7 January 2017

Southern Comfort - The Story of a Victorian Madam

Today I'm sharing one of the most high-brow stories from my family tree - that of my 3x great grandfather's sister, Comfort Howell.

Comfort Howell was born in Ashleworth, near Tewksbury in Gloucestershire, in 1825. She was the third child and second daughter of farm labourer Emmanuel Howell and his wife Mary Barnes.

As she was born before September 1837, Comfort does not have a birth certificate which means that the first record we have of her is when she was baptised. This took place on November 27th 1825 in Ashleworth's St. Andrew & St. Bartholomew's church, as shown here:

Comfort's baptism entry in the Ashleworth parish registers.

Emmanuel and Mary would have a total of eleven children, and sadly as Comfort was growing up, she lost both a little brother and then a sister too. In such times it was almost a normality for parents to lose children; one of the main reasons why couples had so many of them.

It is not known whether or not Comfort went to school, but we know her working life started early as she appears in the 1841 census aged 16 in Gloucester's city centre, employed as a female servant to a bricklayer called John Cooper, his wife and their six children. Ten years later in 1851 and still in Gloucester, she was in service to Charles Church, a superintendent of the Gloucester Tram Road.

Between 1851 and 1854, Comfort moved from Gloucester to London, where, on October 1st 1854, she married a widowed man named John Preedy, a boot-maker. Presumably she had found service in the capital or had followed her aunt (after whom she was named) there and chose to stay. The marriage took place in St. Martin in the Fields church, which stands just off Trafalgar Square.

St. Martin in the Fields Church, London

Nine months after her marriage to John, Comfort gave birth to a little girl, who she called Celia Ann Preedy. Celia was born in Westminster and was baptised the following year, presumably as she was unwell. Tragically, Celia died later that year, and was buried in Victoria Park Cemetery in Hackney. After this loss, Comfort and John had no more children together.

Following this sad chapter for Comfort and John, they moved to Soho, into a property that still stands at 14 Gerrard Street, now firmly within the district's Chinatown. Comfort and John show up here in the 1861 census, and again in the 1871 census too. 

And in 1871, there's quite a lot going on in 14 Gerrard Street...

On first look this census perhaps doesn't raise much interest. That is, until you go further down the list. Note the five 'lodgers' who appear in the census, as well as one solitary male who, as are the girls, spending the night at this property. The giveaway perhaps may be that a couple of them are reluctant to give first names. 'Miss Bowls' and 'Miss Watter/s' for example, are perhaps trying to hide their full names from the authorities. 

In short, it appears that Comfort and John were running a brothel. As a 'madam', Comfort would undoubtedly have had a direct influence over the running of the house and regular contact with the girls who used it as a way to make money in the mid-Victorian era. John was still making money from his boot making, but it seems Comfort had her eyes on rather saucier ventures.

I don't know just how long Comfort and John were using their home as a brothel, but in 1872 their luck ran out. In February of that year, they were found out, arrested and put on trial at Clerkenwell Sessions Court. After pleading guilty, they were both ordered to keep to strict conditions. They also had to appear in court whenever asked, with a penalty of £50 if they broke these conditions. That's about £2,400 in today's money, so quite a hefty sum of money considering prostitution in London at this time was rather common, although still discreet. Indeed, these events took place only a decade before Jack the Ripper began targeting girls in the city.

And it appears that after such a brush with the law, Comfort and John did indeed cease running what the court referred to as 'a bawdy house'. 

For the Preedy's, things seem to have gone downhill from here. In January 1875, John is recorded on the admission registers of Westminster Workhouse as being admitted there as destitute, presumably as the result of a significantly reduced income following their brush with the law. The workhouses were notoriously bleak places, almost a hell on earth for those struggling to survive or on the breadline. John lasted four months in such a place and records state he actually discharged himself.

Over the next decade, John and Comfort would become well acquainted with the workhouses, as the following list shows. 

2.12.1875 - John Preedy admitted to workhouse with wife, Comfort. 
8.12.1875 - Comfort Preedy discharged to Cleveland Asylum.
17.6.1876 - John Preedy discharged from workhouse.

They made it back though - in 1881 both of them are still in Central London and are even employing a servant.

But times get hard again for John, and harder still for Comfort. He is admitted back into Westminster Workhouse again in late 1882, returning home to his wife in April of 1883. Then, tragedy strikes, 

John, now an elderly man approaching 70, had stopped working in the London boot industry between 1883 and 1886, and became employed as a street sweeper for St. James' Vestry in the city. On September 26th 1886, as he swept the road  near Beak Street, John was knocked down by a speeding brougham stagecoach, like the one in this picture.

It appears as if the horse hit John at speed, but didn't kill him. However, the wheels that followed it did, as sources report he tried to get back up as he was hit a second time. He was taken to Middlesex Hospital where he died, leaving Comfort with no income and a widow. 

Thomas Haley, the 22 year old driver of the speeding coach, was found not guilty of manslaughter and released.

Without her husband, any children or cousins left in the city, Comfort was left on her own. In the years following John's death, she moved into a small house in Shaftesbury Avenue where she befriended an old widow named Ann Pearce and took her in as a paying lodger. After Ann died, however, Comfort struggled on again, and entered Westminster Workhouse in August 1897. She died there on April 8th 1898 aged 73/74. 

Because she died as a pauper, Comfort was never buried with John. Her sister in-law, a 'Mrs. Howell' buried her in St. Pancras Cemetery in Islington in a pauper's grave with no headstone and no marker to tell others exactly where she lies. 

Comfort Howell - the woman who lived up to her name for a short while,  and then, not so much.