Present at the Death

The value of the 19th century cemeteries today as open spaces in the metropolis is enormous. The trees are now mature; the graves and monuments have taken on the patina of age, and often, as in Highgate, an Arcadian quality exists which would be ruined by conversion to a pure park.

Jeremy Bentham advised that one’s ancestors should be embalmed and kept around the house and gardens, and although his suggestion has practical difficulties, he certainly grasps the point that without a connection with our ancestors’ past we become loose and unsettled, and drift, with no roots and no tribal memory.

The Victorian Celebration of Death,  James Stevens Curl (1972)

The arrival of an ancestor’s death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO) is always an eagerly anticipated moment for a family historian – especially if the death in question seems an unusual or untimely one. This is not just due to morbid curiosity (although admittedly that does play a role), but because the way our ancestors died can tell us so much about how they lived. In the case of both my paternal great-great-grandparents, James Skelton and Mary-Ann Hawkins, bronchitis was stated as the official cause of death, something which does not surprise me, given the time and place where they lived (industrial Victorian Southwark). This fact puts me in mind of the rather macabre rhyme my father used to be fond of quoting: It’s not the cough that carries you off, but the coffin they carries you off in. Created as a humorous quip by the music hall star George Formby snr. in order to make light of his on-stage bronchial cough while suffering from tuberculosis, it illustrates just how pervasive such illnesses once were, even in the first half of the twentieth century.

As I later found out, it was that very same disease which ‘carried off’ James Skelton’s oldest daughter by his first marriage, Margaret Sarah, in December 1848, at the age of twenty-four. The Cause of Death stated on the certificate makes grim reading: Phthisis 7 years, Ascites, Anasarca. A quick internet search brought me to the rather gruesome website where you are only a click away from thinking you have most afflictions known to man. Here Phthisis is rather blithely defined as: A good trivia or crossword item. An over-consonanted Greek word meaning “a dwindling or wasting away.” Pronounced TIE-sis. Phthisis is an archaic name for tuberculosis. A person afflicted with tuberculosis in the old days was destined to dwindle and waste away like Mimi, the heroine of Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” I switched to a different website to determine the meaning of the other two medical terms, their Greek-sounding authority making me fear the worst. I discovered that Ascites means ‘bag-like’- based on the description of the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. Its sister term Anasacra also refers to fluid retention (or Oedema), this time in the tissues, and like Ascites is another secondary effect of advanced tuberculosis (amongst other illnesses).

It is hard not to feel moved at the thought of James, officially named as present at the death, watching his oldest daughter suffer in her sickroom in such a grotesque way, only two years after his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, also died at home of what was most likely cancer of the womb (Diseased womb of long-standing, repeated haemorrhage and exhaustion). The family had moved into their relatively grand new house in Brixton two years prior to Sarah’s death, and this makes me wonder whether it was the bad health of his wife and daughter which may have precipitated the move to what was then still partially countryside.

From 1844 to 1847 James is to be found in the trade directories, carrying on his tailoring business, but now at 15 Cheapside, in the City, and sharing professional rooms with a Miss Margaret Sarah Skelton, Professor of Music. I can imagine father and daughter (perhaps his favourite child, as she was his first-born, and named after his mother and wife) travelling into the city each day, delighting in each other’s company in that special way of fathers and daughters. So it is not so surprising that only a year after Margaret Sarah’s demise he is in the arms (and bed) of the nineteen year old Mary Ann Hawkins, diluting his pain with some very living flesh.

An on-line burial record search revealed that both Sarah and Margaret Sarah were interred at the relatively new Nunhead Cemetry of All Saints – a piece of information which in Sarah’s case (in 1846) had been inserted into the parish register in cribbed handwriting, illustrating just how novel the idea of an out of parish burial was at the time. As is well-documented elsewhere – most notably in Catharine Arnold’s well-researched book Necropolis: London and its Dead – finding where to bury the dead in the capital’s unsanitary and over-crowded parish churchyards had become a prescient issue by the beginning of the 19th century. As a result of this, seven private cemeteries were established on large areas of open land on the outskirts of London between 1833 and 1841. These monster burial grounds were positioned in a ring around the city, in areas which would themselves eventually be swallowed up by the growth of the metropolis. The most well-known of these is Highgate, mainly to its location and the number of famous people buried there, including Karl Marx. But all of these private Victorian cemeteries – sometimes referred to as ‘the Magnificent Seven’ – were designed to provide not just burial grounds but also ‘health-improving’ parkland and walkways for visitors and the local population, and their construction included elaborate neo-gothic chapels and landscaped driveways for funeral cortèges.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640-2Gravedigger at Nunhead Cemetery, circa 1850

Nunhead is one of the lesser-known of these huge cemeteries. It was the penultimate one (of the seven) to be laid out, and was consecrated by The Lord Bishop of Winchester in 1840. Perhaps because of the cemetery’s tricky location – on a hilltop, still surrounded by countryside in those days, near what were the distant villages of Nunhead and Peckham, but now a part of the South London metropolis which is not on an underground line – it was and is less visited by those outwith the area. Today it is included on the final section of the 40 mile Green Chain Walk through south-east London (originating in Thamesmead). This section of the walk (numbered 11) starts from Crystal Palace, taking in Sydenham Hill Woods, One Tree Hill, and Camberwell Old and New Cemetery along the way. Nunhead Cemetry makes a marvellous end point to the walk, but the fifty-two acre plot is also a worthwhile destination itself, being now partly a nature reserve run by Southwark Council and The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery (FONC)

nunhead_plotNunhead Cemetery and Environs, 1860s (showing proposed local railway lines)

However, until fairly recently the cemetery and its buildings had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and it was not until a lottery heritage grant in the late 1990s that restoration was begun by the above-mentioned groups. But a visit to the cemetery in the early 1970s, shortly after it was officially closed, would have been a very different sight from that which greets visitors today. James Stevens Curl describes it thus: Nunhead forms a huge wedge of open space, well planted with fine mature trees, in a particularly dismal part of London. Unfortunately many will regard this cemetery as an eyesore, for at the time of writing it is prone to savage attacks by vandals. The Dissenters’ Chapel has been demolished, and the charming, light, and feathery Anglican Chapel is daily being reduced to a ruin. The catacombs have been broken into and coffins have been thrown to the ground. Monuments have been smashed. Both gate lodges have been reduced to dereliction. Similar damage is reported from Highgate.

If this does not sound bad enough, Curl goes on to state: The registers for Nunhead and several items concerning Highgate were found abandoned in the cemetery. This astonishing callousness towards valuable historical records and the dereliction of the cemetery itself are only possible to understand when we remember that privately owned cemeteries are a residue of an extraordinary boom in early Victorian times which came to a sudden end. What was not realised is that, since land is sold with rights in perpetuity, cemeteries must be a wasting asset. There can be no hope of profit, since local-authority cemeteries have the upper hand.

These wonderful old leather-bound registers of which Curl speaks are now stored at Southwark Council’s office in Camberwell New Cemetery and contain detailed information about each grave, including the depth of the plot and materials used. It was to this office that I turned when I decided to seek out the possibility of finding a gravestone for either Sarah Skelton (née Vaughan) or her daughter, Margaret Sarah. What I could never have imagined is that this enquiry would then lead me to the discovery of a family plot which contained, not only James’ wife and oldest daughter, but also James himself, as well as his son and daughter-in-law, and even a grandchild (who died in 1921). However, this was a plot exclusively reserved for the first family: the one which called their father a ‘gentleman’ (even when he was living in sin with Mary Ann and squiring all those Cockney bastards), and which seemed to want to deny the existence of little Arthur and his siblings.

Until that winter’s day in 2012, I had never visited a family grave. Both sets of my grandparents were cremated and their ashes spread in anodyne crematoria rose gardens. To avoid my father ending up with this fate, his ashes are still in the plastic urn the crematorium supplied us with in 1995, currently at the back of my mother’s garage. I have never dared to even open the lid on the toolbox where the urn is stashed, but have assured my mother that one day his ashes will be co-mingled with her own and placed somewhere both of them loved (a tall order that anyone who knows/knew them can attest to). Although the idea of holding on to a relative’s ashes for so long may seem slightly unusual, I have since discovered that in actual fact a large proportion of the ashes of the deceased currently reside in attics and sheds up and down the land, while relatives remain undecided as to where this final resting place should be. But oh, for a grave! As mentioned in my first post, I am quite envious of the Waugh family, who have headstones to visit which seem to give them some kind of comfort, even if only to avenge themselves upon certain family members (see Begin Again).

So to find out that there was a Skelton family grave of sorts was a moment that was fraught with apprehension. I was worried by the thought that in the intervening years the headstone might have been removed or have toppled to the ground and be covered in impenetrable vegetation (both of these scenarios considered a distinct possibility, according to the Nunhead Cemetery factsheet). And also at the thought that I would now have some responsibility towards this grave. Would I always feel the need to return to visit the headstone with flowers on certain days or times of the year? Would I now be honour-bound to weed and care for the spot for the rest of my life? And who would be interested in carrying on such a tradition once I was no longer around to continue the task? But I was also comforted at the knowledge that so many of those ancestors whose records I’d perused for years were all together – in there. I imagined their bones jumbled up beneath the earth, perhaps coloured scraps of silk and wool from their burial clothes clinging to a femur or a collarbone. I thought about all sorts of slightly gruesome things that I perhaps should not have and which made my heart race.

1341.JPGThe type of grave I imagined I would find

In the end, the actual event of visiting the grave was a mixture of both elation and disappointment. Having scrutinised the records which Southwark Council sent me ahead of my visit, I could see that Sarah (who was the first to be buried in the plot) had been interred in a private, brick-lined grave to a depth of 10 feet, at a cost of 30 shillings, an amount which was commensurate with contemporary records of the day (the cost of the grave itself would have been several pounds). Two years later she was joined by her daughter, and finally her husband James in 1867 (never mind that he had already married someone else by then), during which time ownership of the grave was then transferred to their only son, James William Skelton, who buried his own wife (Emma Sleath-Skelton) in the plot in 1898, before ending up alongside her two years later.

Thus the responsibility for the grave then moved to James William’s oldest son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, who laid his younger brother to rest there in 1921 –  the Edwardian actor Herbert Sleath (more on this raffish character in a later post). But when Stanley himself died a quarter of a century later, neither he nor his older sister had any children of their own and there was no close living relative to bury them in the family plot. As James Stevens Curl so rightly pointed out above, there can be no financial sustainability in the business of private graveyards, as it stands to reason that only a handful of families would continue to use a family plot beyond a few decades. However, during the early years of Victoria’s reign, at the time of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, the belief in the resurrection of the intact body was strong and the cremation act of 1902 coupled with the decline of 19th century religious ideals and the resulting changes to burial rituals could not have been foreseen.

As luck would have it, it was a crisp and clear February morning when I first set out from Central London to Nunhead on my grave search, walking a route from the eponymous train station along Linden Grove towards the main entrance of the cemetery. Due to a rare overnight snowfall, dog walkers and nature photographers were out in full force, and I felt like an obvious outsider, standing at the imposing set of gates, mouth agape, clutching my little yellow A4 cemetery map while locals exchanged greetings, buoyed up by the beauty of the snow-covered cemetery under a bright blue sky.

nunhead-gatesPedestrian entrance to Nunhead Cemetery on the left of the Linden Grove gates

The gargantuan Gothic gates with their inverted iron torches and snakes eating their own tails (ancient signs to symbolise both life being extinguished and eternal life, respectively) were an impressive spectacle, letting everyone who entered through them know that this was a place that took the business of death seriously. The huge stone piers solemnly framed my first sight of the Anglican chapel, and as I walked up the snow-covered driveway I thought about how James must have felt when the horse-drawn hearse carrying Sarah – and later Margaret – had slowly made its way up to the gothic chapel. It was an unsettling feeling, and I was glad that I had decided not to take up the offer to arrange to be met  by a volunteer from FONC who would help me to find the grave. I wanted this to be a private experience.

p1030874-2Approach to the Anglican Chapel (now a ruin) from the Linden Grove gates

p1030867-2Side view of the Anglican Chapel from the west

When Southwark Council sent me the map of Nunhead Cemetery, showing me where the Skelton grave was, I was surprised to see that it was one of the larger plots, situated at the edge of a main walkway at the western edge of the graveyard (just on the current border of the wildlife reserve). I was hoping that the size and location would be a good sign – and that there would indeed be some kind of headstone which had survived the intervening years. I also knew that plots in this area of the graveyard were considered to be much sought after (and more exensive) because they were at the highest point of the  of the cemetery (thus deemed to be closer to heaven), with the added advantage of spectacular views of St Paul’s and the City.

p1030852-2View of St Paul’s Cathedral from the highest point of Nunhead Cemetery.

But as I passed meandering footpaths which enticed me away from the main walkway with their abundant vegetation and weathered graves topped with stone angels and urns, I could not help but hope that the Skelton grave might also tick all the required ‘Victorian gothic’ boxes, having from a young age dreamt of one day finding a crumbling family grave onto which I could bestow bunches of wildflowers and tears. So when I rounded the corner at the top of the walkway and saw what had been erected in the plot which was marked on my map (number 706), I felt both a thrill and shudder of disappointment.

1336-2My first sight of the Skelton family grave

I was surprised to see how large and relatively undamaged the grave was – something I had certainly not expected. And I was also taken aback by the ostentatiousness of the structure – a large block of pink and grey polished granite, which looked like it had come from a more recent era. As I  circled the gravestone, reading the various inscriptions, I noted how easy it was to make out the names of the family members carved into the granite, as if it had only been a few years since they had been laid to rest. It was a curious feeling to think I might have been the first Skelton to visit the grave for almost a century, and I sat quietly for a while in the sunshine, contemplating this idea, while a  colony of bright-green feral parakeets  shrieked and chattered exotically in the trees above me. It was almost as if they were trying to alert me to the fact that there was an unexpected inscription on part of the headstone – one of James Skelton’s other daughters (and Margaret Sarah’s younger sister), who had died in the Australian outback in 1860 at the age of twenty-nine, also from tuberculosis.

skelton-graveGrave inscription to Margaret Sarah Skelton and her sister Ann

Much, much later (on a summer visit to the grave) it struck me that this rather ugly granite gravestone might have been a fancy replacement for an older one, originally erected in the 1840s. It would not surprise me if the wealthy (and probable social-climber) James William had ordered the gaudy replacement on the death of his father – another way to prove that James Skelton was actually a ‘gentleman’ (a rather nebulous Victorian expression which meant different things throughout the 19th century). And on that summer’s day, I noticed something I had overlooked on my first visit – the details of the stone mason carved into a corner of the grave. Further reasearch showed that the A. Nicholson inscribed was  credited with building the Great Eastern Street Fountain, and was active in Mark Lane in the City around the time that James William was working as a merchant in nearby Mincing Lane. This made me even more convinced that the gravestone dated from James Skelton’s death in 1867.

p1030846-2Stonemason’s details on the gravestone

And in an uncanny twist of fate (of the kind which seems to haunt this genealogical quest), I later discovered that James’ son Arthur – my great-grandfather – was actually living opposite Nunhead Cemetery (in Daniels Rd), in 1895 at the terrible time when both his wife and youngest child were dying at St Thomas’ Hospital (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers). Contemporary reports of the area attest to the fact that local children would meet up by the cemetery wall in Linden Grove as the rather gloomy Victorian hearses passed by with their black-plumed horses, so no doubt Arthur’s children, including perhaps my three-year-old grandfather, also played unsupervised there. The original houses on Daniels Road no longer exist, having been bombed in the Blitz, but they were built as simple terraced houses for manual workers, and a number of  cemetery labourers and stonemasons lived in their street. The cemetery would certainly have been omnipresent for those who lived in the surrounding streets, although sadly Arthur probably never knew that his father was buried just a stone’s throw away from where he was living with his young family.

Arthur himself is buried in Croydon – his grave is no longer there but there are only one or two people still alive who knew him, and he is all but a shadowy memory of their early childhood. There is now no-one still alive who knew any of the Skeltons buried in the family plot at Nunhead. And I can safely say that, with all due respect to those who are interred there, I feel no strong desire to visit the grave again any time soon. If I return to Nunhead it will be to walk in the peaceful surroundings of the wildlife reserve and take consolation from the endless birth and decay cyle of nature, of which the cemetery is but one part.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Charlotte Mew, and the final evocative verse of her poem In Nunhead Cemetery, published in 1916.

I shall stay here: here you can see the sky;

The houses in the street are much too high;

There is no one left to speak to there;

Here they are everywhere,

And just above them fields and fields of roses lie –

If he would dig it all up again they would not die.


The Incidental Genealogist, October 2016


Where there’s a Will .. . and the Sun

Wills can give an insight into the lifestyle and status of a family. For example, a series of bequests of scholarly books would indicate an interest in learning. They may display deeply felt emotions: love, hate, exasperation, or protectiveness.

Wills and Probate Records, Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor, (2009)

On one of our family summer pilgrimages to London in the early 1970s (those trips in which we always had to wear our homemade kilts), I remember my father taking us to see  Pudding Lane  – which as every British schoolchild knows is where the Great Fire of London is said to have started. I don’t know what I expected to see there (some charred remains?), but there was definitely something old and significant there that thrilled me at the time. Over forty years later I still have a memory of a narrow street of old brick townhouses,  on one of which was a plaque explaining something along the lines of: It was on this site . . . etc.

But when I returned to the area a few years ago, there was no Pudding Lane to speak of: just a cold and windy cut between bland glass and concrete office buildings. I was horrified to think that such an important street had disappeared in all but name. I felt then as if someone had meddled with my past – a similar emotion to that I’d experienced when I discovered the much-loved Victorian schoolhouse in my Scottish home town had been pulled down and replaced by a block of modern classrooms.

This old, red sandstone schoolhouse was the place I was taught for the first two years of my primary education (until, as older pupils, we were moved to ‘the huts’ – a temporary solution to a rural school that had suddenly become the centre of a fast-growing suburb). I can still clearly see the school’s main hall, with its regimental central rows of coat pegs and long benches. I remember the smell of the wax on the dark wooden floorboards. The way the sun came in through the high classroom windows, picking up dust motes in the late morning air. The apprehension I felt at having to visit the  cold outside toilets where the school bullies lurked. The fascination we had for the roaring furnace into which the janitor (or ‘jannie’) shovelled coal to heat the boiler. I can also recall the strident sound of the handbell the teacher rang to signal that our precious playtime was over, the insistent clanging alerting us to the fact that we had to promptly line up at the back door in our respective classes. And it was in this red building that I learnt to count with Cuisinaire rods, lisped my way through boring stories about Janet and John, and was told about the complicated adult world of Pounds, Shilling and Pence, before having to relearn it all when the decimal system was brought it shortly afterwards.

However, it is perhaps because of those memories that I can say goodbye to my old schoolhouse with fondness, and in the knowledge that it might not have best served the needs of 21st century children. But it is difficult to have the same feelings about the destruction of post-fire Pudding Lane – a street whose doors were never opened to me and whose charm is now lost before I ever knew it. (I pity visitors to London who set off in search of one of the city’s most famous streets, only to find themselves in a depressing wind tunnel).

So now I have a reverse (perverse?) philosophy when it comes to old buildings – I do not expect them to still be standing and am always delighted to come across them, particularly if they are in an intact street or neighbourhood. One of my most fascinating finds was an enclave of preserved Georgian terraced houses, including corner shops and pubs, just off Waterloo Road, which I later discovered is often used as a film set, most recently for the Kray twins’ biopic, Legend. Even though none of my ancestors had connections to those exact streets, I knew they had lived in similar ones nearby, and just walking around the area on a quiet Sunday morning was like a little peek into a long-lost London. Southwark is full of such surprises, and one of my favourite activities (once the record offices are closed) is just to lose myself in the backstreets and neighbourhoods that are hidden behind the main roads and thoroughfares.

roupell st (2)

waterloo st - check (2)

Streets in the Waterloo neighbourhood

This was how I first stumbled upon the address I had for the birthplace of my great grandfather, Arthur Skelton, in 1859 (and in a neighbouring street in 1858, his older sister, Alice). One September evening I followed a print-out of Stanhope’s 1869 railway map of the area, and after negotiating renamed streets found myself in one of the queerest little corners of Southwark that held a section of mean little houses redolent of Victorian poverty. It was strange and unsettling to see the uncared-for terrace, surrounded by increasing gentrification, and it is a powerful image I still cannot forget. However, when I returned the following year, hoping to photograph the area, the buildings (apart from one on the other side of the railway line) had all gone, and a new block of flats was being quickly thrown up in their place. I walked up and down the street, almost willing the old terrace to reappear, berating my lost opportunity to document the last remaining section of the street. Since that time I go everywhere in the capital on foot with a detailed map and a camera beside me, and never miss the chance to photograph anything interesting, however insignificant it might appear at the time.


Getting lost in ‘Old Southwark’

Of course for those like myself who are easily distracted, this is not always the best strategy for carrying out research. But I have learned to embrace these sudden moments where I veer off-course and wander into a new district, or become side-tracked at the records office by a different set of documents. I frequently tell myself that as I never knew my great-great grandparents, or even my great grandparents, the details of their lives  should really not be regarded as any more important than that of their contemporaries. And so I have learned to accept such distractions as all part of the journey, and keep an open mind as to what is relevant and what is not.

Picture this then: a decayed group of early Victorian brick terraced houses with sheets tacked behind dirty windows and weeds around the doorsteps, darkened by the railway line which runs close by. But in the 1850s this railway had not yet been built and the neighbourhood through which it ran would have felt very different – resembling the more symmetrically pleasing one of the Waterloo enclave. But it is now that ‘film-set ready’ little warren of streets which is the anomaly – with average prices for terrace houses starting at around £1,5 million, the demographics of the community having now moved in a different direction. So there it is: the past slipping and sliding through our fingers again, just when we thought we had a grip of it.


Last remaining terraced house on King James St (formerly King St)

There are, however, two documents that I discovered in my search to find out more about my great-great grandfather’s 19th century London existence that have probably shed more light on his way of life than any bricks and mortar building can. The first is the copy of the will that he left his relatively new wife, Mary Ann, in 1867. It is written in Victorian secretary’s hand, with its connotations of the court of chancery wills described in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House, and was possibly all the more exciting a find for this reason. A family will was also something I had not considered searching for in the pre-internet days: only around 1 in 10 adult men made wills in the mid-Victorian time (very few women were able to make wills before the 1882 married women’s property act) and I had not expected anyone in our family to be among them. Obviously it was not only the wealthy who made wills, but anyone who had something to leave and a reason to ensure that the goods, money or property would end up in the right hands.

Now that I know more about the Skelton family’s background, the presence of a will no longer surprises me. James’ end-of-life marriage to Mary Ann Hawkins, his long-term mistress and the mother of his younger children, makes it clear that he was serious about ensuring legal protection for his ‘second family’. His successful older son, James William, already a wealthy West India merchant by this time, was one of the executors of the will, and may have also given his father legal advice and encouragement. There was no reason for James not to leave a will to protect his young family (unlike his son Arthur, my great grandfather, who was dependent on his grown-up children towards the end of his life).

The main objective of James’ will was to safeguard Mary Ann by providing her with £60 a year (drawn from an invested  personal estate of just under £800, and payable in quarters), with James stating that the money should go to her two daughters (named Hawkins in the will) if she die or remarry, and then giving his two sons (named Skelton in the will) as the next in line. Although this seemed fair, seeing that the girls may be in more need of money if they remained unmarried, what struck me as odd was the way they were described as my wife’s daughters, even though James was purported to be their father.

However, what the will did help prove was that the oldest son of James and Mary Ann, also called James Skelton, had probably died at some point as he was not mentioned in the document. This confirmed my own suspicions, as I had sadly never been able to find the young James after the 1861 census (where he was described as a schoolboy). The fact that Mary Ann’s oldest son, William Hawkins (named, it would seem, after her father), also went unmentioned in the will was not that surprising – records show that he appeared to have been born before Mary Ann met my great-great grandfather.

But the thing that fascinated most about the will was the items James Skelton wanted his only son from his first marriage to inherit. While Mary Ann received the expected household furniture, beds, bedding linen, glass, china and silver, the forty year old merchant was given ‘all my oil paintings to and for his own absolute use and benefit’. I thought about those paintings for a long time afterwards, imagining what they might be. Landscapes? Family heirlooms? Investment pieces? None of these answers seemed to make sense. Another Skelton family researcher (a descendant of Mary Ann Hawkins’ first-born son, William), who had initially alerted me about the existence of James’ will, wondered at the logic of having oil paintings in a working-class community  in Walworth. But this line of reasoning confuses 21st century sensibilities with those of the 19th, over-simplifying the notion of paintings as valuable and collectable.

It was only when I later discovered James William’s will, made out at the end of the century, shortly before he died, that I realised  why his father had most likely given him these paintings.  In the part of the will in which the retired merchant details his possessions he states: I bequeath to my son Stanley Sleath Skelton my watch and chain and pendants and pearl pin, and my portrait of myself as a boy. I bequeath to my son Herbert Sleath Skelton my jet and diamond solitaires and pin, my pearl studs, my coral studs and vest buttons and my portrait of myself as a man. And I bequeath the remainder of my jewellery to my said sons in equal shares.

Before the invention of photography, oil paintings of family members were relatively common among those with a reasonable amount of dispoable income, often undertaken by itinerant portrait painters. I now believe the oil paintings mentioned in my great-great grandfather’s will had  most likely been portraits of his first family – not something that would have interested his second wife! Perhaps James had these portraits painted for a special occasion – to mark a birthday or, in James William’s case, entrance to the local grammar school. However, there is no mention of any paintings of his four daughters (two of whom had died in the years before James made his will). Perhaps James simply gave all of the existing paintings to his son to distribute as he saw fit (‘all my oil paintings’), and the only ones that James William thought worthy of passing on to his sons were those of himself?

Sadly, none of James William’s  three children had any families of their own, cutting dead the only London Skelton branch who had actually inherited anything valuable or interesting. Ironically it was this very lack of family heirlooms (as opposed to the Waughs, see Begin Again) which made me want to resume my genealogical search. Like the demolished post-fire houses of Pudding Lane referred to at the beginning of this chapter, the fact that there were once objects deemed important to the family, but which will now never be found, is almost more tragic than the loss of things which can still be recalled in detail. Thus I can say a fond goodbye to my old village school (which I can conjure up in my head any time I want), and yet I can still remember my childhood obsession with another building I never saw. This was the gothic ruins of an old baronial-style house, once a preparatory school for boys, and located in the expansive riverside grounds of nearby public parkland, called Cambusdoon. The house – which had originally been built for a Victorian industrialist in the 1850s  – had been a private boys’ school from the 1920s to the 60s, and was eventually demolished in the 1970s after previous fire damage left the building dangerously unstable. As a child, I found this ruin utterly fascinating and used to spend hours exploring the grounds and clambering among the surviving masonry, trying to imagine what the house and environs must have once been like, yet feeling nothing but anguish at the fact that I had never been able to experience  the place in all its glory.  


The house at Cambusdoon I never knew

When I mentioned a different fire (conflagration?) at the very beginning of this chapter, I had not known exactly how pertinent that would turn out to be. But since then I have learned that this first week in September marks the 350 year anniversary of the Great Fire of London (a fact I had not been aware of when I started composing this post a few days ago). This coincidence thus brings me neatly to  the description of the other important document pertaining to James Skelton and his family: namely the Sun Fire Insurance records for the family home in Horsleydown Lane – a boon for any house researcher.

After the Great Fire in 1666, regulations were brought in which required all new buildings in London to be constructed in brick and stone, and to be aligned with or set back from the street. This rule was not always followed outwith the jurisdiction of the City, and in Southwark a mixture of brick and wooden buildings was retained well into the 19th and early 20th century. However, most post-fire housing in the main streets would have been constructed in stone and brick, and so it came to pass that in Horsleydown many of the new 18th century dwellinghouses were built with such materials.  In addition to this rule, houseowners and occupiers were expected to have made provisions for extinguishing any local fires – and so the development of the first fire insurance companies began, one of the most well-known of these being the Sun Fire Office. 

Until the establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1865, each insurance company had its own private fire brigade which knew and recognised the buildings they protected by the presence of the metal badge or ‘fire mark’ (with policy number ) affixed to  the outer wall. Very few of these signs still exist, although this one (below) is from an 18th century house in Bermondsey, very similar to the one in which James and his family lived.


Sun Insurance firemark on an 18th C house (shown below) in Bermondsey


Discovering that James Skelton’s house in Horsleydown Lane was one of those which was insured with the Sun Insurance Company in the 1830s felt like a real ‘eureka moment’ in my research. The register (now in the London Metropolitan Archives under their A Place in the Sun index) shows that a policy was taken out by my great-great grandfather on 21st February 1833 (a policy normally ran for five years), and describes the house he rented as ‘brick and tiled’ containing ‘household goods, wearing apparel, printed books and plate’: value £240’.  Also insured were ‘pictures and prints: value £10’ as well as ‘china and glass: value £20’ and ‘stock and utensils and goods in trust: value £30’ (confirming James worked from home, which was common at the time).

When I first came across this document in the LMA, I could have wept with relief. In James’ will of 1866, the household objects left to his wife did not contain any ‘printed material’, which was not surprising, given that his young wife was illiterate. But  it is the presence of these ‘printed books’ in the 1830s, which means more to me than any other  object described in the documents detailling my great-great grandfather’s possesions. Because, above all, it shows that not only did he want to financially protect his new wife and children, but he was most likely someone who saw the importance of reading and education. It is just a pity that for little Arthur his father’s death came too early for him to benefit from such values. 

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2016

The Tiny Vibrations of Forgotten Things

Of all the quarters and parts of London that of Horsleydown is the least known and the least visited, except by those whose business takes them there every day. There is, in fact, nothing to be seen: the wharves block out the river; the warehouses darken the streets, the places where people live are not interesting; there is not an ancient memory or association, or any ancient fragment of a building, to make one desire to visit Horsleydown.

South London, Walter Besant (1898)

The two decades that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, and his first family spent in Horsleydown (from around 1823-42) coincided with changes to public record-keeping which saw civil registration introduced in England and Wales in 1837, followed by the national census in 1841. It was the combinaton of these records which had allowed me to unearth James and his second family in Aldred Rd in the 1860s, but the lack of  data earlier in the century (when records had been kept by individual parishes) was the stumbling block which had prevented me from finding him in Horsleydown (and later Brixton) with his first wife and children – the family I regard as ‘lost’.

However, when I resumed my search in 2010 the internet had already changed the landscape of genealogical research, and suddenly it seemed that everyone was busy downloading parish records, assembling family trees on-line, and posting queries about long-lost cousins. It was with a slight trepidation that I re-ignited my quest to find my lost ancestors, spurred on by the Waugh family documentary that had fascinated me so much (see Begin Again). I knew that once I started it could easily turn into an all-consuming obsession. Would I end up sitting wild-eyed at 2am, telling myself I would have just one more attempt to find an ancestor who had so far proved elusive? (My ongoing search for the ‘doorstep foundling’ Nell springs to mind here.)

Even in the last couple of years, numerous records have been published on-line that were previously only accessible at archive centres: parish rates, divorce petitions, school board admission records. In a peculiar way it can be irksome to find such previously hard-won information suddenly retrievable at the push of the button (and the wave of a credit card). Document searches that used to entail a precious day at the archives – a day in which various choices regarding where to spend limited research time had to be made – can now be conjured up on a screen anywhere, almost devaluing the content in the process.

Some of the records that I found for James Skelton and his family fall into this category – the rate books from Horsleydown Lane being a prime example. Yet I still treasure the moment in the document consultation room in the London Metropolitan Archives when I laid the heavy, leather-bound book on the foam reading supports, untied the ribbons that held the covers together, and eased the pages apart to an ominous creaking, accompanied by a flurry of desiccated particles of brown leather. It appeared that no-one had opened these books for years – perhaps not even since they had been written, and in the intervening centuries the scribe’s ink had turned to a pale yellowish brown, reminding me of the ‘invisible ink’ I had made from lemon juice as a child. It was a joy, too,  to read the beautiful cursive hand of the unknown pen-pusher who’d transcribed these records almost two hundred years ago, perhaps perched at a high wooden writing desk while he laboriously copied out the scribbled notes of the enumerator.

As much as I relish the challenge of searching the records for original documents, particularly when coming across something not in the public domain, nothing beats the  thrill of combining the hunt for specific information with an on-the-ground search. Horsleydown Lane certainly could not have come alive for me if I hadn’t spent time there myself, trying to get under the skin of the neighbourhood (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), even if that did prove rather elusive.

Some of my most successful research days have been those in which I visited the local records office – such as the Southwark Local History Library in Borough High Street, tucked away at the back of the John Harvard library like a little secret, or the wonderfully eccentric Lambeth Archives adjoining the Minet Library. Both these places are situated amongst the streets, building and parks that figure in my ancestors’ lives, and there is a comforting sense of continuity when I can set aside a document and walk out to view the area to which it refers, returning again and again to now familiar haunts. Each time I discover something new, I have a need to go back and see the neighbourhood once more in the light of my recent knowledge. Thus my impressions of a place are always shifting and rearranging themselves as I view them in different seasons and weather conditions, at different times of the day, and in different moods.

In the Tardis-like room that houses the Southwark Local History Library, the friendly and knowledgeable staff helped me to put together an initial picture of the Skeltons’ life in Horsleydown from the records they house. A trawl through the original trade directories of the time showed that there was James Skelton operating as a Tailor &c in 1828 at 7 Broad Street, Horsleydown. I already knew from the Horsleydown parish records (found on-line) that James’ son, James William was born in Broad Street in December 1827, corroborating the information in Robsons. Thereafter, the various trade directories show the family as living at Horsleydown Lane, where they were to stay for the next 15 years.

Interestingly, the birth records for James first two children show that they were born in the town of Erith (in 1824) and Printer’s Place, also located in Horsleydown, (in 1826), respectively. As Sarah’s brother and his wife (the witnesses at James and Sarah’s wedding) were from Erith, it is probably safe to say that Sarah was originally from this area and had perhaps returned to her family home to give birth to her first child (Margaret Sarah) a year after her marriage. Unfortunately, many of the relevant parish records for Erith were destroyed in a church fire in 1877, so at present there does not seem to be any easy way to confirm this fact. As Sarah is not a blood relative, I feel I can let her story lapse to a certain extent, although I often wonder if she was the driving force behind James’ success story and at some point would like to try to discover more about her.

I am fully aware that I may be biased in my reporting, but it does seem as if the records give support to my theory of upward mobility. Firstly, James and Sarah have two addresses in the neighbourhood (which we know about) before they eventually settle in Horsleydown Lane for a relatively long period, indicating that they were putting down roots in the area. In addition, James’ appearance in the London trade directories of the time shows that he took ‘growing’ the business seriously.

And finally – and perhaps most fascinating of all – the aforementioned rate books I consulted in the LMA show that James paid initially paid £14 in annual rent for the brick property at 41 Horsleydown Lane, which rose to £17 by the 1840s (his parish tax on that amount being £1 and 4 shillings). This record also showed that the house, along with others in the street, was owned by the local landowning Abdy family, and was part of the Horsleydown estate, built on what had previously been Horsley Down, grazing land up to the middle of the 17th century.

Another important piece of the jigsaw fell into place when an archivist helped me to locate the Skeltons’ abode in Horsleydown Lane from the incredibly detailed London street map, created by Richard Horwood from 1792-9. This breathtakingly intricate map not only gives the street number of every house in the capital, but also includes details of the buildings featured, along with their attached yards and gardens and outhouses. From the North Bermondsey section of the Horwood map, it is thus possible to ascertain the exact location of the family’s house  – interestingly it also shows that their previous address at 7 Broad Street (now Elizabeth Street) was literally only round the corner from Horsleydown Lane. Going back even further by consulting earlier maps, such as John Roque’s plan of 1745 – the predecessor to the Horwood one –  it is possible to build up a fascinating picture of how the neighbourhood grew over the centuries to eventually become a densely-populated industrial area by the Victorian age.


Horsleydown in Horwood’s Map of London, circa 1800

Horsley Down Roque

Horsleydown in Roque’s Map of London, 1745

What excites me in particular about these two maps is the incredible attention to detail. In the Roque map the exquisite engravings of the long-lost pleasure parks and market gardens of south London help to conjure up a semi-bucolic atmosphere which is in marked contrast to the more urbanised area immediately across the water. There is something about the way the fruit trees throw eerie shadows onto forgotten fields and lanes which gives rise to an almost visceral pain at the loss of such things. I could scroll (metaphorically stroll) through this map for hours, visiting Dancing Bridge and Pye Gardens in Bankside, or taking the air along Melancholy Walk near Bermondsey Abbey.

By the time the Horwood Map was published, fifty years later, the lansdcape of Bermondsey was markedly changed, in part through the increase in the number of tanners, fellmongers and wool staplers in the area. Although there had been a leather trade there since Medieval times, mostly due to the presence of freshwater tidal streams from the Thames and nearby oak woods, the 18th century saw a boom in the trade, and it was claimed that a third of the leather in Britain came from Bermondsey by the beginning of the 19th century. This was a messy and smelly business involving oak bark, lime, urine and dog faeces, creating noxious smells in the vicinity of the production, and the tanneries had therefore initially been established inland, away from the inhabited areas close to the riverfront.

When James and his family moved to Horsleydown in the 1820s, Bermondsey was certainly in the process of change. In 1833, the new Leather and Skin Market was opened, and three years later the railway came to the area, cutting a swathe through residential districts and causing an exodus of wealthier residents in the wake of increased industrialisation. This resulted in the material decline of the area throughout the second half of the 19th century and eventually led to the infamous slum clearances of the 20th. Writing in 1949, in South London, Harry Williams provocatively states that: Ten years ago Bermondsey was, perhaps, the worst slum district in the world. Wholesale damage and demolition caused to its moth-eaten and decayed property by war bombing has improved it, but it is an improvement purely negative in character. It is better because it has been thinned out and has lost a proportion of its congested population. What remains is a mess and a disgrace, none the less.

However, Williams does go on to say (in his own wonderfully poetic way)  that: This web of ill-planned slums, decayed waterfront and wandering highways has an extraordinary fascination. It is impossible to account for the atmosphere generated by the place unless we admit that the shadows of history still cling to the soil on which the events were played out. so many events, gay and colourful, mournful and turbulent, stately and murderous, have taken place in this small area that the air must be full of memories and whispers of gallantry, if only the ear were attuned to the tiny vibrations of forgotten things.

So much of Harry William’s riverfront Bermondsey has now gone. But with the loss of the industries which dominated the area and the subsequent closure of the docks, there is now the strange feeling that Horsleydown is slipping back  into its pre-industrial past when visitors would come from across the water to enjoy the pleasures on offer on the south side of the Thames. This trend is most obvious in nearby Bankside (in Lambeth), but has also been replicated to a lesser extent in the area south of Tower Bridge. Now pedestrians can  follow the Jubilee Walkway to St Saviour’s Dock (and beyond) to where the replica of Sir Frances Drake’s Golden Hinde is berthed, taking in the shops, restaurants and galleries of riverside Horsleydown en route. Many will stroll along the cobbled street of Shad Thames without knowing the exact area through which they are passing, but if they are aware of the old parish name they might easily guess that it was once covered  with fields where horses and cattle grazed.


Renovated Victorian Warehouses, Shad Thames, Horsleydown


Replica of the Golden Hinde, St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey

The famous Agas map of London in 1540 (not shown), clearly indicates this open land  (complete with drawings of long-horned cattle), and in the Hoefnagel painting from later in the century (below), these same fields can still be seen. The view of the White Tower from the end of the lane on the left (could this be the original Horsleydown Lane running down to the river?) shows that the location is not in dispute, even if the artist may have taken liberties with the actual details of the scene.


Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey, circa 1570

A contemporary plan of the area (below) shows Horsleydown in more detail, and it has been suggested that the grey building with the towers, located on the right of the Hoefnagel  painting above,  could be the Hermitadge shown in the map below (top centre). The Knights Hous (the house of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem), is reputed to have stood on the site where the Horsleydown Brewery was eventually erected – and next to the St John’s of Jerusaleme’s Milles on the riverbank, thus indicating where Horsleydown Lane once was. With so much detail, the map is a fascinating insight into the pre-industrial land use of the area, which also encompassed what is today the approach to Tower Bridge, including the section to the west of the bridge, previously called Potters’ Fields (and recently developed as Potters’ Field Park).

HorseyeDown1544-399x600 (2)

A few months ago, while looking through slide film of our family visits to London in the early 1970s, I came across the image (below) of my sister and myself, taken by my father,  which inadvertantly captures the area of Horsleydown behind us. It brought back memories of how much of the south bank of the Thames always looked like a different world in those days – dark hulking warehouses, many already closed up, lined the river, cranes jutting out over the water (still visible in the photograph). It seemed to me to represent another London – one that both fascinated and repelled me. I sometimes wished we could go over the bridge to discover what was on the other side for ourselves; however, just like Sir Walter Besant, in the quote at the beginning of this chapter, my father used to say that there was nothing to see there, which was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment.

But perhaps even then my ear was already straining to become attuned to the tiny vibrations of forgotten things.


The Incidental Genealogist, August 2016

The Tailor of Horsleydown

Monday for wealth,

Tuesday for health,

Wednesday the best day of all;

Thursday for crosses,

Friday for losses,

Saturday no luck at all.


My family’s London story starts long before James Skelton’s winter-spring relationship with the poverty-stricken teenage single mother, Mary Ann Hawkins: a union which culminated in their marriage shortly before his death from bronchitis in 1867 (see Moments in Time). The story starts instead with another woman – and another family – in a narrow lane only a stone’s throw from the river Thames. And it is a very different story to that which was played out in Aldred Rd, a quarter of a century later.

When my great-great grandfather married his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, in Bermondsey, three years into the reign of George 4th, the couple were not yet in their mid-twenties. They took their oaths at St John’s Church, in the parish of Horsleydown on Tuesday 14th October, 1823, after a summer which had been one of the coolest since observations began in 1659. Thanks to the meticulous records of Luke Howard (the ‘godfather of clouds’), we know that their special day was one which was relatively mild for the time of year – dry and sunny, but unmistakeably autumn, with a gentle breeze and a light scattering of yellowing leaves. As they crossed the churchyard, the earth damp under their feet from the previous day’s rain, I hope they paused for a moment in a shaft of sunlight and allowed themselves to feel a thrill at being alive at this time and place, unaware that they would have only a limited time together.


St John’s, Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckley

Despite the old rhyme, their choice of wedding day (Tuesday for health), did not bring the longevity they would have wished for. Twenty-five years later, Sarah would be struck down with an undiagnosed womb disease after raising their five children, precipitating the crisis that sent James in search of ‘fulfilment’ elsewhere. I feel privy to some horrible secret, imagining them arriving at St John’s, all nervous excitement, not knowing what is in store for them, as I sit with their birth, marriage and death certificates, and those of their children and grandchildren, laid out before me like some macabre game of Happy Families.

But on that mild Tuesday in 1823, the church was only 90 years old, and yet to be hit by a bomb in an unimaginable future war from the air, and the surrounding graveyard a long way off from becoming a recreation ground. To James and Sarah (if they did indeed give it a thought) the Hawksmoor church must have already seemed like an antiquity, albeit one that had become a local joke on account of the strange weather vane balanced on top of a tapering spire. This huge iron construction was meant to represent a comet whizzing through the heavens, but to the parish residents it reminded them instead of the wriggling body of a louse. Locally the church was often referred to as ‘St John’s Lousydown’, or simply ‘The Louse Church’. No doubt James and Sarah found it amusing – like everyone, they would have been familiar with the common problem of body lice, even if they did not suffer from it themselves – but to a time-traveller from the 21st century it would need a leap of the imagination to see the iron ‘comet’ morph into the six legs and oval body of a parasite they have rarely encountered.

Bombed St Js (2)

St John’s Horsleydown, after bomb damage, 1940

Walking through the churchyard today, all that remains of St John’s are the Grade 2 listed foundations and crypt, controversially built over in the 1970s and used as offices by the London City Mission. The once large graveyard is a rather dreary public park, frequented by dog walkers, and mothers pushing prams, while some of the last remaining headstones lean forlornly against the foundations of the church. This is, however, not a recent development. Due to the relatively large grounds (in London terms), the churchyard has been used off and on as a public park since the summer of 1882, when the Illustrated London News reported that headstones were taken up and placed against a wall at the end of the ground, while paths and flowerbeds were laid, and principle walks are shaded by noble trees, beneath which seats are placed.

P1030771 (2)


The foundations of St John’s Horsleydown, today

Sarah’s brother and his wife, newly married themselves, were the official witnesses to the wedding, which in keeping with the traditions of the day would have been a low-key event, with the participants in their Sunday best. Whenever I try to imagine Sarah and James walking up the wide stone steps to the church, I cannot help but see them in typical late-regency outfits: Sarah in a still fashionable high-waisted dress, with bonnet, gloves and shawl; James in a smart dark dress coat and waistcoat, his legs encased in the new style of long trousers (all of which he probably made himself). Covering his youthful hair is a top hat made by a local Bermondsey hatter and possible friend. Sarah may have been congratulating herself on marrying such a smart young man who knew the latest cut of cloth and had attained the rank of a master tailor, thus giving him the freedom to set up his own business where he was able to take on apprentices.

Tailoring was, however, a relatively common profession at the time, with most (like James) having their business in the local communities which they served. Notions of segregating work from home were relatively new, and similarly to many skilled artisans, records show that James lived ‘over the shop’. In fact, the whole family would have been involved in the business in various ways, from running messages, to greeting customers, and their young live-in domestic servant would have been a much-needed help for Sarah – especially once the babies came along. This spot by the Thames  was where the family were to stay for almost twenty years before their move out of an increasingly industrialised area to the more genteel semi-rural suburb of Brixton in the mid-1840s.


Horsleydown Lane and environs, 1830

As soon as I discovered the existence of this second ‘lost’ Skelton family, I was off to London to visit the evocatively-sounding Horsleydown Lane and surroundings to see whether I could discover any traces of the old neighbourhood for myself. This was the first time I had been back to the capital to do any ‘fieldwork’ since my last foray into south London in 1992, and a low-simmering excitement infused me as I crossed the windy Millennium Bridge (for the first time) over to the South Bank. It was an area I remembered from the early 80s, when the much debated dockside developments were underway and the whole riverside was beginning to take on a different character.

Before my visit to the capital I had already put in some of the groundwork and knew that Horsleydown Lane still existed – it had escaped the demolishment to which other nearby roads had succumbed during the building of Tower Bridge in the 1890s – but I still had no idea of what it would look like in the 21st century.


Tower Bridge Rd with Horsleydown Lane on the right (circa 1900)

It is a strange feeling to walk through streets where your ancestors once set foot, moving ever closer to the place where for better or worse they carved out a living. In Horsleydown some things would not have changed – the old watermen’s stairs at the foot of the lane where the great tidal river covered and uncovered the slipway twice a day; the glimpse of the imposing White Tower from that precarious spot; the Anchor Tap, still with beer on tap, and having possibly survived so long by virtue of being a neighbourhood necessity. But many things had changed, too – the lane’s other pub (the wonderfully named The Cod Smack) had long gone, as had the 18th century house in which the ‘lost’ children of James’ first family had spent their formative years.

In some ways I was disappointed that so much from that time now ceased to exist, but in other ways I was delighted to come across unexpected tangible reminders of the family’s life. For most family historians the bright moments of discovery are always tinged with a regret for what had once been, and what might have remained to tell the tales of previous lives. But sometimes this enthusiasm for the past can overcome reason, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything old as ‘authentic’ while overlooking the fact that many such buildings had actually replaced much earlier ones.

I had to remind myself that the elegant Victorian warehouses on the west side of the street had necessitated the destruction of a row of 18th century brick houses mirroring the ones on the east side where the Skeltons had lived.  And that the  impressive buildings of the old Anchor Brewery (now private flats) had themselves been built on the site of the original wooden brewhouse (burnt down in 1891 ) that James and Sarah would have recognised. The cobblestones on Horsleydown Lane would have, however,  continued to reverberate with the clatter of the drayhorses and their waggons throughout the century and beyond (just seen in the photograph above), until the final demise of workhorses in the mid-twentieth century..

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Now Horsleydown Lane is relatively silent as visitors tend not to wander much from the river and the heritage thoroughfare of Shad Thames, and the main noise is the thrum of traffic on the parallel Tower Bridge Road. Even reminding myself that this busy road and its eponymous bridge are relative newcomers to the area needs a leap of the imagination. More often than not, I find that on these ‘ground searches’ my ways of viewing the past start to shift under my feet, bringing new perspectives

Popping into the welcoming Anchor Tap for an impulsive mid-afternoon pint, I feel even more confused – time seems to telescope as I step into a series of interlinking rooms where fashionably dark Victorian colour schemes are the order of the day. The friendly barman encourages me to look around the place, intrigued by my genealogical search, and as I move through the pleasing muddle of rooms and head up the narrow twisting staircase to the (now deserted) dining room, I experience the uncanny sensation of  walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. All at once I realise that they too would have  struggled with the demands of such steep stairs (which maximised precious space). They would have gazed out over the neighbourhood from their upstairs windows, and would have known exactly all the places in the house where the floorboards had come loose, where the walls and ceilings of their rooms sloped unevenly, and where the dustballs chose to accumulate.




Walking out of the dark pub afterwards, I instinctively blink and narrow my eyes in the bright spring sunshine. For a  moment I can almost imagine that I have stepped into the bustling street of  the 1830s. The brewers, the corn merchants, the watermen, the mariners; they are all busy rushing to and from the river. I pace up and down the lane alongside them, trying to summon up their ghosts. But the shouts of a group of Saturday afternoon revellers spilling out of the pub cut through space and time, and I turn to head back towards the riverside, seeking out the peaceful oasis of the old watermen’s stairs.

I sit there for a while, watching the Thames as it surges and swirls its way up river, past the neo-Gothic wonder of Tower Bridge. Tourists pose for photographs above me, occasionally throwing me a quizical glance, as if they are surprised to see me down here so close to the water (as the stairs are not easy to find). I feel safe here – away from the fray and yet still part of the unfolding scenes of the capital on a warm spring weekend. The thought occurs to me that I myself am like a ghost – a ghost from the future trying to find a way to reach back into the past.



Horsleydown Old Stairs at the old Anchor Brewery, Horsleydown

Then suddenly it strikes me that the Tower of London, partially seen from those algae-covered steps, would not have changed over the years that seperated me from my ancestors. My great-great grandfather, James, would have waited on this same slippery spot for a penny ride over the river from his favourite waterman. He most likely also felt in awe of the ancient building across the water that symbolised the power of the city he now called home. He would have known the same legend about the ravens of the tower and passed it on to his children – in the same way my  father had told me the story as a child. And at that moment I felt as if the centuries had just rolled back to connect us.


 To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2016

Moments in Time

With luck, you may find an immobile ancestral family, living half a century in one place. In the space of an afternoon in your library, you can observe them in a succession of census returns. It is hard to bring to mind that the family snapshots you uncover – 1841, 1851 and so on – are moments in time. They tell you nothing of the intervening years of economic slump, ill health, bereavement, day-to-day grind and routine of life in the un-centrally heated and outside toileted 19th century.

Andrew Todd Basic Sources for Family History 1987

When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, married Elizabeth Holton in the summer of 1880, not only was his pregnant bride unable to write her name, but the twenty-one year-old Arthur did not know the occupation of his deceased father. This comes as no surprise – James Skelton was sixty when his second-youngest son was born, and already retired from his profession as a master tailor. When he died from a severe bout of bronchitis in 1867, Arthur had only just turned eight – and as the years passed the memories of his elderly father would have become more difficult to recall, kept alive perhaps through the stories of his much younger mother and older siblings.

Elizabath and Arthur

I often wonder whether the rather feckless life that Arthur seemed to have led was partly due to the early loss of his father, which put the focus of the family on survival, leaving scant opportunity for self-improvement. Arthur and Elizabeth’s relatively poverty-stricken life, which culminated in Elizabeth’s demise from  cirrhosis of the liver in 1895, and the death of their youngest child from malnutrition shortly afterwards, appears to have been blighted from the start (see The Two Arthurs). And yet I had never really questioned this before – it seemed to be a fairly average life history for the period, given their class and background. But years later, when the internet allowed me to dig a little deeper, I found out something that hinted at the possibility of a very different path that could have been taken.

What Arthur probably never knew was that for the first forty years of his life he had had a much older half-brother from his father’s first marriage, who was a successful merchant in the West Indies. Also called James (like his father), he had grown so wealthy through his dealings in mahogany in British Honduras (now Belize), that by the time Arthur was born he could have easily given him and his other half-siblings more than a little nudge in the right direction. However, it seems that James William chose not to acknowledge these children of his father’s second, embarrassing marriage; while at the same time his own boys attended Cheam, then Eton and finally Oxford, hobnobbing with the good and the great along the way.

And what Arthur might also not have realised was that his father, James Skelton, had actually been born a Yorkshireman, taking his first breath among the sheep-covered dales on the last year of the old century. By the time he died in Kennington in 1867, the predominantly rural life into which he’d been born had given way to the Age of Empire and Steam. Over the course of his lifetime he saw his adopted home in South London lose its last remaining garden nurseries, ropeways and tentergrounds to new industries and railways, while the children of his first marriage moved to far-flung corners of the empire in search of wealth and power.

He also witnessed his stable home life derailed by two catastrophes in the late 1840s: the death of his first wife, Sarah, after twenty-three years of marriage, followed two years later by the loss of his eldest daughter, poignantly named Margaret Sarah, after his mother and wife respectively, and possibly the child with whom he was closest. These twin ‘disasters’ precipitated what I now believe was some kind of mid-life breakdown, Victorian style. In the spirit of the era, the fifty year-old James ran full pelt into the comforting arms of a teenage single mother – a young woman who, to later generations, would seem to have walked right out of the pages of a Dickens novel. From her name (Mary-Ann Hawkins), to her background – born in 1830 in the Queenhithe dockside district of the City to unmarried teenage parents who ended up in the workhouse along with her younger siblings – to her rather ambiguous profession of ‘needlewoman’, she oozes mid-Victorian melodrama, and is one of the characters in the family story in whom I am most fascinated.


Queenhithe dock (on the north shore) then and now (with ghost dock remains)

When I first came across Arthur’s parents in the 1861 census at 35 Aldred Road, I naively took the enumerator’s information at face value: that Mary-Ann Hawkins was the young widowed housekeeper to the elderly widower, James Skelton, with her own family of five in tow (the youngest, Sidney, was not yet born). Not only did the children all carry their mother’s surname, but it had even been noted on the census return that these were the children of the housekeeper NOT James Skelton, the retired tailor. So I naturally assumed that there was a chance that our family were in fact a branch of the Hawkins family, causing much merriment (including terrible pirate impersonations) among my close relatives. However, as I slowly gathered the birth certificates of their children together, the true picture of James and Mary-Ann’s relationship came out from the shadows of the census.

More recent research has confirmed what I eventually suspected to be true – that between the 1851 and 1861 censuses Mary-Ann was giving birth to James Skelton’s second set of children, possibly in secret from his other adult children, at various rather seedy locations throughout The Borough. Until Arthur and Sidney (who was also mistakenly christened Arthur!) arrived and the family were established at Aldred Road near Kennington Park for almost half a century (making me one of the lucky researchers mentioned by Andrew Todd above), it appeared that James continued to live with his grown-up unmarried daughters in his much grander family home in Brixton. It was not until 1864 that the 65 year-old James – perhaps aware his time was running out – made his relationship to the 34 year-old Mary-Ann legal, turning all six children into Skeltons in one fell swoop.

Arthur and Sidney’s birth certificates were what eventually led  me to the Hawkins-Skelton family at Aldred Rd, their details caught on paper by the 1861 census. As I have already pointed out, in those days it was impossible to search for a census return unless you had an address, unlike today where a name search can suffice. I had thus never been able to find my great-great-grandfather, James Skelton, previously to 1861 – and had spent hours in the public records office in Chancery Lane poring over the microfiche of the Newington  census returns in the hope of locating him living somewhere in the district.

When years later I finally found him in 1851, he was officially living at Sutherland Terrace (part of Coldharbour Lane) in Brixton, with two of his unmarried daughters and a general domestic servant. Jumping back yet another decade, he was ensconced in Horsleydown Lane in Bermondsey, a stone’s throw from the river, with his full quota of family around him: his wife, Sarah; four daughters; and his son, James William, (plus the inevitable domestic servant). Further research filled in the gaps between the censuses, but the general pattern was one of upward mobility. In fact, in the late 1840s, when James was faced with the two deaths that changed the course of his life, he had already moved his tailoring business to more lucrative premises at East Cheap in the City.

The late Georgian house in quiet semi-rural Brixton into which James (no doubt proudly) moved his family in 1844, was much grander than the small 18th century terrace house by the Thames, where they had lived for almost twenty years while James built up his tailoring business in a shop below their living quarters. The first census returns for the poetically named Horsleydown Lane in 1841 show that many of the residents made their living from the river – often working as mariners, waterman or lightermen, while in Coldharhour Lane (a name now unfortunately associated with the 1981 Brixton riots)  the householders mostly earned their incomes from  trading and working in the City,  as well as the new middle-class professions, such as teaching and accountancy. And not only had their neighbours’ status changed with the move, but  the noise and chaos of the nearby Anchor Brewery in Horsleydown had been replaced by the peacefulness of Brixton’s market gardens – including a  large cabbage field in front of  their house, which was not developed on until much later in the century, and a relatively large garden of their own to tend at the rear of the dwelling.

A similar 18th century  house in Bermondsey today
James Skelton’s old house in Coldharbour Lane today

Aldred Road in Walworth certainly appears to be a backwards move for the middle-aged James,  whose  Brixton residence was officially named ‘Crichton House’ (although perhaps not by himself). Not only was there no extra domestic help, but there were the six hungry mouths to feed, and all the time the critical gaze of his successful adult children would have been upon him (who no doubt looked disparagingly at their father’s non-legal set-up with a woman younger even than themselves). And while these children had been encouraged to clamber out of their class through hard work, education and shrewd marriages, their father had in effect thrown away everything he had spent his lifetime working  for in order to bring up this second family of wild little Cockney kids, none of whom he would see grow to adulthood.

Throughout his father’s later years, and even after his death, the upwardly-mobile James William insisted on refering to James Skelton as a ‘gentleman from Brixton’ in what I believe was most likely a willing attempt to obscure the last two decades of his father’s life and blot out the existence of the widowed Mary-Ann and ‘those other children’.

Aldred Rd. (2)
Aldred Rd, circa 1916

This is obviously a complex and sensitive story, of which more details will emerge later. But in many ways I am very proud of my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, for defying convention to stick by his much younger lover, who he could just have easily discarded at some point between the censuses. Aldred Road may not have had quite the same cachet of ‘Crichton House’ in Brixton, or the lively qualities of riverside Horsleydown, but it certainly gave those six Hawkins-Skelton children the chance of a stable family home for as long as possible, turning them into the ‘immobile ancestral family’ quoted at the start, very few of which are to be found among the Victorian urban working population. 

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2016

A Rose in Holly Park

As in 1882, the largest shopping area is Whetstone High Road, with several blocks of shops, including multiple stores, public houses, and offices, most of them modern. The rest of the parish is covered mainly by commuters’ semi-detached houses. Some of the Victorian and Edwardian terraces in Holly Park are decaying and others are divided into flats, but most are structurally sound. Friern Barnet Lane, bordered by Friary park and the golf course, is the least populous part; with grass verges, it still seems rural, despite the felling of trees in the churchyard and in front of the alms-houses.

 T F T Baker and C R Elrington (ed), A History of the County of Middlesex: Vol 6, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Hornsey with Highgate (1980)

In January 1985, when I began my short-lived career as an heir-hunter (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I finally moved into my first London flat with a friend from my university days. It was on the top-floor of a red brick, ex-council house  in Whetstone, so far out on the Northern Line that it was practically in Hertfordshire. This was not an ideal location – even walking back and forwards to the doll-like Victorian train station of Totteridge and Whetstone took at least half an hour out of every day. But after having endured several weeks of exhausting accommodation searches, courtesy of the ‘To Let’ section in the Evening Standard, I was extremely grateful to have found a place at all. And the £70 a week rent (£35 each) was just within our range, even though it ate into a large chunk of our weekly pay cheques.
The top-floor flat at Hobart Close today

Like many such opportunities, it came through ‘a friend of a friend’ who had inherited the house on the death of his grandmother. The boxy flat was a veritable time warp, complete with the original late 1920s bathroom and kitchen fittings, some of which would not look out of place in the pages of Period Homes today. Although there was no central heating (a definite disadvantage to the retro look), the living room had the original open fireplace and tiled hearth with mantelpiece. This ‘feature’ was very cosy in winter, but of course the grate needed cleaning and setting every evening before the room could feel even vaguely warm. However, despite the hardships – doing the washing in the bath certainly qualified as another – I loved my first proper grown-up home.

And one day, when I was out shopping along Whetstone High Road, I discovered a way into the countryside right on my doorstep which felt almost as magical as falling through the back of a dusty wardrobe into Narnia. This was Totteridge Lane. Thirty odd years ago it still felt like a rural backwater, and walking up to the hamlet of Totteridge and beyond was akin to slipping back in time to when London’s growth was stopped in its tracks by the green-belt regulations. The walk was further enhanced by the discovery of the Rising Sun pub at the Mill Hill end – and more surprisingly a return bus service from there to Arnos Grove via Whetstone, which enabled an easy ride home after a visit to the pub.

The Rising Sun
The Rising Sun, circa 1900

In the 1980s, the Rising Sun still functioned as a traditional pub and had an original snug bar which felt like the kind of place  the characters of a Thomas Hardy novel would patronise (I was going through a Hardy phase then). The whole area, with its millponds and weatherboard ccttages, commons and village church, fed into my   fantasy about the southern English countryside, encouraged by my reading of Hardy and my father’s tales of life in Somerset during the evacuation. And a couple of times when life in London depressed me so much that I could not even bear to take the train to work, I phoned in sick and headed off to walk the fields and lanes of the Totteridge/Mill Hill green belt instead, allowing nature to restore me.

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Cottage, Totteridge
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St Andrew’s Church, Totteridge
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Green belt views, Totteridge

But my long hike along the lane for a pint at the Rising Sun (now a popular Italian restaurant) was at the end of a day’s sojourn in the footprints of some ‘rogue’ ancestors who had ended up exchanging south London for north of the river. What I had not known in 1985 was that less than twenty years previously my grandfather’s older sister had also lived – and died – in Whetstone, a five minute walk away from my flat at Hobart Close. Just one of the many coincidences which I have come across while researching my family history.

Rose – christened the enchanting Rosina Lilian – was named after her maternal aunt, Rosina Holton, and was the oldest daughter of Arthur and Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton). The five Holton sisters (the product of two different fathers) seem to have been close throughout their lives and beyond. Sometime after Elizabeth’s death in 1895, her two daughters, Rosina and Elizabeth jnr, went to live with two of their maternal aunts as domestic servants, an arrangement that was no doubt beneficial to both parties. When the widower Arthur remarried the widow Harriet Pushman (née Wales) the following year, there were four extra children to take on board, and the adolescent Rose and Elizabeth were perhaps relieved to get away from the new family set-up. In any case, they had completed their compulsory schooling by then and would have needed to find work somewhere.

At least Rose and Elizabeth had attended school, however peripatetically. Their mother had had no formal education and had been unable to sign her marriage certificate in 1880, putting a cross instead. It may seem shocking today that no-one was able to teach her how to even write her own name. However, Elizabeth snr. and her contemporaries might have been equally surprised to learn that large numbers of future generations of young women would not even have basic needlework skills, or would be unable to skin a rabbit.

While Elizabeth jnr went to stay with Aunt Louise in Camberwell, Rose ended up in Holly Park Road in Friern Barnet (then predominantly rural), to live with her Aunt Emma, who had married a Bedfordshire-born farm carter, George Kidman. The Kidmans had four children, and presumably Rose helped to take care of her younger cousins as well as carrying out her household chores. Possibly Rose had the better deal as Emma had a much smaller family than her older sister Louise (who had eleven children). 

Unsurprisingly, Rose eventually met a local boy, George Ryall (a plasterer), and married him in 1905 while expecting their first child, also setting up home in Holly Park Road, where she was to spend the best part of the rest of her long life. Sadly, her Aunt Emma never had the chance to attend the wedding as she  was dead by 1902. However, one year later George Kidman remarried (a pattern that was repeated with all the Holton sisters’ marriages, apart from with Rose’s namesake, Rosina). But I was heartened to discover that Rose’s older brother Arthur and step-sister Harriet Pushman came up from Thornton Heath to be the witnesses. And in December of the same year, when Rose had already given birth to her first daughter – Nellie Rosina, she and George travelled to Thornton Heath to witness Arthur and Harriet’s own wedding.

Having never explored Friern Barnet when I lived in Whetsone, I was excited to be finally heading out to see where Rose and Emma had lived, taking the Picadilly line from Central London to Arnos Grove (a station I had sometimes used in my Whetstone days). At the turn of the century, Friern Barnet would still have had a village feel, despite the relatively new brick terraces which had sprung up (of which Holly Park Road was one) near to the railway station at New Southgate (Colney Hatch) on the Great Northern Line. However, today the area is very much part of the north London urban conglomeration and walking along Friern Barnet Road it was difficult to imagine how quiet it must have felt at the end of the 19th century. Despite its evocative name and the fact that it was tucked away behind the main road, almost free of traffic, Holly Park Rd reminded me of its sister streets in south London. Here were the same Victorian terraces beloved of Arthur and Elizabeth, some of the houses now looking rather shabby and neglected (although several were in various stages of gentrification).

Holly Park Road 1915

Holly Park Rd then (1915) and now

But my disappointment soon turned to delight as I headed into Friern Barnet Lane towards Whetstone and the house in Church Crescent where Rose had died at the great age of 86. For on that bright spring morning I stumbled across a site that gladdened my soul as much as the early daffodils nodding at the side of the road: namely, the beautiful church of St James the Great. Now used by the Greek Orthodox Community, the church and surrounding churchyard is in a setting almost as rural as that of St Andrew’s Church in Totteridge Lane – a reminder of how Friern Barnet Lane might once have looked like before it was widened and developed in the 1920s.

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Friern Barnet Lane, circa 1900 (c) The Friern Barnet Photo Archive

What excited me in particular as I pushed  open the wooden gate and stepped between the yew trees which guarded the entrance to the churchyard, was the knowledge that this bucolic spot was where Rose’s Aunt Emma had been interred in 1902 – along with her little boy, who had died as an infant in 1892 (and was buried just two days before her sister Elizabeth gave birth to my grandfather, Sidney). Perhaps even more thrilling for a direct descendant like myself, it was also the final resting place of Francis Holton, Rose’s grandfather (and thus one my own great-great -grandfathers).

churchyard (2)

St James (2)

St James the Great, Friern Barnet

When Francis Holton’s second wife died at Royal Terrace, Kennington Park, in 1887, from exhaustion and bronchitis (did that pesky oil of vitriol factory play a role in her demise?), he went to spend the last four years of his life at Holly Park Rd with his daughter Emma and her family. I have always been fascinated by Francis Holton, who was named after his father – a Westminster butcher, even though as a non-Skelton he is slightly out of my research orbit. Not only is he in possession of such an elegant-sounding name, but when his daughter Elizabeth was born in 1859 he listed his occupation as Labourer at Buckingham Palace. At that time the Holtons also lived in Westminster at 4 Belvoir Terrace, Vauxhall Bridge Rd. Surprisingly, the late Georgian houses in this very busy (and grimy) road are still standing, and are now listed buildings.

Belvoir Terrace
Georgian Houses, Vauxhall Bridge Rd

I have often wondered whether Francis was involved in putting in the new sewers in the palace, a move precipitated by ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858. On the death of his wife in 1887, he was described as a ‘Board of Works Labourer’. This organisation was set up in 1855 to provide London with the infrastructure badly needed to support its rapid growth, and was involved in constructing some 2100 km of sewage tunnels under the city, including Buckingham Palace. A year later, in 1888, it became officially known as the London County Council (LCC). However, in 1881, on Elizabeth’s marriage certificate (where she put an X in place of her name), his occupation is given as ‘porter’. So perhaps his involvement with the Metropolitan Board of Works was rather precarious in nature and these brief descriptions of his employment cannot readily be joined up to make a coherent history.

Sadly, Francis Holton’s grave and that of his daughter and baby grandson are no longer to be found amongst the decaying headstones, many of which have now succumbed to ivy and bramble vines, and it is doubtful whether any of their descendants past the subsequent generation even knew such graves existed. However, the topic of Victorian grave searches is one to which I will return in a future chapter where I will recount the discovery of a Skelton family plot in Nunhead Cemetry, the knowledge of which was hidden (for reasons which will soon be revealed) from Arthur snr and his descendants.

graves (2)
The graveyard at St James the Great, Friern Barnet

But what of Rose, the eponymous heroine of this chapter? My aunt has always been under the impression that Rose was one of the last Skelton children, and had died relatively young. She once wrote that: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when your father and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!

My father also vaguely remembered an Aunt Rose as a rather glamorous woman in a fur coat who came to visit them with gifts. As he was born in 1928, this must have been in the 1930s, when Rose Ryall would have been in her 50s. One plausible explanation is that their Aunt Rose was actually bringing them the cast off toys of her own children (the last of whom was born in 1923). Perhaps to a child’s eye she appeared younger and more glamorous than her years – although this does not explain the apocryphal story of her rather gruesome death. Another explanation is that she was not their aunt at all, but a family friend named Rose who had been confused in their young minds with their namesake aunt.

Like the mystery of the doorstep foundling Nell, (see The Two Arthurs), I am prone to while away countless unproductive hours trying to get to the truth of the story. And that is one of the reasons why I have committed myself to this genealogy project. By pulling disparate threads together in order to create a coherent narrative, I hope to see connections and patterns that I might otherwise have missed. This is an approach I would recommend to anyone attempting to put meat on the bones of a skeleton family history. There is no point in waiting until all the questions have been neatly answered as that time will never come!

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2016

A Tale of Two Parks

With the rapid development of the surrounding area in the first half of the 19th century, Kennington Common lost its ancient agricultural purpose and became a mere dumping ground for rubbish. In 1849 an observer stated that “The stunted herbage is trodden and soiled by a troop of cows belonging to a neighbouring milkman. A kind of pond near one corner, and a deep ditch opposite South Place, are the cemeteries of all the dead puppies and kittens of the vicinity.” The vitriol factory on the east side gave off a constant stream of sulphurous vapour, and the ditches presented “an accumulation of black offensive muddy liquid, receiving constant contributions from numerous unmentionable conveniences attached to a line of low cottage erections”.

Survey of London: Vol 26, Lambeth F H W Sheppard (ed): 1956

A manufactory for oil of vitriol, on the east side of Kennington Common, occupies three acres of ground; and between that and the Kent-road are, a smelting-house for lead and antimony, a tannery, a manufactory for glue, another for tobacco-pipes, with manufactories for floorcloth and for carriages.

 A Topographical Dictionary of England: Newington S Lewis (ed): 1848

In 1852, the Kennington Common Enclosure Act led to a revoke of the rights of the local population to use the common land of the Manor of Kennington in the way they had for centuries. Many of the area’s wealthier residents must have sighed in relief. The common had always had a rather chequered history – it was the site of public hangings in the 18th century and a place where dissenters gathered, as well as an area for local sports and festivities, which could sometimes get out of hand, not to mention the rather dubious activities which went on under cover of darkness.

The famous failed Chartist rally of 1848 – spectacularly captured on daguerrotype by William Edward Kilburn (see below) – had been the final nail in the common’s coffin. Thereafter, efforts moved quickly to consolidate the wishes of local reformers, clergy and politicians to have the land enclosed.

Kennington Common Chartist Rally: 10th April, 1848 (c) The Royal Collection 

N.B. The large building in the background of the image is the afore-mentioned Messrs Farmers oil of vitriol manufactory, showing the extent to which it must have  dominated the neighbourhood. In this remarkable picture, it seems to resemble a rather menacing symbol of industrialisation looming over those demonstrating against the political subjection of the time.

In 1852, six-foot high iron railings were erected around the perimeter of the old common and over a period of two years the badly neglected fields were turned into a public park, which finally opened in March 1854. However, the completed grounds did not at first meet with a particularly welcome reception, and were described by one contemporary as: intersected by un-level, puddle-holding walks, some of them unsightly and crooked, others leading to nothing and nowhere. Other criticisms focused on the lack of evergreens and the unstructured nature of the planting without regard to heights, habits or colours. But from 1858, under the leadership of John Gibson (who had previously worked as superintendent of the new Battersea Park), the design of the park began to change. Elaborate flower beds were laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentions a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory will let them be.

While all this sounds relatively positive (apart from the air pollution, of course), it is worth considering that for others the enclosure of the old common land was regarded as a political move which attempted to suppress the free speech of the working classes. The park was fenced and patrolled, and subject to a list of rules and regulations governing its usage. Due to the lack of space and the amount of people using the park, ball games were not allowed, and an early attempt to open a gymnasium for the local children failed because of the amount of adult men who were monopolising the equipment. However, it is also important to note that, less than half a century later in 1898, Walter Besant was bemoaning the fact that Kennington was the only place in the parish of Lambeth where the enclosed common land had been kept free of new building developments. And, true to its Chartist heritage, today Kennington Park is once more a popular starting point for local political rallies and marches.

When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, and his siblings were growing up at nearby Aldred Rd in the 1860s and 70s (see The Two Arthurs), the park might have been a welcome place for Sunday strolls and games en famille, despite the lack of real freedom for children to play as they pleased. It would certainly have been a vivid contrast to the above-mentioned oil of vitriol factory, spewing out its noxious vapours at the eastern border of the park, and no doubt affecting all those who lived in the neighbourhood – including the residents of 35 Aldred Rd.

Kennington Park circa 1908
In full bloom at Kennington Park, circa 1908

I first went to Kennington in search of Aldred Rd in the summer of 1991, shortly after returning from  two years spent overseas. When starting my genealogical search in the mid-80s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) it had somehow never crossed my mind to venture south of the river to seek out the old family haunts. It seems strange to me now that I waited so long to do so. I already had a nascent collection of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as information from the five censuses up to 1881 – not to mention more living relatives to ask! The only thing which might explain my reticence was this rather strange idea I once had about south London.

The furthest south I had ever been was to the George Inn in Borough High Street on a night out with friends. (In the 1980s, west and north London were the areas to which I stuck – and at that time they seemed ‘cooler’ than today, when the action has moved on elsewhere). Apart from forays across the river to the Southbank Centre or the pubs near to London Bridge, I’d only ever seen bits of south-east London from a train on a visit to a friend in Kent. Then I had gazed down on rows of terraced houses with their tiny yards and outhouses, and imagined my ancestors living in such a street, constantly battling with the twin Dickensian evils of crime and grime. To my mind, the streets on the other side of the river seemed old and dark and permeated with some kind of Victorian miasma that might threaten to overcome those who dared to stray too far from the bright lights of the south bank. And the scenes from the train out to New Beckenham from Charing Cross reminded me of Gustav Doré’s iconic image of rows of workers’ houses crowded into what appears to be a subterranean world.

Gustav Doré 1872
Gustave Doré: Over London by Rail, from London: A pilgrimage, 1872

So it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I headed off to Camberwell on that summers day in 1991, in search of a handful of old family addresses, my list  augmented by the recent release of the 1891 census (scrutinised on microfiche in the Chancery Lane records’ office). However, not being able to search by family name in those days was extremely limiting and meant that a great deal of information went unfound. I was still not yet up to the birth year of my grandfather (in 1892, in Cator Street, Peckham) and had been surprised to find another family recorded as living there the year previously. But as I later discovered, the Skeltons were all carrying on with their lives round the corner at Edmund Street, going undetected there for a further twenty years until the internet liberated their location from obscurity.

When I think back to that August day 25 years ago, two things stick in my mind. Firstly, that I had been completely unaware of just how many elegant Victorian and Georgian buildings graced the streets of south London, hidden behind the layers of dirt and soot. And secondly, that a number of these old buildings seemed to be in the process of either being gentrified or pulled down.

Aldred Road – where Arthur’s family had lived for 4 censuses in a row – had disappeared off the map completely (after morphing into Aldred Street somewhere along the line), so I headed along Camberwell New Road to try to find what was left of Cator Street, my mouth agape at the sight of so many architecturally stunning Georgian houses at one stretch. Further along, I took a short cut through an unexpected open expanse of fields that looked like it too might have originally been part of an old common – although there was something about the place that gave off an eerie feeling of impermanence. Roads that led nowhere. Bridges over dry land. Instinctively I took out my new duty-free camera and photographed several old buildings that seemed as if their days were numbered. As I snapped away, a sense of panic rose up inside me at the thought that Cator Street was possibly turning to rubble (as Aldred Road/Street obviously had) before I even had the chance to discover it for myself.

That day I knew nothing about the history of the area I’d just crossed – which officially began its post-war life as the North Camberwell Open Space – and had been renamed Burgess Park in the 1970s (after Jessie Burgess, who was Camberwell’s first female mayor in 1945). Later I discovered that these plans for a great ‘Hyde Park of South London’ from the bomb damage of the 1940s had been mired in controversy for over half a century, chiefly because they had involved the ‘removal’ of the remaining homes within the new park’s borders. What I was actually witnessing that afternoon was the imminent destruction of some the last of the buildings clinging to the fringes of the burgeoning Burgess Park.

Noel Soho Works
Ludovic Noel and Sons, chain of French Grocers: 1860-1960. 77-85 Coburg Rd. Demolished 1991.

According to the current Wikipedia entry, Burgess Park is still not complete and contains some former roads which have been stopped up but not yet grassed over. The boundaries of Burgess Park remain a matter of dispute, and because the park has never been finished, it is regularly the subject of proposals to build housing, schools, or transport links of the sort that would never be contemplated in one of London’s more traditional Victorian Parks.

Back in June 1972, The Evening Standard reported that: Unfortunately clearing this 150 acre park involves displacing nearly 6000 people. Some live in tenement blocks and terraces from which they will be glad to escape to council flats. But also due to come down are some rather fine 19th century houses, rare visual delights in the otherwise uninspiring area between the North Peckham redevelopment to the south, and the monumental new Aylesbury estate in Walworth. (The Aylesbury Estate can be seen on the left of the photo below)

The George Pub
The George (Pub), 231 St George’s Way (Rd). Demolished circa 1991

As Southwark Council mention on their website: The park grew steadily, taking in hundreds of demolished dwellings, thirty streets, a few factories, churches, and filling in an old canal. It was always intended that the park would have regional importance yet its management and funding over the years have failed to deliver this ambition and although it is an important part of many local people’s lives there is a consensus that the park has never been ‘finished’.

In The Story of Camberwell, Mary Boast points out the fact that Burgess Park is an anomaly. Simply put, the creation of a park from what was once streets packed full of terraces and factories and shops and pubs is a reversal of the normal pattern of events in the capital. Land that was once open fields was given over to market gardens; which in their turn were built over by speculative developments. But now that land has once again become open fields, easily accessible to those living close by.

Over a century too late for my grandfather’s older siblings, who would possibly have found their recreation along the old Surrey Canal (filled in by the 1970s) during the brief time they lived in the area. The outline of the waterway can still be traced in Burgess Park, with many of the canal’s bridges still intact, creating the strange effect of a lost landscape. Perhaps that is what I found so unsettling about the park on my initial visit – it was if the land was still attempting to redefine itself. However, returning recently on an unseasonably warm March Sunday, when the park was being utilised to full capacity, the sombre feelings that had accompanied me on my earlier visit were dissipated by the sight of so many young families enjoying the (much improved) public space. Did many of the Victorian residents of Kennington also regard their park in a new light once it was in full bloom and memories of the old common had faded away?

One of the most charming aspects of Kennington Park today is the late Victorian, Arts and Crafts tearooms, which were recently refurbished after lying vacant for several years. I stumbled across the Kennington Park Café on a bright spring morning after trekking several miles round the neighbourhood on an empty stomach, and fell upon my  generously-filled toastie and mug of builders’ tea like Esau on his pottage.  Now, whenever I am exploring the area I detour just to eat here, and if weather permits, sit on the terrace and enjoy the friendly green vibes of the park.

kennington park (3)

Kennington Park Tearooms today, with the pioneering 60s Brandon Estate (site of Aldred Road) in the background

Although the tearooms were built too late for Arthur’s family to enjoy, previously there had been a purpose-built wooden building in the park which sold food and drinks to visitors (from 1861-88). Even farther back, when the park first opened, the park keeper’s wife sold refreshments from the rear porch of the Prince Consort Lodge. Now occupied by the national charity Trees for Cities, the Lodge is a semi-detached house which was desgned as a showcase for model workers’ dwellings by the Society for the Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, of which Prince Albert was president. Originally built for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the building was later moved to the front gates of Kennington Park, where one of the cottages could be inspected by the public (two park attendants lived in the other cottage). While some believe it was – and still is – an important reminder of the Chartist legacy, others feel that the cottages served more to appease the conscience of the middle classes. In the end, very few houses to this design were actually built for workers in London, and it was to be almost a century later before many of Arthur’s children could live in a house that contained such luxuries as an indoor flushing W.C. (see I Remember, I Remember). 

Prince Consort Lodge, Kennington Park

Nearby Burgess Park also boasts its own brand of ‘model housing’ – in this case the old alms houses of the Female Friendly Society Asylum  in what is now Chumleigh Gardens. Built in 1821, they suffered bomb damage in WW2, and although incorporated into the park from the outset, were not renovated until 1981. They now house the park offices, community centre  and cafe, and are surrounded by the popular multicultural garden. An interesting heritage trail which takes in these buildings and other historic sites in the park is described on the wittily-named  Bridge to Nowhere  website, run by the Friends of Burgess Park.

Chumleigh Gardens
Alms Houses at Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park

Although there will always be a certain amount of  tension between private and public space, at the same time it is indisputable that urban parks are an important hub for the surrounding communities. Having had to adapt to changing fashions, these parks now play a wide variety of roles, with local residents more involved in their management than previous generations were. And alongside an increasing emphasis on education and encouraging biodiversity, urban parks have become much less formal places. Even I can recall the slightly stilted atmosphere of the gardens of our local park in the 60s and early 70s, when dressing up and promenading through the grounds (while bands played!) were still a feature of family Sunday outings. Arthur and his siblings would have been subjected to even stricter regimes when visiting Kennington Park – and may have preferred the freedom of the traffic-free streets – although their parents were no doubt pleased that they did not have to worry about the possible dangers (real and imagined) of the nearby common! 

Both parks – Kennington and Burgess – are seperated by a century of policy and changing attitudes to public space. Products of history and circumstance, they link one generation of my London family to another, however tenuously. Whenever I am in south London I am pulled back to them again and again, even if they can no longer offer up any clues to my family’s past.

Park 1967
Sunday in the park with my grandparents, 1967

I go to Kennington Park to wonder at what it would have felt like to stroll the more formal (and no doubt very crowded) mid-Victorian gardens of Arthur snr and his siblings; to Burgess Park to wonder at the lost streets and the filled-in canal, and the densely-packed community that once thrived where now there are fields and gardens and an artificial lake. And every time I go to these two parks I wonder what my south London ancestors would make of these very modern, urban spaces.


The Incidental Genealogist, April 2016