Jon the Con

Jon the Con

Having told my Great Aunt I wish to write our family memoirs, a bulky envelope from her sits heavily in my hands containing dozens of birth, marriage & death certificates. Are all these my ancestors?

Jean Hedges, TheGenealogist Subscriber

Jean Hedges

TheGenealogist Subscriber

The bulky envelope sits heavily in my hands. It just arrived in today’s mail from my Great Aunt Marion , my mother’s cousin. I had written to her, telling her of my wish to write our family memoirs. I rip open the packet. Inside are birth, marriage and death certificates dozens of them- the numbers of people here surprise me. Are all these my ancestors?

Plopping down onto the couch in dazed excitement, I flick through the papers. Yes, there is my grandmother Margaret Halladay and there are her brothers and sisters. There too is the surname Arney. I had expected that, but so many people puzzle me, what a lot of people for only two families.

Some years ago, my mother had whispered to me in conspiratorial tones of a “skeleton in the family closet”. My great grandfather, John George Arney, had two families. One family was with Alice and her children and they all called themselves Arney. The other family was with my great grandmother Margaret Halladay and her children. Even John George Arney called himself Halladay when he was with this family.

My mother had leant forward and hissed the story into my ear, but I was not shocked. Many people nowadays have two or three families. I thought my grandmother, his daughter, was being unreasonable when she would not talk about him. She just sniffed in disgust and said nothing, which only bent to intrigue me even more.

When my mother died, it seemed my only hope of ever learning the whole story about the Arney/Halladay families died too. But that wasn’t so. Instead, she wrote scraps of information down in her diary, leaving it for me to discover after her death.

These snippets, along with some more from Great Aunt Marion, and the skills I have developed from fifteen years of genealogical research, helped me to piece the whole story together.

He was a true Cockney, one who is born within the sound of Bow Bells. The ones in the nursery rhyme, told to children through generations, mimicking the rhythm of the bells of London.

Oranges and lemons.
Say the bells of St Clements.
I owe you five farthings.
Say the bells of St Martins.
When will you pay me
Say the bells of Old Bailey

And so it goes on, ending with:
I do not know,
Say the great bells of Bow.

A third generation cockney, Great Grandfather John George Arney was the only child of John Arney, wire drawer, who was in turn, a child of John Arney, wire drawer.

Three generations of John Arney, three generations of wire drawers, they forced brass ingots through a number of smaller and smaller holes to make wire. J Souter, in his 1818 “Book of English Trades and Library of Useful Arts”, describes wire drawing as “…a good business being a trade that is not exposed to the weather and by which the workman may earn from one Guinea to double that sum in a week”.

A family needed a Guinea just to buy rent and food, let alone clothes, bedding and such like. With such respectable employment, John and his family were most likely of the comfortable poor, but poor nevertheless. The 1861 census shows them crammed into a small tenement house with another family.

Great Grandfather John George grew up in the East End suburbs of Holborn, Finsbury and Islington, in the streets of “Dickensian” London, a dark, dingy, smelly, smoggy place where Fagin and the Artful Dodger plied their trade. Peter Ackroyd, the well-known novelist and London born historian, observes it is an area where more poor crammed than any other… [and] out of the congregation of poverty, sprang reports of evil and immorality, of savagery and unnamed vice” Who knows what characters Great Grandfather John George met and what effect it had on his life?

John George’s father died in 1867 aged thirty seven and from then on, his mother toiled as a dressmaker, trying to provide for her three children. She likely had to work twelve hours a day for twelve shillings a week. I mull over why John George, aged fifteen, was not working, but perhaps he joined the other children in the area picking up dung from the streets and selling it for a penny, or perhaps collecting “sparrow starving” bits of oat and chaff spilt from horses’ nosebags to sell to people who owned chickens or ducks.

Did she know when she met him when she was just fifteen that she was ‘the other woman’?

More likely though, he had already begun his career, the one that my mother and grandmother never talked about. It was too shameful. In her diary, my mother describes John George Arney as a wheeler and a dealer, and more often as a bookie.

His father may also have been a bookie. He had an alias. When he married John George’s mother, he wrote his name as “John Smith otherwise Arney”. Did John George learn to read, write and calculate odds at his father’s side as a child? Was John George a runner for his father, as his children were for him later on? My grandmother, his daughter, ran bets for him until she found out what it was she was doing and refused to oblige anymore.

After the Betting Act of 1853, it was illegal for any unlicensed person to take bets, but despite this, about two hundred men still ran books. An anonymous author wrote in a London Publication of c1889, “Professional betting-men who make books for a living are by no means anxious to be pestered with the small accounts of city young men; but there are plenty of individuals who combine bookmaking with their other businesses, and are always prepared to bet in small amounts…. Private bookmakers may be seen in barbers’ shops and at railway bookstalls; there are several bakers and milkmen in Islington who make much more money by bookmaking than by pursuing their legitimate trades”.

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I picture him as a Victorian Del Boy…

John Arney lived only a couple of blocks from Islington. I wonder if he actually did any wire drawing. Was he a full time bookie or did he just take bets as a side occupation?

I lay out all the certificates from my Great Aunt Marion across the lounge floor in chronological order. John George’s birth certificate of 1853 lies by the ranch slider and the others stretch out of the lounge into the open plan dining room. There are three families represented by the certificates three families, I had only heard of two. Three families lying side by side.

I was astonished to learn he had married at age eighteen and seven months later a daughter, Martha, was born. He left this family though, and must have ceased to have contact with them because, when Martha married in 1891 she listed her father as deceased he definitely was not dead!

I stand at 1931, the year John George Arney really did die, and look back in time across my floor. So many lives lay out in front of me. So many affected and one cause; my great grandfather, John George Arney.

He intrigues me, mixing, as he must have, with the criminal classes. I think of my life. My partner used to play in a punk rock band and fans were of the under-class, petty thieves and ruffians, prostitutes and drug dealers, just the sort of people who seem to have inhabited John’s neighbourhood.

An illegal bookie would fit right into the punk scene. I reveled in the thrill of it all, as I surveyed this world so different from my own middle-class upbringing. I didn’t want to be too involved, just on the edge watching enough to know and understand these people, an anthropologist observing a different culture.

I feel the same as I investigate John George Arney. He too, was on the edge of society, living in a difficult environment. I am curious about him. He had no choice as I did; he had to live and survive in this environment. What was he thinking? How did he feel?

I crawl across the years to 1885 when my great grandmother, Margaret Halladay, first met the dashing and charismatic, John George Arney. Did she know when she met him when she was just fifteen that she was “the other woman”?

That he had married when he was eighteen and he and his wife had a child called Martha?

That he was already living with Alice Arney and they had four children? Or did he keep all this a secret for the moment?

He was thirty two, although he told her he was only twenty five and a brush maker. He managed to keep those lies alive on official documents for at least the next twenty years. When did you learn the truth Margaret? You had turned sixteen when your first child, little Annie, was born and, unusually, John George Arney used your name of Halladay.

Perhaps, like his father, he liked the alias; it helped with his profession.

However, he didn’t leave that Alice Arney woman did he Margaret? Even after he met you, and your little Annie was born, he had four more children with Alice Arney, while you continued to have children almost every year. You lived only a few blocks apart and he went back and forth between the two of you. He must have been really charismatic and charming to persuade you both to share your beds with him.

I can see why you liked him, Margaret. Great Aunt Marion wrote that he was a real ladies man dashing and fun and even if the suits were old and ill fitting, he always took great care of his appearance and was ever the debonair gentleman. The party didn’t begin until he walked into the room.

I picture him as a Victorian Del Boy, the character in the TV program, “Only Fools and Horses.” A likeable rogue with an eye ever open for a bargain and no questions asked where it came from. He probably used his extensive contacts from his bookmaking to on-sell and make a quick quid.

By the time of the 1891 census, there were eleven children born between your two families. Alice Arney had six children and you had five, but two of your babies died young; Annie, the eldest, at age seven of diphtheria, the other of unknown causes.

Your second eldest, my grandmother Margaret Halladay, was born when Jack the Ripper terrified the area only a few blocks away. Over the next eleven years, you had six more children. The family joked that if the two had not died in infancy they would have had a cricket team.

Oh yes, Margaret, you were desperately poor, living in small houses, crowded many to a room, wearing hand me down clothes. I imagine John turning up on the doorstep, perhaps after visiting the Arney family, with a parcel of clothes tucked under his arm. The children clamoring around him, squabbling over the best clothes but not the shoes for they never fitted properly.

My grandmother told me that in those days, adults assigned shoes to the child in most need, regardless of size. Her toes curled under her feet and her big toe bent inwards so that they looked like the bound feet of an old Chinese Lady. She could not stand or walk without special orthopedic shoes. “It’s because I had to wear hand-me-down shoes when I was little,” she told me, “and Alice and Gertrude Arney had smaller feet than me. My shoes were always agony.”

My mother, John George’s granddaughter, remembers happy Christmases with the Halladay family.

“The Halladay’s were of Irish extraction and would burst into song at the drop of a hat. George (John’s son) and his wife… could always be relied upon for piano and violin, and the rest of the Halladay’s would sing-along in close harmony. We had dancing, the Lancers, the Dashing White Sergeant, and always finished up with Knees-up Mother Brown with a genuine Cockney step dance with fluttering skirts and thumbs stuck in waistcoat armholes. The men drank beer but never to excess and the ladies had port and lemon.”

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Despite the large families, it seems John George provided plenty of food for the table. John George and Margaret always found a Christmas tree, and the family decorated it with tinsel. They had fruit and nuts to eat, and stockings were stuffed with an orange, nuts and a shiny new penny, but just like Ted Harrison’s “East End Memories”, never a toy.

Sometimes someone in the street got a toy and the whole neighborhood went round to play with it. Still, you could buy a toy with the penny.

In the end, consecutive censuses show John George Arney had twenty children, twenty one if you include Martha, the daughter from his only legal marriage.

He had nine surviving to adulthood from Alice Arney, although I do not know if any of the Arney children died in infancy, there is no evidence either way. Margaret Halladay gave birth to eleven children but two died in infancy.

The fact that so many lived to adult hood is a credit to John George, Alice and Margaret, as in the East End fifty five percent of children died before they were five.

At least four of his sons were lost in the Great War. When John Gamgee Arney (the eldest Arney son) died, the military required the family to fill out a number of forms, among which they asked to list full blood relatives and half blood relatives. Whoever filled out the form on Alice Arney’s behalf (for she could not read or write) gave the names of his Arney brothers and sisters but had written “None” in the half blood section.

As I touch the old yellowed, half-burnt paper and see the word “None” written in that section, I wonder if she was talking to an official who was filling out the form or whether it was a family member. Charles Arney and two of the Halladay boys also died but their records were lost with many others when First World War records were bombed in the Second World War blitz.

We do not know what, if anything, the Halladay’s wrote in the “half blood” field of the same form. From the half-burnt state of John Gamgee Arney’s forms, it seems we are lucky that they survived.

There is a photo of John George as an older gentleman. His still-thick hair has turned white and his goatee is immaculately trimmed. He looks every bit the true gentleman. Look closer though, and you see the jacket is old and crumpled and the collar does not sit properly.

This is not the rich gentleman he first appears; he has lost the good looks of the ladies man of his youth. He has put on weight, his jowls droop over his collar, and just one button is done up at the top of his suit.

The photographer has smudged the bottom half of the picture to disguise his portly frame and the fact that he cannot do up the rest of his jacket buttons.

My mother describes John George Arney as a wheeler and a dealer, and more often as a bookie.

My mother used to tell the story of how John George promised his daughter Daisy Halladay, a pair of sapphire earrings after his death. I do not know where they came from, but I guess John George had inherited them from Alice Arney after she died in 1925, age sixty four. He may have originally given them to her as a gift, or perhaps she inherited them from her mother.

John George, unlike his father, lived to a ripe old age of seventy eight, eventually taken by a heart attack in 1931. Daisy and the rest of the Halladay’s searched for the earrings but could not find them. A little while later, they turned up in the ears of Alice Winifred Arney, the eldest Arney daughter. Daisy was very upset.

Shortly afterwards, Daisy’s daughter, Freda, asked her mother, “How come grandma wasn’t with grandpa when he died?”

“Because he was with his real family,” she snapped. Indeed, Alice Winifred Arney sat with him at his death and notified the authorities. Presumably, she found the earrings first.


  • Ackroyd, Peter, 2003 “Illustrated London” Chatto & Windus, Random House London SW1V 2SA, Page 198
  • [Anon.], [c1889] Victorian London-Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism –Tempted London : Young men, – Chapter 8 – Betting
  • Booth Poverty Map
  • Butler Marion (Nee Halladay), Letter May 2000, Granddaughter of John Arney
  • British Registration Certificates (Birth Marriage and Death Certificates)
  • Census UK 1861, 1871,1881,1891,1901.
  • Harrison Ted 1989 ‘Kids on the corner” In “Echoes from the east End” ed. Venetia Murray, (Viking London. 1989)
  • Hedges Margaret, Granddaughter of John George Arney, Diary 1980 – 1982
  • Ladbrokes PLC, Our History 1800 – 1899
  • London, Jack “People of the Abyss” reproduced in “Echoes from the east End” ed. Venetia Murray, (Viking London. 1989)
  • Sherwell Arthur 1897 “Life in West London: A Study and a Contrast” Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism -, Part 2 – Industrial. Quoted in Dictionary of Victorian London Family Budgets
  • Souter, J 1818 “The book of English trades and Library of Useful arts“

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