Our journey begins with a 14 year old Irish boy, the son of a River Thames boatman, living in the Ratcliff Highway - an area of London's East End described as “a byword not only for poverty and misery, but for the coarse, the brutal, and the vicious”. Hard times are constant, poverty is just a part of how life was and the work house is never far away (sadly the Union Workhouse in Poplar was the final place for Tommy's own father).
At the age of 14, Tommy joins the colonial army run by the East India Company and whilst serving learns and takes up the tailoring trade. During his life in the services, he travels with the regiment to many places. The census from 1851 shows that two of Tommy's young sons, Flowime aged 12 and Charlie aged 9 are already working - as tailors.
At 9 years old young Charlie McCarthy is a tailor, working alongside his older brother Flowime, with his dad on the garrison or barracks. Below is an extract from the 1851 census showing Charles' profession as a tailor - at the tender age of 9, along with his father and brother.
By the time Charlie is 14 in 1854, he is old enough to join the proper army. Charlie is attested and enrolled as a tailor in the 7th Company Royal Fusiliers, following an earlier stint with the Lancashire Militia.
From 1854 to 1878 Charlie travels as part of Queen Victoria's British Army of the Empire from Canada to the Mediterranean to Poona, in the East Indies. Judging by his service records there are a few ups and downs along the way, but he is nonetheless a tailor of quality, cutting his patterns from newspapers of the day.
At 37 years old and now a Corporal, Charlie McCarthy, his wife Annie-Maria, son John and daughters Catherine, Emily and Mary all return from India and move to Peckham's Queen Road where Annie-Maria's sister lives. Family legend has it that it is from the premises of a pub over the river in Blackfriars Street that Charlie takes his first tailoring commissions, measuring his customers up in the saloon bar!
Victorian business proves very good for Charlie, and together with Flowime who joins him within a few years, they build up his business with three London stores in Cheapside, Gresham Street and Ludgate Hill, where the whole family are engaged in both tailoring and hat making.
Charlie suddenly passes away from pneumonia in 1888. His death certificate states occupation “tailor and army”. He is just 47 years old and leaves his family behind to face a very uncertain Victorian London future.
By 1883 Charlie's youngest child, John McCarthy, is learning the family trade at six years old, alongside his sisters Catherine, Emily and Mary.
Since their dad's death Catherine and John are working together folding card and making hat boxes. Their widowed mother is a skirt hand now and the two other sisters are employed as a domestic and as a bottle washer. Together they all live with other relatives, sharing just two rooms.
All are poor and distressed, for Charlie leaves no money and is pursued beyond his death by his creditors. Sadly they are in great financial debt, which throughout Victorian time caused poverty of unimaginable hardship (debt alone would often lead to the splitting up of a family and then the poor house). Thankfully the tailoring and clothing skills Charlie taught them sees the children through their troubles, and the family manages to stay together, despite the 2 shillings and six pence being paid to settle creditors (about 12 pence in today's money!).
John and Catherine's late Victorian London childhood is a frightening and sinister one, with tales of Jack the Ripper at large in London. But as the century comes to an end, the family are starting to see success and have also returned to Peckham!
Catherine McCarthy is now living again in the Queens Road, Peckham, and is working on machining and sewing with her brother John who is “on cutting”, along with support from other family members. Between them they start to develop a good name as hatters.
Business takes a turn for the worse after the First World War and to make ends meet Catherine starts to call on all the neighbouring housewives for a ‘hap-ney', as in her spare time she runs a bookmaking ring. During the post-war depression some people work for nothing to maintain the dignity of having a job. Catherine and her son (my grandfather, Frankie) are no different.
Together Frankie “and the boys and Nora” go on to continue a fine tradition of tailoring, in their workrooms off Southampton Way. Frankie always told us to “Dress a little bit above your station in life, then people will think more of you” - a true tailor's motto!
Hardship is followed by war, and terrible tragedies are endured by many, including Frankie. While in the RAF he is told of his wife's death, in the late summer of 1940.
Frankie's son Paul is the honorary Chairman of the firm. Throughout the 1950s he and a seamstress, Helen, worked on the styles of the day, designing and supplying cloths and fabrics cut to order, made to the highest standards with patterns for people to make up at home.
The Peckham Rye tradition continues right up to today and beyond, as we continue to provide bespoke clothing and finely tailored accessories to customers around the world.