The Flower Girls | John Groom

In 1866, philanthropist John Groom set up a Christian mission to help the poor and often disabled girls who sold watercress and flowers to eke out a living in the streets near Farringdon. Ben Smith from Islington Local History Centre tells the story…

John Groom was an engraver born in Clerkenwell in 1845. He began preaching the gospel as a child at Sunday school and grew up to become an evangelical Christian. His works are littered with Biblical references and the certainty fostered by his deeply-held beliefs.

He saw the poverty and desperation of the streets and believed his mission was to help in “purifying the child life” of the city. In his memoirs he explained his impetus for starting a home. Groom declared that his “whole nature was stirred with the deepest sympathy of pity towards the street slum children, especially the girl-child.” Groom spoke with hundreds of flower and watercress-sellers in the streets, railways stations, music-halls and at their homes.

He came up with the idea of starting a home for disabled and impoverished women and girls, and ‘John Groom’s Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission’ was founded in 1866. It was originally on Harp Alley, near Fleet Street, but by 1875 had moved to 8 Sekforde Street. The women who entered the mission lived in accommodation on Sekforde Street and the surrounding streets, and earned their keep through selling artificial flowers which they were trained to make in the mission.

‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls Mission’ as it was called after 1907, would train hundreds of women, some of whom would eventually leave and join a flowerselling guild in conjunction with the mission, giving them some autonomy. Early endeavours to start the home involved the organisation of free breakfasts and tea evenings where all the women were served two sandwiches, much like Queen Victoria’s supposed monthly baths; whether they were needed or not.

Nearby Farringdon Watercress Market was a gathering point for poor women across London to buy their stock. Watercress was cheap and nutritious, and grew rapidly around London in places like the Fleet River and Hampstead Ponds. Groom commented on the pinched-faces of the girls he encountered at the market, the number with dwarfism, and the amount of women with disabilities. In the same period in London, the trade in cut flowers was worth over £5000 daily. The dreariness of Victorian dwellings could be enlivened by a small bundle of snowdrops, crocuses, or violets. Rich and poor alike bought them to brighten up their homes.

The working-life of the flower seller was relentless. They would leave for Covent Garden at 4am or 5am to choose their cuttings. The threat of rain or wind was always there waiting to destroy their wares. With the watercress season only lasting three months, at least flower-selling could earn you some money and avoid you having to resort to begging for a little longer. It was Groom’s idea to capitalise on the popularity of flowers and encourage girls to make artificial versions.

John Groom’s Crippleage started training poor and often disabled women and girls in the art of artificial flower making. Some of the flowers were made from silk. Articles talk of the ‘girls’ fingers’ being coated with yellow wax, and of hammering nails into cloth to make petals. The women and girls of the Crippleage sold their fake flowers at music halls in Islington and at the Angel as well as further afield. A local paper, The Clerkenwell Lamplighter, interviewed some of the girls working there in the 1890s, they “liked making flower” but, it was noted, they were far too busy to talk.

Mrs P, as the records call her, was one of the first to use the home’s services. Groom met with Mrs P living in a particularly wretched room in Plum Tree Court which she shared with her dying husband and two near-naked and malnourished children. She, like many others, sold watercress in an attempt to stay out of the workhouse, more commonly called the Bastille. On the death of her husband she entered the home.

Jenny was a young woman, with a sick brother, who worked at Groom’s. She said, “I ain’t a child, but I shan’t be a woman ’til I’m 20, but I’m past eight I am. I can’t read or write but I know how many pennies goes into a shilling.” Maybe many of the home’s residents were like Jenny, who were not naïve and were perhaps tentative about it, but did enter the Home. Groom’s letters show his personal involvement with the care of women who used the Crippleage. Amongst his correspondence to benefactors, he discusses the minutia of running the home. Even 30 years into the life of the mission he writes to one benefactor asking for money to buy Horlicks for Miss Vince, “as her gastric troubles require its curing properties”.

Groom’s letters show his interest in the conditions of the women, but also his philanthrocapitalism. His was no out-andout charity. Mrs Marlow was a ‘very old’ lady who Groom argued should receiveone shilling per week as it would incentivise ‘his’ other girls to work. He stressed that charity must not compete with what he termed legitimate trade.

London rents eventually forced the charity to move to large premises in Edgware in 1932. In the 1960s the charity opened its doors to male residents. It was not until 1969 that the charity changed its name to the less-jarring John Groom’s Association for the Disabled, and in 1990 to John Groom’s Association for Disabled People. The charity merged with the Shaftesbury Society in 2007 to form Livability, now the UK’s largest Christian disability charity. Groom’s Crippleage was unashamedly paternalistic. Most records function as hagiography to the man, with the women often left as an afterthought. His institution nonetheless serves as an example of a faltering step towards care for those who have been ill-treated, or forgotten about by wider society.