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 by 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)
My great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, was born in 1859 in Southwark, and grew up a newly built terraced house near to Kennington Park (part of the old common) and within sniffing distance of the wonderfully named Messrs Farmers Oil of Vitriol Manufactory. Perhaps it was the sulphurous gases which hastened Arthur’s elderly father’s end from bronchitis; or perhaps his death at 67 (when Arthur was only seven) was simply brought on from a lifetime 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 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. Number 35 Aldred Rd 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 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 things that mark 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 considered an important detail. When describing nearby Lorrimer Rd, 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 toured the streets with a female companion, rather than the helpful but dull Sargeant Sziemanowicz, 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 to be of much use when it comes to the Aldred Road of the 1860s as the 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 ranged from faded pink colour (Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings) to partly damson 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 – since destroyed in WW2, so there had at least been some improvements to the area. During the 1870s and 1880s many of the street’s residents (including two of Arthur’s sisters), worked as machinists at William Robinson’s Bootmakers at number 37, conveniently located next door to the Skelton household. This was a family concern which had been there from the early days of the street, so it is perhaps safe to say that the neighbourhood had always been predominantly a working class one with a mixed group of inhabitants.
At the turn of the century, while Arthur’s younger brother Sidney was subletting part of 35 Aldred Rd from their widowed mother for several shillings a week, Arthur and his second wife, Harriet, were moving all over south London with their shared brood. In 1901 the census showed them as living at Romanny Rd in Gipsy Hill, close to where my grandparents ended up living in the late 1930s (see I Remember, I Remember). I sometimes wonder whether my grandfather specifically chose to move to that area after having spent some time there as a child. Today the romantic-sounding Gipsy Hill (named after the gipsy population of the great Nor’wood) has a leafy, village feel to it with a mixture of period housing and a pleasant, relaxed vibe.
Arthur’s oldest child, Arthur jnr (who married his step-sister, Harriet jnr) eventually set up house at Thornton Heath (near Croydon) – a move which was no doubt precipitated by the growth of the railways and cheaper housing. This an area where several of Arthur’s jnr’s descendants 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 jnr’s grandsons, who was able to furnish me with copies of several family photographs. For some inexplicable reason, I was pleased to see that the jovial-sounding Arthur jnr definitely had a ‘Skelton look’ about him – it was the eyes which gave him away. But it was the image below, of Harriet jnr and her three oldest 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). But whatever the occasion, it had no doubt been meant as a keepsake for Arthur jnr, 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’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 jnr returned from Germany in 1919 there were two more additions to the family, before Harriet died from breast cancer at the age of 40 in 1925. This left Arthur with 5 children to bring up on his own, mirroring the experience of Arthur snr thirty years previously. However, unlike his father, Arthur jnr 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’!. No doubt this arrangement suited them all well, as James’ widow, Dolly, kept house for them all and looked after the children. In fact, when Florence (the little girl pictured above) died of fever after the birth of her first child, it seems that Aunt Doll brought up the infant until the father later remarried.
Despite the fact that we have yet to have our planned ‘reunion’, I am extremely grateful to my Croydon Cousins for having filled in some of the gaps about the 20th century branch of the Skeltons, in which the two Arthurs played some of the leading roles. From these previously unknown relatives I have heard about numerous family births, weddings and deaths. I have heard, too, about a small brick 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 house in Elm Rd was the same place my aunt remembered from thirty years before this time when she visited her cousins in Thornton Heath as a child in the 1930s. My grandfather was close to his older brother Arthur jnr (no doubt after losing their other brothers in the war), so the families often met up on Sunday afternoons, although I know my grandmother was not best pleased when Sidney once took my father and his older sister over to Thornton Heath without her, and left them with their cousins on the steps of the local pub while he and Arthur were imbibing (something the children remembered fondly as they were given crisps and lemonade – a special treat in those days).
My aunt also recalled spending holidays with her cousins and being given a farthing in pocket money while there, and (as one of the youngest) being washed 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 she remembered that when the ice-cream van came round her Uncle Arthur said: Here’s half a crown – give them all wafers! (As the wafers cost tuppence each, they were too expensive to buy normally).
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 jnr, 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 2 houses near to each other in Elm Road).
However, despite this part of the family history being in reach of living memory there are still many questions to which I have not been able to find the answer. Who lived at the ‘the other house’ in Elm Rd with Grandad Arthur? And why, in the 1911 census, is he to be found still officially married yet living alone in a working man’s hostel, with no sign of his wife, Harriet? And who exactly was the ‘foundling’ Nell (born Nellie Major) who later married Alf Cosstick from further down the street, then quarrelled with my grandfather during the war, leading to the story of the ‘lost toys’ (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)? And was it really true that Dolly’s daughter with ‘learning difficulties’ was simply found to have had impacted wax in her ear at the age of 70 and went on to lead a normal life once this was removed?
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 in our heads. And there is one such film that I have of my grandfather and his brothers which I particularly like to replay, thanks to a letter I received from my aunt in which she wrote: 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 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 more interesting ways home.
So I like to imagine my grandfather and his brothers, no doubt moaning about the long walk 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