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Collins Family in Plumstead

Although sadly no longer alive, my Dad and his family had quite a history in the Plumstead area going back some considerable time. Being quite interested in family history, I’ve also managed over the past few years to piece together the Collins family and its association with Plumstead which I hope will be of some interest.

Let’s begin with my Great, Great Grandfather John Collins who moved from Gloucestershire around the mid 1800’s to live and work in the Plumstead area. Like many thousands of others at that time he found work at the Woolwich Arsenal as a labourer. It is not clear exactly when or why he moved from his village home in the English countryside but during the early 1850’s migration from the country to cities was still very common and around that time the Arsenal was increasing production to keep the British troops in the Russian Crimea supplied with necessary firepower. So perhaps that was the connection. Sometime following his move and at the age of 21 he married a local girl from Deptford (Ann Rood) and they settled in rooms in the Spray Buildings (presumably now Spray Street), Plumstead.

John then raised six children and continued working at the Arsenal for over 40 years. He was finally promoted to ‘Foreman Labourer’ some time prior to his retirement just before the end of the century. The family had a number of lodgers during their time in the Spray Buildings and for thirty odd years one of the lodgers was John’s bachelor brother Joseph from Gloucestershire. I had a cousin stay for a month once and by the end of it my dear wife was becoming somewhat ‘tetchy’, let’s say. So, all I can say is that G. G. Grandmother Ann must have been a saint!

My Grandfather George CollinsJohn’s eldest son John Henry Collins was known to have been working at the Arsenal as a ‘Cartridge Bag Machinist’ during the early 1900’s; he lived with his family in Abery Street. However, second son George Collins (my G. Grandfather - see photo on right) , had different ideas. In 1882 at the age of 22 George married Emma Richardson from Woolwich and by the following year he was running, (and possibly the owner of) a cheese shop on Woolwich High Street. (No Monty Python jokes please.)

Although showing promise at this stage George certainly could not have been said to have ‘made it’. James Thorne in his ‘Environs of London’ (1875) described the streets in and around the Woolwich High Street as being,
‘narrow, irregular and lined with mean brick buildings and small shabby shops’ In this area known as the ‘dusthole’ lived some of Woolwich’s poorest people—unemployed labourers, prostitutes and vagrants in boarding houses.

George must have stuck at it, as he later moved on to own shops and a restaurant in New Road just off Beresford Square. In addition there was also a shop in Plumstead, as the 1902 Kelly’s London Suburban Directory shows George Collins, Grocer and Provisions Retailer at 32b and 33 Plumstead Road, Plumstead. By this time it would appear that George’s businesses were prospering, as he moved to a large detached residence in Bexleyheath. The house was called ‘Yara’ (56 Crook Log) which was on or near Bexleyheath Broadway. It was used as an ARP centre during the Second World War and later became derelict. A supermarket was later built on the spot where it stood.

George and Emma had five children: Gertrude, Violet, Eustace, Leonard and Douglas. There was also an adopted son Walter Wiseman. Gertrude married and emigrated to New Zealand. Violet married Victor Cray, who served with distinction as a sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery and was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in France in WW1.

Eustace (my Grandfather - photo left)) went off to seek his fortune in the USA in 1907, returning in 1914 to sign up for ‘King and Country’. Leonard died in infancy and Walter was killed in action in France during the War. His name appears on the war memorial at Charlton Village. Douglas served with honour as a 2nd Lieutenant in France, where he was wounded. Demobilised in 1919, he married and I understand he later became Borough Treasurer for Woolwich Borough Council.

In his business heyday George Collins called himself the ‘Peoples Caterer’. His grandson remembered having cutlery in his kitchen stamped with the letters P.C. George was also a high-ranking member of a local Masonic Lodge.

Prior to World War One there were business troubles which resulted in the loss of the shops and restaurants and the house Yara. However, enough capital was retained to purchase a shop with living accommodation at Charlton Village where a grocery/off-licence business was established (29 The Village Charlton) . George continued to run the shop until his death in 1920. In the late 1990’s the shop was owned by ‘Davison’s Wine Merchants’ (established 1875) and still run as an off-licence.

In his later years although only 5’4” tall George had a 60” waist. He was a heavy drinker and because of his obesity, wife Emma was obliged to put on his shoes and socks each day. George died on 3rd August 1920. He was 60 years old.

At this point my grandfather (Eustace) took over the family shop in Charlton. However, sometime between 1930 and 1933 a Co-operative store opened in the village and as a result the shop, along with a number of others, ceased trading. (Who said this was a modern problem?) Eustace finally obtained employment with the Woolwich Electricity Board, first as a labourer and later as a storeman. (If it was good enough for his grandfather…)

At this stage the Collins family breaks its ties with the Plumstead area. My Dad (John Collins) was born in Charlton but joined the army at 14 as a boy soldier and served a full 22 years around the world. He never returned to the Plumstead area again to live. I was brought up as an Army kid, (and loved every minute) living in Germany and Singapore. My parents finally settled in South Wales and I now live happily married in Scotland. (Although I did live in West London for 12 happy ‘single’ years).
An additional footnote to the story:

Employed by his father George Collins until May 11th 1907 when he travelled by sea as a fare-paying passenger on the USS Philadelphia from Southampton to New York with a friend Ernie Dickman. The ship’s manifest shows Eustace as 19 years of age (he was actually 18 at the time), from Woolwich, with the occupation of ‘barman’. The destination of his journey is indicated as ‘midway B. Columbia’. He is described as 5’ 3” tall with a dark complexion, dark brown hair and eyes. He is identified as being in possession of £5 (or possibly $5). Friend Ernie (Ernest  Dickman ) is 21 years old and a soldier from Bexley Heath. Also shown as ‘midway B.C.’ but in addition, on route to ‘Friends Clark’s Ranch’. Both travellers are processed on Ellis Island New York on arrival on May 18th. An ‘over write’ on the ships manifest shows them to be ‘in transit’.
Eustace is subsequently believed to have worked as a gold miner, a fur trapper and lumberjack in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In later years he would speak to his sons of such places as Seattle, Portland and the Blue Mountains of Vancouver. As a one time Deputy Sheriff in the town of Seattle, he was shot through the left forearm while trying to apprehend a drunk who, mounted on a horse, was shooting out street lamps in the town cent

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