Mary-Ann Newling was born in East Hanningfield in Essex, a village six miles to the southeast of Chelmsford to Robert and Eliza Barton. She was the youngest of three children and had two brothers, William and John. Her father was an agricultural labourer working on various farms around the village. Due to a reduction in work and wages, her father decided to try his luck in London, and the family moved to Wapping when Mary-Ann was three years old. Robert found work in the London Docks, and Eliza worked as a matchbox maker and when there was work, the family could live. Unfortunately, three years later Robert was killed when a bale of wool fell on him from a broken crane. This marked a decline in the family’s fortunes, and Eliza was forced into prostitution to support her family. Things got worse when the cholera hit the East End in 1832. Eliza and brother Billy died, leaving Mary-Ann and her brother John orphaned.
John started mudlarking, and Mary-Ann turned to flower-selling to scrape a living for themselves. They moved into lodgings with two families, and the siblings were beaten and abused by the fathers of the household. When they could take it no longer, they took to the streets, where they were found ragged and half-starved by some parish visitors who took them to the St. Georges in the East workhouse where the children were separated. Mary-Ann was taught to read and write a little, and learned to sew, first from her mother and later in the workhouse, where the children were given some training for a trade. When she was 14 she was sent by the workhouse guardians into service with a small tradesman in Hackney. She was unhappy, as she was heavily overworked as the sole servant, and was again abused by the master of the house. After suffering for a year, she ran away, stealing some clothes and silver plate which she pawned. She was not caught, but found herself back in the rookeries of St. Georges. She took up street selling again, but supplemented her income by prostitution.
She became a regular of the taverns and gin palaces along the Ratcliff Highway, where she solicited for trade, the area being a popular haunt of sailors on shore-leave. It was here that she developed a taste for, and a dependency on, gin and would often start the day with a penn’orth. It was at this time when she met Thomas Newling, and the couple started courting. Thomas was an apprentice tailor (and occasional pugilist). However when his master found out that he was courting, and that he had got Mary Ann pregnant, he was thrown out for breaking his apprenticeship indentures. He made Mary-Ann promise that she would come off the game, and the couple moved into a common lodging house at Star Street, just off the Commercial Road. Shortly afterward while watching the fireworks at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Thomas proposed and the couple entered into a common-law marriage.
Mary-Ann took up her basket again, and Thomas got casual labouring work at the docks. Soon after, the couple’s first child, Molly, was born. Tragically, she died the next year of pneumonia. By now, Thomas had had enough of the low pay and uncertainty of casual dock labouring and decided to try and use some of the skills that he had learnt during his abortive apprenticeship. He eventually found work with the Jewish slop-tailors of Whitechapel. As Mary-Ann was a competent needlewoman herself, she soon started to help, and soon took up tailoring work full-time as well. The couple were, and continue to be, out-workers, picking up cut fabric for making trousers and waistcoats from the workshops and completing the work at their lodgings before delivering it back. Due to increased competition in the tailoring trade, as many Irish migrant workers arrived in London fleeing the potato famine in their homeland, and the economic slump arising out of the end of the Railway Mania, they saw their not considerable income reduced. By 1851, they were able to earn around 18s. per week between the two of them (equivalent to about £52,95 in 2004 values)43, but this was before deductions for trimmings, coal and candles, which reduced the earnings considerably.
Between 1843 and 1847 a further three children followed, and the family moved to a room in a court off Walburgh Street. Their oldest son, George, was by now contributing some pennies to the family budget by working as a crossing sweeper near the Bank. There is generally enough money coming in to keep the family afloat (just) but they often have to resort to the pawnbroker. The children are now attending Sunday School at Christ Church off Watney Street, where Mary-Ann hopes they will learn their letters and numbers. Thomas and Mary-Ann are still engaged in slop-work, but they are both addicted to drink and the children are somewhat neglected.