Albert Court: Norwood to California in 1892

Published October 2009

My ancestor Albert Court went from humble beginnings in New Town, Upper Norwood to become a successful businessman in Livingston, California. He built the Court Theater in Livingston in 1917, and this represented the culmination of a long, upwardly-mobile and doubtless difficult journey from South London to the United States via Canada.

Born in 1862 in New Town, Norwood, South-East London, Albert was the only son of Albert James Court and Elizabeth (Stanley) Court. Albert James was the older brother of my great grandfather Joseph Court. Elizabeth died of consumption when he was five years old and he went to live his grandparents, George and Matilda, at 7 Albert Terrace, New Town, Norwood. Albert lived with them until he married in 1882.

New Town was an unusual if not unique development in that it was designed solely to house working-class families, and had a peripheral wall, in some places 10-12 feet tall. Building commenced in the 1840’s and continued until the ‘90’s. A major impetus behind this small working-class enclave was the re-siting of the Crystal Palace in 1854 just down the road from New Town. It is of interest that that one of Albert’s uncles, Charles Court, who lived just round the corner from him in Beulah Terrace, died from a fall whilst painting the Palace in 1874, aged 34. Built in a hurry by speculative builders and without proper regard to such matters as drainage, New Town offers a stark contrast to the more salubrious parts of Norwood beyond its walls. In her book, ‘Treetops and Terraces’ Beryl D Cheeseman paints a rather grim picture of New Town. She quotes graphic descriptions of the poor maintenance of the roads from the Norwood News. A letter in 1882 to this newspaper opines as follows: ‘When Rockmount School was made at the ratepayers’ expense, we thought we had reached the end of our imprisonment… But Mr Bird soon dispelled our hopes by building a concrete wall ten feet high at the end of the road so as to shut off the humble cottages at the bottom end of New Town from the view of his tenants and also to prevent the inhabitants of those cottages from profaning Rockmount Road by passing through it’.

Albert’s grandfather George Court had been a successful carpenter/undertaker employing two men and an apprentice in Maidstone prior to moving to New Town. All six of his sons took up building-related trades, mostly carpentry, the trade Albert and his father followed. Following the death of his wife, Albert’s father, Albert James, went twice to America in 1870 and 1873 and plied his trade in Philadelphia. He returned however and, with his new wife Emma, he too went to live with George and Matilda. For a period then he was reunited with his son and it seems likely that it was his experiences in America that inspired Albert to remove his family there in 1892.

Albert and his wife Marian had six children at the time of their departure from England in 1892. They joined a tide of migrants crossing the Atlantic in search of a better life. Pressing demographic and economic issues had been fuelling this huge movement of people over the past century. A phenomenal increase in population at the beginning of the century, producing poor urban housing conditions overcrowding and unemployment, all contributed to this exodus.

Encouragement by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, including financial inducement and promises of land plus the greater comfort on voyage following the introduction of steam, all played their part. Whist it is likely that these factors had a bearing on Albert’s decision it is also quite possible that they were not absolutely crucial in his case. A degree of enterprise and personal ambition above the ordinary, perhaps inherited from his father and grandfather, seems to have been present also. The journey was still long and arduous and conditions in ‘steerage’ class (their most likely status on board) were far from comfortable. Their youngest, Edwin, was less than a year old. They traveled with a couple, Joe and Millie Epton, whom they had met whilst Marian was in the lying-in hospital. Millie, who had lost her child, willingly shared in the care of the baby. Three more children were born in Canada.

The families arrived to an uncertain financial future in Canada where they made for Wapella situated in an area of the North West Territories (now Saskatchewan) that had, over the previous two decades, seen considerable political unrest. Wapella, whose logo proudly claims to be ‘Right in the Middle of Somewhere’ was, when the immigrant families arrived, an isolated settlement barely 10 years old. A number of Jewish settlers fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe were among the first to settle the area. Albert and Joe were responsible for building many of the substantial buildings in that place (John Outcalt ‘History of Merced County California’ 1925). A small farming community (population then less than 900, now less than 500) no doubt imposed limits on Albert and Joe’s ambitions. In search of more work the Courts moved to Vancouver for a short period leaving their son Edwin with the Eptons, and then in 1907 to San Francisco. This latter move was no doubt prompted by the building boom following the great earthquake of 1906.

In 1909 the family moved to Livingston, California, a small farming town in the San Joaquin Valley. It was here that Albert reached the zenith of his career. He continued to build not only important buildings such as the Court Theater but also his reputation as a worthy citizen and pillar of the community. John Outcalt (see above) eulogises Albert as follows: ‘Well known among the industrious, respected and prosperous business men of Livingston is Albert Court, proprietor of the Court Theater and the Court Confectionery Store…. His firm, known as Court and Wilcox, built the Crowell block, the grammar school building, and many business houses and residences in the town’. In 1921 he became one of the city’s first Trustees. His son, Albert Stanley, who assisted him in running the cinema, was made Mayor in 1944.

True pioneers, Albert and his family settled in an isolated part of Canada when log or sod houses (soddies) were still the standard mode of accommodation. His joint enterprise with Joe Epton helped to develop that community. To improve his family’s prospects he then went with them to California via Vancouver. At each stage of Albert’s life he placed himself and his family in unpredictable and often very difficult environments but nevertheless ones of great possibility. The evidence suggests that he worked hard to overcome these difficulties. This picture of Albert standing in front of his cinema, which one suspects was one of his proudest achievements, shows a man who had come a very long way from the inauspicious surroundings that he had known as a young man in New Town, Norwood, South East London.

Roger Court

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