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PENSA, Peter

b.1856-d.1917

Peter Pensa (or Penza in some documents) was born in Clerkenwell on the 3rd of March, 1856. He was the second child of Peter John Pensa and his wife Harriet (née Fowler).

Peter John, his father, born in Holborn on the 31st of October 1829, was the son of an Italian barometer maker, John Antonio Pensa and his wife Margaret (née Bond). Harriet was born in Clerkenwell in about 1830. 

The couple, both Roman Catholics, were married in the Church of St Giles, Cripplegate on the 22nd of July 1852. At the time of their marriage they were living at 16, Milton Street in the City of London. Milton Steet was formerly known as Grub Street, famous for its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets and low-end publishers and booksellers. Samuel Johnson lived and worked in Grub Street early in his career.

The Pensa Children

Peter John and Harriet’s first child, George William, was born on the 9th of June 1853 and baptised on the 22nd of June at St Andrew’s Church in Holborn. According to the baptismal register, Peter John was working as a warehouseman and the family was living at 12, Eagle Court, St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell. Sadly, George William died later that same year at the age of just three months. He was buried in the Church of St James in Clerkenwell on the 22nd of September.

Peter was born two and a half years later and was baptised at the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary Moorfields in the Square Mile of the City of London. Tragically, when Peter was barely three years of age, his father died on the 28th of March, 1859 at the age of just 29. We do not know the cause of his death. His effects, valued at under £450, were left to his widow, Harriet.

Peter’s mother remarries

The following year, on the 27th of August, 1860, Harriett married wheelwright Alfred Dunsdon from Twyford in Berkshire in the Church of St Giles Without, Cripplegate. At the time of their marriage the couple – and, one must assume, Peter – were living in the Barbican.

By the time of the 1861 census the Dunsdons had moved to 17, Waverley Road in Paddington, a property they shared with one other family, and Peter had adopted his step-father’s surname.

Aboard the ‘Kent’ to Australia

The next time we meet Peter is in September 1867 when, at the age of 11 and having reverted to his original surname, he is aboard the ‘Kent’, sailing from London to Melbourne, one assumes as part of the child migration programme. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thousands of children, mainly in the care of poor law guardians or philanthropic organisations, were sent overseas, unaccompanied by a parent, to begin new lives in the British colonies. Most of them were between the ages of eight and fourteen though some were younger, especially if they left with an older sibling. 

We do not know why Peter was sent to Australia but he did not stay there long: in May 1868 his name appears on the passenger list of the ‘Vimeira’, sailing from Melbourne to London. (The ‘Vimeira’ had previously been used as a convict ship. On the 22nd of December 1865 it had arrived at the Swan River Colony – later known as Fremantle – with 280 convicts. Thirty of them were British Army soldiers who had been court martialled on various charges and sentenced to transportation.)

1871

We do not know if Peter ever lived with his mother and step-father again on his return to London. In the 1871 Census we find Harriett and Alfred living with their nine year-old son Arthur at 10, East India Dock Road in Limehouse.

Alfred is now a coffee-house keeper. It has not been possible to find Peter in the census (by which time he would have been 15). It may be assumed that after returning from Australia he joined the Merchant Navy as his name features several times on Merchant Navy crew lists:

  • On the 30th of September 1874 Peter signed up to join the crew of the ‘Greece’ in Liverpool on a salary of £4-10-00 a month, having previously served on the ‘France’. However, on the 1st of October 1874 when the ‘Greece’ arrived in London, Peter ‘deserted’.
  • In 1881 Able Seaman Peter Pensa was serving aboard the schooner ‘Royale’. 
  • In 1881, from the 5th of July to the 15th of August, Peter was boatswain on the ‘Anne’ and from the 25th of August 1881 to the 5th of June 1882 he was ‘mate’ on the same ship.

Unfortunately, we have no further information regarding Peter for the next 22 years, neither his service in the Merchant Navy, nor where he lived when he was on leave. Neither has it been possible to find the Dunsdons in the 1881 census, but we do know they were no longer living at 10, India Dock Road.

1890s

In 1891 Harriet, now aged 61 and widowed, was living alone at 44, Latimer Street in Mile End and working as a fur sewer. Her son Arthur and his wife Kate were living at 28, Anchor and Hope Alley in Stepney. Arthur was working as a stoker on a tugboat. 

1900s

By the time of the 1901 census Harriet was living with Arthur, now described as a stevedore/labourer, his wife and their 4 year-old daughter, also called Kate, at 23 Red Lion Street in Stepney.

On the 9th of May 1902, Harriet, again described as a fur worker, was admitted to Bromley House, a workhouse in Stepney. No reason is given in the register for her admission. We do not know how long she stayed in Bromley House but two months later, on the 29th of July 1902, she was admitted to the Poplar Workhouse. She remained there until the 9th of August when she was discharged at her own request.

Two years later on the 6th of June 1904, Peter was also admitted to a workhouse – the City Road Workhouse in Holborn – though he was discharged at his own request three days later. We do not know if it was destitution or illness which necessitated his admission to the workhouse on this occasion.

However, the 1907 workhouse registers reveal a pattern of frequent admissions, discharges and readmissions, ending with his transfer to Long Grove, which would suggest a deterioration in his mental health: 

  • Peter was admitted to City Road Workhouse on the 23rd of October 1907 and discharged at his own request on the 12th of November 1907
  • Peter spent one further night in the City Road Workhouse before being discharged to the Archway Workhouse Infirmary where he stayed until the 4th of December
  • On the 4th of December 1907 Peter was admitted to the City Road Workhouse where he stayed until the 16th of December. He was discharged at his own request.
  • On the 30th of December 1907 Peter was readmitted to the City Road Workhouse but was discharged on the 20th of January 1908 at his own request
  • The following day Peter was admitted to the Raine Street Workhouse in Stepney. (In the register his address is given as 77, Spencer Street in Stepney but he does not appear at this address in the 1901 census.)
  • Peter was discharged from Raine Street Workhouse on the 5th of June 1908 but was readmitted the same day
  • On the 14th of July 1908 Peter was admitted to Long Grove 

Nine years in Long Grove

Peter was to spend nine years in Long Grove where he died on the 28th of August 1917 aged 61. He was buried on the 17th of September 1917 in plot 1955A.

Coincidentally, we find in the 1911 census, that 81 year-old Harriet was an ‘inmate’ at the Raine Street Workhouse in Stepney where her son had been admitted three years before. Harriet died in the 1st quarter of 1914 aged 83.


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