Louisa Crawley and the non-existent Henry Challenor

In 1852, Henry Walters married Rosina Challenor. Or, at least, he thought he did. Henry was a well-to-do master printer; Rosina was a slip of a girl. In the register (and on the wedding certificate) she gives her father’s name as Henry Challenor and his occupation as “Dead”. Rosina’s mother was Louisa and, in the 1851 census, she’s a widow – or she says she is. She’s calling herself Louisa Challenor and her children Rosina, Matthew and Agnes Challenor. Well, okay. Agnes was eight, so she was born after the previous, 1841, census, so Henry must have been alive then. So why doesn’t he show up in the 1841 census? And why was the birth of Rosina never registered? And why do no parish records show her baptism?

In fact, Rosina’s birth was registered, and so was her baptism, but in the name of Rosina Crawley. She was born in 1831 in Islington Workhouse and baptised in St Mary’s Parish Church in Islington. Her mother, Louisa Crawley, was 17 at the time and unmarried. Louisa said Rosina’s father was Arthur Hemp, a horse dealer from Beckenham, and the Poor Law people believed her because they made an affiliation order against Arthur under which he had to pay 2/6d per week (12½p in today’s money) for Rosina’s upkeep. In fact, he only paid it when he was sent to jail for debt.

Louisa, Rosina’s mother, went on to have two more children, though not straight away—they were spaced out and almost certainly had different fathers. Was Louisa on the game? It seems quite possible. The first child after Rosina was Matthew Crawley Challenor—or that’s what she said later he was called—but no such birth was ever registered. The final child was Agnes Challenor—but look at Agnes’s birth certificate and you’ll see that she was registered as Agness Crawley.

The name Challenor only appears three times. First, in the 1851 Census, when Louisa calls herself Louisa Challenor and claims to be a widow—but there is no sign of a wedding in the ten years before that, she was Louisa Crawley in the 1841 Census, and nor is the death of a Henry Challenor or Matthew Challenor registered. Second, when Matthew marries—on his marriage certificate he says he is the son of Matthew Challenor who is conveniently dead. And, third, when Rosina marries Henry Walters, claiming to be Rosina Challenor and, like Matthew, saying that her father is dead (although she calls him Henry and not Matthew).

Frankly, I think Henry Challenor was a figment of Louisa Crawley’s imagination. At 17, she was a single mother in the Islington Workhouse. On her death at the age of 63, she was living in comfort in Birkdale, which is really quite a posh area, with a son-in-law who employed eight people. My guess would be that the Walters family disapproved of a serial unmarried mother. Which does, of course, raise the question: How did Rosina land Henry Walters in the first place? How did they even meet?

Well, we can’t know how they met. But when they married, Henry Walters was 35 and an educated man and Rosina was a 21 year old brush maker who couldn’t write her own name—she made a mark on the register. I’d guess that Henry was a bit of a sad old bachelor, that Rosina was a looker, and that he fell for her and her mother made sure she got him. I can hear it now: ‘That’s not a half crown, trick, Rosina. That’s a meal ticket. Land it!’

It also suggests an answer to the question: Why did they leave London and move to Liverpool? My guess, once again, is that the kind of society a master printer might move in would not take kindly to Rosina and her mother, so they moved 200 miles to a city where they were not known and invented a more polite history than the one they actually had.

At any rate, when I turn it into fiction, that is almost certainly the form it’s going to take.

Read more Invisible Lives here.

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