by her Great Grandson, Richard Hodgetts
Annie Sheehan was born in 1872 in the Mile End Road, one of 7 known children of Patrick Sheehan and Elizabeth Hastings. Patrick was an Irish catholic immigrant and Elizabeth was the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. Their lives were centred around the slum areas of Stepney and they continually moved addresses, only interrupted by periods in the Poplar Work House.
It seems she had some schooling as she is described as a scholar in the 1881 Census and her name is recorded as a student at the Exmouth Training Ship and RC (Roman Catholic) part of the Kensington and Chelsea School District although she was a resident of Bromley.
At about age 14 she and her elder sister Margaret were working at the Bryant & May match factory and in 1888 they were involved in the famous Matchgirls Strike. Annie is working in the Wax & Box stores and Patent section as a wax filler and Margaret is in the Patent section. Their 14-year-old brother Patrick Jnr was a matchbox maker, probably working from home, which was located in Silver Lion Court, one of the nastiest slums in East London. The court was built around 1800 and consisted of 14 back to-back, two-story brick houses with frontages of 13ft. In 1862 the Medical Officer of Health reported to the Poplar Board of Guardians that "113 persons live in filth and squalor on a space of 105ft by 30ft". By the 1880s the court was almost entirely populated by the Irish and had already been closed once by the sanitary authorities. In 1882 a local resident complained of the 'low and filthy class of people occupying the houses therein'. As well as being a home, their houses were also places of home industry - matchbox making.
The 1888 Strike and Payments Register records Annie of 10 Silver Lion Court as receiving 4/6d strike pay and Margaret of 2 Silver Lion Court receiving 5/6d, those working from home would receive nothing. For their Father, Patrick Sheehan, a dock worker, life would have been hard supporting the family if work could be obtained.
The Strike was finally resolved but it was to inspire Patrick and other dock workers to go out on strike in 1889 in what was to be known as the Great London Dock Strike.
In 1892 Annie lost 2 young siblings to disease and then married Walter Yates, a sometime labourer and son of another dock worker.
On May 13, 1893 Annie gave birth to Mary Ann in the Poplar Workhouse,who grew up to be my Grandmother. In her later life Mary Ann regaled family members with the good time reminiscences of living in the East End, with fun loving Irish folk, conveniently hiding the facts that she was born and lived in squalor and poor circumstances. When her workhouse birth became known she expressed her shame and related that her mother did it to shame her husband who was supposedly flirting with bar maids. Possibly other circumstances dictated events in her life - living at Silver Lion Court was not an ideal place to have children and the maternity section of the Poplar work house offered better hygienic conditions.
In January 1894, months after having Mary Ann and still working at the match factory, Annie was admitted to the sick infirmary and stayed for 2 months, possibly suffering from Bright’s disease, which eventually killed her 10 years’ time later. Was it a consequence of a toxic factory life or poor living conditions?
We know that Annie and sister Margaret (now McCarthy) were working at the Bells Match factory in Bromley where a new strike was taking place. We know they were active participants as on April 2, 1894 they were both charged with intimidating, assaulting and compelling Emily Cakebread to abstain from working as a scab worker. The London Standard of April 4th was among several newspapers who reported the offence citing Annie’s advice to Emily that she “was not going to Bells this morning. You go back and if you don’t I will throw you in the Cut (Limehouse Cut). Also appearing in court was Union Committee member Amelia Gifford who was remanded for her assault on Bell’s fore woman, Lily Gardiner.
Annie, now living in Barchester St, was found guilty of intimidation and fined £10 but Margaret walked free.
The next we hear of Annie is in January 1897 when her father, Patrick, is killed in an accident on the docks whilst working on the SS Lismore when a beam slipped from a sling and mortally wounded him. Mary Ann related in later life that Patrick’s wife Elizabeth saw the accident in a vision before the news arrived at her Silver Lion Court home.
Months later in June 1897 Annie gave birth to a son, John Denis, but it is thought that she may have been separated from her husband by then. In January 1898 she witnessed her mother’s death and was now living at 3 Silver Lion Court. This is where she is recorded living with her sister Margaret who is by now living with a Charles Nolan as husband and wife.
Annie lists herself wrongly as a widow and she had custody of her 2 children, Mary Ann and John Denis. She also gave her place of birth as Boston, New York which may have been a lie as she had always been recorded as being born in London.
In January of 1902 her son John dies of pneumonia after a hernia operation. 8-year-old Mary Ann was haunted for the rest of her life by the sight of young John’s body lying in their Silver Lion Court home with a fresh autopsy scar evident as they prepared his body for burial. Annie was probably very sick at this stage and in May is again admitted to the Sick Hospital where she stayed 5 and a half months until she was discharged on November 18, 1902.
On March 3rd, 1904 Annie was again admitted to the Sick asylum but died on March 18 1904 of Bright’s disease. She is described as a widow of Walter Yates although he was still alive and believed to be back living locally with his parents, Thomas and Rebecca Yates.
Annie’s sister, Margaret, is a witness to her death and helps to maintain the mystery of her widowhood to authorities. She took care of Mary Ann at times who was occasionally transferred to the care of her father’s sister, Sarah Briggs.
Margaret’s life is largely a mystery from here, it appears that she had multiple periods in the Poplar workhouse where she was described as a widow and charwoman.
After her school years, Mary Ann became a domestic servant and mixes freely with both sides of her family and working sometimes with her father in a pub known as The Red Lion. During the Great War she worked for the Canteen Board at Herdcott, near Salisbury, where she met and married an Australian soldier, Ernest Yates in 1919. Her father disapproved greatly and Mary Ann had no contact with him for the rest of her life, although he lived until 1957. Mary Ann sailed off to Tasmania where she had 8 surviving children although life with her husband Ernest was not a bed of Roses.
Mary Ann lived on till 1984, a proud expat who always considered herself as Irish and proud of her East End heritage.