1819-1837

The Early Life of John Castle

John Castle was born in 1819 Great Coggeshall, Essex. Though not a native Londoner, his journey to the capital city gives us an insight as to how so many unemployed migrants ended up on the streets of London in the early 19th century. Castle spent his early years in his father’s native town, Soulbury, Buckinghamshire, where he gained settlement in his father’s parish (this fact becomes important later). But his father died when Castle was just a toddler and his pregnant, widowed mother was forced to move back to her native town in Essex to provide for him and his unborn sibling.

Castle tells us that the local parish in Essex provided his mother with 7 shillings a week to bring up him and his brother. According to the National Archive’s currency converter, 7 shilling was worth approximately £20.10 in 2017, the equivalence of 2 days wages for skilled tradesman in 1820. Even with this little assistance from the parish, Castle began working at a silk factory when he was only 9 years old. But by age 16, hundreds, including him, were thrown out of employment due to a decline in the silk trade. Castle tells us he spent some time “tramping” the area for work, but he had no luck. Unemployed and living with a stepfather who saw him as nothing more than an extra mouth to feed, Castle headed to the Board of Guardians for assistance with his brother. There was one problem: they were entitled to relief in their father’s parish nearly 70 miles away in Buckinghamshire.

Their journey to Buckinghamshire was arranged and they found themselves admitted to Leighton Buzzard Union. In exchange for a measly diet and shelter, Castle and the men of the workhouse were given the task of digging around the perimeter of the building to create a path. He recalls how gruelling the work was, especially since their poor diet left them weak. One day, the master of the workhouse called his brother “lazy” for remaining in the workhouse, though the two were hardly there for a month. Castle defended his brother, saying, “We do not have food enough Sir, to do this hard work.” Well, that was enough to end his short stay at Leighton Buzzard Workhouse. A couple days later, Castle, now aged 17, was expelled from the Union with four shillings in his pocket. Fortunately for him, he had an aunt in London who might have been able to help Castle find employment. But he needed to find his own way to London and four shillings wasn’t enough for the 40-mile journey. Castle begged around his father’s hometown, knocking on doors and telling his tale to anyone who would spare some change. After earning 6 extra shillings from begging, Castle found his way to his aunt’s in London, where he was able to find employment in the East End from a friend of his aunt's.

John Castle was lucky. He had family members he could turn to, to prevent him from becoming homeless for longer than half the year. Though Castle gives us an inside perspective on the life of a workhouse inmate, his story isn’t everyone’s. He goes on to become a founding member of the Colchester Co-operative Society and eventually writes the very autobiography I researched, but he may have never made it there if it wasn’t for sheer opportunity. Castle could’ve very well have remained on the streets of London like the others who thought travelling to the city would help end their unemployment. We hear about him because he was a success story. We don’t hear from those less fortunate, only about them.

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