The Mystery of John Mackveney

The Mystery of John Mackveney.

John Coward’s dead body was discovered at 69 Rupert Road, Islington on November 4th 1897, and an inquest was held four days later. He was 74 years old. But, as his family and friends gathered around his grave at Islington Cemetery on the 10th,  I wonder how much they knew of  my maternal great great grandfather’s shadowy past?

Last summer I visited Sycamore Street in London, where three of John Coward’s children perished during the harsh winter of 1860-1.  The thought of those three children slowly dying in wretched conditions, left me with a huge sense of despair. At the time I didn’t think my great-great-grandfather’s story could get more perplexing. How wrong I was!

My first investigations into the life of John Coward (1822-1897) began over a year ago. It was the most difficult research I have ever undertaken, with ‘brick walls’ at every turn. But when I did finally begin to piece his life together, I was completely shocked by what I discovered. My findings opened my eyes to their life in St Luke’s ‘Rookery’ in Victorian London. Many questions remained, but I went ahead and published the information onto my family history blog.


John Coward appears as the father on the birth certificate of my maternal great grandfather, Walter Coward (1861-1936). John is living in the same building with his son, Walter, on the various census returns of 1871,1881, and 1891. On these, the surname Coward is continuously used. But mysteriously, on my great grandfathers marriage certificate, he gave his full name as Walter McVeney Coward and his father’s name as John McVeney. Where did this name McVeney come from?

Walter McVeney Coward’s marriage in 1883, Bethnal Green 1c 372

John Coward was a shoemaker and his ‘wife’ was Hannah Coward née Taylor. But even though I searched, using both the Coward and McVeney surname, I had no success finding their marriage. John and Hannah first appear together on the 1861 Census, living at 3 Sycamore Street, St Lukes, Finsbury. As I searched backwards from this date through the records, I realised that Walter was not their first child.

I discovered they had a son, Henry Joseph Coward, born on 18th August 1857 and twin daughters, Catherine Elizabeth and Hannah Louise Coward, born on October 1st 1859. Just over a year later, the lives of this Coward family were thrown into turmoil when, on Thursday 13th October1860, Henry and his sisters were taken by the police to the Liverpool Road Workhouse in Islington.

Entry of the Coward children into Islington Workhouse

The admissions page of the Islington Workhouse (Liverpool Road Workhouse Register 1659-1930) reveals that John Coward and his wife Hannah, residents of 22 Catherine Street, had been charged with felony and remanded for one week. Their three children had been taken directly from the police court to the workhouse. The records of Islington Workhouse show that, on Thursday 20th December 1860, Henry, ‘Elizabeth’ and Hannah were ‘given up to their parents on discharge from prison’. But unfortunately the lives of these three children would not improve.

Three Deaths

Six days after the children’s discharge from Islington Workhouse, 14-month-old Hannah died in terrible circumstances. Her death certificate (St. Lukes 1b 487) shows that she died on 26th December 1860, at 3 Sycamore Street, Saint Luke. She had been found dead of exhaustion from diarrhoea. The certificate also shows that an inquest had been held into Hannah’s death by John Humphreys, the Coroner for Middlesex, on 31st December 1860. Various newspapers of the time printed a report of the inquest. Below is a transcription from The Wells Journal of January 5th 1861. Under the heading ‘Deaths From The Severity Of The Weather’ :

On Monday evening [31st December 1860] Mr Humphreys, the coroner, went into an inquiry concerning the death of Hannah Coward, an infant child, who was found in wretched condition at a low and disreputable house in Sycamore-street, St. Luke’s. The police deposed that the mother had been taken into custody on a charge of felony, but was discharged by the magistrate, and when the police went to the house they found the children in a most deplorable condition. The constables kindly took them to the workhouse, and every assistance was rendered by the authorities, but the deceased died on Friday. The police said that another child was dying from the same cause, and when the deceased was found she had a “teat” made of a small bag of plums, which had been placed in her mouth. -Dr. Love said the deceased had died from neglect, starvation and cold; and the other child could not live.-The coroner, by the special request of the jury, severely reprimanded the conduct of the mother and father, when they returned a verdict of “Death from want of the necessaries of life and exposure to the weather, through the wilful neglect of the parents”. 


The coroner’s inquest describes the Coward family as living in a ‘low and disreputable house’ and the conditions as ‘wretched.’ This area, south of Old Street, was known as St Luke’s Rookery – an area of criminality from where thieves targeted the better-off parts of the city. St Luke’s was a maze of courtyards, alleyways and narrow streets notorious for prostitution and ‘flash houses’ – drinking dens.

The inquest had described the condition of the children as ‘deplorable’ and that ‘another child was dying.’ On the 2nd January 1861, John and Hannah Coward had their two surviving children baptised. Written in the margin of the parish record of St Thomas Charterhouse is ‘Private Baptism’. Due to the children being too ill to attend the church for a public baptism, it seems the ceremony was performed at their home in 3 Sycamore Street.

Two days after her baptism, on the 4th January, Catherine Elizabeth (registered as Elizabeth on the death certificate) died. Her death certificate gives her age as 15 months and the cause of her death as ‘diarrhoea 2 weeks, bronchitis 8 days certified’. 

Four days after his sister, on the 10th January, Henry Joseph Coward died. He was three years old. The cause of death is described as ‘rachitis from birth’, the scientific term for what is commonly known as rickets.

Unfortunately the records for why John and Hannah had been charged with felony do not survive. But, when the Census was taken on Sunday April 7th 1861, John and Hannah Coward had lost three children at 3 Sycamore Street.

London Poor Law & Police Court

Several months after I had published my findings, I was contacted by Laura Etteridge. She was researching a John McVeney (b.c.1823) from Shoreditch and had also hit many ‘walls’. She wondered if there could be some connection between her John McVeney and my John Coward. Laura sent me a page downloaded from the London Selected Poor Law Removal and Settlement Records dated Wednesday 22nd December 1852. It describes how John McVeney now a widower, had left his son and daughter with a Henry Bromley, aged 49, of Thomas Street, Curtain Road. The children had been left there after McVeney went out to hire a room and had not returned.

London Selected Poor Law Removal and Settlement Records

In his statement, Henry Bromley described how McVeney had been brought to him, aged about 12, by the Parish Officer of Twickenham to learn the trade of a shoemaker. John stayed with him until he was 21 years old. Bromley goes on to claim he had seen McVeney’s wife, Elizabeth, during her lifetime and had heard that the couple were married in Friar’s Mount Church.

Lisa also sent me a page from The Police Court in Worship Street, Shoreditch. This showed that on 1st July 1853, John MacVeney, ‘labourer’, of 5 Thomas Court, Thomas Street, Curtain Road had ‘wilfully and unlawfully run away’ and left his two children namely John aged about 5 and Sarah Ann about 7. They were now chargeable to the Parish of St Leonard, and John MacVeney may be punished as an ‘idle and disorderly person’.

 Back on the trail

Could this John MacVeney also be John Coward? How could I prove it? I decided to search by using many variations of the surname McVeney/Mackveney and gradually a new paper trail opened up for me. Firstly, I discovered the marriage on 3rd November 1845 of John Mackveney, a shoemaker aged 22, to a Mary Ann Bromley 19, both from Hope Town (Bethnal Green 2. 38). Was she related to Henry Bromley, the shoemaker who John served his apprenticeship with? 

The births of  Sarah Ann Mackveney in March 1847 and their son John in 1849 soon followed. And the 1851 Census showed the family living in 45 Nelson Street, Bethnal Green.

1851 Census HO 107/1542 showing the Mackveney family

John’s occupation was a Cordwainer (shoemaker). His birthplace was Chelsea. Next is Mary Ann, aged 24, a Boot Binder. Their two children follow – Sarah Ann aged four, and one year old John.

Eight months later, Mary Ann Mackveney died (Bethnal Green 2.50) and, shortly afterwards, John left his two children with Henry Bromley who consequently reported the missing father. But did the two men plan the whole thing? It is a remarkable coincidence that Henry Bromley and John’s wife share the same surname. Bromley’s statement to the authorities is also very vague in parts. Surely if he had known John from about the age of twelve he would have know the correct name of John’s wife (he names her Elizabeth) and where they were married? 

The narrow alleys around  Sycamore Street


It was now the middle of December, and as I looked out at the carpet of snow covering my garden, I thought about that winter 158 years ago and the poor starving children of John Coward. I had two  spare days to get to the bottom of all this! So I began methodically trawling the archives.

John Coward always gave his birthplace as Chelsea and I soon discovered the baptism of a John Mackveney, son of Owen and Sarah in St Luke’s, Chelsea, Middlesex. Unfortunately, the father was an Owen Mackveney, which conflicted with John Mackveney’s marriage certificate to Mary Ann where he gives his fathers name as James. But, undeterred I searched for a marriage of an Owen or James Meckveney to a Sarah. It took a while, but my patience and determination was rewarded when I discovered the 1817 banns of ‘Jas. Owen Macavine and  Sarah Coward’ in Teddington!


Marriage of James Owen Macavene to Sarah Coward, Teddington, April 21 1817

I was amazed.Two conundrums solved with one document! The marriage entry for the 21st April 1817 does not give any more information, other than the fact that they both left their mark as they couldn’t write. Which perhaps goes some way in explaining the many variations in the surname. When Sarah remarried in August 1837 after James’ death, she had learnt to sign her name as Mackveney. But the vicar on the certificate wrote her surname as McVeney!


Sarah’s autograph in 1837





So it seems that when John Mackveney was wanted by the police for deserting his two children in December 1852, he took on the surname of his mother. This might also explain why he never married Hannah Taylor as his ‘real’ surname was Mackveney  not Coward.

1881 Census

James Mackveney married Sarah Coward in Teddington. And it was just a few miles away, in Twickenham that their son, John Mackveney, became an apprentice shoemaker to Henry Bromley in about 1833. Remarkably, Henry Bromley, a shoe maker, can be seen living with his family on one of the floors in the tenement at 3 Sycamore Street on the1861 Census with John and Hannah Coward. Coincidence?

Henry Bromley and John Coward on the 1861 Census RG9/247

But what happened to John’s first two children? Unfortunately, all I can find is the entry in the 1861 census of a John McPheny aged 11 in St. Marylebone Parochial School, and his sister Sarah Ann Mackveney married William Gunn on 28th March, 1881in Tring, Hertfordshire. Her father is named as John Macveney on the wedding certificate.

Descendant chart for John Mackveney

So, after being snowed in for two days, I not only managed to solve a family mystery, but also revealed the true identity of my great-great-grandfather. Of course many questions remain and lessons have been learned. But, this all came about because of publishing my initial findings on my family history blog and the kind response of Laura, who I would like to thank. She is a descendant of William Gunn and Sarah Ann Mackveney, so I can now tell her that we are distantly related! Oh, and I can also tell my mum and all the family in England and around the world that ‘Coward’ is not their correct surname.

The church banns of James Owen Maccavine and Sarah Coward


  1. What a great bit of detective work, well done.

  2. So exciting and a great read! Well done!

  3. Edward Sheringham

    Tony has done a fantastic job here. There’s no doubt this has taken a lot of patience and hard slog to uncover these details. Well done .
    Ed Sheringham

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