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A Nineteenth Century Bermondsey Tanner and his Family

Exploring Southwark has been contacted by Carrie Reid who has put together a short biography of Bermondsey tanner Charles Radley.  This is reproduced here and, though unique, his story echoes that of hundreds of thousands working class men in 19th century London and gives us an insight into their life experiences.  Carrie is one of Charles’s third great grand-daughters and now lives in New Zealand with regular visits to London and the London Metropolitan Archives. With many thanks to Carrie for sharing her research.


Families who came to London with the promise of work and higher earnings often left behind family and a healthier lifestyle. They believed they would create a better future for their children and more prosperous lives. Their families suffered hardships and challenges, but, even now, their descendants can be found in the area as well as spreading across the globe. This is a brief account of the events in the lives of one couple and their family who came to Bermondsey to start a new life.


Charles Radley was born in Great Hallingbury in Essex in October of 1813, the last child of the second marriage of John Radley with his wife Sarah Bond, formerly Yardley. Charles was part of a large blended family. He found making a living challenging as a manual labourer and in 1831 at 18 years of age was reliant on the parish for support. The Parish Guardians promptly sent him back to his father’s original parish of Bishop’s Stortford across the Hertfordshire border.


Charles had known Jane Prior all his life; they were born in the same village. Charles and Jane married in 1833, in St Giles’s Church, Great Hallingbury, and by the time they moved to Bermondsey  they had seven children, having lost one son George as an infant.


Charles trained to become a tanner and although finding work was difficult, he succeeded in acquiring the skills necessary for his trade.  He worked as a tanner since at least 1841 and worked alongside a younger local boy named Stephen Sampford.  The two of them collaborated as journeymen tanners, with Stephen sharing Charles’s home.


Charles and Jane Radley together with Stephen Sampford moved to Bermondsey from their home in Bishop Stortford in about 1847. The move to London was possibly prompted by the presence of his brother James Bond Radley, closest to Charles in age,  as James was a groom in the City and had married a widow with three children there in January of 1839.  The Radleys may have travelled to London by train; the line to London had opened up in the early 1840’s that made moving from Bishop’s Stortford to the capital easier, however, they were not well off, so they may have travelled by cart or even possibly trekked. As a journeyman tanner, Charles was likely drawn to Bermondsey by the prospect of regular employment in the expanding tanning industry. Charles, Jane and Stephen and the children Betsey 15, John 13, Sarah 12, Eliza 9, Mary Ann 7, William 5 and little 2-year-old Martha would have found the noise, smell and cramped streets a huge and dramatic change to the quiet market town of Bishop’s Stortford.


Tanner Tanning

Charles soon found work in one of the Bermondsey tanneries.  The family lived at 5 Edward Street in the census district of St Mary Magdalene. A daughter Emma was born in 1848, so there were eight children, Charles, Jane and Stephen, all in the same small house, and by early 1850, Jane was pregnant again with another child.  The children had not been exposed in Bishop’s Stortford to the sheer volume of people and over-crowding they experienced in Bermondsey. Illness in Bermondsey was rife with frequent outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria and smallpox to name but a few, and although previously the family had only lost one child in 1839, in 1850, little Martha, now 4, fell ill. Martha had contracted measles, she grew weaker, with fevers raging.  She died on the 4th May 1850 aged 4.


Her burial is recorded in the records of the Southwark Chapel, Long Lane, Bermondsey as a Wesleyan Burial, as Martha Radley, 4 years, death 4th May, living at Edward St. The minister’s fee of 1 shilling is paid, and the sexton’s fee of 2 shillings is also paid. For a long time, Martha was an invisible part of the family, born between census returns, but the burial record, her birth in Bishop Stortford, and the finding of her death certificate, means  she can finally be added to the family again.


This must have been a blow to the family, losing a young child after successfully raising eight children until this point. Little James Henry Radley was born later that year, so the family became eight again and then in 1851, Walter was born followed in 1853 by Edith and in 1854 by Stephen, named after Charles's workmate and lodger.


The family moved to Wild’s or Wyld’s Rents, the name varied in how it was recorded then.  Charles probably had steady employment and the family home would be marked in Booths’ Poverty Survey at the end of the century as having families with regular income.  Certainly the family’s continuing presence in the same place suggests Charles was earning a reasonable wage. However, the nature of the overcrowded community  and having four children so close together in her late 30’s took its toll on Jane’s health, and in early September 1854, Jane, Charles’s wife, died aged just 39. She was buried at St James’s Bermondsey on the 13th September 1854.  Baby Stephen died shortly afterwards in early 1855.


This left Charles as father to ten children, five of whom were under twelve. The eldest children were of working age. Betsey Radley, and Stephen Sampford, after spending most of their formative years together, finally married the following year and had children of their own immediately.  By 1857, the Sampfords had moved out to 5, Green Walk and John and his wife Jane Edwards had moved to 19, Brook Street. By 1858, Eliza and her husband Thomas Davidson, had moved out to Bermondsey New Road (now Tower Bridge Road) and Mary Ann was living in 2, Weston Street.


By 12th September 1858, John, Eliza, Sarah and Mary Ann, had all married. As the year drew to a close, his son James Henry Radley, fell ill and in the middle of December 1858, young James died from bronchitis, aged 8 years old. He was buried at Victoria Park Cemetery in Hackney. Charles must have found it challenging to take care of the remaining children and the death of James, after losing Jane, must have hit him hard.


Charles’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, who was married to his brother James, had two girls from a previous marriage. The eldest girl, Margaret Waterfield was 31 and her sister 29. Their early life had been spent in and out of Shoreditch Workhouse and neither girl had married, possibly their experiences in the Workhouse had tainted their lives. In 1860, Charles still had young children and on 6 May 1860, he married Margaret Waterfield who moved into 3 Wild’s Rents with Charles and his family. Walter and Edith were still at home. Shortly after their marriage, Margaret became pregnant and on the 31st March 1861, a son Charles Samuel Radley was born.  


Charles’s son William and his daughter Emma, both moved into Bermondsey New Road with their sister. However, by the latter end of 1862, his other young son Walter died aged just 11. In 1864, a daughter Elizabeth Ann was born, followed in 1866 by Margaret, and in 1869, another daughter Emily Maria. By 1869, Charles Radley had been father to at least 17 children. Of these, ten were married, and of those, eight produced children of their own.  Sadly, his daughter Edith died in 1870 from a fever, and his son William in 1871.  Though William married in December 1869, his wife Sarah Jones had a child with him back in 1861 but the couple didn’t marry until William became sick.  Charles continued to live at 3 Wild’s Rents up until his death in 1885. By 1891, six years after his death, Charles’s grandchildren numbered 48.


Charles Radley’s family continued to be a very close knit bunch. The children of Betsey, John, Eliza, Mary Ann, William, Emma, Elizabeth Ann, Margaret and Emily Maria, would go on to face their own series of challenges, from children born or ending up spending their early lives in the Workhouse, some losing nearly all their own children, family members sent to the Asylum, losing family in World War I right the way through to the tragedy of the London Blitz and the deaths in the Stainer Street Archway bomb where at least seven family members perished.


One moment in time, encapsulated for me, the whole nature of this London family and the community they were part of. In 1939, as War broke out, the 1939 register was taken. At least 23 members of the extended Radley family, on that day, were hop picking at Yew Tree Farm in Kent. The community they built and shared in would suffer terribly in the following years, with families destroyed or torn apart, but on that one day, in September, on a Kent Farm, their laughter would have echoed around the encampment, family ties and community were strong, they worked and played together.


Looking around Bermondsey today, it is hard to imagine the nature of the growth of these families and the hardships they endured. They appear to have vanished without a trace, the buildings they knew replaced by hotels, offices and fancy restaurants, the former tanneries that are still standing converted into popular – and expensive - apartment buildings.  But the descendants of the earlier Bermondsey working classes are still there, just fewer in number perhaps.  To this day, members of the extended Radley family continue to live locally, still a part of the area. Some left never to return, some left and came back. Charles’s name may not be visible, they may be now carrying new family names, but the third and fourth great grandchildren of Charles Radley, tanner, 1813-1885, are still there contributing and living in the surrounding area.