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Destitution, disorder and despair.

Discovering Mary’s story has been difficult to piece together and the key to her identity was through one of her sisters a “Mrs Smedley” whose name can be found on her discharge notes from Westminster Workhouse. This led me to review numerous Workhouse entries for Mary and her family, to where I eventually was able to pinpoint which Mrs Smedley I was looking for. This in turn made it easier to find our Mary Ryan. Mary’s age on some of the records gave her date of birth to be around 1884 but tying her records in with her sister meant her date of birth was actually 9 years earlier in 1875. Her story is mainly told through the eyes of the workhouse and others who judged a family who lived in possibly the lowest levels of society.

Mary’s parents Daniel Ryan and Mary Savage were Roman Catholic who came from Ireland. There appears to be no marriage of this couple until after all their children were born. From tracing the births on the General Record Office site, I was able to ascertain that Mary’s mother’s former name was Savage and the only marriage I can find between a Daniel Ryan and a Mary Savage dates to the October quarter of 1880 in Greenwich. If this is indeed their marriage certificate it makes you wonder, why they bothered so late in the day. Was there an impediment to them marrying earlier?

The Ryan children

The birth of their eldest child John places the family at 5 Plough Court down by the Creek in Dartford, Kent. Daniel Ryan was working at the Paper Mills. The following year they had moved to nearby Northfleet. In 1870 their daughter Catherine’s birth certificate which shows the family living at Samaritan Grove in Northfleet, Kent. Daniel is now a cement worker which was a big business in the area. In fact, Samaritan Grove had only been built in the 1850’s to provide homes for the Portland Cement works.

 By 1871 when the census was taken Daniel and Mary had moved to nearby Dartford and were living at 3 Bulls Head Yard in Dartford, Kent. Daniel is noted as Donald (incorrectly) aged 35 working as a Labourer and Mary aged 29. At this point they have John aged 2 born in Dartford and Catherine aged 9 months born in Northfleet. The Bull’s Head was situated on Dartford High Street and there is a passageway which still carries the name of Bulls Head Yard.

Shortly after the 1871 census was taken the family seem to have moved to the Deptford area and it is in this decade where the Ryan family expanded rapidly after the births of John and Catherine. 

All the children below were registered in the Greenwich registration district.

Daniel born 24 July 1871 

Baptised 6 August 1871 at the church of the Assumption, Deptford.

Michael born 6 August 1872 Old King Street Deptford. Baptised on 8 September 1872 in the same church as Daniel. Mother curiously shown as Catherine Ryan?

Patrick born and died in the September quarter of 1873

Mary Ann born 3 March 1875 at 3 Rope Walk, Deptford. Baptised 4 April 1875 again in the same church as her brothers.

Bridget born 6 June 1877 at 2 Barnes Alley, Deptford

Baptised 8 July 1878.

Hannah born 27 June 1878 and baptised as Honora on 4 August 1878 at the church of the Assumption.  I currently do not know what happened to Hannah although I have found a death certificate for an Anna Ryan which may be her.

Ellen born 20 August 1879 and baptised 5 October 1879 again at the same Roman Catholic church as her siblings.

A dysfunctional life

Although the family was growing it appears life was far from stable. On 3 October 1873 both Catherine and Daniel were admitted to the South Metropolitan School as both parents had been sent to prison. Their time there was short lived as there is a note that Daniel senior took them out on 10 November 1873. It is unclear where the eldest child John was. I am unable to trace the incident that put the Ryan’s into prison as there are many Ryan’s in the area.

Daniel Ryan led a life that may have been criminal. I cannot prove anything despite finding Newspaper articles that refer to Daniel Ryan’s in the right area involved in violent acts. The addresses found for the family show they lived in streets that were drunk and disorderly. If Daniel had been imprisoned for a length of time, I am unsure as to how well the family would have fared.

An article from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper dated 5 July 1874 shows that Mary Ryan senior at the very least was a volatile woman which led to her being imprisoned once again.

Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archives

The 1880’s – a decade of despair

At the time of the 1881 census the Ryan family were living at 7 Rope Walk in Deptford. Daniel working as a labourer is noted as being aged 65 but this is not the case – possibly aged 45 or 55? Mary aged 44 and the children listed as – John aged 11, Catherine aged 10, Daniel junior aged 8, Michael aged 6, Mary Ann aged 4, Bridget aged 3 and baby Ellen aged 1. All the children are listed as being born in Deptford. 

Rope Walk was built in the 1860’s to the east of Watergate Street and according to Booth’s Maps was a very poor area.

Tragedy hit the family in late May 1885 when Daniel senior had an accident at work and lost a finger. Sadly, he did not recover and died of Tetanus aged 52. The story in the British Newspaper Archives tells graphically how he met his demise.

From The Kentish Mercury 12 June 1885

This left Mary with 7 children to bring up. The eldest children John being aged 16 and Catherine aged 15 were probably working, and Daniel and Michael it will be seen later had their own way of trying to make ends meet,

So, Mary and the youngest children had no means to support themselves and on 22 June 1885 Mary Ryan was admitted to the workhouse with her three youngest children Mary junior aged 10, Bridget aged 8 and Ellen aged 6. After going in and out of Woolwich Road Workhouse several times always described as “destitute” it seems as if on 4 November 1885 Mary senior was discharged to the Infirmary and the girls were sent to Norwood.

On 29 January 1886 Mary Ryan senior died at Greenwich Infirmary of Chronic Bronchitis aged 42 leaving her children to fend for themselves.

So, what happened to the children?

John, signed up for the army on 27 July 1887 previously been employed as a Carman. His signing up papers confirm his parents are dead. His next of kin was said to be an Uncle Thomas Watkins of 12 Watergate Street, Deptford. I have yet to track this person down. If it was John’s uncle then he would have been married to either a Savage or Ryan female relative, but I cannot find a meaningful connection. 

This was probably a good move by John because in February 1885 he had been found gambling in the streets and using profane language. A career in the army would get him away from the dangerous streets of Deptford. Although when he did return to Deptford with his wife a Newspaper Article showed Mr and Mrs John Ryan were quite happy to get involved in a spat with their neighbours.

Catherine went into service and more of her story will be told later.

In the early days after their parents’ deaths, Daniel and Michael spent a lot of their time going in and out of the workhouse often they had no home or employment. From numerous Newspaper articles it can be ascertained that the young men were involved in a violent and criminal life.  Daniel was often found to be confrontational but there are signs that he may have been making a cry for help. In August 1889 it was reported 

Ryan was a great annoyance in the workhouse, being in the habit of crouching behind doors, springing out, and taking bread and butter and other food from old men. Besides that, whatever kind of work was given him to do he neglected it.

He said that he was quite happy to be sent to prison. On one occasion he wished the magistrate to put him away for 6 years. Perhaps prison life was preferable to a life on the streets. 

 Daniel was eventually sent to Claybury Asylum on 15 December 1893 and from the 1901 and 1911 census records it seems he was sent from Claybury Asylum to Leavesden Asylum in Hertfordshire. He is described as an “imbecile” or a “congenital imbecile” in the census. These are offensive words that are not used today but, in those times, it was used to categorise various disorders. It now seems to me that the behaviour seen in the workhouse was childish and possibly poor Daniel had special needs and he was asking for help when he asked to be imprisoned for a long time. His brother Michael was either trying to protect him or using him to aid and abet his criminal activities. Daniel remained at Leavesden for the rest of his life until he died in 1917.

Michael on the other hand was equally violent and confrontational but he seemed to show no remorse and there are numerous newspaper articles extensively reporting his crimes and assaults. As early as 1888 there is an article about a young Michael Ryan who stole an accordion. It was said that previously he had spent 4 years in a Roman Catholic school in Dartford for throwing a stone at a Policeman. He protested his innocence. This would have been St Vincent’s Industrial School for Roman Catholic boys.  If this is Mary’s brother then he started a disorderly life very early on.

After Daniel went into Claybury Asylum, Michael continued his life of crime. Generally stealing money and sometimes with menaces, with the violence becoming more and more serious. Often there was insufficient evidence, and he would be discharged as it was one person’s word against another’s. But in 1896 he found himself at the Old Bailey where he received a sentence of 6 months hard labour and 12 strokes of the cat for robbery with violence. Later on, in that year the newspapers nicknamed him the “Deptford Tyrant”. Even when he was in the workhouse, he was often found fighting, stealing and refusing to work.

Michael married Emily Tookey on 5 December 1901 – they were both in Greenwich Workhouse at the time. They both continued to have a disruptive lifestyle despite having a growing family. They often did not have a home and Michael continued in his violent life of crime. The workhouse was often their refuge.

The younger sisters Bridget and Ellen seem to disappear, and I have struggled to find anything definite about them. I checked both the Norwood School in Hanwell and the South Metropolitan School in Sutton in 1891 but no sign of them. However, when searching for Mary in the 1891 census I may have found all 3 Ryan girls in a Roman Catholic Boarding School and Orphanage in Norwood. Perhaps, when the Workhouse record stated “To Norwood” it meant they were sent to the Orphanage run by the Convent of the Faithful Virgin at 145, Central Hill in Upper Norwood.  It was founded in 1868 by the order and run by the Nuns to help Irish Immigrant orphans. So, it is quite feasible the girls could have been sent here. Recorded in the census there is a Mary Ryan aged 15 a scholar from Greenwich. There is also a Bridget Ryan aged 12 and an Ellen Ryan aged 11 both from Ireland, which is not correct. Census records are not always accurate so it may or may not be them.

Neither Bridget nor Ellen can be accurately traced after this point and disappear into the mists of time.

So, this leaves Mary our subject. What happened to her? Like her brothers Daniel and Michael, she led an extremely hard life.

Mary Ryan

From 1885 to 13 November 1895 there is a gap in Mary’s records, but if she was in an orphanage until she was 15 or 16 then that might be an explanation. She must have returned to her home area with no family support. It is easy to see how she may have become homeless and destitute. Her brothers were already in a cycle of crime and violence and in the main homeless. Catherine or Kate was trying to fend for herself. None of her siblings were able to help her. So where could Mary have got help and guidance? It was a harsh existence as it was a very poor area, full of crime and deprivation. So, it’s hard to see how she existed. 

On 13 November 1895 she was admitted to Woolwich Road Workhouse described as single, a servant of the Roman Catholic religion with no home. Her age is given as 16 but she is really 20 years old. Thus begins her life in and out of the workhouse for the next 14 years. Occasionally an address is given but often she is homeless and destitute.

On 23 May 1896 the address of 32 Baildon Street/Road was given as Mary’s home. It is the street marked in dark blue and black below from Booths Maps. Indicating it is a very poor and of the lowest class. Semi criminal. Just off Deptford High Street and New Cross Road. According to Booths Notebooks it was known as “Tug of War Street” as so many fights took place there. The Newspapers of the time show that there was a high crime rate and indeed Mary’s brother Michael was involved in some criminal activity there. There were also 2 “common lodging houses” in Baildon Street. There was prostitution also in the area and although there is no evidence it may have been something Mary may have had to resort to. Poor girl.

Baildon Street – Booth’s Maps

I have been unable to trace a definite entry for Mary in the 1901 census and indeed there is a gap in her Workhouse records between 23 January 1900 and 31 January 1903. I did find a Mary Ryan aged 18 from Deptford working as a servant at 23 Perryn Road in Acton for a Mr William Hardy and although the date of birth is wrong her occupation was that of a servant so perhaps this is where she went.

By 1903 she was back in Greenwich Workhouse, and we get an insight into how Mary survives in this environment. She was in trouble at Woolwich Road Workhouse. From the Woolwich Herald dated 24 July 1903.

Courtesy of British Newspaper Archives

Later in the year she is in trouble again. The West Kent Argus of 8 December 1903 reports.

Courtesy of British Newspaper Archives

And again, The Greenwich and Deptford Observer reports 14 September 1906

Courtesy of British Newspaper Archives

Mary appears to be oppositional and disruptive, but it may be that is the only way she can survive. In fact, she mirrors her brother’s behaviours

On 21 September 1908 her address is recorded as 21 Stanhope Street again described in Booths Notebooks as a Dark Blue. A criminal area, so Mary is obviously still frequenting poor areas and there seems no change in her circumstances. Probably sleeping rough and living hand to mouth.

On 2 February and 7 April 1909 her address is now recorded as 114 High Street which may have been a lodging house. This is a better area, but it does not seem to indicate a change in Mary’s fortunes for the better.

On 17 December 1909 Mary is admitted to Westminster Workhouse where we learn from the Register of Lunatics that she has spinal curvature and a tattoo in ink of an anchor on her left arm. On 30 December 1909 she is discharged by the Justice of the Peace to the Medical Officer who then discharges her on 15 January 1910 to Long Grove. She was admitted from the parish of St Anne’s described as a single servant who is destitute. This is far from the area that Mary is normally found so how can we be sure that we have the right person? It is the discharge records that help confirm this. Mary’s relative is named as her sister, Mrs Smedley of 4 Bronze Street, Deptford. Why Mary was in an area she did not normally frequent or familiar with is a complete mystery. 

From here Mary was sent to Long Grove Hospital where she died on 11 April 1911 of Bronchopneumonia of a few days’ duration and Tuberculosis Adenitis of the Cervical Glands. This is the most common form of Tuberculosis that appears outside the lungs. Mary would have had swollen lymph glands, a swelling in her neck, Fevers and a loss of weight. Living as she had done for such a long time it is hardly surprising. 

She is buried in Grave number 1520a in Horton Cemetery.

Linking Mrs Smedley to Mary Ryan

Mrs Smedley, I believe was Mary’s sister Catherine Ryan who was born 4 July 1870 at Samaritan Grove, Northfleet in Kent. Her birth certificate is below. Her surname was recorded as Rine in error. This also confirms Catherine’s parents to be Daniel and Mary Ryan née Savage.

Mary’s Birth certificate confirms she has the same parents as Catherine but that she was born in 1875 and not 1884.

Catherine Ryan’s early life did not start well when aged 3 she found herself in Greenwich Workhouse alongside her younger brothers Daniel and Michael as her parents were in prison. Subsequently both Catherine and Daniel were sent to the South Metropolitan School but seem to remain there less than a month before their father removed them on 11 Nov 1873.

Catherine went into service but a year after her father’s death she was admitted to Woolwich Road Workhouse in Greenwich on 12 November 1886 as she was destitute. She is recorded as being single and her occupation was that of a servant. She was discharged on 26 November 1886.

In May 1889 Catherine had a daughter Mary registered under the surname of Ryan. On 13 January 1891 Catherine went on to have a son who was again registered under the surname of Ryan. He was baptised on 4 March 1891 at Christchurch, Deptford showing just his mother’s name as his parent. They were living at 34, Hale Street.

 Just a month later the 1891 census shows that Catherine and her children were indeed living at 34 Hale Street but now she is known as Kate Smedley the wife of John Smedley aged 21 a Hawker/Costermonger.

On 24 June 1892 another daughter arrived named Sarah. She is registered under the name of Smedley and was baptised at Christ Church in Deptford. Parents were named as Catherine and John and the family were living at 27 Hale Street.

The following year Catherine and John marry, and Catherine is now “officially” Mrs Smedley. They go on to have a further 4 children and it is through addresses given at their baptisms that I can further link Catherine Smedley to Mary Ryan’s workhouse information.

As Mary spent a lot of her time in and out of the workhouse seemingly homeless and destitute there was not always address or family information but on 22 September 1903 an entry records, she has a sister with the surname “Smedley” address 54 Giffin Street in Deptford. It seems that she kept in touch with Mary.

Just a couple of months prior to this Catherine and John had their daughter Ellen or Helen baptised at Christ Church in Deptford and the address given was 54 Giffin Street. The same address as the “Smedley” in the workhouse records.

Mary was admitted to Long Grove Hospital in 1910 from Westminster workhouse which was curious as she spent most of her life seemingly in the Greenwich area. Had I got the right Mary Ryan?  Luckily the entry below from Westminster Workhouse in December 1909 mentions a sister “Mrs Smedley ” this time living at 4 Bronze Street in Deptford which was just over the other side of the Railway line in Deptford from Giffin Street. Later in the 1911 census she is recorded as living at 4 Copperas Square. This was a narrow alleyway off Bronze Street. It could be that 4 Bronze Street was in fact 4 Copperas Square.  A very poor area according to Booth’s Maps. 

 I feel this is proof that Mary Ryan was the sister of Catherine Smedley nee Ryan and that I have the right family and person. Having trawled through numerous Newspaper Articles it appears that the Smedley family always lived in very poor and criminal areas.

A criminal family

Whilst researching Mary’s life it cannot be ignored that nearly every member of her family had a life of crime or were involved in disorderly activities even John, her eldest brother had been involved in minor disorders before joining the Army and seemed to stay out of trouble until he returned to Deptford. John’s disorderly behaviour was minor and never on the scale of his brothers.

Daniel, who was sent to an asylum aged 22, was living a violent and criminal life before he was detained.

Even Kate Smedley in 1921 was bound over for assaulting another woman.

Without a doubt Michael Ryan was the most notorious criminal in the family. Although whilst he was in the Army during World War 1 his conduct was described as “Good”. 

As late as 1920 a most interesting article shows the whole Ryan family were involved in a disorderly disturbance in Deptford High Street when police tried to arrest a drunken Michael Ryan junior. Both Michael Ryan senior and his wife assaulted the police and the younger Michael Ryan protested saying he was not British but Irish and encouraged the 500 plus crowd to give the policeman the same as they give the police in Ireland. He resisted arrest and showed his political allegiances. After this I can find no further articles about Michael, but it may be that they are not yet available. 

The 1939 Register shows the family Hop picking at Malling in Kent. So perhaps in the end they had a more peaceful life.

Author’s Thoughts

The entire Ryan family had a terrible life and to understand Mary’s story I have trawled through hundreds of Workhouse records for her siblings looking for small clues that would lead me to find out more about her. The Newspaper articles have too proved to be invaluable in understanding a bit about her personality and her family. 

One cannot help but feel incredibly sad for a family who did not have very good role models as parents and then to lose those parents at such a young age with no means of supporting themselves must have been awful. It is no wonder that they turned to crime and were confrontational and oppositional. They had to stick up for themselves as well as fend for themselves. They often turned to the Workhouse and indeed the whole family were well known to the Workhouse, but it was no permanent solution to their predicament.

Uncovering Mary’s story has left me feeling profoundly moved by her struggles. It was so hard to survive even if you had family, but they could not be relied on, no friends, no guidance, no home and no money. There was no support for her anywhere. In the absence of case notes or a Reception order it is unknown what circumstances led her to an asylum, but it is easy to see how her lifestyle could cause mental health issues. We do not know what type of spinal curvature she had or how long she had it but that would have caused her considerable pain and difficulties. Years of living on the streets must have been dreadful and would have taken its toll.  Her time at Long Grove at least gave her structure, a roof over her head and regular meals which was something she very rarely experienced in her adult life. It was probably preferable to her day-to-day existence in the poorest areas of Deptford.

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