Saturday, November 19, 2011

Writing my mother's biography

These past few weeks have been satisfying because I am working on a biography of my mother. It is satisfying because it achieves something beyond being published or even being read. It exists and will continue to exist as a valuable family record.

One of the hardest things about writing and being unpublished is writing and being unpublished. There seems little point or purpose to it when there's a good chance it will never end up in book form and no-one will ever read it.

And point and purpose, or the need for point and purpose is a part of our human condition. I know they, whoever they are, say, and I have probably repeated it myself more than once in that fantasyland of trying to make something rotten feel better, that what matters is the creative act but that is crap. You don't cook a meal to then shovel it all into the bin or hide it in the fridge. You cook it to be consumed and writing, like any creative act, is no different. It needs a purpose - it needs to be shared.

And that is what makes the biography satisfying. It can be shared, it will be shared, it does have purpose and it is of value. And even just saying that makes me feel better.

The first chapter of my biography follows:



Photo: My mother and I, in early 1950.  

The greatest constant in my life with my mother was tears – her own and mine. My tears began I am sure with my birth and have not ended with her death, although these days, when they come, they are not just about her, but sourced in other losses, in the way that grief has of piggy-backing on the past.
But I know that at core, the first was of her and all other grieving since, is rooted in that place. And that is why I am writing her story. In seeking to understand myself and my relationship with her, I must have some understanding of who she was. In truth, that understanding will be limited, because so much is filtered both through a child’s perception and the years. And those perceptions remain when we are adults unless we work to see beyond them. Although even as I say that I wonder if we can.
The image we form of our parents comes from forgotten, remembered and half-remembered experiences; stories we have been told by others and those we tell ourselves; photographs, jottings and sometimes diaries … a collection of ‘petals’ from the past. It is rare to find much which is tangible, or material, and understanding is by necessity sourced in something akin to an archaeological ‘dig’ where I dust clean the shards which are revealed and try to make sense of them. Like the professionals, kneeling in the sand, brush in hand to whisk away the layers which conceal, hoping for insight and understanding, conclusions will be based on a reasonable amount of knowledge and experience, a great deal of conjecture and assumption and breath of intuition.
The parent we know as a child remains with us at unconscious and subconscious levels, as does the parent we know as an adult, but neither of these ‘parents’ are necessarily the person. We inherit half of our DNA from our mother and half from our father but there is no doubt, that in many cases, and certainly in the past, it is the mother who is the centre and source. Many men have died in war with the word ‘mother’ the last to leave their lips; it was the mother both personal and archetypal to whom they called.
Who was my mother? I do not really know but I would like to find out, or at least to give a truer ‘shape’ to whom and what she was. In tracing her story I hope to do that.  While we are all born with our own unique ‘imprint’ there is no doubt that we come bearing the ‘gifts’ or ‘curses’ of our parents and their parents and grandparents before them. Perhaps the truth of fairy tales and myth is that the ‘wicked witches’ are no more than the characters in our ancestry who come offering the inheritance which is ours and from which we have no escape – our cellular memory.
There was more than a touch of the princess about my mother – this sense she gave to her children that we were akin to courtiers; there to do her service. It was an attitude she took to more than her children, which no doubt aggravated them as much as it did us. She had grace and style and charisma when she was at her best and enormous destructive power when she was at her worst. But it was not a conscious or pro-active destructive power – rather it was unconscious and re-active and while it impacted her family, the greatest destruction was wrought upon herself - in both body and mind.
Hers was a life of emotion; a ride through the deepest and most tumultuous waters and the rivers of tears which followed her are symbolic of that. She was a princess of the waters. The fact that she spent much of her life ‘submerged’ in this sea of emotion and did not drown is a testament to her courage, strength and determination.
Perhaps, although we did not know it at the time, the greatest gift she gave to her children was a demonstration of those qualities. Whatever our parents were will be a part of who we are, whether we know it or not.
The ‘sins of the mothers and fathers’ which we inherit are no more than the worst of what they were; the weeds which sprouted from their wounded-ness. Whether we work to be what they were not or are content to be what they were - who and what we are is sourced in our parents and their parents and all those who went before them.
Even more, our family stories are embedded in our DNA and the more we know of those stories the greater the chance we will ‘live them’ instead of having them ‘live us’ in line with the saying –‘Those who will the Fates guide; those who won’t the Fates drag.’ It reminds me of one of my mother’s favourite sayings – ‘it’s a great life if you don’t weaken, once you weaken you are gone.’ It reflects the constant level of fear with which she lived and how terrifying it must have been for her when she ‘weakened’ and was ‘gone’ as she did psychologically and emotionally many times in her life.
To know ourselves well we need some understanding of our parents in particular and our ancestors in general. Gaining that understanding is one of the most important, and most difficult things we can do. There are few facts on the path of knowledge and barely enough of the tangible to enable us to ‘touch’ them or their times. The road which leads back through the past is a narrow one and it traverses strange and empty places where the vegetation of ‘truth’ is always sparse and the landscape as strange and confusing as that of any myth. There will be guides and there will be monsters, of that there is no doubt, and it is likely that nothing will be known until I return to the place where I started and see it, like Ithaca, with fresh eyes and the realisation that it was the journey which mattered, and not the destination.
In truth, understanding our parents as people may be impossible given the power of the parent/child dynamic which comes into place at the moment of first breath, particularly with the mother; she who has held us beneath her heart for nine months and whose body brings us to birth. Our relationship with our mother not only exists before birth but it lasts beyond her death, for better or for worse. In fact, when relationship remains unresolved, that growth can escalate after death, because the power of the parent becomes even more mythic and archetypal when it is not grounded in physical form.
The mother, because she carries us in her body as we take slow, sure form and brings us to birth is the most powerful of relationships for all of us, but even more so for daughters. We ‘draw’ ourselves in the shape of the parent of the same sex and we draw ourselves from them as well. Sometimes we draw ourselves in a shape which is opposite, and that was the case for me until I was in my thirties and came to understand that is what I was doing.
The question I then put to myself was: am I only that which is not my mother or is there a real me to be found who is sourced in my truth as opposed to a reaction to my mother’s truth? At that point I set out on a journey of self-discovery which still continues. I doubt it was a journey my mother ever took, at least not consciously, nor her mother or grandmother from what I was told. Which wasn’t much on reflection and therein lies one of the greatest ironies and tragedies of self-understanding… when we are told things which can help such a process we generally do not care enough to listen or remember and when we reach an age when we want to hear such things, those who could speak are dead and gone.
But perhaps it is the journey, undertaken through choice, which really matters.  It is ironic that by the time I complete this exploration I will know more about my mother’s parents and grandparents than she ever did, at least consciously.  However vague the shape of my mother might be, it is the images of those who went before her which are truly ephemeral. It is the ghosts which have the greatest capacity, and perhaps the greatest need, to haunt us.
And here I am now, with my mother dead for six years and knowing there are times when tears are sourced in old wounds and wondering if it would help to ‘get to know her better’ by tracing her path. And also to have reached a point where, beyond knowing myself better through knowing her better, I can offer something in return – an honouring of her life
 The part she played in my life was enormous; more so for challenges than for love and support. In many ways she has been my greatest teacher and perhaps that is how it was meant to be. She died at the age of eighty having lived a life of suffering, pain and frequent torment. It would be too easy to look at her life as ‘wasted,’ because for much of it she did little more than survive. And yet that in itself, given what she faced, was epic and admirable.
She left little which was tangible beyond a small collection of note-books into which she wrote lists – tiny, crabbed writing which detailed her tiny, crabbed days and the things she needed to do or to buy. How do you judge the value and worth of a life? I believe that everything has meaning and purpose. I think my mother believed similar things but in very simple terms, even during the worst of it when survival was almost impossible to bear, she never considered killing herself she said because she ‘might miss something.’ Perhaps those words, that attitude say more about her than anything.
Her natal birth chart shows Moon in Scorpio and Leo Rising with her Virgo Sun ‘holding hands’ with Saturn, as does mine. I did not discover astrology until I was in my thirties, and so this greater understanding of her nature was intuitive until that time. She certainly had the sunny persona of a Leo and the powerful, brooding emotions of Scorpio – a heady mix for the staid, obsessive Virgo at core.
And her insistence that she preferred to be called Dorothy and not Dot… the latter suggesting that she was insignificant; no more than  a pinprick… a dot… is just so Leo! She was mostly called Dot though, for as long as I knew her, at least by family and friends. Her brothers called her Dot, as did her sister, so I am assuming that her parents did as well.
Not that even as a Dot she could be insignificant… she was a powerful presence in many ways. She was beautiful as a grown woman – slender and tall, with her soft, brown hair rising up with leonine confidence from her broad, smooth forehead. The colour was not particular, but her hair was soft and gently waved if left to its own devices and not tortured into the sort of spiteful curls which perming demanded.
 I don’t have many pictures of her as a child but it is clear, in the face of the adult, is a mix of her dark, brooding mother and her sharp-nosed, hard-eyed father. Her hair, like that of all her children, was blonde until adulthood. She stands, in a photograph taken with her parents and small brothers, at the age of five, looking every bit the princess. Although it was not a life she was destined to live, despite her hopes at the time.
Her first name Dorothy meant ‘gift of God’ and her second, Jean, meant ‘God is gracious.’ Given the life she lived there was a sad irony to both of them. In another, more whimsical irony, her first name Dorothy has a Greek and Christian origin and her second a Hebrew or Jewish origin and the man she would marry, Sydney Charles Ross, had both in his ancestry.
But when Dorothy Jean Belchamber arrived in this world on September 15, 1923 such things were far in the future. She was the first-born child of John Henry William Belchamber, who had emigrated from London as a teenager, twelve years earlier, in a bid to escape grinding poverty, and Hilda Gertrude Hasch, a second generation Australian who had grown up in solid working class comfort.
The name Belchamber is said to come either from the French for ‘bell-keeper’ or the name of a French village, Bellencombre, but whatever the source the first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Thomas Belchambre, which was dated 1369, in the London Letter Book List, during the reign of King Edward 111.
Ancestry records throw up various spellings including two ‘l’s’ and an ‘s’ at the end, but John Henry, known as ‘Jack,’ spelled it as Belchamber. What my mother hated most about it was that at school she was called ‘dingle-jerry.’ Her creamy cheeks would have flamed at such an insult I am sure, given that many, many years later she would be devastated at having been moved from A Ward to B Ward – the former clearly superior, being first in the alphabet, and where she belonged. Both experiences constituted an affront to Dorothy Jean who knew her own worth even if others did not. Although she did laugh when she told the ‘dingle-jerry’ story and her sense of humour, always good, was a constant, except when she languished in the dark pits of psyche.
Her mother’s name, Hasch was German, from the Slavic and is an aphetic form of the personal name Johannes, which was in fact her maternal grandfather’s Christian name. I suppose in essence he was ‘Hasch-Hasch’ or ‘Johannes-Johannes’ which is synchronistic given that my mother called me Roslyn with a surname of Ross! I did ask her why she gave me a Christian name which was virtually the same as my surname but she had no answer.
Years later I realised, as I was driving past the small George Street cottage in Parkside where my parents had been living when I was born, that it was next to a block of flats called Rosslyn Court. This may well have been the source of the name with one ‘s’ dropped so it was not too similar to the surname. Knowing my mother I suspect she would not have admitted to me the source of my name.
As it was, unknown to her or my father, at least at a conscious level, ‘double names’ are quite common in Greek society and my paternal great-grandfather, Charles Ross (Rossilimos) was Greek. Being Ros Ross then was not unusual for the Greeks with their David David’s and George George’s and the like.
It was probably inevitable that I was also given the middle name of Hilda – after my dead maternal grandmother Hilda Gertrude and my very much alive, paternal grandmother, Hilda Rose. I am sure the name meant nothing to my mother other than in a familial sense and I hated it until I grew up and discovered that it was sourced in legends of feminine warriors like the Valkyrie Brunhilde and others of Norse, German and Saxon legend. Looking at my maternal line I can now see I would need all the help I could get.
Or perhaps my mother, insightful and intuitive as she was, wanted me to have a middle name which would empower me in a way that hers did not. Or in a way that she wished it had empowered her own timid mother. My paternal grandmother was the very essence and spirit of a Valkyrie, much to my mother’s cost at times.
So Hasch in essence has the same meaning as John which is common in English, Welsh and German and comes from the Hebrew yohanan, or Jehovah has favoured me with a son, or may Jehovah favour this child. The name was adopted into Latin, via Greek, as Johannes. It is also the source of my mother’s middle name, Jean.
Was it Jack or Hilda who chose the names for their daughter – their firstborn?  There was Dorothea in Hilda’s father’s family, the Danish-German, Kohlhagen-Hasch’s,  but no sign of any Jean. Although it was awash, if not submerged, in Johann’s or John’s which amounts to the same thing. Perhaps they were less hide-bound by tradition than they appear in photographs and family stories and Jean was a more modern name. Or perhaps they saw it in the newspaper, as they did the middle name of Marina which they chose for their second daughter, Joyce born on September 4, 1934, just two months before Prince George, Duke of Kent, married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. It was a story which made the papers in quietly slumbering Adelaide, the name Marina, being recorded for the first time! Jack and Hilda may have been more avant-garde than we know or their children realised.
Hilda’s mother, my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Camplin, was certainly an independent spirit and her strength and determination is palpable in the photograph above. The fifth of eight children, she was born on January 3, 1866 at Magill, Adelaide.  Sarah was a Capricorn, with the tenacity of the sign of the goat and with her Moon in Leo and Taurus Rising.  Strong, powerful, emotionally fiery and with Pluto in the First House a dangerous force with which to be reckoned, as her daughter would know all too well and as family stories would attest.
 Her parents, Isaac and Eliza (Ash) Camplin had arrived in South Australia on the Punjab, on May 25, 1855. The ship had left Southampton on February 12 on a journey that would take three and a half months.  The length of the voyage was dependent upon weather and wind. And so was the experience – somewhere between holiday and nightmare or something in between and usually a combination of all. If the weather was good there was dancing on deck. At least for those who were not seasick and most were, a lot of the time.

Photo: Sarah Camplin Hasch c. 1882.
The loss of life was often very high as they must have known before leaving England. It was the women and children who were the most vulnerable with casualty rates sometimes reaching ten percent. A competent surgeon-general could make all the difference as so many shipping records of the time reveal.
Along with hundreds of others Eliza and Isaac would have travelled steerage, crammed between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Emigrants had become profitable and in that never-changing way of the world, ship owners had found ways to cram more in, fitting a temporary floor beneath the main deck. As often as not it was so low that water seeped constantly. Ventilation and light were poor and only available when the hatches were open, which they were not in bad weather. During a storm, which could last for a few days or even weeks, the hatches remained closed. They would huddle in darkness, along with the scurry of rats, with candles being too dangerous in the conditions and the threat of a fire engulfing the sailing ship more important than days or weeks spent in darkness and damp.
The closer the ship got to the equator the hotter it got and dehydration could cut swathes through the ranks of small, fragile bodies - those in the first months or years of life. But often the food was reasonable and plentiful. There had been enough outrage before Eliza and Isaac set sail about deaths and disease en route for the ship captains and the ship owners to do what they could to keep their cargo alive. In the days before refrigeration the basics were salt meat and fish, lentils and other legumes, picked cabbage, suet, bread and oatmeal and coffee, tea, mustard and sugar. There might be fresh food taken on board when they stopped in ports along the way but those travelling steerage would be the last to get any of it. Cabin class passengers would eat with the captain and get not only fresh meat but milk and eggs.
Fresh water was for drinking only and sea water was used for personal hygiene. Women with their menstrual cycles would have greater need of this and no doubt, within days, their skin would be encrusted with salt. It must have been incredibly uncomfortable when combined with the hot, damp conditions below decks.  You had to be tough to survive such a voyage and if you did not start out that way, you would be tough by the end of it.
Isaac is listed as aged thirty-two and Eliza twenty-nine although this age does not fit with birth records which show her born at Woburn, Bedfordshire in 1833. Ages are something of a moveable feast with 19th century records and given that her age at death fits with a birth in 1833, it is probably as good a choice as any although her age, given in the 1851 census would have her born two years later. So, she was either twenty, twenty-two or twenty-nine when she left England. Eliza would be pregnant by journey’s end. They had sailed from England with a freezing winter at their backs, heading south to the great unknown. There had been heavy snowfalls in the February of that year when the ship left dock and England was abuzz with tales of the Devil afoot, his cloven prints being found in the snow in more than one place in the south of the country. It is the sort of story which may well have made the emigrants glad they were leaving even as they crammed into the fetid quarters below decks.
Did Eliza and Isaac look back, wiping tears and shivering in the grip of a chill wind? Or were they huddled below decks with dozens of others, trying desperately to keep warm – wondering what they had done? By the standards of the day it must have been a reasonable voyage with only one death - an eight month old baby who had died of croup and been buried at sea. How awful it must have been to drop such a small bundle over the side to be swallowed by an icy gulp of ocean. But the cramp and stink and damp of such ships would test the strongest of characters. However, by the time they faced the reality of their test, there would have been no choice but to endure. Perhaps that too is something which is a part of the legacy of my family- with so many ancestors making the difficult and hazardous journey from Europe and England to Australia.
While they would arrive penniless and have a difficult start, things would have been more settled by the time Sarah was born. Or as settled as it was ever likely to be. But that was years away and as their ship rocked and surged on the chop and swell of oceans, Isaac and Eliza could only dream of what the future might hold.
 Isaac was a butcher and gardener, born in Middlesex on June 9, 1822 and Eliza, had been born in Woburn, Bedfordshire on December 2, 1833-ish. She worked as a domestic servant in London before her marriage. It was probably a reasonable job as such jobs go given that her employer was a doctor. It suggests that Eliza was presentable and reliable enough to gain employment at a middling social level.
When they arrived in South Australia Eliza was three months pregnant with their first child Ebenezer. It would have been a good day’s walk from Port Adelaide on Spencer’s Gulf where the ship docked, to the city, but Eliza was young, not too pregnant and the weather in May would have been mild. Those who arrived in the fiery depths of a South Australian summer would have been sorely tested. Although, as often as not the ship would arrive late in the day and the walk would be done at night with only the dawn bringing the sight of Adelaide and their new home.
There were Aborigines in the area and more than one new arrival had been attacked and speared on their way to Adelaide. Those who had money could get their goods carried on a bullock wagon or even ride themselves – everyone else walked and if they were lucky, pushed a wheelbarrow carrying all they possessed. A steam railway between the port and the city would be operational within twelve months but when the Camplins arrived, given they were penniless, it was walk and carry your goods on your back.
Were Eliza and Isaac just so grateful to be off the stinking, rocking ship that they had no other sense but that of freedom and solid ground? Or did they stare in wonder at the broad expanse of clear, blue sky and smell the sharp, red earth and pungent perfume of the crushed eucalyptus leaves? It would have been all so very different to the solid stone, heady stink and noisy bustle of London. Koalas would have watched in soporific cling; kangaroos and wallabies bustling through the still-dry bush; magpies would have sung and scattered in the trees, their soulful, deliquescent, carolling song unlike anything they had ever heard and far off in the distance, they would have seen the shadowy blue rise of the Mount Lofty Ranges; remnants of mountains which are amongst the oldest land on earth.
The Camplins arrived in the same year that the Adelaide Central Mosque was opened. It is Australia’s oldest mosque and in the late 19th century Moslems would gather from all around Australia for the annual Ramadan. Most of them were Afghans, brought out to the colonies in its earliest years as camel drivers. When railways were established the camels were set free and Australia is now home to the largest (and healthiest) herds of wild camels in the world. Today their numbers are around a million but in the right conditions they have the capacity to double their numbers every nine years. It’s is a relationship of mutual appreciation where the environment suits the camels and, in the main, with their soft padded feet, as opposed to destructive hoofs, the camels tread gently on the ancient land.
 While Adelaide in 1855 had some substantial buildings and homes, the new arrivals would be unlikely to have had much provided in the way of accommodation. Although no doubt, given the enlightened values upon which the colony had been founded, they would have had a roof over their heads and food to eat at least. Their first home would probably have been a tent and their second, if they were lucky enough, would have been a hastily constructed bark hut. Whatever the accommodation it would most likely have been primitive – however, compared to being cooped up in the hull of a ship for weeks on end, all things are ultimately relative. Records for the Adelaide Destitute Asylum show that six months after stepping onto Australian soil the family received a week’s ‘outdoor relief’ because Isaac was unwell and Eliza was recovering from her confinement.
South Australia was a free colony with no convicts past or present. When the Camplins arrived it had a population of just over 85,000 people…. excluding the indigenous Aborigines who would be gradually moved north, killed or assimilated.  Those who did not die of European diseases that is, and, as with all other colonial enterprises, that was the fate of many. Although in many ways the approach of the earliest settlers was quite enlightened. In fact, in the early years of the colony there had been an office of Protector of Aborigines…. but it was abolished in 1856 when principles were sacrificed on the altar of economics and personal need. As they have been and are in every colonial enterprise.
PHOTO: Adelaide Destitute Asylum.
The fledgling State had been planned according to the Wakefield principles where there were to be no poor or destitute. As the theory went, if the correct proportions of capital and labour were applied to emigration there would be a society free from social, political, economic or religious problems. It would be a self-sustaining society, prosperous and virtuous without the need to provide for the poor. But they were prepared all the same and there was need.
The Adelaide Destitute Asylum had mainly taken care of single women who had arrived alone in the colony but by the time Isaac and Eliza arrived there were some 3,000 men, women and children in need of support.  Four years earlier the Asylum, which had been set up in 1849, was providing support to just over two hundred people. No doubt the drought which had hit the new colony the year before played a part in the escalation of numbers. But so too did desertion of husbands, who left their families behind in droves to seek fortune on the goldfields. For a man looking to leave home, gold is as good an excuse as any, but not it seems, despite his other failings, an option Isaac considered.
The Asylum was never a pleasant place and it was even worse when it was overcrowded. Like the poorhouses of England, stringent regulations and sub-standard accommodation were maintained in order to ensure it was a place of last resort and that the poor should not be ‘encouraged’ to seek shelter. Men and women were segregated and once admitted inmates could leave for only five or six hours a week. When ‘indoor relief’ was no longer available and the building crammed to the eaves, those in need would be given ‘outdoor relief,’ as Eliza and Isaac and their small baby were which meant they did not get accommodation but they did get help with money, food and clothing.
It is indicative of their resilience and independence that such help was required only for a week. Life was not easy but it had to be better than what they had in England. Or at least one likes to think so. Given that the chance of them ever returning to the land of their birth was negligible, they would have had to make the best of it whatever they felt or thought.
Having arrived in South Australia in Autumn and probably having faced a difficult winter, although nothing compared to England, the Camplins would have been experiencing Spring and no doubt hearing stories of the heat of an Australian summer while getting used to the idea of being parents. It must have been barely weeks after Ebenezer's birth that they were in need of help. Given that later records show Isaac had a bit of a fondness for drink, perhaps his un-wellness was self-inflicted. She was recovering from childbirth and he may have been recovering from the same thing, albeit in different form - an epic ‘bender’ …. possibly triggered by the birth of his first child and, the gift so greatly valued in the times, and for more than a century to come, a son. What matters is that it was the first and last time they needed relief of this kind and their circumstances, while they would never constitute middle class, did gradually improve.
There is quite a bit of information about Isaac and Eliza’s family for the worst of reasons…. they appear frequently in police records and none more so than Ebenezer. However, it is these ‘pieces of the past’, the solid fragments of their story, which help to build a picture of the sort of life and world in which my maternal great-grandmother grew up and which made her into the kind of mother her daughter knew and the kind of grandmother, my mother would know. Ebenezer and Isaac, to a lesser degree, would prove to be our ‘portholes’ to the past – as would the manner of my great-great-grandmother Eliza’s death.
Like most couples of the times, the children arrived soon after marriage, often very soon, and then regularly, averaging two years in between with breast-feeding providing reasonably effective natural contraception. Ebenezer was born on November 4, 1855 and died in 1930; Mary Eliza was born on August 10, 1858 and died August 11, 1886; Louise Jane was born June 12, 1859 and died December 23, 1951; William Henry was born in 1863 and died 1942; John Thomas was born August 16, 1868 and died in 1939; Emily Edith was born in 1871 and married James Dynon in 1892 and died August 9, 1906 and Esther was born November 9, 1875 and died ten days later. Eliza was forty-two at this time and not surprisingly, Esther was her last child. Given the times, losing two children out of eight was better than many experienced and perhaps better than if they had remained in England.
They had left behind a London of struggle, filth and poverty. Between 1800 and 1850 London’s population doubled to 2.6 million. It was a city knee-deep in manure from thousands of horse-drawn vehicles; where the sky was thick with coal smoke from chimneys and where raw sewage emptied into the streets – a recipe for disease which was ever-constant and for the sort of terrible cholera epidemics which killed thousands in 1833 and hundreds in 1854. Almost half of the funerals in London were for children under ten and half of all poor children born in London died before the age of one. Most of it was caused not by a lack of modern medicine but by a lack of adequate nutrition and sanitation. Cleanliness is next to godliness they said, whilst living in unimaginable filth.
The church yards were filled to over-flowing with bodies buried on top of each other; workhouses were full and crime was endemic. Isaac Camplin’s father, James was a brick-maker and the family lived in Camden Town, a district of inner London which these days is known for its flea markets. James later worked as a gardener, when he perhaps did not have the strength for brickmaking, as would Isaac in his last years, and no doubt taught his son the trade. Butchering was also a family skill. My eldest brother Wayne, also became a butcher, not knowing there were links in the family line. Then again, on my father’s side at the same time, there were ‘dog-meat’ and ‘cat meat’ sellers, an adjunct to the butchering trade, so the genes had a double dose.
It is fortunate that Isaac’s family has been well researched by others and has brought forth a wealth of information, thankfully, in the case of the English Camplins at least, not mostly from criminal records, his poor brother William being a tragic exception, which gives insight into his life and times and the sort of family into which he had been born.
My great-great-great-grandfather James Camplin was born circa 1780 and died on September 10, 1849. This is one hundred years and five days before my birth in a country which offers one of the best standards of living in the world. I doubt, if he had looked forward, he would have seen such fortune for some of his descendants.  That is if he had looked forward at all. Hard physical labour and long days, combined with the time-consuming demands of life in a largely non-mechanised world, left little time for reflection, as we still see in the Third World today. Reflection is in very many ways, an indulgence of those who are financially secure and who do not have to chop wood and carry water, and while the London Camplins were in better shape than most, they remained as vulnerable as many given the unpredictability of the times and their social class. Without the security safety nets we see in place in the developed world today, when you fell, you fell into the gutter … or England’s 19th century equivalent, the bleak abyss of the poorhouse. A handful of James’s descendants would suffer such a fate and given the nature of the times, that’s not half bad. Needless to say the poorhouse would feature painfully in my mother’s paternal ancestry.
 Sometime around 1810 James took the plunge and married Mary Ann who was born in 1786 and who died in 1854, the year before Isaac took ship to the Great South Land and became one of South Australia’s earliest colonists. In the 1838 census, James senior is listed as a gardener, living at The Cottage, Camden Street. He must have had some skill as a gardener for the Camplin cottages became known for their gardens and Isaac in later years managed to make a reasonable living out of the profession.
The front garden would have been small but if it gained a reputation, it must have been pretty with scoops and cavalcades of shrubs and flowers; plants like cascading mauve phlox; bright-petalled zinnias; tumbles of pink and white asters; large-leaf, small flowered heliotrope; ageratum – those puffs of purple which always seemed to be in the gardens of grandparents - and of course roses. These would have been roses which possessed both perfume and beauty … my favourite. The 19th century did see the beginning of the enormous growth in hybrid development but I doubt such ‘exotics’ would be found in James Camplin’s gardens. I prefer to think, that he, like I would have no time for the hybrids, many of which were and are valued for their consistency of blossom and shape and are utterly devoid of perfume.  A ‘rose would be a rose’ by any other name but in my book it is not a rose without a smell. Or rather, not one worth having in the garden. Isaac would have been delighted, I am sure, at how well roses grow in South Australia with its Mediterranean climate – cold winters and long, dry, hot summers.
James would have sent his children out into the streets to collect the horse dung. Armed with a brush and shovel and bucket, or a wheelbarrow if they were lucky, the manure would be gathered and then dug into the soil. With horses the only means of transport there would have been no shortage of this ‘garden gold.’ Isaac would no doubt send his children on the same errand in Adelaide.
They would also have helped to collect the seeds for next season's plantings... reaping the harvest of nature's bounty without thinking of buying future food in a packet, even if it were available. Economy was the order of the day. Old jars, tins and paper bags would have been collected and held ready, to receive this precious gift, when the plants were withered of leaf and bountiful of seed. Perhaps some of the seeds were sold, or swapped with neighbours, to add something new to the garden and the table.
The back garden, a plot in a corner of the back yard which also by the middle of the 19th century would hold a privy, bringing to an end the need to queue for public toilets, would have had both flowers and vegetables. One can only think, given the prevalence of disease due to unsanitary conditions, that the lack of a toilet must have been a nightmare. It would have been saucepans, bowls and buckets at the ready for much of the time, given the inability of the ill to drag their way down the street to a public convenience! And then water would have had to be collected from a communal pump in the street to do the necessary cleaning up. It doesn’t bear thinking about!
Pondering plants is much more appealing. James and his family would have planted things which would provide as much protein as possible and which would grow easily in the climate. Potatoes, beans, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, corn, lettuce, kale and cabbages were likely to be thrusting with leafy abundance in the back garden. It’s a reasonable leap to assume that the ‘success’ of James’s garden, for which he was known in Camden, also contributed to the ‘success’ of his child-raising, in that, comparatively, so few died in childhood. A nourishing diet is the foundation of good health and never more so than in-utero. One presumes the same factor may have applied to Isaac and Eliza’s children where the sons, despite heavy drinking, lived reasonably long lives.
James and Mary Ann’s first child James was born in 1812 but must have died before he was five because a second James appears. William was born two years later on January 21, 1814. He died in 1845. In the 1834 census he is listed as a ‘cat’s meat seller’ living at 6 Archer Street, Camden; in 1841 he is a Cabman, living at The Cottage with his parents; in 1843 he is a marine store dealer and had moved to Bermondsey.
Sellers of meat for dogs and cats were common in 19th century London and made a good living. No doubt cats were popular in order to keep down rats and mice and dogs were useful for security with some breeds also excellent rat-catchers. The ‘sellers’ would purchase horsemeat from the knacker yards and prepare it in small portions for sale to households.
Charles was born on November 17, 1815 and died in 1862 having worked mostly as a labourer and lastly as a Journeyman - which was usually a travelling tailor, cobbler or carpenter - in Marylebone, Camden and Clerkenwell. The second James was born on October 12, 1817 and died in 1866 having worked as a labourer, horse dealer and general dealer in Camden and St. Pancras. Ebenezer was born on February 14, 1820 and died in 1890 having worked as a general dealer and butcher in St. Pancras and Camden.
Isaac, my mother’s maternal great-grandfather, was born on June 9, 1822. He is listed in the 1851 English census as a butcher living with his brother Ebenezer, at 23 Upper Cambridge Street, Camden. In the 1854 census, the year before he and Eliza emigrated, he is working as a gardener and living in Dean Street, Soho which is close to where Eliza was working as a domestic servant.
There were four more children born after Isaac. Dinah born April 29, 1824 died in 1887; George born August 9, 1826 died in 1865 having worked as a butcher, horse dealer, marine goods dealer and general dealer in Marylebone; Henry born September 29, 1829 died in 1907 having worked as a Professor of Dog Meat, a Cat’s meat dealer, a Master Butcher, a Purveyor of Horse meat, a Pig Dealer living first at 5 Camplin Cottages and then in St. Pancras and Middlesex before being recorded in the 1901 census as living on his own means in Paddington and Frederick, born on November 30, 1834 died in 1902 after working in 1851 as a Dealer of Brushes in Marylebone, then a Cat’s Meat Seller, Dealer in Horse Flesh in St. Pancras, a butcher in Islington, then a stoker at the Islington Workhouse. He is also shown in 1891 as a patient at the Islington Workhouse but recovered and went back to work as a stoker at the Islington Workhouse Gas Works until his death.
The fact that the Camplins had their own cottages indicates the family did reasonably well and with Henry able to retire and live on his own means it looks like he did better than any of them. He clearly had a gift for the gab labelling himself a Professor of Dog’s Meat and Purveyor of Horse meat! Poor old Isaac seems a much less colourful character… unless he was drunk, when he was too colourful for his own or anyone else’s good.
But they did all seem to be hard workers and perhaps the fact that ten of James and Mary-Ann’s children survived childhood and the fact that nine of them were boys, meant that the Camplin family had plenty of ‘hands’ to put to the task of bringing in money. And because the Camplins lived in better conditions than the average, the survival rate of their children would have been increased.
 Many homes were ‘positively unwholesome, from the want of drainage and ventilation, and exposure to the weather,’ costing three to six shilling for a single room which compelled parents and children to sleep six, eight or even ten to one room. The surprising thing is that people had so many children in such conditions. But then that also applies to much of the Third World even today.  It doesn’t take much to make a child and sex may have been one of the few pleasures and releases, no matter how brief and furtive the act itself.
Victorian London was a dangerous place on so many counts and most of it was sourced in lack of sanitation and nutrition.  The unsanitary conditions meant rats were a common threat, not just as carriers of disease, an as yet unknown threat, but to the safety of babies and small children who could awaken screaming after having fingers and toes gnawed while sleeping. In normal circumstances the rats would be content with the pantry and its food but no doubt, when times were tough and there was little to be found, they would resort to eating what they could, including their own young and the vulnerable extremities of any available and helpless small child.
 Rat catching was a regular profession amongst the poor in 19th century London and even Queen Victoria had her own rat-catcher, the heroic Mr Jack Black, who, it seems, chose to dine as often as not on his catch! They were, he said, ‘moist as rabbits and quite as nice.’
Needless to say, while lack of sanitation was not the issue, my father spent more than one night sitting in wait, his rifle at the ready, for rats to appear, when I was a baby. I remember shuddering every time I was told the story. The small cottage in George Street, Parkside, down the road from where my mother and grandmother grew up, was close to a creek and no doubt they were water rats, but rats all the same and liable to chew a helpless infant if they could. Or perhaps I had inherited a cellular memory of something far worse.
But, the Camplins were not the poorest of the poor and having ownership of a number of cottages to house the various families, they were in fact, by local standards ‘pretty well off.’ Their cottages were situated between Great Camden Street and Little Camden Street and were held freehold. Mary Camplin’s Will, dated September 1853, states:
‘that my body be laid in the same grave as my poor departed husband ……that all my property, the cottages in Great Camden and Little Camden Streets be divided equally amongst my children, with Mary, my grand-daughter having an equal share with my children.’

Photo: Isaac Camplin c.1890.
By 1760, twenty years before James was born, this area was described as being a mix of cultivated fields and open drains and dust heaps.  It was about this time that the population of London began to explode. As did crime with highway robbery a risk that people took when travelling from the city to their homes in the newly developing suburbs.
For the working class London was a place of possibility. Camden and Somers Town were both experiencing major building booms, partly driven by the need for homes for refugees from the French Revolution, but also by the growth of London as the world’s most powerful city. Brick-makers were in high demand which was fortunate for James, who worked at the trade in the early years.