The Tiny Vibrations of Forgotten Things

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

South London, Walter Besant (1898)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HORSLEYDOWN LANE MAP (3)

Horsleydown in Horwood’s Map of London, circa 1800

Horsley Down Roque

Horsleydown in Roque’s Map of London, 1745

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

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

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

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

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

P1050069

Renovated Victorian Warehouses, Shad Thames, Horsleydown

GOLDEN HINDE 1 (3)

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

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

Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569

Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey, circa 1570

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

HorseyeDown1544-399x600 (2)

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

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

TOWER BRIDGE 2

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2016

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