Childhood Frederick John Ellis
Hastings 1873 - sometime between 1879 and 1885
The birth of Frederick John Ellis on 21st December 1873 is not only the first evidence we have for his existence, but it is also the first evidence we have of his father’s existence and also, his mother’s name. So a pretty significant birth really. On a recent trip back to England I visited Hastings where he was born, and found the actual location, although the house that is there, is most likely a modern one. He was born at 6 East Hill Passage. The house is pictured at the top left, and the lovely East Hill Passage at right. East Hill Passage is one of the many little alleys climbing up the hill and leading off All Saints Street, which is also shown at right. High Street which runs parallel to All Saints Street, is shown in the top contemporary photograph. Well it is all lovely now, and probably the most desirable part of Hastings, but I cannot believe that it was that way when James Henry Ellis and his family lived there. For James Henry Ellis was a hawker - a seller of flowers in the street - not a high-earning profession, and, one would imagine, just a short level above the lowest of the low. But at least they did have an address, and therefore, shelter. Frederick was born in the middle of winter so his prospects would have been much worse on the street or in the workhouse.
Frederick was the second child, but first son. I do not know why he was called Frederick, or John. They were not his supposed grandfather’s names, but then this is the era in which parents were beginning to venture away from family names for their children. His older sister Ellen had been born a year earlier, assuming that she was indeed his sister, but since we have neither her birth certificate, nor her parents’ marriage certificate, I guess there is always a chance that her father (or maybe even her mother) was somebody else. On Frederick’s birth certificate his mother is Ellen Ellis, formerly Warnes. On the birth certificates of the next three children she is Ellen Ellis, late Cook, formerly Warnes, which implies that she had been married before. But we haven’t found that marriage either. But really these mysteries belong to Frederick’s parents’ stories, so I will not dwell on the possibilities here. The only significance for Frederick is that his older sister Ellen (always called Ellen Ellis) may actually be a half-sister. HIs father was 33 when Frederick was born - maybe he had been married before too?
Frederick’s birth was followed by those of Letitia in 1875 and James in 1877, both also born in East Hill Passage, although they seem to have moved between no. 6 and no. 5. But then tragedy struck, as it did most poor families, and Letitia and James both died in quick succession in 1878; James on May 1st from bronchitis and diorrhoea from teething, and Letitia on May 22nd of tuberculosis and meningitis. That’s quite a mixture - my guess is that James’ bronchitis was probably tuberculosis too. Whatever the reason, it must have been pretty catastrophic for the small family. They had moved down the hill towards the sea, sometime between James’ birth and death. Maybe they felt it was healthier down here. They eventually settled on West Street shown at right - another quaint little street which has doubtless changed from hovels to desirable residences, and which is just behind the road running along the beach. And there, their last child, Lily was born in 1879.
By now Frederick was seven years old, and doubtless he, and his sister Ellen aged eight were helping sell flowers in the streets, whilst their mother stayed at home with the baby. Young children were probably seen as an asset in this kind of job. I have no idea whether his father had an actual stall somewhere, a cart driven by an horse or a donkey (though where would you keep it?), or whether they were just street sellers, like the boy in the painting above. The painting at right shows a rather more substantial operation. But whether it was at this end of the market or the other, much more humble end, there is no doubt that the entire family, once old enough were involved.
I guess if the children had any spare time at all, then they may have spent some of it on the beach, like the children in the beautiful contemporary painting above. Hastings, like all of the beaches around here has a shingle beach and it would probably have been fun to play at the edge of the water with toy boats, or fling stones into the water as little boys like to do. The painting at right by Edith Hume, shows a young boy who has used his shoe to make a boat whilst the real fishing boats pass by in the background. And Hastings was very definitely a fishing town - it still is - and it is not a port in the usual sense - the boats are launched from the beach. And if they did not play on the beach, then they would have played in the streets, and I am sure would have been independent from a very early age. Frederick had no brothers, so whether this made him more or less independent is an interesting question. You would think that he probably sought companionship with the other street boys, although, then again as the only boy, he may have had more family responsibilities - he may have had to help his father more.