Monday for wealth,
Tuesday for health,
Wednesday the best day of all;
Thursday for crosses,
Friday for losses,
Saturday no luck at all.
My family’s London story starts long before James Skelton’s winter-spring relationship with the poverty-stricken teenage single mother, Mary Ann Hawkins: a union which culminated in their marriage shortly before his death from bronchitis in 1867 (see Moments in Time). The story starts instead with another woman – and another family – in a narrow lane only a stone’s throw from the river Thames. And it is a very different story to that which was played out in Aldred Rd, a quarter of a century later.
When my great-great grandfather married his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, in Bermondsey, three years into the reign of George 4th, the couple were not yet in their mid-twenties. They took their oaths at St John’s Church, in the parish of Horsleydown on Tuesday 14th October, 1823, after a summer which had been one of the coolest since observations began in 1659. Thanks to the meticulous records of Luke Howard (the ‘godfather of clouds’), we know that their special day was one which was relatively mild for the time of year – dry and sunny, but unmistakeably autumn, with a gentle breeze and a light scattering of yellowing leaves. As they crossed the churchyard, the earth damp under their feet from the previous day’s rain, I hope they paused for a moment in a shaft of sunlight and allowed themselves to feel a thrill at being alive at this time and place, unaware that they would have only a limited time together.
Despite the old rhyme, their choice of wedding day (Tuesday for health), did not bring the longevity they would have wished for. Twenty-five years later, Sarah would be struck down with an undiagnosed womb disease after raising their five children, precipitating the crisis that sent James in search of ‘fulfilment’ elsewhere. As I sit with their birth, marriage and death certificates, and those of their children and grandchildren, laid out before me like some macabre game of Happy Families, I feel privy to some horrible secret, imagining them arriving at St John’s, all nervous excitement, not knowing what is in store for them.
But on that mild Tuesday in 1823, the church was only 90 years old, and yet to be hit by a bomb in an unimaginable future war from the air, and the surrounding graveyard a long way off from becoming a recreation ground. To James and Sarah (if they did indeed give it a thought) the Hawksmoor church must have already seemed like an antiquity, albeit one that had become a local joke on account of the strange weather vane balanced on top of a tapering spire. This huge iron construction was meant to represent a comet whizzing through the heavens, but to the parish residents it reminded them instead of the wriggling body of a louse. Locally the church was often referred to as ‘St John’s Lousydown’, or simply ‘The Louse Church’. No doubt James and Sarah found it amusing – like everyone, they would have been familiar with the common problem of body lice, even if they did not suffer from it themselves – but to a time-traveller from the 21st century it would need a leap of the imagination to see the iron ‘comet’ morph into the six legs and oval body of a parasite they have rarely encountered.
St John’s Horsleydown, after bomb damage, 1940
Walking through the old churchyard today, all that remains of St John’s are the Grade 2 listed foundations and crypt, controversially built over in the 1970s and used as offices by the London City Mission. The once large graveyard is a rather dreary public park, frequented by dog walkers, and pram-pushing mother, while some of the last remaining headstones lean forlornly against the foundations of the church. This is, however, not a recent development. Due to the relatively large grounds, the churchyard has been used off and on as a public park since the summer of 1882, when the Illustrated London News reported that headstones were taken up and placed against a wall at the end of the ground, while paths and flowerbeds were laid, and principle walks are shaded by noble trees, beneath which seats are placed.
The foundations of St John’s Horsleydown, today
Sarah’s brother and his wife, newly married themselves, were the official witnesses to the wedding, which in keeping with the traditions of the day would have been a low-key event, with the participants in their Sunday best. Whenever I try to imagine Sarah and James walking up the wide stone steps to the church, I cannot help but see them in typical late-regency outfits: Sarah in a still fashionable high-waisted dress, with bonnet, gloves and shawl; James in a smart dark dress coat and waistcoat, his legs encased in the new style of long trousers (all of which he probably made himself). Covering his youthful hair is a top hat made by a local Bermondsey hatter and possible friend. Sarah may have been congratulating herself on marrying such a smart young man who knew the latest cut of cloth and had attained the rank of a master tailor, thus giving him the freedom to set up his own business where he was able to take on apprentices.
Tailoring was, however, a relatively common profession at the time, with most (like James) having their business in the local communities which they served. Notions of segregating work from home were relatively new, and similarly to many skilled artisans, records show that James lived ‘over the shop’. In fact, the whole family would have been involved in the business in various ways, from running messages, to greeting customers, and their young live-in domestic servant would have been a much-needed help for Sarah – especially once the babies came along. This spot by the Thames was where the family were to stay for almost twenty years before their move out of an increasingly industrialised area to the more genteel semi-rural suburb of Brixton in the mid-1840s.
Horsleydown Lane and environs, 1830
As soon as I discovered the existence of this second ‘lost’ Skelton family, I was off to London to visit the evocatively-sounding Horsleydown Lane and surroundings to see whether I could discover any traces of the old neighbourhood for myself. This was the first time I had been back to the capital to do any ‘fieldwork’ since my last foray into south London in 1992, and a low-simmering excitement infused me as I crossed the windy Millennium Bridge (for the first time) over to the South Bank. It was an area I remembered from the early 80s, when the much debated dockside developments were underway and the whole riverside was beginning to take on a different character.
Before my visit to the capital I had already put in some of the groundwork and knew that Horsleydown Lane still existed – it had escaped the demolishment to which other nearby roads had succumbed during the building of Tower Bridge in the 1890s – but I still had no idea of what it would look like in the 21st century.
Tower Bridge Rd with Horsleydown Lane on the right (circa 1900)
It is a strange feeling to walk through streets where your ancestors once set foot, moving ever closer to the place where for better or worse they carved out a living. In Horsleydown some things would not have changed – the old watermen’s stairs at the foot of the lane where the great tidal river covered and uncovered the slipway twice a day; the glimpse of the imposing White Tower from that precarious spot; the Anchor Tap, still with beer on tap, and having possibly survived so long by virtue of being a neighbourhood necessity. But many things had changed, too – the lane’s other pub (the wonderfully named The Cod Smack) had long gone, as had the 18th century house in which the ‘lost’ children of James’ first family had spent their formative years.
In some ways I was disappointed that so much from that time now ceased to exist, but in other ways I was delighted to come across unexpected tangible reminders of the family’s life. For most family historians the bright moments of discovery are always tinged with a regret for what had once been, and what might have remained to tell the tales of previous lives. But sometimes this enthusiasm for the past can overcome reason, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything old as ‘authentic’ while overlooking the fact that many such buildings had actually replaced much earlier ones.
I had to remind myself that the elegant Victorian warehouses on the west side of the street had necessitated the destruction of a row of 18th century brick houses mirroring the ones on the east side where the Skeltons had lived. And that the impressive buildings of the old Anchor Brewery (now private flats) had themselves been built on the site of the original wooden brewhouse (burnt down in 1891 ) that James and Sarah would have recognised. The cobblestones on Horsleydown Lane would have, however, continued to reverberate with the clatter of the drayhorses and their waggons throughout the century and beyond (just seen in the photograph above), until the final demise of workhorses in the mid-twentieth century.
Now Horsleydown Lane is relatively silent, as visitors tend not to wander much from the river and the heritage thoroughfare of Shad Thames, and the main noise is the thrum of traffic on the parallel Tower Bridge Road. Even reminding myself that this busy road and its eponymous bridge are relative newcomers to the area needs a leap of the imagination. More often than not, I find that while on these ‘ground searches’ my ways of viewing the past start to shift under my feet, bringing new perspectives
Popping into the welcoming Anchor Tap for an impulsive mid-afternoon pint, I feel even more confused – time seems to telescope as I step into a series of interlinking rooms where fashionably dark Victorian colour schemes are the order of the day. The friendly barman encourages me to look around the place, intrigued by my genealogical search, and as I move through the pleasing muddle of rooms and head up the narrow twisting staircase to the (now deserted) dining room, I experience the uncanny sensation of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. All at once I realise that they too would have struggled with the demands of such steep stairs (which maximised precious space). They would have gazed out over the neighbourhood from their upstairs windows, and would have known exactly all the places in the house where the floorboards had come loose, where the walls and ceilings of their rooms sloped unevenly, and where the dustballs chose to accumulate.
Walking out of the dark pub afterwards, I instinctively blink and narrow my eyes in the bright spring sunshine. For a moment I can almost imagine that I have stepped into the bustling street of the 1830s. The brewers, the corn merchants, the watermen, the mariners; they are all busy rushing to and from the river. I pace up and down the lane alongside them, trying to summon up their ghosts. But the shouts of a group of Saturday afternoon revellers spilling out of the pub cut through space and time, and I turn to head back towards the riverside, seeking out the peaceful oasis of the old watermen’s stairs.
I sit there for a while, watching the Thames as it surges and swirls its way up river, past the neo-Gothic wonder of Tower Bridge. Tourists pose for photographs above me, occasionally throwing me a quizical glance, as if they are surprised to see me down here so close to the water. I feel safe here – away from the fray and yet still part of the unfolding scenes of the capital on a warm spring weekend. The thought occurs to me that I myself am like a ghost – a ghost from the future trying to find a way to reach back into the past.
Horsleydown Old Stairs at the old Anchor Brewery, Horsleydown
Then suddenly it strikes me that the Tower of London, partially seen from those algae-covered steps, would not have changed over the years that separated me from my ancestors. My great-great grandfather, James, would have waited on this same slippery spot for a penny ride over the river from his favourite waterman. He most likely also felt in awe of the ancient building across the water that symbolised the power of the city he now called home. He would have known the same legend about the ravens of the tower and passed it on to his children – in the same way my father had told me the story as a child. And at that moment I felt as if the centuries had just rolled back to connect us.
To be continued . . .
The Incidental Genealogist, July 2016