London City, like British rule in India, has drawn all. But it is the southern side of the river that offers the most extraordinary contrast to what it presents in our time. In 1833 the only portion that was laid out in streets and houses and might be considered ‘town’ was the portion comprised within the curve of the river, and bounded by a line drawn from Lambeth Palace to Newington, and ending at Bermondsey. Outside this “pale”, as we might call it, all lay open . . . Between Vauxhall Gardens and Lambeth Palace was an open tract, which spread away to Newington Butts and Kennington, whose “common” was then unenclosed. It is extraordinary to contrast with this the densely populated streets that in a short space of time have since spread over these regions.
Percy Fitzgerald, Victoria’s London: The Suburbs (c.1890)
South London (Gipsy Hill) today
My great-great grandfather, Arthur Skelton, was born in Southwark in 1859, and grew up in a newly built terraced house near to Kennington Park (part of the former Kennington Common), and within sniffing distance of the wonderfully named Messrs Farmers Oil of Vitriol Manufactory (see A Tale of Two Parks). Perhaps it was the sulphurous gases which hastened Arthur’s elderly father’s end from bronchitis; or perhaps James Skelton’s death at 67 (when Arthur was only eight) was simply brought on from decades of living in ‘London over the river’, and of breathing in the fumes of coal fires, smelting houses, tanneries, glue factories and all the other noxious emissions which were the unfortunate by-product of 19th century ‘progress’.
The house in Kennington is no longer there – it survived the Blitz but not the post-war development of the area – and in its place are blocks of flats, part of the pioneering Brandon Estate of the sixties. Number 35 Aldred Road was, however, like every other house in the terrace: a simple two-storey brick building, flush against the pavement. A road which, in its turn, would have been similar to other streets in the neighbourhood. Walking through south London on a grey winter’s day with Charles Booth’s 1899 poverty maps in one hand, and an A to Z of London in the other, I find myself criss-crossing roads and terraces and avenues which seem unchanged from that era: places where Arthur and his siblings later lived as tenants, often for less than a year at a time.
The only thing that marks many of these streets out as belonging to the 21st century are satellite dishes, wheelie bins and parked cars – and the lack of Victorian window dressing, something which Booth and his social investigators obviously considered an important detail. When describing nearby Lorrimer Road, Booth’s assistant, George Henry Duckworth, mentions disparagingly that there was not a flower at any window, but then adds China pots with overgrown ferns in front windows. In another Kennington street of predominantly costermongers, he states that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. Perhaps if Duckworth had touted the streets with a female companion he might have gained a better insight into the semiotics of Victorian window dressing, but as it is, his comments add some splashes of real brightness to the sometimes confusing colour-coded street maps.
However, Charles Booth’s 1899 map may not be much use when it comes to the earlier social make-up of Aldred Road in the 1860s. Streets in the capital are liable to change class of resident almost overnight. Factories or a railway move in and the better tenants seek to move further out. At the time of Booth’s survey, when Arthur’s youngest brother, Sidney, was living at number 35 with his growing family, Aldred Road was coloured purple (Mixed. Some comfortable others poor), perhaps indicating a neighbourhood in decline.
By then the sulphuric acid factory had been pulled down to make way for St Agnes’ Church (unfortunately destroyed in WW), so there had at least been some improvements to the area. During the 1870s and 80s, many of the street’s residents (including two of Arthur’s sisters) worked as machinists at William Robinson’s Bootmakers at number 37 Aldred Road, conveniently located next door to the Skelton household. The bootmakers was a family concern which had been there from the street’s early days, so it is perhaps safe to say that the neighbourhood had always been predominantly working class, but with a mixed group of inhabitants.
Aldred Road, Kennington, c1916
The Brandon Estate today, site of Aldred Road, Kennington
At the end of the 19th century, while Arthur’s brother Sidney was subletting part of 35 Aldred road from their widowed mother for several shillings a week, Arthur and his second wife, Harriet, were moving around South London with their shared brood. In 1901 the census showed them living at Rommany Road in Gipsy Hill, close to where my grandparents lived in the late 1930s (see I Remember, I Remember). I sometimes wonder whether my grandfather specifically chose to relocate to that area because of having spent part of his childhood there. Today the romantic-sounding Gipsy Hill (named after the Roma population of the Great North Wood) has a relaxed leafy village vibe, with a mixture of period housing much sought after by young families.
Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill (with ghost sign)
Arthur’s oldest child, also called Arthur, ended up marrying his step-sister, Harriet, thus creating the oddly named partnership of Arthur and Harriet junior. They eventually set up home at Thornton Heath, near to Arthur and Harriet senior. This relocation was no doubt precipitated by the growth of the railways and cheaper housing, and is an area where several descendants of Arthur junior still live: relations that had not known of my existence until the internet brought us together after posting identical family trees on-line.
I consider myself particularly lucky to have made contact with Richard Skelton, one of Arthur junior’s grandsons, who was able to furnish me with copies of several family photographs. I was pleased to see that the jovial-sounding (according to Richard and other relatives) Arthur junior definitely had a ‘Skelton look’ about him – especially around the eyes. But it was the image below of Harriet junior and her three eldest children which I found the most haunting. Taken in 1915, several months after her husband had enlisted with the Royal West Surrey Regiment, it most likely marked the christening of the latest arrival, baby Peter (Richard’s father). Whatever the occasion, it had no doubt been meant as a keepsake for Arthur junior, who was active on the Western Front from 1915-17, before being captured by the Germans and taken as a prisoner of war – an event which may have saved his life.
Harriet Skelton junior and children, Thornton Heath, 1915 (c) R. Skelton
Harriet’s gaze pierces the photograph (for me this is the punctum of the image – see Those Ghostly Traces), while the children seem to radiate the healthy good looks of future generations. After Arthur junior returned from Germany in 1919, there were two more additions to the family, before Harriet sadly died from breast cancer in 1925 at the age of forty. This left Arthur with five children to bring up on his own, mirroring the experience of his father, thirty years previously. However, unlike his father, he did not remarry, but instead presided over a chaotic but functioning household, which included the widow of his brother James (who was killed in WW1) and her daughter (who was deemed to have learning difficulties), in addition to a ‘doorstep foundling’! Perhaps this arrangement suited them all well, as James’ widow, Dolly (or Aunt Doll, as she was fondly remembered as), kept house for them all in addition to looking after the children. In fact, when Florence (the little girl pictured above) died of fever after the birth of her first child, it would appear that Aunt Doll brought up the infant until the father remarried.
Aunt Doll and great niece, Elm Rd, 1950 (c) R. Skelton
Despite the fact that we have yet to have our mooted ‘reunion’, I am extremely grateful to my Croydon cousins for filling in some of the gaps in the history of the 20th century Skeltons, in which the two Arthurs played some of the leading roles. From these previously unknown relatives I have heard about numerous family births, marriages and deaths. I have heard, too, about a small brick terraced house next to a railway line where the tea cups rattled in their saucers whenever the steam trains roared past. A house where a middle-aged woman with so-called learning difficulties sat sewing in a recess under the stairs, while chickens clucked and scratched around in the back yard.
This same house in Elm Road was the place my aunt remembered from thirty years before this, when she visited her Skelton cousins in Thornton Heath as a child in the 1930s. My grandfather was close to his brother Arthur junior (no doubt after losing their other brothers in the war), so the families often met up on Sunday afternoons. However, I know my grandmother was not best pleased when Sidney once took my father and aunt over to Thornton Heath without her, then left them with their cousins on the steps of the local pub while he and Arthur were imbibing. Interestingly, this was something the children recalled fondly in later life due to the fact they were given crisps and lemonade – a special treat in those days.
My aunt also had positive memories of spending holidays with her cousins and being given a farthing for pocket-money while there, and (as one of the youngest) washing last in the tin bath. She also mentioned that: It was there that I learnt to ride a bike and was told the facts of life before I was ten. Twice she was a bridesmaid at the weddings of her older female cousins, and remembered that when the ice-cream van came round Uncle Arthur said: Here’s half a crown – give them all wafers! (As these cost tuppence each, they were normally too expensive to buy).
Arthur jnr (right) with unknown man at a wedding (c) R. Skelton
By the time of his death from bronchitis in 1930 at the age of 71, Arthur snr had been widowed twice (Harriet snr had died in 1923), and was head of a large family which included his step-children and countless grandchildren. Perhaps it was the untimely death of his step-daughter/daughter-in-law, Harriet junior, or perhaps it was just simple geography, but it seems that Grandad Arthur spent his final years living near to his son, Arthur, and his family, at what my aunt called ‘the other house’ (the family rented two houses near to each other in Elm Road, Thornton Heath).
Despite this part of the family history being in reach of living memory, there are still many questions to which I have no answers. For example: Who lived at ‘the other house’ in Elm Road with Grandad Arthur? And why, in the 1911 census, is he found to be still officially married, yet living at alone in a working man’s hostel with no sign of Harriet? And who exactly was the foundling Nell (Born Nellie Major), who later married a neighbour, Alf Cosstick, then quarrelled with my grandfather during the war, leading to the story of the lost toys (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)?
Does it really matter if these mysteries go unsolved? No family historian can reasonably expect to find an answer to everything, but it is often these missing facts that can niggle away at us, precisely because they are the details which give colour to the imaginary ‘lost’ family films inside our heads. There is one such film that I have of my grandfather and his brothers which I particularly like to replay, thanks to a letter my aunt wrote, in which she mentioned: Father used to tell tales of how he and his brothers used to walk from Peckham to Thornton Heath, presumably to take work for his father (a bootmaker). In those days it was all countryside. Not like the crowded streets of today.
Perhaps it was not quite the rural idyll as nostalgia would have my aunt or grandfather remember – after all, by 1900 a large proportion of the famous market gardens of Peckham had gone, and speculative development had already linked Croydon to London, swallowing up Thornton Heath in the process. but in comparison to today, it would have been a semi-rural route, the roads relatively quiet once away from the main thoroughfares. And the boys would most likely have made a point of finding the most interesting way home.
Homestall Farm, Peckham Rye: demolished 1908
So I like to imagine my grandfather and his brothers, no doubt moaning about the long walks ahead of them, but unknowingly tramping by the last vestiges of the market gardens, farms and dairies of south London which had yet to be torn down or built over in the name of progress.
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2016