According to my journal I first read Molly Hughes’s memoir A London Child of the 1870s in October 2005, ‘a record of Islington life so charming and droll I’m puzzled as to why I’d not come across it before’. I might not have come across it then either had my wife not given me a copy, just reissued by Persephone Books in its appealing dove-grey livery with William Morris endpapers. It was a perfect choice for someone obsessed by Victorian London in general and Victorian Islington in particular. To my delight the author and her family had lived at No. 1 Canonbury Park North, an address about five minutes’ walk from where I write this. Their house is no longer standing, though the references to Upper Street, Essex Road and Highbury New Park sound a welcoming refrain, and such is the peculiar immediacy of the writing that it takes no very great leap of imagination to see an organ-grinder on the pavement, or a child bowling a hoop, or a tram upon the Holloway Road.
‘We were just an ordinary, suburban, Victorian family, undistinguished ourselves and unacquainted with distinguished people,’ writes Molly in her preface. ‘Ordinary’ the Thomas family were, perhaps, in social and economic terms, with a father who did something in the City, a pious but fun-loving mother and five children, resident in a large (rented) house with a cook and servants.
Up close, however, people become extraordinary, none more so than Molly, the youngest child (b. 1866) and devoted to – nearly besotted by – her four older brothers, Tom, Dym (Vivian), Charles and Barnholt.
I had forgotten from my first reading what a circumscribed life she had compared with the boys, who seem to be constantly engaged in pranks and high jinks. Whether on account of her age or her sex Molly was excluded from all trips and entertainments, never taken to ‘anything more exciting than a picture gallery, not even to a pantomime at Christmas’ – nor to the Tower, the Crysta
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