Although it has not been possible to find Thomas Sawkins’ official birth registration, it may be assumed from censuses and his marriage certificate that he was born in 1865, in Shoreditch, to Thomas Christopher Sawkins and his wife Hannah (née Jenks). Both his parents were from the East End of London.
His father was born on the 12th of May 1842 to Christopher Thomas Sawkins, a brush maker, and his wife Ann, of Nicholas Street, Hoxton. On the 15th of June 1842 he was baptised in the church of St John the Baptist in Hoxton. Hannah Jenks was born on the 20th of April 1845 to John Jenks, a mechanic, and his wife Isabella, of Windsor Place, Shoreditch. Hannah was baptised in the church of St Leonard in Shoreditch on the 11th of May 1845.
In the 1861 Census, Thomas Christopher, now aged 18, is described, like his father, as a ‘brush finisher’.
The following year, on the 1st of December 1862, Thomas, now a ‘fancy hairbrush maker’, married Hannah at St James’ Church in Shoreditch. On the marriage certificate, Hannah’s father is now called Joseph Jenks and is described as a ‘brass finisher’.
At the time of the marriage Thomas was living at 6, Hoxton Market. His 17-year-old bride was living at 1, Barton Court in Haggerston, the same house in which she had been living, according to the Census of 1861, with her mother and siblings. In the Census Isabella is described as the head of the family and a wife (not a widow). Hannah is a general servant. It has not been possible to find Joseph Jenks in the 1861 Census.
On the 29th of August 1863, while the couple were living at 1, Barton Court, Hannah gave birth to her first child, a daughter called Emma Eva, who was baptised on the 20th of September 1863 at the church of St Leonard in Shoreditch.
Thomas and Hannah’s joy at the birth of their daughter would have been short lived however, as sadly she died in the first quarter of 1865 before reaching her second birthday. This was to be the first of many tragedies to befall the Sawkins family.
We do not know the cause of Emma’s death but in nineteenth century London the poverty and extreme population density of areas like the East End made for unsanitary conditions and resulting epidemics of disease. The child mortality rate in the East End stood at 20% while the estimated life expectancy of an East End labourer was just 19 years. The most serious diseases in the poorest parts of London were tuberculosis, cholera (until the 1860s), rickets, scarlet fever, and typhoid. Smallpox was a dreaded disease across London: there were epidemics in 1816-19, 1825-26, 1837-40, 1871 and 1881.
Thomas was born, it may be assumed, later in 1865, when his parents were still mourning the death of his sister.
Two years later, in the first quarter of 1867, Hannah gave birth to her second daughter, Hannah Alice. Thomas and Hannah Alice were baptised together at All Saints Church in Haggerston on the 27th of March 1867. According to the baptismal register, Thomas’s full name was Thomas Joseph Sawkins.
Three years later, in the second quarter of 1870, Hannah, still aged only 25, gave birth to her fourth child and second son, Christopher.
In the 1871 Census we find Thomas and Hannah are living with their children Thomas, Hannah, and Christopher at 2, James Street, Shoreditch. Thomas is a painter and Hannah is a vest maker. We can only imagine how hard it must have been for Hannah to have to work as well as look after three young children.
The following year, in the second quarter of 1872, Hannah gave birth to her fifth child, a son called Joseph, who was baptised with his brother Christopher at All Saints Church, Haggerston on the 9th of June 1872. Sadly, Joseph died shortly afterwards in the third quarter of 1872. Just one year later, Hannah gave birth to her sixth child and third daughter, Isabella Mary, in the third quarter of 1873.
In the third quarter of 1875, Hannah gave birth to her seventh child and fourth daughter, Elizabeth Charlotte Caroline who was baptised on the 28th of August 1878 at All Saints Church, Haggerston. Two years later, in the third quarter of 1877 Hannah gave birth to her eighth child, John William. However, tragedy was to hit the family twice in the fourth quarter of the following year when both Elizabeth and John died. Elizabeth was three and John just one year old. These two deaths, so close to each other, must have had a devastating effect on the family.
In the next three years, Hannah gave birth to two daughters, Jane Fanny, born in the second quarter of 1879, and Elizabeth Daisy, born in the first quarter of 1881.
In the 1881 Census Thomas and Hannah are living at 43, Angrave Street in Shoreditch with their six surviving children Thomas, Alice, Christopher, Isabella, Jane and Daisy. Thomas, now aged 16, is working as a cabinet polisher. His father has returned to working as a brush maker. His mother is without occupation.
In the first quarter of 1883 Hannah gave birth to a son, William Ernest. Later that year, in the fourth quarter, Hannah died, aged just 38, having seen four of her eleven children die under the age of four. To compound the tragedy, William Ernest died in the first quarter of 1886, aged three.
On the 25th of December 1887 at St Thomas’ Church, Bethnal Green, Thomas, now aged 22 and described as a French polisher, married Clarissa Wackett, the 24-year-old daughter of Thomas Wackett, a carpenter. Clarissa is described on the marriage certificate as a boot fitter. At the time of their marriage Thomas was living at 11, Middleton Street, Bethnal Green and Clarissa at 52, Mare Street, Hackney.
French polishing is a wood finishing technique that results in a very high gloss surface. It consists of applying many thin coats of shellac dissolved in denatured alcohol using a rubbing pad lubricated with one of a variety of oils. The process is very labour intensive and requires considerable skill. In the Victorian era it was commonly used on mahogany, oak, and other expensive timbers. It was considered the best finish for fine furniture and string instruments such as pianos and guitars.
In the 1891 Census Thomas and Clarissa are living in two rooms at 63, Lansdowne Road in Hackney, a house they share with the Peacock family. Thomas is described as a French polisher and Clarissa is without occupation. Their neighbours are predominantly of the artisan class – a tailor, a cabinet maker, a milliner, an organ pipe maker, and a lithographic printer.
In the same Census Thomas’s father is living at his own parents’ house at 7, James Street, Haggerston with his daughters Elizabeth and Daisy.
In the 1901 Census Thomas and Clarissa are now living in two rooms at 80, Richmond Road in Hackney, a house they share with one other family. Thomas is still working as a French polisher, and one could imagine that their modest but settled existence will continue indefinitely.
Later that year, on the 18th of July 1901, Thomas is admitted to Hoxton Asylum where he remains until the 25th of March 1902 when he is discharged to Long Grove. We do not know what caused this deterioration in Thomas’s mental health, but he would remain in Long Grove for the rest of his life.
In the 1911 Census, while Thomas is a patient in Long Grove.
Clarissa is living in St-John-at-Hackney with her older sister Rosehannah. Both are described as ‘boot trade needle hands’. Thomas’s father, Thomas, now aged 69 and still working as a brush maker, is living in a lodging house in Bethnal Green.
Thomas died in Long Grove on the 18th of November 1918, exactly one week after the end of the Great War. He had been a patient there for over sixteen years.
Thomas’s family after his death
His father died in Shoreditch in the third quarter of 1927, aged about 89.
Clarissa died in Shoreditch in the second quarter of 1935, aged about 75. She never remarried.