Mary Robinson: ‘Queen of the Costermongers’

by Bob Davenport

In January 1884 the following story appeared in more than thirty newspapers across the UK, and variations on it were carried by papers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand in the following weeks:

On Monday afternoon an extraordinary scene was enacted in the Caledonian-road, London, and its neighbourhood, in connection with the funeral of an aged woman, named Mary Robinson, who was well known not only in Islington and St. Pancras, by the title of the ‘Queen of the Costermongers,’ but throughout the metropolis. Mary Robinson, who had resided at 137, Bemerton-street, Caledonian-road, at one time used to have a stall in Somers Town, and of late years had been a vendor of cats’-meat. It is stated that she amassed a great fortune, being worth no less than £60,000. It was her custom to lend to costermongers money on Fridays and Saturdays to go to market with, they paying her for the loan a shilling in the pound. The deceased was a most eccentric character. She paid, some 20 years ago, to Mr Frank Sharman, of Caledonian-road, £20 for her funeral expenses. Owing to the rumour that the deceased in her will had ordered that her remains should be carried to their last resting-place by four men wearing white smocks, and that 24 young women should follow wearing violet or purple dresses, Paisley shawls, hats with white feathers in them, and white aprons; that there was to be £20 spent in drink at certain public-houses she named, by the costermongers, and that there was to be a band of music in attendance, some thousands of persons congregated in Bemerton-street, along the Caledonian-road, and the route the procession was to take to Finchley Cemetery [i.e. St Pancras Cemetery, in East Finchley]. So great, indeed, was the concourse of people that it blocked the whole traffic for the time being, and in some cases persons paid for windows to see the procession pass by. The police, under the direction of Inspector Tucker, of the Y division, had a most difficult task to keep the space clear so as to allow the funeral procession, when it did start, to get along. The coffin, which was of handsome polished oak, bore a brass plate, with the inscription ‘Mary Robinson, aged 71; died Jan. 1, 1884.’ It was reported that the corpse was dressed in white satin, and that round the head was a handsome wreath. A funeral car contained the coffin, which was completely covered with expensive wreaths and crosses. There were, besides the relatives and near friends of the deceased, who followed in the mourning carriages, a great number of pony-carts, donkey-barrows, and cabs, all being overfilled with costermongers, whilst hundreds followed on foot to the Finchley Cemetery, where the deceased was buried in her family grave. The scene, which was a strange one, caused a great deal of excitement. The deceased, it was said, left a sum of £10 to be spent in drink, and 10s for pipes and tobacco after the interment. The money was afterwards spent in the manner indicated by the deceased.

One report, however, told a rather different story. The Camden & Kentish Towns, Hampstead, Highgate and St. Pancras Gazette used the same text as above but without the (inconsistent) mentions of money to be spent on revelry, and ended with this additional sentence: ‘The deceased had been a teetotaller for the past ten years of her life, and did not leave any money for drink or tobacco, as has been stated, and the funeral arrangements were carried out strictly in accordance with custom.’

Then, on 10 February, Reynolds’s Newspaper reported that, at Clerkenwell magistrates court, Maria Gutteridge and Mary Ann Robinson had been summonsed on a charge of assaulting one Benjamin Burman of Cromer Street, St Pancras, in connection with the reports of the funeral. The 1881 census indicates that Burman was a fishmonger who lived round the corner from the Judd Street home of Mary Robinson’s son-in-law (also a fishmonger/greengrocer) and his family. The two women had gone to ask Burman ‘why he had put those wicked things into the paper about their poor mother’. While they were speaking to him, they claimed, his assistant ‘threw Mrs. Gutteridge down and kicked her, and afterwards assaulted the other defendant in a similar manner’. A crowd gathered and a policeman took the defendants into custody, but the mob rescued them. The court found against them, and they each were ordered to pay a fine of 40 shillings, in addition to damages of 40 shillings and the costs of the summons.

The ‘wicked things’ that the two women were complaining about were not specified, but the claim that Mary had been ‘worth no less than £60,000’ seems to have been a considerable exaggeration: the value of her personal estate for probate purposes was later officially published as £162 7s. 8d. – equivalent to about £20,300 in 2019.

By the time the story had got to Australia and appeared in Adelaide’s South Australian Weekly Chronicle, South Australian Advertiser, Express and Telegraph and Port Adelaide News and Lefevre’s Peninsula Advertiser, Mary had become ‘Mary Robeson’, and her will had ‘specified that she should be buried in her best silk dress, with all her jewellery. She was to be laid in state, to be seen by all her friends and neighbors. Her coffin was to be polished oak with brass fittings, borne on a car drawn by four horses, with two mourning coaches and a brougham to follow. There was to be a lid of feathers, and feathers and velvets on all the horses.’ The Port Adelaide News cited the London Times as its authority for this, though no report of Mary’s funeral can be found in that paper’s online archive. (In some shorter reports in Australia and New Zealand – such as that in the Ballarat Star – Mary became ‘Mrs. Healy’, apparently following the report in the London Evening Standard, which seems to have confused her with the Judd Street daughter who was then Mrs Haley, also referring to her as an ‘eccentric old woman … of miserly habits’.)

The funeral had taken place on Monday 14 January. Over eighteen months later, on 8 November 1885, the Richmond Dispatch, based in Richmond, Virginia, published a ‘London Letter’ article entitled ‘London Funerals. Some Wild Extravagance’, which included a description of Mary’s funeral along similar lines to the report quoted above. However, commenting on the ‘wild rumors’ about her will, it stated that ‘One of these … which proved true, was that she had ordered that her remains should be carried to the grave by four men wearing white smocks. But another, that twenty-four young women should follow, wearing violet or purple dresses, Paisley shawls, hats with white feathers in them, and white aprons, did not transpire in fact.’

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Mary Robinson’s headstone in St Pancras Cemetery

 

The inscription around the top of Mary’s headstone reads, ‘THE FAMILY GRAVE OF EDWARD AND MARY ROBINSON OF CHAPEL ST SOMERS TOWN’. Below that, Mary – who died age 71 and so was born in about 1813 – is described as Edward’s ‘beloved wife’. Edward died aged 72 in 1872, and so was born in about 1800. ‘Edward’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Robinson’ are such common names that it is difficult to be certain, but the couple may have been the Edward Robinson and Mary Welch who were married in St Pancras Old Church on 19 December 1831 – which would fit fairly well with the ‘beloved son’, William, who died aged 33 in 1866, according to the headstone (though he’s not buried with his parents). The 1831 couple were both illiterate, signing the marriage register with their marks, as did an M. A. Robinson who was one of the witnesses.

Maria Gutteridge, who was identified as Mary’s daughter in the report of the magistrates court hearing, appears in the 1881 census as living at 165 Bemerton Street, Islington, with her husband, Thomas, a labourer aged 36, and their four children. Maria’s age is given as 33, so she would have been born in around 1848. She and Thomas married in 1867, and in the marriage register Maria’s father, Edward, is said to be a general dealer. Maria signed the register with her mark, so she too was illiterate. Maria’s address then was given as Bemerton Street (and Thomas’s as Finsbury Street). Thomas and Maria are buried with Maria’s parents, as are three Gutteridge children – Emma, Mary and Charles – who died very young before the 1881 census.

It is in the 1881 census that Mary makes one of her few identifiable appearances in online records, age 69, living next door to her daughter at 167 Bemerton Street (not no. 137 as in the funeral reports), with a boarder (age 20), and giving her occupation as ‘cat’s meat dealer’ and her place of birth as St Giles – a notorious slum to the north-west of Covent Garden, near where Centre Point stands today. (Edward isn’t clearly identifiable in any online census records.)

Also buried in St Pancras Cemetery with the Robinsons and Gutteridges is a David Haley who died aged 2 years in July 1875 and whose ‘abode’ appears in his burial-register entry as 20 Judd Street. Mary Ann Robinson – Maria Gutteridge’s co-defendant in the Clerkenwell magistrates court – is presumably therefore the Mary A. Robinson who appears, aged 46, in the 1881 census entry for 20 Judd Street.

The head of the 20 Judd Street household in the 1881 census is also named David Haley, a 43-year-old greengrocer and fishmonger. The name of his 40-year-old wife is hard to decipher, but looks like Mary Haley, as does the name of one of their six children. These include yet another David Haley, this one aged 2 months and so born in early 1881. Mary A. Robinson’s relation to the head of the family is given as ‘relative’.

To add to the confusion, when Edward Robinson died, in 1872, the address entered on the burial register was 19 Judd Street. (The same address appears in the burial-register entries for two of the Gutteridge children who are buried with him.) Three different households are listed for this address in the 1881 census, none of them with an obvious link to Edward, but in the 1871 census there are again three households and one of them is headed by ‘David Halley’, a 32-year-old greengrocer. He has five children, whose names tally with those of David Haley’s eldest five children in 1881, so his household evidently moved across the road at some point. But the scribbled name of his 30-year old wife in 1871 looks like Ann, which is puzzling.

It seems likely that David Haley/Halley was married to one of Edward and Mary Robinson’s daughters; but what was her name? On 1 September 1858 a general dealer named David Haley married the daughter of another general dealer, Edward Robinson, in St Pancras Old Church. In 1871 the eldest child at 19 Judd Street was aged 11, so born in around 1860, which looks promising. But the bride’s name on 1 September 1858 was Emma (the name of one of the daughters in the 1871 household and of one of the Gutteridge children – and of course a quite common name). Again, both bride and groom signed the marriage register with their marks.

So it seems that Edward and Mary had a son, William, born in about 1833, a daughter, Mary Ann, born in about 1835, another daughter, Maria, born in around 1848, and a third daughter born between the other two in about 1841, and named … who knows?

As for Chapel Street, the location linked to Edward and Mary on their headstone, in the early 1860s Chapel Street, Skinner Street and Brill Row in the Somers Town area of St Pancras were the location for a popular Sunday market, known as the ‘Brill’ – until, later in the decade, Skinner Street and Brill Row were demolished and Chapel Street was shortened to make way for goods sheds for St Pancras station.

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Chapel Street and its environs in 1861 (top, from Cross’s New Plan Of London) and in 1894 (from Ordnance Survey London VII.NW)

 

In London Labour and the London Poor (1851), Henry Mayhew described the Brill as follows:

The streets in the neighbourhood are quiet and empty. The shops are closed with their different-coloured shutters, and the people round about are dressed in the shiney cloth of the holiday suit. There are no ‘cabs,’ and but few omnibuses to disturb the rest, and men walk in the road as safely as on the footpath.

As you enter the Brill the market sounds are scarcely heard. But at each step the low hum grows gradually into the noisy shouting, until at last the different cries become distinct, and the hubbub, din, and confusion of a thousand voices bellowing at once again fill the air. The road and footpath are crowded, as on the over-night; the men are standing in groups, smoking and talking; whilst the women run to and fro, some with the white round turnips showing out of their filled aprons, others with cabbages under their arms, and a piece of red meat dangling from their hands. Only a few of the shops are closed, but the butcher’s and the coal-shed are filled with customers, and from the door of the shut-up baker’s, the women come streaming forth with bags of flour in their hands, while men sally from the halfpenny barber’s smoothing their clean-shaved chins. Walnuts, blacking, apples, onions, braces, combs, turnips, herrings, pens, and corn-plaster, are all bellowed out at the same time. Labourers and mechanics, still unshorn and undressed, hang about with their hands in their pockets, some with their pet terriers under their arms. The pavement is green with the refuse leaves of vegetables, and round a cabbage-barrow the women stand turning over the bunches, as the man shouts, ‘Where you like, only a penny.’ Boys are running home with the breakfast herring held in a piece of paper, and the side-pocket of the apple-man’s stuff coat hangs down with the weight of the halfpence stored within it. Presently the tolling of the neighbouring church bells breaks forth. Then the bustle doubles itself, the cries grow louder, the confusion greater. Women run about and push their way through the throng, scolding the saunterers, for in half an hour the market will close. In a little time the butcher puts up his shutters, and leaves the door still open; the policemen in their clean gloves come round and drive the street-sellers before them, and as the clock strikes eleven the market finishes, and the Sunday’s rest begins.

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A costermonger as depicted in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

 

The market’s operating hours later seem to have extended, judging by a description in the Illustrated News of the World written just before the arrival of the railway and quoted by Edward Walford in his Old and New London (1878):

As the philanthropic or curious visitor enters Skinner Street, about eleven o‘clock some bright Sunday morning, his ears will be greeted … by the unnaturally loud cries of men, women, boys, and girls, anxious to sell edibles and drinkables – in fact, everything which a hard-working man or poor sempstress is supposed to need in order to keep body and soul together. The various so-called necessaries of life have here their special advocates. The well-known ‘buy, buy, buy,’ has, at the ‘Brill,’ a peculiar shrillness of tone, passing often into a scream – and well it may, for the meat is all ticketed at 4½d. per pound. Here the female purchasers are not generally styled ‘ladies,’ but ‘women,’ and somewhat after this fashion – ‘This is the sort of cabbage, or meat, or potatoes to buy, women;’ and each salesman seems to think that his success depends upon the loudness of his cry … The purchasers not only come from all parts of Somers Town itself to this spot on a Sunday morning, but from Camden Town, Holloway, Hampstead, and Highgate, and even from distances of five and six miles. The leading impression made by the moving scene is that of great activity and an ‘eye to business.’ Every one at the ‘Brill,’ as a rule, comes there on a Sunday morning for a definite purpose. The women come to buy meat, fish, vegetables, and crockery; and the men, chiefly ‘navigators,’ as they are termed, come to purchase boots, boot-laces, blouses, trousers, coats, caps, and other articles of wearing apparel.

The article continued:

Altogether, at the Brill matters are carried on in a business-like way. The salesmen, many of them young boys, are too intent on selling, and the purchasers too intent on buying, to warrant the supposition that they derive much spiritual benefit from the preachers of all persuasions and of no persuasions who frequent the neighbourhood. The most ardent, and apparently the most successful, of the street preachers are those who occupy posts in the immediate vicinity, and ‘hold forth’ in familiar strains on the advantages of teetotalism, and the evil consequences following intemperance.

Was Mary one of those latter street preachers’ successes?

In his Saint Pancras, Past and Present, published in 1874, after the construction of the station goods sheds, Frederick Miller noted that

Chapel-street, from time immemorial, seems to have been the favourite market-place in Somers Town. Skinners-street, part of Brill-row, and Brewers-street, also formed an important part of the market till their partial or total destruction. All kinds of shops which appeal to the appetite, the necessity, or the vanity of the frequenters of Chapel-street, are still to be seen. Interspersed is an occasional half-penny shaving shop: and for the mental pabulum is displayed the ‘Police News,’ and the endless variety of half-penny and penny serials, containing tales of highwaymen, or pirates, or love tales in which murder and suicide play a prominent part; in the same shops ’sweet-stuff,’ in its various colours and forms, lies in wait to beguile the young of their half-pence. Very few of the pure sweets or comforts of life fall to their lot. In front of this long line of shops (leaving but a narrow passage in the road-way) are the barrows of the costermongers, many of them vending similar articles to those displayed by some of the shopkeepers. On Saturday evenings (the only time when improvident luxuries are possible to go off) there may be seen engravings, or bright staring coloured pictures in frames. These attract many gazers, but apparently few purchasers.

This, then, would seem to be the context in which Mary’s selling and money-lending flourished. (Later, the same area was also home to Henry Croft – ‘The Original Pearly King’ – who is buried a couple of hundred yards away from her.)

The interest rate quoted earlier for Mary’s money-lending – ‘a shilling in the pound’, or 5 per cent – may sound steep for a short-term loan, depending on how quickly the loan had to be repaid, but in London Labour and the London Poor Henry Mayhew noted that ‘the ordinary rate of interest in the costermongers’ money-market amounts to 20 per cent. per week’, so perhaps Mary flourished by undercutting her competitors.

The 1885 Richmond Dispatch article mentioned above included – on what authority is not stated – a couple of details not found in earlier reports. One was that Mary had paid for her funeral so far in advance because ‘About twenty years ago she fell ill, and for some weeks lay in a critical condition. On her recovery she brooded much on death and funerals and the short-sightedness of people who in health make no practical burial provisions in case they are suddenly called hence.’ The other was that

Although seemingly a female Shylock, she was often generous, and, outside of money transactions, gave many a poor creature a helping hand. Especially in cases of illness and death was she generous. In short, she was a humble financier at the worst, and had she been born in better circles, doubtless would have turned her speculative talents to loftier account.

It might be nice to think that this generosity was the real reason for the large turnout at her funeral, but that would probably be imposing a narrative on events just as much as did the contemporary writers of fanciful reports.

 

SOURCES

• The report quoted at the start of this piece appeared in the Islington Gazette, the Middlesex Independent and the South Wales Daily News on 16 January 1884; in the Greenock Advertiser on 17 January; in the Abergavenny Chronicle, the Bicester Herald, the Brecon County Times, the Diss Express and the Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser on 18 January; in the Alcester Chronicle, the Banffshire Reporter, the Beverley and East Riding Recorder, the Buckingham Express, the Cardiff Times, the Central Somerset Gazette, the Christchurch Times, the Denbighshire Free Press, the English Lakes Visitor, the Exmouth Journal, the Hendon & Finchley Times, the Hertford Mercury and Reformer, the North London News, the Norwood News, the Renfrewshire Independent, Reynolds’s Newspaper, The Star (Guernsey), the Weekly Irish Times, the West Surrey Times and the Yarmouth Mercury on 19 January; in The People on 20 January; in the Tenbury Wells Advertiser and the Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette on 22 January; and in the Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet on 24 January. A similar story had appeared in the St James’s Gazette on 15 January and was reprinted in, for example, the Chillicothe Independent (Illinois) on 1 March.
Ballarat Star (Victoria), 6 June 1884 (‘Funeral of an Eccentric Female’)
Camden & Kentish Towns, Hampstead, Highgate and St. Pancras Gazette, 19 January 1884 (‘St. Pancras Costermongers’ Funeral’)
Evening Standard (London), 15 January 1884
Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), 11 March 1884 (‘Funeral of the Queen of the Costers’)
• Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work, vol. 1: The London Street-Folk (London, 1851)
• Frederick Miller, Saint Pancras, Past and Present (London: Abel Heywood & Son, 1874)
Port Adelaide News and Lefevre’s Peninsula Advertiser, 14 March 1884
Reynolds’s Newspaper, 10 February 1884 (‘Clerkenwell: The Funeral of “The Queen of the Costermongers”’)
Richmond Dispatch, 8 November 1885 (‘London Funerals. Some Wild Extravagance’)
• Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London, vol. 5 (London, 1878)