father into the undertaking business, which was often a steady business and frequently lucrative. What we might make of that is open to interpretation.

Surprisingly little is written about the Victorian undertaker despite the fact that Death and Mourning was Big Business at the time. Or perhaps that is the very reason why.

‘Since it was in the best interest of the undertaker to promote the big expensive funeral, these men often became master manipulators, convincing families that they needed to add that extra coach, horse, mute, whatever in order to properly celebrate the death of a loved one.’

To find out more about Victorian undertakers, we are left to draw upon literature and Dickens, in particular, seemed agin undertakers. They are portrayed unsympathetically by him three times: Mr Sowerberry (Oliver Twist), Mr Trabb (Great Expectations) and Mr Mould (Martin Chuzzlewit).

“Pocket-handkerchiefs out, all!” cried Mr Trabb at this point, in a depressed business-like voice. “Pocket-handkerchiefs out! We are ready!” So, we all put our pocket-handkerchiefs to our faces, as if our noses were bleeding, and filed out two and two; Joe and I; Biddy and Pumblechook; Mr and Mrs Hubble. The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers — the postboy and his comrade. (Great Expectations)

Victorian undertaker images

Mr Trabb (left) and (right) a member of a re-enactment society dressed in his Victorian undertaker’s costume.

the whole of Mr. Mould’s establishment were on duty within the house or without; feathers waved, horses snorted, silk and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr Mould emphatically said, “Everything that money could do was done.” (Martin Chuzzlewit)

But it wasn’t just Dickens who castigated the greedy undertaker:

Every undertaker thinks it incumbent on himself to outdo every other undertaker in ridiculing the dead. The shops exhibit from the ground to the roof all kinds, sizes and shapes of coffins; beautiful epitaphs for the tomb of the dead; neat positions for “laying out;” and pictures of funerals underwritten thus: – “funerals got up in this style for £10,” or plainer funerals, for less money. W. O’Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859, cited by

At least one Dickensian undertaker is regarded well by Dickens and – coincidentally – it happens to be a Great Yarmouth one! Mr Omer is described as “a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat”.

A mid-century advertisement in The Times offered six classes of funerals ranging in price from £21 for a first-class burial down to £3 5s for the sixth class. The cost could be further reduced ‘by dispensing with the funeral cortege through the streets of London.’

Quite what sort of undertaker Mary Ann’s husband was we have no idea but they lived in an area that later declined. In 1841 and 1851, their address is given as Brick Lane, an area very much influenced by the incomers attracted to it.

‘The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane.’

Re-named from Whitechapel Lane (in the days when it crossed fields), Brick Lane was so called because of the brick and tile manufactories that sprang up there.

Brick sign
Brick Lane street sign

Image by James Cridland –, CC BY 2.0,

Interestingly, but probably unknown to the Francis family, Brick Lane has a connection with death. ‘[It] was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London.’ Its position outside the City saved it from destruction in the Great Fire of London which started 350 years ago today, to the day (September 2nd 1666).

Fire and brick
Eastern extremes of fire and Brick Lane’s proximity

Image from

In the 1880s, Brick Lane was in the haunt of Jack the Ripper but this was long after Mary Ann Francis had died.

Charles Booth’s map shows an interesting mixture of middle-class (red colour) butting up against poverty (black).

Bricken booth
Brick Lane from the Booth maps

(Image from the Charles Booth Online Archive )

By 1861, Garnett & Mary Ann had moved to Cavendish Street, defined by Booth as ‘Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family’. Perhaps Garnett was not making his fortune out of death which is why his sons did not follow the profession. This area has since been subject to slum clearance and rebuilt and the modern image below shows no trace of what Charles Booth saw in 1898.

Google Cavendish
Cavendish St from Google Earth street view

Garnett Benjamin Francis died in 1862 and Mary Ann did not long survive him. She was buried at St James, Pancras on 15 November 1867. If Mary Simpson married and when she died is not known but both Maries would probably be surprised to find their stories being told in the 21st century!

You have mail (2)

Previously, the focus was upon the coaching inn and its connection to Mary Simpson. Now we turn to Mary 2 – Mary Ann Skudder – and her association with mail delivery.

Mary Ann was born in Great Yarmouth, described in Great Expectations by Peggotty as the ‘finest place in the universe’, and baptised in the same church in which her parents married, now designated a minster church and possibly the oldest building in Great Yarmouth.

church of St Nicholas
St Nicholas, Yarmouth

Mary Ann’s father, John, married Elizabeth Fleming on 10 June 1798 and is recorded in Lane’s Masonic Records as being a mail coachman.Whilst there is an outside possibility that he visited The Swan with Two Necks, ‘Aldgate was the general starting point and terminus for all East Anglian coaches.’ This perhaps suggests that it is unlikely that James Simpson and John Skudder met in the course of their employment. (

Coachman were not postal employees but hired by the inns at which the coaches arrived. They were famous for their driving ability, so famous in fact that gentlemen adopted the coachman’s dress style rather than the other way around (working people mimicking gentlemen).

They wore a drab great coat that might have many short capes layered at the shoulders to lead rain away from their bodies and provide under layers that were not readily wet through. They wore a spotted Belcher handkerchief instead of a cravat, a tall beaver hat, striped waistcoat, white corduroy breeches, and boots. A coachman carried a whip with which he was said to be so expert that he could flick flies off his horses without startling them.

Mail driver
The coachman

The mail coach is believed to been the brain child of John Palmer. He certainly made his fortune from them! The first designated mail coach was in 1784. Before this, letters had been carried to their destinations by a horse and rider but it was a system riddled with problems:

Over-ridden horses fell lame or ill, the temptation to linger with a mug of beer over the ale-house fire was too great to be resisted, on lonely country roads the boys were sometimes set upon and robbed. So many letters never reached their destination that correspondents hesitated to use the post

In 1784, Palmer advertised that the coach Diligence would convey the mail with an armed guard for protection and could also carry four passengers. Beginning on August 2nd, it

will set off every Night at Eight o’clock from the Swan with Two Necks Lad’s Lane London, and arrive at the Three Tuns Inn Bath before Ten the next Morning

The price for passengers was twenty-eight shillings and, perhaps aware of the previously poor reputation of coachman

Both the Guard and the Coachman … have given ample security to the Proprietors for their conduct, so that those Ladies and Gentlemen, who may be pleased to honour them with their Encouragement, may depend upon every Respect and Attention.

The terror of road travel at the time was the highwayman but second to him was the mail guard! Rosamond Bayne-Powell in Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England cites Pennant (1792): ‘these guards shoot at dogs, hogs, sheep and poultry as they pass the road, and even in towns to the great terror and danger of the inhabitants’

Coachmen supplemented their low wages in tips for carrying mail, undercutting the official charges. On good routes, income could rise from 12s per week (for the night coach, best to be avoided) to £400-£500 annual income. These were the ‘kings’ of the road. ‘The men who drove the mail-coaches were a brave, hardy race, many of them great characters.’ One of them, William Salter, drove the Yarmouth stage-coach (no dates cited so not possible to know if he were contemporaneous with John Skudder); part of his epitaph reads:

Here lies Will Salter, honest man

Deny it Envy if you can

True to his Business and his Trust

Always punctual, always just …

The coach called The Star ‘started from Yarmouth, [and] was the only coach stopping at Harleston that went on all the way to London without passengers having to change to another coach.’ (Again, no dates cited so impossible to say if this were the coach on which Skudder was coachman.) A German traveller, J. H. Campe, found his journey from Great Yarmouth to London a ‘veritable torture’. [no date given but early 1800s]

Whether John Skudder was a ’king of the road’ or one of the poor earners is unknown but when his daughter was admitted to the School, the home address given was Eagle Assurance office which rather sounds as if he had perhaps changed occupation.

However, a direct descendant of John Skudder later pointed out that ‘On the 22nd of April 1802 he was made a Mason in the United Grand Lodge of England, his occupation shown as Mail Coachman. His age is given as 32’. Seven years later, when he died (in 1809) his age was given as 49. He was buried in Great Yarmouth on the 18th June 1809. Mary Ann was admitted to the School in 1810 which fits with the death of her father but it does not explain why the ‘family’ address given in the School registers is the Eagle Assurance office. It seems unlikely that this little mystery will ever be solved!

The Eagle Insurance Company was founded in 1807, the purpose being ‘for fire and life assurance and for granting annuities’ and its City office was at 41 Threadneedle Street. (info from

Newspaper ad
Advertisement in Bell’s Weekly Messenger 07 August 1836

Following its success, many other companies set up similar businesses. ‘Initially, each company employed its own fire department to prevent and minimise the damage from conflagrations on properties insured by them.’ . They issued firemarks (now very collectible) to denote which premises were insured. This system had an unfortunate flaw in that burning buildings were ignored if seen not to be ‘one of theirs’. The solution was eventually to establish a municipal authority to which the insurance companies contributed to establish a town fire brigade. This almost worked in that the fire fighters took no notice of whose firemarks were there but rather favoured those buildings that were insured against those that weren’t!

contract Hogarth
C18th contract & Hogarth print

18th century doc image By Charles Simms [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Cartoon by Hogarth recalling the position of prominence held by the Union Fire Office, 1762 from

It is interesting, but entirely coincidental, that one of the early companies, several mergers later, became what is now Aviva but which was for many years Norwich Union – another East Anglian connection?

For non-blushing patrons?

From its inception on Lady Day (March 25th) 1788 to the launch of the Rickmansworth Masonic School on 1st September 1978, the funding of the School depended on charitable donations, much of which – albeit not all – came from Masonic sources. An occasion dedicated to raising those funds was the annual dinner. Presided over by a senior Freemason, there was, in addition to the loyal toast, one made to the School “Prosperity to the Freemasons’ Girls’ School”. The assembled audience were appealed to for support in the venture – an appeal which never failed in its efforts. Throughout the nineteenth century, these dinners were reported in national and provincial newspapers. Indeed, Charles Dickens wrote about them in Sketches by Boz in the short story Public Dinners. The point was made, both for the diners and for the girls who were present, that the School offered support at any time during the girls’ lives.

The Lady's Newspaper, Saturday, May 11, 1850; pg. 258; Issue 176
The Lady’s Newspaper, Saturday, May 11, 1850; pg. 258; Issue 176
The Lady's Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490
The Lady’s Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490

Naturally, the “healthy and happy appearance” of the pupils did much to promote their own cause but, in addition, the assembled diners were given verbal encouragement to support a cause of which they could boast, unblushingly, that every girl had turned out well.

The Lady's Newspaper, Saturday, May 11, 1850; pg. 258; Issue 176
The Lady’s Newspaper, Saturday, May 11, 1850; pg. 258; Issue 176
The Lady's Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490
The Lady’s Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490

As well as a hearty meal for the assembled throng, there was professional entertainment provided.


As reported in 1850 and, below in 1856


Often the girls performed songs and played music too. In the report from 1856, we are told that girls received prizes and then sang a hymn which had been written by two of them.

The Lady's Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490
The Lady’s Newspaper, Saturday, May 17, 1856; pg. 316; Issue 490

Although, when it came to entertainment, the dinners mid-century probably didn’t have quite the razzmatazz of this fund-raising event in 1796:

Morning Post and Fashionable World, Saturday, May 21, 1796
Morning Post and Fashionable World, Saturday, May 21, 1796

The references to Mr Bolgna jun and Mr Bolgna sen are to John Peter Bologna (1775 –1846), known as Jack Bologna on stage, who was an Italian actor and dancer, and his father Pietro.

Jack Bologna
Jack Bologna

An image of Jack Bologna in the Harvard Theatre Collection, reproduced in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage personnel in London 1660-1800 by Philip H Highfill, Kalman . Burnim, &  Edward A Langhans (1973)

The father, Pietro, was contemporaneously described:

From Joe Grimaldi, His Life and Theatre by Richard Findlater
From Joe Grimaldi, His Life and Theatre by Richard Findlater

The phrase ‘clown to the rope’ referred to the compere who clowns about when the rope-dancer is not in motion and who comically fails to perform the tricks himself, thus demonstrating the skill of the rope-dancer.

Drama, music, ballet, tight rope dancing, a pantomime – not to mention displays of horsemanship and, surely the highlight of the event, “poney races”.

Now that’s a spectacle!

Carry on Matron

From a Rough Minute Book recording the Freemasons’ School Committee meetings, dated 1788, we find information about the election of the first Matron for the School, following an advertisement that had earlier been placed in a newspaper.

World (1787) (London, England), Friday, October 10, 1788
World (1787) (London, England), Friday, October 10, 1788

There were 17 candidates shortlisted, together with their addresses. In the meeting held at the Oxford Coffee House, Strand on Thursday 30th Oct 1788 “Ordered that the Secretary insert in the Register the names & recommendations of each candidate for the Place of Matron who has applied, in consequence of the Advertisements.” (Rough Minute Book – RMB) Applying modern research techniques to the information given in the Rough Minute Book gives a greater understanding to what would otherwise be sparse information.

In this series of blogs, the candidates for the post of Matron, and the outcomes of the ballot, will be considered.

Continue reading

Katherine Louisa & Augusta Maud Dickens

In All the Year Round in 1866, Charles Dickens writes of a visit to the school where his nieces Katherine and Maud Dickens, “… the two dear little girls in whom we have a special interest” were pupils.
Alfred Lamert Dickens

Their father was Dickens’ younger brother, Alfred Lamert Dickens who had married Helen Dobson in 1846. Alfred was a civil engineer and had an office in the Market Place, Malton. The family lived at Hillside Cottage, Greengate, Malton and later in Derwent Cottage, Scarborough Road, Norton.

Katherine had been born in Union Terrace, York in 1853.

Map data ©2015 Google
Map data 2015 Google

Maud, the youngest child of five, was born in 1855 when Alfred “was renting Lawn Cottage on West End Lane in 1859. This was one of a pair of houses on the Lane towards Finchley Road, uphill from West End Green.”

Whilst travelling in his official capacity, Alfred was taken ill and died on 27 July 1860 at the Mosley Arms, Manchester. His death was reported in all the national newspapers and a considerable number of provincial newspapers

“Mr Alfred Dickens (brother to the illustrious English author), died at Manchester, from a frightfully rapid attack of illness of a pulmonary nature, on Friday night week. Mr Dickens was the travelling and inspecting engineer under the Local Government Act, and was on official tour when he was stricken down.” (Carlisle Journal 7th August 1860, accessed via FindMyPast website)

In 1861, Katherine, Maud and their mother were living in Grafton Terrace where, in 1846, Karl Marx resided with his family. (Image from
Grafton Terrace

Charles Dickens took care of Alfred’s widow and children, and, as their father had been the Worshipful Master of Universal Lodge during his lifetime, Katherine Louisa and Augusta Maud Dickens were eligible for the support of the Royal Masonic Institution.

In 1866, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the school:

“But it is time you saw one of the institutions we are so proud of. Let us take a railway ticket from either Waterloo or Victoria station, and after a twenty minutes’ run alight at Clapham junction. … we are in front of a spacious red brick building, on the lofty tower of which, besides the clock, are a pair of compasses and a blazing sun. We will not stop to talk further about symbols now. After admiring the spacious well-kept garden of this place, and enjoying the sweet scents rising up from every flower-bed, we make for the front door, when the sharp click of a croquet-mallet reaches us from the right, and, turning a corner, we come upon a thoroughly happy party. Some twenty girls, from twelve to fifteen years old, are laughing merrily at the vigour with which one of their number has just sent the ball rattling through the little croquet hoops. … This is the Freemasons’ Girls’ School. … The comfort of its internal arrangements, its spotless cleanliness, the healthiness of its site, the judicious training and considerate kindness of its matron and governesses, are themes we descant upon at length; the rosy faces and unrestrained laughter of the children bearing forcible testimony to us. The committee of management visit this school frequently and regularly …  the healthy cleanly dormitories, the light and airy glass-covered exercise-hall, where the young people drill and dance; the matron’s private sanctum, which is like a fancy fair today in the extent and variety of the gay birthday presents laid out; the tea-room, where we all have jam in honour of the matron’s nativity; the board-room, hung with the portraits of grand masters and masonic benefactors, and which is placed at our disposal that we may enjoy a quiet chat with the two dear little girls in whom we have a special interest, are all visited in turn …”

Two years after this visit, we learn from school records that Maud won a prize for French recitation. This year, 1868, was the first year that the school put forward entrants for the Cambridge examinations, only available to female students from 1865.

The usual age for leaving the School was sixteen which would give a leaving year for Katherine of 1869 and Maud 1871. However, we find Maud with her mother in the 1871 census so we may surmise that she probably left in December 1870.