Running off with Sailors

“If I had my way, I’d treat some of these Continental fellers like we used to treat Chinese dope smugglers – hang ’em.”

The Amazing Baker Girls

It’s always interesting to discover a previously unknown story in a Family Tree, especially when the detail turns out to be unusual or sensational, and I had one such occurrence recently when re-rersearching Danny Baker’s Family Tree during the airing of his BBC comedy series Cradle to Grave ( #CradleToGrave ) based on his autobiography Going to Sea in a Sieve ( #goingtoseainasieve ), and now that he’s making an appearance in “I’m a Celebrity” I thought this would be a good time to share the amazing story of his female ancestors again.

It came about due to some missing links in the original tree that I researched back in 2005, notably with a number of the women in the Baker Line.  It is a fact that on the average women are generally far less straightforward to trace than men in Family Trees.  There are two main reasons for this; first, historically it has been the norm in most English speaking countries for women to change their surname when they marry, and therefore they suddenly disappear from your line of sight, and secondly, and this is a fact born of years of research not just stereotyping, women have a much greater tendency to knowingly lie about their age on census forms and marriage certificates, especially where there is a large age difference between a woman and her husband.  So there tend to be lose ends to tidy up on the female sides of trees once the main research is complete.

The thing was, Danny’s Great Grandmother and Great Aunts had done a bit of a disappearing act in the archives, and so additional digging was required.  One of their stories would yield a world spanning adventure, but we start with Maria Baker – Danny Baker’s Great Grandmother.

Ma Baker

Maria was a farm girl from Salisbury, daughter of a Dairyman. She had come to London looking for work, which she found as a domestic servant, and she also found Robert William Baker, the son of a Chemist from Kensington and the grandson of Queen Victoria’s Yeoman of the Royal Wine Cellars at Windsor Castle.

Robert William, failed to follow his father into the Chemist’s trade, instead he was apprenticed to a Lamp Maker, making Tin Signal Lamps for the railways.  This came about after a family split, caused by Maria, when she and Robert William started “living in sin” away from the upmarket surroundings of Kensington, in the working class cheaper parts of London’s East End – Bow and Poplar. The couple had seven children in the 12 years between 1877 and 1889, five boys and three girls.  During that time Robert William moved from making signal Lamps for the Railways, to working as a Journeyman Tinsmith in a preserved food factory, i.e. making Tins for canned food, actually a new technology at the time, so not a bad trade for a working class man, but an extreme step down in a single generation, from his Father and Grand Father’s positions in society, and all for the love of Maria.

However the move to the East end was a bad one for Robert William, living down by the docks there was always the threat of serious disease from the living conditions.  Working in crowded factories, with boat born disease from the scores of foreign sailors coming in from exotic climes.  Like the storyline from a Dickensian tragedy, Robert William contracted Typhoid in 1889 the same year that his youngest son Arthur was born, Robert was acutely ill for two weeks and died on Christmas Eve 1889, leaving Maria to fend on her own for her seven children from Christmas Day 1889.  Merry Christmas Maria.

Maria had had twelve happy years with Robert Baker, but now she would need to fight to keep body and soul together, working as a Housekeeper taking in lodgers, with the children recorded as working as shop boys and girls and errand boys from an early age.  Between 1891-1901 the family lived in exactly the same area of Poplar, in Claremont Terrace and Alpha Road.  This area was slowly improving through the 1890s especially around Alpha Road.  The Booth inspectors who chronicled the relative poverty of London at the time, described Alpha Road as being comfortable looking with neat gardens inhabited by Dock Foremen and permanent hands.  Alpha Road can be seen on the map of the Isle of Dogs below, it runs vertically on the left of centre in between West India and Millwall Docks.  So Maria had managed to keep her family’s heads above water in a respectable working class neighbourhood, without the aid of a man in her life, quite an achievement in 1889.

Public Domain,

Blond Bombshell

In 1899 Carl Oscar Blom a Seaman from Vastervik on the Baltic East Coast of Sweden,  arrived in the Port of London, and made his way from Poplar Docks to the Scandinavian Seaman’s Temperance Hostel in Garford Street Poplar.  The Scandinavian Seamen’s Temperance home was a famous institution in the Docks, having been opened in 1888 by no less than Prince Oscar of Sweden and Norway.  The Swedish & Norwegian Royal Family were a great supporters of Britain, and of Scandinavian seamanship commerce and exploration, and had the distinction of being mainly of French descent, their Royal House of Bernadotte having been founded by the constitutional appointment of one of Napoleon’s Military Marshals when the Quisling Scandinavian politicians of the time were eager not to be at odds with the little dictator Napoleon, who had conquered and ruled most of Continental Europe until 1815.  The Marshal himself was descended from a peasant farmer, so he epitomised the ultimate rags to riches story.

Carl Oscar Of Sweden and Norway By Anders Zorn – From Emil Hildebrand, Sveriges historia intill tjugonde seklet (1910), Public Domain,

The Seaman’s home was therefore a magnet for the many Scandinavian Sailors and Officers from ships stopping over in the Docks, and as a consequence of this influx into Poplar of tall, blond, blue-eyed, cash flush sailors, it was also a Mecca for unattached young women, and although in the words of the song “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor”  many of the not-so-nice girls liked them as well, and the Hostel did receive complaints from Church going locals about the “Ladies of the Night” who flocked around its clients, like bees around a honeypot.

The Mission was in Garford Street, which as can be seen from the map above, was only a short walk North along the River from Alpha Road.  Despite the suspect activity of young women around the Mission, the romance between Maria Baker, the widowed mid-forties mother of seven children, and Carl Oscar Blom, the middle aged Scandinavian Seaman, was likely to have been a much more mellow affair.

scandinavianMissionGiven that the Seaman’s home was a temperance establishment run under strict dour Scandinavian Protestant morality, Carl Oscar would no doubt have been pleased to have made the acquaintance of a woman of similar age, who could provide some affection, and the comforts of home to a sailor who was a long way from home.  For Maria it was a chance to have companionship with a strong man of the world, and to become what she had never been in the eyes of Robert’s family; a respectable married woman.

So Maria saw to it that the relationship with Carl Oscar was respectable or “proper” as the working class expressed it (pronounced “prop-pah” in Cockney, or “prarp-er” in Maria’s slight Wiltshire burr) and their courtship culminated in Banns being read three times in All Saints Church Poplar between 21st May 1899 and 4th June 1899 (while Carl was at Sea) and on his return he was married to Maria on 17th June 1899.  This of course was in contrast to her not marrying  Robert William Baker, despite the love they shared.  Maria had taken her chance to “make an honest woman of herself” in the speech of the day.  She had a ring, a husband, respectability, and a small business.  No one could turn their moralistic noses up at her or her children anymore.

Maria was also very conscious of her age, and reflected this on the wedding certificate where she gave her age as 32, when she was actually about ten years older than this, which says a little about her, in as much as she was probably  quite an attractive woman and could bluff a younger age.  Carl Oscar Blom, her merchant seaman betrothed, was 43.

Carl undoubtedly gave Maria some romance, and probably a little companionship, although not much, as he spent so much time away at sea.  A sailor’s life was a tough one, and within two years Carl had died while on his travels.  Where he died is not clear, although a Seaman off a Swedish Ship called Carl Oscar Blom died in Plymouth Workhouse Devon, of Spinal Meningitis in 1900, however his date of birth is given as 1871, abour 16 years younger than our Carl Oscar, so this may just have been a coincidence.

Robbed of a second husband after another ten years of wedded happiness, Maria never the less kept the family going, she had now lost two partners but still managed to do well by the standards of the time, so much so, that Maria was registered to vote in local elections from 1903, although it would be some time before she could vote in National Elections.  Maria had overcome a double loss to become a woman of means in the area around the docks.

Maria was a born survivor, never a victim, and by 1911 she had setup in a five roomed house at 54 Poplar High Street as a Housekeeper, effectively a landlady running a boarding house.  Arthur Baker, her youngest son, was still living at home, and was working as a Pawn Broker’s assistant, a healthy trade around Poplar Docks.  Her boarders included young Ernest King a Dock’s Customs Officer, Harry Wright a sailor from Surrey, and notably two Danes, Johan Nielson the 80 year old caretaker of the local Danish Church in Poplar, and Henry Julius Otadel who was wealthy enough to be living “on his own means”.

Poplar High Street


So the Scandinavian connection continued, and Maria’s presence as a character in Poplar would continue until August 1930, when she died of heart failure in her seventies, having outlived two partners, seen a daughter die in tragic circumstances (as we shall see below) run a business, and become a well known figure in the Cockney and Scandinavian Community of the London Docks.  In short she lived a long and successful life by the standards of the time.

Maria’s last address was in Toronto Buildings Poplar, these flats had been built by the London County Council (LCC) between 1899 and 1901 in Cotton Street, after land was purchased and houses demolished to make way for the Blackwell Tunnel under the Thames linking Poplar with North Greenwich, although not that attractive to look at, for their time the five story flats were spacious, self contained, better equipped, and sanitary, than what had gone before in the East End.  Next door to Maria lived her ever loyal youngest son Arthur Baker and his wife Beatrice, it was Beatrice who reported Maria’s death.

Interestingly her death certificate shows how family stories contain seeds of truth, but get changed over time; her daughter-in-law Beatrice, knew the basic facts about Maria, but conflated her two husbands, telling the officials that Maria was the widow of “Robert Blom” a Lamp Maker.

Cecilia, tragically following in Mother’s footsteps

Whilst researching Maria, I managed to untangle the tragic story of Cecilia, Maria’s eldest daughter.  She too had fallen out of the records, but I managed to discover that Cecilia had the same taste in men as her mother, at least as far as Scandinavians from the Docks were concerned.  In the early 1900s she took up with a Norwegian called Engle Bjornson, a shipwright. Most likely Engle caught the eye of Cecilia while he was a boarder in her Mother’s guest House, and in 1905 Cecilia and Engle married in All Saints Church Poplar, just like Cecilia’s mum Maria had to her Scandinavian Sailor Carl Oscar Blom.

Work called, and shipbuilding started to focus on the North of England around Tyneside rather than in Poplar, so Cecilia moved North with her husband to Wallsend, where they lived in two rooms in Carlyle Street on Willington Quay.  The couple had a tragically short lived daughter, poetically named Alida Lenea Bjornson, who died soon after birth in 1908.  The shock took its toll on Cecilia, affecting her mental health, which in turn put a strain on the marriage.  Around this time she started to change her name from Cecilia to Selina, with various spellings, as if she were trying to create a new start with a new name.

Things came to a head with “Selina’s” mental Health around the time of the First World War, so much so that in 1918 we find Selina back in Poplar with her Maternal family.  But her mental state became too much for her family to cope with, and having a very unstable young woman in a guest house, was just too much.  Reluctantly  the family agreed to put her into the infirmary in Tower Hamlets Workhouse.  When she was booked in, her second name “Ellen” is represented by an “H” in the admissions book, which may represent the Official’s interpretation of her Cockney accent, they mistakenly assumed that she was dropping an “H” from the front of “Helen” pronouncing it as “Ellen”.  This perhaps is an indication of Edwardian Authority’s attitude towards  the working classes, and her likely treatment, which saw her being sent to Colney Hatch Mental Asylum a few days later, where she died in the same year 1918.

For his part it seems that Engle lost no time in taking up with a local Northumberland girl named Minnie, taking up with her as soon as Cecilia was out of the way, but he himself died within the year in 1919, leaving £132 to Minnie (about £20,000 in today’s earnings).  Minnie was called his wife in his will, but there is no sign that they were ever legally married, so she was very fortunate to have pulled off the inheritance.  Within four months of Engle’s death Minnie with a small fortune in her pocket had married another local man,  she must have made quite a catch.  It seems that relationships in the docks of Wallsend could be taken up and set aside with little room for sentiment.

Shanghai Phoebe

Family history can sometimes throw up some strange and unexpected coincidences that look like echoes of the past, and one of my favourites is in the Baker Family.

Phoebe Jeanette Baker was Maria’s sister-in-law, Cecilia’s Aunt.  She was  the youngest of eight children born to Robert William Baker the Chemist (not the Lampmaker mentioned above, he was her elder brother).

It seems that there was a rebellious streak in the family, shown by the younger Robert William moving away from leafy Kensington to squalid Poplar and marrying Maria the Cow Keeper’s daughter from Salisbury, but this pales into insignificance compared to what Phoebe did.

Phoebe gravitated towards her brother Robert William and his wife Maria, she was not that much older than Robert’s eldest children, so was treated like an older child.  Visiting her older brother in the East End brought her into contact with the mystery of the Poplar Docks, sailors from all over the world, exotic sights and smells from the spices and other cargos coming into the port of London, and the sun tanned hard skinned men from the boats.

Then in 1889 the Docks exploded with the Great Dock Strike, when the Dockers came out en masse to get “The Dockers’ Tanner” – sixpence (2.5p in modern terms) a small reward per hour for the back breaking work they had to do, the strikes lead to violence and unrest in the Docks, and men’s families started to starve, the atmosphere was fragile and sometime chaotic, for Phoebe there were threats to stability nearer to home, as her Father’s health was being dragged down by Bronchitis.

Into this sea of unease besetting the 19 year old Phoebe breezed the 30 year old ship’s Captain Abel Wardlaw Best.  Five feet ten (tall for the time), tanned and well built, with thick brown hair and grey eyes, a strong man fresh from the China Seas, Abel must have turned young Phoebe’s head.

Abel’s Slave owning Family Past

Abel Wardlaw Best was indeed an exotic creature, born in Agra in India, the son and grandson of Barbadan Sugar Plantation Slave owners, and educated in Scotland. His family’s fortunes had initially taken a downturn during the Napoleonic wars in 1808 when Great Britain banned the Slave Trade (but not slave owning) and the Royal Navy intercepted and freed slaves from all vessels including foreign ones. this was followed by the Abolition of Slavery in the whole of the British Empire  in 1834.


Strangely Slavery was never abolished in Great Britain as Slavery had not been recognised as a legal state of existence since before the middle ages.  This was actually defined under English Law in a court ruling, that neither in written law or “Common Law” (the unwritten Law of common practice by the English people) that slavery was never a recognised state of being, and indeed was effectively in breach of an Englishman’s (“man” in it’s original English definition of “a person” not the post Norman definition of a male) right of Habeus Corpus as enshrined since the 13th century, i.e. the English right not to be held against their will without trial.

This had lead to some interesting situations, as legally any slave that set foot in Great Britain could be viewed as no more than a servant, effectively automatically free, and there are recorded instances of the Cockney “Mob” in cahoots with Black Londoners, attacking rich foreign and colonial slave owners in London and their slave catcher agents to spring black slaves from their servitude.  This was such an issue, that no less than Justice Sir John Fielding, the man who developed the first Police force in London, advised American and Caribbean Planters visiting London, not to bring their Slaves with them, as once in London, seeing and being approached and encouraged by the numbers of free black people living in the metropolis, they would not only demand wages, but were likely to run off to get baptised and married, and the Planters could find themselves in mortal danger from the working class populace, “The London Mob”, should they try to retrieve their slaves.

Intriguingly some of these freed London slaves went on to join the Royal Navy and faced the prospect of being part of the Navy’s anti-slavery Patrols, thereby actively freeing up other African slaves.  Even the plaque on the side of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar square in the heart of London shows a black sailor, holding a rifle on the left, on Nelson’s flagship fighting the French.

By Eluveitie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Once not only trading in slaves, but the owning of slaves was itself outlawed, the Best Family from Barbados received over £7,500 in compensation from the British Parliament  (the equivalent of around £10,700,000 in today’s economic terms) for the loss of their 1,323 slaves.

From Slave Owners to Diplomats

Like many British West Indian Plantation owners, the Bests used their money, and connections to maintain positions of power in the British Empire.  To hedge their bets, a number of plantation families seeded their sons into the British East India Company (EIC), and from there into the British Diplomatic and Judicial  Corps in India.  As well as their money and connections, the Planters’ families could boast a knowledge of trade in goods from the tropics to more temperate parts of the world, as well as a tolerance for tropical conditions generally, and an assumed superiority and willingness to exploit native workers.  The Bests jumped into this world with a certain gusto,  which is how Abel managed to get himself born in Agra.

The family seemed to court adventure, which they duly found in the city of Agra during the Indian Mutiny.  The EIC ran a Private, but British Government sanctioned, Colonial Army in India. The EIC Army was actually three separate Armies, those of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras, numbering at peak over 120,000 men, so one of the largest standing armies in the world.  It was used both to maintain order in India, and to fight wars around the area, including major actions against, Sindh, Persia, China, Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal, the Punjab, and against the Sikhs, as well as providing volunteer officers and men for the Crimean War against Russia (via the Anglo-Turkish Legion).  The largest number of men in the EIC Armies, were local Indians, armed, trained, and paid by the EIC and generally called Sepoys, alongside these there were European, mainly British and Irish Troops under EIC pay.  The entire Officer class were British.


In 1857 the EIC authorities in Agra received news of the mutiny of Sepoys in other Indian Cities.  In response they had the Bengal Fusiliers, the local EIC British Troops, disarm the local Sepoy Troops.  This was despite the fact that for two months the Sepoys had shown no sign of rising in revolt, despite the uprisings in other cities.  In May 1857 6,000 refugees; British Families from the surrounding area, poured into Agra, this was triggered by unrest and rumours amongst the Indian population on the back of the general uprising against the East India Company in Delhi.

Disgruntled at having been disarmed, and faced with a massive influx of panic stricken British refugees, the local Agra Sepoys attempted a brief uprising in June 1857, probably more for effect than in any organised military manner, and lacking the arms of the EIC British troops, they were driven off and the British holed up with their civilians in the Fort at the heart of Agra.  The Bengal Fusiliers sealed off and defended the Fort before any serious violence could occur, and the displaced Sepoys set up a half hearted siege, it seems almost pandering to a kind of wish fulfilment for the panicked British civilians.


The farce started to turn into a crisis due to the crowding of British and other European civilians in Agra, not because of shortages of food or water, but more because of fear and a lack of medical supplies.  But the fear was real for good reason; the Sepoys in other areas did have a reputation for shocking treatment of captured men, women, and children, so the British Bengal Fusiliers held the City doggedly, driven by fears for the women and children.  Many of the Sepoys lost interest and headed off for the siege of Delhi, which was a much more dangerous and exciting affair.

Delhi was eventually relieved by the British, who then sent a flying column of battle hardened British, Sikh, and Punjabi troops, to Agra.  Contrary to popular myth, many Indians and other local troops including the Sikhs, Punjabis, and Gurkhas, stayed loyal to the British, and were a major factor in putting down the uprising.  The relief column when it turned up at Agra, was initially treated with disdain, mainly because they had taken to wearing rough Khaki uniforms (the first time British Khaki was ever adopted by British soldiers) much more practical than the Redcoats that were generally worn.  The British civilians in Agra, seeing this mixture of deep tanned men of various racial backgrounds, covered in dust with worn and bloodstained clothing, initially thought they were an army of invading Afghans, and for their part, the Flying column was surprised to find the Bengal Fusiliers in Agra resplendent in unblemished red uniforms with immaculate white cross belts, as if on parade rather than under siege.


The British column was initially attacked in camp at Agra by Sepoy artillery followed by a cavalry charge, but the British, Sikhs, and Punjabis, were battle hardened regulars, they formed ranks held the Sepoy attack, counter attacked around the Sepoy flanks with Cavalry, drove the Sepoys off, then followed up, catching them at  aRiver crossing where they tore the Sepoy ranks apart with Artillery fire, and routed them with a final Cavalry charge.  The siege was over, order and British rule were restored, and the Best’s settled down as part of the ruling elite, with Abel Wardlaw Best being born there on 24th March 1859.

Abel Takes to the Sea

His parents decided to send Abel back to Scotland for schooling, bt by the age of 15 it was felt better to send him to a Naval training ship, HMS Conway, in Liverpool.  He graduated from here to the Royal Naval Reserve as a Mid-Shipman, but unable to find gainful employment, the restless young man at the age of 20 became a second mate in the Merchant Marine.


where he graduated to a Naval training ship, may have been a very wilful young man, ran off to London and worked on ships till he got his Master’s certificate.

After this Abel was off to sea, working his way up to a ship’s Captain in the South China Seas. His travels brought him back to the Port of London and it was here that he met Phoebe and swept her off her feet.

Phoebe Shanghaied

Robert William Baker had given in to love rather than follow the demands of his Middleclass Family when he married Maria Clerk, in so doing he swapped salubrious Kensington a perhaps life as a middleclass Chemist, for an albeit skilled working class existence as a Lamp maker to live by the docks in the East End.  Seeing love triumph amid the adventure of the Docks, Phoebe set her mind on finding her own romance the way her older brother had.

Being wilful and young, just 19, she was literally Shanghaied by Abel, who whisked her away from London and her Family to the other side of the world.  The effect on her Mother and Father can only be imagined.  Robert William and Anne must have been horrified, their youngest child taken away to the ends of the earth by a 30 year old hard bitten Ship’s Captain.  And of course, the shame of it.  Their eldest son having lived in sin and raised a family out of wedlock in the docks, and his influence had corrupted their youngest child, leaving her captive to the whims of an older man in a ship on the South China Seas!

On a more prosaic level we can believe that in Phoebe and Abel’s eyes, they simply had their honeymoon first, and their marriage after.  When they got to Shanghai in China Abel did the decent thing, and on  15th April 1889 they were married in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Shanghai.

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Shanghai

That same year 1889 her beloved older brother Robert died of Typhus in Poplar, and by 1897 her father had also died.  By 1898 Phoebe and Abel were living in Hong Kong, where Abel was working for The Taikoo Sugar Company, once again sugar played a part in this story. Abel was a Wharfinger (Harbour Master) at Quarry Bay.  An important job, where Abel would be responsible for the goods and storage on the docks, as well as the docking of ships, and settling disputes between ships Captains and crews, in keeping with his position Abel was also a Juror in the Hong Kong judicial system.

Tai-Koo Docks Hong Kong 1903

Phoebe and Abel, had no children during their marriage, and despite having run off and lived with Abel in China for some years, life away from home living in the strange environment of ex-patriot Shanghai and Hong Kong, a staggering change for a girl from Kensington, would have lead to some homesickness, especially as Abel was often away at sea Captaining Merchant ships between Swatow, Singapore, Saigon and Bangkok.

After she heared of her Father’s death, Phoebe sailed back to England to spend some time with her Mother and sisters. So we find Phoebe living in Hammersmith with her maternal family in 1901, where her mother lived off a pension from her her dead husband’s estate, whilst her sisters worked. Undoubtedly Phoebe was much better off than her mother and sisters, Able had both family money and had built up a good business of his own, so she no doubt helped her mother for a while. She must have seemed like a strange exotic creature now to her family, having lived in places they could only dream of and would never visit.

Abel did his best, and decided to move to a country more conducive to Phoebe, where she would feel less alienated; the USA.  Abel arrived in New York in April 1905, Phoebe left Liverpool on 1st June 1906 and arrived in New York on 10th with £70 in her pocket.  This would be the beginning of Phoebe’s next big adventure.

Alexandra Baker in California


Echoes of Family History

Our story now takes an even more interesting turn.  When I put together a Family History, it’s not just a dry chart full of names.  I always work from the point of view that all those people that once lived, and without whom we wouldn’t be here, have the right to have their stories told, otherwise they are just remain non-existent; telling their stories brings them back to life and a Family History adds to a Family’s dignity and helps explain their place in the world.  The actions of our ancestors echo across the centuries in what we are and what we do.

So it is always nice when members of the families I produce these works for get in touch to discuss what I’ve found, perhaps do some research of their own, and, very, very, occasionally, become part of the story by unconsciously living a life of adventures that mirror those of their ancestors, showing that both Genes and Memes are passed through the generations.  This is what makes the Culture, the Folklore, and the Mythology of a Family.  For me, when this happens, it’s like finding a rare gem.

This was what I would find when I was contacted by Alexandra Baker, Danny Baker’s niece, who had some questions about The Baker Family Story.  Alexandra is a successful Music promoter in California, the CEO of High Rise Public Relations, who started out in Kent and South London, and made her way in the tough world of the Music Industry to her current success, with acts as diverse as Boy George and The Maccabees.  Just like Phoebe, Alexandra starting in the South of England, travelled to New York, and then to California forging success in a hard world.

Phoebe in the USA

So, Phoebe had followed Abel to New York and then to California.  This made sense, Abel’s experience was predominantly in the South China Seas, so a California base was what was needed for Able, and something useful to do was what was needed for Phoebe, and sure enough we find Abel and Phoebe living at 251 Winston Street Los Angeles from 1907 when Abel becomes a naturalised American citizen.  By 1910, perhaps having taken another lesson from her plucky sister-in-law Maria in Poplar, Phoebe started running a boarding house at the Winston Street address while Able was away.

Los Angeles early 1900s

Winston Street was full of boarding houses, providing clean decent lodging for the burgeoning workforce of Los Angeles.  As well as Phoebe and Able, there were lodging houses run by a Japanese Family with Japanese lodgers, an Austrian Family with Austrian lodgers, and American Families with American lodgers, plus a German and his American family living in their own rooms.  Phoebe and Able had two American lodgers, a salesman and a mariner.  All the neighbours except the Austrians and Japanese spoke English.  Years later in the 1930s the area would begin a slow decline as the richer owners moved out and slum landlords moved in.  It is now the skid row area of Los Angeles, and is becoming gentrified again.

A Rancher’s Wife

Phoebe and Abel move up in the world by 1917 when Abel is recorded as a Rancher.  Abel would have been 58 by then, so long stints at sea were probably less attractive, and there was a boom in demand for food driven by the Army’s requirements for suppliers for the millions of soldiers shipped over to Europe, and to fulfil demand from Great Britain for food now that so many men were in the trenches rather than in fields.  It was a lucrative business.

The timing was interesting as it coincides with a business consortium buying up large areas of relatively cheap Ranch Land, that had been subject to drought in previous decades, the day before the City of Los Angeles passed a bill to build and aqueduct to bring water to the area, and unsurprisingly a major member of the syndicate was also on the committee that passed the bill!  The ranch land after initial development for food, soon became prime building land and was sold off in “the sale of the century” to allow for urban development on the suburbs of Los Angeles. It would appear that Able was in the right place at the right time.

But the ranching and speculating life didn’t suit the marriage of Able and Phoebe, and the couple divorced sometime between 1917 and 1920.  Abel gave up ranching, and lived in the Harvard Military School in Los Angeles, possibly teaching seamanship, interestingly the ceremonial uniforms of the boys were confederate Grey.


Sometime after 1920 Abel went back to sea and headed once again for Hong Kong – he had cashed in his chips, and invested his small fortune in stocks and shares, there was nothing to keep him in California anymore.

Phoebe and an Irish Soldier

In the 1874 when Jeremiah Joseph Hannon travelled as a teenager from Ireland to the Town of Milford, Worcester County, Massachusetts with his parents and younger brother and elder sister, he had little idea of the adventure his life would turn into.  The civil war was over in the USA and there was plenty of work in the North for those willing to take it up, Jeremiah worked with his Father repairing Boots for the local Shoe shop.

Having crossed the Ocean, hammering nails into boots seemed like an anticlimax, and Jeremiah set out West in search of adventure.  He was 6 feet tall with blue eyes, black hair, and a rosy complexion, and by 1892, in his early thirties, Jeremiah had made it to California to work as a Fireman on the Railroad in Los Angeles. A Fireman’s lot on a steam Train was a hard one, shovelling coal into the train’s boiler to keep the steam up and the engine rolling, it built hard strong lean men, but it was endless toil, and once the excitement of travelling the country by train had worn off, Jeremiah craved more adventure.

A game of International Chess by US vested interests

In 1898 when when Jeremiah was around 40 a new opportunity for adventure presented itself.  With the blowing up of the American warship The Maine in Havana Harbour, the Spanish American War burst onto the scene.  Spain had been losing power on the world scene since the Peninsular War in the early 1800s when The Duke of Wellington assisted by the Portuguese, and by Spanish guerrillas, had thoroughly defeated Napoleon’s forces in Spain.  Years of civil strife followed, fuelled by the Anarchist movement in Europe.  Late in the 1800s Spain gained some stability, but the previous weakness at the centre of Spanish politics and the successful overthrow of Spanish rule in Mainland South and Central America had encouraged liberation movements in far flung colonies, notably Cuba, The Philippines, and Guam.  Most of these places had been under Spanish rule for around 400 years, and Cuba in particular was thought of as a Province of Spain by the Spanish rather than a colony (a parallel to the British attitude towards Ireland).

At the same time there was a movement to expand America’s interests on the World Stage by a number of powerful men in American public life, the US had already mounted an illegal invasion of Hawaii in 1893, this came about because of civil unrest carried out by a fifth column of US Sugar Planters and Missionaries living on the Island over a period of decades (sugar once again in this story).  The US invasion, unsanctioned by the US Congress, and therefore to all intents and purposes illegal, was hastened by the fact that the Hawaiians had always leaned towards Great Britain for protection in the past, to the point where the British Government had provided troops and ships in 1843 to protect the Islands from the French, honourably pulling out after a few months when the danger had past, in stark contrast to the US approach in the following decades.  The legacy of this Hawaiian-British relationship is defiantly proclaimed in the Union Jack flag still flying in the corner of the Hawaiian state flag!


After the invasion the Monarchy of Hawaii was replaced with a puppet Republic largely controlled by US Commercial (Sugar) interests, but this was too precarious for the expansionist forces in the USA, and in 1897, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, an attempt to officially annexe the Hawaiian Islands was put before congress and defeated, the defeat in part driven by pressure from the signatures of 21,000 native Hawaiians protesting at the attempt to rob them of what little sovereignty they had left, but a year later, given the likelihood of war with Spain, the US desire for a naval base in the North Pacific was too tempting a prize to be left un-stolen, as the USA would badly need a stopover point for resupply en-route to the Spanish possessions in the Philippines if they were to in consider an invasion.  So all pretence of protecting the independence of Hawaii was dropped, and an annexation bill was passed, effectively robbing Hawaii of any chance of independence and self determination.

A confrontation with Spain was guaranteed when ships from the newly developed and highly powerful US fleet were dispatch to various Spanish areas of interest, culminating with the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbour killing over 260 of her crew.  At the time the blame was firmly placed on a Spanish mine by the US authorities, but later investigations point towards an explosion caused by the poor quality coal used on the ship which gave off a high flammable gas in in the area of the ship’s ammunition magazine.  Whatever the cause, the sinking of the Maine ensured that War would be the likely outcome with the Americans adopting the slogan “Remember The Maine, to Hell with Spain!”

Explosion Aboard the Battleship Maine, Havana Harbour

Not wanting to miss out on the adventure, Jeremiah enlisted on May 16 1898 at Little Rock Arkansas, into the 2nd Regiment of Arkansas Infantry, and after basic training, no doubt because of his age and Railway experience, Jeremiah was transferred to the 3rd US Volunteer Engineer Regiment and shipped to Cuba.  After a few weeks he returned to the US and was disbanded.  By this time Jeremiah had a taste for Army life and adventure, and re-enlisted within two months for a chance to fight in the Philippines in the 33rd US Volunteer Infantry.

The War in the Philippines against the Spanish took very little time and few casualties on the American side.  The main Spanish garrison in Manilla had little stomach for the fight after seeing their slightly antiquated fleet sent to the bottom of Manila Bay by the vastly superior US Fleet, and offered to put up a token resistance just to save face, as long as the US forces didn’t allow their Filipino insurgent allies take control of the town or molest the surrendering Spaniards. There was some confusion, and some units of US soldiers were involved in heavy fire, but overall the “attack” went as planned.


If anything it went too well, as, now in possession of the Capital the US Government decided that rather than handing the Philippines back to the Filipinos, they would replace the Spanish themselves and rule the country as a colony.  It was no surprise that the Filipinos didn’t take to this idea, and immediately opened a guerrilla war against American forces as they had for many years against the Spanish. The war was barbaric on both sides, fought in the jungles and villages of the Philippine Islands, and was a foretaste of conditions in Vietnam 60 years later.  However, the US forces were so well armed and provisioned that it was a forgone conclusion that they would eventually overrun Filipino resistance.  There was some outcry through allegations of looting, burning, and killing out side of battle by US soldiers, and to a great extent this was sanctioned by their higher command.

Jeremiah was in the thick of it, his Regiment the 33rd were known as “The Texas Regiment” because they were apocryphally believed to be cowboys, which was undoubtedly true of some but not all the volunteers, but it shows the general demeanour of the regiment who found themselves fighting through the Jungles of the North of the Island of Luzon, where they were instrumental in capturing and killing many important Filipino senior guerrilla leaders.

33rd USV Philippines

In 1900 Jeremiah was based in Bangued, and town named by the Spanish and meaning “Roadblock” in recognition of the obstacles the Filipinos had put in their way when Spain was conquering the country nearly 300 years before.  The US forces suffered comparatively few casualties to action in the Philippines, but many more due to disease, and Jeremiah was no exception to this. He left the regiment in December 1900, and in 1903 when back in the USA.

One thing that can be said for the US Government of the time, they did look after their injured veterans well.  Jeremiah was shipped to The National Home for volunteer disabled soldiers, Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Hot springs, Fall River, South Dakota.  He was suffering from acute Arthritis anterior sclerosis, an inflammation of the eye associated with arthritis, which was leading to atrophy in one of his eyes, plus rheumatism, a hernia, varicose veins, sciatica. Jeremiah was in a bad way.

Hot Springs Sanitarium

By 1909 Jeremiah had made some progress and is well enough to be discharged to the home of his elder sister Mrs Mary McCarthy in San Francisco, where he plans to be a farmer. Whatever the results of this, we next find him working as a cook in The National Military Home in Los Angeles in 1916. He remains a cook for some years there, with a brief spell in 1918 when he is readmitted to the Sanitarium for his health. Sometime between 1917 and 1922 Phoebe met and married Jeremiah after her separation from Abel. The two live in Kiowa Avenue Los Angeles in the Sawtelle Veteran’s accommodation, and we can only assume happily, as Jeremiah, was hardly a catch given the state of his health and his lowly status, so it was most likely a love match between him and Phoebe. The even voted the same way; Republican!

The Veterans home had a noble pedigree, and had even housed Wyatt Earp’s father in his later years.  Indeed Wyatt Earp lived with his family in Los Angeles, not that far from Phoebe during her time there.

Wyatt Earp Los Angeles Resident

Phoebe and Jeremiah would stay in Kiowa Avenue until Jeremiah eventually passed away in 1932, still an invalid, suffering from pneumonia, he had also contracted TB quite possibly in the Philippines (TB can take decades to kill after an initial infection), which lead to many complications including gangrene in his left foot. The care Phoebe must have provided for him can only be imagined, and with this care he at least managed to live to the relatively old age (for the time) of 75.  Their love must have run deep, Phoebe had given up a life of wealth to live with a wounded veteran, as they say, love conquers all.

Later Years

In the same year that Jeremiah died, Abel returned from Hong Kong to England, 19th August 1932. He had amassed a good deal of money during his time at Sea and invested $8,000 (somewhere close to $500,000 in today’s value) in Stocks and Shares, only to get hit by the Wall Street crash of 1929, after this he was quoted as saying “Chinese Pirates and dope smugglers are a picnic compared to the Bulls and Bears of Wall St.”. He was left. as he put it, “…finding that my share dividends would not buy me a cup of tea daily.” so returned to England to live quietly in retirement in The Royal Alfred Home for Aged Merchant Seamen in Belvedere Kent.

His last quote was concerning the political situation in Europe with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco; his verdict was;

“If I had my way, I’d treat some of these Continental fellers like we used to treat Chinese dope smugglers – hang ’em.”

Nine years after his return on 28th February 1941 Abel died. He left £101 in his will, about £16,000 in today’s money. He is buried in St Clement’s Church, Cambridge, UK.

Phoebe outlived both of her husbands, stayed on in the apartment in Kiowa avenue as the widow of a Volunteer Serviceman, and she died on 28th February 1944. Her grave shares the same plot as her beloved Jeremiah at South Sepulveda Boulevard Los Angeles, California.

Life Comes Full Circle

And so we come full circle.  Having spoken to Alexandra Baker, Phoebe’s  Great Great Niece and exchanged some information about Phoebe, I was delighted to see that Alexandra and her cousin took the time to find Phoebe’s memorial in California to pay her respects, from a pair of modern “Amazing Baker Girls” to the original one!




(If you would like your Family tree uncovered, it costs from £300 for a full surname line, and makes for a great present, you can contact me on )

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