1890s – Charles’s early life in Bermondsey
The 1891 Census tell us that Charles Frederick Hamilton was born in 1891 to Arthur Ainslie Hamilton, aged 26, born in Brighton, and Ada J Rodgers aged 25, born in Woolwich, a working-class couple in the bustling district of Southwark, London.
Southwark had always held a strong working-class population due to the often prohibitive costs of housing North of the Thames. However, in the 1890s, the streets were lighting up with new commerce, driven from the increasing popularity of London Bridge just around the corner which made it a vibrant place to be.
The Hamilton Family became a large working class family consisting of seven sons and a daughter. Charles was the second born child to Arthur and Ada and therefore was able to experience a more quiet family life before his many brothers and sister arrived.
The family lived in 499 Hanover Buildings (later named Devon Mansions), Tooley Street, Bermondsey, which once was one of the largest warehouse complexes in London, holding tea, spices and other commodities from all over the world. The building then slowly became transformed into model dwelling tenement blocks, one of which the Hamilton Family inhabited. They were some of London’s first examples of social housing, designed to help mitigate the overcrowding problems the south was facing.
Charles’s father’s good job
Arthur was a print compositor, a position requiring good skill and a better education, and once recalled as the ‘aristocracy of the working class’, due to the level of expertise needed to fulfil the role. The position would have provided the family with good wages, but for a quickly growing family it was not a sustainable position. After all, Arthur and Ada would go on to have six more children in the two small rooms that comprised their home in 499 Hanover Buildings.
1899 – The Hamilton family loses a child to early death
Charles was the second of eight children belonging to Arthur and Ada, with a further five brothers and a sister coming along quickly afterwards. Unusually for this period, we find no baptism records for the children to indicate accurate birth dates or living arrangements.
Sadly, like many families in the turn of the new century, the worries of illness and disease were never far away. After having three healthy boys, Ada gave birth to Harry Vincent Hamilton who would only live a matter of months. His birth was registered in the 2nd quarter of 1899 and his death in the 3rd quarter of the same year. For the family, this would have been a devastating blow, but there were no escapes from the cruelty of diseases, rife through London at this time, and lack of medical care.
1901 – New home for the family, but Charles is living with relatives
The family relocated to 83 Rolt Street, Deptford in the 1st quarter of 1901 and Ernest Hamilton’s birth was registered in Greenwich registration district in the same quarter, just before the 1901 Census.
The family had escaped the hustle and bustle to the quieter suburbs as they were once known. The family was occupying three rooms at 83 Rolt Street, although it was only four children who were living with Arthur and Ada.
Charles was sent to live with his grandparents at 190 Burrage Road, Plumstead, Greenwich sometime before the 1901 Census. The house was much more sizable than his previous home, which would have allowed Charles the freedom to grow up running around in a private garden, miles away from what he had once known.
Why Charles was sent to live with his grandparents away from his parents and siblings is unknown, but it could have been simply due to space, or perhaps it was an early indicator of his health conditions as he was the only one sent away.
Charles’s grandfather William had a large property from which he was able to let out rooms in order to supply some additional income. In fact, when the census was taken in 1901, William alongside his wife and Charles had three boarders living with them at the time.
William was a retired schoolmaster, which at the time was a somewhat unusual career for a man. During the Victorian era, fewer men took on the role of teacher due to the poor pay that it held, and with many teachers having a lack of formal training it was left to the more educated students to take on the role.
We know from the previous 1881 Census, that William Hamilton was ‘school certificated’ suggesting he took some form of qualification in order to fulfil the role. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t have been enough to raise a salary anymore, suggesting the money of three boarders would be hugely beneficial to the family. For Charles, we can almost certainly guarantee that this is where he got the education that would lead on to him gaining his own career.
In 1911, Charles’s life took another turn when he began working for himself. Charles was a ticket writer, ‘within his own account’ therefore ‘self-employed’ as it may be styled today. A ‘ticket writer’ was someone who wrote or painted show-cards for shop-windows, etc.
Ada Hamilton dies suddenly, and the family starts to break up
However, for the Hamilton family tragedy struck in 1907. Ada Hamilton passed away shortly after giving birth to the couple’s seventh child, their only daughter, Elizabeth Esther Hamilton. Ada passed away just two weeks after giving birth, likely as a result of complications from the labour. This would have had a profound effect on the family, likely resulting in a seismic shift in their relationships with one another.
Arthur was unable to care for his children, perhaps due to financial factors or the emotional struggle he went through after the death of his wife. Ernest Hamilton, the sixth child of Arthur and Ada was formally adopted by a couple in Brighton, Walter and Minnie Maskell. Whilst Herbert and Albert Hamilton were classed as boarders with the couple and Charles a visitor.
Even further afield, eldest brother William relocated to Sydney, Australia perhaps for a new life after so much tragedy.
Leslie was living at 95 Southwark Street, also named Mr. Fegan’s Orphanage and Training Home. (Further information on this establishment is available here http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/SouthwarkFegan/ – with thanks to Peter Higginbotham, the creator of the web site). It’s clear the death of mother Ada had a huge effect on the family which spread out to the corners of the earth. Arthur had decided to leave London without his children and moved to Yorkshire in order to find work.
1911 – Charles enters the asylum system and dies in Epsom
In 1911, Charles’s medical condition became clear as the census had him down as ‘feeble-minded’. The British Government’s Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded declared it to mean ‘Persons who may be capable of earning a living under favourable circumstances, but are incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age’, indicating it could be any number of learning difficulties or mental disabilities.
Without financial assistance, this led Charles to become vulnerable and would result in him relying upon the state for care. He was admitted to Brighton asylum on 23/11/1911 and subsequently “Discharged Relieved” on 10/3/1913. Presumably, though records have yet to be found to confirm this, Charles was admitted to the Epileptic Colony, one of the Epsom Cluster Hospitals. It is not yet clear why he was sent there. It’s a question we may never know the true answer to. Perhaps his hospital records from the epileptic colony in Epsom (later named St. Ebba’s) will throw light on this.
Charles Frederick Hamilton passed away on the 25th of August 1915, in Epsom at St Ebba’s epileptic colony. Like many others at the cemetery, there is little surviving evidence of the full story of Charles or what led to him passing away at just 24 years old.