James’s birth and early life – a taste of the tragedies ahead
James William Aber was born on the 27th of September 1886 in Camberwell, London to Henry and Sarah (née Jennings). They were a young south London couple who had only moved a few miles since they themselves had been born.
James was the youngest of five children born to the couple, who lived in 9 Sultan Street, Camberwell. Despite being the youngest, James was the first son to survive infancy. His older brother Henry’s death had been registered in the Q2 1883 in Camberwell aged 2. This was a tragic yet not uncommon fate for so many living in London’s poorest areas in the late nineteenth century.
James and his older sisters, Emily Sarah born 1876 Q1, Lizzie born 1878 Q2 and Lucy born 1884 Q2, took up the small space in Sultan Street which consisted of three rooms for the growing family. The family would see two new additions to the Aber clan, namely Mary Ann and Alfred.
More early death for James’ family
James was baptised on the 7th of November at St John Divine Church in Kennington, a stone’s throw from where the family were living in Sultan Street. James’s childhood was not an easy one being filled with its fair share of hardship. He struggled through, bouncing between numerous poor schools to workhouses when his parents fell on hard times.
In 1890, the Aber family suffered yet another tragedy when Mary Ann died just one year old. For James, losing a younger sibling when he was so young would have been hard to understand, and the effect on the wider family hard to process.
The struggle of James’s parents to support their family
During the numerous hardships, James’s father Henry worked as a general labourer. This was a common yet unstable position that would see many relying upon occasional work for multiple employers. Through the years, we see Henry working as a bricklayer, a stoker and other labouring positions to support his growing family. Henry’s wife Sarah was responsible for looking after the five children remaining at home, a task with which she struggled as we see during the following years.
James & his siblings experience school connected with workhouses
Multiple times we see the children entering into poor schools at the workhouse schools whilst parents Henry and Sarah battled with generating enough income to support their family.
For James, his childhood was spent between numerous different poor schools including Banstead, Brighton Road and Comber Grove schools, sometimes split from the rest of his siblings.
On numerous occasions Henry and Sarah were forced to surrender their children, typically over the winter months when work was hard to find. Tragically, the documents regarding the children’s surrender to the workhouse perhaps hold the key to why they were left so often. Both Emily and Lizzies submission documents to Camberwell workhouse from 1881 stated the children were severely neglected and poorly cared for.
Whilst it’s hard not to judge the parents Sarah and Henry, it’s impossible to know the intensity of their situation, how desperate they were and how much they too fell victim to their surroundings of loss and poverty.
In 1891, after more stability reached the family, James was five years old and back living in 16 Sultan Street with his parents and elder sisters Emily, Lizzie and Lucy. (When the census was taken this address, consisting of 3 rooms, was home to 2 families made up of 4 adults and 6 children). The mental anguish Sarah and Henry would have faced could only be described as unbearable, as the last five years saw little but heartache for the family.
The tragic death of James’s father and the repercussions for the family
Just three months after the census was taken, aged 46 (though his age on the census form was stated as 40) Henry died of unknown causes on the 7th of July 1891. He left his pregnant wife and four surviving children alone with no steady income. As for any woman during the 1890s, the pressure Sarah would have been under is unimaginable. With her youngest just five years old and a new baby on the way, she would have been reliant on her older children to assist with bringing in money to the family.
Did the family start to break? James’s mother marries again
After the dramatic year of 1891, the paper trail goes cold for the Aber family and it’s hard to see the immediate effects of such a tragedy. There is no 1901 Census found for the Abers and no direct links to what became of them. Sarah, Henry’s widow and the mother of James William, now described as a Charwoman, remarried aged 39 on February 15th, 1897, to Albert Andrews, age 38, a Labourer. Sarah made her mark “X” on the register.
James’s regular stays in Constance Road Workhouse, Southwark
In 1905 James appeared in the Constance Road Workhouse, Southwark aged 19 years. On the 30th of May he was admitted on the grounds of disability – “Fits” . This was the first of many incidents where James became reliant upon social welfare in order to get by. It also presents us with the first insight into James’s medical wellbeing.
Whilst we have no early indicators that James suffered any medical affliction it’s clear that by 1905, James was mentally incapacitated. On James’s admission notes to Constance Road Workhouse, we can see he was suffering with seizures. We know he was previously employed as a porter but how much his condition affected him earlier than 1905 we aren’t sure.
Just one year later, on the 3rd of May 1906, we see James back at Constance Road, only this time his condition has severely deteriorated. At just aged 20, James had been listed as being ‘aged and infirm’ by the medical examiner. Perhaps this was due to his condition affecting his appearance and ability to work and therefore provide a decent lifestyle for himself.
On the workhouse records, James was listed as being under the 2nd class diet, which was a diet designed by the workhouse for men for infirm pauper inmates in order to increase their weight. This would normally consist of bread supplemented with porridge or gruel, broths, soups and a small portion of meat and cheese.
James’s workhouse notes claim he was suffering the start of epilepsy, a condition which was largely unknown to doctors at the time. It’s hard to imagine the effects of numerous seizures on the brain with no medical aid, which would possibly explain the deterioration in James’s condition.
James entered the workhouse twice more in 1906, in August and September, both times of his own admittance from being unable to find work.
James is admitted to Ewell Epileptic Colony (St. Ebba’s) and dies young
In 1907, we see three further admissions into Constance Road Workhouse. However, later that year in August, it was clear that James’ condition had worsened and became too much for a workhouse institution. He was transferred to ‘the Ewell colony’ as seen upon his Lunacy register entry.
Many of James’s family had split up and moved away across London and surrounding counties in order to find lives for themselves trying to escape the fate of their father. But for James, his disability meant it would have been almost impossible to carve out any other kind of life for himself.
For James, his life was filled with sadness and hardship from a very early age and like many other patients at the Epsom Cluster it leads us to question how a better start in life would have affected their lives.
James spent seven years living at St Ebba’s hospital (epileptic colony) before passing away on 22nd April of 1915. He was buried in Horton Cemetery Grave 1771B on 27th April. He was only 28 years old.
James’s story is not unique in many ways, as many of his fellow patients also suffered dreadfully due to misunderstood medical conditions and ended up far away from friends and family. However, stories such as James’ provide a poignant reminder of this.