Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Purkess Family of Dean Street

1 [1848] ‘Dora Livingstone the Adultress; or, the Quaker City,’ by American author George Lippard.
“We cannot get out of the fact that the paper is sensational, but still, barring the sensational illustrations, there is nothing in the paper to which objection can reasonably be taken. And as to the illustrations, why the Illustrated London News and the Graphic now publish portraits of criminals and scenes of criminality, which they did not formerly do. If such a policy is not bad for them, it cannot be bad for me.” — George Purkess, Jun.

by Robert J. Kirkpatrick
THE NAME Purkess was associated with cheap and sensational periodical literature for a large part of the 19th century – George Purkess senior published around 20 penny-part serials between 1831 and his death in 1859, and his son George Purkess junior carried on the tradition, in the process becoming particularly well-known for his Illustrated Police News. Surprisingly, however, beyond details of some of their publications, very little has been written about the family, and the name of Purkess rarely appears in any of the studies on Victorian periodicals and in the biographies and memoirs of their contemporaries. 

It is now possible to tease out details using online census and other records (a harder task than might be imagined, given frequent transcription errors and, more importantly, the frequent use of the variant spelling of “Purkiss”), and as a result a surprisingly complex picture emerges.

2 [1848] ‘Tyburn Tree; or, the Mysteries of the Past,’ by J. Dicks, Esq. (James Lindridge), illustration by W.H. Thwaites.
George Purkess senior was born on 29 September 1801 in Westminster, London, the son of John and Mary Purkess. He had at least two brothers and one sister – John, born in 1800; Stephen, born in December 1804, died January 1809;  and Elizabeth, born in September 1807. He married Ann Elizabeth Atkinson in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on 15 June 1824. They went on to have at least seven children:  Mary Ann Purkess (born 29 December 1824, died January 1858), Eliza Atkinson Purkess (19 December 1826), Elizabeth Atkinson Purkess (1 February 1830), George James Purkess (10 February 1832), William Robert Purkess (6 August 1833), John Haven Purkess (born in 1836, died 1838), and Henry Purkess (5 July 1838).

The baptism records for these children show that between 1824 and 1830 George Purkess senior was a stationer living in Westmoreland Street, Marylebone; from 1830 onwards he was shown as a bookseller in Dean Street, Soho.

At around this time he also had premises at 61 Wardour Street, Soho. In September 1829, in partnership with William Strange and George Cowie, he launched the Monthly Theatrical Review, although this only lasted for four numbers, and in March 1831, in partnership with George Berger (who was operating out of Holywell Street) he launched The Satchel:  A Repository of Wit, Whimsies and What-not, which ran for just nine issues.

In October 1832, again in partnership with William Strange and George Cowie, plus five other publishers, he launched the Girls’ and Boys’ Penny Magazine, which ran until July 1833.

Another partnership, this time with a group of publishers including George Berger, William Strange and George Vickers, saw the Meteor, launched in May 1845 and which ran for just 3 numbers.

3 [1849] ‘Purkess’s Illustrated Works, Always in Print. In Penny Numbers.’
Between 1832 and 1860 he operated out of Old Compton Street, Soho, and then moved to 286 Strand. In the 1840s he began issuing penny bloods, including The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann (1845), Tyburn Tree, or The Mysteries of the Past (1848), The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1849), The Monk, A Tale of the Inquisition (1851), and Jack Cade, the Insurrectionist (1851). He also issued a Library of Romance and a series of 39 Penny Pictorial Plays in the late 1850s.

Ann Elizabeth Purkess died in 1839, aged 38, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. At the time of the 1841 census, George Purkess senior was recorded as a bookseller living in Dean Street, along with Mary Purkess, aged 16, and Anne Purkess, aged 18. This was, presumably, George’s niece, the daughter of John Purkess (see later).

Ten years after this, on 25 March 1851, in the parish if St. James, Westminster, George Purkess senior married Eleanor Hemmens, the daughter of Joseph and Esther Towers, born in Eton, Buckinghamshire in 1821 (baptised on 7 January 1821). She had previously married John Hemmens (born in 1816), on 24 December 1835, at Upton-cum-Chalvey in Buckinghamshire. They had two daughters:  Ellen Hemmens, baptised on 24 October 1836 at Eton, and Elizabeth Adelaide Hemmens, born in Eton in 1839.

In the 1841 census, John is living in Thames Street, Windsor, Buckinghamshire, shown as a picture dealer, along with an Ann Birch (aged 20), and his daughters Ellen and Adelaide. Eleanor was recorded (as Ellen) living in Eton High Street with her mother and her brother Alfred. Also recorded is a one-week old son, who had not yet received a first name. Born on 29 May 1841, he was later baptised Alfred Joseph Towers Hemmens at St. Anne’s Church, Soho, on 19 June 1842.

4 [1848] ‘Dora Livingstone the Adultress; or, the Quaker City,’ by American author George Lippard.
John Hemmens died and was buried in Upton-cum-Chalvey on 19 March 1851. His death enabled Eleanor to marry the man with whom she had been having an affair for the previous seven or eight years. On 3 January 1844 Eleanor and George, although unmarried, had had their first child, Henry Hemmens Purkess, who was baptised at St. Anne’s, Soho, on 6 February 1844. Eleanor was recorded as Ellen; George was shown as a bookseller in Dean Street. They had a second child, Emma Josephine Purkess, on 20 September 1845 — she was baptised at St. Martins-in-the-Fields, Soho.

The 1851 census shows an Elizabeth Hemmens, aged 38 and born in Yorkshire, occupying an address in Wellington Road, Upton-cum-Chalvey, along with daughters Ellen, aged 15, and Adelaide, aged 13, and a son, Arthur, 5 months. Who Elizabeth was is anyone’s guess, unless she was John Hemmens’s sister. Eleanor had, by then, married George Purkess, and the 1851 census shows the couple living at 60 Dean Street, with Eleanor recorded as Ellen. Also living there were George’s daughter Elizabeth, his sons George, William and Joseph (actually Alfred Joseph), his nephew Henry Purkess, and his niece Jane Purkess. Emma Josephine Purkess and her brother Henry were away at a small boarding school in Pamber, Hampshire, run by Mary Ann Smallbridge. Ten years later, Emma was a pupil at girls’ school in Sherborne, Dorset.

5 [1849] ‘The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard.’
At some point, George Purkess senior entered into partnership with his son George, operating out of Old Compton Street, Soho, and 85 Salisbury Street, Marylebone, as George Purkess and Son, Booksellers and Publishers. This partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in June 1856.

George Purkess senior died three years later, at 60 Dean Street, on 28 May 1859 (not 1862 as most other sources state), leaving an estate worth just under £1,000 (around £85,000 in today’s terms). Eleanor was the sole executor and the sole beneficiary. When she died, at 60 Dean Street on 6 December 1869, her sole executor was the publisher Edward Lloyd. The business passed to her sons, Alfred and Henry.

George Purkess junior was, as shown above, born on 10 February 1832 in Soho, and baptised George James Purkess. At the time of the 1841 census he was away at a small boarding school, run by Joseph Stansbury, in St. Matthew’s Road, Bethnal Green, along with his brother William. (One of the other five pupils was an Edward Lloyd, aged 6, who may well have been the eldest son of the publisher Edward Lloyd.)

6 [Aug 1889] ‘G. Purkess’s Publications.’
In 1851, he was living with his father in Dean Street. After the dissolution of their partnership, George Purkess junior took a new partner, Arthur Harding Walters, opening a wholesale stationers and newsagents at 16 St. Albans Place, Edgware Road. This partnership was dissolved, by mutual consent, in June 1864, with Harding acquiring all the assets, stock and debts. A few months later, on 29 November 1864, Walters married the 19 year-old Emma Josephine Purkess, George’s step-sister.

“One of the leading features in these second-rate newsvendor’s windows – perhaps the leading feature, and certainly the object to which it is the special desire of the present writer to draw attention – is always a great broadsheet of huge coarsely executed wood-cuts, representing, in a style of art the badness of which has never been surpassed in any period of our civilisation, every kind of violent and murderous act, every foul and diabolical crime, every incident marked by special characteristics of noisomeness, horror, or cruelty, which the annals of the week preceding the publication day of this grievous sheet have furnished for the benefit of the morbidly disposed part of the British public.” – ‘Nothing Like Example’, All the Year Round, May 30, 1868

7 [Mar 8, 1879] ‘Peace’s Dream the Night before his Execution.’
In the meantime, George Purkess junior had launched Purkess’s Penny Library of Romances in January 1863, and in 1865 he took over the Illustrated Police News, which had been launched on 20 February 1864, published by John Ransom at 83 Fleet Street and apparently owned by Messrs. Lee and Bulpin. In her book Cruel Deeds and Dreadful Calamities:  The Illustrated Police News 1864-1938 (British Library, 2011), Linda Stratmann speculates that Lee was actually Henry Lea, a publisher of periodicals and penny-part serials then operating out of 112 Fleet Street. Bulpin was probably Edwin Bulpin, a leather manufacturer of 130 Fleet Street and 36 King William Street.

Lee and Bulpin appear to have severed their connection with the paper in 1865, followed by John Ransom, although George Purkess was not named as the new proprietor-publisher until November 1865. Surprisingly, this was only six months after Purkess had been through the bankruptcy court – operating out of 43 Albert Street, Camden Town, and described as a newspaper proprietor, he had signed, on 12 May 1865, a deed of composition to pay five shillings in the pound to his creditors.

Purkess went on to launch the Illustrated Police Gazette in 1867, and in 1870 he began issuing the series Books for the Million, some of which had previously been published by his father in the 1850s. In 1871 he launched the Halfpenny Police Gazette which was incorporated into the Illustrated Police News after only six numbers, and also in the 1870s he issued a handful of penny-part serials, including The Life and Recollections of Calcraft the Hangman (1871), Charles Peace, or the Adventures of a Notorious Burglar (1879-81), and Florence Maybrick:  A Thrilling Romance (1889).

8 [Jul 27, 1889] The Illustrated Police News, masthead.
In March 1885 he launched the short-lived Family Doctor and People’s Medical Adviser (26 numbers). His office addresses during this period were 83 Fleet Street up until 1865, 274 Strand between 1865 and 1868, 286 Strand from 1868 to 1890, and 34 Catherine Street from 1890 until 1892.

There appears to be no trace of George Purkess junior in the 1861 census, but on 2 July 1864 he married Elizabeth Ward Coham, a widow born in 1834, at All Souls Church, Marylebone. She had previously been married (in 1860 – her maiden name was Elizabeth Ward Walke) to John Harding Coham, a surgeon, who had died in December 1862.

In 1871, George and Elizabeth were living at 12 Gloucester Crescent, Marylebone, with two servants. Ten years later, they had moved to 25 Avenue Road, Marylebone, now employing three servants. Elizabeth Purkess died the following year, on 1 September 1882, leaving a personal estate worth just under £2,000 (around £170,000 in today’s terms).

9 [May 7, 1877] ‘Buffalo Bill.’
George remarried on 19 January 1886, his second wife, Emily Elliot, having been born in Lambeth in 1855. They had already had a daughter, Emily Maude, born on 1 December 1879, when George’s first wife was still alive, although she wasn’t baptised until 12 January 1887, at Christ Church, North Brixton, Lambeth, with the family’s address shown as 107 Gower Street.

Later that year, Purkess bought 77 Gower Street, while keeping the property in Avenue Road. The 1891 census shows him (described as a newspaper proprietor) living at 77 Gower Street with his wife, daughter and three servants (one of whom was a nurse, presumably caring for George who by then was in poor health).

George died from tuberculosis the following year, on 10 December 1892, at 25 Avenue Road, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. He left an estate valued at just over £10,000, worth around £900,000 in today’s terms. As well as leaving all his personal property (including carriages and horses) to his wife, his will stipulated that his executors (his wife and William Moult, a banker’s clerk) were to dispose of his business, investing the money raised to provide an income to be shared between his wife (two-thirds) and his daughter (one-third). He also left all his freehold and leasehold property to his wife, although no addresses were given.

His wife died on 5 November 1896 at 3 Chalcott Terrace, Regent’s Park Road, Marylebone, having apparently squandered most of her inheritance, and leaving an estate of just £379.

10 [1871] “To the Editor of ‘The Times.’”
George Purkess senior’s brother John Purkess married Elizabeth Sarah Jenkins, born in 1796, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on 10 September 1820. They went on to have eight children:  Elizabeth Sarah Jenkins Purkess (born 14 July 1821), Ann Purkess (21 September 1822), John Edward (24 August 1824), Amelia Ruth (17 May 1826), Henry William (4 February 1828), Louisa (6 July 1830), Mary Ann (16 November 1831 - died on 5 April 1835, ten days after her baptism), and Jane Mary (17 November 1834).

They were all baptised in Marylebone – John’s occupation was given as “Trade” between 1821 and 1824, Stationer in 1828, Clerk in 1830, and Music Seller in 1826, 1834 and 1835. In the baptism records after 1826, his address was given as 10 Grove Street, Marylebone.

By the time of the 1841 census, the family had moved to Devonshire Street, Lisson Grove, Marylebone – John Purkess senior was not shown as having an occupation, while his son John Edward was shown as a hatter.

John Purkess senior died two years later, and was buried in St. Mary’s, Paddington Green, on 9 April 1843. His wife died twelve years later, having moved to Salisbury Street, and was buried in the same churchyard.

11 [Mar 1, 1879] ‘Charles Peace; or, the Adventures of a Notorious Burglar,’ No. 42.
John Edward Purkess appears to have followed a rather erratic career path – in 1851 he was shown in the census records as a carpenter, living in a lodging house at 36 Nutford Place, Marylebone, and in 1861 he was living with his wife Maria and son Walter at 85 Salisbury Street, and shown as a stationer, presumably working with George Purkess junior. However, John and Maria were not married, although they did eventually marry on 12 March 1866, at St. James the Great, Bethnal Green.

Maria was Maria Lucy, born around 1829. Walter had been born around 1847. There appears to be no record of his birth or baptism, but there is a curious marriage record, at Christ Church, Marylebone, dated 19 September 1864, for a Walter Purkess and a Jane Owens. Walter was shown as living in Salisbury Street, and Jane in Devonshire Street. Walter’s father was John Purkess, but his profession was shown as Wheelwright. Furthermore, both Walter and Jane were shown as “of full age” (i.e. over 21), although Walter would only have been around 17 or 18.
12 [Feb 15, 1879] ‘Peace and the Jew Fence,’ cut in The Illustrated Police News.
There appears to be no trace of the family in the 1871 census, but in 1878 or 1879 they moved from 85 Salisbury Street to 13 Salisbury Street, with John still in business as a newsagent. His name had disappeared from the Post Office Directory in 1881, although the census for that year shows John and Maria living at 13 Salisbury Street, John now having become a Broker’s Assistant. He died later that year, with his wife dying in 1882.

John Edward’s brother, Henry William Purkess, born in 1828, spent all of his life working in the Purkess family business. In 1851, he was living with George Purkess senior, his uncle, at 60 Dean Street, presumably working for him although no occupation was given in the census record. In 1861 he was living with Alfred Purkess, his cousin, at 60 Dean Street, described as a publisher’s assistant.

There appears to be no trace of him in the 1871 census, but in 1881 he was recorded living at 135 Marylebone Road, described as a publisher. Also living with him were his wife, Harriet (born in Islington around 1828), and their daughter Amy, born in 1866. (Unfortunately, there appears to be no trace of either a marriage record or a record for Amy’s birth.)

They later moved to Balcombe Street, Marylebone, where Henry died in 1891. Harriet died in Marylebone in 1909.

In the meantime, Alfred Joseph Purkess, having changed his name from Alfred Joseph Towers Hemmens, and his brother Henry Hemmens Purkess, had taken over the business established by George Purkess senior following his death in 1859.

13 [Oct 12, 1867] ‘The Alton Murder,’ advertised in The Illustrated Police News.
The 1861 census shows them occupying 60 Dean Street, both described as publishers. Also in the household were Alfred’s cousin Henry;  Esther Towers (i.e. Alfred’s grandmother), a visitor;  and one servant.

Two years later, on 10 September 1863, Alfred Joseph, using the name Alfred Joseph Towers Hemmens, married Emily Charlotte Pratchett (born in London around 1825) at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Soho. They went on to have four children: Reginald (born 1865), Henry (born 1867), Lizzie Emily (born 1870), and Edwin (born 1871).

In 1871, the head of the household at 60 Dean Street was shown as Joseph Purkess, a bookseller (i.e. Alfred Joseph). With him were his wife Emily, along with three of his children; Henry Purkess, Joseph’s brother, described as a bookseller; and two servants.

14 [Dec 14, 1878] ‘A Man Mistaken for an Escaped Gorilla,’ cut in The Illustrated Police News.
The partnership between Alfred and Henry Purkess went into voluntary liquidation in May 1875, with the notice in the London Gazette referring to “the affairs of Alfred Joseph Towers Hemmens and Henry Purkess”. Amongst their publications had been the penny-part serial The Monk (36 numbers), and a series of Purkess’s Penny Pictorial Plays, which included adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin;  Ivanhoe, or The Jew’s Daughter;  Mazeppa, or The Wild Horse of Tartary; Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack;  and The Motto, or The Hunchback of Paris.

According to Linda Stratmann, Alfred and Henry then emigrated to South Africa, possibly accompanied by William Robert Purkess. William, who was living with his father in Dean Street in 1851, appears to be absent from all the succeeding census records. Neither is there a record of him dying.

On 28 August 1856 George Purkess junior’s sister Elizabeth Atkinson Purkess married Charles Shurey at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Shurey was a licensed victualler, born in Thame, Oxfordshire, in 1827. They went on to have five children:  Annie (born 8 November 1857), Charles (born 8 May 1859), Harry (born 1 November 1860), George Arthur (born 1862), and Frank (born 20 May 1864. died the following year). In 1861, Shurey, Elizabeth and three of the children were living at 28 Leigh Street, St. Pancras.

15 [Dec 14, 1878] ‘Three Days at Sea on a Chest,’ cut in The Illustrated Police News.
At the time of the 1871 census, Shurey was the landlord of the “Lord Palmerston” at 60 Hampstead Road, St. Pancras, but by 1881 he had taken over the business at 60 Dean Street left by Alfred and Henry Purkess. The census return for that year records him occupying 59 & 60 Dean Street, described as a Publisher and Stationer employing six men and three boys, with his wife, three sons Charles, Harry and George (all shown as Assistant Stationers), along with Henry Purkess, Elizabeth’s brother, who had been born in 1838, and two servants. Henry was also described as an Assistant Stationer.

Charles Shurey died on 20 May 1881, a few weeks after the census was taken. He left a personal estate worth £5,271 (just under half a million pounds in today’s terms). His will, for which his wife and George Purkess junior were executors, stipulated that his business at 60 Dean Street should continue until his youngest son, George Arthur, reached the age of 21 (in 1883). His three sons therefore carried on running the business, which still had the name Purkess & Co., until November 1883, when their partnership was dissolved by mutual consent.

16 [1874] ‘The Whitechapel Tragedy.’
Charles Shurey junior continued running the business, still using the name Purkess & Co. – he is recorded in the 1891 census at 60 Dean Street, described as a newsagent, alongside his wife Laura, a servant and a shop boy. George returned to the licensed trade, becoming a publican. Charles and Harry also launched their own publishing careers, initially independently but later in partnership as Shurey’s Publications, at 2 & 3 Hind Court, 17 Tudor Street, and later 1 Farringdon Avenue.

In 1892 a new company was formed, wholly independent of both the Purkess and Shurey families, to take over the Dean Street business. A consortium of seven men, led by George Lyon Bennett, a former Secretary of the Commercial Union Assurance Company, formed Purkess & Company, Limited, with a share capital of £12,000, divided into 12,000 £1 shares.

It was incorporated on 4 July 1892, operating out of 60 Dean Street, with Bennett as the Managing Director. It took over the remains of the 21 year lease which had been taken out on 60 Dean Street in 1883, as well leases on Nos. 6 and 7 Southampton Mews, Holborn, also part of the old company’s assets. Bennett was initially the majority shareholder, holding 6,997 shares, with a W.E. Mcleod holding 4,998.

17 [Aug 1889] ‘Florence Maybrick, A Thrilling Romance.’
Bennett appears to have quit the company in 1894, with the Hon. Montague Charles Francis Bertie named as Managing Director and a new majority shareholder. But in March that year a receiver was appointed following a court order obtained by the company’s creditors. In April 1896 the receiver notified the Companies Registration Office that the business, now officially at his office at 66 Coleman Street, Moorgate, was not being continued, although he was still acting in an official capacity.

In November 1897 he wrote again saying that some debts were still to be collected and some assets were still to be distributed. The company was finally dissolved by notice in the London Gazette on 17 June 1898.

It is not known when Henry Purkess died, but Elizabeth Shurey, after living at 113 Oxford Street for a while, died on 18 December 1895, at 13 Clarendon Villas, Hove, Sussex, leaving an estate worth just £373. The Purkess publishing dynasty had come to an end.

— an Interview with George Purkess, Jun. — is HERE.

18 [1879] ‘Marwood the Hangman,’ cut in The Illustrated Police News.



  1. May I ask which source the first quote by George Purkess was referenced from please?

  2. “THE WORST NEWSPAPER IN ENGLAND” an Interview with the Proprietor of the “POLICE NEWS.” Pall Mall Gazette 23 Nov 1886. Read the article here >

  3. Fabulous. Sadly, this let me know that my ancestor was not the son of this John Purkess mentioned in this article, but I entered all the information on before I cut my ancestor out of the line.

    Thanks for the great read