Hazel Gaynor, author of a new novel A Memory of Violets, writes a guest blog for Livability speaking about how her recent novel was inspired by Livability’s predecessor John Groom.
The idea for A Memory of Violets was first planted in 1988, when I was seventeen years old and played the role of Eliza Doolittle in the school production of My Fair Lady. There was something about Eliza’s character and about London in 1912 that really struck a chord with me. Many years later, I started to write notes for a novel set around London’s flower sellers, and began to research street life in the early 1900s in the hope of discovering the real Eliza Doolittles. I was astonished to learn just how many young children and women were selling flowers and watercress, many of whom were orphaned, blind or physically disabled.
Early in my research, I read a fascinating account of John Groom, a Christian preacher who wanted to find a way to help the flower sellers who sold bunches of flowers and watercress on the streets near his Clerkenwell home. From the humble beginnings of a ‘Club Room’ in Harp Alley in 1866, Groom established the Watercress and Flower Girls Mission (commonly known as the ‘crippleage’) and went on to house the young women in a street in Clerkenwell, North West London, also establishing an orphanage in Clacton for the youngest children.
With a dozen occupants in each home, under the care of a Housemother, these women and young girls lived and worked together making artificial flowers in a nearby factory. It took them off the streets, gave them employment that wasn’t dependent on the seasons or the weather, and improved their quality of life immeasurably. The artificial flowers produced were mostly sold to the wealthy to decorate their homes, but the work of the ‘Flower Girls’ was eventually noticed by the Dowager Queen, Alexandra of Denmark (widow of King Edward VII).
In June 1912, Queen Alexandra was to commemorate fifty years since she had first arrived in England from her native Denmark and rather than the usual processional drive through London, she wanted to use the occasion to raise funds for the city’s hospitals. Aware of the work of the girls at Groom’s ‘crippleage’ she commissioned them to make thousands of artificial pink roses for buttonholes which would be sold all over London.
The event on 26th June, 1912, was a huge success, supported by a thousand titled ladies who took to the streets to sell the roses. As The Times reported of the event, ‘the most noticeable sight was the enormous number of men who wore [a rose]. In the City and West End, at any rate, nearly every second men had at least one bloom and often had two or three in one buttonhole.’ In total, over £30,000 was raised for charity (several million pounds in today’s equivalent). This was the very first ‘flag’ day of its kind, known as Queen Alexandra Rose Day, and the capital had never seen anything like it.
From its inauguration, Alexandra Rose Day became an annual event in London and was greatly supported for one hundred years. Groom’s flower girls also went on to make some of the first poppies for the Royal British Legion after the Great War.
I was amazed to learn that John Grooms’ work continues today through Livability. When I first read about Groom’s ‘Flower Girls’, I knew immediately that I wanted to base my novel around their story and it is wonderful to think that in writing A Memory of Violets I have brought a little-known part of London’s history to light.