Robert Rowen

Under Warehouseman at Bradbury and Evans

In the early hours of Thursday 24 February 1842 Police Constable Fellows from the Bow Street Station House was summoned by Warehouseman Michael Fitzhenry, of the printing firm of Bradbury and Evans. [1] Mr Fitzhenry handed into Constable Fellows’ custody a twenty-one year old by the name of Robert Rowen of 17 Holles Street, Clare Market, London upon a charge of robbery and absconding from his employment. Robert, whose father was a Printer Compositor, worked as an Under Warehouseman at Bradbury and Evans. Married for two years he was living in appallingly overcrowded slum conditions with his wife Elizabeth and their young daughter Emma Mary. [2]

At approximately 1.30am Michael Fitzhenry arrived at their house; Robert was preparing for bed. Mr Fitzhenry entered the building and confronted Robert over the robbery. Panicked by the sight of his manager, a struggle ensued between the two men. Eventually Michael Fitzhenry gained the upper hand, and protesting, struggling and no doubt extremely fearful, Robert was taken with considerable difficulty to the Bow Street Station House. A terrified Elizabeth and his mother Mary Ann followed. We have no indication of what it was that Robert was accused of stealing from Bradbury and Evans, but if found guilty of the crime after trial it is likely that he would have been sentenced to several months’ hard labour in prison. This punishment was extremely harsh and was meant to act as a deterrent. It could have taken the form of walking a treadmill for hours at a time; repeatedly moving heavy cannon balls from one pile to another over a set distance; stone breaking; turning a crank handle thousands and thousands of times a day; or oakum picking, which involved separating out strands of tarry rope so that the individual fibres could be reused. This was an extremely painful task and caused the prisoners’ hands to bleed heavily. As he was taken to the Station House, so many different emotions must have been racing through his mind; fear of imprisonment and losing his job which was the only source of income for his family; and probably shame, his father was a printer who I speculate worked at Bradbury and Evans, his wife, mother and fellow housemates had witnessed his arrest, and his co-workers would all know of his crime.

As Robert was being led down the passage way into the Station House something was seen to fall from his hands. Mr Fitzhenry bent down and picked it up, and discovered to his absolute horror that it was a razor covered with blood. A desperate Robert, panicking, terrified of what was to come and seeing no way out, had cut his own throat. He was carried into the Station House, in a "dying condition". Mr Charles James Snitch, Surgeon to the F Division of the Police, had premises on Catherine Street about a two minute walk away from the Station House. He was sent for immediately and hurried to attend. He did what he could, sewing up Robert’s wound, and then ordered that Robert be taken to the recently expanded Charing Cross Hospital in Agar Street. Robert was taken the short distance to the hospital, accompanied by his wife and mother, who were absolutely distraught and described as being "in the greatest distress of mind". No-one expected Robert to survive.

Robert and Elizabeth had spent their married life living in poverty around the slums of Clare Market district just off the Strand in London. They had lived in and around Clements Lane, at one time in a house which had an incredible forty-one people resident. The lane was surrounded by both human burial grounds and animal slaughterhouses; the sights and smells must have been completely overwhelming. Their house overlooked the infamous Enon Baptist Chapel, which is now the site of the London School of Economics. The chapel had been built by a Mr Howse as a speculative business opportunity, he became both the Minister and Landlord. He charged such low fees for burials that not only members of his congregation but most of the poor in the area used the Baptist Chapel to bury their dead. It opened in 1822, and measured just fifty-nine feet by twenty-nine feet. It was divided into two parts; the upper part was used for worship, and separated only by a thin boarded wooden floor, the vault underneath was used for burials. It had been calculated that the maximum number of burials that could take place in a space of that size was one-thousand two-hundred; however, over a sixteen year period between ten-thousand and twelve-thousand burials actually took place there. The stench was reported as being intolerable; people would frequently faint during services and would be covered with black insects which the locals knew as ‘body bugs’. In order to make room for this many burials, Mr Howse had coffins removed, broken up and burnt; bodies were thought to have been dumped in the sewer that ran underneath the Chapel, sold for dissection and also covered with quicklime in order to aid decomposition. A Report from the Select Committee on the Health of Towns printed in June 1842 heard the testimony of Mr Samuel Pitt, a cabinet maker of 14 Catherine Street, who attended the Chapel for about six years. He stated that the smell was:

"most abominable and very injurious; I have frequently gone home myself with a severe headache".

Following the death of Mr Howse around 1842 no more burials took place, however no action was taken regarding the thousands of bodies underneath the Chapel. Bizarrely, the Chapel’s new owners turned it into a venue for entertainment. A brick floor was laid over the thin wooden floor, a new wooden floor was placed on top, and the Chapel unbelievably re-opened as a "low dancing-saloon". A macabre advertising handbill read: Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead. Admission 3d. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings. Eventually, after several years, a surgeon from nearby Drury Lane named George Walker, bought the Chapel. He spent one-hundred pounds of his own money having the bodies removed and reburied in a grave in West Norwood Cemetery.

Surrounded daily by the most appalling assault on the senses, and living cheek-by-jowl with other families in cramped, unsanitary conditions it is not difficult to imagine why Robert Rowen turned to crime. Although no-one had expected him to survive his ordeal, somewhat miraculously, he did. He also remained in the printing industry, being described variously as a ‘Messenger’, ‘Printers’ Labourer’ and ‘Printer’. Over the course of their twenty-six year marriage Robert and Elizabeth raised at least nine children together, and lived their entire life around the densely populated Clare Market district. As it transpires Robert did have a relatively short life, dying at the age of forty-six in 1866. Following Robert’s premature death, Elizabeth was left alone to raise at least three children under the age of ten. She managed to find work as a Charwoman, cleaning houses. [3] Interestingly several of hers and Robert’s children followed their father and grandfather into the printing industry. Elizabeth remained to the end of her days in the grinding poverty of the Clare Market area, sharing a house with thirty-two other people, before dying in 1891 at the age of seventy. [4]


  1. ^ Morning Post 24 February 1842
  2. ^ 1841 England Census Class: HO107; Piece: 731; Book: 7; Civil Parish: St Clement Danes; County: Middlesex; Enumeration District: 11a; Folio: 11; Page: 14; Line: 1; GSU roll: 438833
  3. ^ 1881 England Census Class: RG11; Piece: 335; Folio: 95; Page: 11; GSU roll: 1341073
  4. ^ England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915 Elizabeth Rowen Registration Year: 1891 Registration Quarter: Jan-Feb-Mar Age at Death: 70 Registration district: Holborn