From a valley to the Green

This the story as we knew it in 2010.  We continued our research and we know a lot more than we did then. We have published our revised version of the life of Erasmus on

The story of Erasmus Cooper (1819/1902)

Chapter One


Erasmus Cooper was born in Duffield, Derbyshire in 1818, and died in London in the Bethnal Green Workhouse Infirmary in 1902.

A journey in time and distance, in which he either took part in or witnessed changes equal to if not greater than the technological changes in any similar period in the twentieth century. It will not be possible to tell the whole of this story because there are still long periods for when we have no knowledge of his precise whereabouts.

In 1818, the future Queen Victoria was one year old. There were no trains, buses, cars or bicycles. There was no street lighting in cities, much less a small country village: houses had no running water supply nor sanitation. Electricity had yet to be generated, so no electric light, telephones or computers. Children under ten worked in factories for 10 and 12 hours a day.

Some five miles from Derby, the population of Duffield and the surrounding area at the beginning of the nineteenth century was just over 1,000 and it probably is not much greater today.

The Pigotts Directory of 1837 describes it as ...a large and pleasant village, in the Parish of the same name, in the hundred of Appledore: the village is situate on a fine plain, over which the main road passes, leading from Derby to Belper

A different view was held by J.P. Malcolm only 40 years previously, who wrote in the Gentleman s Magazine, about this part of Derbyshire, What, indeed, but extreme wretchedness could induce a person to live exposed to the keen northern blasts that whirl around those bleak rocks?

The parish church, St. Alkmund, sits, surrounded by its churchyard, at the end of a lane, a half mile or so outside the village. The parish records for this church still exist and are complete for the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th. However there is no record of the baptism of Erasmus there.

Erasmus was the son of John Cooper, a framework knitter, and although there are records of the children of a John Cooper a framework knitter and his wife having children baptised in the parish church, there was no Erasmus. It may be that for some reason he was baptised elsewhere, or that the John Cooper mentioned above is not the father of Erasmus. There were no Coopers amongst the Gentry listed in Pigotts, although mention was made of George Cooper a flour dealer and Hannah Cooper, a dress maker. At the time that Erasmus was born George Cooper, a farmer, Samuel and William Cooper, both framework knitters were having their children baptised in the parish church.

Framework knitting as a cottage industry was already in decline by the end of the eighteenth century and the phrase as poor as a stockinger was in common usage. An arduous and difficult trade involving the making of woollen stockings on a hand knitting machine, which was heavy to manipulate and therefor only suitable work for a man. However, wives and children were frequently involved in the work, as the knitting was done as a flat piece and later sown up to form the stocking. Although framework knitters mostly worked at home, they were not independent business men, as this might imply. They more often worked piece work for agents, and in most instances did not even own the machine sitting in their own home.

Chapter Two


The down turn in trade and the poverty associated with that may well have been the reason that Erasmus did not follow the trade of his father. He became a printer, a trade he could not have learned in Duffield, as there were no printers established there at that time. So he presumably became apprenticed in Derby, where the family were living at the time of the 1841 census.

Pigotts describes Derby is a market, borough and county town. a very ancient town, occupying a fine tract of land, on the banks of the river Derwent; and is situate peculiarly favourably for the process of manufactures requiring the aid of water: various mills have therefor been established in the town, or its immediate vicinity, for the manufacture of silk and cotton.

The 1841 census for Upper Brook Street, Derby shows: John Cooper, Age 43, Framework Knitter Sarah Cooper Age 40, no occupation Mary Cooper, Age 18, Silk stocking seamer Jane Cooper, Age 14, Silk stocking seamer, Erasmus Cooper, Age 23, Printer J.

Presumably John and Sarah are Erasmus parents, Jane his sister and Mary, his wife.

Where, if at all, Erasmus married Mary Griffin, we have not been able to establish despite extensive searches of all the likely records. Their first child was Mary Ann, who was born in the parish of All Saints, Derby on Wednesday, 30th June 1841.

How long Erasmus and his little family remained in Derby we do not know, nor how they made the journey to London.

Although there was a railway connection between London and Derby, there was no direct line and it is quite likely that they would not have been able to have afforded the fare. However, the establishment in 1844 of the so-called parliamentary trains whereby the railway companies were compelled by regulation to run one train per day that carried third class passengers, may have been the impetus they required to make the journey.

The alternative means of travel in the 1840s was by one of the regular coaches carrying mail and passengers, although these were very expensive. It is possible they could have arranged conveyance on a barge, which made the slow journey to London, there being a regular traffic between Derby and London, although passengers were not often carried by this means.

The first railway to Derby opened in 1839, (Birmingham to Derby ) and two others soon followed so that in the intervening years, up to the time of the departure of Erasmus and Mary, , trains would have become familiar figures in the Derbyshire landscape.

Nonetheless, the decision to make the long journey to London in one of these black, noisy, steam and smoke emitting monsters, was a courageous one. The rattling, hard seated third class carriages did not make for a comfortable journey, and the long tunnels, with only one small oil lamp per carriage, which often did not survive the whole of the journey, were a frightening experience for many country-bred people.

Chapter Three


Sarah, their second daughter, was born on Monday 1st December 1845 at 34 Church Street, Soho, a short street near Charing Cross Road.

Like Dick Whittington, four hundred years previously, Erasmus and Mary were to find that the streets of London were not paved with gold. What they expected, we will not know. What they found was a crowded, bustling city with close to two million inhabitants. Traffic jams in the streets crowded with all manner of horsedrawn vehicles, so that crossing sweepers found employment making a path through the mud and manure from one side of the road to the other to enable pedestrians to cross without sinking up to the ankles in the filth.

Accommodation was expensive and difficult to find. The large increase in the population in the previous twenty years having made an already bad situation worse.

The Irish potato famine in 1845, had also brought an influx of poor agricultural labourers from Ireland with their families into London, desperately seeking work.

Work, was probably also the motive for the move of Erasmus and Mary from the relative peace of Derby to the big smoke

The industrial revolution as it is now called, together with the expansion of the railways and the increasing number of newspapers had brought about a greater demand for printing. Railway tickets, timetables, posters etc. Much of this increased demand was centred in London. There were more newspaper and book publishers there than anywhere else in the kindom and probably the world.

Chapter Four


They later moved from Soho and spent some years in Southwark, where four sons were born. The twins, Erasmus and Thomas were born on Sunday, 14th May 1848, at 4 Thomas Place, in the parish of St. George the Martyr, Southwark. Between then and Monday 15th November 1850 when John was born they had moved to 42 Green Street, Blackfriars. William was also born there on Saturday 22nd October 1853.

Despite the fact that they appeared to have lived at 42 Green Street for the whole period of 1850 to 1853, they do not appear on the 1851 census for that address. It is always possible of course that they had moved from Green Street and then moved back again later. Families, moved often in those times, particularly when an increase in the number of children made it necessary to seek larger accommodation.

None of these places exist today, so there is no way of knowing how they lived. There are lurid descriptions in contemporary literature,

J Hollingshead wrote, in his book Ragged London in 1861 .

...on the south side of the metropolis, to start from Bermondsey and wriggle through the existing miles of dirt vice and crime as far as the Lambeth marshes . Picturesque as poverty and wretchedness look upon canvas, free as pictures are from harsh voices and unpleasant smells, no attempt has ever been made to deal with the black holes of London in this form..... In many respects its standard of civilisation if lower than that of Whitechapel or St. George in the East, especially in Southwark and the Waterloo Rd districts. It has scores of streets that are rank and steaming with vice. Even allowing for journalistic licence, it does not paint a pretty picture. This would have been a stark contrast to the small market town of Derby and the little village of Duffield, the cold blasts notwithstanding.

The family subsequently moved across the river to Bethnal Green, however if this was after 1861, they would have been aware of the great fire of Tooley Street that burned for several days in July of that year. The fire totally destroyed nearly a quarter of a mile of warehouses and wharves on the south side of the Thames, and was visible for miles around.

The various moves were most likely to have been work related. Public transport consisted of horsedrawn buses, which few working people used, due to the cost. Many workers walked quite long distances to get to their place of work. Charles Dickens as a boy walked seven miles from Camden town to the blacking factory where he worked near Hungerford stairs.

Chapter Five

Bethnal Green

The move from Southwark to Bethnal Green that took place sometime in the early 1860s would have required a great deal of effort. Erasmus and Mary with six children, with their few items of furniture, on a handcart or if they were lucky, a borrowed horse van, crossing the bridge, and making their way through the city to Shoreditch and then on to Bethnal Green, a distance as the crow flies of between three and four miles, much further by road.

As the children grew and came to adulthood, they would have found employment, and the time would soon come for them to marry and leave the nest, providing of course that they had not already done so. Mary Ann was 26 years old when she married Alfred Earle in Bethnal Green in 1867. The following year, the 20 year old Erasmus married Catherine Davis in St Thomas Charterhouse, and the parish register shows that he was living in that parish at the time. The year after, 1869, Sarah, then 24, married George Lappage also in Bethnal Green.

Parts of Bethnal Green were no better than Southwark and Blackfriars, it containing the notorious Old Nichol probably the first no-go area the Metropolitan Police encountered.

In 1871 at 9 Durrant Street, Bethnal Green, the whole extended family of Erasmus and Sarah, their children with spouses and grandchildren were all living together. Durrant Street, which still exists, is a fairly short street composed of small terraced two storey houses, running from Diss Street which adjoins Hackney Rd to Old Bethnal Green Rd. The houses were probably of relatively recent construction at that time, so would have been an improvement in accommodation despite the degradation of many of the adjoining streets.

However, they were still a large family to occupy only four rooms: Erasmus and Mary with the two unmarried sons, John and William; the younger Erasmus with his wife Catherine and two sons aged three and one; Sarah, her husband George Lappage and four month old Alice and finally Mary Ann, husband Alfred Earle and two year old Elizabeth. A grand total of ten adults and 4 children sharing a house containing four rooms, possibly an outside toilet and a single water tap also situated outside in the yard.

Printing ink was obviously running in their veins, as Thomas, Erasmus and William were all in the printing trade, as was Sarah s husband, George Lappage. There had been considerable changes in the machinery of printing by this time, large mechanically operated machines that were used for printing now were a far cry from the machines on which Erasmus would have learned his trade as an apprentice in Derby.

Erasmus and Mary remained at 9 Durrant Street until 1879, when Mary died on Friday 19th December, from Bronchitis. Despite being the mother of six children, Mary has not had much of a mention in this narrative. This is because we know so little of her. The 1871 census shows that she was born in Northampton and her occupation was as a Nurse. One can only speculate as to what kind of nursing she did, or as to wether she was qualified or not. This was in the early days of nursing training, following the efforts of Florence Nightingale to improve Nursing standards during the Crimean War. The Nightingale School of Nursing was established at St. Thomas Hospital, Southwark in 1861. The family does not appear to have been touched by the tragedy of infant death, which was part of the normal life of working families. It may be that they had other children that did not survive into adulthood, that we have not been able to trace due to the difficulty of identifying individual Cooper entries on the indexes. By early 1881 the family had moved apart to some extent. Erasmus was still living in Durrant Street, but at Number 10, where he was effectively a lodger of his daughter Mary Ann and her husband Alfred Earle.

Also in Durrant Street, at No 14, was daughter Sarah, her husband and four children. Her unmarried brother William was also living with them.

John , having married in 1868 was living with his wife Elizabeth and their five children in St. Pancras and was employed as a carman.

Young Erasmus, his wife Catherine and their five children were still in Bethnal Green, but had a flat in Toyes Buildings.

Thomas had returned to south London and was living in East Street, Walworth with his wife Louise and they also had five children.

Having been together for close to forty years, Erasmus would have missed Mary considerably. However he found another companion and married Caroline Hawkings, a 42 year old widow. The ceremony took place at the Bethnal Green Registry Office on Wednesday 7th September. The witnesses were not members of the family, this may have been fortuitous, or it may indicate that the sons and daughters of his first marriage did not approve of this remarriage.

Ten years later, in 1891, Erasmus appeared to have been still working as a printer at the age of 75. The old age pension would not be introduced for another 15 years, much too late for Erasmus and his contemporaries. He was living with his second wife Caroline,(who for some unknown reason was entered as Catherine on the census of that year) at 36 Quilter Street.

Chapter Six

The Final Years

Erasmus spent his final years in Bethnal Green, obviously in failing health, although a good age for those time. In July 1900 he was admitted to the Workhouse, although their records show that he only stayed one day, but he may have gone into the Infirmary, as in September he again went into the workhouse from the Infirmary. He stayed in the Workhouse until October of that year.

There is no further record of him until 4th January 1902 when he was again admitted to the Workhouse Infirmary where he stayed until 12th April when he returned to the Workhouse. He remained there until his death of Chronic cystitis, consecutive nephritis on Tuesday 2nd September. The workhouse death records state the he was buried by friends .

The friends may well have been family. However, it is difficult now to understand how it was that an old man with several children and grandchildren alive and earning, should have been compelled to spend his final months in the workhouse.

Did the lack of family as witnesses at his marriage to Caroline imply that there had been a falling out, and that he was no longer in touch with his children?


The death of Erasmus is not the end of the family story, and we continue to look for further information about them, which will fill in further details of their lives.

There are also the descendants, listed later which number 130 that we have been able to identify, at the time of printing this little booklet.

The rest of the family also merit some narrative, however this will have to wait for a later occasion, as it a much larger undertaking, and the research is not complete. That is if family history research is ever complete.

© E.H. & J. Y. McKie 2001

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