Found with his Trousers Down: The Death of John Coward (1822-1897)
Newspaper articles from the past, give a researcher details that no other primary source can. Recently, I was thrilled to discover a report in an old copy of the Islington Gazette, on the inquest of my great-great grandfather, the notorious John Coward alias John Mackveney (1822-1897). His early life was originaly shrouded in mystery, but gradually, after months of research, I have managed to piece his life together.
A brief bio of John Mackveney/Coward
John Mackveney was baptised at St. Luke’s, Chelsea on 24th November 1822, he was the son of Sarah Mackveney (formerly Coward) and James Mackveney a groom of Leader Street, Chelsea. At the age of 11, Mackveney was apprenticed to Henry Bromley to learn the trade of shoe and boot making. He lived with Bromley for two years in Ironmongers Row, Old Street in Islington, before they moved to Baltic Street, St. Luke’s in 1835, where he stayed till he was 21 years old.
In 1843 Mackveney finished his apprenticeship and two years later married Mary Ann Bromley at St Philip’s Church, Bethnal Green. Two children followed, Sarah Ann was baptised in January 1846 and John was registered in 1849.
But, in November 1851, Mackveney’s 25 year old wife Mary Ann died, and the following winter Henry Bronley claimed to the local authorities that Mackveney had deserted his children. It is unclear what happened to them afterwards. Although thirty years later Sarah Ann Mackveney, daughter of ‘John Mackveney a bootmaker’ married William Gunn in Tring, Hertfordshire.
When Mackveney re-appears he is using his mothers maiden name – he is now John Coward. I found him living with his second ‘wife’ Hannah Coward (formerly Taylor), but it seems he never married her. Their first three children were John Henry Coward, born on August 15th 1857. His twin sisters Catherine Elizabeth Coward and Hannah Louise Coward were born two years later.
The freezing cold winter of December 1860 brought utter desolation to those poor three children. Their parents, John and Hannah Coward, were charged with felony and remanded for one week. I have been unable to discover the crime, but the three children were taken directly from the police court to Islington Workhouse.
After returning back to their home in Sycamore Street in St Luke’s, all three children eventually perished. An inquest over the death of their daughter Hannah, described the conditions they were living in as ‘wretched.’
The 1861 Census, taken on the 7th April of that year, shows John and Hannah still living at 3 Sycamore Street, Islington. But, also living in that delapidated tenement, were the boot and shoemaker, Henry Bromley and his family.
Birth of Walter Coward
John and Hannah eventually managed to move away from their squalid home in St Luke’s. On 13th December 1861, Hannah Coward gave birth to my great-grandfather Walter Coward, at 25 Luke Street, Shoreditch. In later years, he would use the name ‘McVeney Coward,’ which gave rise to the question of where this name had come from. His character and reputation would later earn him the name, ‘the iron man of Islington,’ from his friends.
Five more children followed, Henry Coward in 1867, James in 1869, Hannah in 1872, John in 1875 and Joseph in 1880. It would be their son John who discovered his fathers dead body on 4th November 1897:
THE ISLINGTON GAZETTE
10th November 1897
The second inquest was respecting the death of John Coward, aged 74 years, lately living at 69 Rupert -road, Highbury. John Coward, a son stated his father, who was a bootmaker, had been for the last five years in failing health. On Wednesday last, however, he said that he felt much better than usual. He went to bed after having his supper, and the following morning [the] witness, who slept in the same room, found him lying at the foot of the bed partially dressed. On examination, [the] witness found that he was quite dead. Dr. Charles Rowe, of 149, Tufnell-park-road, stated that on Thursday he was called to see the deceased, and found him dead. He has since made a post-mortem examination of the body, and found that the deceased had died from syncope whilst suffering from fatty degeneration of the heart. Deceased no doubt was in the act of pulling on his trousers when he suddenly fainted and died. The jury returned a verdict of “Death from natural causes.”
John Coward was buried at Islington Cemetery on the 10th November 1897, his grave reference is z16616.
My research into this line of my family has been on-going for over a year, and I will publish a report of more discoveries soon. In the meantime, you can read a more detailed account of John Mackveney Coward’s life here.