Wills can give an insight into the lifestyle and status of a family. For example, a series of bequests of scholarly books would indicate an interest in learning. They may display deeply felt emotions: love, hate, exasperation, or protectiveness.
Wills and Probate Records, Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor, (2009)
On one of our family summer pilgrimages to London in the early 1970s (those trips in which we always had to wear our homemade kilts), I remember my father taking us to see Pudding Lane – which as every British schoolchild knows is where the Great Fire of London is said to have started. I don’t know what I expected to see there (some charred remains?), but there was definitely something old and significant there that thrilled me at the time. Over forty years later I still have a memory of a narrow street of old brick townhouses, on one of which was a plaque explaining something along the lines of: It was on this site . . . etc.
But when I returned to the area a few years ago, there was no Pudding Lane to speak of: just a cold and windy cut between bland glass and concrete office buildings. I was horrified to think that such an important street had disappeared in all but name. I felt then as if someone had meddled with my past – a similar emotion to that I’d experienced when I discovered the much-loved Victorian schoolhouse in my Scottish home town had been pulled down and replaced by a block of modern classrooms.
This old, red sandstone schoolhouse was the place I was taught for the first two years of my primary education (until, as older pupils, we were moved to ‘the huts’ – a temporary solution to a rural school that had suddenly become the centre of a fast-growing suburb). I can still clearly see the school’s main hall, with its regimental central rows of coat pegs and long benches. I remember the smell of the wax on the dark wooden floorboards. The way the sun came in through the high classroom windows, picking up dust motes in the late morning air. The apprehension I felt at having to visit the cold outside toilets where the school bullies lurked. The fascination we had for the roaring furnace into which the janitor (or ‘jannie’) shovelled coal to heat the boiler. I can also recall the strident sound of the hand bell the teacher rang to signal that our precious playtime was over, the insistent clanging alerting us to the fact that we had to promptly line up at the back door in our respective classes. And it was in this red building that I learnt to count with Cuisinaire rods, lisped my way through boring stories about Janet and John, and was told about the complicated adult world of Pounds, Shilling and Pence, before having to relearn it all when the decimal system was brought it shortly afterwards.
However, it is perhaps because of those memories that I can say goodbye to my old schoolhouse with fondness, and in the knowledge that it might not have best served the needs of 21st century children. But it is difficult to have the same feelings about the destruction of post-fire Pudding Lane – a street whose doors were never opened to me and whose charm is now lost before I ever knew it. (I pity visitors to London who set off in search of one of the city’s most famous streets, only to find themselves in a depressing wind tunnel).
So now I have a reverse (perverse?) philosophy when it comes to old buildings – I do not expect them to still be standing and am always delighted to come across them, particularly if they are in an intact street or neighbourhood. One of my most fascinating finds was an enclave of preserved Georgian terraced houses, including corner shops and pubs, just off Waterloo Road, which I later discovered is often used as a film set, most recently for the Kray twins’ biopic, Legend. Even though none of my ancestors had connections to those exact streets, I knew they had lived in similar ones nearby, and just walking around the area on a quiet Sunday morning was like a little peek into a long-lost London. Southwark is full of such surprises, and one of my favourite activities (once the record offices are closed) is just to lose myself in the backstreets and neighbourhoods that are hidden behind the main roads and thoroughfares.
Streets in the Waterloo neighbourhood
This was how I first stumbled upon the address I had for the birthplace of my great grandfather, Arthur Skelton, in 1859 (and in a neighbouring street in 1858, his older sister, Alice). One September evening I followed a print-out of Stanhope’s 1869 railway map of the area, and after negotiating renamed streets found myself in one of the queerest little corners of Southwark that held a section of mean little houses redolent of Victorian poverty. It was strange and unsettling to see the uncared-for terrace, surrounded by increasing gentrification, and it is a powerful image I still cannot forget. However, when I returned the following year, hoping to photograph the area, the buildings (apart from one on the other side of the railway line) had all gone, and a new block of flats was being quickly thrown up in their place. I walked up and down the street, almost willing the old terrace to reappear, berating my lost opportunity to document the last remaining section of the street. Since that time I go everywhere in the capital on foot with a detailed map and a camera beside me, and never miss the chance to photograph anything interesting, however insignificant it might appear at the time.
Getting lost in ‘Old Southwark’
Of course for those like myself who are easily distracted, this is not always the best strategy for carrying out research. But I have learned to embrace these sudden moments where I veer off-course and wander into a new district, or become side-tracked at the records office by a different set of documents. I frequently tell myself that as I never knew my great-great grandparents, or even my great grandparents, the details of their lives should really not be regarded as any more important than that of their contemporaries. And so I have learned to accept such distractions as all part of the journey, and keep an open mind as to what is relevant and what is not.
Picture this then: a decayed group of early Victorian brick terraced houses with sheets tacked behind dirty windows and weeds around the doorsteps, darkened by the railway line which runs close by. But in the 1850s this railway had not yet been built and the neighbourhood through which it ran would have felt very different – resembling the more symmetrically pleasing one of the Waterloo enclave. But it is now that ‘film-set ready’ little warren of streets which is the anomaly – with average prices for terrace houses starting at around £1,5 million, the demographics of the community having now moved in a different direction. So there it is: the past slipping and sliding through our fingers again, just when we thought we had a grip of it.
Last remaining terraced house on King James St (formerly King St)
There are, however, two documents that I discovered in my search to find out more about my great-great grandfather’s 19th century London existence that have probably shed more light on his way of life than any bricks and mortar building can. The first is the copy of the will that he left his relatively new wife, Mary Ann, in 1867. It is written in Victorian secretary’s hand, with its connotations of the court of chancery wills described in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House, and was possibly all the more exciting a find for this reason. A family will was also something I had not considered searching for in the pre-internet days: only around 1 in 10 adult men made wills in the mid-Victorian time (very few women were able to make wills before the 1882 married women’s property act) and I had not expected anyone in our family to be among them. Obviously it was not only the wealthy who made wills, but anyone who had something to leave and a reason to ensure that the goods, money or property would end up in the right hands.
Now that I know more about the Skelton family’s background, the presence of a will no longer surprises me. James’ end-of-life marriage to Mary Ann Hawkins, his long-term mistress and the mother of his younger children, makes it clear that he was serious about ensuring legal protection for his ‘second family’. His successful older son, James William, already a wealthy West India merchant by this time, was one of the executors of the will, and may have also given his father legal advice and encouragement. There was no reason for James not to leave a will to protect his young family (unlike his son Arthur, my great grandfather, who was dependent on his grown-up children towards the end of his life).
The main objective of James’ will was to safeguard Mary Ann by providing her with £60 a year (drawn from an invested personal estate of just under £800, and payable in quarters), with James stating that the money should go to her two daughters (named Hawkins in the will) if she die or remarry, and then giving his two sons (named Skelton in the will) as the next in line. Although this seemed fair, seeing that the girls may be in more need of money if they remained unmarried, what struck me as odd was the way they were described as my wife’s daughters, even though James was purported to be their father.
However, what the will did help prove was that the oldest son of James and Mary Ann, also called James Skelton, had probably died at some point as he was not mentioned in the document. This confirmed my own suspicions, as I had sadly never been able to find the young James after the 1861 census (where he was described as a schoolboy). The fact that Mary Ann’s oldest son, William Hawkins (named, it would seem, after her father), also went unmentioned in the will was not that surprising – records show that he appeared to have been born before Mary Ann met my great-great grandfather.
But the thing that fascinated most about the will was the items James Skelton wanted his only son from his first marriage to inherit. While Mary Ann received the expected ‘household furniture, beds, bedding linen, glass, china and silver‘, the forty year old merchant was given ‘all my oil paintings to and for his own absolute use and benefit’. I thought about those paintings for a long time afterwards, imagining what they might be. Landscapes? Family heirlooms? Investment pieces? None of these answers seemed to make sense. Another Skelton family researcher (a descendant of Mary Ann Hawkins’ first-born son, William), who had initially alerted me about the existence of James’ will, wondered at the logic of having oil paintings in a working-class community in Walworth. But this line of reasoning confuses 21st century sensibilities with those of the 19th, over-simplifying the notion of paintings as valuable and collectable.
It was only when I later discovered James William’s will, made out at the end of the century, shortly before he died, that I realised why his father had most likely given him these paintings. In the part of the will in which the retired merchant details his possessions he states: I bequeath to my son Stanley Sleath Skelton my watch and chain and pendants and pearl pin, and my portrait of myself as a boy. I bequeath to my son Herbert Sleath Skelton my jet and diamond solitaires and pin, my pearl studs, my coral studs and vest buttons and my portrait of myself as a man. And I bequeath the remainder of my jewellery to my said sons in equal shares.
Before the invention of photography, oil paintings of family members were relatively common among those with a reasonable amount of dispoable income, often undertaken by itinerant portrait painters. I now believe the oil paintings mentioned in my great-great grandfather’s will had most likely been portraits of his first family – not something that would have interested his second wife! Perhaps James had these portraits painted for a special occasion – to mark a birthday or, in James William’s case, entrance to the local grammar school. However, there is no mention of any paintings of his four daughters (two of whom had died in the years before James made his will). Perhaps James simply gave all of the existing paintings to his son to distribute as he saw fit (‘all my oil paintings’), and the only ones that James William thought worthy of passing on to his sons were those of himself?
Sadly, none of James William’s three children had any families of their own, cutting dead the only London Skelton branch who had actually inherited anything valuable or interesting. Ironically it was this very lack of family heirlooms (as opposed to the Waughs, see Begin Again) which made me want to resume my genealogical search. Like the demolished post-fire houses of Pudding Lane referred to at the beginning of this chapter, the fact that there were once objects deemed important to the family, but which will now never be found, is almost more tragic than the loss of things which can still be recalled in detail. Thus I can say a fond goodbye to my old village school (which I can conjure up in my head any time I want), and yet I can still remember my childhood obsession with another building I never saw. This was the gothic ruins of an old baronial-style house, once a preparatory school for boys, and located in the expansive riverside grounds of nearby public parkland, called Cambusdoon. The house – which had originally been built for a Victorian industrialist in the 1850s – had been a private boys’ school from the 1920s to the 60s, and was eventually demolished in the 1970s after previous fire damage left the building dangerously unstable. As a child, I found this ruin utterly fascinating and used to spend hours exploring the grounds and clambering among the surviving masonry, trying to imagine what the house and environs must have once been like, yet feeling nothing but anguish at the fact that I had never been able to experience the place in all its glory.
The house at Cambusdoon I never knew
When I mentioned a different fire (conflagration?) at the very beginning of this chapter, I had not known exactly how pertinent that would turn out to be. But since then I have learned that this first week in September marks the 350 year anniversary of the Great Fire of London (a fact I had not been aware of when I started composing this post a few days ago). This coincidence thus brings me neatly to the description of the other important document pertaining to James Skelton and his family: namely the Sun Fire Insurance records for the family home in Horsleydown Lane – a boon for any house researcher.
After the Great Fire in 1666, regulations were brought in which required all new buildings in London to be constructed in brick and stone, and to be aligned with or set back from the street. This rule was not always followed outside the jurisdiction of the City, and in Southwark a mixture of brick and wooden buildings was retained well into the 19th and early 20th century. However, most post-fire housing in the main streets would have been constructed in stone and brick, and so it came to pass that in Horsleydown many of the new 18th century dwelling houses were built with such materials. In addition to this rule, houseowners and occupiers were expected to have made provisions for extinguishing any local fires – and so the development of the first fire insurance companies began, one of the most well-known of these being the Sun Fire Office.
Until the establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1865, each insurance company had its own private fire brigade which knew and recognised the buildings they protected by the presence of the metal badge or ‘fire mark’ (with policy number ) affixed to the outer wall. Very few of these signs still exist, although this one (below) is from an 18th century house in Bermondsey, very similar to the one in which James and his family lived.
Sun Insurance fire mark on an 18th C house (shown below) in Bermondsey
Discovering that James Skelton’s house in Horsleydown Lane was one of those which was insured with the Sun Insurance Company in the 1830s felt like a real ‘eureka moment’ in my research. The register (now in the London Metropolitan Archives under their A Place in the Sun index) shows that a policy was taken out by my great-great grandfather on 21st February 1833 (a policy normally ran for five years), and describes the house he rented as ‘brick and tiled’ containing ‘household goods, wearing apparel, printed books and plate’: value £240’. Also insured were ‘pictures and prints: value £10’ as well as ‘china and glass: value £20’ and ‘stock and utensils and goods in trust: value £30’ (confirming James worked from home, which was common at the time).
When I first came across this document in the LMA, I could have wept with relief. In James’ will of 1866, the household objects left to his wife did not contain any ‘printed material’, which was not surprising, given that his young wife was illiterate. But it is the presence of these ‘printed books’ in the 1830s, which means more to me than any other object described in the documents detailing my great-great grandfather’s possessions. Because, above all, it shows that not only did he want to financially protect his new wife and children, but he was most likely someone who saw the importance of reading and education. It is just a pity that for little Arthur his father’s death came too early for him to benefit from such values.
The Incidental Genealogist, September 2016