Yesterday I posted this image of Peggy Jones on Twitter, which I obtained from the British Museum image database, and because it received a very widespread reaction, I have done a little digging of my own to add more information about the hard life and times of this renowned London character.
I very quickly discovered that Peggy appears in Pierce Egan’s ground-breaking guide Real Life in London (1820-21) which describes the practice of gathering waste from the Thames: ‘The mud-lark returns home, when his labours are ended
The full story of Peggy Jones appeared (along with the above portrait) in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum of Remarkable Characters, Volume III published in London in June 1805 – an extract of which follows:
Poverty often teaches the people the most extraordinary means of getting a livelihood… Among these the class of Mud-larks is not the least extraordinary. Many of our readers may possibly be ignorant that a Mud-lark is a person, who on the ebb of the tide, repairs to the river-side, in quest of any article that the water may have left behind in the mud. To this description of people belonged Peggy Jones. She was a woman, apparently about forty years of age, with red hair, the particular object of whose researches was the coals which accidentally fell from the sides of the lighters. She was always to be seen at Blackfriars, even before the tide was down, wading into the water, nearly up to the middle, and scraping together from the bottom, the coals which she felt with her feet. Numbers of passengers who have passed by that quarter, particularly over Blackfriars Bridge, have often stopped to contemplate with astonishment a female engaged in an occupation, apparently so painful and disagreeable. She appeared dressed in very short ragged petticoats, without shoes or stockings, and with a kind of apron made of some strong substance, that folded like a bag all round her, in which she collected whatever she was so fortunate as to find. In this strange apparel, and her legs encrusted with mud, she traversed the streets of London. Sometimes she was industrious enough to pick up three, and at others even four loads a day; and as they consisted entirely of what are termed round coals, she never was at a loss for customers, whom she charged at the rate of eight pence a load. In the collection of her sable treasures, she was frequently assisted by the coal-heavers, who when she happened to approach the lighters, would, as if undesignedly, kick overboard a large coal, at the same time, bidding her, with apparent surliness, to go about her business.
The above paragraph really brings home the back-breaking graft Peggy Jones and her ilk put into merely existing on the streets of London. Its at once ghastly and touching to know that the lightermen plying their trade along the Thames were prepared to give her scraps from their boatloads – yet still expected her to wade through the mud to reach what they had donated. She had to work bare-footed so that she could detect her quarry using her toes – this must have been bone-chilling even at the best of times. Kirby’s description of Peggy Jones continues:
We are sorry to be obliged to state, that Peggy Jones was not exempt from a failing to which most individuals of the lower orders are subject, namely, inebriety. Her propensity to liquor was sometimes indulged to such a degree, that she would tumble about the streets with her load, to the no small amusement of mischievous boys, and others, who, on such occasions, never failed to collect around her. After concluding the labours of the day, she retired to a wretched lodging in Chick Lane.
Peggy’s elevation to the status of ‘English Eccentric’ in June 1805 was probably more due to her sudden disappearance earlier that year having
carried on her extraordinary calling for many years, but about the month of February, 1805, she suddenly disappeared from her usual places of resort, and nobody can tell what is become of her. A man who has the appearance of a coal-heaver, has since stepped into her place, and adopted the profession which she so long followed. Though the facts we have been able to procure concerning Peggy Jones are but scanty, yet our readers will doubtless approve of our desire to perpetuate, by means of the annexed design, taken from life, the memory of such a singular character.
It seems probable that Peggy was taken by the river, where she spent so much of her life. Imagine scrabbling around in mud on a freezing wet February day hoping to find a few lumps of coal to carry in the folds of her dress and sell on to other equally distressed city-dwellers.
It is good to learn a little more about Peggy’s life and times, even though it must have been relentlessly bleak. because it shines a light on the awful deprivation the majority of our ancestors endured in order to survive.
A big thank you to Susan from Witness2Fashion Blog for providing the following additional image a of a Thames mudlark – seen receiving a scrap of food from a Thames lighterman. According to Susan, Arthur Munby sketched this in 1855;and it can be seen in Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley. Perhaps the sketch recalls Peggy Jones, otherwise it suggests that this type of existence was a more routine site in early-Victorian London than we might otherwise have imagined.
For more information on life amidst 19th Century London mud, I recommend the following essential reading
Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’ (London: Cape, 2007)
Virginia Smith & others, Dirt, The Filthy Reality of Every Day Life (London: Profile, 2011)
Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London; The Victorian Fight Against Filth (Yale University Press, 2015)
If you liked this post, you may also be interested to learn the sad tale of a London Prizefighter – or to find out how to get away from London’s mean streets by locating her principal stagecoach inns. Finally, you could learn about one house in London with 5 layers of British history