Looking Back

Out on the road today
I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac
A little voice inside my head said:
“Don’t look back, you can never look back”

Don Henley, The Boys of Summer (1984)

SUNSET AT DUNURESunset over Arran from Dunure, Ayrshire

Here we are again, back at the start of summer, with our nostalgic (false?) memories of long school holidays and their endless weeks of sunshine! Frustratingly, where I grew up in south-west Scotland, it was often the pre-summer weeks which were the warmest and driest. Not this year, though.  I spent most of a rather chilly and wet June in the seaside village of Dunure, staying in a converted fisherman’s cottage – one of several in a whitewashed terrace which face onto the shore. The eponymously named ‘Seaview’ was a simple row of houses I’d loved as a child: back then it had reminded me of the kind of places Enid Blyton’s very English characters stayed in for their summer ‘hols’ (possibly because it was how I imagined Cornwall to look like).

DEAVIEW AT SUNSET.JPGSunset on Seaview Cottages, Dunure, Ayrshire

The cottages overlook a sheltered bay, with a medieval ruined castle on one side and a small harbour on the other and it would be not too difficult to imagine some un-PC adventure involving smugglers and gipsies taking place there in classic Blyton fashion. So picturesque is the village and its surroundings that it was recently the site of filming for the television series Outlander (a time-travelling adventure set in 18th century Scotland based on the books of the same name by Diana Gabaldan).

DUNURE BEACH.JPGDunure beach and ruined castle, Ayrshire

Since the success of the TV series, Dunure is no longer a wee secret on Scotland’s lesser-known south-west coast. (There are even signs at both entrances to the village proclaiming it as an Outlander film site). But yet it still relatively quiet when compared with other coastal destinations in the UK. Maybe this is because it is a place you cannot pass through accidentally – the road down to the tiny harbour parts company from the main coastal route from Ayr a couple of miles back, winding its way through a dense canopy of vegetation. As a child, this was part of the excitement of getting there – it felt like travelling through a living tunnel into another doll-sized world. And after parking in Kennedy Park, near the ruined castle, we’d usually have the pick of Dunure’s many small secluded bays, tucked in beside the basalt cliffs, that make this part of the coastline so impressive.

WITH GRANDAD AT DUNURE.JPGWith Grandad Skelton at Kennedy Park, Dunure c1971

For the past five years I’ve been returning to this spot for my spring or summer holidays with my husband and some of our family in tow. Despite the village’s relatively hidden location, there is a regular bus service from the nearby town of Ayr, so we never bother to rent a car when we visit, preferring to explore the coastline on foot or by kayak. The area never fails to disappoint, whatever the weather. Even – or especially – when it rains, there can be something glorious about beachcombing when the shore is glistening with small shiny pebbles that look like they have come from a giant’s sweetie jar, upended in a fit of pique. It is then we like to search along the tideline for one of Dunure’s hidden gifts: agates.

COASTAL PATH DUNURE.JPGOn the Ayrshire Coastal path at Dunure

On any given day, there is always someone poking around on the numerous beaches, looking for these semi-precious stones, and the area has been well-known by collectors since the 19th century. For the uninitiated, it can at first be difficult to know exactly what to look for; but once the eye settles in, they pop up all over the place. Agates are basically layers of silica made up of microscopic crystals which have coated the inside of cavities in molten rock and are often striated, lending them their beauty. Although they are usually found as fragments due to their propensity to shatter, the ones I especially love collecting are the intact nodules, despite the fact that without specialist cutting equipment the internal patterns of the stone remain hidden from view. However, the surface of these round agates has a charm of its own: it is often pitted, and has a waxy lustre, and many are half-transparent when held up to the light. I have a bowl of these other-wordly looking gems at home that never fails to intrigue guests, particularly the paler ones, which look like miniature moons complete with craters.

AGATES FROM DUNURE.JPGAgates from Dunure

Collecting agates remind of researching the lives of ancestors: it is always difficult to stop because you never know where the next nugget of information will come from. And then there is the fact that even if you find something, it is usually just a fragment of the whole story. Yet genealogical research adds another dimension to everyday life in the way that searching for agates changes a beach stroll into something more than just a walk along the shore. Some days you might want to spend a long time focused on one spot, shifting the pebbles around; another day you might simply want to glance down occasionally at your feet and see if anything catches your eye.

Like genealogical research, the intact agates hold their secrets internally with just a hint of what their story is on their outer crust. As modern-day social historians, we are also constantly struggling to get below the surface of things. We can peruse these wonderful maps of where our ancestors lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sometimes beyond, but know that unless documented in a sketch, or painting – or later in a photograph, the view of these streets and houses are lost to us. And that is only one sense: what of the smells and sounds and textures that our forebearers experienced? We may be lucky enough to have an image of the places where they lived and worked – or photographs of our ancestors themselves. Yet even these may prove to frustratingly hide more than they reveal. As Roland Barthes points out at the beginning of Camera Lucida (his book on the nature of photography): The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. (For more about Barthes and photography, see Those Ghostly Traces).

I believe that is what makes returning to our childhood homes after a long absence such an unsettling experience – it may look the same in many respects, but without the sounds, sights and smells of our formative experiences it is only a simulcrum of the place in which we grew up. I had this sensation when one day during our stay in Dunure my mother and I took the local bus in to the village of Alloway – the suburb of Ayr famous for being the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns – where we lived from 1964 to 1995. We both felt strangely out of place as we walked around the village, looking at the changes time had wrought. What I found particularly disturbing was the absence of the imposing red sandstone Victorian school which I’d attended from 1969 to 1976, and which had been demolished* in 2008.

*I discovered later that during the demolition a ‘time capsule’ from 1895, placed there when the school was being built, had been discovered in a wall by one of the workers (named Frank). The local paper stated that: Frank had the presence of mind to turn off the machinery and go and have a closer look. The jar turned out to be a time capsule buried 113 years ago in 1895. The pupils got the chance to have a close look at the contents of the capsule and learn a bit about life back in the time of Queen Victoria. Inside the blown-glass jar was an architect’s drawing of the school, minutes and accounts, coins from the time and copies of several newspapers of the day. (Although I realise that for present-day children, this time capsule probaly still would have been considered very old if it had been found to have dated from my period at the school!)

When the new teaching buildings (termed ‘the huts’) were hastily built in the 1970s to cope with the demands of the village expanding into a suburb, the original school had remained as the infants’ department. But the 21st century obviously needed a new type of school, and a few years ago the whole lot was swept away and completely rebuilt. Passing the modern building on that afternoon in Alloway, all I could see that remained of the old school was the white tiled wall of the outdoor Victorian toilet block, now incorporated into the outer wall of the new schoolyard.

It was a strange feeling to see that that wall – of all things – had remained. The toilet block had not been a pleasant place to visit in those days, explaining why many children had ‘accidents’ during the lessons. This was because the school bullies used to lurk there, trying to inflict ‘Chinese burns’ on the infants (or worse). But I was at least heartened to see that the old sandstone wall which once separated the schoolyard from Robertson’s Field (but now divides the school from an up-market housing estate and sports ground) was still there. Possibly this was due to memories of sitting beside the wall on warm afternoons before the summer holidays, having al fresco lessons. I remembered how we used to take our little wooden chairs outside and sit in a circle as the teacher read to us, or we listened to a story on the school radio. 

ROBERTSONS FIELDRobertson’s Field could not be saved (c) Ayrshire Post, 2018

That day in Alloway I began to get an inkling of what my father must have felt when he returned to East Coker in the late 1980s, almost fifty years after arriving as a London evacuee to join his mother, baby brother and older sister in the village (see East Coker). Like myself, he would have witnessed a new generation of people living there who all knew each other but whom were strangers to him. Perhaps like me he wanted to stand in the local shop and tell them what it used to look like half a century ago, when sweets were bought from jars with old money, and farthings and ha’pennies would always fetch you something to nibble on, if only a white mouse or a liquorice bootlace. Or that once there were fields and lanes where now there are ugly, modern, sprawling houses with ridiculous made-up names. No wonder he told us children to ‘never go back’.

When my mother and I first visited East Coker we had nothing to compare it with, so viewed it simply as ‘Eliot’s Village’, modernised, but still with the ‘shuttered lanes’ and ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’ and a pleasing lack of streetlights which allowed us to view the night sky. But for my father the post-war advances in farming along with the new houses built to accommodate those who longed to live in such a desirable spot would have added up to a considerable change. And of course there is the obvious psychological effect of revisiting an old haunt that is more difficult to pin down. A sense of shifting time and space that reinforces the ephemeral quality of life.

For that reason, keeping my father’s advice in mind, this time I did not visit our old family home in Alloway where we’d all once lived (in various combinations) for over thirty years. I’d done so several years before and felt awkward walking slowly past the house (now much changed and extended) a couple of times in a road devoid of pedestrians. It was difficult to believe that the four of us had all resided in the original little bungalow with the tiny bathroom for so long – no wonder there had been tensions during our teenage years!

DOONHOLM ROAD.JPG1963 brochure for our house in Alloway (ours was a mirror image)

What had once seemed an expansive front garden now appeared small and suburban – although I noticed with delight that all the trees my father had planted at the back to give us privacy now towered over the house. It was hard to imagine that the house had been the epitome of modern chic in 1963 and the garden originally nothing but a fenced in square of mud which my father had transformed with the help of Grandad Skelton, who was no stranger to growing his own fruit and vegetables out of necessity.

GRANDAD IN THE GARDEN.JPGGrandad Skelton after a spot of gardening in Alloway, c1967

My mother told me later that they had never intended to stay so long in the house, having a vague plan to move to London after a couple of years, if my father (an air traffic controller) could get a posting to Heathrow Airport. Although perhaps it was just as well that we accidentally stayed in Ayrshire for the first chunk of my life. It means I still have a place to return to which can be called ‘home’, even though I was reluctant to do so for many years. And maybe that is the difference between my own peacetime childhood and that of my father’s. After the war interrupted his life in South London he was forced to integrate into a new community which was very different from the one in which he’d grown up. Thus years later, when he was ‘looking back’ at his youth from the perspective of middle age, he had two very different sets of memories to consider.

Regular readers may know that it is the story of my father’s wartime evacuation to East Coker in Somerset which sparked my current genealogical quest (see In My Beginning is my End), and it has been a recurring motive in my writing on the subject. So I am delighted to announce that in August I will be returning to East Coker with my cousin, where we have arranged to meet up with our aunt. I envisage our 3-day trip as a sort of middle-age genealogical version of Thelma and Louise with a National Trust card thrown in for good measure. And as well as perhaps solving a few mysteries which my research has thrown up, I hope that our visit will also spark some new stories about the London branch of my family which I can share with you later in the year, when – in the words of Don Henley – The summer’s out of reach.

NUMBER 33.JPG

Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019

 

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The Stories Which Connect Us

But the vast mass of men and women in every time do not leave behind them either renown or testimony. These people walked our streets, prayed in our churches, drank in our inns or in those that bear the same names, built and lived in the houses where we have our being today, opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases. They were moved by essentially the same passions and griefs that we are, the same bedrock hopes and fears: they saw the sun set over Westminster as we do. Yet almost all of them have passed away from human memory, and are still passing away, generation after generation.

Gillian Tindall, The House by the Thames, (2006)

BOOK

When I picked up a copy of The House by the Thames by the historian and writer Gillian Tindall, I had no idea that it would be one of the first of many books I would accumulate on the history of London, yet would remain my favourite for years to come. Since then I have reread it several times: not just for the detailed historical information, but as a masterclass in the art of creative non-fiction, a genre which endeavours to both entertain and illuminate readers. The book has also influenced my own writing on the topic of my ancestors, and I continue to aim for the standard Tindall has set, aware of how much I still have to learn about the craft. However, the act of writing is inextricably bound up with the quest for improvement, and is part of what makes it such a life-affirming thing to do.

In the intervening years I have amassed a healthy collection of books about the capital, as well as those pertaining to life in the Victorian era. But a decade earlier, just before I returned to researching the history of my London family (see Begin Again), I did not quite know where to start with my research. A plethora of texts was available, some of which seemed overtly sensationalist, others appearing off-puttingly dense, and some spanning different areas and/or time frames from my own focus. However, The House by the Thames, which combined a historical narrative with a storyteller’s gift, proved to be an ideal entry into the history of London’s south bank for a novice like myself.

The book initially appealed to me on several levels, not least because it was centred on a Thameside neighbourhood close to where my ancestors settled, in nearby Horsleydown. The fact that the story revolved around a single house, also gave it an obvious focus that some other texts might lack, thus making the topic more accessible to a non-historian. And hadn’t I already noticed this unusual house when first crossing the Millennium Bridge after years away from the capital? There on the cobbled streets of bankside I had encountered not only the new Shakespeare’s Globe (how did that get there?), but the surprising remnant of a row of early 18th century houses, incongruous beside the iconic bulk of the old power station which now houses the Tate Modern Art Gallery and the new-fangled glass and steel towers which surround it.

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

Right from the first page of the book, with chapter one entitled In Which we Find the House, I knew I was in the hands of a word alchemist. We are pulled into the narrative with the tantalising opening line: You can reach the house in a number of different ways. (And I thought about my own way there, across ‘the wobbly bridge’ from St Paul’s). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Tindall leads us expertly through time and space to finally arrive outside the eponymous house, telling us that: Occasionally strangers will be brave enough to tug the ancient bell-pull, which jangles a bell within on the end of a wire, and enquire if the house is a museum that can be visited. They are politely turned away. (We can certainly sympathise with such behaviour as by now our own curiosity is piqued). This is followed by the tantalising description: Before the door is shut again they will get a glimpse of a panelled room and an arched doorway, rugs and a longcase clock, perhaps a whiff of logs smouldering on a pile of soft ash in an open fireplace. Here, surely, is the past, on which the door has fleetingly opened? But there is no automatic admittance to the past. A way has to be found.

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

Of course we know that Tindall is going to find that way for us. And what a route it is. On the journey there we learn about the history of the south bank and the factors which contributed to make ‘the Surrey side’ different from ‘the City side’ over the centuries. There are diversions into a myriad of related subjects: everything from the Thames watermen and lightermen who operated between these two shores, to the building of the bridges and the coming of the industries which would change the area for good. The majority of these topics also affected my own ancestors, and many are ones I have chosen to explore in relation to my family history. As Tindall’s book uses the history of a house, rather than a family, as the main subject, this keeps the focus to a specific area of London. And what makes this story such an appealing one to follow is that the writer is so evidently alongside us as we read – an authorial voice which is sometimes critical, other times surprised and enthusiastic, yet which never over-rides the narrative.

MILLENIUM BRIDGEThe route to The House by the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral

Since then, I have read a number of non-fiction books which explore the history of South London specifically. Some of the most fascinating have been those written in another period, such as Harry Williams South London (from The County Books Series), published in 1949, giving us an insight into the post-war mind. Although Williams writes in such a style which seems shockingly un-PC to the modern reader – and often makes blithe generalisations about the neighbourhoods he explores – there is something prescient in the summarising statement of the book: The history of the twentieth century is too close at hand to make any review of it possible, but at least it can be said that its influence upon the ten boroughs has been largely negative. We have rid ourselves of much of the misery, cruelty and danger of early days, but apathy towards ugliness is growing, a remorseless process of decay set in motion by the blindness of men who thought and still think only in terms of material prosperity. The foul congeries of slums of South London have disappeared, but the tenements and new housing estates that have taken their places have been built without faith in themselves or in the future.

SOUTH LONDON

Throughout the book, William veers between nostalgia and anger at the demise of south London’s past glories. When it comes to Bankside he takes great delight in describing the 16th/17th century neighbourhood, with its pre-Puritan theatres and taverns. The world was a gay place for Londoners back then he muses sadly; then goes on to state: Dignity and quality were there, music and colour, and of all these attributes, only music has survived in the ordinary life of England. The post-war drabness of his own world has obviously affected him greatly. He then goes into full purple prose to describe Shakespeare’s time in Bankside (where the old Globe theatre was located), which is worth quoting in full below:

Shakespeare is supposed to have derived his close knowledge of ships and the sea from the long row of riverside hostelries with projecting balconies and snug tap-rooms, which lined the river along Bankside and Bermondsey. There, in these friendly inns, the sea captains, pirates, smugglers, rovers and honest sailors from a hundred wandering ships of all nations nightly congregated to drink and sing and exchange the tales of their trade. We can see on a dozen balconies, leaning out over the scurrying blackness of the river, clusters of men, hard and craggy with the rigours of their calling, but never hard-faced. Gaily dressed – for the deadening uniformity of clothes had not yet stifled the English scene – they swopped sailors’ yarns in that rich and vital speech which was the prerogative of the meanest scullion in Shakespeare’s day. And somewhere Shakespeare himself would be lurking and listening and drinking, and in the end disputing in friendly argument. For wit matched wit in his time and inventiveness of thought was the monopoly of no man and no class.

N.B. With such a rum-sounding bunch packed into these ‘snug tap-rooms’ and ‘projecting balconies’ and on the sauce, I somehow think there must have been more than just ‘friendly argument’ going on!

However, when reading Williams’ descriptions of contemporary run-down post-war Bankside, we get the sense that he cannot get out of the neighbourhood fast enough. He stands in front of number 49 (although he never names it) looking wistfully to the City and states: And so we take one glance across the river at the majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Wren must have looked so often from his house on the south shore; then averting our eyes from the disgusting contrast, let us retrace our steps back to the bridge foot (of Southwark Bridge).

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

BANKSIDE 1940Bankside, 1940 (no 49 is partly visible on on the left)

Both Images: ‘Old houses on Bankside’, in Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 54. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-54

Giving us a late Victorian’s view of South London is the prolific Walter Besant, who in 1898 wrote in the introduction to his book on the topic (described on the frontispiece as being the companion to ‘London’, ‘Westminster’, ‘East London’ etc): I hope that ‘SOUTH LONDON’ will be received with favour equal to that bestowed upon its predecessors. The chief difficulty in writing it has been that of selection from the great treasures which have accumulated about this strange spot. The contents of this volume do not form a tenth of what might be written on the same plan, and still without including the History Proper of the Borough. I am like the showman in the ‘Cries of London’- I pull the strings and the children peep. Strange spot indeed!

References to Williams and Besant have cropped up in some of my previous posts, as both writers are highly readable and at their most enjoyable when they go ‘off-piste’ to rant and rave (albeit gently) about their own hobbyhorses. This is Besant’s take on local churches (including my own family’s original parish church in Horsleydown): It is a great pity that in the whole of South London lying east of the High Street (the current Borough High Street) there is not a single beautiful, or even picturesque church. Look at them! St Olave’s (now St Saviour’s Cathedral), St John, Horsleydown, St. Mary Magdalen, St Mary, Rotherhithe, the four oldest churches in the quarter. It cannot be pretended that these structures inspire veneration or even respect. Modern day readers may wish to disagree (and may even feel frustration that St John’s was destroyed by WW2 bombing).

ST JOHN HORLEYDOWN (2)St John’s Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckler c1799

Similarly to Harry Williams, although fifty years earlier, Walter Besant was rather disparaging about the south London of his day. In fact, he was forced to issue an apology in future editions of the book for describing the perceived lack of culture in the area. His original paragraph is reproduced here: In South London there are two millions (sic) of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad – but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges, apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centre – unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm – one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of the very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs, it has no public buildings, it has no West End.

The brief (and rather unenthusiastic) apology he later added as a post script to the book states: NOTE. – Since this was written several new theatres have been built in South London. I should therefore like to correct the passage on p. 320 which states that the Theatres are humble. Also I would like to acknowledge the existence of local newspapers, and instead of saying that it has no public buildings I would say only one or two buildings.

We come away with the impression that such patrician writers of another age are perhaps not quite to be trusted with their stories – yet they now allow us to view places and their history through the eyes of a different generation. We know, for example, that Besant regards the contemporary 1898 south London population figure of two million people as being extremely high, and states: I cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages (the old scattered communities) in 1801 with that of the great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. (There was a ten-fold increase in south London’s population in the 19th century, compared to five-fold north of the river). Today, although there is currently around double that number living in south London, the rate of population growth has been slower, and thus the changes Besant viewed in his lifetime must have been so much greater than those observed over the course of the last century.

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

Tindall – who most definitely knows how to separate fact from fiction – has the luxury of writing a hundred years after Besant and thus being able to extend the history of Bankside and the surrounding area into the 20th century, and to see it come full circle in many respects (as it returns to the ‘gay place’ of the past that William’s described). She also has access to a large number of documents that previously would not have been available as they were either still locked away and/or not available to the general reading public. The most obvious of these records are the official census returns, which are only released one hundred years after they have been taken. These ten-year snapshots in time, which began in 1841, are a boon to genealogists and social historians, yet can sometimes distort a family’s story if not used in conjunction with other records (see Moments in Time for my treatment of this subject). Yet the past is always moving forward, and as Tindall points out: The identities of all those who lived in the house in 1911 and in subsequent decennial years are lying quietly in an archive as I write (in 2006), but neither I nor any other researcher can access them till the requisite term of years has elapsed.

The online release of many more 20th century records – such as electoral registers and phone books – has gone some way to fill in the gap between the 100-year rule and living memory which is always going to exist due to the span of a human life. But all family historians will sympathise with the frustration at moving from an era where there is a relative abundance of records, to one where there is an information gap, despite the fact we feel we should be able to discover more as we move closer to our own time. In fact, detailed parish records of the pre-registration time in 1837 often yield up more information than later official records, with the main advantage that a certificate does not have to be bought unseen, always an irritant (and loss of a tenner) if it proves to be the wrong one. This can often be the case if the family name was a relatively common one. (Earlier records can also circumvent this issue due to the significantly smaller population of the time). I still remember from my ‘heir hunter’ days in Holborn (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) how many dud certificates the company ended up paying for, but as we needed to move fast to beat the competition then the net had to generally be cast far and wide.

The issue of researching a too-common name certainly does not come up when it comes to the occupants of number 49 Bankside from the mid-18th to 19th centuries. Tindall is able to trace the Sells family from their (recorded) beginnings in the area as Thames lightermen, to their ownership of the house and its neighbours through their successful expansion into the lucrative coal business. Their story ends a century after their arrival in Bankside, when the direct descendants of the original family (now the Peronnet Sells) leave the heavily industrialised Bankside of the Victorian age to relocate to a quieter semi-rural area further inland from the river, just as my own great-great grandfather (James Skelton) did when he moved to Brixton from the nearby riverside parish of Horsleydown.

And here is where the story of this Bankside family entwines with my own family history in an unexpected way. By 1871, Edward Perronet Sells Ill, who was born in 1845 and lived in no. 49 Bankside as a child, had moved into the same street on the outskirts of Croydon where James Skelton’s oldest son, the wealthy mahogany dealer, James William Skelton, resided. When the young Sells takes a house in Morland Avenue to live alongside all the other merchants and brokers – a high proportion being (like James William) described as West India merchants, it was still considered an undeveloped semi-rural outpost. The handful of houses in this once salubrious street had the luxury of extensive gardens to the rear, as well as facing onto Morland Park, and were often just referred to by their fancy titles. James William called his own residence ‘Westle House’, a recurring family name whose significance I have yet to discover as it possibly related to his mother’s side of the family, the branch from which I am not descended.

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

I have mentioned the sad history of Westle House before (see The Story So Far), which was advertised for sale in 1868 shortly before James William moved to Gipsy Hill with his new wife (and thus he may have actually just missed having Edward Peronnet Sells as a younger neighbour). It was described as including ten bed and dressing rooms, four reception rooms, and convenient and extensive domestic offices, but is now in its death throes (if it hasn’t already been put out of its misery). I went in search of this villa in Morland Road, some years back, on the off-chance that it was still standing, amazed at my good luck that of all the houses in the original street it was James William’s which was the sole survivor.

It was hard to imagine this house once being described – in the estate agent parlance of the day – as being admirably situate and standing in its own pleasure grounds, with well-stocked kitchen garden. A detailed map of the ‘new’ street that I was able to access in the Croydon archives prior to visiting the house showed that there had once been a circular driveway at the front of the building. At the rear was a long narrow garden, consisting of a lawn and shrubbery and a vegetable garden, with fruit trees furthest from the house. It seemed strange to think of a single man living there, so far from town, until I recalled the fact that he’d brought back his half-Belizean daughter to London with him at some point in the 1860s. Was he perhaps ashamed of this girl, whose mother he appears never to have married? Did he want to hide her away from society? Sadly, Louisa Arabella did not survive past the age of 21, dying of TB in Gipsy Hill several years later. Her story is one that I have always wanted to be able to tell, but she leaves no records other than her death certificate.

I try to imagine her sitting in the garden of Westle House on a summer’s day, pining for the warmth of the Caribbean. Perhaps she was already instructing the gardener to grow the plants that reminded her of her homeland and to nurture the herbs that would bring back the taste of her childhood in Belize. But these thoughts only occurred to me afterwards, and on that wet October day when I set out along the busy Morland Road I certainly knew that, even if the house was still standing, this delightful large garden would never have survived. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared to find the house boarded up and surrounded by ugly security fencing. (In the space which once was the garden was a block of modern flats). If truth be told, I could not get away from the place fast enough, such was my distress at seeing the building in its current state.

WESTLE HOUSEThe old ‘Westle House’ in Morland Rd Croydon today

A few months later the poor old boarded-up house even appeared on television, starring (of all things) in a conservative party political broadcast which highlighted how Croydon’s conservative MP would replace such dilapidated housing with affordable flats. The strange thing is that I do not think I’ve ever watched a party political broadcast in my life – and certainly not a conservative one – but was either waiting for the news to come on or too lazy to switch off afterwards. Of course, when I heard the word ‘Croydon’, I glanced up with a certain amount of interest. But as the story of the local housing crisis unfolded, I suddenly knew with a chilling certainty that Westle House was going to appear. And then everything moved so fast – the house was there on the screen and the MP was wittering on about how many flats could be fitted into the space. The whole thing spooked me considerably, and when I found out later that someone had recently been found dead in the grounds of the house (which presumably explained the security fencing), I felt that the building had most definitely come to the end of its natural lifespan.

This made me realise how pleased I was that the old Skelton family home – that of James William’s father – in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton was still very much in use and seemingly well-loved by its current occupants. One day I happened to glance inside while walking by (perhaps ‘happened to’ is an understatement) and saw what looked like a lively family with teenagers sitting round a big table. If I’d had enough guts I might have been more like Tindall’s Bankside strangers and knocked on the door, hoping that instead of turning me away, however politely, they would have invited me inside and told me their own stories of the house.

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

Knocking on strangers’ doors is the kind of thing that the writer Julie Myerson was not afraid to do when she researched her non-fiction book Home: The Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in my House, which was first published in 2004. After I’d read The House by the Thames, I must have been hungry for more stories about south London homes and Myerson’s book was an obvious choice, although her mid-Victorian terraced Clapham house is a lot younger than the Bankside one and thus the social history focuses on a different timespan. It is also a very different style of book as stories of Myerson’s own life (past and present) are interspersed with that of the occupants of the house.

As a novice to historical research, Myerson describes learning about the different types of records and archives available, as well as documenting the ways she attempts to contact people connected with the house and her delight and frustration at the responses – or lack of them. So the book also functions as a sort of beginner’s guide to undertaking genealogical research. But what really makes Home stand out is that Myerson has the novelist’s capacity to weave stories from the information she collects, slipping from fact to fiction and back again with ease, and bringing the tales of the inhabitants to life in a way that allows us to see them as people who (in the words of Gillian Tindall above): opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases.

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Starting with her own experiences of buying the property in the late 1980s, she moves the narrative gently backwards so that we feel we are being pulled back with the house through the years until we reach its beginnings in 1871. The final chapter, entitled Grass and Silence, opens with the eerie Number 34, it’s time to finally undo you. You’re coming apart pretty fast now – bricks, slate, cement, mortar, nails, joists flying away as hurriedly as they appeared. London gravel and clay are pouring back into your deepest foundations – shovelled and levelled, a layer of turf and gorse flung quick as a blanket over the top.

And there on the last page is the line: Bazalgette’s men break soil at first light on Monday. Just as when I came across the name of Edward Peronnet Sells in the census for Morland Road in Croydon in 1871, it is an uncanny reminder that all our histories of London are interconnected.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019

 

A River Ran Under Them

There is something about an underground river that trumps all the other subterranea out there. Deep shelters, gas mains, disused Tube channels and cable ducts have their charms for some, but these are the latter-day products of an infrastructure-clogged age, whereas a river lives on in the mind as something primordial and pre-societal.

Jon Newman, River Effra: South London’s Secret Spine (2016)

effracoverIn my previous post (see Looking for the Lost), I introduced the hidden River Effra and its course from the hills of Norwood (in what was previously the Great North Wood) to its current outlet at the Thames at Vauxhall. This month I want to focus on the connection between the river’s route to Vauxhall from its two main sources in Upper and Lower Norwood and the south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors through which it passes, albeit underground.  

My family’s London story starts almost two hundred years ago with the arrival of my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, a master tailor, from North Yorkshire to the capital. He established a tailoring business in the Thameside parish of Horsleydown (near to the southern approach of today’s Tower Bridge), living ‘over the shop’ with his Kentish wife and later young family (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). As he grew successful he moved further out of London – to then semi-rural Brixton in the 1840s, while his successful son, a mahogany merchant, bettered him still with his upmarket residences in Croydon, Gipsy Hill and finally Clapham.

Even by the time James Skelton arrived in London to seek his fortune in the 1820s, polluted sections of the River Effra had already begun to be covered up or ‘arched over’ as it passed through the inner south London suburbs, where it was more often than not used as an unofficial sewer. Less than fifty years later, when my great-great grandfather lay freshly buried up in Nunhead cemetery, new housing developments covered huge tracts of what had formerly been fields and market gardens, the river had to all intents vanished into London’s much-needed new underground sewerage system, a project which gained in impetus after The Great Stink of 1858.

But had James Skelton been even aware of the watercourse which ran through his adopted home? When he moved from Brixton to Walworth with his second family in the early 1850s (see When I Grow Rich), did he know that the new estates which were springing up around Kennington Park were pumping their waste into a covered waterway which still ran and sparkled further out in the hills of Norwood? Perhaps when he’d lived in Cold Harbour Lane in the 1840s, he’d seen evidence of that same water course in the open ditches of Brixton. Here there were still uncovered channels which had begun to stink from the effluence from householders, and which demanded attention from angry residents. In fact, his own relatively new house, which like others would have been fitted with a new-fangled ‘flushing toilet’ most likely used the river as a sewage outlet without the occupants even realising where their waste was deposited.

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)James Skelton’s ‘new’ house on Coldharbour Lane

By the time his oldest son, the mahogany merchant James William Skelton moved to Gipsy Hill in 1870, James senior had finally succumbed to the chronic respiratory infection which shortened his life and that of many other Londoners . He therefore he never had the chance to visit James William and his family in his newly built home in the relatively rural village of Gipsy Hill, made popular by the arrival of The Crystal Palace in 1851 after its removal from Hyde Park when The Great Exhibition finished. In their rather grand villa in The Avenue – now Dulwich Wood Avenue (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship) – the family would have had glimpses of the giant glass-paned roof of this building.

DULWICH WOOD AVENUECrystal Palace from The Avenue, Gipsy Hill

The burgeoning suburban enclave of Gipsy Hill, with its new railway and glass palace (or monstrosity, depending on your viewpoint), was a place and time that straddled modernity and antiquity. James William Skelton’s villa also faced onto a large field used by the local dairy for their cows, so the family would certainly have felt the collision of these two worlds. Part of that field still exists today, a tree-bordered segment of grass caught between busy streets in a strange sort of parody of a country green, whose various names over the years of Bell Meadow, Hunter’s Meadow or French’s Field are testament to its long history. And it was through this damp field that the Upper Norwood Branch of the Effra once ran.

gh-field-2French’s Field in Gipsy Hill today

I have already mentioned the fact that my father’s boyhood home in Denmark Road, Brixton (from where he watched the Crystal Palace burn down in 1936), was located just around the corner from the old Coldharbour Lane family home of his unknown great-grandfather (separated in habitation by almost a century, although both houses were roughly of the same age). Those who have followed my quest from the beginning may remember that when my grandparents moved out of Brixton to Gipsy Hill in 1938, they also unknowingly once again found themselves only a few minutes away from where a member of the ‘other Skelton family’ once lived.

It seems strange to think that my father or grandfather might have walked past the houses in The Avenue, or Coldharbour Lane, admiring them for their grandeur. Not for the likes of us! they might have said (my father always liked to remind me that I was barely two generations away from having to become a domestic servant when I grew up). In another twist – although it is perhaps not so strange, given the terrain – the Lower Norwood Branch of the river once ran through Norwood Park, made from the remains of Norwood Common, in Salters Hill, just a hop, skip and a jump away from my father’s new home in Durning Road, and a green space where he possibly played with his schoolfriends from nearby Gipsy Hill School in the short time he lived in the area before the outbreak of war necessitated his evacuation to the countryside.

NORWOOD PARK 1890Norwood Park 1890

These two Norwood branches of the Effra eventually meet at Croxted Road (previously Croxted Lane), where the eminent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, recalled playing as a child in the 1820s at the same time as my great-great grandfather was setting up his tailoring business in riverside Bermondsey. As the historian John Newman points out in his book about the River Effra, the meandering path which followed the trajectory of the old watercourse at this point still felt like a quiet spot until developers finally took advantage of the stream-free land. This was also the point where, in 1865, the Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer for the new Metropolitan Board of Works (previously the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers) linked up the river to his newly-created Effra Branch of the south London sewerage system. This underground brick sewer interrupted the natural path of the Effra to channel the water through the growing suburbs. When it reached Deptford it met up with the Southern Low Level and Southern High Level sewers, the effluence from these three sources pouring out into the Thames down river at Crossness.

In reference to Croxted Lane, Newman quotes Ruskin (from his strange 1884 autobiography Praeterita), who described the demise of the winding thoroughfare as such: The fields on either side of it are now mostly dug up for building, or cut through into gaunt corners and nooks of blind ground by the wild crossings and concurrencies of three railroads. Half a dozen handfuls of new cottages, with Doric doors, are dropped about here and there among the gashed ground: the lane itself, now entirely grassless, is a deep-rutted, heavy-hillocked cart-road, diverging gatelessly into various brick-fields or pieces of waste.

CROXTED LANE c1870.pngCroxted Lane c1865

Ruskin also mentions this spot when reminiscing about his youth (he was born in 1819). In Praeterita he states: The summer of 1832 must, I think, have been passed at home, for my next sketch-book contains only some efforts at tree-drawing in Dulwich, and a view of the bridge over the now bricked-up “Effra”, by which the Norwood Road then crossed it at the bottom of Herne Hill: the road itself, just at the place where, from the top of the bridge, one looked up and down the streamlet, bridged now into putridly damp shade by the railway, close to Herne Hill Station.

HALF MOON LANEBridge over the Effra at Herne Hill, 1823

We have all known rural or semi-rural spots that exist no more, so can sympathise with Ruskin’s sentiments. When I lived in Whetstone in North London in the 1980s, I often used to walk up to the green belt area around Totteridge Village to soak up the atmosphere of what to me (as a young Scot) appeared a very English idyll. By approaching the village and surrounding countryside from the intensely built up streets around Whetstone, it seemed to give the place a more bucolic air than had it been buried in the countryside, so much was the contrast between the two areas (see A Rose in Holly Park). My final destination – the snug bar in The Rising Sun, at that time a very traditional English pub – was the icing on the cake (or the froth on the beer) of a walk in that locality.

TOTTERIDGE PATHEnticing Footpaths at Totteridge Green Belt

I sometimes feel that pockets of countryside in and around towns and cities are more poignant places to visit because of the urban sprawl that surrounds them, and I appreciate Ruskin’s ‘gateless’ description of Croxted Lane. For him the absence of gates was certainly negative, despite the fact that earlier in the century such constructions were more often associated with the unpopular inclosure acts. Wooden gates and stiles which lead onto twisting paths lined with trees and hedges always appear inviting to me, and are one of the things I love about walking in the British countryside. I am currently reading Praeterita (such are the interesting side shoots of family history research) and notice that for Ruskin the gates and stiles often appear to be symbols of entrance onto public rights of way (rather than deterrents), something that the contemporary walker can appreciate.

Writing in the decade after Ruskin, in his book South London, the Victorian novelist and historian, Walter Besant, states that: In older days – at the end of the eighteenth century for example, the Effra, a bright and sparkling stream, ran out of the fields above what is now called the Effra Road, and so along the south side – or was it the north? – of Brixton Road. Rustic cottages stood on the other side of the stream, with flowing shrubs -lilac, laburnum and hawthorn – on the bank, and the beds of the simpler flowers in the summer: the gardens and the cottages were approached by little wooden bridges, each provided with a single rail painted green. What can be more enchanting than this image – if it did indeed exist.

However, by 1865 Bazalgette’s sewerage system had drained off most of the river at the points where it met or was intersected by the three main sewerage channels in south London, mentioned previously. So while my great-grandfather may have recollected some of the still open ditches which carried the river through south London in the mid-19th century, when he died in 1867 the new sewers had removed almost all traces of the river from sight. Only when the ‘river’ flooded (a relatively regular occurrence until the creation of storm relief sewers at the lower parts of the river at the end of the century) did the waters of the Effra reassert themselves.

It is a fascinating exercise to lose yourself in one of the many detailed Victorian maps of the area and see sections of the Effra, spring to life once more. Perusing the detailed Stanford Library Maps of London and its Suburbs from the 1860s and 70s (link here) it is possible to follow the course of the river from its Lower and Upper Norwood sources (and become confused by its many tributaries) until it disappears at Brixton. But to scroll through these maps is as painful – if not more so – than the experience of looking at the images in Lost London, which I described last month. Out jumps Bloomfield Hall – restored again to all its glory with the ornamental lakes – before it was pulled down in the following century to make way for the Bloomfield Estate where my grandparents moved to in 1938, full of awe for their indoor bathroom and electric lights. And look! Here comes the Effra snaking into Brixton shortly before it would disappear for good into Bazalgette’s underground sewer.

BAZALGETTEJoseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station. Photograph: Otto Herschan/Getty

What a place the outer suburbs were then – mineral springs and nurseries and market gardens are spread throughout south London with lanes and waterways linking and defining them. Footpaths follow watercourses (as in the example of Croxted Lane, above) which the cartographers have lined with trees, making one ache to be able to step inside the map and walk along their shady paths. The names of these places – Water Lane, Springfield, and Brockwell House give away the old sources of water, many of which allowed the market gardens to proliferate (also aided by their proximity to a steady source of manure) until selling the land to speculative builders became a much more lucrative proposition.

Perhaps we should leave the last word (almost) to Walter Besant, who wrote the following in his book entitled simply South London, in 1898: It is difficult, now that the whole country south of London has been covered with villas, roads, streets, and shops, to understand how wonderful for loveliness it was until the builder seized upon it. When the ground rose out of the great Lambeth and Bermondsey Marsh – the cliff or incline is marked still by the names Battersea Rise, Clapham Rise, and Brixton Rise – it opened out into one wild heath after another – Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney, Wimbledon, Barnes, Tooting, Streatham, Richmond, Thornton, and so south as far as Banstead Downs. The country was not flat: it rose at Wimbledon to a high plateau; it rose at Norwood to a chain of hills; between the Heaths stretched gardens and orchards; between the orchards were pasture lands; on the hill sides were hanging woods; villages were scattered about, each with its venerable church and its peaceful churchyard; along the high roads to Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth bumped and rolled, all day and all night, the stage coaches and the waggons; the wayside inns were crowded with those who halted to drink, those who halted to dine, and those who halted to sleep: if the village lay off the main road it was as quiet and secure as the town of Laish*. All this beauty is gone; we have destroyed ii: all this beauty has gone for ever; it cannot be replaced. And on the south there was so much more beauty than on the north. *A biblical oasis, in present-day Israel, now called ‘Don’

Since Besant wrote his book, there has been much more destruction of south London, not least in twentieth century wars that he would not live to experience. Yet his text was written at a time when ideas of progress were often different from today, even though it often feels a case of ‘two steps forward; one step back’. If Besant were to travel forward to our current time (and what a trip that would be!) he might be both shocked and surprised in equal measure. The killer London smogs have gone, but air pollution from traffic-congested roads has replaced them. Rows of so-called ‘slum dwellings’ have been eradicated, although cheaply built and isolating tower blocks now stand in their place. 

Besant would most likely soon realise that we are now grappling with issues that were once seen as the answers to the very problems the Victorians (and those who came after them) tried to solve. However, I believe he would be interested in the contemporary solutions which aim to rectify some of the mistakes previous generations made. One of these is the London Wildlife’s Trust Lost Effra Project, an urban greening initiative which aims to combat the problem of flooding in the Effra catchment area after heavy rain. As mentioned last month, this is done through soft engineering solutions which at the same time also increase biodiversity in inner city neighbourhoods. No doubt Besant would be heartened by the current awareness of such environmental issues and the local involvement in this project and others like it. It’s a message he might be keen to take back with him to the 19th century.

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2019

Looking for the Lost

Old photographs have a truth and clarity to them which is lacking from architectural prints, drawings or paintings. Depicting people and places frozen in time, and at random moments of their existence, they convey a haunting message of mortality. As primary sources of historical evidence, they are by their very nature, impartial, and bear witness to past places or events, undistorted by the interpretation of their creator. Unlike the artist, or draughtsman, ostensibly the camera never lies, so photographs provide a direct, tangible link to a long-distant past.

Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945, (2009)

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These days it often seems as if we cannot get enough of ‘lost London’: its lost buildings, lost streets, lost stations, lost rivers etc. Whatever has been lost in the capital, there’s a book to celebrate/commiserate the demise. And I cannot deny having my own share of such publications. In fact, on returning to my genealogical research a few years ago, the first item I acquired was the heavy black-and-white illustrated tome simply called Lost London 1870-1945 (a period straddling the birth of commercial photography to the end of WW2). It is a book which has delighted me since. Not only did it allow me to view some of the long-gone churches in which my ancestors had been baptised or wed, including the iconic Hawksmoor church of St John Horsleydown , which was badly damaged in WW2 and never rebuilt (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), but I was also able to take a peek into the neighbourhoods in which these same family members had lived, worked, played and died.

bombed-st-js-2St John Horsleydown or ‘The Louse Church’ in 1945 (after WW2 bombing)

Sadly, many of the places featured in the book were wilfully destroyed during early 20th century ‘improvements’ to the city, as well as in the post-war era, and yet are streets and buildings which a few years earlier my grandparents may have known when young. Almost stranger still were the glimpses of neighbourhoods before their damage during WW2 bombing raids – places which my father might have walked as a boy, and thus still within the capture of living memory. These poignant photographs seemed to be the last link between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ London, and when turning each page revealed yet another loss I became almost panicky at the thought of these terminal vanishings. (Once on returning with my camera a year or two later to photograph an old Victorian tenement where my great-great grandmother had lived I was horrified to find it already gone and replaced by a modern block of flats, even though I realise this was a better use of limited urban space).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral Old and New London collide: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral

For a long time I could only really deal with the book in small doses, such was the affect of the images. To add to this, the often ghost-like people who peered from upstairs windows or stared from shop doorways almost seemed to be willing the viewer to make a connection with them, as if they wanted to defy the very march of time itself. As Davies states in his preface: The spectral figures of people and vehicles, which are the product of long exposure times, add to the haunting quality of the images. Figures stare at the camera, and, where they have moved, leave a ghostly trace on the plate.

I often had the disquieting feeling that by seeing these places made whole again by the photographic image I could somehow intervene to prevent their disappearance. In his book Camera Lucida, the French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes (see Those Ghostly Traces) describes this peculiar nature of photography: A painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, with photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality, and of the past. He goes on to state: what I see been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.

Today as I glance through my much-loved copy of Lost London, I realise that many of the photographs have taken on a new meaning in the years since I began my genealogical quest. Places I could barely locate on a map I can now anchor in their neighbourhoods and the districts to which they connect. I do not by any means pertain to have a fraction of the kind of knowledge possessed by a London flaneur, but realise that my long weekends of pounding the capital’s streets until my legs ached have at least been of some use. And in fact, the truth is that these were the happiest times I spent in London. Just me and an A to Z and an Oyster card (which was often left untouched in my pocket). In those moments of freedom – setting out over one of the bridges towards ‘London-over-the-water’ in the morning with the wind off the Thames stinging my eyes was always an exhilarating moment – I felt as alive to the city as I do to the sea or the mountains at the outset of a long hike.

Some weekends my walking would take me to the door of a conveniently located research centre – like the Lambeth Archives housed in the Minet Library just around the corner from my father’s boyhood stamping ground. Wonderfully placed for researching the streets which surrounded it, this was where I learned about the beginnings of my grandmother’s home in Denmark Road, where she lived as a child and married woman (see I remember, I remember), and about my great-great grandfather’s house in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Although this early Victorian semi-detached villa-style house was but a short walk away from Denmark Road, none of my immediate relatives had ever been aware of the ‘other family’ before. Unfortunately, knowledge of the first London Skeltons had been ‘lost’ to the generations that followed due to their tangled double-family genealogy. And it is this story with which my project is mainly concerned: by creating a chronological narrative, I hope to eventually have built up a framework on which to hang these knotted threads for further disentangling.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Brixton houses: two different families

The one thing, however, which unites both Skelton family branches (the lost and the found; the wealthy and the poor) is south London. And this is the place I usually head to on my safaris around the capital. From riverside Bermondsey to Camberwell and Gipsy Hill, and beyond to Croydon, the family has steadily (and typically) moved further south from the river. The master tailor, James Skelton, who first arrived from Yorkshire in the early 19th century, started the trend for moving to somewhere cleaner and more wholesome in which to raise a family, while benefiting from the extra living space – not to mention the increased status such addresses brought. As respiratory problems affected a great deal of Londoners, shortening their lives and causing them misery, including many in my own family, moving away from centres of industry and the burgeoning railways (see A Riverside Rest) was a smart and obvious move for those who  could afford it.

But then as these places themselves fell foul to speculative building, and the once green fields and market gardens were covered with rows of hastily built stockjobbers’ houses, the wealthier sought to move further out. Sometimes that trend was temporarily reversed, as was the case with James Skelton when in middle-age he set up home with an impoverished teenage single mother, shortly after the death of his first wife (see When I Grow Rich). Thus instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement in his leafy Brixton neighbourhood, he had to ‘downsize’ to more industrial Walworth to enable him to bring up six children! I sometimes wonder if, when he died in Aldred Road from bronchitis at 67 (not a bad age in the 1860s), he ever regretted filling up his remaining years with the duties of maintaining another family, or whether those new children had given him a reason to carry on until the end. This was despite the probable distaste his grown-up ‘other’ children had for his union with a young pauper girl, which was only made legal in 1864, shortly before his death.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Walworth c1916

In many ways my family research is not merely an attempt to learn about my unknown London ancestors, but to also discover London in a way that takes me to places I might not have ever visited. As I’ve mentioned previously, despite living in the capital for three years in the mid-eighties, I rarely went south of the river, being content to enjoy the then ‘coolness’ of north and west London. Now it seems inconceivable that I did not think to venture farther than the George Inn on Borough High Street, or the South Bank Centre, but Southwark had always seemed so gloomy to me (from the other side of the river) and childhood memories of boat trips to Greenwich passing dark and forbidding warehouses (where anything might happen) had only added to this impression.

When I did start to explore the streets of ‘London-over-the -water’, I was surprised and delighted at the variety of architectural styles, the hidden gardens, the helpful folk who often appeared whenever I pulled out my A to Z on a street corner. If I was tired, I’d hop on a bus to get a better overview of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the added advantage of seeing into living rooms and gardens as the bus dawdled at lights or crawled up many of south London’s unexpected hills. Sometimes I’d get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere unplanned, but I always tried to see this as an opportunity to discover somewhere new. Tranquil gardens, like those at the Horniman Museum, or wonderful streets, such as Camberwell Grove, would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a wrong turning or a mistaken bus route. Even if there was not a direct ancestral connection, these places were just as fascinating to visit as the neighbourhoods of my forebearers. Oftentimes I wondered if I was walking in the ghost footsteps of someone who had gone before me: Did X ever walk down this road and marvel at the houses just as I do now? Did Y ever visit these gardens and take the same pleasure I do in strolling between the flower beds and sitting under the trees?

Horniman Museuem Gardens c1900Horniman Museum Gardens c1900 (c) Horniman Museum

My favourite activity was to connect up the neighbourhoods in which my ancestors once lived, walking along what I liked to think of as ‘genealogical ley lines’. This is how I came to learn about the River Effra – what the historian and writer Jon Newman describes in his eponymous book as ‘South London’s Secret Spine.’ The name Effra was already familiar to me through my walks in Brixton where there is an Effra Road, Close, Court and Parade, as well as other landmarks which include Effra in their title. Thus I always associated the word ‘Effra’ with that area, just as I did the name ‘Ruskin’ or ‘Denmark’, but without initially giving the etymology much thought. It was only later, when I could map out South London in my head and roughly understand how all the different parts were interconnected that the Effra began to mean more to me than just another ubiquitous street name.

The turning point was when I heard about the relatively new Lambeth Heritage Festival – a month-long series of walks and talks in the area held every September since 2013. Having attended one or two of these events previously, in 2016 I was interested to note that the programme included a trio of excursions which covered the route of the river Effra from its source in Norwood to its outlet into the Thames at Vauxhall. The walks were led by Jon Newman, the head archivist at the Minet library, who had recently published his book on the topic. The first walk was concentrated on the ‘High Effra’ and was advertised as: A horseshoe walk, descending the Lower Norwood branch of the Effra from its source and then returning up the Upper Norwood branch to that stream’s source. The next walk (the ‘Middle Effra’) was described as: A walk along the Effra valley as it passes between Knights Hill and Herne Hill. Finally, the ‘Low Effra’ was billed as: A walk following the course of the ‘new cut’ of the river dug in the middle ages from Kennington to the Thames.

effracoverMuch to my frustration, I wasn’t able to join any of these walks or attend the lecture which accompanied the book launch. However, the following year another talk on the subject was scheduled during the Lambeth Heritage Festival. I took my mother along with me as it coincided with our yearly trip to the capital, and the location – a modern upstairs conference room in Southwark Cathedral – was relatively close to our digs in Bankside. (It would be the last time we would visit London together before all the walking became too much for her). On instinct, I kept the title of the talk a secret from my mother – as I felt befitted the subject. I also had the feeling that the idea of an underground river in south London would not excite her in the same way that it did me. I hoped, however, that the content of the talk would lead her to come to the same realisation that I had.

Halfway through the event, when Jon Newman paused to take a sip of water, my mother turned to me and hissed Our family are the River Effra! And I knew then that she had ‘got it’, too. From Gipsy Hill to Coldharbour Lane to Kennington and the River Thames, the course of the vanished river was like a geographical history of our family. Back in our rooms at the LSE Bankside that night, we scoured Newman’s book and let our eyes linger on the images and maps which accompanied the story of the river from its beginnings in what was once known as The Great North Wood to its artificial ‘outfall’ into the Thames. It was frustrating to note that any photographs which appeared to be of the Effra were only of the old river bed, the watercourse having already been mostly directed underground by the time this technology was in place. As Newman himself points out: Just as London’s nature writers missed out on the Effra so, by and large, did London’s photographers; the river’s vanishing act just pre-dated the growing affordability and portability of cameras.

 River Effra 1870The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870

Perhaps that is why the history of this river exerts such a hold on so many people. The very fact that there are no true images of the Effra as an actual river means that we must rely on other evidence to tell its story – documents, sketches, paintings, maps, place names, the physicality of gurgling drains. But despite all this, the Effra is still hidden to us – in more way than one – and can never be returned to us, for all the fanciful thinking out there. Except perhaps in our imagination, where it rushes and sparkles.

This is also why I believe we are drawn to our family histories: they are like stories forced underground that bubble up to the surface at certain points and intersections, yet can only be fully understood by our own plodding research into the archives. But still we walk the streets, searching for the more physical traces of our ancestors, every so often experiencing a feeling that we cannot quite describe, but briefly sense it to be one that has passed through the generations. The smell of the Thames at high tide from a set of watermans’ stairs; the bells at St Paul’s on a rainy Sunday morning; the taste of roast chestnuts on a winter’s afternoon in early December. Or we might glance up for no reason and see a ghost sign advertising the rental of carriages on the side of a building, or turn into an unexpected alley in the City which smells of beer and grilled chops and hear the chink of cutlery, the sound of laughter. And in those moments we may feel the shape-shifting nature of time.

The physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli talks briefly about the nature of time

Just as many of our ancestors bemoaned what was being lost, perhaps fearing that time was racing forwards without their consent, we too are often nostalgic for the buildings and places that no longer exist – in particular those which are just tantalisingly out of the reach of living memory. Yet there can also be a danger to this way of thinking: we should not forget that our past was once someone else’s future. The restored Victorian warehouses which line the Thames in my great-great grandfather’s Horsleydown neighbourhood (now part of Bermondsey) are nothing less than modern replacements for the old timbered ones my ancestors would have known. The Tower Bridge, loved and revered by so many, involved the destruction of local neighbourhoods on either side of the river (including part of Horsleydown Lane), and it is easy to forget that many eminent Victorians disliked such displays of the Gothic pastiche that came to dominate the architecture of the time. In some quarters there were even calls for its removal in the post war development of the city. (Writing in South London in 1949, the opinionated but highly readable historian Harry Williams contends that: The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable.  It must be replaced since it is an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it).

TOWER BRIDGEThe ‘new’ Tower Bridge – with Horsleydown Lane on the right

When we think about the sad story of the Effra, polluted and pushed underground over the years in the name of progress, it is hard to see this as anything but the converse. Newman points out that today such a river would most likely be regarded as a ‘soft’ engineering solution to the increased rainfall caused by climate change – in the same way other watercourses have been ‘re-natured’. Not only does this provide an attractive landscape for local residents and restores wildlife habitats, but a natural, meandering watercourse slows down and incorporates water that may cause flooding downstream during heavy rains.

For all our nostalgia over lost churches and streets, perhaps it is the loss of this unphotographed natural splendour – and others like it – which we should mourn most of all.

To be continued next month in A River Ran Under Them.

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019

Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life

Family photography can operate at this junction betwen personal memory and social history, btween public myth and personal unconscious. Our memory is never fully ‘ours’, nor are the pictures ever unmediated representations of our past. Looking at them we both construct a fantastic past and set out on a detective trail to find other versions of a ‘real’ one.

Jo Spence and Patricia Holland, Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, (1991)

P1050391 (2)With my grandmother, Edith Skelton, on the Arran ferry, c1967

It is fair to say that neither my grandmother nor I seem to be particularly photogenic when we were snapped together on family outings in the 60s and early 70s. My grandmother had at least the excuse of age, as photographs of her as a young woman show her to look very different (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman). However, it was the ‘lost’ pictures of her as an Edwardian child that have made the biggest impression on me, and I very much wish I could have been privy to them as a child myself.

For most children, it is impossible to imagine their grandparents as anything other than old. And at a time when very few photographs were available of elderly relatives in their youth, it required an imaginative feat to picture the average pensioner as a child. This task was made more difficult by various ‘accoutrements of aging’, such as false teeth, grey hair, outdated clothes and ugly glasses, which were once more prevalent than today. But was the generational gulf really wider then, or is the belief that the current crop of retirees are more youthful than previously just an inevitable part of one’s own aging? If I met my grandparents today, frozen at ‘peak grandparenthood’ in their seventies, would I necessarily think them any older in body and spirit than their modern-day counterparts?

One thing about my grandmother that I may have mentioned before – as it fascinated me as a child – was the fact she retained her own teeth all her life, unlike all my other elderly relatives. Although her teeth were long and yellow (like a horse), they somehow suited her large face and lively grin*. And of course that meant there was never that horrible moment when you first saw a grandparent sans teeth, and wondered what had caused their face to crumple into one which resembled an unsavoury character from a particularly scary fairy tale.

* Years later, when I scrutinised photos of my Scottish grandmother as a young woman, I noticed that her smile had once been so different. It was only after my mother explained that her ‘one size fits all’ set of dentures, shockingly given to her in her 40s at the birth of the NHS to prevent future dental problems, had robbed her of her natural wide smile. But as a child I thought those funny regular too-white false teeth in old age was a given!

In fact, my English grandmother was unlike my Scottish grandmother in many ways, not least in her appearance. The age gap of almost a decade, made Grandma Skelton seem much older. She was never as fashionably dressed as my Scottish grandmother, who had been a dressmaker in her youth (having undertaken an apprenticeship), and made all her own clothes – including the mother-of-the-bride outfit, below. And while my McKay grandmother was slim and neat with short permed hair, the elderly Edith still had her unruly wavy hair tied back in a bun, strands often falling over her face (possibly why she wore hats so much). She was heavier and sweatier and ‘harumphed’ a great deal more. And my mother always used to say that the two couples were the wrong way round: Edie was the plump one, while Sidney was small and wiry – the exact opposite of my Scottish grandparents.

P1040641 (2)My parents’ wedding in March 1963 – with my grandparents ‘interchanged’

While we saw our McKay grandparents several times a year, travelling to London to visit the Skelton grandparents was considered to be quite a palavar. Not only did we all have to go down together as a family, but there was the hassle of how to get there. Over the years we tried different ways (flying, driving, the overnight bus) and all were considered stressful by my parents, who preferred to holiday at home and day-trip locally.

In addition, my grandparents’ retirement flat was relatively compact. So the four of us had to sleep in the double bedroom (kids on camp beds either side of our parents), while my grandparents had to use the pull-out sofa bed in the living room. Every morning Grandma would wake us all as she shuffled into the room in her pink house slippers, carrying a taper to light the boiler, which was housed in a cupboard in the corner, leaving a strong smell of gas in the room. (This was because she did not trust it to be left on overnight). Near to the boiler cupboard was Grandma’s old-fashioned dressing table, on which  was a collection of photographs of her three grown-up children. It always delighted me to see one of my father in his RAF uniform, sporting a rather raffish moustache, and smoking a cigarette something he’d given up – along with his MG Midget – on becoming a father. He always seemed very sophisticated in this photograph and not like the man we only knew as ‘Daddy’.

There was also a whimsical collection of tiny wooden animals which had once belonged to my father, and I used to put them into matchboxes and take them out with me on our day trips into London. Some I even took home to Scotland with me because I could not bear to leave them behind. Sadly, they have all disappeared over the years (a couple were lost in Bushy Park, which caused me no end of panic at the time) and I now only have one remaining. However, it was only recently that my mother told me this was a collection my father had started in his 20s, and not one from his boyhood at all. And of course this all makes perfect sense as the many moves the family undertook over the years, including the war-time evacuations, meant that there were very little possessions from the pre-war era (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and perhaps why my father always treasured the fairy tale book he’d received from his first primary school for good work and conduct in 1936.

P1070486 (2)The last remaining wooden animal from my father’s collection

After my grandmother and the children returned from East Coker in 1945, the family were reunited and temporarily housed in the top rooms of a multi-occupancy house in Teddington, West London, while waiting to be rehoused. (Presumably my grandfather had found work as a tram conductor in the area, otherwise it would have been a long commute to the Camberwell depot). And two years later they finally moved round the corner into a three-bedroomed semi-detached council house at Bishops Grove, where they were to remain for over twenty years, near to their newly married daughter and her growing family. My father was away in the Air Force by then, but this was his base in his vacation time, and thus he remained at the address on the electoral roll throughout the 1950s until suddenly he disappears in 1959 – the year he was accepted for air traffic control training, moved to Scotland, and met my mother. Shortly after this, my uncle married his local girlfriend, and just like my aunt and her husband had done a decade previously, the young couple lived with my grandparents while saving for a place of their own.

P1050416 (2)Edith with her new Scottish daughter-in-law, Bishops Grove, 1963

As the baby of the family, my uncle was quite content to stay with his parents a little while longer, whereas my father had wanted to get away from – in his eyes – rather suffocating mother, who he always felt was watching him closely. Even at a young age, I sensed that my father was often exasperated with his mother: at her needless fussing, her endless searches for public toilets, her wish to sit down and have ‘a nice cup of tea’. In addition, she became slightly deaf in her old age and everyone had to get used to repeating things to her.

For me, it was often difficult to understand her London accent in any case – it sounded like something from an Ealing comedy to my ears – and I always dreaded not knowing what she was saying to me. We had got used to our father’s way of speaking, which had been smoothed by his years as a boy in the west country and his time in the forces, not to mention his years in Scotland, but our Skelton grandparents seemed to speak like characters out of a film about the Blitz. Sometimes I found this quite strange, especially as they often commented on our accents, and I used to feel there was an insurmountable gap between us. And yet it was exciting too, to have these exotic-sounding grandparents who oozed what I felt was the spirit of Cockney London every time they opened their mouths.

Looking back I have no idea now what we all talked about when we tried to understand one another. Possibly my grandparents asked us about school and the sights we’d visited in London when the four of us returned to their flat in the evening. Other days we all went out together to nearby locations, such as Kew Gardens or Bushy Park (places where there were public toilets and cafes). Grandma aways wore a hat, whatever the weather, and did not make much concession to summer. For my father, who was a bit of a free spirit, these days out with young children and elderly parents were possibly tedious, but I remember that it always seemed exciting to go out en famille like that, and even more so when we went to visit our cousins (as we had none on the maternal side of the family). However, the age gap with our older cousins meant that we did not see so much of them so it was mainly the two children of my father’s younger brother we spent time with (and who I still visit today).

P1040615 (2)A rare family gathering (and a rare hatless moment for my grandmother)

However, I was always aware of my grandparents closer bond with their English grandchildren, who they saw on a regular basis, and who called them ‘Nan’ and ‘Grandpa’. Possibly it swould have been easiest all round if we’d just adopted this name for our paternal grandparents, too. Having to call them Grandma and Grandad Skelton to distinguish them from our Scottish grandparents (who did not need the extra appelation) always felt like marking them out as second-class grandparents, which in a sense they were. And had it not been for our collection of family phtographs, I would not even have known that they had come up to Scotland to visit us several times before they got too old to make the long journey after 1970. As hard as I try, I have no recollection of any of their annual summer visits!

P1040718 (2)Grandma Skelton dressed for a summer’s picnic, Ayrshire, c1970

It is only now, through re-viewing these old family photographs, that I can see how Edith’s children (and their children) have inherited some of her physical characteristics, including her slight double chin and thick, wayward hair. Whenever I’m with my Skelton-born cousins, I’m always surprised (and delighted) at how they walk with her flat-footed gait, and sometimes a quizzical look will flit over their faces which reminds me of my grandmother. And as we are all moving closer to the age our grandparents once were when we were young, these similarities have become even more apparent.

p1070482 (2)Edie’s own three children in middle age (1980s)

P1070488 (2)Studio portrait of my father and his sister, c1932

The abiding impression I have of my grandmother in her later life was the continuing importance of home and family. This is best illustrated by the fact that she moved to East Coker in September 1940 to be near to my aunt (who was evacuated there with Camberwell Girls School), taking her two younger sons with her (see East Coker). Both her boys had initially been billeted in seperate accommodation at the outbreak of war, my uncle to Brighton (he was only four!) and my father to Leatherhead with Gipsy Hill Junior School. There he lived with a large prominent Russian-American Mormon family who had known Joseph Kennedy when he had lived in the area, and my father recalled being given the future President Kennedy’s cast-off bicycle to ride.

When the boys returned to London during the period known as the ‘phoney war’, my grandmother no doubt decided that she did not want the three of them to be split up again. My aunt later told me that her parents kept the news from her that the brothers were back at home in case she wanted to return, too. However, I have the feeling that, as a teenager, my aunt was possibly enjoying her freedom in East Coker where there was a lively social life and many opportunities for interaction with the local youth. And of course it was here where my aunt eventually met her future husband.

Although my grandmother had given up her work as a telephonist (both her brothers had worked as telegraph clerks before the outbreak of WW1) on her marriage in 1924, like most of the population she undertook wartime tasks in East Coker. After a couple of false starts (a distressing billet where my grandmother was bullied by the woman of the house who wanted her to cook and clean for them all), the family found themselves in a farm cottage belonging to Burton Farm. Here the older Skeltons helped out the farmer Bill Dunning and his family, and my grandmother undertook cleaning work. My grandfather – on reserved occupation in London – came to visit ocasionally, but it must have been strange for the three children not to have had their father in their lives for five years, a long time for a child.

As the grown-up children all came back at various times to the family’s new home in West London after the war, Edie’s role as a mother and housewife never seemed to stop and simply segued into that of full-time grandparent. In the 1950s she regularly helped out my aunt with her three ‘steps-and-stairs’, then in the 1960s she helped bring up my uncle’s young children when he was widowed untimely. And all the while she continued to cook her legendary roast dinners with Yorkshire puddings so high they were fabled to have been stuck in the oven on occasion.

My grandmother also continued to see her two beloved brothers and their families, who had moved out of  London during the war, spending time with Fred and his wife in Exeter when he was very ill at the end of his life. Both Tom and Fred died relatively young, but Edith continued to stay in touch with some of their children, following their achievements with pride. And this was what I believe her final role was: to support her friends and family, and to help her children to attain their educational goals. Like many women at that time, it seems to have been enough for her to give the next generation wings to fly. She created a safe base from which they could launch themselves into the world, and at the same time was satisfied with this.

Stops (2)Edith with her first-born Stops nephew and neice, Demark Rd c1923

We can never know how much of our ancestors’ life decisions were based on personality or circumstances, but perhaps – just sometimes – there are those who find that both of these come together by happenstance. There was the free spirit who revelled in the cultural changes of the 1960s; the studious type who was lucky to be born in the time of scholarships and university grants; the entrepreneurial engineer who lived during a period of rapid industrial progress. Perhaps my grandmother found that she enjoyed the role that was thrust upon her; perhaps she had no choice. But I think in her own way she lived her life to the full, while still giving something back to society. And in the end, this is really all that each of us can hope for. 

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman

During the 1910s, women’s fashion favoured a more natural body shape and a decline in fussy ornamentation – an altogether less cluttered line. Ancestors can look fairly plain in photographs of this period, when wearing the popular blouse and skirt combination that formed the basis of the female wardrobe. Typically, a white or coloured blouse with a high collar, or slightly lower neckline with a rounded collar, was teamed with a plain tailored skirt, the skirt rather narrow or moderate in shape and sometimes featuring ornamental buttons.

Jayne Shrimpton,Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs, (2014)

edith at 18My paternal grandmother, Edith Matilda Stops, at age 18 in 1916

My London grandmother, Edith Matilda Skelton (née Stops), died on the 31st March 1976, two years into her short widowhood. She was found at her ground floor flat in Hampton, ensconced in her favourite comfy chair, a book on her lap, her weak heart having suddenly given out after 78 years. As a child, I had thought this a most normal-sounding death, but of course I now know better. When I think about the horrific-sounding demise of my Edwardian  actor/manager ancestor Herbert Sleath-Skelton in Holloway Asylum (see Herbert Sleath: His Decline and Fall), or that of his father’s junior business partner, George Schofield – who was crushed under a tube train at Warren Street Station towards the end of his life – then I know that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones.

The informant of my grandmother’s death was my fifty-year-old aunt, who lived nearby, and visited her mother regularly. She had been alerted by a neighbour who’d noticed from the communal garden that my grandmother had been sitting at the window in her chair all day, something which was very unlike her. In fact, earlier that morning she’d hung out a wash, then brought it inside, folding it in preparation for an ironing which would never happen. All those details I know as they were related to my parents in a phone call later that same day, no doubt to impress upon them that the death had been unexpected and that my grandmother had not suffered it any way. As it was, we’d only just had a telephone put in at our home – partly because when my grandfather died two years earlier, the family living next to us were contacted first. (We were not particularly close to them, so that probably was a slightly awkward scenario for all concerned).

glenmill.jpgThe flats at Glenmill, Hampton, with the communal gardens

It must have been that ugly grey phone, bolted high up the wall next to the hall mirror, which delivered the bad news about our grandmother to our house. I remember being  told very little about the event, at the time, and my father set off down to London for a slightly tense meeting with his siblings (there being some sort of friction between my aunt and uncle, as is often the case after the death of a parent). A few days later he came back with a rather kitschy swan vase for me – one of several ornaments my grandmother had out on display during my childhood. But I never felt as if it contained the essence of her, and sadly I lost it in one of my many moves over the years.

grandma's swanAn almost identical swan vase to my grandmother’s

What I really wanted (had I been asked) was the funny green plastic cup that I was told was actually called a beaker, and which could magically hold hot tea without melting. It had a strange but comforting smell – especially if you bit softly into the rim. When we finally arrived from Scotland at our grandparents’ house off the overnight bus (via the newly-built M1), all of us were exhausted and out of sorts, and I was always glad to be given sweet tea in that cup.

There were, however, very few items my grandparents had in their retirement flat which had accompanied them throughout their married life. This does not surprise me as they had the misfortune to be born in the 1890s, which would see them both involved (in their own way) in two world wars and all the disruption that entailed. And as regular readers may recall, when my grandmother and the three children all ended up being evacuated to Somerset to escape the Blitz, many of their possessions, including my father’s and my aunt’s favourite toys, were misplaced (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

However, recently I was pleased to discover that one of my cousins (with whom I share a birth year) had inherited my grandmother’s ‘wedding teapot’ through her father. She’d specifically asked for the item as it was a precious link to both her father and the beloved grandmother who had helped to look after her and her brother  when – in an uncanny mirroring of our paternal grandfather’s childhood experience – they had been left motherless at a very young age.

GRANDMAS TEAPOT.JPGMy grandmother’s silver-plated ‘wedding teapot’

As previously mentioned (see I Remember, I Remember), the one house that could have been described as the Stops-Skelton family home was 95 Denmark Road in Brixton*, where my grandmother lived from an early age until she turned forty. Not only did she meet my grandfather there when he came to lodge with her widowed mother, Harriett Stops, in 1922 (after serving in WW1), but all her three children were born in the house, and Harriett lived out her last years with the family, dying of heart disease in 1930, at the age of 73 at the local Lambeth Hospital (where her husband, Thomas Stops, had died of TB in 1906). Despite the  whole family being delighted to eventually be able to move to a modern cottage-style council house in West Norwood which had both electricity and an indoor toilet, I expect there must have been some degree of sadness when they closed the heavy door of number 95 behind them for the last time in 1938.    

*Lambeth Archives holds the details for this house, and I was fascinated to learn that it had been built on the site of gardens and orchards in the 1840s during a speculative building boom in the area. Thereupon the house changed hands several times, but always being used for rental income of up to £50 a year. It had been sold initially for £100 with £6 annum ground rents (on an 80-year lease), rising to £175 (possibly more), before it was reduced to £100 again by the 1930s. However, my grandfather’s brother (a builder) warned him not to buy it when he had the chance, which was a wise move given that the house was hit by a bomb shortly before it could celebrate its centenary.

denmark roadMy grandmother outside 95 Denmark Rd, Brixton, c1910

When I was a child, my grandmother always came across to me as a very motherly type, so it is hard for me to imagine her before her marriage as an independent young woman with a career as a telephonist at the central telephone exchange. That was in the early days of phone use, when calls had to be put through manually (something I can still just remember before STD or subscriber trunk dialling came into nationwide effect). She took up this job at the outbreak of WW1 and remained in it up until her marriage to my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, in 1924. In the photograph (below) of my grandmother with her mother and brother Tom, a telegraph clerk, taken in 1916, just before he went off to war, she appears very confident and grown-up in her smart but unfussy outfit – very different from the shy-looking little girl she seemed to be a decade earlier, in the image entitled ‘After Father Died’ (shown further below).

thomas_and_edith_with_mother_harriett_'before_going_to_the_war' (2)Edie with Tom and Harriett, ‘Before Going to War’ c1916

tom_fred_and_edith_with_mother_1909_taken_soon_after_father_died-3Edie with Tom, Fred and Harriett, ‘After Father Died’, c1906

From examining all the photographs of my grandmother in her youth, I have the sense she was once quite an active person, as there often appears to be an aura of restrained movement about her. In one particular image of her mother Harriett sitting in a chair in the back garden in Denmark Road, it is just possible to make out what looks like Edie (and the tail of a cat?) moving about behind her. However, as this was believed to be taken in 1923, a year before Edie’s marriage, it may have been another young female friend or relative.

It is strange feeling to think that this was also the same backyard* my father played in as a child, and which over the years contained a coal house, dustbin, outside toilet, dog kennel and henhouse. Despite all those multiple uses of what would not have been a particularly large space to begin with, it does even look as if there was the semblance of a garden as well.     

*As a child I found it odd  that my father called our suburban back garden a ‘back yard’, despite the fact I kept reminding him that, as it was covered in grass and had flowers and vegetables, it was technically a garden. For years I thought he’d picked up the expression from Americans he’d known, but of course it was only later I realised that a back yard really was what most old Victorian terraces had!

harriett june 23 Harriett Stops (née Burnell) in the back yard of 95 Denmark Road, June 1923

My grandparents’ wedding ceremony took place on Saturday 25th October 1924 at the parish church of St Matthews, in Brixton. Despite the fact that the following week would be the infamous  general election of 1924 (and the 3rd in two years), in which ex-prime minister  Stanley Baldwin* would be re-elected in a landslide win for the conservatives – the newly-married Edith was still not allowed to vote. She had to wait until 1928 (when ironically she turned thirty in any case) before the law changed to give all woman the same voting rights as men, who had been given the franchise in 1918 at age twenty-one (along with women over thirty, on conditions related to their properties or those of their husbands) under the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

I had always thought this age restriction was just due to some outdated notion that women were deemed to be more politically immature, but I have since discovered this it was created to redress the imbalance in the population caused by the loss of male voters during the Great War. By adjusting the voting age in such a way, it was reasoned that there would be more equal numbers of men and women.

*As surprising as it may seem, there is a vague family connection (through marriage) to Stanley Baldwin in the wealthy ‘other’ Skelton family, that readers may recall (see The Kipling Connection or Not So Great Expectations).

marriage_edith_stops-sidney_skelton (2)Skelton-Stops Wedding in Brixton, Saturday, 25th October, 1924

Edith must have been pleased to have Tom and Fred there beside her  on her ‘big day’, as both her older brothers had been active in the Great War, leaving her at home to lend support to Harriett while they were away. Due to this (the fear that she might lose them), and the strong bonds they created among them when they were all left fatherless at a relatively young age, my grandmother was to remain devoted to her brothers all her life. (This was lucky for me, as the only reason I have most of these photographs is because of Tom’s granddaughter, who I discovered on a genealogy website a few years ago).

As my own quest is centred mainly on the Skelton family, I have kept research into the Stops family to a minimum, even though, from a genetic point of view this is quite illogical. But at every new pairing there are more family history alleys one could travel down, and keeping my search to the Skeltons simplifies things, giving me more of a goal-orientated feel. If I were to start to investigate the Stops in any detail, I feel I would have to focus equally on the Burnells (Harriet’s family), then divide those into two branches, and so on*. I did, however, do this superficially for fun one day, and discovered that the first wife of Harriett Burnell’s brother, George, was called Matilda – and their little girl (who would go on to be called Daisy Matilda) was listed in the 1891 census as Not Named 4 ½ hours old! Was this the source of my grandmother’s middle name? As it turned out, the two cousins (Daisy and Edie) would become firm friends over the years, and my aunt recalled meeting Daisy as a child when she’d already left her native Somerset to take up a job in London as a waitress  at Selfridges .    

*I have sometimes been rather horrified to see huge sprouting family trees like ancient oaks where too many relatives seem to dilute the information – although I’m aware that ancestor-gathering does seem to be the aim of some researchers.

But to return to the Stops family. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops was a trained wheelwright/blacksmith, born in 1853 in Hackney, the middle son of another wheelwright (William Stops) from Wendover in Buckinghamshire. While these jobs sound very much like rural professions to our modern ears, there would most likely have actually been more of such work in the capital due to the number of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets. Despite this, William Stops was never able to make much money from his trade, and the growing family moved to different accommodation in East London on a regular basis. At one point they were living in Tower Hamlets at Pleasant Place, which sounded anything but pleasant if a contemporary description of the street by a physician investigating the sanitary conditions of London is to be believed.

It is worth quoting the extract in full, taken from the book Sanitary Ramblings being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green: A type of the condition of the metropolis and other large towns by Hector Gavin MD FRCSE (1848), due to the light it sheds on the plight of the insecure working class in the middle of the nineteenth century: This central square (consisting of Pleasant-row and Pleasant-place) is made up of swine-pens and yards in which dung-heaps are piled; in it are the privies of the northern half of the row, forming the south of the square. Immediately facing Pleasant-row is a ditch, filled with slimy mud and putrefying filth, which extends for 100 feet. The space between Pleasant-row and the central square is, beyond description, filthy; dung heaps and putrefying garbage, refuse, and manure, fill up the horrid place, which is covered with slimy foetid mud. The eastern end has likewise its horrid filthy foetid gutter reeking with pestilential effluvia; the southern alley is likewise abominably filthy: there the same slime and mud overspreads the broken up bouldered path; and there, the same most disgusting odours are given off, which are common to this area of putrescence. I do not think that in all my journeying through the degraded haunts of wretched poverty in this poor parish I have found a scene so distressing.

The houses in Pleasant-place are chiefly two-roomed and let at 3s. 6d. a week, but some of the two-roomed and all the three-roomed houses let at 5s. a week. I entered one of these houses on the southern side, and found that every individual in a family of seven had been attacked with fever, and that a daughter, aged 22, who had been convalescent eight weeks, on her return from the country to her miserable home, died of a relapse in two days. The body was retained in the house, because no means could be found to raise the money necessary to bury it, and was then lying in its coffin. The privy of this house is close to it, and is full and overflowing, covering the yard with its putrescent filth; the stench was perfectly unendurable; the house itself was most shockingly dirty. 3s. a week were paid for this den of pestilence, while the husband and wife together, by working night and day, could only earn 15s. a week. To permit a continuance of the state of things I saw would be, as it were, voluntarily to tolerate the elimination of a fatal poison to be sucked in at every breath of the occupants, who, this condemned to death, perish not by the momentary pangs of official strangulation, but by the more miserable death of loathsome typhus. How lost to all sense of charity and brotherly love, how forgetful of the value of human life, are those who apathetically survey such sad scenes of wretched misery.

So William Stops had left the rural town of Wendover to better himself in the capital and it had come to this? It is ironic to note that at the same time as William was struggling in the East End, living at the very unpleasant-sounding Pleasant Place, his father Joseph Stops, was ironically working as an agricultural labourer at Paradise Water Mill* (and maltings) in the village of Wendover, in Buckinghamshire, working for the miller Eizabeth Hoare (whose sisters ran a private boarding school for young ladies in the 1840s and 50s), while his wife (William’s mother) worked as a washerwoman.  

*Paradise House is now a grade 2 listed building and an extremely attractive private dwelling today, described in the town guide as being an 18th century construction which incorporates a much older one.

Despite the ‘paradise’ name, it is debatable whether life in the countryside was any easier than in the London ‘slums’. While places like Wendover are now highly desirable locations, particularly if in commuting distance to the capital (as Wendover is today), increasing industrialisation and threats from globalisation meant that the old rural trades, such as the lace making trade in Wendover, were now dying out. And even though living conditions in the capital were less than ideal, there was no rural idyll in the countryside either, with agricultural labourers earning a pittance for insecure work and living in poor quality housing.

However, it was often the next generation that was able to build on the risks their parents had taken through movement and migration, and so it was that when Thomas Stops married the Somerset-born domestic servant, Harriett Burnell, in 1887 after an eight-year stint as a soldier with the Royal Artillery, they were able to rent a terraced house on a new estate at Sands End in Fulham. It was there, at number 61 Cranbury Road, where several years later they had their three children: Thomas William Burnell (Tom) in 1893; Frederick Arthur James (Fred) in 1895; Edith Matilda (Edie) in 1898 (when Harriett was 41).

A few years ago I went to see the house, expecting an ordinary Victorian terrace. So I was rather surprised to see that number 61 had been merged with 61a next door to create a large five-bedroomed home now named ‘Lavender House’, which has been featured in several prominent glossy magazines (see article here). Currently worth about three million pounds, it is a far cry from the old Cranbury Road houses of the 1970s, a time when  the area had become slightly run down, and it was possible to buy a period property for around three thousand pounds.

lavender house

lavender house gardenLavender House, Cranbury Road, Fulham, today (front and back)

And perhaps here – where it all began – is a fitting place to end the first part of our story. The Stops family left Fulham for Denmark Road in south London in the early 1900s and shortly after that Thomas died of tuberculosis, leaving Harriett to bring up the children alone, taking in a series of lodgers to help pay her way (one of whom would become my grandfather). Unfortunately, it is impossible to know why the family moved to the other side of London as the only connection they had with the area was the fact that Harriett had worked as a domestic servant for a family in Camberwell when she arrived from her native Highbridge in Somerset.

However, I have in my possession (courtesy of my aunt) a copy of a wonderful cabinet portrait entitled ‘Edie with Dog’, which was possibly taken by one of those itinerant photographers who called from house to house, most likely when the family still lived in Fulham. I’m not sure if the dog was the family pet, but it is certainly the kind which was popular at the time, and might instead have belonged to a friend or relative. Edie looks like she’s wearing her best Sunday bonnet and white dress. So was it a special occasion, or had she been dressed up especially for the photograph?

The background (a suburban garden fence supporting hollyhocks and climbers) makes me believe this photograph was taken in the garden of 61 Cranbury Road, shortly before the family left the area. Although the copy is of poor quality, I still find the composition exquisite. There is the angle of Edie’s head as she gazes at the unseen photographer. The nonchalant way she is holding the lead of that tiny dog. The slightly wild vegetation which frames her, suggesting a ramshackle garden that would be enchanting to a child.

Even the faded sepia copy lends the image an ethereal quality, making Edie appear like an Edwardian ghost child. As a child myself, I would have loved to have reached back through time and played with this little girl from another age in her wild back garden. Yet when my grandmother was still alive, I could never really have imagined her as anything other than lumpen and yellow-toothed. And I find that impossibly sad.

p1070485 (2)‘Edie with Dog’, c1903

To be continued next month . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2019

There is a Time

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940) 

124 (2)

In the dark – but often spiritually illuminating – time between Christmas and New Year, it is customary to look back on the previous twelve months, while attempting to plan for the next. I say attempt because not only do good intentions often go astray, but there are many events that can derail future plans, not least human fallibilities.

Five years ago I made the resolution to write up my unknown London family history in a series of blog posts intended to replicate the chronological chapters of a book, although the project did not become a reality until 2015. Prior to that, I had been going around in circles, unable to finish any one topic because there was always something extra to research, another fact to verify, or a new location to visit. But by setting myself official monthly deadlines, I was eventually able to circumvent this procrastination, at the same time moving my story forward in ways that I had not imagined at the beginning of my quest.

I do sometimes feel, however, that there is a price to pay for this ‘living in the past’. Not only can it be quite dispiriting to see how quickly a life is begun and ended, but it can be tempting to ignore the hardships our ancestors faced and instead become nostalgic for the lives they once led, particularly in today’s crowded and fast-paced world. This feeling is particularly prevalent at Christmas – a festival that we naturally associate with the 19th century, especially London, in part due to Charles Dickens’ perennial Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol. Yet, we often forget that many of the Christmas traditions we associate with the Victorians were only being established at this period, and that there would have been huge gaps in the expectations of the wealthy and the working class.

L_3293-1987_christmas_card_1000pxThe first Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley, 1843 (c) V&A 

Having been born in the last year of what was once called the old century, my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, would have witnessed those changes throughout his life. It was not until he was a relatively mature father of five (in 1834) that Christmas Day was officially declared a public holiday, and several decades before Boxing Day was also given this status. Christmas Day for James and his growing family would not have differed much from other days – as it was for my Scottish grandparents up until the 1950s – but by the time he had established his second family in the 1860s many of the customs we now take for granted were already in place. I therefore like to think that the Christmas traditions I experienced as a child, and which my father inherited from his parents and grandparents, stretched back over a hundred years, while being modified on the journey.

As I have previously described (see The Ghosts of Christmas Past), Christmas for us as children was celebrated more in the English style. (Although Scotland had caught up in the intervening decade or two, I was aware that many of our family rituals seemed rather overblown in comparison to my friends). Along with Guy Fawkes’ Night, it was the festivity we most associated with our father, who did not recognise our Scottish customs of Halloween and New Year. While I don’t remember the big London Christmases of my early childhood, most of those same traditions were carried on in our own family home throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. As our Scottish relatives did not live nearby, it was usually just our nuclear family of four, and I always enjoyed that quiet period in the days between Christmas and New Year where there was nothing much else to do but go for long walks with the dog, returning to new books and mince pies, along with a glut of fresh pens and paper for all those creative endeavours that petered out during that first week back at school in January.

P1040601 (3)A London Family Christmas, 1966

Like many people, I continue to associate this time of year with contemplation and reflection: a chance to not only think about new ventures, but to consider the direction in which our lives are going and how to find our way back to the old paths we might have allowed to become overgrown with the passage of the years. And family history can help us to do just that – to reassess our future in relation to the past. Unhealthy patterns of behaving or relating may be discarded or amended in the light of knowledge of the effects of past actions on future lives. We realise that relatives who fell out with each other over something petty went on to deny subsequent generations the chance to connect with each other. We wonder if a misguided late Victorian parent may have prevented a bright child from reaching their potential. And we learn that war created upheavals that reconfigured family dynamics for decades to come.

Of course there are kindnesses to consider, too. An unknown aunt who bestowed much-wanted toys on younger relatives before dying young; a grandfather who handmade intricate dolls-houses (with real electric lights and wallpaper!) for all his four grand-daughters; the Somerset villagers who showed compassion towards a family of London evacuees. And in the present day, there are newly-discovered relations (some too distant to ever have met in the traditional way) who have supplied photographs and documents as well as those all-important personal anecdotes. And that is before mentioning other researchers, historians and writers who have offered advice and guidance, some becoming friends along the way.

Genealogy can also encourage us to regard time differently. Past, present and future may slip and slide into each other. What would my Bermondsey ancestors make of present-day Bankside, with the strange apparition of old-new Tower Bridge appearing from the river mists at the end of their narrow, cobbled lane? Or at the sight of Shakespeare’s Globe rising out of the debris of what to them was modern wharfs and warehouses? Of course, any visit to the capital after some years away can create similar sensations in the modern mind. When I first returned to London to pick up the genealogical quest I’d started in the 1980s, the unexpected changes to the city confused me. Hadn’t there once been an iron railway bridge across Ludgate Hill, spoiling the view of St Pauls’ Cathedral from Ludgate Circus? And look! There was the ‘lost’ Temple Bar, re-erected in an unrecognisable reincarnation of Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s. Strange new tube stations had also sprung up in unexpected places like fungi arising from the hidden network of their underground mycelium. Not only that, but a fast train line now linked London with France, bringing us closer to our continental neighbours.

LUDGATE HILL (2).jpgLudgate Hill Railway Viaduct, London, early 20th Century

However, it is the social aspects of family history which I often find most illuminating. In my own quest to find out about my London ancestors I have been both surprised and disappointed by the fact that the ‘lost’ wealthy branch from my great-great grandfather’s first marriage (in particular his merchant son, James William Sleath-Skelton, see A Tale of Exploitation) seemed unwilling to help the other second family to prosper in an increasingly competitive and industrialised world. Although the unorthodox – yet not uncommon – living conditions of my great-great grandfather and his much younger partner (who only became his wife shortly before his death) may have offended the High Victorian sensibilities of the adult children from his first marriage, I wonder if they did not feel some sort of duty towards the struggling descendants of this union, most of whom had to leave school relatively young and take up manual work. Was there no Christmas spirit among them which might have seen a food hamper delivered to the Hawkins-Skelton’s cramped terraced house in Kennington, or a box of toys for the children? After all, these were their half-siblings, children whose many descendants  would spread out over south London, going on to fight for King and Country in the 20th century’s future wars.

While Dickens was spreading the message that Christmas should be a time of giving and togetherness, many wealthy families up and down the land, including the Sleath-Skeltons, were obviously donating to specific charities. But while it may have been easier to give to anonymous individuals under the umbrella of a charitable organisation, it seems that when it came to their own relations some preferred to shun those deemed less successful than themselves. Ironically, it was just at the time that Christmas was reinstated as a public holiday, the New Poor Law of 1834 was coming into effect, something I have discussed before in relation to my great-great grandmother’s (Mary Ann Hawkin’s) immediate family, most of whom fell foul of this law and ended up incarcerated in separate workhouses, despite their protestations for parish relief (see When I Grow Rich). 

Dickens was vehemently against the amendment to the poor law, which saw parish or ‘outdoor’ relief being replaced by the punitive workhouse system. He viewed the new law as anti-Christian, writing his novel Oliver Twist in response to this and other social injustices of the time, particularly towards children. It is interesting to note that several years later he visited the Norwood School of Industry (a sort of children’s workhouse) in South London, to which Mary Ann’s younger siblings had been sent while their parents were in the separate (male and female) City union workhouses. Were little Emma and Sophia Hawkins aware of the illustrious visitor in their midst that day in 1850, when they were no doubt displayed as examples of how ‘industrial schooling’ was able to improve the lives of what Dickens called compounds of ignorance, gin and sprats in his article about the school (entitled London Pauper Children), which was later published in his new journal Household Words?

Scrooge (2)Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) by John Leech

Perhaps the last words of this post should be given to Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, Tom, who appears at the start of A Christmas Carol, explaining to his embittered  uncle why he believes in celebrating Christmas: I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2019.