Timothy Spall’s Christmas Family Tree

Timothy_Spall_Cannes_2014Timothy Spall

Is one of my favourite actors, and his performance in Mr Turner is a real tour de force.  Many people know him for his part of Barry the Brummie in “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, but his roots on the Spall side of his family are in South London since Victorian Times, and Suffolk before that.

Tim’s Grandmother

However the Part of his Family Tree we are interested in for a Christmas Story is Tim’s Grandmother Margaret, the reason for this?  Her name was Margaret Christmas!

Margaret married Tim’s Grandfather Thomas James William Spall on 27th September 1914, shortly after he had enlisted as a Driver in the Army Service Corps in WW1, he was a young widower of 24 the son of a Horse Keeper, and she was the daughter of a General Dealer, generally a catch all term for someone who bought and sold goods, probably from a barrow rather than a shop or even door to door, and this gives a glimpse of the interesting history of the Christmas Family.

The Christmas Family Origins


The Christmas Family were Middlesex Cockneys, the first of the line I could find was Thomas Christmas born around 1795, and working as a chimney sweep in East London at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when he married Sarah Clark, a local girl in St Leonard’s Church Shoreditch on 25th May 1817.  They lived in one of the most notorious areas of London of the 19th century, the rookery of slums around Old Nicholl Street, or just “The Old Nicholl” as it was known.  At this stage of the 1810s and 1820s the area had not gone into final decline, and was all a-clatter with the rattle of silk looms from generations of skilled Huguenot Silk Weaver’s descendants, the grand parents still speaking French, with the remnants of exiled French Loyalists fleeing the revolution living amongst them, but with the children firmly cockney outside of the their homes.  But the area was changing, the small terraces were having their gardens built over by speculative developers throwing up jerry built slums, and the locals were adding timber outhouses in the yards to cram in more relations, the big houses were being split into lodgings, and the lodgers were renting out their rooms and cellars to multiple overnight sleepers, many to a bed, or huddled on floors for the cheapest rents, the ladder of exploitation was long and in the words of the poem:

Big Fleas have little Fleas,

On their backs to bite ’em,

Little Fleas have smaller Fleas,

And so on,

Add Infinitum!

Cockney Gypsies


This crowding was swelled in the Winter months with semi-rural “Gypsies” British Romani Families, too poor to own their own permanent covered wagons amongst the big seasonal Romani encampments on the Hackney Marshes, they could earn money in London labouring and sleep under a roof rather than in a tent on open ground in the frost and rain.  Many of the men made a living as Labourers, Sweeps, Tinkers (Tinsmiths and sellers), and street Hawkers and Pedlars, which is interesting as we find Thomas Cristmas working as a sweep, Labourer, and Tinplate Maker and Brazier, whether or not genetically a member of a Romani tribe, the Christmases were culturally closely tied to them, commercially and with some family relations.

But Thomas’s family were not wide travellers, they were east End Cockneys, and when times got bad they couldn’t just take to the road when worked dried up,  and this is what happened to them in the late 1820s; Thomas, Sarah and their children were forced into the workhouse, and indeed two sons, Joseph and William were born there.  Thomas had little luck after that, and he died in his 50s, most likely in the workhouse.


Sarah had no choice but to split the family up, Thomas the eldest boy was carrying on his Father’s Tinker trade, and although not yet married was living with a local girl, Elizabeth Davies and their daughter,  called very appropriately for this season, Mary Ann Christmas.   His younger brothers, John, Joseph, and William, go off to live in White’s Alley with a sweep and his family, living 8 to a couple of small rooms, and working as sweeps, the youngest at 10, the next at 13, and the eldest at 17.


A bad start and tough times went through the generations, Sarah lived with her older son John the Chimney Sweep and his wife for a while, he at least seems to have moved with the times, as by 1851 he was a mechanical sweep rather than just a sweep with a brush, but after this his family and his mother drop out of the records, a bad sign for a working class family.  His younger brother Joseph disappears altogether after 1841, however the youngest son William survives, working as a Tinman through to the 1870s, before reverting to Chimney Sweeping again from the 1880s onwards when he moves out of the slums of Shoreditch to the relatively more salubrious area of Leyton in Essex, with his wife Isabella, both of whom survive into their 70s.

Extended Death in the Workhousetinker2

Timothy Spall’s line is however descended from the eldest surviving son, Thomas, who carries on living in the dreadful Shoreditch Spitalfields area,  working as a Tinsmith and occasional street dealer, raising 7 children in the slums, the youngest of whom died at 2 years old, but whose surviving sons carried on the Tinker trade in the area, the second of whom Joseph Henry, was Timothy Spall’s Great Great Grandfather.


Times were still very hard, and after living in various dark cramped and unsanitary courts, his first wife Elizabeth died at about 50 years of age,  he remarried to Sarah Cordes (possibly originally of Sephardic Jewish extraction, given her surname) a girl 12 years his junior in 1859.  Thomas falls out of the records in the 1860s, either because he was living in areas where census takers feared to tread (some courts and alleys were never fully recorded for the fear of life and limb faced by the census officials) or because he and his wife were sleeping rough or not properly recorded in the Workhouse registers.  However he does turn up again in Bethnal Green Workhouse in 1891 where he will stay for the next 18 years until his death in 1909.  Altogether a pretty grim tale for Christmas so far.

Big Cloud – Silver (Tin) Lining


But Thomas’s son Joseph Henry Christmas had a rare and unexpected stroke of luck in the late 1870s, which must have looked like a catastrophe to him when it first happened.  The local corporation decided to do something about the dreadful slums of Spitalfields, to widen the local roads, and subsequently built a new church, unfortunately the first change made 800 local Cockneys homeless, and the second made another 500 homeless, 1300 Cockneys turned out into the streets, meant one of four things; you could sleep rough, you could cram your family into the already overcrowded surrounding areas, you could go to the workhouse to die slowly rather than dieing quickly on the streets, or leave the area altogether if you had the right connections and the chance to earn the right living.  Joseph’s Dad, Thomas, chose the workhouse and stayed there until he died, his uncle William went to leafy Leyton, but Joseph managed to get contact with some related country members of the more itinerant arm of the Christmas Family, possibly through the better educated branches of the family in Shoreditch who had found religion in Methodism, and had children who were educated enough to find white collar work in the Post Office, Railway, and by the Gas Works in that foreign land south of the River of Battersea.

There are a smattering of educated Christmases in the Wandsworth area at the time, those whose parents originated in Westminster and Shoreditch, alongside our Christmas family, as well as a number of Christmases who had drifted up to Wandsworth Common from Hampshire, as part of the South of the Thames Romanies camped in Wandsworth the same way that their cousins from North of the River camped in Hackney.  And like the northern branch, the less Wagon tied families would move further into town to work in the Gas companies and railways, who were crying out for labour, so work was guaranteed, and in the Gas works in particular, the “worst work” was at least inside, and in many cases in warm if not hot conditions, which the Transpontine (South of the Bridge/River) Cockney/Gypsies thrived on, compared to the man killing cold of living and working in the open.  Sure enough the Christmases from Hampshire are working in the gas works in Wandsworth, when over comes Joseph Henry in 1881 when he, his wife Cora, and their six children are kicked out of the slums to make way for the Road and Church (The Lord moves in mysterious ways indeed?).

Tinker Christmas Kingdom by the Riverbatterseabridge1

This is the start of the take over of a small set of streets in between the gasworks, railway depots, and the Thames by the Tinker Christmases.  Once Joseph Henry and Cora were settled they never moved further than between one of three Roads in the area, Ponton Rd, Belfour St, and Everett St.  This little enclave off Nine Elms Lane, within spitting distance of the Thames wharfs, the Railway goods yards, and the local markets and houses around the gasworks, would be their stomping ground for generations, right through the two World Wars and beyond into modern times.

They brought in cousins from Shoreditch and Spitalfields, with the men working as Tinmen, Rag and Bone men, as well as second-hand clothes dealers, and later as travelling Cutlers, all fanning out into Southwest London and the surrounding areas, giving them stability and a place to call home.  Some of the younger Cockney Gypsy men would drive the Dray Horses for the Wagons of the Breweries  (Young’s beer from Wandsworth being famous in London) and the women would go to work in the breweries and carbonated drinks factories that grew up in Wandsworth,  washing bottles, sticking labels to bottles, bottling beer, and packing bottles, and  some would hawk goods for sale on the streets under the guidance of the core Family of Joseph Henry and Cora Christmas.

“It fell orf the back of a ‘orse ‘n cart Officer”


The connections with the Romanies  on Wandsworth Common and perhaps back over in Hackney, meant that a swift trade could be had in goods in and out town, and no doubt in and out of the Thames Wharfs, Railway Depots, and Postal returns offices, where goods would sometimes fall off the backs of boats and carts, to be “liberated” by the local Cockneys (some of my own ancestors worked on the railways in Nine Elms, so I can talk with some experience here).

This grey trade had nothing to do with being Cockneys or Gypsies, but everything to do with the poor not wanting to die in the workhouse or on a cold pavement, and putting family before a system that poured scorn on them and their efforts to keep body and soul together.  But it can be argued that having suffered, being hardened working class Cockneys, and with the Romani connections, just made them better at it than most people.  And good luck to them.

To capture the spirit of the culture, there was a well known sugary sentimental poem recited in middleclass homes at Christmas about the workhouse, when they would spare a thought for the fallen poor, this ditty was taken up and amended in much abbreviated form by Cockneys to show their defiance as:

“It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse,

The Snow was falling fast,

We don’t want your Christmas Pud,

You can stick it up yer Arse!”

A much better sentiment, as I’m sure you’ll agree, summing up the working class Cockney attitude towards accepting begrudged charity, rather than making ends meet by their courage and wits.

Joseph Henry’s eldest boy, another Joseph Henry, born in 1873 in Westminster, carried on his forefather’s trades; a travelling Cutler like his Father, graduating to a Rag Merchant.  Joseph Henry eventually becomes a General Dealer as his younger brothers learned the trade of Cutlers and Rag and Bone Men, helping their father on his travels, and Joseph Henry on the home streets of Battersea and Wandsworth.

The Ragman’s Daughter

Into this heady mix of Working Class entrepreneurs would come the Spall family, all the way from Suffolk, by way of Peckham and Camberwell, through the Transpontine Cockney filter of South East London, to land in Battersea, where Timothy Spall’s Grandfather Thomas James William Spall, a Brewers Labourer and Carman (horse and  cart driver) would meet Margaret Christmas, the Rag and Bone Man’s daughter working in the Bottling Factory.  They would marry before he went to war as a driver in the Army Service Corps in 1914.

And as befits a Christmas story, despite some ups and downs (one son died in WW2 in Italy) the family lived as happily ever after as a working class Cockney Family could, Thomas through to 1960 and Margaret to 1972.

There are still some Christmases in London, but few of them know their Cockney Gypsy roots, or their connections to a great British actor, Timothy Spall.

“Mary” Christmas to all my readers!

If you’d like your Family Tree traced and Family Story published as  professionally printed narrative then contact:


…for details.

The Foreman Family History Part 3

Herbert Arthur Foreman 1870-1934


Emma Watson 1873-1960

Thomas’s death must have had a profound affect on the family, he had struck out on his own after leaving the Navy and started a new life for his family in South London.  But at the age of 63 he was gone. There were cousins north of the river in the east end, but it was the South London in Battersea and Clapham area that the Family grew, and learned to be self sufficient.  They had to be, Thomas and Emily had had seven children on a Blacksmith’s wage, and Herbert and and Emma would have thirteen children on a labourer’s wage.  Times were going to be tough.

Herbert grew up at a time of massive change in Battersea, at the turn of the 1800s the population of Battersea had been a few thousand labourers, market gardeners, and some Gentry, by the time Herbert was born it had risen to about a hundred thousand, the gentry had gone, selling the leases of their land and mansions to speculators and railway men, the railways proliferated, small scale industry followed, and tens of thousands of houses were needed for the workers, rows of small estate houses were thrown up quickly and rented out to the working classes, by the time herbert was a teenager all the market gardens and virtually all the gentry’s houses were were gone, bricks and mortar, iron railways, and cobbled streets had taken over.

Herbert Arthur worked as a Carman, driving carts, a common trade all over London, the equivalent of a van driver today.  He and his family moved frequently, mostly in Battersea, but lived for a while in the early 1890s at Canal Bank in Peckham, literally alongside the Surrey Canal, an interesting, almost rural part of Peckham with a slower pace about it reflected in the leisurely comings and goings of the red sailed Thames barges and long canal boats that plied the quiet back water.  It does make you wonder if Herbert ever told stories to his wife Emma that he had been told by his father and grandfather of the Thames barges and smugglers of the family’s life on Faversham Creek, dodging the revenue men.  Nostalgia aside, Herbert slaved in the local surrey docks and wharfs as a Sawyer in the Deal (Timber) yards.   The family only stayed in Peckham for a year or two, long enough for their first child Ethel Annie to be born, and soon moved back to the family home turf in Battersea, where Herbert gave up the backbreaking sawyer job, and went back to being a Carman.  the family would spend the rest of their days in Battersea.

Between 1894 and 1913 the couple would have a further twelve children in Battersea, which must have been a massive struggle, especially as Herbert worked between 1895 and 1914 as a Labourer, often for a Bricklayer.  This again is hard work, all day in the open lugging bricks and mortar up and down ladders all day, building big hard muscles, and an ability to take care of himself, albeit he must have been dirty and exhausted at every working day.

The family’s poverty was reflected in their constant moves in the streets of Battersea, between lodging houses in the years between 1894 and 1915 no less than ten times that we know of, barely living in the same house for a year at a time.  Battersea became a Metropoltan Borough in 1900, with money and decision making being devolved to the local Council who were quick to start making improvements to the area, building an electricity generating station and updating some of the street lighting from gas to electricity.  They also built a public baths for the many working people in the older houses who had no bathrooms or hot water, and of course well maintained council houses were built.  These improvements would continue during the next decades, a testament to what can be done when decisions and budgets are taken away from central government and devolved to locally accountable decision makers.

Whereas the First World War brought tragedy to many families, for Herbert and his burgeoning brood it was a time of opportunity.  Herbert himself was slightly too old to be conscripted, and fortunately his first four children were all girls, meaning that his sons were just too young to be called up.  Couple this with the fact that most able bodied Labourers were now being blown to bits in France and Flanders, and Herbert, for once in his life would gain some good fortune.

Good fortune is a relative term, he was now working as a Labourer in the Gas Works, a better job than he had had before, but still a tough one, stoking furnaces with coal, and emptying them of of the residue left after the coal gas had been driven off for lighting and heating the homes and Industry of Battersea.  At least he was now working indoors, and would never be cold at work, quite the reverse.  He was also working in an environment composed to a large extent of older men and young able bodied women, who, for the first time were being given roles in what had been male dominated industry.  What Herbert made of this we don’t know.

This new stability is reflected in the family settling at 22 Sheepcote Lane Battersea, where they would stay for decades, living with the active socialism of the various Trades Union men and women living in the same Lane.  The Lane itself was parallel to the omnipresent railway line, and the family would’ve heard the trains rattling by night and day.

For the rest of Herbert’s life from 1919 till 1934, and for at least another generation after this, the family lived on in Sheepcote Lane, a rare degree of stability.  Emma would outlive Herbert by many years dieing in 1960.

The Foreman Family History Part 2

Thomas Foreman 1838-1901
Emily Louisa Miller 1848-1922
Soon after the family moved back down to Faversham, Thomas aged about 21 decided that his prospects would be better served in The Royal Navy than working on dry land in Faversham.  In 1861 we find him sleeping overnight as part of the skeleton watch crew onboard HMS Plover on the Medway River.   On the night of the 1861 census, Thomas now a Stoker 2nd Class, was onboard with Fred Smith another Stoker, the Assistant Engineer, the ship’s boy, and an able seaman who had brought his wife and four sons onboard for the night (a common occurrence in home waters with local families nearby).
Being a Stoker 2nd Class onboard this small gunship, was about as low a rank as you could get, but guaranteed a quick recruitment for those physically fit enough to live up to the job as the Navy had a tremendous need for Stokers now that steam was taking over from sail.  Thomas having trained as a Blacksmith, would have been brawny, and used to hard work in hot environments, a perfect qualification for a life below decks stoking the ship’s boilers, probably the least glamourous job on the ship.
The Plover was  one of the hybrid transitional ships in Navy service at this time rigged with both sails and a steam engine powering twin screw propellers.  It looks as if a life in the Navy suited Thomas for a while, but not for long, as in 1866 he is back on land in Lambeth, South London working again at his old trade of a Blacksmith.
In his late twenties he obviously decided that it was time to settle down, and on 4th November 1866 in St Mary Lambeth, he married Emily Miller, seven years his junior, and technically a minor at the time being barely 18, who married with the permission of her father a local Carpenter.
The marriage was a fruitful one with seven children born between 1867 and 1888, although there is a gap of seven years between 1882 and 1887 when no children are born to the couple, perhaps they had children that died too young to reach the 1891 census, or perhaps there were other reasons for the gap, a separation or an illness?  The children we do know about are Thomas Joseph born 1867, Herbert Arthur 1870, Louisa Emily1873, Ernest Alfred 1875, Edward James 1879, Lillian Emma 1881, and Nelly 1888.

During the 1870s and 1880s he worked as a smith on coach works, an job that guaranteed work at this time in a city awash with private coaches and carriages for hire, the taxis of their day.  Also during this time the family moved from Kennington in South London to Battersea, also in South London, and Battersea would be the home of the Foremans for generations to come.  During this time they saw the old wooden Battersea Bridge come down and the new Iron Bridge go up.  A major undertaking and a sign of the times.
They lived in Acre Street and Sussex Srteet near the Railway.  Small two story houses had been put up by speculators especially from the 1870s onwards who followed the Railway, building over the old Market Gardens that had produced Pumpkins and asparagus for the gentry in the city,  replacing them with workers keeping the railways and factories running.  In 1889 we find Thomas working as a Fitter, which was a logical move for a blacksmith, from horse drawn coach repairs to repairs for steam powered trains and machines in this industrious area of South London.  A skilled job which would have produced a comfortable living if Thomas was careful with his money.  It is most likely that Thomas used his smithing skills on the railways, given the fact that he lived right in between The London Chatham & Dover Railworks, and The London and South Western Railworks in Battersea, with several rail lines clattering alongside the streets he lived in.  Things looked good for the family until Thomas, at the age of 63 in 1901 died leaving his wife to look after the two youngest girls, supported and helped by their older siblings who were at work.
After Thomas’s death, Emily and some of the family stayed in the area when Sussex Street changed to Wadhurst Road, having taken the house over from her son Herbert Arthur who had lived there in 1894.  It lead directly into the Railworks.
Eldest son Thomas Joseph had found work as a Fishmonger, a good trade that guaranteed food on the table, at least fish that is, and was living in Clapham with his family.  Living till 1940 in the Wandsworth area.
Herbert Arthur was less fortunate and worked as a Bricklayer’s Labourer, an unskilled job that meant long days outside in all weathers, carry bricks and mortar in a hod up and down ladders all day. He and his family moved frequently, mostly in Battersea, but lived for a while in the early 1890s at Canal Bank in Peckham, literally alongside the Surrey Canal.  They only stayed in Peckham for a couple of years, long enough for their first two children Ethel and Annie to be born, and soon moved back to the family home turf in Battersea, and initially into what would become the family’s HQ in the area for some years’ 82 Wadhurst Road.
Ernest Alfred took a similar line to Herbert as a labourer, married Florence Holloway in 1901 and moved away from the area to Croydon, where he stayed for the rest of his life, dieing there in 1944.
Edward James worked as a Brewer’s Labourer, a slightly better job than his two labouring brothers as much of the work was inside, and he would get a beer ration along with his wage.  He had married in 1900 to Helen watson and they stayed in Battersea living at 82 Wadhurst Road with other members of the family.
The roads the family  lived in in Battersea were working class, but not slums, the further you moved from Lambeth towards Clapham, the better the area generally became, many slums had been pulled down to make way for new estates of small terraced houses in the 1870s and 1880s.  So the family managed to keep it’s head above water at the turn of the 1900s, despite the shock of Thomas’s death, mainly by mutual support, grouping together in and around Wadhurst Road; there was safety in numbers.  Supporting each other Herbert, Ernest, their Mum Emily, and the younger girls, plus the boys wives, and some of the grandchildren made sure the rent was always paid, the kids went to school, and any trouble could be sorted out quickly.  The elder brother Thomas wasn’t that far away in Clapham, just a tram trip away, and Ernest in Croydon could always get back on the train if needed.
%d bloggers like this: