Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

It was not a particularly auspicious weekend weather-wise when I travelled to Somerset with my cousin last month. We had arranged to meet up with our elderly aunt on the Saturday of our long weekend in the West Country, and so decided it would make sense to look around East Coker the day before our planned visit. This would allow my cousin to see the places that I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the wartime evacuation, and make the experience more meaningful.

Thus it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon when we arrived in the village – not what I’d intended at all. My first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker) had certainly been influenced by the good weather and I’d wanted my cousin to have the same initial impression. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. And maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. It also brought home why the new Keyford housing estate is slated to be situated near the Dorchester Road at the far end of the village. Those pesky narrow lanes effectively sealed off the other part of East Coker (where our fathers had lived with our aunt and grandmother during WW2) from further development, and thankfully could not be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (what had once been called Up Coker), and park by the almshouses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century almshouses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad that I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my memories of attending the Church of Scotland in my youth.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten about, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did, however, convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. And I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

On this visit, I was more conscious of the modern houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now that previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours. Yet I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but still wants to live in a modern one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Culliver’s Grave (the name of a field) and at a crossroads in the woods turns off to Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiter, banker Marcus Fysh,  which may explain the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that this was the way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminscences is obviously something which needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious of the fact that it felt just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as either I’d sent her copies in the post or she’d been the one to furnish me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were really popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairylights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1929 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph of my aunt and father in fancy dress brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (number three was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photograper’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on her face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady siting in a rocking chair waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother (Sandra’s father) was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years. My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months) jabbing at the twisted trunk an old wisteria tree with one of her walking sticks. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, added value to the homes.

Later that evening, esconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about,  and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book.  As East Coker: A Village Album was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me last month that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, today marks the day 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her youngest son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019

 

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A Tale of Two Villages

She prophesied, that, late or soon,
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter (1791)

ALLOWAY AULD KIRKThe Auld Kirk, Alloway, 1895 (which looks the same today)

Last month I wrote about my recent trip to Dunure in Ayrshire (see Looking Back), when I visited some of my childhood haunts, including the village of Alloway, famous for its association with the ‘ploughman poet’ Robert Burns. Next month I shall be returning to East Coker, the Somerset village where my father spent his wartime childhood as a London evacuee (see East Coker), and which also has a connection with a well-known poet, albeit of a very different kind and millieu. Yet – perhaps even because of the two poets – the similarity does not stop there. Both these attractive conservation villages surrounded by farmland have also been prey to post-war housing booms and thus at risk from being swallowed up by the nearby county market towns of Ayr and Yeovil respectively.

Had my father consciously been aware of the similarities between the two places when he’d first visited the site for the soon-to-be built bungalow in Alloway? On that day in July 1963, when he’d set out along the tree-lined road from Ayr, the sun had shone on the parks and green spaces, and it had shone, too, on Alloway’s small main street, with its handful of stone cottages, two shops, village hall and war memorial. Opposite the post office – like the proverbial jewel in the crown – was Burns Cottage, birthplace of the Scottish Bard two hundred years previously, with its thatched roof reminscent of many of the buildings in East Coker.

Burns_Cottage_Alloway (2)Burns Cottage and Alloway Village (looking north) today

Alloway-Village-Street-Scene-Ayr-Ayrshire-Scotland-Postcard (2)Alloway, Village, Ayr (looking south) c1904

Walking up Doonholm Road, past the older and grander houses of Alloway, to see where the new Weir’s estate was being built, my father would have  observed the red sandstone village school with its air of Victorian respectability. Then there was the rather imposing Burns Monument Hotel which overlooked the river, with its posh upstairs restaurant, and the flagstoned cellar bar (where old men used to gather round the open fire with their sheepdogs and penny whistles). The idyllic setting of the old hotel was further enhanced by the backdrop of the local Burns Monument and Gardens and the famous medieval hump-backed Brig o’ Doon. Both the old bridge and the nearby ruined Auld Kirk were immortalised in Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter where a drunken Tam tried to hurry his horse, Meg, over the river to escape the witches who were chasing him (as they were believed to be unable to cross running water).

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL 1970s.jpgBurns Monument Hotel c1970

BURNS MONUMENT HOTEL C1920Burns Monument Hotel and Gardens c1940 (from the Brig o’ Doon)

BROG O DOON.jpgBrig o’ Doon (with hotel gardens), early 20th C

Our road was named after the Doonholm Estate and ‘big house’ which it led to (and where Robert Burns’ father had worked as a gardener two hundred years previously). It was one of the first to be developed in the village, and before the Ayr bypass was built in the 70s was still a rural byway, rather than the rat run to the A77 that it eventually became. In those days it was the main access from the village to the outlying farms, including Mount Oliphant where the Burns family moved to when Robert was young. Sheep were still driven along it to graze in the field opposite our house, and on occasion stray cows could be found wandering down the road. In fine weather local riders passed by on horseback as did a rather eccentric old spinster on an outsize tricycle who taught Sunday school to the children of the farming communites. My father had remarked on the appeal of this country road to my mother when he went to visit the house, perhaps because it reminded him of Burton Lane in East Coker, which led to the old farmhouse at Burton Farm where he lived for most of the war.

Further up from our house, where the Doonholm Estate began, was an old railway bridge underneath which summer trains would run out to the local Butlin’s Holiday Camp (a place I loved as a child). These were the last gasp of Britain’s steam trains which followed the remains of the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway, then a sixty-year old branch line which had been in decline since the 1930s. On Saturdays my father used to take me up to the bridge and hold me up to let me watch the trains pass as they blasted and hooted their way to the coast, taking holidaymakers to their week at the camp. Previously the line had run all the way to Turnberry hotel and golf course (now belonging to Donald Trump) until the hotel was requisitioned during the war as a military hospital and the golf course used as an airfield. There had been several small stations along the line, including one at Alloway and Dunure, as both were local tourist destinations. In Alloway the remains of the old Victorian station (disused for many years) had been reduced to a pile of rubble, which we explored as children.

BUTLINS.JPGOn a daytrip to Butlins with our Skelton Grandparents c1968

This was 130 years after the first steam train line in London was laid – the London and Greenwich Railway, which was also originally designed as a day-tripping route. I have written about this line before (see A Riverside Rest) as it ran close to my great-great grandfather’s house in Bermondsey and, like many at the time, was no doubt fascinated by the idea of this new form of travel. It feels strange to think that I was able to witness the last of the working steam trains that James Skelton would have once found so modern. As my sister once said when we were walking through Beamish Open Air Museum near Newcastle and looked up to see an early steam-powered locomotive with its large black chimney chugging along in the distance: What would it have felt like to have clapped eyes on that for the first time! It must have been quite a frightening sight.

Not long after the last stretch of our local railway line was closed in 1968, I found myself of an age where exploring outdoors with friends took up a large proportion of my free time. The old railway (as we always so earnestly called it) was an ideal place to build dens, search for wildlife, and walk our dogs. Later – along with several other teenage girls in the neighbourhood – I exercised a local farmer’s ponies on the route. But already by then it was becoming boggy and overgrown, and parts had become impassable, while further out many sections had been incorporated into farmland.

On my trip back this summer, I discovered that the secton of the old railway line by Doonholm Road has incorporated a new feeder road to the bypass, ironically taking traffic away from our old home. But it has also opened up all the fields beyond to vast new housing developments which seem out of place so far from the compact centre of Alloway. In many ways, the Somerset village of East Coker has fared better, despite the recent plans for the controversial new Keyford Estate. This is possibly because it had more of an actual village centre to begin with, and was surrounded by grade 1 agricultural land once used in the booming flax industry.

By contrast, a great deal of the farmland near Alloway was not ideal for growing crops (as Robert Burns and his father discovered), and in 1754 the whole area had been sold by the burgh of Ayr to help pay off debts. Thereafter it was held by several wealthy landowners, most of whom had made their money through trading in the West Indies and who rented out the least profitable parts of their estate to tenant farmers. In fact, our house in Doonholm Road was built on what was once an orchard belonging to the Rozelle Estate (named after one of the owner’s Jamaican plantations). Eventually Rozelle’s remaining parkland and ‘big house’ were bequeathed to the local council to be used for recreational amenities, as was the neighbouring estate of Belleisle with its large Victorian golf course (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).

BELLEISLE POOH STICKSPlaying ‘Pooh Sticks’ by the golf course in Belleisle c1969

Yet it was Doonhom Estate which continued to exert more of a fascination on me due to the fact that it was off limits to the ‘common folk’. Regular forays into the grounds were organised by the local brownie and guide groups – usually a treasure trail through the woods which ended in a sausage sizzle on the banks of the river where we were all bitten alive by midges. Then there were rainy, summer fêtes in the grounds, and it was at one of these events that I first rode a pony and tasted honey, instantly becoming hooked on both activities. When I was about nine or ten I also had the fortune to befriend (possibly I engineered this friendship) a girl whose family rented the old servants’ quarters  on the estate. So for a few halycon months I was able to roam the grounds, including the stable block, and was given as much honey to eat as I liked! 

DOONHOLM HOUSE 1905Doonholm House, Alloway c1905

When I first visited East Coker in 2005, there was still a feeling of community replete with ‘local characters’ (akin to Alloway’s tricycling Sunday school teacher). This was something that Alloway appeared to have lost during the mass building of houses which went on throughout the 70s and 80s. Maybe that is why my mother and I were so captivated by the place on our first visit. Although it saddened my father to return almost half a century later and see the changes time had wrought, for us it was a delight to discover what seemed such a quintessentially English village with thatched cottages whose gardens were full of summer flowers, including Eliot’s ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’. Even as we approched the village on the bus from Yeovil as it descended through the hollow lanes, it felt like entering a green doorway into a magical world.

HOLLOW LANES.JPG

COTTAGE EAST COKER.JPGHollow Lanes and Thatched Cottage, East Coker

As a child I never really felt we truly belonged in Alloway as a family, despite the fact we were all involved in the community in our own way. This was in part beause we had no relatives nearby and our house had no history to speak of. Everyone else we knew at the time were mostly also incomers into the new estates. Like myself, nearly everyone I went to school with has left the area, as have most of their parents – if only through death and illness. On our recent visit, I noticed, too that the place has a different feel these days, with Range Rovers parked in front of the local shops (where once we tied up our ponies to buy ice creams on summer day), and the local pub turned into an award-winning restaurant with an emphasis on upmarket weddings. The cellar bar has of course long gone, as have the men and their dogs.

I have discussed this feeling of impermanence in our family before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers) when I mooted the idea that it had perhaps been unknowingly passed down the Skelton line. Poverty and two world wars created much upheaval for my father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s generation. Before that, there was my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), who came from a family which was very much rooted in the Yorkshire Dales.

James Skelton was born in 1799 on the cusp of a new and exciting century of progress, and so like many of his generation headed to one of the booming industrial centres to make his way in the world. But why did he choose London, rather than a town or city closer to home? Was there a family connection which helped him to secure a foothold there? Or, like myself over 150 years later, was he simply attracted to the glamour of the capital and the thought that all of life worth knowing would be found there?

Despite the fact that the Skeltons have been mostly living in South London for two hundred years, North Yorkshire is the place I have now come to think of as their spiritual home.  Compared to the history of land use and ownership in Alloway and East Coker, the area has followed a different direction thanks to its unique geography and the creation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 1954. There it is still possible to freely traverse the ancient paths which link up villages and hamlets, and to feel as if you are part of a timeless landscape. If James Skelton were able to return to the land of his ancestors he would no doubt recognise much about the area – something that could not be said about his South London neighbourhoods.

YORKSHIRE DALES.JPGThe Yorkshire Dales – our spiritual home?

It is a part of the country I have recently started to visit in conjunction with my genealogical research, and with which I have also begun to feel a strong connection. So I am pleased to announce that I will soon be turning my attentions to my family’s Yorkshire beginnings. But in the meantime I am looking forward to my upcoming trip with my cousin to East Coker to visit our aunt (our fathers’ sister), and the opportunity to gain some additional insights into the more recent family history.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Back

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

Don Henley, The Boys of Summer (1984)

SUNSET AT DUNURESunset over Arran from Dunure, Ayrshire

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

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

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

DUNURE BEACH.JPGDunure beach and ruined castle, Ayrshire

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

WITH GRANDAD AT DUNURE.JPGWith Grandad Skelton at Kennedy Park, Dunure c1970

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

COASTAL PATH DUNURE.JPGOn the Ayrshire Coastal path at Dunure

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

AGATES FROM DUNURE.JPGAgates from Dunure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NUMBER 33.JPG

Wishing everyone a warm and sunny July!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2019

 

The Stories Which Connect Us

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

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

BOOK

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

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

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

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

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

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

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

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

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

SOUTH LONDON

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

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

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

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

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

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

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

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

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

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019

 

A River Ran Under Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DULWICH WOOD AVENUECrystal Palace from The Avenue, Gipsy Hill

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

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

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

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

NORWOOD PARK 1890Norwood Park 1890

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

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

CROXTED LANE c1870.pngCroxted Lane c1865

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

HALF MOON LANEBridge over the Effra at Herne Hill, 1823

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

TOTTERIDGE PATHEnticing Footpaths at Totteridge Green Belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2019

Looking for the Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Brixton houses: two different families

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

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

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Walworth c1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 River Effra 1870The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019

Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2019