The History of Wandsworth Common

The Search for Sarah Tonks

"A shocking story of neglect"

"The death of Sarah Tonks, aged 18, who was found on Saturday morning sleeping on Wandsworth Common . . . "

This is a difficult story to write about. It concerns a young woman, Sarah Tonks, who has been living rough on the Common for some time. She is found asleep on some waste land. When she wakes, she speaks of an intense headache. She is described as being in a "most shocking state". A policeman takes her to the local police station and then to Wandsworth Infirmary.

Sarah speaks very little, but gives her name and age (some accounts say 18, others 19). She says she has no family or friends, and has been brought up in an institution — but she doesn't say where. The Coroner's officers search the metropolitan area but can find no record of her.

She appears to be improving but suddenly burns with fever and dies the following day.

"Death was due to heart failure while suffering from the effects of privation and self-neglect."

When Sarah was buried — presumably in Magdalen Road Cemetery in a public (often called a "pauper") grave — I cannot imagine there were any mourners.

It seems likely that her family (for she had one) never knew what happened to Sarah. She had just disappeared.

I began to wonder whether, with our easy access to so many digitised records, we could do a little better for Sarah now. And I think we can.

Wandsworth Common on a Stanford map c.1905.

Sarah Tonks is reported to have been 'knocking about' the Common for some time when she is found asleep on waste ground in Ellerton Road (just south of the prison and the cemetery). The police station she is taken to is probably the one next to Holy Trinity, Upper Tooting. The Wandsworth Infirmary, where she is treated and later dies, is at the other end of Trinity Road, on St John's Hill. This fits the statement that Sarah walked two miles with PC Kennard.

Incidentally, the Stanford map of 1905 is in places very misleading. For example, it appears to imply that numerous roads have already been built around Ellerton Road. In fact, these only existed on plans at this time — some would never be built, or only short sections (e.g. Loxley Road, Herondale Avenue). The area south of Ellerton was still open fields, many of them used for sports. (As some of it still is.) There is more on the state of the Ellerton Road houses below.

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I have found just three newspaper articles concerning Sarah.

The first two are very brief, and from distant parts of the country — one is from Sheffield, the other from the West Country. (It's always puzzle why a particular story about Wandsworth Common is picked up hundreds of miles away, seemingly at random.)

The first account appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph on Friday 30 July 1909:

Sheffield Evening Telegraph — Friday 30 July 1909

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A shocking case of privation and self-neglect was inquired into at Battersea to-day. On Saturday a police-constable on Wandsworth Common found a young woman asleep on the grass. He awakened her, and she said her name was Sarah Tonks, 19 years of age, and she was homeless.

The officer took her to the police station, and afterwards to Wandsworth Infirmary, where she died on Monday.

Dr. Mills said the girl was in a terrible condition. Her hair required surgical appliances for treatment. He learned that her parents died seven years ago, and that she was brought up in an institution.

Death was due to heart failure while suffering from the effe«s of privation and self-neglect

A verdict accordance with medical evidence was returned.

[BNA: Link]

This was followed a few days later by similar article in the Bristol-based Western Daily Press:

Western Daily Press, 2 August 1909.

In short, not very much to go on.

But I was lucky. I found a more detailed account in our local Wandsworth Borough News published later that week. (Incidentally, the WBN has only recently been digitised by the BNA, and then just for the years 1908, 1909, 1914, and 1919. I hope the rest are put online soon.).

It's worth reading the article in full:


Mr. Troutheck held an inquest, at the Battersea Coroner's Court, on Friday, touching the death of a girl, whose name was given as Sarah Tonks, aged 19.

At 7.30 on Saturday morning P.C. Kennard, 534 V, found her lying on a piece of waste land in Ellerton-road, Wandsworth Common. She proved to be in a frightful condition of neglect, and she died at Wandsworth Infirmary on Monday night.

P.C. Kennard said the deceased was apparently asleep when he first saw her. He roused her and asked if there was anything the matter. She replied that her head was very bad. Witness took off her hat and found that her head was in a most shocking state. It was full of vermin, and worse, being one mass of maggots.

Witness had never seen a head like that before in all his dealings with vagrants and tramps. When questioned, deceased said she had no parents or friends. She had been brought up in an institution, but could not say where.

The Coroner: Was she half-witted?

Witness: No. She spoke very rationally, and gave her name as Sarah Tonks, aged 19. For two years after being discharged from the institution she said she had worked at a laundry; since then she had been 'knocking about' on the commons for about a fortnight.

The Coroner: She could not have got into that dreadful state in a fortnight. Was she ill apart from her head?

Witness: She did not seem so. She said she could walk, and she walked easily to the police-station and to the infirmary, a distance of two miles. All she complained of was her head.

[The Coroner:] Did she say she had had no food?

No. She had food with her, and she said a lady had given it to her.

The divisional-surgeon saw her at the station.

The coroner's officer, Sergeant Gilbert, said enquiry had been made at every institution in the metropolitan area where deceased could possibly have been admitted. No record concerning her was found.

Asked as to her clothes, the constable said they were old and a mixed lot.

Dr. Neal, medical superintendent of the Wandsworth Infirmary, said he examined deceased on Saturday. Her physical condition was indifferent. The body and head were dirty and verminous in the extreme, the hair being matted into a solid mass, loaded with vermin and maggots.

The Coroner: Have you seen such a condition before?

Witness: Not in the head, but in the body. Continuing, he said the hair was removed with great difficulty. Ordinary scissors would not touch it; surgical scissors had to be used.

Deceased gave her name, but was otherwise very reticent. She would not speak at times when spoken to. Her mental condition was dull, owing, witness thought, to her physical state. She must have been neglected for months.

On Sunday her temperature suddenly went up to 104 [40 degrees C]. Next morning pneumonia set in and she died during Monday night.

Witness made a post-mortem and found that the brain substance was soft. Death was due to gradual heart failure while deceased was suffering from cerebral hemorrhage and softening. This was due to privation and personal neglect.

The Coroner said the case was a very strange one. It was most extraordinary that a young woman of that age could be entirely independent of any person or institution having duties towards her.

The jury could do no more than return a verdict in accordance with-the medical evidence. The jury at once acted on this direction.

[BNA: Link]

Here are some notes on the case. Of course, it's always possible that some of the facts presented in the articles are erroneous — they may have been reported inaccurately, or perhaps Sarah herself was unable or unwilling to tell the truth. That said, it seems to me that everything we read is credible and consistent.

— Sarah is found "on a piece of waste land in Ellerton-road, Wandsworth Common." In 1909, few houses had been erected along Ellerton Road — as we shall see, only one side of the road was at all built up.

— P.C.Kennard takes her first to a police station — probably the one on Trinity Road, which closed in 1973 and eventually converted into flats. (See here.) Or was it Earlsfield Police Station on Garratt Lane, near the end of Burntwood Lane? (Also now flats. See here. ) I'm no architectural historian, but both look as if they might have been new at the time.)

— She is then walked to "Wandsworth Infirmary". I assume this was the former St John's Workhouse, on East Hill (now mainly flats), rather than the infirmary that became St James's Hospital, which was not officially opened until the following year, 1910. (Demolished 1992, now a housing estate.)

—  On the Coroner, John Troutbeck, see here and an obituary here.

— Sarah is 18 or 19, so she was born around 1890.

— Both her parents had died seven years earlier i.e. around 1902.

— Sarah says she had lived in an institution, but could not or would not say where. What sort of an institution? An orphanage, an asylum, a reformatory, an industrial school?

— The Coroner's Officer "said enquiry had been made at every institution in the metropolitan area where deceased could possibly have been admitted. No record concerning her was found."

— Since leaving the institution two years earlier (i.e. c.1907), Sarah has worked at a laundry.

— Sarah says she left the laundry a fortnight earlier, and since then had been "'knocking about' on the commons".

— The Coroner is sceptical that it was just a fortnight — clearly her dreadful state had taken much longer to develop: "She must have been neglected for months."

— She had food with her: "she said a lady had given it to her".

— Emaciated as Sarah is, she "walked easily to the police-station and to the infirmary, a distance of two miles. All she complained of was her head.

— Sarah is not "half-witted" — she speaks "very rationally" — but is often silent.

— "She would not speak at times when spoken to. Her mental condition was dull, owing, witness thought, to her physical state."

— In which institution had she grown up, and why was she there?

— Does Sarah really have no family or friends? Unless she grew up locally, it seems likely that no one who knew her would have read the Wandsworth Borough News, and hence would never have known about Sarah's death and burial.

— I imagine Sarah was buried locally, presumably in Magdalen Road cemetery, in a public (or so-called "pauper") grave. And almost certainly without family or friends present to mourn her.

Ellerton Road on an Inland Revenue map of c.1911. This is two years after Sarah Tonks was found, yet houses have only been built on the north-east side of the road.

Notice Wandsworth/Magdalen Road Cemetery nearby, which is where I assume Sarah was buried (though I have not found a record for her in the Wandsworth Cemeteries Registry Search (though a "Woman Unknown" was buried on 6 September 1909, and there are a three others listed as "Unknown" or "Unreadable" in the month).
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Given this information and digital resources such as genealogy websites (and lots of luck), can we make any progress in identifying Sarah, her family, and the institution in which she spent much of her brief life?

[If you have a sub to, you can see a Family Tree I've put together for her family here. This includes links to official documents.

Incidentally, if you want a really weird experience (one demonstrating beyond doubt the existence of a parallel universe), try googling "Sarah Tonks".]

The first record I found for Sarah was from the Lambeth Board of Guardians, who administered the Poor Law locally (including control of workhouses).

In March 1904, Sarah had been sent from Lambeth to Ipswich. (This explains why the Coroner could find not find her in Metropolitan institutions.)

"Parish of Lambeth Poor Law and Board of Guardians Records: Admission and Discharge Book and Summary, Lunatics, Patients, and Children in Asylums, Hospitals, and Schools. Week ending 26 March 1904. Admissions."

Sarah Tonks, 15, is being sent by the Lambeth Guardians to some kind of institution (asylum? hospital? school?) in Ipswich. But which? The document says "Ipswich MaBys".
In fact, as we shall see, Sarah had only just reached the age of 14.
[Ancestry: Link.]
(Click on image to enlarge)


For a while, the letters "MaBys" after the word Ipswich puzzled me.

Could that be "Mother and Baby"? Had 15-year-old Sarah become pregnant? Was she being sent away from London until her confinement? Hmm, the phrase "Mother and Baby" sounded rather anachronistic to me, but not impossible.

Then the penny dropped.

If you capitalise all the letters in the entry, you get "MABYS". This was the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants, an impressive philanthropic agency founded in 1875 by a Battersea resident, Jane "Jeanie" Elizabeth Hughes (widely referred to as "Mrs Nassau John Senior"), who lived on Lavender Hill until her very premature death in 1877.


Jane ("Jeanie") Elizabeth Hughes (1828–1877), Mrs Nassau John Senior, by G.F. Watts, 1859. (ArtUK: National Trust: Wightwick Manor. Link.) Jane Senior lived at Elm House on Lavender Hill, a villa in wooded grounds on the site of today's Battersea Arts Centre.

Can we assume her deep blue dress was intended to associate her with Mary, mother of Jesus, and her long wavy hair with Mary Magdalene? Watts shows her lovingly tending lilies of the valley, a spring-flower with any number of allusions for Victorians (including Eve's tears on leaving Eden). But what are we to make of that lethal arsenic-green wallpaper?
(Click on image to enlarge)

[There's so much to say about Jane ("Jeanie") but perhaps not here and now. I strongly recommend Jeanne Rathbone's online article, "Jeanie Nassau Senior, first woman civil servant". (Don't let the phrase "the first woman civil servant" put you off, if indeed it does. She was, among other things, a pioneering social researcher who wrote a devastating report on the education (or rather lack of it) of pauper girls.)

There is also a Wikipedia article: Jane Senior, and an excellent book-length study by Sybil Oldfield (2008). Jeanie, an 'Army of One': Mrs. Nassau Senior, 1828–1877, the First Woman in Whitehall. Sussex Academic Press.

[On Elm House, see e.g. Survey of London: Battersea vol. 50 ch. 10.]

The Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (1875—c.1940)

Here's a brief introduction to MABYS, slightly edited from a Wikipedia article:

The Poor Law had led to large numbers of children being taken from their families and raised in workhouses and Poor Law schools. Children were discharged from these institutions at age 14 to survive as best they could, a practice that led to severe social problems, such as children turning to crime, alcohol and prostitution.

MABYS aimed to monitor and support girls discharged from residential institutions, in an effort to find them employment as domestic servants. MABYS volunteers would visit and befriend girls discharged from Poor Law care, providing advice and assistance with finding housing and new employment where necessary.

By the 1880s MABYS had 25 branch offices and 17 associated care homes, and by the 1890s MABYS had over 1,000 volunteers, and was processing applications for employment from over 7,000 girls per year, of whom over 5,000 per year were successfully placed, around 25% of whom came from London's Poor Law schools.

[Wikipedia: Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants.]

But why Ipswich, when there were other MABYS homes in London? (There was even one local to us, on Battersea Rise, but this did not open until 1914.)

MABYS's 'lodging home for girls out of place' at 147-149 Battersea Rise, Battersea, London SW11 — 1914 — WWII? (Google 2023.)

Battersea Rise Cemetery is to the right, next to no.149. The houses are opposite St Mark's Church.

"In 1914, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) opened a lodging home for 'girls out of place' at 147-149 Battersea Rise, Battersea, London SW11. The property could accommodate up to 24 girls, aged 14 to 20, who were 'of respectable character in or needing employment.'

The Home was still in operation in 1939, now occupying only 147 Battersea Rise."

[Source: Children's Homes: Link.]

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The MABYS lodging houses at 147-149 Battersea Rise, last houses on the left, opposite St Mark's.

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Sarah appears to have stayed for eighteen months in Ipswich. On 25 September 1905, she is discharged. Was she fully trained and ready for employment? Or was she believed to be beyond help? Her age is still given as 15, which is now correct.

Parish of Lambeth Poor Law and Board of Guardians Records etc. Week ending 21 October 1905. Discharges.

[Ancestry: Link.]
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[I am now pretty sure this Ipswich MABYS home was Handford House, which appears to have been established for what they called "feeble-minded" girls. As Paula Bartley writes in her illuminating study, Prostituion: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860—1914 (2000):

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, prostitution became more and more associated with 'feeble-mindedness'. The term 'feeble-minded' was used to describe those with learning difficulties and, though recognised as a derogatory term by today's standards, it is a term which will be used in this book.

Those perceived to be 'feeble-minded' were thought to be particularly open to seduction since they were too intellectually challenged to put up any resistance to the demands of unprincipled men. Once seduced, the downward path was thought to be all too slippery — statistics 'proved' that 'feebleminded' women formed a large proportion of prostitutes found in various institutions.

The third part of the book will therefore analyse how reformers sought to end prostitution by building homes and campaigning for legal changes for those considered to be at moral risk. It will argue that the focus on the 'feeble-minded' and prostitution must be placed within the context of changes in mental health provision, attitudes towards female madness, the development of eugenics as much as in charitable endeavour. (pp14—15)

The 'feeble-minded' may have lived in a home but, unlike most real households in England, daily life revolved around unpaid work, guided leisure and formalised religion, just as it did in other institutions. Ideally, the 'feebleminded' required different training from that of normal adults and were to be given varied tasks because of their limited attention span and because they were easily mentally fatigued.

It was recommended that there should be constant change of work interspersed with occasional intervals of songs and music. For example, it was expected that inmates would look after bees and poultry and help with the gardening as well as participating in traditional industrial occupations such as sewing, rug and basket making, weaving and chair caning.

Mrs Dickenson, one of the leaders of NACF, favoured light industries—needlework, glove making, artificial flowers and matchbox making. Moreover, she thought that jobs should be individually tailored so that each girl — depending on strength, capability and taste—was given work best suited to them.

At Handford House, Ipswich, inmates were taught housework, sewing, rug making and basket making...(p.141)


Having made these first few sightings of Sarah, more began to appear. Putting together some Census and related data, here's what turned up:

Sarah Ann Tonks was born on 18 January 1890 in the Thames-side parish of St Saviour's Southwark, near Borough Market. (Ancestry: Civil Registration Birth Index for Sarah Ann Tonks.)

Sarah's father is Joseph Tonks, Wharf Laborer. Her mother is "Elizabeth Tonks formerly Reynolds". Elizabeth, as the Informant, makes her mark, "X".

I am indebted to Sarah Vey for bringing this entry to my attention. See also below for more research findings by SV.
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The address given, Ladd's Court, is close to today's Tate Modern, the former Bankside Power station.

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The following year's census adds significantly to her story:

The Tonks family, 8 Le Grand Place, in the 1891 Census

[Ancestry: Link.]

Sarah's family in the 1891 Census.

8 Le Grand Place, Lambeth.

Joseph Tonks, Head, 33, Waterside Labourer, born St Mary;'s Islington.

Elizabeth, Wife, 32, born St Saviour's Southwark.

Phoebe, Daughter, 12, born Christ Church, Blackfriars.

Eliza, Daughter, 5, born St Saviour's Southwark.

Sarah, Daughter, 1, born St Saviour's Southwark.

One-year-old Sarah is living with her parents, Joseph and Elizabeth, and two older sisters, Phoebe and Eliza, at 8 Le Grand Place, Lambeth, off Waterloo Road. They are sharing the house with another family, the Alexanders — an almost universal situation in the area at this time.

Her father, Joseph, is described as aged 33, a "Waterside Labourer" (a later hand reclassifies his occupation as "Dock Labourer"), born Islington. Her mother, Elizabeth, was born locally — in St Saviour's Southwark, as was Eliza (5) and Sarah herself (1).

Joseph and Elizabeth had married in St Saviour's Church in 1879.

Le Grand Place, with just 12 houses listed in the 1891 Census, seems to have been very small. It is listed in some placename indexes but I have yet to find a map with a fine enough resolution to show it. It was probably a cul-de-sac or "court".

It must have come off the east side of Waterloo Road. In the 1891 Census, it is listed between Stamford Street and Cornwall Place. So far as I can tell, it is not shown on the Booth map of c.1889 nor described in the associated Notebooks covering the area.]

[Chronicles-reader David Ainsworth loves a map challenge. Quick as a flash he found Le Grand Place on a wonderful OS First Edition 25-inch map surveyed and published in the 1870s. Many thanks, David!]

"Just below corner of Waterloo Road and Stamford Street, west of Cornwall Mews and Cornwall Place, and just above St John's Church. Classy name for a deathly place. Still there on 1894 map, but no name. Certainly gone by next map (1914?)"

As you can see, most of the houses in Le Grand Place are "back-to-back" — there's no space for outdoor privies (let alone indoor ones).
[National Library of Scotland: London (First Editions c1850s) XLIV Surveyed: 1872, Published: 1879.]
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Amanda J. Thomas, in her Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849, summarises a mid-century report that describes the houses in Le Grand Place:

"small, with four rooms, each occupied by 10 or 12 people and all very poor. Only two of the houses had small backyards with privies, which were in a terrible state; there were six other privies for the common use of the other houses and the were all most offensive."

It is unlikely things had improved much in the following 40 years, when Sarah and family were living there.

Joseph Priestley discusses Le Grand Place in his Report on the vital and sanitary statistics of the Parish of Lambeth during the year 1899. Priestley was strongly opposed to mass slum clearance, arguing instead for frequent inspection of houses, and compulsory piecemeal improvements. But Le Grand Place, he wrote, was beyond remedy:

"In some few instances it has been found impossible to render . . . houses fit for habitation, owing to their positions or conditions, and in these cases the houses have been closed, and afterwards demolished, e.g. Commercial Buildings, Le Grand Place, Windmill Court, etc."

[Joseph Priestley, Report on the vital and sanitary statistics of the Parish of Lambeth during the year 1899, p.158]

(Click on image to see in context)

Sarah Tonks was born in 1889 or 1890.

Sarah had two older sisters. In the next few years, two further siblings were born: Emma (c.1892) and Charles (c.1897).

On 27 February 1899, her eldest sister Phoebe (aged c.19) married George William Catchpoole (c.20) at Christ Church Southwark. Phoebe had been living at 17 Charlotte Street, George at 8 George Street. (Both roads are just north of Oxford Street.)

[In the registration of the marriage, Phoebe's father Joseph is again described as a "Waterside Labourer". Her mother Elizabeth Tonks was a witness to the marriage — she made her mark X. Why did Joseph not sign? Was he already too ill?]

The following year (1900), when Sarah was about 10, both her parents died: her mother, Elizabeth, in the January Quarter (she was 39); her father, Joseph, in the July Quarter (42).

[If anybody wanted to follow this up, it would be useful to see Joseph and Elizabeth's death certificates.]

Sarah's sister Phoebe had married George Catchpoole in 1899. (Strangely, his parents are also called George and Phoebe Catchpoole.)

In the 1901 Census Sarah and her siblings have split up.

1901 Census

Having married, and now with a young son, Sarah's sister Phoebe has moved less than a quarter of a mile away — to 12 Surrey Row, off Blackfriars Bridge Road. She has taken in two of her sisters, Eliza (17), and Emma (9). But where are Sarah and their youngest sibling, Charles?

[Ancestry: Link and Link.]
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12 Surrey Row, Southwark

George W. Catchpoole, Head, 22, Publishers Packer, born St Giles.

Phoebe, Wife, 21, born Southwark.

George W., 1, born Southwark.

Eliza Tonks, Sister-in-Law, 17, Tailor's Runner [meaning?], born Southwark.

Emma Tonks, Sister-in-Law, 9, born Southwark.

[Surrey Row is a few hundred yards east of Le Grand Place, on the other side of Blackfriars Bridge Road.]

I find Sarah . . . 

Sarah Tonks, aged 13, was discharged from Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary on 18 October 1900. Why was Sarah in the Infirmary? How long had she been there?

Her relative/friend (to whom I suppose she was discharged) is given as "Aunt Mrs Catchbourne, 32 Commercial Rd." (You can see part of Commercial Road parallel to Stamford Street in the 1870s map above.)

The "aunt" called "Mrs Catchbourne" must be Mrs Catchpoole. Not, of course, her sister Phoebe Catchpoole, but Phoebe's new mother-in-law. [I was wrong — it was her great-aunt.]

Commercial Road, Southwark. Sarah's home in 1901.

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I eventually found Sarah (as "Sarah Tanks") living with her small brother Charles at the home of the older Phoebe Catchpoole only a few hundred yards away in Commercial Road:

[Ancestry: Link.]
(Click on image to see in context.)

32 Commercial Road, Lambeth.

George Catchpoole, 59, General labourer, born London St Clements.

Phoebe, his wife, 50, born London St Giles.

Sarah Tanks [sic], 13, described as George and Phoebe's "Niece", born Somerset, Ladscot [!].

Charles [Tanks], "Nephew", born London, Southwark.

["Niece" and "Nephew"? Can these terms really be applied to the siblings of your daughter-in-law? Possibly — it's certainly a simpler way of explaining a complicated familial relationship for which no terms are readily to hand.

But there is an alternative. Perhaps George Catchpoole junior and Phoebe Tonks junior were in fact first cousins, in which case Sarah and Charles are indeed niece and nephew?

Sarah's sister Phoebe shares her name with her mother-in-law. Is this just chance? Perhaps she is the elder Phoebe's namesake? Could the older Phoebe and Elizabeth, the younger Phoebe's mother, be sisters? [Sarah Vey has since discovered that Phoebe was Sarah Tonks' great aunt — see below.]

[This should be quite easily resolvable. But it isn't. I've tried to reconstruct the family trees, but keep getting stuck. I'll have to return to this. [As it happened, I didn't have to, because Sarah Vey took up the challenge. See below]]

Ladscot, Somerset? There is no record of such a place in the Gazetteer of British Place Names. Why had this been recorded? Strange.]

And what of Sarah's brother Charles?

Charles Tonks (born 18.1.1897) is recorded in the Fulham Road Workhouse Register in 1907, when he would have been about 10. In 1910, aged 13, he is shown in Lambeth Poor Law School Registers as sent "from Ashford" (an orphanage? an industrial school? possibly owned by Lambeth?) to the Exmouth Training Ship, presumably prior to joining the navy.

The Exmouth Training Ship, early 1900s.

For more information about Exmouth Training Ship (including this and other terrific photographs), and other institutions for children, see Peter Higginbotham's indispensable website: For workhouses and the Poor Laws, see his
(Click on image to enlarge)

The family must have stayed in contact because in 1918 Charles shares an address with George and Phoebe Catchpoole — both men are still on active service, and are recorded together on Electoral Registers and Absent Voter Lists living at Murphy Buildings, Borough Road (see e.g. Ancestry: Link).

Charles seems to have continued in the navy throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Having survived WWI, he died along with 126 others when the British Sloop H.M.S. Culver was torpedoed by the German submarine U-105 on 31 January 1942. He was 45, and a Leading Stoker:

On 31 January 1942, while escorting convoy SL 98, Culver came under fire by the German submarine U-105. At 23:31 hours, she was struck twice, once on the port side in the forward boiler room and once further aft that likely struck the vessel's magazine. Culver broke in two and sank in less than a minute. The commander, 7 officers and 119 ratings were lost. A single officer and 12 ratings survived the sinking and were rescued by HMS Londonderry.

[Wikipedia: H.M.S. Culver.]

[For further information, with remarkable images, see e.g. Ahoy — Mac's Web Log: "Walter Costick was one of 13 survivors of HMS Culver", 2009.]

(Click on image to enlarge)

It may be impossible to reconstruct in detail Sarah's life after her parents' death. Why and how long was she in the Lambeth Infirmary?

What happened to her between 1901, when she was living with her sister's parents-in-law/possible aunt and uncle, until she was sent by the Lambeth Guardians to Ipswich? What happened there?

And afterwards — between leaving Ipswich and being found near Wandsworth Common? There were numerous laundries in Battersea and Wandsworth, so she may have worked locally.

Let us hope other records will one day come to light to fill out Sarah's story.

10 August 2023

This is far as I've got for the moment, and I'm unlikely to continue with the research. But I hope I've established some important basic facts about Sarah Tonks's birth and early life, and her extended family, that were not accessible to the police and the Coroner at the time of her death. I'll leave it to others to take things further, if you can.

15 August 2023

Having said that I would not be continuing with the research, of course that was never going to happen.

As we go to press, I have just come across further references to Sarah's life and death. It may take a while to consider this new information, so I've tacked them on at the end here rather than try to integrate them above.

One is to Sarah in 1908, the year before her death in Wandsworth. She was admitted to the St Pancras Workhouse from "6 Union Terrace" (Camden Town?) on 16.9.07 and discharged 6.1.08 "O.R." (i.e. at Own Request). She is described as a Servant, born 1889.

In the column for "nearest known Relatives or Friend" are "Sis[ter] Mrs Wallace [followed by "S/a" — meaning?] and "Sis[ter] Mrs Barrs [?] 45 Drummond St".

[Mrs Wallace is Sarah's sister Eliza, who married John Wallace in 1905 and in 1911 was living at 5 Dewsbury Terrace in the St Pancras area. I have not traced Mrs Barrs [?]. There is a Drummond Street just west of the British Library. (Ancestry: Link see also next page.]

The second is the finding that Sarah was buried not in Wandsworth but in Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, on 31 July 1909. Brookwood,widely known as the London Necropolis. was once the largest cemetery in the world. Why was she buried there and not in Wandsworth? Who paid for the burial? Where exactly is she buried?

[Source: FamilySearch: " England, Surrey Parish Registers, 1536-1992," database, FamilySearch (1 June 2023), Sarah Tonks, 31 Jul 1909; Burial, Brookwood Cemetery, Brookwood, Surrey, England, United Kingdom, London Metropolitan Archives, England; FHL microfilm 1,751,646.]

[David Ainsworth adds: "On Brookwood Cemetery, this looks useful: Institutions Using Brookwood Cemetery (" I notice this list includes Wandsworth Union Workhouse, from 1858.]

[There is (or at least was) a pauper burial ground at Brookwood. It is possible that Sarah was buried there. Alternatively, from 1878 there was a crematorium nearby. Is it possible some pauper "burials" were in fact cremations? My guess is probably not, since I'm pretty sure the proprietors would not want cremation (which was not widely practiced until after WWII.) associated with poverty. See the impressive list of "early adopters" cremated here, including Madame Blavatsky, Samuel Butler, Friedrich Engels, Thomas and Florence Hardy, Eleanor Marx, and later Alan Turing.]<.p>

[I continue to think Lambeth/Southwark authorities never knew what had happened to Sarah. From 1854 Lambeth had its own cemetery nearby, between the River Wandle and Blackshaw Road, Tooting, which presumably it would have used in preference to Brookwood. (Incidentally, Lambeth did not take over management of West Norwood and Streatham Cemeteries until 1965.)]

Did Sarah's family ever know what had happened to her in Wandsworth? I continue to assume that they did not — she had simply disappeared.

20 August 2023

At this point, up stepped Chronicles-super-reader Sarah Vey, whose special power is genealogy. She has done a brilliant job of adding detailed information about Sarah's family, and also come up with some surprising new leads to Sarah's life and relationships immediately before her death near Wandsworth Common.

I'll lay out her findings and observations, with her comments in round brackets. [My own comments are in square ones.] You may think that some of this new information is impossibly complicated, and you'd be right. But it's worth sticking with it.

The first discovery was the registration of Sarah Ann Tonks's birth on 18 February 1890, which confirmed dates and the names of her parents — this has helped with exploring her broader family.

Sarah's father is Joseph Tonks, Wharf Laborer. Her mother is "Elizabeth Tonks formerly Reynolds". Elizabeth, as the Informant, makes her mark, "X".

(Click on image to enlarge)

The second was surprising — that Sarah Tonks had been baptised in All Saints South Wimbledon in February 1908, the year before her death (and only a few weeks after leaving St Pancras Workhouse in January).

Sarah Tonks and Maud Ethel Pilgrim, both living in Haydon's Road, South Wimbledon, were baptised in All Saints South Wimbledon on 26 February 1908.

Neither Sara nor Maud include their parents' names. Is that typical for adult baptism, or is there another reason?
Further research by Sarah Vey into Maud Ethel Pilgrim.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Sarah (Vey) writes:

Joseph Tonks (born 1858 Q1 Islington) married Elizabeth Reynolds (b. 1859, possibly Southwark or Ipswich) in 1879. (I have ordered their marriage certificate to get her father's name and occupation.)

Both Joseph and Elizabeth died in 1900. (I haven't ordered their death certificates — it would be interesting to see the cause of death, but it would be costly.)

Joseph and Elizabeth registered the births of nine children, all with the surname Tonks, and the mother's maiden name Reynolds. Only five (possibly four) survived to adulthood.

[PB: Q1, Q2 etc below refers to the year's quarter during which a birth or death was registered. So Q1, the "first quarter", means January—March, Q2 means April—June etc.]

Phoebe b. 1879

Joseph b. 1881 Q3 Southwark d. 1881 Q4 Southwark aged 0

Elizabeth [1] b. 1882 Q4 d. 1884 Q1 Southwark aged 1

Eliza Rachel b. 1885 Q1 Southwark

Elizabeth [2] b. 1888 Q4 d. 1889 Q1 Southwark aged 0

Sarah Ann b. 18 Jan 1890 Southwark died July 1909 Wandsworth (see her birth certificate)

Emma Elizabeth b. 1892 Q4 Southwark (can't find her after 1901)

Joseph b. 1895 Q2 d. 1896 Q1 Southwark aged 0

William Charles b. 1897 Q1 Southwark (you already know what happened to him).

[PB: Notice four of Sarah's siblings died in the first or second year of their life. This was all too common at this time. Death rates among the under-ones ["infant mortality"] was on average about 150 per 1000 live births. That's around one in every six babies born.

Among illegitimate babies in London at this time, nearly one in 3 died.

Infant mortality was generally highest in poor areas such as Battersea, Lambeth and Southwark, especially among babies born in summer since this was the time food- and water-borne diseases were most prevalent — enteric diseases such as diarrhoea was a principal cause of death.

Milk in particular was liable to contamination. Incidentally, one of England's earliest "Infants' Milk Depots" providing sterile nutritious milk was established in Battersea in 1902. See e.g. G.F. McCleary, "The Infants' Milk Depot: Its History and Function", 1904. Dr McCleary was the pioneering Medical Officer of Health for Battersea.

In 2015, the archivists at the Wandsworth Heritage Service published a good blog on the Battersea Milk Depot during WWI.

Is anyone interested in looking further at pioneering attempts to improve the health of mothers and babies in Battersea and Wandsworth? If so, please get in touch.]

Sarah's father Joseph Tonks (b. 1858) was the son of another Joseph Tonks (b. 1832 Wolverhampton, d. 1866 Q4 Islington) and Sarah Edwards (b. 1836 Hertfordshire — various places named on census).

Sarah's grandmother Sarah Tonks, nee Edwards, widow, married Robert George Smith, bachelor, 2 Feb. 1868, St James Shoreditch — he is a mariner. In 1881 they are living at 4 Little Galway St, St Luke's Islington, with her son, Joseph Tonks, and his wife and children. (A nice tie up.)

Sarah Edwards (b. 1836 Herts) had two sisters, who were living with her in 1861 in Islington, namely Elizabeth b. 1847 Q3 St Giles and Phoebe b. 1850 Q2 St Giles. Phoebe baptised 20 May 1850. Abode 15 Drury Lane, father a carman. Their parents were Thomas Edwards and Elizabeth Tittmus/Titmouse.

Phoebe Edwards b. 1850 St Giles [a notoriously poor area, which included Seven Dials] married Thomas George Winkworth, coach builder, in Shoreditch in 1871. Witnesses were Robert George Smith and Sarah Smith — see previous paragraph. (Another nice tie up.).

Unfortunately he, Thomas George Winkworth, then married Rose Thompson in 1878 in Bradford, Yorks and had several children with her. So he was a bigamist and Phoebe was not free to marry again.

Here is where it gets complicated. [!]

Phoebe Tonks (b. 1879 Southwark), eldest sister of Sarah Ann, m. George William Catchpoole (b. 1878 St Giles) 1899 Southwark. His parents are George (possible middle name Robert) Catchpoole (b. 1846 St Clements) and Sarah Lockton (b. 1855 Pimlico). They were not married, however, as far as I can see.

This George (Robert) Catchpoole ends up living with Phoebe Winkworth, nee Edwards, but they can't marry because she is already married.

This is the George and Phoebe Catchpoole with whom Sarah Ann and Charles Tonks are staying at 32 Commercial Road, Lambeth.

Meanwhile, the Sarah Lockton (b. 1855 Pimlico) above, who gave birth to George William Catchpoole and gives her maiden name to his birth certificate (which is the only evidence I have that maybe she was married to George (Robert), marries a John Wallace (on some records Wallis) 23 Sept 1883 and is listed as a spinster under her name Lockton. He, John Wallace, is a bachelor, 35, and a printer.

This couple have multiple children together, including — drumroll — John Wallace (b. 1884 Marylebone) who marries Eliza Rachel Tonks in 1905!

So George William Catchpoole and John Wallace are half brothers and marry two Tonks sisters, Phoebe and Eliza.

(I have lots of workings so just ask if you would like references — I am absolutely useless at using links etc to Ancestry or FMP, but please go ahead and argue if you think I've got this wrong.)


When they are baptised in All Saints Wimbledon in 1908 neither Sarah Tonks nor Maud Ethel Pilgrim declare their parent's forenames.

Is it that Sarah Ann Tonks doesn't know the name of her, or is it that if you are an adult you wouldn't put the names down on the register? I can't remember coming across an empty entry before like this.

In 1908 when Sarah was discharged from the workhouse, someone knew enough about her to list her aunt, surname Wallace, as her nearest relation, so unless Sarah was indeed mentally incapable, surely she would have remembered their names? She was 10 by the time they died in 1900.

Did she know that she hadn't been baptised as a child? Her sister Phoebe was baptised 10 Feb. 1885 at All Hallow Southwark, abode 12 Surrey Row, father labourer.

Emma Elizabeth was baptised 9 March 1897 St Alphege, Southwark, abode 12 Pocock St, father waterside Labourer.

William Charles baptised 23 Feb. 1897 (oddly, before his sister a couple of weeks later) at the same church with same abode and father's occupation.

What happened to Emma Elizabeth Tonks after 1901? (My current subscriptions to Ancestry and FMP don't allow for looking overseas.)

Where was Sarah Tonks's mother Elizabeth Reynolds born? I have independently followed my nose with the father being John James and M Elizabeth Ann Hardy Temple, but can't prove or disprove it yet.

If you have any thoughts about any of the above, or can add any information, please get in touch.

Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")

August 2023

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Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")