Uncovering the story of James Harper was a challenge as his short life appears to have left very little in the way of tangible records. Sadly, his death certificate revealed no family. He seems to have been alone in the world. In looking in the General Record Office search I had 4 hopeful Birth records. By a process of elimination, I narrowed the search down to a James Harper born in the June quarter of 1889 born in St George in the East whose mother’s maiden name was Allen. From there I have pieced together what I hope is the story of James’s life.
I believe James’s parents were Alfred Harper and Ellen Allen. They were married in the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary and St Michael, Commercial Road in Stepney on 30th May 1885. This is a copy of their wedding certificate below. Their address was given as 51 Berner Street and their fathers’ names were recorded as James Thomas Harper and Thomas Allen.
Records from Find My Past.
Alfred was born on 1st July 1855 to James Thomas Harper and Jane Chillingworth in Aldgate, London. Ellen was born in 1862 to Thomas Allen and Margaret Lynch in St George in the East in London. Finding the previous whereabouts of Alfred Harper prior to the marriage has been fruitless.
Following their marriage, it looks as if the couple had the following children:
Margarita, born 15 January 1886 and baptised at St Mary and St Michael’s Roman Catholic church on 28 February 1887. Margaret appears to have gone on to live with her maternal Grandparents in Cork, Ireland where she is found in the 1901 census. However, Margaret Allen had declared herself a widow 20 years beforehand. This is a mystery I have not been unable to untangle.
A daughter Margery followed on 17th August 1887 being baptised at St Ann’s, Spitalfields on 7th September 1887. She sadly died in the June quarter of 1888. A son, James, was born on 31 March 1889 and baptised in the same church on 10 April 1889.
Records from Find My Past
In 1891 the family can be found at 88 Cannon Street Road, near Cable Street in the parish of St George North. Alfred was aged 35 and working as a Lighterman on the Barges and Ellen was aged 30. Her place of birth is recorded as Cork in Ireland. I suspect this is more likely to be where her mother originates from. James is recorded as being 2 years old. They are 3 of 14 people living at this address. This is described by Booth as a mixed area.
In a very short space of time things seem to get worse when James is admitted to Raine Street Workhouse on 11 June 1891 with his mother Ellen and they were described as destitute. By 13 June 1891 they were discharged at Ellen’s request. There is another discharge for a James Harper on 20 June 1891 to Plasket School but I cannot be sure this is the correct James Harper.
A younger sister Ellen Mary was born 29 July 1891, being baptised into the Catholic faith on 9 August 1891. According to Workhouse records she died 27 April 1892 in St George in The East Infirmary.
On 20 Mar 1893 James is admitted to the Highways Infants School. His father’s name is noted as James. This could be Alfred or another father figure in James’s life. The date of birth is correct. The address is given as 2 Little Ann Street. James did not stay in education long as he is recorded as leaving on 18 November 1893.
On 30 September 1895 James is readmitted to the Highway Infants School where Ellen is described as his guardian and they are living at 249, Cable Street. He remains at this school until 1 March 1897 where it seems he moves to the Boys’ School.
There is an entry in the 1901 census at the Boys’ Home in Regents Park Road in St Pancras showing a 12-year-old James Harper as an inmate. This was an Industrial School for unconvicted destitute boys. There was a bakery and a printing works there where the boys would work, so it is quite possible that James could have ended up in a place like this.
Other possible sightings of James may be a series of visits in early 1906 to Bromley House Workhouse in Leonard St, Bromley by Bow. A male aged 17 of the Roman Catholic faith was living in Shadwell. By this time James’s epilepsy had developed so it could be feasible he had nowhere else to go if he was unwell.
The trail goes cold, and it is not until 13 February 1909 we find that James was admitted to Long Grove Hospital. He remains there until 18 January 1911 when he died aged just 22. His death certificate revealed he was an Errand Boy from St George in The East who had had epilepsy for 7 years and his demise at such a young age was not helped by contracting dysentery 3 weeks prior to his death. He was buried on 22 January 1911 in grave 1510b in Horton Cemetery.
This appears to be a story of a young man who like many others had a difficult life. His parents have been difficult to trace too and appear to have had shadowy lives. They baptised their children into the Roman Catholic faith, and this appears to have possibly been the faith of their maternal Grandmother who was from Ireland.
St George in The East was an area by the docks, and it was a tough area to live in. James’s father Alfred in 1891 worked as a lighterman (a lighter was a flat-bottomed barge), so he most probably worked in the Docks. What happened to him is unclear. Shortly after the 1891 census was taken James and his mother were in the Workhouse described as destitute so times were hard. Sadly, poor James’s nearest and dearest just seem to melt away from his life and he is left on his own struggling with epilepsy which ultimately lead to his journey into Long Grove and an early death.