Just who was Charlie the tramp?

Charlie the tramp

When I started researching Charlie, I did so out of pure inquisitiveness. There was to be no gain. I first heard of Charlie through a documentary six years ago. Family researcher KATE RYAN explains what she found out about this mysterious character.

He just seemed likeable with a sad, yet happy disposition. I asked a few South-east London groups on Facebook for information and was told things which turned out not to be true, such his name was Charlie the Tramp, Purdie the Tramp, Charlie Purdie, Dog End Bill, Peter, Eddie, Black Jack.

Other suggested his family were the wet fishmongers of Deptford. This is why they fed him and gave him refills of tea in the milk bottle he always carried.

Not one story has ever been mentioned that he was a drinker. The bottle was only filled, it appears, with tea. Was he fed by the butcher in Deptford – who was rumoured to be his brother – and the ladies in Broomfield’s the bakers?

Were his aunt and uncle Alec and Bibby who ran the fried fish shop in Deptford, possibly called Codmaster?

Did the residents of Deptford used to leave him sweets and money at his haunts?

He shunned any DHSS hand-outs as he was a wealthy family man whose wife and daughter were killed in a bombing during the Second World War – he was never able to live in a house again. Did he give it to homeless people to live in rent free, because of the hurt of moving back there after his wife and child were killed?

It was rumoured to have had £20,000 in his coat pockets when he died, and he always wore a flower – usually a dandelion or a weed – in his lapel of his coat. Apparently Charlie was a very educated, clever, well-spoken man –  he had piercing blue eyes. He would regularly visit St Alphege’s workhouse where they would bathe him and he came out like a new man.

There are several different occupations for Charlie. He had been an aircraft pilot in the Second World War; a top surgeon even that he had psychic powers and used to scare grown men with his predictions. How he died is not clear. He might have been hit by a train at New Cross or frozen to death on the railway sidings.

What was true? It seemed to me Charlie/Eddie/Peter/Bill was known by everyone but no one.  I wasn’t even certain of his name. I started building a family tree of all the Purdies in Deptford using the information on Facebook and internet sites and just by googling it. People said their granddad/aunt/uncle had this fish shop or that shop.

There were no discrepancies that I could see at all. I even told some family members information they did not know. But try as I might, I could not find anyone who matched the frazzled edges of Charlie.

I looked at every death of a Purdie/Purdy from 1970-1990 and couldn’t match it. I looked at every civilian death in Deptford during the Second World War, looking for a woman and children who had unfortunately died but the husband didn’t. This sent me on a wild goose chase.

A newspaper cutting from The Mercury

I bought a death certificate and burial register for a Charles Purdie but found a nephew who confirmed this one had lived with his wife for 50 years at the time of his death. It was then I started thinking outside the box.  A lady on Facebook said Charlie died in December 1978 and that a George Burkett had arranged his funeral and the British Legion in Deptford paid for it.

I found an entry for an Edward Purdie whose death was registered in December 1979 in Southwark.
The death certificate said: “Edward Purdie – no fixed abode no occupation. Unmarried. Age approx. 55.  Registered by George Burkett (friend).” I was elated – I had found him.

I couldn’t find a corresponding birth though. If he was 55 in 1979 it should have been in 1924. The only one I could find was of an Edward Purdie born 1906 in Deptford. I started building a new tree for this man.

I traced his family origins, but lost him again after 1939 when he was a general labourer. I can find no electoral rolls of him or any reference at all. It’s only a personal feeling, but perhaps this is when Edward became a lost soul.

Both his brothers and both his sisters had married and moved from Deptford. The war was on. He had no local family. Did he wander through Deptford High Street, seeing the Purdie name at the fishmongers, telling folks that was his name too? But they weren’t related?

Did he wander in and out of Carrington House? A place to stay? A roof over his head?

Did he have nothing? No family? No money?

His father died when he was two; his mother lost three children. By the time he was six, he was in a workhouse and his mother was in an infirmary miles away. By the time he was nine, he was still in that workhouse and listed as destitute and deserted. At the age of 18 he came out of the workhouse and six years later at 24 was burying his mother, who he hadn’t been with for the best part of his life.

He lived with his sisters until they married.

His brothers moved away and moved on. Did he see them?

Was the fact that people used to see him between Deptford, Greenwich and New Cross because he was walking to and from their homes?

Deptford High Street as it is today

In the only photo I have ever seen, he probably just needs a good wash. He was getting his baths at St Alphege’s, the workhouse he was in from 1913 until 1924, before it became a hospital in 1931. In 1951, his sister Lily emigrated to Australia with her husband and child. She died in 1964 in Australia but her son, also called Edward – who would be 83 now – appears to be alive and I have written him a letter. I have not received a reply yet.

When Charlie the Tramp died in 1979, very few people knew much about his family history. He had lived in and around Deptford, for up to 40 years being fed by friends and relatives.

I have tried to find the link between Edward Purdie and the Purdies of Deptford and I cannot find one after doing two separate family trees of each. Edward’s death was front page news in the Mercury in 1979. The article mentioned a friend of his who had apparently known him all his life.

William ‘Wee Wee’ Moynes of Carrington House said: “Charlie” was a softly-spoken tiny man who had lived in Deptford all his life apart from the war. “They had been at the same school – and he could never understand why all the other children called him “Eddie”?

And now I know the truth. I think that his story is far sadder. Charlie seems to have just been an attached name, maybe from the era of Charlie Chaplin and his film The Tramp. These things I know — he was not well off but never asked for money, he didn’t have £20,000 in his pocket when he died, he wasn’t a drinker, he was a man with a very sad life and died alone on November 28, 1979.

He certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered. He always had a smile.Did he take his life because he had had enough?

He didn’t turn to drink or drugs. He lived a deprived life – but it was the area that was deprived, not the people. He was 73 when he died – a good age and a privilege denied to many.

The police said at the time he was hit by a train, that there were no visible injuries and he died instantly. He was cremated December 11, 1979. His funeral at Hither Green Crematorium was paid for by the British Legion.

They could find no family. The procession left from their offices in Arklow Road, and reached the crematorium half an hour late because of the numbers of people along Deptford High Street. His last remaining sibling, Ivy, died six years later in 1985 in Greenwich.

Had she gone to his funeral?  Did she even know?I laid a flower for Edward at the crematorium
recently – something that has probably never been done since he passed.

But with or without flowers in his memory, Charlie the Tramp is a well loved, well remembered local legend and 38 years after his death, is still being talked of.

6 Comments on "Just who was Charlie the tramp?"

  1. Diane Shipton & Linda Stevenson nee Purdie | 9th November 2017 at 7:18 pm |

    My sister and I are from the Purdie family. Our father was George Purdie and we lived at Adolphus Street Deptford. We were fascinated to read about “Charlie the Tramp” and local people often thought that the tramp was part of our family. We have tried to research some of our family in Deptford. Albert Purdie who was married to Rhoda Weston of Deptford, had our father, George and his sister, Peggy Purdie. We remember Uncle Alec and used to visit Bibby when we were little. I think our grandfather used to help out in the fish shop in Deptford High Street and our nanny Rhoda had a wet fish stall in Douglas Way which our dad would set up for his mother before he went to school at Stanley Street. Uncle Alec appeared on a television programme as he used to perform in drag for ENSA with a colleague to entertain the troops. It would be really helpful for us if we could have any information about the Purdie family obtained by Kate Ryan that we do not know about. Is it possible for us to get any feedback from Kate Ryan and would be much appreciated. Many thanks.

  2. Diane Shipton & Linda Stevenson nee Purdie | 9th November 2017 at 8:43 pm |

    My sister and I are members of the Purdie family and often remember local people thinking that the tramp was part of our family.It would be really helpful for us to know more of the Purdie history – we know some, but wonder if Kate Ryan can give us any information that we do not have.

  3. J Collins-Bridge | 11th November 2017 at 9:23 am |

    My mum used to give him fish&chips outside our shopping told us always be polite to him it wasn’t his fault

  4. I was a 10 year old kid working for Ernie the Greengrocer, bottom of Deptford high street.. Ernie used to give Charlie (as we knew him) the bruised fruit… .. always polite I remember how all I could see was his clean blue caring eyes… and a smile when he got the fruit…

    A true gentlemen…God rest his soul…

  5. Belinda Hawkes Axton | 13th November 2017 at 11:44 am |

    My Mum used to give me a bottle of tea to give him on my way to school on Trundleys Bridge. They used to feed him as they had a cafe corner of Etta Street in the 60’s

  6. I often saw Charlie around new cross as a kid and teenager .particularly cold blow lane .where the millwall den was. with a milk bottle of tea .always sociable.

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