An Irish ‘cook’ tries her luck (and fails to impress)

Ellen Riley (or Lucy Collins as she sometimes called herself) was an accomplished liar. She had once ‘escaped’ from a Chelmsford convent  taking with her some of the house’s property. She swore she was owed nine month’s wages and had stolen nothing.

In June 1865 she turned up at the house of a Mr Pereira in Finsbury Circus asking for work. She sought a position as a ‘plain cook’. The merchant asked to see her references and she promised to obtain some and return.


Finsbury Circus in 1872

A reference was an important document for a servant in the 1800s, it was very unlikely anyone would employ you without one. So it seems puzzling (to me at least) that Ellen didn’t have them with her when she knocked at the Pereira’s house. The next day she tried Mrs Pereira and again said she could produce a character dating back for the last five years. Mrs P asked her to do so and sent her away.

A few days later she was back, this time saying that a local priest, the Rev. Pycke, had agreed to write a certificate for her. This she brought to Mr P a day alter but he soon saw that it was a fake and had her arrested.

The name of the certificate was Mrs Kesiah Swan who denied all knowledge of Ellen Riley (or Lucy Collins for that matter). Now another clergyman appeared in court to state that he knew of her but had not authorized anyone to write her a reference.

The Rev. Leo Fucke had helped her after she had told him she had recently left a  convent in the area and was looking for a position. Unfortunately the position he found her (with a Father Donovan) she abused by absconding with a pair of boots!

Ellen  complained that she couldn’t find or keep any work because the ‘influence of the nuns and priests was always brought to bear against her’. The Alderman who sat as the magistrate at Guildhall was unimpressed. She had, he told, committed an offence (forging a character) that allowed him to fine her £20. He showed some mercy by offering her the chance to pay a fine of £5 or go to prison for one calendar month. I doubt Ellen had the £5 so suspect she ended up inside.

There are several convents in and around Finsbury Park today and the convent of the Tyburn Martyrs near Hyde Park. Did any of these offer temporary shelter to Ellen Riley who had come to the capital like so many Irish migrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. She may have started life in Essex (hence the Chelmsford link) or perhaps had traveled there for work. The Irish were amongst the poorest and least appreciated of London’s immigrants, something I explore in more detail in my study of the late nineteenth-century capital.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 18, 1865]

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