Home / Up

The Lawsons: From Bethnal Green

             The story of Alfred William Lawson, hailed as the greatest eccentric America ever produced, begins in the miasma of Victorian London�s East End slums. Three generations of the Lawson family lived in Bethnal Green parish, starting with Alfred�s great-grandfather, James Lawson, and his wife Elizabeth. Between 1800 and the 1860s, members of the Lawson clan moved frequently from one address to another within Bethnal Green and its neighboring East End parishes of Hackney to the north, Shoreditch to the southwest, and West Ham to the east. Living conditions in Bethnal Green, a longtime center of the silk weaving trade, grew worse in the first half of the nineteenth century as that industry declined. Garden plots belonging to older spacious estates were carved up and remade into unpaved alleys dividing hundreds of cheaply-made tenement houses; even existing garden sheds were used as homes. Bethnal Green became the archetypical London slum. 

            Robert Henry Lawson, Alfred�s father, was born in 1828 and raised in Bethnal Green at a time when the average life expectancy of a common laborer was 16 years. Medical science was only beginning to note the link between decrepit living conditions�open sewers, rotting animal carcasses, stagnant puddles and ponds, disease carrying vermin, etc.--and disease, evidenced in the East End parishes of the era by a devastating cholera epidemic and by the high typhoid fever rates. By 1840, Bethnal Green had the highest concentration of low rent housing in London, much of it built with no ground foundations  atop refuse heaps; and constructed with cheap planks, inferior brick, and leaking roofs. The dirt lanes were either muddy or dusty, depending on the season. In one section 1400 houses were crammed into an area of less than 400 square yards, and the average occupancy was nearly nine people per house. The population was ill, undernourished, and surrounded by filth, and the air they breathed was filled with dust, smoke, and the overpowering stench of human and animal waste. 

            This was the poverty-plagued London that Charles Dickens wrote of in his novels. Bethnal Green features in Oliver Twist, as the home of the criminal Bill Sykes, where he murders his girlfriend Nancy. The dust heap at Nova Scotia Gardens in Bethnal Green, a source of livelihood for the poor who sifted and collected for resale everything in the heap�including the dust itself�was the central symbol in Dickens� Our Mutual Friend. Dickens himself advised his wealthy correspondents to bestow their charity upon the area by razing areas of dense, small ramshackle housing and rebuilding with large, solid, multistory flats set around open squares, with access to paved roads and sewer lines. Bishop Blomfield of London chose Bethnal Green parish to be the focus of construction of new churches to combat the immorality that he perceived to be the root cause the misery. 

            Robert Henry Lawson�s own father was a weaver. Underemployed silk weavers used their skills in sweatshops and piecemeal work in home factories; or entered other trades such as shoemaking, tailoring, furniture building, or costermongering. As Robert Henry Lawson grew to manhood (defying the life expectancy average), he appeared to fit this profile in terms of his employment. In 1841, at age 22, he was a �casual laborer�, i.e. he moved between short-term employments. His first wife, Mary Jane, died in her twenties, most likely from a cholera outbreak. This left Robert with a daughter, also named Mary Jane (�Jane�) to care for. He soon remarried. In 1859, he was a foreman on the London Docks, just to the south of the East End. By 1861, Robert and his growing family had moved further to the east along the Thames River, to the Plaistow ward of West Ham. It was a marginal improvement over Bethnal Green, if only because the new railway lines and the giant Victoria Docks attracted manufacturers and factory jobs.  The skills that Robert Henry Lawson learned in the East End were reflected in the occupations he took up after emigrating to Canada and the United States. In 1871 he was a boot-maker in Windsor, Ontario. He spent most of his remaining years in Detroit, Michigan as a rag-carpet weaver operating from a home factory. 

      All the above facts about Robert Henry Lawson are verified by census records, parish marriage and birth records. That Robert was able to escape with his family from the East End cycle of poverty was an improbable event in itself, but the other claims made about his life by his son Alfred Lawson verge on the fantastic. According to Alfred, his father had been a mechanical engineer and an inventor of an electrical engine. This claim has been confirmed by a patent application filed in England on Oct. 17th, 1863, with a partner, William Darlow. Alfred also mentioned that his father had studied for the ministry at Oxford University. Moreover, Alfred recounted a tale in which Robert Henry met his second wife Mary Ann Anderson after she observed him performing Shakespeare. In America, Alfred admits his father was indeed a rag carpet weaver, but also was sent there by a Bishop to help build up a parish; that he was an assistant minister; and that he developed a stenographic shorthand system that Alfred later refined and taught in a business college. In 1902, Alfred�s older brother George made a claim that his father had just died and left him an inheritance of $150,000 (but George, it will be seen, had ulterior motives for making that statement). 

     The only insight into Robert Henry Lawson�s personality we get also comes from Alfred, who in 1904 wrote a novel which contains a thinly veiled characterization of his father: �My father was straightforward, honest, kind, and truthful. He was dogmatic in his religious beliefs, combative by nature and never happier than when fighting the Devil in his own corner, as he expressed it. Furthermore, he was haughty, stubborn, and egotistical, and these traits of character I inherited from him.� 

     Even the pugilistic imagery that Robert Lawson expressed had a Bethnal Green heritage. That area was home to the great Jewish boxer, Daniel Mendoza, who wrote the first book on The Art of Boxing. Boxing was one of the few sporting events that attracted East Enders, and every youth who grew to manhood on the streets of Bethnal Green probably knew how to use his fists. Robert may have instructed his son Alfred on the finer points of boxing; Alfred often bragged about his prowess as a fighter in his younger days. 

     As the passage quoted earlier indicates, Alfred Lawson was indeed egotistical, which anyone who scans one of the books he wrote can attest. Psychiatrists today would call Alfred Lawson a pathological narcissist. The hallmark trait of this condition is expressions of grandiosity. However, we do not need to rely on diagnostic guesses made a half century after the fact. Alfred Lawson�s  brother George was once treated for �mania�, and his doctors specifically noted �delusions of grandeur� and concluded this condition was probably inherited.  

     The most improbable item in Robert Henry�s resume would be the idea that he attended Oxford University, studied for the ministry, and earned a degree. As the son of a poor Bethnal Green weaver, Robert Henry would not have had the means, the class mobility, or the educational background to attend Oxford. The Archives at Oxford (which does not have names of all attendees, but does have lists of those who matriculated with a degree) has no record of Robert Henry Lawson. He was married to his first wife and had a child at age 21 in 1849. A second marriage and 8 more children followed, and at no time is there any evidence that he resided anywhere other than the East End. 

     However, there is evidence that Robert had religious lay training. In the 1861 Census of England, he gave his occupation as �Scripture Reader�, e.g. the assistant who reads gospel lessons during a service. Talented scripture readers were recompensed for their services. Being a Bethnal Green resident active in the Church of England was exceptional in itself. An 1851 religious census of England (that shocked the nation) reported that Bethnal Green, with a population of over 90,000, had only 6024 attendees of Anglican churches. In the East End, working men�s clubs and radical political societies supplanted the Anglican Church as the focus of social life; and many there attended churches other than the Church of England. So if Robert was inclined to rise through levels of the laity within the parish churches, he would have found little competition. 

     Another anomaly in the public records is the occupation given for Robert Henry at the time of his second marriage in 1856. He is listed as a �professor of music,� which was a title used by a music teacher of any level. The circumstances of his wedding do not indicate any upward mobility: Robert and Mary Ann Anderson were married at St. James the Great in Bethnal Green, one of the newer Anglican churches constructed for the benefit of the burgeoning lower class population. The vicar at St. James the Great was infamous for his cut-rate wedding ceremonies, which often attracted as many as fifty couples per day and caused near-riots. Mary Ann Anderson was the daughter of a Scottish working-class chemist engaged in making soda water. Before marriage, she worked in the family�s Shoreditch home making artificial flowers, while her sisters worked in the same sweatshop making dresses and knitting lace. 

     There is nothing in any public records to support Alfred Lawson�s claim that his parents met when Mary Ann observed Robert performing Shakespeare. As an East End sweatshop worker, Mary Ann Anderson would only have been able to afford a �penny gaff�--skits performed in the back rooms of public drinking houses, well-attended by girls her age--or perhaps the cheaper music halls that started to come into vogue in the 1850s. One might conjecture that Robert Henry Lawson had the elocutionary skills (he later become a scripture reader); the vocal authority (foreman at the London docks); and rhythmic sense (professor of music) to get up in a music hall or church social club and read passages from Shakespeare. However, there is no evidence behind this conjecture. 

    Nor is there any proof that Robert Lawson developed a system of stenography in his later life, although it would have been a talent of interest to a man who was regularly expected to deliver sermons. His son Alfred did learn stenography; and there is one published reference that indicates Alfred operated a business college, so it is not out of the question that his father Robert might have developed a shorthand system for his speaking notes that Alfred later developed. 

    All Alfred�s claims of his father�s intellectual skills obscure the reality that Robert�s adult life was probably focused on supporting a large family on a meager income. Less than two years after his second marriage, daughter Mary Ann (�Min�) Lawson was born in 1858. Robert Henry Lawson Jr. was born in 1859, and was followed by George Herman Lawson in 1864, Catherine Isabella (�Kate�) in 1866, and then Alfred William on March 24, 1869. The Lawsons joined a wave of emigrants to North America, arriving in Canada just a month after Alfred was born. 

   The Lawsons first settled in Windsor, Ontario, where Robert made boots to earn a living. A son Walter died shortly after birth, but Donald James Lawson arrived in 1872. After three years in Canada, the family moved to a small subsistence farm outside of Detroit. Robert Henry was an untrained farmer, and that vocation did not last long. The clan next moved within the city, where Robert and Mary Ann�s urban home/factory skills kept them afloat. Alexander James was born in Detroit in 1874 and the youngest Lawson, Colin Thomas, arrived on August 6th, 1876. Every member of the family, no matter how young, contributed to the family income; but in Alfred�s memory he did more than his share. 

     The Lawson family�s survival strategy paralleled two great social indicators of America in the 1870s: the popularization of the entrepreneurial work ethic and its counterparts, the movement to limit child labor abuses and expand public education. There is some irony in the relationship between those trends. In the 1830s and 1840s, the first child labor laws were passed in the United States limiting the number of hours children could be forced to work. At the same time, compulsory elementary public education placed children in schoolrooms instead of in factories. The result was a rise in the overall literacy rate in young people. This created a ready market for cheap entertainment literature�dime novels. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the most popular dime novel author was Horatio Alger, Jr., whose protagonists were hard-working street waifs. 

            Today, Alger is usually thought of as writing �rags to riches� stories that suggest that hard work creates opportunities for gaining wealth. In reality, while his heroes were hard workers, it was usually some freak accident that brought them to the attention of a kindly, rich stranger who provided them with a better vocational opportunity�but not instant riches. To a careful reader, the moral of an Alger story might have been elusive, especially in light of evidence that has been brought to light that Alger was a pedophile forced out of his Unitarian ministry by improper conduct with young boys. He turned to writing as a career. The fact that so many of his works feature boys saved from poverty by their entrusting older, kindly strange men makes one wonder if these stories were more pederast fantasy than moral fable.  

            Alfred Lawson, in his short autobiographical sketches of his childhood, was much prouder of his work ethic than his schooling. Public schools were in session for about half a year, which left many weeks of the year open for children to serve as laborers. Starting at an age of 6 or 7, Alf sold newspapers on the streets of Detroit and survived among the armies of bullying newsboys. He worked the bobbin machine in his father�s rag carpet weaving factory. (However, this was probably a very different work setting than that endured by the �bobbin boys� and �bobbin girls� that slaved in the huge, mechanized textile mills of the Northeast.) He worked in a furniture factory painting bed frames; and in a barrel factory stacking wood pieces. While still a pre-teen, he returned to the streets as a shoeshine boy and staked out territory in front of a fancy hotel. Shortly thereafter, he worked inside a hotel as a bellhop. 

           Robert and Mary Ann Lawson expected their children to perform both as workers and students. After completing elementary school, they encouraged all their children to enter trade school to learn a marketable skill. Mary Ann pointed them in the direction of the fabric trade: weaving, sewing, coat-cutting, and tailoring. Several of the Lawson boys went on to use this clothing trade knowledge in their later life: George and Alfred sold sewing machines; Donald was a regional sales manager for Singer Sewing machines; and Colin was a tailor. The link back to their grandfather�s vocation as an East End weaver was never really broken. 

            Whether Alfred and his brothers ever read Horatio Alger�s dime novels is not known. They, as street-wise youths, may have realized the odds against miraculous redemption; and how luck seemed not inclined to favor the honest and dutiful.  By Alfred�s account, the boys in his Detroit neighborhood were far more interested in tales of the Wild West�and so if they read dime novels, it was more likely along the lines of Ned Buntline�s stories of Buffalo Bill, or the adventures of the notorious (and still active) bad men,  Jesse and Frank James. Their most fervent wish was to escape the familiar confines of Detroit and to �see the world,� an expression that became as common to that generation as �Go west, young man�� 

            One Lawson brother would realize that hope before he was 17 years old, albeit in circumstances beyond his control. The first stop on that world excursion was an express ticket--back to the slums of Bethnal Green.















Lining up to get water from the communal pump. Leaks into these wells were a source of cholera outbreaks.










Large families inhabited single attic rooms.









St. James the Great in Bethnal Green

Jerry Kuntz � 1997-2006 | All Rights Reserved | Contact