This excerpt comes from the first chapter where I pick up the story of John Myhill Johns following the death of his father and closure of the printing workshop. It focuses on what became of his mother, Sarah: widowed, disappointed and down on her luck.

Extract                                                                                                                                                                             After the winding up of the family business Sarah Johns may have tried printing on her own account. If so it came to nothing and she drops out of sight for a while before turning up again in 1871 as the wife of Arthur Bradley.

There are a number of things to say about this. First, that Sarah found love, or at least companionship, seems only right after the losses she had suffered. But who was Bradley? Uncommented upon in the memoir his background has to be pieced together from census returns. Born in east London, at the age of four he was living with his brothers and sisters, no parents in sight. In 1851 he had followed his eldest brother into the household of Ann Ryle, sister and heiress to Jemmy Catnach, king of the ballad printers of Seven Dials. Initially a servant he must have learned the ropes because when Sarah teamed up with him he was a printer or pressman by trade. He was also significantly younger than her. The difference in age is disguised in the censuses and on their wedding certificate, on all of which different versions are given; but the best guess is around twenty years. Quite a catch, in other words, which raises intriguing possibilities. Did he ever work for her first husband, James Johns? Did their affection come to light before James died?

Secondly, they were living in Church Street, Southwark – the first address connected with the family that lies south of the river, beginning a process that tilted our centre of gravity. But for Sarah these were reduced circumstances. They shared their dwelling with 14 others, a comedown from Chalk Farm and the house of her own.

Finally, in claiming to be married Arthur and Sarah were lying. They did become man and wife, but not until four years later. Whatever the reason for this pretence, respectability had gone the same way as the business and the family home. Sarah, having come so close to joining the middle class, was obliged to adopt the expedient morals of the poor.

The memoir’s silence on these events is striking, as if its author was scandalised by the new ménage. John Myhill’s surviving brother had fewer scruples. In fact Richard was visiting the couple when the census taker called. This may be no surprise given his easy-going nature, although cavaliers can be roundheads where their parents are concerned. Perhaps he had an ulterior motive. Looking for the Bradleys in the next two censuses I find them at further addresses in Southwark and both times Richard is listed as a member of the household.

What is to be made of this? The teenage reprobate, on-the-make soldier and double-quick divorcee had put his wild oats and dreams behind him and knuckled down to life as a printer. But something remained of the feckless beta male reduced by lack of gumption or funds to sponging off his mother. I can picture the scene. Each year he resolves to find a place of his own and each year grows more comfortable where he is. Sarah is either disappointed on his behalf or glad to have him around, the balance of dependence shifting. But Arthur’s mind on the subject can easily be guessed. Not that he and Sarah were sweethearts whose style might be cramped, but he surely resented having a rival for her attention and another man’s boots round his hearth.