Christmas Morning. London 1860

An extract taken from “For Every Lie” by J E Seaward

At eight o’clock on Christmas morning, a clean skinned, rosy cheeked, shiny haired Mary, recklessly ignoring a fresh covering of ice, ran up the steps from the kitchen door wearing her best dress covered with a thick, brown cloak and a bonnet secured with a woollen scarf. She put down her basket and a bundle of presents she’d tied up in a shawl and unashamedly flung her arms around John’s neck. He kissed her, lifted her up and swung her around in a circle, as easily as if she were a child. Their exuberance echoed along the silent, empty street, flushing a vagrant tomcat out of his cover. John picked up Mary’s things and they began to walk, working up a good pace to keep warm.

By the time they’d reached the middle of Hammersmith Bridge, a red sun had poked its nose above the horizon, spreading a dazzling rippled light over the surface of the Thames. They stopped and looked around them: this had become their custom and was their favourite place. They stood for the best part of half an hour and watched in awe as the sun sent its liquid-looking mass into the sky then disappeared behind a bank of pink cloud. The river reverted to its normal, rolling blackness, and with the full light they were surprised to see that the water near the bank had frozen into strange shapes with the flotsam and jetsam. There, a pair of mallard ducks were cautiously, but comically, exploring their new slippery terrain.

And a Happy New Year to all.

And a Happy New Year to all.





Christmas Shopping. London 1860

An extract taken from “For Every Lie” by J E Seaward

The Christmas tree in Mme Goosen's shop window

The Christmas tree in Mme Goosen’s shop window.


‘Violet, I have to do some Christmas shopping, why don’t you come? The shop windows are bursting with beautiful things, sparkling silver and china…’

‘What would I want with all that stuff?’ Violet raised her eyes to the ceiling and continued measuring flour into a large mixing bowl.

‘Sweets and candied fruit in beautiful boxes,’ Mary coaxed, ‘even you would like those – and you can see the Christmas tree in Mme Goosen’s window. It’s covered in silk flowers, lace and ribbon from her shop and lit up with gold candles. You must think that’s worth a look?’

‘The Atkinsons’ would have a fit if they saw us sauntering off, neglecting our duties.’

‘They’re not here!’ Mary shrugged her shoulders in protest, but the pleading twinkle in her eyes melted Violet’s heart.

‘What a soft touch you must think I am!’ complained Violet, concealing her amusement.

‘Well my concern is for you, Mrs K, having to wait another whole year before getting the chance again. You can listen to the church singers and yesterday, when I went to the post office, I saw a banner saying there’s going to be a Punch and Judy show. Let’s put on our diamonds and fur stoles and grace King Street with our honourable presence!

Violet and Mary in King Street.

Violet and Mary in King Street.

‘Heavens almighty girl! How much time do you think I can waste in one day?’ Violet could no longer contain her smile. Mary knew the battle was won and she ran upstairs to fetch her coat, reappearing bundled in enough layers to protect her from the coldest weather. While Violet got herself ready, Mary took a spade from the garden store and scraped the ice away from the steep kitchen steps.

During their walk up to King Street, arm in arm with their baskets swinging, they were overtaken by a fit of mirth and childish feelings of excitement for Christmas. Violet’s description of a scarf that she’d knitted for her husband made them howl with laughter. The shop windows and Christmas slogans could have easily tempted them to lose all their savings so they had to be strict and leave money in their purses for other things. Once their presents, paper and coloured string were bought and the Christmas sights fully taken in, they treated themselves to a hot cup of sweet coffee from a stall. They stood watching the world go by in all its very best humour; rubbing shoulders with the poor and the rich, the plain and the beautiful, the happy and the sad alike.

Hot potatoes and chestnuts

Hot potatoes and chestnuts



Before returning to St Peter’s Road, Violet bought a bag of chestnuts and two crispy skinned potatoes from a street vendor for their lunch. The smell of the chestnuts roasting on hot coals had been enticing them all morning.

‘We’ll have a bit of ham and pickles with those,’ said Violet.






My love of Christmas shopping started as a small child with the yearly trip to visit Uncle Holly in Selfridges, followed by an exciting visit to the Harrods toy department. This was not to buy… just to look, marvel, and sometimes touch the wonderful toys that would definitely not end up in our Christmas pillowcases. They were generally, and predictably, filled with a new satchel – or shoes, a comic Annual and new vests and pants.

From a victorian Christmas card

From a victorian Christmas card

There would be a couple of satsumas and an envelope containing a one pound note from great Aunty Ivy which, over many years, never went up with inflation. Grandma knitted us each a size-too-big school jumper and finally, the obligatory Cadbury’s selection box. Every year, without fail, I managed to finish the lot before the Queen’s speech and throw up. My Christmas lunch went down the pan with it!


I loved the smell of the Christmas tree, mince pies, turkey roasting with all the trimmings and sherry sipped illicitly from grown-up’s glasses.



A Victorian Winter, London 1860

Extract taken from “For Every Lie” by J E Seaward

The horrors of a cold Victorian winter did not immediately touch the Atkinsons and the better-off classes in Hammersmith, nor even Mary herself. She had the protection of a warm kitchen, food in her stomach and clothes on her back. She had a better life than many, but she also had first hand knowledge of poverty – it was all around her. There was her own mother working long, hard hours at the laundry for little pay. Her mother’s landlord had callously threatened to throw her out when she’d complained about the leaking roof, saying there were many who would pay double for such a dwelling.

Working lads 1894

Working lads 1894

Frozen snow

Frozen snow















Dire poverty, hunger and crime were thrust in Mary’s face on her daily shopping trips to King Street. She saw a whole family begging, sitting among refuse from the shops to keep themselves warm and dependent on donations from passers by before being able to buy a loaf of bread or a cup of tea. Ragged, dirty-faced children, as young as three or four, approached strangers to try and sell any small thing they had stolen or found on the streets. Some would offer wood or rope they’d gleaned from the riverbed at low tide – anything, from a lump of coal to a lace-edged handkerchief.

Some mornings, shop windows were boarded up after being smashed by looters during the night. This prompted many shopkeepers to install iron grilles over their windows – like prison bars, reminding everyone of the consequence of crime. The only windows that were never broken belonged to the undertaker’s. The rate of death doubled in a harsh winter and death was a profitable line of business. Each clothing shop displayed the latest styles for mourning along with winter tweeds and furs. Jewellers took their jet and diamond mourning brooches from under the counter and put them on full view. Even the rich were not protected from death; it was just more dignified.

A Street Urchin

A Street Urchin

The worst thing that Mary saw during that winter was the naked corpse of a young boy, wrapped in rags and newspaper. It had been left in an alley beside Mme Goosen’s shop. His stomach was distended with malnutrition and his skin was filthy and covered with sores. The police had been called and they were unwrapping the body as Mary came out of the shop. There were a few onlookers trying to give reason to the tragedy.

‘Must be starvation – dear God, look at the state of him!’

‘But why leave the poor little devil naked, all alone?’

‘Couldn’t afford the funeral, I shouldn’t wonder.’ An undertaker’s cart came and the police moved the crowd aside.

‘Move away, ladies and gents, get about your business. He’s with his Maker now. No more to gawp at.’ It made Mary feel deeply sad. The boy had looked about her brother’s age and she could think of nothing else that day and he came into her dreams for many nights after that.



November... Thick fog "pea souper" brought London to a standstill and death to the streets.

November… Thick fogs “pea soupers” brought London to a standstill and death to the streets.

The Victorians lived in a an unfair society of rich and poor. There was a middle class but not many people were able to aspire to it once poverty had set in. This situation grew worse throughout the Victorian era – even craftsmen were poorly paid and lived a relatively plain life. Britain was conquering the world and technology was beginning to move forward – but people were still dying from poverty. Children were starving, and there was no where to turn except to take charity from the church and, the final degradation… the workhouse. There were other options if you were really desperate; crime and prostitution.

There was no national health, social security or council housing and landlords took good rent for appalling accommodation. Slums bred disease, and sick people couldn’t work. Despite the incredible improvements in social and healthcare provisions, there are still parts of our society, let alone the rest of the World, that struggle beyond most of our imaginations.


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Unlike the Victorians, when it came to holding a funeral, our earlier ancestors thought less about the pleasantries than getting their deceased relatives sent off quickly, cheaply and efficiently.

Britain had been besmirched with war, plague, cholera and, in general, a very short life expectancy. The 17th and 18th century funerals had few frills and flounces – just one or two pagan rituals such as the strewing of flowers and memorabilia over the grave; a practice which was soon banned. Not just because it was considered heathen but it interfered with the rights of ministers to graze their sheep or cattle in the graveyards. Instead of scattering flowers it became a practice to incorporate flowers and strong smelling herbs into the shroud, which helped improve the smell of the rotting corpse.

The Georgian funeral

The arrangements were simple – the body was washed and wrapped in a shroud. The clergy would be informed and a grave digger employed. The male relatives, hats bound with long black ribbons, would walk in procession to the church, carrying the corpse on a bier covered with a pall. Females took part from a distance so that the ceremony was not ruined by their crying and fainting.

A Georgian Funeral 1850's

A Georgian Funeral 1750’s










The pall and bier were usually hired: for a wealthy individual the more expensive pall would be used. This was made of black or purple velvet and was often elaborately embroidered. A very poor family might sometimes have been allowed to use the bier and a plain pall for free. The bodies, rich or poor, would simply be tipped or slid into the grave. The Bier and pall went on to be used again and again. Some churches owned a re-usable coffin, with a hinged bottom, from which the body was evacuated into the grave… very eco friendly!

Invitation to a funeral 1712.

Invitation to a funeral 1712. The design shows a lack of regard for anything Christian, but I think it contains reference to the harsh reality of life and death as seen at that time.


The ceremony of sprinkling three handfuls of earth onto the body was introduced in 1542 as an official part of the funeral service and has continued, excuse the pun, religiously. A law, which has not always been taken too seriously through the ages, was made on the 30th December 1563. It stated that a body should be buried six feet under – a good and hygienic practice, particularly in times when contagious diseases had no cure.

But by the 18th century, and into early 19th centuary, the “six foot under” law was being flouted. Despite a high mortality rate, especially among children, the population had been increasing dramatically. The graveyards were filling up!

Children were not seen as a problem; their small corpses were usually placed into a grave of an adult that was being buried on the same day. The question which kept rearing its ugly head was, where to put all the potential extra corpses?

A report of gross overcrowding

A report of gross overcrowding



















The first answer had been to build more churches with bigger graveyards. This worked in less densely populated areas but in cities, particularly London, by the time the Georgian period was in full swing, graveyards were seriously overcrowded. Some literally piled high – bodies on top of more bodies… packed side by side like sardines. Walls were built to retain the extra soil as the level of some graveyards began to reach the church windows. Bodies were being uncovered by dogs and eaten, and a constant smell of putrid flesh caused people to avoid going too close!

This seems to be no exaggeration. Tales of bodies rising from the grave might not have been far from the truth. If you look again at the first picture, “A Georgian Funeral”, the graveyard reaches the top of the walls and tombstones are clearly visible over the top.

During the reign of King William, in 1831, a cholera epidemic killed 52,000 people. The situation was now desperate and privately funded cemeteries began to spring up across England. It was a profitable business as the graves were costly to buy; the poor were still given a cheap and undignified burial, far away from their rich cousins.

The Victorians arrived, and decided that their relatives would be allowed to rest in style… at least the wealthier ones. With their growing fascination for death came superstition, new traditions, foolish and ghostly tales, and a desire to have a funeral to impress and make your neighbours jealous.

Tombstone in Highgate cemetery

Tombstone in Highgate cemetery

Superstition and traditions.

At the moment of a death, the curtains would be drawn: this let people know there’d been a death in the house. They would be kept shut until after the funeral. The eyes were closed and a coin placed on each lid. This was to stop the corpse staring back at you – the staring eyes were actually caused by rigor mortis.

Mirrors were covered: our reflection in a mirror is said to be the reflection of our soul – if the soul of the dead person should see itself it might not leave… or perhaps take another soul with it!

Dead family members were said to appear at the dying person’s bedside before death.

At the moment of death, pictures sometimes fall off walls. It’s unlucky if a clock stops at the time of death. Perhaps a raven might land on the roof, then there would certainly be a death. Some people said, if you see a white dove land on the roof of a house… a death would soon occur within. If you shiver suddenly… someone is walking over your grave – so beware.

The thing the Victorians feared most about death was not being dead. There were several things that might be carried out to prevent premature burial. One was to put a handbell in the coffin, another was to employ someone to stab you through the heart to ensure death. Wasn’t that what happened to Dracula? Another more popular way was to have a wake. This meant that relatives would stay awake and watch the corpse for several days and look for any movement. It also became a mark of respect.









More than anything, the puritanical Victorians wanted a “good death”. They harboured images of a dying person surrounded by their family, sobbing into their perfumed handkerchiefs, telling each other what good and righteous lives they’d had and how much they’d loved each other. They also needed to repent their sins as, according to the church, there were only two places to go after death… Heaven or Hell. There would be no pain at death, it had been completely removed by such substances as arsenic, strychnine, mercury, opium, cocaine, morphine, quinine and chloroform – as long as you could afford it!

Instant mortality.

Locks of hair were taken from the corpse and woven into pictures or put into lockets. Photographs were taken of dead children, often propped up to look alive and, even more ghoulish… with their live brothers and sisters. Death masks were sometimes made to display in the house.


Mourning was an expensive business: black clothes, more than one outfit as formal mourning might last for up to a year. After black, purple or grey would maintain decorum. Mourning jewellery would be worn and black picture frames bought to show images of your departed loved-one. A man would need black ribbon for his hat and arm bands. This lack of male adornment is probably explained by the fact he was paying for it all.

A Victorian lady in full mourning

A Victorian lady in full mourning

Mourning locket and broaches

Mourning locket and brooch










Interesting facts

It is still quite legal to bury a corpse without a coffin, as long as you show no flesh near a public highway. It is also legal to bury your relative in your back garden or on common land as long as you have a certificate to prove that the corpse had no infectious disease such as the Black Death or Ebola.

Margate Cemetry, Manston Road, KENT

Margate Cemetry, Manston Road, KENT





HAMMERSMITH FLYOVER…or shall we go under?

West London has always had a special meaning for me – mainly due to the Randell family, my ancestors, having been traceable residents in Hammersmith for almost 200 years. They lived in the diocese of St Paul’s Church, which administered to and registered many of my family’s births marriages and deaths. This was in the days before Hammersmith’s heritage had started to be cut up, torn down, built on and left behind for modernity. St Paul’s now proudly shows off its classy, Victorian architecture, to the motorists on the Hammersmith flyover.

A view of St Paul's Church from the Hammersmith Flyover.

A view of St Paul’s Church from the Hammersmith Flyover.

The Randell’s mostly lived in the close knit communities around the church; from King street, Queen Street – now Queen Caroline Street, Wellington Road, Waterloo Street and Chapel street, to Fulham Palace Road, Chancellor Road and Alma Terrace. Now, Wellington Road, Waterloo Street, Chapel Street, and Alma Terrace no longer exist.

Carnforth Lodge, the Six Bells pub and a terrace of houses in which my G.G.Grandfather , John Randell lived in Queeen Street - opposite the church.

Carnforth Lodge, the Six Bells pub and a terrace of houses in which my G.G.Grandfather, John Randell, lived in Queen Street – opposite St Paul’s Church. Picture taken approx. 1890.

In the 1930’s, when the Gaumont Palace cinema was built, it rudely flattened the historic Carnforth Lodge with its beautiful garden, the Six Bells Pub and a small terrace of early victorian houses in which my Great Great Grandparents had lived in the 1860’s and 70’s. St Vincent House Convent and Temple lodge, once lived in by the artist Frank Brangwyn, escaped the bulldozer and were allowed to survive. The 2nd world war made more holes in Hammersmith’s layout, including St Vincent House Convent and the northern end of the Fulham Palace Road, where my Great Grandmother, Jessie Randell, had lived up until 1883.

Gaumont palace Cinema, opened in 1932. Now the Apollo Theatre, a listed Art Deco Building.

Gaumont palace Cinema, designed by Robert Cromie, opened in 1932. It is                                                                 now the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre and a grade 11 listed, Art Deco, building.

As a child, visiting my Grandma Jane in Hammersmith from South East London was a days excursion. I saw much building, and demolition, taking place and witnessed the building of the flyover during the late 1950’s until it opened in 1961. By then, the suburb of Hammersmith had firmly become part of London and was striving to provide more housing and employment for its fast growing number of residents. It also had to find a better transport network to prevent further bottlenecks as the ever-increasing traffic tried to pass along the same roads that the stage coaches had used on their way West in the 1800’s.

The view from the top of St Paul's Church in 1962 after the flyover was opened.

The view from the top of St Paul’s Church in 1962 after the flyover was opened.

So this is how the Hammersmith flyover came about. In its time, it was seen as a remarkable feat of advanced engineering, linking the A4 to the M4. It had under-deck heating, solitary expansion joint and precast, segmental and pre-stressed concrete. It was one of the first of its type in the world. Now, a mere fifty three years later, it is reviled as a monster which never had it’s heating turned on after the first year as neither of the relevant councils would foot the £4,000 heating bill. Now the salt and grit that is used to stop the surface freezing in winter is the very cause of its demise as it’s been corroding the cables and making the flyover unsafe. It is now costing millions of pounds to repair.

An artist's impression of how Hammersmith would look with the flyover removed and replaced by a tunnel - known as the flyunder.

An artist’s impression of how Hammersmith would look with the flyover removed and replaced by a tunnel – known as the flyunder. (image by

They say you can never look back but, thanks to some excellent historians, enthusiasts, early cameras and ancestry, the past hasn’t all been forgotten. There is a great movement nowadays towards bringing more green space and trees back into our lives. Green fields, gardens and common land, judging by old ordnance survey maps, is something which my ancestors in Hammersmith had plenty of. An excellent project has been under way promoting the Hammersmith Flyunder. With the backing of residents and the London Mayor, the flyover is in line, sometime in the future, to be removed and a flyunder put in its place. This will free up a huge amount of land for new homes offices and that all important green space. St. Paul’s Church will breath again, as will the residents in pleasant walkways with trees, cycle paths and the promise of a Hammersmith to be proud of. I’m sure my ancestor’s would approve!