Ellen Wren: Pauper, Prostitute and Inadvertent Heroine

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By Sathesh Alagappan, Kerry Boxall, Nellie Alston, Philip Simms, Tom Allerston, Matthew Tullett, and Melissa Gowers.

The name Ellen Wren has become forever etched in the annals of Southampton’s history. Her life was perhaps a depressingly typical example of the hardships encountered by slum dwelling women in Victorian Britain. It was an existence consisting of extreme poverty, alcoholism, squalor and prostitution. However, it was the horrific nature of her death which shocked middle England, and finally elevated slum housing to the top of Southampton’s priorities.

Wren’s fifty-one-years alive were in the context of one of the most fascinating periods in British social history. This was a time of sparkling wealth and empire, yet these riches certainly weren’t seen by the lower echelons of society. Severe cyclical recessions and economic dips, such as the depression between 1885- 1888, were common, leading to mass unemployment in Southampton’s Docks area.

All this resulted in millions like Ellen Wren living in the infamous slums; squalid, overcrowded settlements, lacking any sanitation. Disease was widespread, with scarlet fever, typhus and cholera all endemic. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that life expectancy was low in the slums, with 520 out of every 1000 children dying before their fifth birthday.

Today, the slums of London’s East End are most remembered from the novels of Dickens and popular culture, but it is a sobering statistic that in 1890 the population density of Southampton’s slums was actually higher than London’s.

It was in this backdrop that Ellen was born to Rebecca and James Wren in Shirley in 1847, part of an impoverished family of eight. By the 1870s Wren drifted into a spiralling life of criminality. Like many washerwomen in the slums at the time, she was forced to support herself through prostitution. She had frequent brushes with the law, including charges of drunkenness and violent assault. Local paper the Hampshire Advertiser even described her as an ‘old offender’ in January 1872.

Given her history, it is perhaps darkly fitting that her last place of residence was on the infamous Simnel Street, one of the most reviled slums in the city. Council and medical reports in the 1890s had repeatedly called it ‘unfit for human habitation’. Furthermore, crime was rife, as shown by frequent reports in the crime pages of the Southampton Times.

An article referencing Ellen Wren from the crime pages of the Hampshire Advertiser 24th September 1873, describing an incident of violent drunken assault on a marine.

In this bleak setting, Wren lost her life in a one room attic on September 24th 1894. Passing out after drinking a considerable amount of gin (colloquially referred to as Mother’s ruin), she suffocated on her own vomit, dying of asphyxiation. Such was the overpowering stench of waste and animal caucuses emanating from Simnel Street, the smell of Wren’s decomposing body went totally unnoticed until her Landlord came to collect rent days later, finding her corpse lying in a pool vomit.

The conditions of Wren’s death were so horrific that it quickly garnered national attention.  The radical Southampton Times, which had long been pushing for housing reform, was quick to pick up the story.  Wren became the centrepiece of its campaign for better housing. An editorial on 15th September 1894 called for the prevention of “people from dying in any house like dogs under such horrible conditions”, concluding it was a “serious reflection on our boasted civilisation”. As publicity grew, questions were even asked in Parliament on the matter.

The sensational fallout finally pressured Southampton’s previously disinterested Council into action. Southampton City Council appointed a committee in 1894 to investigate the endemic problem of housing. It devised a local act called, ‘The Southampton Improvement Scheme 1894’, which enabled Southampton to enact the powers of the national Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Therefore, over the next twenty years, the old slums like Simnel Street were progressively demolished, giving way to more council run accommodation for the poor.

Whilst it is true to say that there had been calls for change before 1894, Ellen Wren’s death acted as a crucial catalyst. Despite this, currently Ellen Wren’s story has not received the public recognition it perhaps deserves. Her body lies in an unmarked pauper’s grave along with 20 other corpses. A commemorative blue plaque installed by Southampton Council remains one of her few modern testaments.

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Discussion5 Comments

  1. avatar

    Just because the manner of her passing was used in a campaign for better housing, does not make her a praiseworthy person.

    The crime report above is shown drawing attention to the fact that it was indeed Ellen Wren who was the main protagonist in a violent assault that she was convicted for! She was sentenced for three months for an unprovoked assault! You also mention that she had frequent brushes with the law and that she was described as an ‘old offender’ in a local newspaper in January 1872.

    If Jack the Ripper’s spate of crimes encouraged better street lighting in the East End (as indeed was echoed as a suggestion to help catch him by social reformers at the time, see Rumbelow, D., The Complete Jack the Ripper) then it is the social reformers who should be lauded, and not the criminal!

    If there is anyone to be lauded it is the social reformers of the Southampton Times, and within the council which succeeded in capitalising on the publicity surrounding this criminal’s death to do some public good.

    More testaments and recognition for Ellen Wren? I think public money could be better spent!

  2. avatar

    A few minutes research has turned up perhaps the true heroes of the hour?

    Delmar Bicker-Caarten, “Champion of ‘Outcast’ Southampton”, along with a Liberal councillor, Edward Gayton

    Please see page 30 for an article on Bicker-Caarten and Gayton by John Edgar Mann of the Southampton Local History Forum.

    http://www.southampton.gov.uk/Images/journal%202_tcm46-184231.pdf

    In the closing years of the nineteenth century, a now long forgotten tub thumper took up the cause of the poorest of the poor and, in the
    columns of The Southampton Times, lambasted the civic fathers for their lack of concern at the conditions ‘downtown’, particularly in the
    Simnel Street area. On November 8, 1890, the paper published a
    letter from this man, local radical Delmar Bicker-Caarten, under the title ‘The Exceeding Bitter Cry of Outcast Southampton’, in which he
    described just how bad things were in the, ‘small, close, dirty and evil-smelling streets with their tumbledown houses, closely packed with
    human beings, with no provision for decency or cleanliness, dismal, wretched, squalid and hideous beyond words to express’. He is
    appalled by the tribes of children, ‘hungry, dirty, barefooted and wild, utterly neglected, growing up to swell the ranks of crime and pauperism’.

    Another critic who took up the Bicker-Caarten cause in the local press was a Liberal councillor, Edward Gayton. He too was appalled by the,
    ‘filthy pestilential slums’, where whole families lived in one room, the occupants eking out a precarious living as hawkers, rag-pickers,
    flower-sellers and the like. As many as 70 or 80 people shared one lavatory and one water tap.

    The editorial staff of The Southampton Times, spurred by the revelations of Bicker-Caarten and Gayton, ran a series of articles on ‘Southampton Slums and their Inhabitants’. With reform in the
    air things slowly began to change and by the turn of the century a brighter picture of life in the ‘abyss’ was forming. St. Michael’s
    municipal lodging house (since pulled down) was opened in 1899 and new housing built by 1903.

  3. avatar

    Much of interest in the article, although I must point out that Southampton City Council did not exist in 1894, it was not awarded that distinction until 1964. Prior to that it was Southampton County Borough Council.

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