Born in County Wexford, Ireland, Saloop Jo was the eldest daughter of a desperate stone mason. Driven by hunger and poverty, her father brought his family over to Liverpool on one the “coffin ships” in the 1840’s. By the time they arrived many of her siblings had succumbed to disease and starvation.
Raised as Catholics in a Protestant country, they were already seen as outsiders but they were also seen as being largely responsible for their own hardship rather than any material misfortune that may have befallen them. Despite this, her father found it relatively easy to find work by taking on gruelling, low-paid hard labour around the docks and the waterfront. Their strange accents were met with amusement and derision so Jo quickly learnt to disguise hers in the hope it would make her more employable, although she could still be heard to slip up occasionally.
Locals were unwilling to employ Irish women as domestic servants so Jo had to join her fellow country women in street selling or hawking. Working from barrows, hand carts or baskets, they sold flowers, fruit, heather brushes, matches or other small items that were cheap to buy and easy to transport around the streets.
Jo met and married her husband, bearing him several children. It was not a happy marriage. Her husband used to earn a good wage but drank his way through it. When under the influence of drink he used to beat her and whilst she bore all of his unkindness, he deceived her in the worst possible manner by leaving her for another woman.
Deserted, with only one surviving child, a boy called George, she sold what meagre belongings she had to find food and lodgings. Forced out on to the streets, she left Liverpool to go to London, begging and stealing along the way, going from workhouse to workhouse.
Upon arriving in London Jo found shelter in a Refuge for the Homeless for a few nights and it was their good fortune that her son was offered a place at the nearest Ragged School. With him off her skirts she was able to go begging and made enough coin to get a few oranges and matches to sell.
Over a decade later and Jo has found herself in the Rookeries of East London. The boy has been recruited into the Ragged School Society Shoe Black Brigade and with some of the money he brings home Jo has been able to find them new lodgings and buy other goods to sell, including ginger beer. Jo is keen to set up her own refreshment stall selling chicory coffee or ‘Saloop’ and other refreshments on the corner of a busy thoroughfare near the market. For this she needs to raise enough money for a spring barrow, a table or trestle to make a stall, a coffee can, charcoal burner and mugs. Though what little money she has left, she tends to spend on gin.