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ROLFE, Thomas Philip

b.1851 – d.1910

Thomas’s parents and siblings

Although he appears in Long Grove records as Thomas Philip Rolfe, our subject was actually registered at birth as Philip Thomas Rolfe. He was born in Bermondsey on the 9th of May 1851 to Philip Rolfe and Eliza Bellis. Eliza called herself Rolfe in the 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses but the couple were not officially married until 1862. 

Philip senior was a sawyer (someone whose work is sawing wood, as into planks and boards), born in Bermondsey in 1811 to Robert Rolfe – himself a sawyer – and his wife Elenor (née Hill).

Eliza was the daughter of blacksmith Michael Bellis and his wife Sarah Elizabeth (née Elden). She was born in Rotherhithe on the 14th of March 1817. 

The couple’s first child, a daughter named Sarah Anne, was born on the 26th of January 1839 and was baptised on the 24th of February in St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe. Sarah Anne sadly died the following year on the 18th of December 1840 before reaching her second birthday. Tragically, Philip and Eliza would see four more of their eight children die at an early age:

  • Lucy was born in the 1st quarter of 1843 and died in the 2nd quarter of 1844
  • Mary Ann was born and died in the 4th quarter of 1847
  • Robert Edward was born in the 3rd quarter of 1853 and died in the 4th quarter of 1853
  • William Edward was born in the 3rd quarter of 1856 and died in the 1st quarter of 1858

The three children who survived into adulthood were Ellen Eliza, born in the 1st quarter of 1841, Eliza Amelia, born in the 1st quarter of 1849 and our subject whom we will call from now on Thomas Philip. 

In the 1841 Census Philip and Eliza are living in Parker’s Terrace in Bermondsey with their new-born daughter, Ellen, Philip’s mother, Elenor, and his sisters, Lucey and Ann. 

By the time of the 1851 Census, taken just before Thomas Philip was born, Eliza had given birth to another daughter, also called Eliza, and the family had moved to 17, Cherry Garden Street in Bermondsey, a property they shared with three other families. 

The 1860s and 1870s

In the 1861 Census we find the family living at 8, Staple’s Rents in Rotherhithe. The following year, on the 2nd of May 1862, Philip and Eliza, described in the register as bachelor and spinster, were married in St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch. Philip was 51 and a ‘timber divider’ and Eliza was 45. While these are, without doubt, Thomas’s parents, their address in the register is given as 13, Old Street Road (Shoreditch) but less than a year later, on the 10th of April 1863, when Thomas Philip was baptised at Christ Church in Rotherhithe, the family was living, once again, at 8, Staple’s Rents. The following week, on the 17th of April, Thomas’s sister Eliza Amelia was baptised in the same church and the family’s address was given as 2, Prospect Place in Rotherhithe. We do not know the reason for these frequent changes of address. 

On the 2nd of December 1864 Ellen Eliza married hairdresser Robert Read Spear in St Mary’s Church in Lambeth and in the 1871 census we find Philip, Eliza, Eliza Amelia and Thomas Philip living at 10, Mary Street in Rotherhithe with Ellen Eliza, Robert and their children. Philip and Thomas are described as sawyers.

On the 10th of December 1873, Thomas’s father was fined ten shillings and sentenced to a week’s imprisonment in Wandsworth Jail for drunkenness.

Marriage and family

On the 10th of July 1880 Thomas married Emma Louisa Russell in Christ Church, Rotherhithe. Emma was the 19 year-old daughter of engine-driver Thomas Russell and his wife Eliza Anne. She was born in Minories, Middlesex in 1861. From the register we learn that, at the time of the wedding, Thomas was working as a carman and his address is given as 42, Yalding Road in Bermondsey. Emma was living at 92, Church Street, Bermondsey. 

It is at this point that we temporarily lose sight of Thomas and his wife as it has not been possible to find them in the 1881 Census, or, at least, not as a couple. A Thomas Rolfe aged 30 and born in Rotherhithe appears in the census, working as a sawyer and lodging at the New Dock Inn public house, 30 Church Street, Rotherhithe. This would seem to be our subject, though fifteen months after his marriage he is described in the census as ‘unmarried’. Emma Louisa cannot be found in the census though we do know we she was not living with her parents at 92, Church Street, Bermondsey at the time. 

(Interestingly, an Emma Louise Russell, born in 1861 and living in Bermondsey appears in the 1881 Census as a patient at Brookwood Asylum in Woking. She was admitted to Brookwood on the 2nd of January 1880 suffering from ‘mania’ caused by epilepsy. Despite the similarities, this cannot be our subject’s wife as she was not discharged from Brookwood – ‘not improved’ – until the 20th of June 1884.)

More research will need to be carried out to ascertain the couple’s movements following their marriage.

Thomas and Emma had four children together: 

  • Alice Eliza, born in the 2nd quarter of 1881
  • Arthur Thomas, born in the 1st quarter of 1884
  • Alfred Charles, born in the 2nd quarter of 1887
  • Herbert Philip, born in the 4th quarter of 1889 

In the 1st quarter of 1888, Thomas’s father, Philip, died in Bermondsey aged 76. It would appear that, after his father’s death, Thomas occasionally reverted to his original name of Philip on official documents.  

In the 1891 Census Thomas, Emma and their children are living at 108, Keeton’s Road in Bermondsey, a property they share with one other family. Thomas is described as a ‘deal porter’. Deal porters were a specialised group of workers in London’s docks. They handled baulks of softwood or ‘deal’, stacking them up to 60 feet high in quayside warehouses. This was a demanding and dangerous job, requiring physical strength, dexterity and a head for heights, top such an extent that they were nicknamed ‘Blondins’ after the famous acrobat, Charles Blondin. Deal porters wore special leather headgear (backing hats) with long ‘aprons’ over their heads in order to protect their head and necks from wooden splinters.

The early 1900s

In the 1st quarter of 1900, Thomas’s mother Eliza died in Bermondsey aged 83.

By 1901 the family had moved to 91, Church Street, Bermondsey. In the census of that year Thomas is still working as a deal porter and his eldest son, Arthur, now aged 17, is a general labourer.

On the 2nd of July 1905 an Alice Maud Rolfe, aged 24 and a nurse, was married in Christ Church, Rotherhithe to Charles Gilpin Ellis, a porter. We may assume that this is Thomas and Emma’s daughter Alice Eliza (an assumption confirmed by the 1911 Census, see below) as, according to the Government Records Office, no one called Alice Maud Rolfe was born in 1881. In the marriage register Alice’s father, Philip Rolfe, is described as a porter. At the time of their marriage the couple were living at 12, Fulford Street in Bermondsey.

On the 25th of December 1907, Thomas and Emma’s son Alfred Charles, a labourer, married Elizabeth Caroline Bright in St James’s Church in Bermondsey. In the register Alfred’s father is named as Thomas Philip Rolfe and described as ‘retired’. As Thomas was only 56 at the time could it be that his retirement was due to the mental health issues that would dominate the rest of his life?

Admission to Long Grove

We do not know when Thomas’s mental health problems began but on the 16th of December 1908 he was admitted to St Olave’s Workhouse in Parish Street, Bermondsey. Under ‘Cause of seeking relief’ is written ‘Alleged imbecile’. At the time of his admission, Thomas and Emma were living at 8, Rock Grove in Bermondsey. On the 24th of December, Thomas was discharged from St Olave’s and transferred to Long Grove where he died on the 19th of September 1910. He was buried three days later in plot number 861a in Horton Cemetery. Just two months earlier his youngest son Herbert Philip was married in the Church of St John the Evangelist to Elizabeth Mary Beadle. In the marriage register Herbert’s father was named as Thomas Philip Rolfe, a deal porter. 

Thomas’s family after his death

In the 1911 Census we find Emma Louisa, described as a widow and a ‘cook in hotel’ living with her daughter Alice and her son-in-law Charles at 74, East Lane in Bermondsey. Charles, like his father-in-law, is a deal porter. Emma Louisa died in the 3rd quarter of 1915 aged 54. 

In 1919, at the age of 35, Arthur married widow Sarah Ann Emma Bayley at Christ Church in Bermondsey. He worked as a carman until at least 1939 and died in 1947 aged 63.

After serving in the Labour Corps in WW1, Alfred worked as a wharf labourer. He died in Bermondsey in 1953 aged 66.

In 1907, aged 18, Herbert enlisted in the army and served in Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment. After serving in the navy during WW1, Herbert worked as a timber porter like his father. He died in 1958 aged 69.  

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