George Nicholls

I am in lock down so no stories of where I have been. And I thought I would give you a break about my campaign to Save the Great Barrier Reef. Instead how about a story about my 3rd great grandfather.

George Nicholls was born in the slums of South London in 1808. He was christened in St Olaves Workhouse in 1811 along with his sisters Eliza born 1805 and Harriet born 1811.  Workhouses were then run by the Parishes and the philosophy of the time was that the poor were to work for the assistance provided to them.

The Slums of South London

The slums of Bermondsey were notorious. Along the tidal marshes and inlets of the Thames lived thousands of people dependent on work in the warehouses and factories of London.  The tanneries, meat works and sewerage all entered the Thames at this point. Unthinkable today, but the water was used for drinking and bathing.

The smell would have hit your senses first.  Hell would smell like this – decay, death, sulphur, human waste all combined. But what was more awful than the smell was the houses that  sat on the banks of the river. Run down hovels, leaning precariously towards the rotten drains which were in fact the tidal estuaries of this great river.

This place had not long ago been gardens and walkways. The river used for fishing and recreation. With the factories and tanneries and the need for cheap labour close to the work, the river had become a great industrial drain. It carried every by product of the industrial age. Dead animals and faecal matter. Household and industrial waste. The water boiled as if on a stove. The noxious steam so offensive it caused your stomach to turn. According to some it was not uncommon to see the dead body of a child or an adult drifting bloated and macabre through the narrow channels.

A person would walk through the streets filled with the noise and smell and presence of workers, slumped shoulders and dirty, the cattle and the pigs on their way to slaughter, the spruikers and the children in rags and bare feet.

Every day was a struggle between life and death in this place. That humans survived was a miracle in itself. The houses here were hovels held together by the grotesque glue of human, animal and industrial waste.  Amongst all this people lived and went to work. They worked in the warehouses where the corn and grain was stored before being sent to the mills throughout the country. The bread and buns consumed by people blissfully unaware that the food they ate had been stored alongside factories that used human waste to produce the leather for their shoes. That the slaughter house which produced their meat sat side by side with the grain storage and was home to millions of rodents and insect pests which all got first go at the rations.

The radicalisation of George Nicholls

Little George was apprenticed as a chimney sweep. His father died in the workhouse in 1816 and is probably when he was indentured. The was a hard and life threatening industry. It literally stunted the sweeps growth and the charcoal in chimneys could cause diseases of the respiratory tract and eyes. There was the ever present fear of getting stuck in the chimney and suffocating to death.

George Nicholls held strong Quaker beliefs but he was not a Quaker. He may have had a benefactor called Worthy Worthington. This may be where he came into contact with the founders of the National Union of the Working Classes. This was a movement for the rights of the working man, the abolishment of slavery and universal suffrage. There were many radical organisations, calling for greater political advancement around these issues. The Quakers were prominent in many of these movements. It seems to be were he picked up the name Worthy Worthington because he wasn’t christened with it.

The Poor Man’s Guardian and Goal for George.

poor mans guardian

The early 1800’s in the UK saw a crackdown on radical publications.  The government keen to avoid the use of a free press to educate and radicalise the working classes legislated for a four penny stamp to be placed on all publications. People like Henry Hetherington, an earnest man by historical accounts published several radical newspapers, including the Poor Man’s Guardian and despite  spending time in gaol continued to sell unstamped newspapers. The paper had on its banner page the phrase” Published contrary to law to try the power of might against right”. The Poor Man’s Guardian was closely associated with the National Union of the Working Classes an organisation formed by Hetherington and William Lovett, to campaign for universal suffrage and workers rights. 

Worthy delivered the Poor Man’s Guardian to distributors  in London and he was charged with the carriage of an unstamped publication and sentenced to three months gaol. Although legal action deemed the publication legal in 1834, it did not stop the persecution of Hetherington and in  1835, the offices were raided and the printing presses destroyed and people like Worthy found themselves before the courts.  He was in gaol in 1836 and missed sailing with Robert Gouger and his party to the new settlement of Adelaide.

He spent those three months in Coldbath prison, a strange place of treadmills and silence. A peculiar fad in the philosophy of incarceration that was de rigour at the time.

To be continued …….

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