Old photographs have a truth and clarity to them which is lacking from architectural prints, drawings or paintings. Depicting people and places frozen in time, and at random moments of their existence, they convey a haunting message of mortality. As primary sources of historical evidence, they are by their very nature, impartial, and bear witness to past places or events, undistorted by the interpretation of their creator. Unlike the artist, or draughtsman, ostensibly the camera never lies, so photographs provide a direct, tangible link to a long-distant past.
Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945, (2009)
These days it often seems as if we cannot get enough of ‘lost London’: its lost buildings, lost streets, lost stations, lost rivers etc. Whatever has been lost in the capital, there’s a book to celebrate/commiserate the demise. And I cannot deny having my own share of such publications. In fact, on returning to my genealogical research a few years ago, the first item I acquired was the heavy black-and-white illustrated tome simply called Lost London 1870-1945 (a period straddling the birth of commercial photography to the end of WW2). It is a book which has delighted me since. Not only did it allow me to view some of the long-gone churches in which my ancestors had been baptised or wed, including the iconic Hawksmoor church of St John Horsleydown , which was badly damaged in WW2 and never rebuilt (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), but I was also able to take a peek into the neighbourhoods in which these same family members had lived, worked, played and died.
St John Horsleydown or ‘The Louse Church’ in 1945 (after WW2 bombing)
Sadly, many of the places featured in the book were wilfully destroyed during early 20th century ‘improvements’ to the city, as well as in the post-war era, and yet are streets and buildings which a few years earlier my grandparents may have known when young. Almost stranger still were the glimpses of neighbourhoods before their damage during WW2 bombing raids – places which my father might have walked as a boy, and thus still within the capture of living memory. These poignant photographs seemed to be the last link between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ London, and when turning each page revealed yet another loss I became almost panicky at the thought of these terminal vanishings. (Once on returning with my camera a year or two later to photograph an old Victorian tenement where my great-great grandmother had lived I was horrified to find it already gone and replaced by a modern block of flats, even though I realise this was a better use of limited urban space).
Old and New London collide: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral
For a long time I could only really deal with the book in small doses, such was the affect of the images. To add to this, the often ghost-like people who peered from upstairs windows or stared from shop doorways almost seemed to be willing the viewer to make a connection with them, as if they wanted to defy the very march of time itself. As Davies states in his preface: The spectral figures of people and vehicles, which are the product of long exposure times, add to the haunting quality of the images. Figures stare at the camera, and, where they have moved, leave a ghostly trace on the plate.
I often had the disquieting feeling that by seeing these places made whole again by the photographic image I could somehow intervene to prevent their disappearance. In his book Camera Lucida, the French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes (see Those Ghostly Traces) describes this peculiar nature of photography: A painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, with photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality, and of the past. He goes on to state: what I see been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.
Today as I glance through my much-loved copy of Lost London, I realise that many of the photographs have taken on a new meaning in the years since I began my genealogical quest. Places I could barely locate on a map I can now anchor in their neighbourhoods and the districts to which they connect. I do not by any means pertain to have a fraction of the kind of knowledge possessed by a London flaneur, but realise that my long weekends of pounding the capital’s streets until my legs ached have at least been of some use. And in fact, the truth is that these were the happiest times I spent in London. Just me and an A to Z and an Oyster card (which was often left untouched in my pocket). In those moments of freedom – setting out over one of the bridges towards ‘London-over-the-water’ in the morning with the wind off the Thames stinging my eyes was always an exhilarating moment – I felt as alive to the city as I do to the sea or the mountains at the outset of a long hike.
Some weekends my walking would take me to the door of a conveniently located research centre – like the Lambeth Archives housed in the Minet Library just around the corner from my father’s boyhood stamping ground. Wonderfully placed for researching the streets which surrounded it, this was where I learned about the beginnings of my grandmother’s home in Denmark Road, where she lived as a child and married woman (see I remember, I remember), and about my great-great grandfather’s house in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Although this early Victorian semi-detached villa-style house was but a short walk away from Denmark Road, none of my immediate relatives had ever been aware of the ‘other family’ before. Unfortunately, knowledge of the first London Skeltons had been ‘lost’ to the generations that followed due to their tangled double-family genealogy. And it is this story with which my project is mainly concerned: by creating a chronological narrative, I hope to eventually have built up a framework on which to hang these knotted threads for further disentangling.
Two Brixton houses: two different families
The one thing, however, which unites both Skelton family branches (the lost and the found; the wealthy and the poor) is south London. And this is the place I usually head to on my safaris around the capital. From riverside Bermondsey to Camberwell and Gipsy Hill, and beyond to Croydon, the family has steadily (and typically) moved further south from the river. The master tailor, James Skelton, who first arrived from Yorkshire in the early 19th century, started the trend for moving to somewhere cleaner and more wholesome in which to raise a family, while benefiting from the extra living space – not to mention the increased status such addresses brought. As respiratory problems affected a great deal of Londoners, shortening their lives and causing them misery, including many in my own family, moving away from centres of industry and the burgeoning railways (see A Riverside Rest) was a smart and obvious move for those who could afford it.
But then as these places themselves fell foul to speculative building, and the once green fields and market gardens were covered with rows of hastily built stockjobbers’ houses, the wealthier sought to move further out. Sometimes that trend was temporarily reversed, as was the case with James Skelton when in middle-age he set up home with an impoverished teenage single mother, shortly after the death of his first wife (see When I Grow Rich). Thus instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement in his leafy Brixton neighbourhood, he had to ‘downsize’ to more industrial Walworth to enable him to bring up six children! I sometimes wonder if, when he died in Aldred Road from bronchitis at 67 (not a bad age in the 1860s), he ever regretted filling up his remaining years with the duties of maintaining another family, or whether those new children had given him a reason to carry on until the end. This was despite the probable distaste his grown-up ‘other’ children had for his union with a young pauper girl, which was only made legal in 1864, shortly before his death.
Aldred Road, Walworth c1916
In many ways my family research is not merely an attempt to learn about my unknown London ancestors, but to also discover London in a way that takes me to places I might not have ever visited. As I’ve mentioned previously, despite living in the capital for three years in the mid-eighties, I rarely went south of the river, being content to enjoy the then ‘coolness’ of north and west London. Now it seems inconceivable that I did not think to venture farther than the George Inn on Borough High Street, or the South Bank Centre, but Southwark had always seemed so gloomy to me (from the other side of the river) and childhood memories of boat trips to Greenwich passing dark and forbidding warehouses (where anything might happen) had only added to this impression.
When I did start to explore the streets of ‘London-over-the -water’, I was surprised and delighted at the variety of architectural styles, the hidden gardens, the helpful folk who often appeared whenever I pulled out my A to Z on a street corner. If I was tired, I’d hop on a bus to get a better overview of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the added advantage of seeing into living rooms and gardens as the bus dawdled at lights or crawled up many of south London’s unexpected hills. Sometimes I’d get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere unplanned, but I always tried to see this as an opportunity to discover somewhere new. Tranquil gardens, like those at the Horniman Museum, or wonderful streets, such as Camberwell Grove, would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a wrong turning or a mistaken bus route. Even if there was not a direct ancestral connection, these places were just as fascinating to visit as the neighbourhoods of my forebearers. Oftentimes I wondered if I was walking in the ghost footsteps of someone who had gone before me: Did X ever walk down this road and marvel at the houses just as I do now? Did Y ever visit these gardens and take the same pleasure I do in strolling between the flower beds and sitting under the trees?
Horniman Museum Gardens c1900 (c) Horniman Museum
My favourite activity was to connect up the neighbourhoods in which my ancestors once lived, walking along what I liked to think of as ‘genealogical ley lines’. This is how I came to learn about the River Effra – what the historian and writer Jon Newman describes in his eponymous book as ‘South London’s Secret Spine.’ The name Effra was already familiar to me through my walks in Brixton where there is an Effra Road, Close, Court and Parade, as well as other landmarks which include Effra in their title. Thus I always associated the word ‘Effra’ with that area, just as I did the name ‘Ruskin’ or ‘Denmark’, but without initially giving the etymology much thought. It was only later, when I could map out South London in my head and roughly understand how all the different parts were interconnected that the Effra began to mean more to me than just another ubiquitous street name.
The turning point was when I heard about the relatively new Lambeth Heritage Festival – a month-long series of walks and talks in the area held every September since 2013. Having attended one or two of these events previously, in 2016 I was interested to note that the programme included a trio of excursions which covered the route of the river Effra from its source in Norwood to its outlet into the Thames at Vauxhall. The walks were led by Jon Newman, the head archivist at the Minet library, who had recently published his book on the topic. The first walk was concentrated on the ‘High Effra’ and was advertised as: A horseshoe walk, descending the Lower Norwood branch of the Effra from its source and then returning up the Upper Norwood branch to that stream’s source. The next walk (the ‘Middle Effra’) was described as: A walk along the Effra valley as it passes between Knights Hill and Herne Hill. Finally, the ‘Low Effra’ was billed as: A walk following the course of the ‘new cut’ of the river dug in the middle ages from Kennington to the Thames.
Much to my frustration, I wasn’t able to join any of these walks or attend the lecture which accompanied the book launch. However, the following year another talk on the subject was scheduled during the Lambeth Heritage Festival. I took my mother along with me as it coincided with our yearly trip to the capital, and the location – a modern upstairs conference room in Southwark Cathedral – was relatively close to our digs in Bankside. (It would be the last time we would visit London together before all the walking became too much for her). On instinct, I kept the title of the talk a secret from my mother – as I felt befitted the subject. I also had the feeling that the idea of an underground river in south London would not excite her in the same way that it did me. I hoped, however, that the content of the talk would lead her to come to the same realisation that I had.
Halfway through the event, when Jon Newman paused to take a sip of water, my mother turned to me and hissed Our family are the River Effra! And I knew then that she had ‘got it’, too. From Gipsy Hill to Coldharbour Lane to Kennington and the River Thames, the course of the vanished river was like a geographical history of our family. Back in our rooms at the LSE Bankside that night, we scoured Newman’s book and let our eyes linger on the images and maps which accompanied the story of the river from its beginnings in what was once known as The Great North Wood to its artificial ‘outfall’ into the Thames. It was frustrating to note that any photographs which appeared to be of the Effra were only of the old river bed, the watercourse having already been mostly directed underground by the time this technology was in place. As Newman himself points out: Just as London’s nature writers missed out on the Effra so, by and large, did London’s photographers; the river’s vanishing act just pre-dated the growing affordability and portability of cameras.
The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870
Perhaps that is why the history of this river exerts such a hold on so many people. The very fact that there are no true images of the Effra as an actual river means that we must rely on other evidence to tell its story – documents, sketches, paintings, maps, place names, the physicality of gurgling drains. But despite all this, the Effra is still hidden to us – in more way than one – and can never be returned to us, for all the fanciful thinking out there. Except perhaps in our imagination, where it rushes and sparkles.
This is also why I believe we are drawn to our family histories: they are like stories forced underground that bubble up to the surface at certain points and intersections, yet can only be fully understood by our own plodding research into the archives. But still we walk the streets, searching for the more physical traces of our ancestors, every so often experiencing a feeling that we cannot quite describe, but briefly sense it to be one that has passed through the generations. The smell of the Thames at high tide from a set of watermans’ stairs; the bells at St Paul’s on a rainy Sunday morning; the taste of roast chestnuts on a winter’s afternoon in early December. Or we might glance up for no reason and see a ghost sign advertising the rental of carriages on the side of a building, or turn into an unexpected alley in the City which smells of beer and grilled chops and hear the chink of cutlery, the sound of laughter. And in those moments we may feel the shape-shifting nature of time.
The physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli talks briefly about the nature of time
Just as many of our ancestors bemoaned what was being lost, perhaps fearing that time was racing forwards without their consent, we too are often nostalgic for the buildings and places that no longer exist – in particular those which are just tantalisingly out of the reach of living memory. Yet there can also be a danger to this way of thinking: we should not forget that our past was once someone else’s future. The restored Victorian warehouses which line the Thames in my great-great grandfather’s Horsleydown neighbourhood (now part of Bermondsey) are nothing less than modern replacements for the old timbered ones my ancestors would have known. The Tower Bridge, loved and revered by so many, involved the destruction of local neighbourhoods on either side of the river (including part of Horsleydown Lane), and it is easy to forget that many eminent Victorians disliked such displays of the Gothic pastiche that came to dominate the architecture of the time. In some quarters there were even calls for its removal in the post war development of the city. (Writing in South London in 1949, the opinionated but highly readable historian Harry Williams contends that: The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable. It must be replaced since it is an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it).
The ‘new’ Tower Bridge – with Horsleydown Lane on the right
When we think about the sad story of the Effra, polluted and pushed underground over the years in the name of progress, it is hard to see this as anything but the converse. Newman points out that today such a river would most likely be regarded as a ‘soft’ engineering solution to the increased rainfall caused by climate change – in the same way other watercourses have been ‘re-natured’. Not only does this provide an attractive landscape for local residents and restores wildlife habitats, but a natural, meandering watercourse slows down and incorporates water that may cause flooding downstream during heavy rains.
For all our nostalgia over lost churches and streets, perhaps it is the loss of this unphotographed natural splendour – and others like it – which we should mourn most of all.
To be continued next month in A River Ran Under Them.
The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019