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Septimus’s parents

Septimus Rowland Underwood was born in Groton, Suffolk, in the 2nd quarter of 1873. He was the seventh of nine children born to farmer Daniel Underwood and his wife Mary Anne (née Risson).

Daniel was born in Waldingfield, Suffolk in 1823, the son of farmer Daniel Underwood and his wife Frances (née Vincent). Mary Anne was born in Icklingham in Suffolk in 1836. Her parents were James, an agricultural labourer, and Maria (née Orris).

Daniel and Mary Anne were married on the 1st of June 1858 in the parish chapel of St Pancras in Middlesex. According to the register, at the time of their marriage Daniel was living in Groton while Mary Anne’s address is given as St Pancras. We do not know when or why Mary Anne moved to London.

However, it may be assumed that the couple moved back to Suffolk soon after their marriage as in the 1861 Census we find them living in Castlings Heath, a hamlet in the parish of Groton in Suffolk. With them is their oldest child, Daniel Frederick Arthur, (born in Groton in the 2nd quarter of 1859) and a 14 year-old servant, Ann Worters. Daniel is described as a farmer with 200 acres, employing nine men and four boys, which would suggest the family was reasonably prosperous.

Septimus’s siblings – and the death of his mother

By the time of the 1871 Census Mary Anne had given birth to five more children, all of whom were born in Groton: Edward Mortimer (Ted), born 3rd quarter of 1861; Louisa Rose, born 1st quarter of 1864; Bernard Thomas, born 3rd quarter of 1866; Frances Vincent, born 2nd quarter of 1868 and Ernest Albert, born 3rd quarter of 1870.

In the 1871 Census all the children are living at home except for 7 year-old Louisa Rose who is a pupil at a boarding school in Bildeston in Suffolk. Daniel is now described as a landowner and farmer with 220 acres, employing nine men and three boys.

The family also employs a domestic servant, Eliza Kidby and a nursemaid, Emma Everett. Two years later our subject, Septimus Rowland, was born, followed by two girls, Julia Agnes, born 1st quarter of 1875 and Ada Maria, born 4th quarter of 1877.

Sadly, Mary Ann died of inflammation of the lungs in the 1st quarter of 1879 aged just 43.

Septimus’s father remarries

Later that year, in the 4th quarter of 1879, Daniel married Lina Von Burren in Chelsea. Lina, who was born in Neuchatel in Switzerland, was 37 at the time of their marriage, 19 years younger than her husband. Unfortunately, we know nothing more about Lina before she married – we do not know why she was living in England, if she had been married before or why the couple married in London rather than Suffolk.

In the 1881 Census we find the couple living at Cox Farm in Hadleigh, Suffolk, and it would appear that Daniel is prospering  – he is now described as a farmer with 330 acres, employing 14 men and 4 boys. Of his nine children, six – including seven year-old Septimus – are still living at home.

The death of Septimus’s father

Just three years later, on the 29th of June 1884, Daniel died aged 60. From Septimus’s medical record we learn that Daniel was diabetic. The three executors of his will were his sons Daniel and Ted and William Butcher of Boxford, a non-conformist minister. Daniel left an estate valued at £3,232 5s 2d, the equivalent of more than £500,000 today. In the 3rd quarter of 1884, shortly after the death of her husband, Lina – at the age of 42 – gave birth to a daughter, Aldine Lina.

We do not know who took over the running of Cox Farm but in the 1891 Census Lina, her daughter, Aldine, and her 18 year-old stepson Septimus are living there alone. Although Lina is described as the head of the household, no mention is made of the acreage of the farm or the number of men and boys employed there. Septimus is working as a grocer’s assistant.

Septimus marries and becomes a father

In the 4th quarter of 1893 Septimus married Mary Ann Rutter in Farnham. Surrey, Unfortunately, it has not been possible to trace Mary Ann in any documents before her marriage so we do not know her age, where she was from or if she had previously been married.

On the 25th of April 1895 Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter, Marion Howard, in Aldershot. Marion was baptised on the 13th of November 1895 in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Aldershot. From the baptismal register we learn that the family was living at 139, Victoria Road in Aldershot and Septimus was working as a ‘traveller’ (travelling salesman).

The couple’s second child, a son called George Rowland, was born on the 23rd of April 1898 in Croydon. George was not baptised until 1911. While we do not know where the family was living at the time of his birth, we do know from a postal register that in 1900 they were resident at 218 Brighton Road, Croydon.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find the family in the 1901 Census but from other documents available it would appear that it was around this time that Septimus’s life began to spiral downwards.

Admission to the workhouse – and then to the asylum

On the 11th of December 1901, 29 year-old Septimus, described as a lunatic with no occupation, was admitted to the St George’s Union Workhouse in the Fulham Road, Westminster by order of the police. No address is given in the admissions register for Septimus and the space for relatives’ names and addresses has also been left blank.

Septimus was discharged from the workhouse on the 17th of December 1901. On the 31st of January 1902 he was admitted to the infirmary of Lambeth Workhouse where, it would appear, he remained until the 5th of February when he was transferred to Hoxton House Asylum.

According to the workhouse register Septimus and his wife, Mary, were living at 62a Hackford Road in Brixton at the time. However, it has not been possible to find them at this address in the 1901 Census. According to Septimus’s own statement in his 1912 case notes he remained in Hoxton House until April 1902 when he was transferred to Horton Asylum. He was discharged from Horton in January 1903.

Convicted of fraud – and imprisoned

We next meet Septimus on the 5th of March 1904 when, described as a ‘London merchant’, he was taken into custody and charged with fraud. On the 23rd and 24th of March in a trial at the Old Bailey he was found guilty of “obtaining by false pretences the sum of £15 from Patrick Fogarty, £25 from William John Wickett, £15 and £15 (sic) from John William Redit and £10 from Henry Walter Smith in each case with intent to defraud; in incurring certain debts and liabilities to the said persons (he) did obtain credit from the said persons by means of fraud other than false pretences”.  

From a court report we learn that Septimus “had advertised in various papers for travellers, and had obtained from £25 to £30 from each of a number of persons as security. He represented that he was managing a business in Clerkenwell Green, and when these persons got there they found there was no employment”.

Septimus was sentenced to three years penal servitude in Wormwood Scrubs though it would appear that he served his sentence in Parkhurst Prison on the isle of Wight. Interestingly, he was charged under the name of George Septimus Underwood but we can be sure that this is our subject as, in a reference to the trial in the Habitual Criminals Register, someone has written in red next to his name “Died in Horton Asylum 11/13”.


Although his sentence would not expire until March 21, 1907, he was released on July 5, 1906. He was allowed to report by letter instead of personally at the police station, and so far as the authorities were concerned “every chance was given him”.

In the August after his release Septimus went to America (Canada, according to his case notes), his passage paid by his older brother Ernest, a grocer and provision dealer living in Aldershot. Septimus returned to England just before his ticket expired.

A second conviction – and a longer sentence

However, the following year, on the 21st of July 1908, Septimus was in the Old Bailey once more, this time charged with “forging and uttering, knowing the same to be forged, a certain order for the payment of money, to wit, a banker’s cheque for the payment of £10, with intent to defraud”.

The details of the case are confusing but it would appear that Septimus forged his brother Ernest’s signature on a cheque which he gave to his landlady, Annie Carter of Shepherd’s Bush, to cash for him. Unfortunately for Septimus, the bank spotted the forged signature. When taken into custody he “had on him a revolver, loaded in five chambers”. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ penal servitude in Parkhurst Prison.

Interestingly, Septimus is described in the court report as a “lawyer” (sic). The inverted commas suggest that the court was rightly suspicious of Septimus’s claim. He is also described as having blue eyes as well as a mole under his right jaw and his left left cheek.

A transfer to Horton Asylum

In the 1911 Census Septimus, now aged 37, is a prisoner in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. His occupation is given as ‘lawyer formerly’ and under ‘Infirmity’ is written ‘lunatic’. He was due to be released on the 20th of July 1913 but his mental state must have deteriorated considerably as on the 12th of February 1912 he was transferred to Horton Asylum.

Presumably Septimus was still regarded as a prisoner – in 1913, when his sentence ended, his status in the Lunacy Patients Admission Register is amended to ‘pauper’. Evidently, at some point Septimus’s claim to be a lawyer and references made during the trial to his trips to America had been conflated as in the Habitual Criminals Register of 1912 he is described as an ‘American lawyer’.

(In her evidence at the trial Annie Carter said that Septimus had made two trips to America following his release from prison. She addressed Septimus during the trial: “You stated when you came to live with me the second time that you had come over from America with the specific purpose of getting some more money from your brother to enable you to carry on your business”. However, the nature of the ‘business’ was not revealed during the trial.)

Septimus’s delusions

In his Horton case notes Septimus’s doctor identified his condition as Systematized Delusional Insanity, observing “mental confusion and incontinence when conversing at any length. Delusions as to some sign upon his brother’s letters and alterations of signature put there by this ‘Semi King Guelph’ who is on the throne”.

A nurse commented “Prisoner has delusions about people being outside his door the whole night and then running away. Can he says see them (sic) through the spy hole. Has a delusion that someone at the Home Office is tampering with his brother’s initials on his letters”.

Another doctor wrote “He believes that he is the victim of a plot by the Home Office to avoid trouble with America in some … business which he has there” and later “He says that either he must be liberated or the King (must?) go to the Tower of London and that all the money in the Empire would not pay for his unlawful detention.”  

A letter Septimus wrote to King George V contained the threat ‘I shall be reluctantly compelled to make you a replica of King Charles unless you treat me rightly’.

Throughout the case notes he is described as ‘quite irrational’ and ‘without insight’ as well as ‘cheerful’, ‘excitable’ and ‘rather passionate’.

A prolific letter-writer

Septimus was a prolific and eloquent letter-writer and a number of his letters appear in his case notes. Most of them were written to the asylum and prison authorities or the police complaining about ill-treatment or the injustice of his being incarcerated.

In 1913 he wrote a letter to Princess Victoria Louise stating ‘the desirability of contracting a marriage with you’. He went on ‘I propose to take you to Westminster to make you Queen of the country if agreeable to you’.

Septimus then claimed to be writing a new bible called ‘the Holy Book of Truth’ and asked the princess to contribute to it, ‘if not, pray until the Holy Spirit endow you to do so’.

This letter shows his flamboyant signature which he uses in all of his correspondence. Why he circles the ‘land’ is curious.

He also wrote a letter to ‘The English Government’ claiming £2,000,000 compensation for ‘false sentence of penal servitude’, citing the case tried in 1903 and £10,000 compensation for medical negligence ‘with regard to my person at Exeter Prison’. (It is not known when – or, indeed, if – Septimus was in Exeter Prison.)

In another of the letters he wrote to George V he appears to be challenging his majesty to a battle and concludes “Had your late father and yourself paid heed to the Almighties Directions (sic) through me how very differently would have been the end of you”.

In another, he declared that he had drafted a new book of Law, in which he had plans for how to deal with bigamy and adultery, which appears to be that the guilty would be shot.

Letters to his brother Ted

We do not know if Septimus maintained contact with his children while he was in Horton though we are told in his case notes that he and Mary had not lived together ‘for some time and (he) had no idea of her whereabouts’.

Of his siblings we know only of the letters he exchanged with his older brother Ted: ‘I received your letter dated the 22nd of August also 1/- postal order and the tobacco for which I thank you’.

In one letter Septimus informs his brother that he is to be married the following week to Mary Gilbert, a charge attendant at Horton and asks his brother to send him £1,000 as he ‘will need starting flags etc.’

He encloses measurements for a 22 carat gold ring which he asks Ted to send him along with a monocle ‘about a 1/- one’. He concludes, ‘And, Dear Ted I want you “all” to come to the wedding so would you notify the others not forgetting the ladies…’ One must assume that the wedding never took place.

Health problems – and death

Apart from his mental health problems, Septimus suffered from incontinence, cystitis and urethral stricture, aggravated by gonorrhoea and intemperance. As his doctor writes in the case notes, “(he) drank like a fish according to his own statement”.

Septimus died at 3.50pm on the 6th of November 1913 aged just 39. The death certificate – on which Septimus’s occupation is given as ‘American lawyer’ – states the primary cause of death was stricture of the urethra but cystitis, pyelonephritis (a kidney infection) and urinary calculus (bladder stones) were also cited. He was buried in Horton Cemetery in grave 791a on the 13th of November.

Septimus’s family after his death

It has not been possible to find Mary Ann in the 1911 Census but as both of her children were later found to be living in Gloucester it is possible she also lived there. A Mary A. Underwood is one of the witnesses at Marion’s wedding in 1920 (see below).

It has not been possible to find Marion in the 1911 Census but on the 3rd of April, aged 24, she married 30 year-old machinist William Hamilton Rigby at St Luke’s Church in Gloucester. At the time of their marriage the couple were living at 63, Clegram Road in Gloucester. They had at least two children, Betty (born 1922) and Robert (born 1935). Marion died on the 13th of July 1948 aged 53.

In the 1911 Census George Rowland, Septimus’s son, is boarding with John James and his family at 170, Seymour Road in Gloucester. He is aged 12 and described as a scholar. We have no further information about George at that time other than that he was baptised in St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester, on the 3rd of March 1911 when Septimus was in prison in Parkhurst.

On the baptismal register Septimus’s occupation is given as ‘salesman’. On the 12th of September 1913 George enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. In the 3rd quarter of 1923 George married Lily Hume in Portsmouth but it is not known if they had any children. It would appear that George remained in the Royal Navy as in 1931 he was awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. George died in the 3rd quarter of 1973 aged 75.

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