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b.1878 – d.1917

Alfred Kearney was born in 1878, his birth was registered in the March Q in Camberwell registration district. His mother’s maiden name was WEBB, which I discovered through the Passport Office GRO site.


The 1881 Census shows his family living with his widowed grandmother Mary Webb, a laundress, at 54 Stanton Street, Camberwell. (Today this is roughly where Jocelyn Street is in Camberwell.) His father, Charles, was a book finisher/binder. Mary’s daughter Maria had married Charles in June Q 1873, their marriage was registered in Shoreditch. Alfred had two older brothers – Charles age 7, birth registered June Q 1874 Shoreditch and Henry age 6, birth registered June Q quarter 1875.


By 1891 the census records the family had moved to 15 Brymer Road, Camberwell. (The road no longer exists having been redeveloped in the 1970s and is in the area that today is called Burgess Park.) They are no longer living with Maria’s mother Mary Webb, but Alfred at 13, now has a younger brother George age 9 and a younger sister Rose age 7. The final column in the Census form headed “1 Deaf & Dumb, 2 Blind, 3 Lunatic, Imbecile or Idiot” tells us that Alfred is “Blind”. Camberwell and Peckham were both part of Shoreditch which at one time was part of the Vice County of Surrey which stretched as far as the River Thames at Southwark.

In the December Q of 1898 Alfred married Elizabeth Marshall and their marriage was registered in Camberwell registration district. Their marriage banns had been read at St. Mark’s church, Camberwell in the October, when they both gave their age as 20. We know that Alfred was blind so signed by a witnessed mark. Elizabeth also signed with a mark, (At this time, many people signed documents with a witnessed mark of an X as little or no education or learning to read or write was common.) and the 1901 census records [below] her as ‘nearly blind’.

1898 marriage certificate between Alfred Kearney & Elizabeth Marshall

They had a son, also Alfred, born in the January quarter 1899 but Alfred and Elizabeth suffered the blow of young Alfred tragically dying very soon and his death was registered in the June quarter of 1899.


[UPDATE] Daughter Florence was born on 31 March 1900 and Baptised on May 2nd. Alfred is listed as an Organist living at 90, New Church Road.

At the 1901 Census Alfred 23, Elizabeth 22 and Florence age 1 are living at 25 Tooting Grove (within metres of today’s St. George’s Hospital). He was an Organ Grinder (there are other Organ Grinders and a Street Artist living in nearby houses.) Elizabeth is listed as “Nearly Blind”. (Was this a problem caused by childhood malnutrition? Her younger brother John had been described in the 1891 Census as having Ricketts from birth which is a disease caused by malnutrition) I wonder whereabouts Alfred entertained people with his Barrel Organ to earn a living for his family.

In 1902 in June Q Rose Annie is born into the family. Hopefully, this was a joy for them but very quickly this would have turned to more sadness as Rose Annie’s death, age 1 was registered in September Q 1903. And Elizabeth was heavily pregnant as Mabel was born in the same Q of 1903. It is difficult to imagine how the family coped with all the mixed emotions.

In 1905 in the September Q Beatrice Rose was born but again, any joy probably turned to increasing sadness as she died just over 1 year later in December Q 1906.

In August 1906 Florence, 6 and Mabel, 3 were admitted to Constance Road Workhouse in Camberwell. And were discharged on the same day with their father Alfred and into his care. Perhaps he was already residing there but, so far we cannot find his admission record.

In October 1906 Elizabeth 28 and her daughters Mabel, 3 and Beatrice, 1 “wife and children of Alfred, a hawker”, were admitted to Constance Road Workhouse in Camberwell and then on the same day, along with Alfred they were all discharged at the request of Alfred.

Very sadly Beatrice Rose died age 1 in December Q 1906.

And a son replacing the lost Alfred junior, hopefully bringing joy, was born in the December Q of 1907, George Arthur joins the family. He was born in the London Road Workhouse Camberwell and recorded there as Arthur.

On 13th August 1908 Alfred was admitted back into Constance Road Workhouse, Camberwell. And in March 1909 he, along with Elizabeth, “Arthur George”, Mabel and Florence, were all discharged from this Workhouse so presumably had been admitted with him.

Both Mabel and Florence are registered in the London Poor Law Schools Registers in May 1909. The name and address of nearest relative of the girls is given as – Alfred and Elizabeth ‘in House’. Does this phrase mean that they were back in a workhouse, as they had already been in and out of Constance Road Workhouse, Camberwell?

On 14/Aug/1909 Alfred was admitted to the Constance Road Workhouse, Camberwell. It seems it was Alfred alone that was admitted on this occasion.


[UPDATE] After discharging himself at his own request on 26th July 1910, Alfred was again admitted to the workhouse on 1st August 1910. It appears he remained there until January 1911.

On the 3rd January 1911 Alfred Kearney was discharged from the Constance Road Workhouse, Camberwell (described as “Destitute”). He was discharged to Long Grove Asylum, Epsom where he died and was buried on 6th December 1917.

Death Record:

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Author’s Summary

Alfred had been admitted and discharged from Workhouses for 6 periods between 1st August 1906 and this final discharge to Long Grove hospital. Did he ever learn of the death of his son Sidney who had been born early in 1910 and died in the same December Q of 1911?

It seems as though poverty and ill health plagued the family, but Alfred never seemed to give up. We believe that he tried so hard to do what he could to support his wife and surviving children and keep them all together. It has not been possible so far to find any death record for Elizabeth. What happened to her? After Alfred’s death there were just two surviving children, Florence and Mabel.

The Kearney family story is one of tragedy after tragedy in poverty, but responded to with great human courage and perseverance.

An entry from regarding organ grinders like Alfred;

In an article from 1929, George Orwell wrote of the organ-grinders of London: “To ask outright for money is a crime, yet it is perfectly legal to annoy one’s fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them. Their dreadful music is the result of a purely mechanical gesture, and is only intended to keep them on the right side of the law. There are in London around a dozen firms specialising in the manufacture of piano organs, which they hire out for 15 shillings a week. The poor devil drags his instrument around from ten in the morning till eight or nine at night [–] the public only tolerates them grudgingly – and this is only possible in working-class districts, for in the richer districts the police will not allow begging at all, even when it is disguised. As a result, the beggars of London live mainly on the poor.”

Wikipedia: Street Organ Grinders

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