William Henry Simmons was born in the April to June quarter of 1868 in Rotherhithe. Although later evidence suggests his birth date may be 16 March 1868. His parents were William and Martha Simmons and they married around 1858 when William’s eldest sister Elizabeth was born. No positive trace of their marriage has been found to date.
Proof of his parentage can be found by firstly noting his father was named William according to the marriage certificate. Secondly, the address at the time of marriage was 3 Victory Place, which puts him in the residence of a Henry and Elizabeth Sampson who were also witnesses. And thirdly, Elizabeth Sampson is believed to be his eldest sister, Elizabeth. This couple were also witness to the marriage of Matilda Simmons, their sister, in 1881.
William was the fifth child of William and Martha, their first son, and by the time of the 1871 Census, the family can be found at 14 Norfolk Street, Rotherhithe. William (senior) was a labourer, aged 38, Martha, his wife, was also 38. The children were Elizabeth (13), Emma (12), Matilda (9), Margaret (5), William (3) and lastly George (6 months).
1870s & 1880s
In the October quarter of 1879 William’s mother Martha died. He was only 11 years old so that must have been traumatic for him. Two years later in the 1881 Census, he can be found at 1 Donne Place, Rotherhithe with his father who was now 48 and his sister Margaret aged 16. Young William was working as an errand boy.
No trace can be found in the 1891 Census for William and on 30 September 1894, age 26, he married Sarah Ann Amelia Taylor at St Stephen’s Church, Walworth. Sarah was the daughter of Henry and Julia Taylor; she was only 17.
Their first child was born 28 January 1895 at 49, Paradise Street in Rotherhithe and she was baptised Sarah Ann Martha on 3 March 1895 at St Mary’s Church. William’s job was described as a gas stoker. Sadly, baby Sarah died in the October quarter of 1895.
More children for William and Martha
By January of the following year, a second daughter was born on the 19th of that month. Called Florence Elizabeth, she was baptised 9 February 1896 at Christchurch, Rotherhithe. William was described as a labourer and the family was living at 30 Prince’s Street. Florence was joined by a brother William Henry on 24 November 1897. The family was now living at 2 Brunel Road in Rotherhithe. He was baptised on 23 January 1898. Unfortunately, baby William died in the July quarter of 1898.
Lilian Emma was born on 21 October 1899 and baptised 12 November 1899 at Christchurch. The family appears to still be at 2 Brunel Road.
In 1901 the Census recorded the family at 33, Land Street, Croydon. William, aged 32, was working as a Furnace Stoker. With him were Sarah, his wife, aged 23 (which supports her age at marriage as being 17) and their daughters, Florence (5) and Lilian (1).
Three more children
By 20 September 1901 the family can be found at 66 Cherry Garden Street in Rotherhithe, where their fourth daughter May Margaret is born. She is baptised at Christchurch on 19 March 1902 and William is still working as a metal smelter. May does not survive and she died in the January quarter of 1903. Their sixth child Henry Albert is born on 20 October 1903 at 66 Cherry Garden Street, followed by Annie Daisy on 1 July 1906. Both were baptised at Christchurch and their home address was 66 Cherry Garden Street. According to Booth’s Maps, this was a poor area and most of the streets surrounding them were also poor. The Electoral Registers support this as William’s address. Although by 1908 this has changed to 6 Cherry Garden Place, could it be the same place?
Living with family
On 17 October 1908 the couple’s last child Albert Joseph was born with the address of 4 James Place, Rotherhithe. This is the address of William’s sister Matilda. Albert was baptised on 4 November 1908.
Disaster for the family
The family fortunes seem to change dramatically after this point. On 20 April 1909 William is admitted to Southwark Workhouse, described as destitute at this time. His address being 1 Adams Gardens. His relative is stated as his mother-in-law Mrs Taylor of 52 Cherry Garden Street. Date of birth is shown as 16 March 1868. It says he was sent to Tanner Street Workhouse. On the same page he is shown as an admission again. This time his relative is stated as his wife Sarah. He is still described as destitute and being sent to Tanner Street. Whether he actually went in and out of the workhouse is difficult to tell.
On 18 May 1909 William, of 1 Adams Gardens, Rotherhithe, is shown as being re-admitted to Southwark Workhouse. This time being described as “alleged insane”. His wife Sarah is noted as his relative and this time he is transferred to Horton Hospital on 25 May 1909. It suggests that William had been unable to work due to illness as he was described as “destitute”. This is further supported by the fact that on 3 June 1909 his children Lilian, Henry and Annie follow him into Southwark Workhouse being described as “destitute”. It seems that their mother had no means of supporting them now William was in Horton Hospital. They were sent to the Hawthorns which was a Children’s Cottage Hospital situated at 43 The Gardens, Peckham Rye. There was a total of 94 children there. Lilian died in 1911 but records show Annie and Henry remained in care until 1917 after being transferred to the “Shirley Schools”. After that time, they returned to their mother.
William Simmons remained at Horton Hospital until he died on 4 December 1910 aged 42. He was buried in Grave 941a at Horton Estate Cemetery.
William seems to have lived a normal life being born to a working-class family living in the poor areas of Rotherhithe. His mother dying when he was 11 years old must have been hard but was not unusual for those times. When he married, it appears Sarah was very young and expecting a child, but they had no option but to deal with it and make a go of things. They had eight children of which three had died by 1909. Sadly, again not unusual. Times must have been very hard, and William must have suffered some kind of mental illness that meant he was unable to work. The address given at Albert’s baptism in 1908 was that of William’s sister Matilda. So, did they go there for help and support?
Had William’s decline already started by November 1908? Certainly, by April 1909 at the time of his admission to Southwark Workhouse, he was described as “destitute” and, strangely, at first, his mother-in-law is given as his relative. Did she have anything to do with sending him there?
The situation obviously escalated very quickly as by 25 May he was sent to Horton Hospital where he ended his days. As we have seen this had a devastating effect on his family, with three children going into care almost immediately. It illustrates how precarious life was in London at this time. They did receive an education and support which was something they might not have got at home.
Sadly, there was no way out for William, and he died the following year at Horton and is buried at the Cemetery in plot #941a.