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Peckham Personalities

This is the first of a new series of pieces about people from history with a connection to Peckham. These articles are initiated by Derek Kinrade, Peckham resident, activist and local historian, and written with the assistance of others.

MARIA SUSAN  RYE (1829-1903)

by Derek Kinrade with Deborah Elliott

Introduction by Derek Kinrade: I have hesitated for years before tackling the story of Miss Rye, often described as a ‘social reformer’, for there is a question as to the direction of the reform. The mores of the 19th century are not those of today. Readers will detect a tension between the fate from which the the destitute children were rescued and that to which they were transported. This article from the Canadian encyclopedia is a useful examination of this tension.

This famous resident of Peckham was the eldest daughter of a well-connected solicitor, Edward Rye. Originally her family lived in Chelsea, and she was schooled at home with access to her father’s considerable library. At the age of 16 she taught in the Sunday school of her local church, where Reverend Charles Kingsley, father of the more famous savant of the same name, was its vicar. Involvement in his parochial work led on to her interest in social work: in particular, to paucity of employment opportunities for intelligent women. Between 1855 and 1858 she became secretary to an association promoting the Married Women’s Property Bill, working against social conventions that kept women from securing economic independence, but resigned when it also took up the issue of women’s suffrage.  She next edited the ‘Englishwomen’s Journal’, and joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. In 1859, seeking to give practical expression to her views, she set up a business of law-copying offering employment to women of her own class, and helping to find jobs for women as telegraph clerks.

These initiatives, however, were plainly insufficient to address the scale of need. With a friend, Jane Lewin, she devised a scheme to assist middle-class girls who wanted to emigrate to Commonwealth countries, where there were greater opportunities. They raised a fund of £750 to supplement whatever money applicants could raise for themselves, provided as a loan to be repaid whenever possible. As Secretary of the Female Middle-class Emigration Society, this scheme was first tried out from 1861 in Australia, where, despite adverse criticism, the scheme was quite successful, helping around 300 working women to emigrate.

But, in 1868, rather than focusing on middle-class women, Maria turned her attention to the pitiful state of impoverished British children, discovering that even in destitution girls fared worse than boys. She passed her law-copying business and the Emigration Society work to Lewin, and changed course. Inspired by a programme in New York, she devised a scheme to send so-called ‘gutter children’ to Canada. Encouraged by the Earl of Shaftesbury, and with financial support from Liverpool MP William Rathbone, she purchased a house in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, about ten miles from the Falls, to be known as ‘Our Western Home’.

This splendid house, in eight acres of gardens and orchards, had been built in 1817 as a new court house and jail, replacing an earlier building destroyed by fire in the war of 1812. It had served these purposes until 1847 when it served only as a jail until 1866, but was then abandoned until 1869, when acquired and refurbished by Maria. It was to serve as a distribution centre, to which respectable Canadian families could apply for the services of immigrant girls as domestic servants.

The first group of orphan and deserted children, 65 girls and three boys, were chosen for emigration, mostly from Kirkdale Industrial School in Liverpool. With ten children picked off the streets, they sailed for Canada in October 1869, accompanied by Maria and her friend Geraldine Allaway. The Canadian home opened on 1 December, and, quite soon, places were found for many of the older girls, and several of the younger ones were adopted by married couples without children. With the scheme established, Maria was able to acquire Avenue House, Peckham, close by the site of today’s Aylesham Centre, previously a genteel residence. It opened on 13 July 1872 as ‘Miss Rye’s Emigration Home for Destitute Girls’, and would serve as a preparatory refuge for up to 80 children. In the face of local opposition, Maria and her sister Elizabeth took in about 50 children, almost all girls, aged eight to 13, and, intriguingly, another 50 in a second home (still to be identified). They would stay for up to a year, given a basic religious and general education, and taught needlework, washing, scrubbing, housework, even singing, in readiness for their transit to Canada. Blanch, writing only a few years after the opening, said that 98 per cent of them, aged eight to 13 inclusive, were girls. The home was managed by a committee chaired by the Earl of Shaftesbury, with Lizzie Still as Secretary. Not a lot is known about Lizzie, save that she was Maria’s loyal assistant from about 1867, and remained a lifelong companion.

Between 1869 and 1896, Maria’s agency brought 3,623 children, mainly orphans, all Protestant, to Niagara, most sponsored by English poor-house unions. Each group to travel was accompanied by Maria, even in her later days. Applicants to house them in Canada were required to give written details of their suitability, and acceptance was subject to conditions set out in an indenture which included the employer’s  circumstances and religious adherence, supported by references. Each child was exhorted to “obey” her “master”. For those placed as domestic servants the indenture was binding until they reached the age of 18, after which they were free to make their own terms and choose their own employers, but Maria reserved the right to remove children with whose treatment she was not satisfied.

Meanwhile, the home at Avenue House continued to receive children. We have the benefit of a record of an interview with Maria, published in an 1887 issue of Cassell’s Magazine. The writer toured the whole building, including workrooms from which one could look over the tops of houses to Denmark Hill and dormitories with rows of beds. He/she was impressed by the white linen and napery, spotlessly washed by the girls. Cleanliness was taught very thoroughly, and the girls were dressed alike in stout serviceable frocks half covered by great holland aprons. All looked healthy, their faces instinct with happiness. “Fresh air, wholesome food, and equally wholesome work, produce marvellous changes in a few weeks in the ragged, dirty children with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, who enter the friendly Peckham home in a continuous stream.” Cassell’s special correspondent went on to describe Miss Rye as the organiser of “this admirable system…of transmuting the sickly, contaminated girls of the London slums into happy wives and mothers.” Much of the success of her work at Peckham was said to be “undoubtedly due to her gentle friendly ways with the girls, who ‘took to’ her at once.”

By the time of this interview she had taken about 2,500 girls to Canada, of whom perhaps 15% were adopted. But, asked the reporter, do you never have trouble with the children? Maria accepted that some children, perhaps four per cent, were “incurably troublesome”, despite sending them only to houses of people “whose character is above suspicion.” Her aim, she said, was to try to lay a religious, self-respecting foundation to their lives, but not as many as needed homes could be placed.

Photographs of some groups in Niagara, apparently all girls, on the British Home Children website, show them as well turned out, and Maria’s agency was consistently commended by leading figures in England and Canada. But there was also criticism. Her approach to the children was seen by some critics as detached and pragmatic. According to Joy Parr, senior Canadian emigration agent in Britain, William Dixon, saw her as a “passenger agent of the sharpest description”, and cartoonist George Cruikshank depicted her as “shovelling lilliputian youngsters, like so much guano, into a giant mud cart”. Even more scathing, in 1875, was an experienced inspector, Andrew Doyle, who had been sent by the British Poor Law Board to inquire into the arrangements made by Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson, who ran a similar scheme. In a highly critical report he referred to the manner of her placing children as ‘unsympathetic and inattentive”: a lack of training before their emigration; poor travelling conditions; and all manner of children being thrown together. Maria made a lengthy response, and from the remote perspective of Britain in 2021 it is unwise to make a judgement of Maria’s diligence. A newly appointed President of the Poor Law Board had been appointed who was not keen on spending money to have children taken out of the Board’s workhouses, perhaps resenting the implication that her scheme reflected badly on the Board’s own failings. The reputation of Victorian care was appalling. When Maria began to rescue children in 1869, Canon Fleming was the incumbent in Camden Church, and Dickens was walking the streets of London, doing what he could to draw attention to and alleviate suffering. But Doyle’s report was sufficient to suspend Maria’s activities; in 1875 and 1876 no children were taken to Niagara.

There can surely be no doubt that Maria devoted her life to good works, with consistent, single-minded benevolent intent, but with an inevitability that in the course of such projects things sometimes go wrong. Later in her life she admitted to hoping that children would be good and the people who took them in perfect, but there were occasional failures. An exchange of letters with John Joseph Kelso, a reporter who came to Canada from Ireland in 1874, reveals that Maria had acquired a ‘cottage’ opposite the Niagara home which was used to accommodate ‘returned children’ in need of discipline, who were not to be mixed with those newly arrived from England. She acknowledged that there were some girls who had “lost their character (with the help of Canadian men)”, but these were a tiny percentage of those who has been successfully placed.

In 1895, Maria contracted intestinal cancer, and transferred responsibility for her charges and some of her resources to the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, the forerunner of The Children’s Society, able to claim that approaching some 4,000 English and Scottish children had made new and better lives in Canada, free of the stain of being regarded as paupers. She retired to Hemel Hempstead, where she died, after four years’ suffering, on 12 November 1903. Two of her sisters, along with Lizzie Still, all of whom had lived with Maria, benefitted under her will with life interests in the house.

A plot in a Niagara cemetery has substantial tombstones in memory of children given the chance of a better life. Maria is surely worthy of a memorial in Peckham, as near as possible to the site of Avenue House.

(C) Derek Kinrade


Sources/Further reading

W.H.Blanch: Ye Parish of Camerwell (1875)

Wikipedia, drawing on:

W.B.Owen: Rye, Maria Susan (1912)

Sidney Lee: Dictionary of National Biography (supplement, 1912)

British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association website, drawing on:

Joy Parr, Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Toronto Daily Mail  (1888)

Canadian Illustrated News (October 1871)

National Archives (Historical Manuscript Commission)

William Gilbert: Good Words magazine, v.12 (1871), pp 753/7

Cassell’s Magazine (1887), pp 534/8

Jisc Archives Hub

Marion Diamond: Emigration and Empire; The Life of Maria S. Rye (1999)