One of my first blog posts was back in spring 2016 at what seems a much more innocent point in time. It’s probably just as well that then we knew nothing about what was lined up in front of us: the nasty triumvirate of Brexit, Trump, and Covid-19 that would dominate the last five years, and which still keeps on giving . . .
It’s also hard for me to believe that I was in London last March, attending a weekend writing workshop in Spitalfields, and in my free time visiting the crowded Columbia Road Flower Market and other ‘hotspots’ in the capital, with no idea of what was in store (or in denial about the possibility, like most of us). I wrote about this uncanny experience last year (see Strange Times Indeed) and also about our response to the pandemic, comparing it to that recorded by the diarists of the Mass-Observation during Second World War (see We Are At War). As I discovered – and what the historian Lucy Worsley described so well in her recent BBC documentary Blitz Spirit – the experience of many at that time was not always what we have been led to believe and has certain parallels with our current crisis. As Rachael Sigee noted in The i when reviewing Blitz Spirit : From outrageous government U-turns to stockpiling groceries, to the encouragement of neighbourly suspicion, it felt eerily familiar. If it sounds disparaging to question the morale of those who lived through the Blitz, this documentary did the opposite. The reimagining of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ argued that true respect means acknowledging the reality rather than fuelling a myth.
One thing that has seemed particularly pertinent over the last year is the importance of having somewhere to go where we can be surrounded by nature. A place where we can walk and breathe freely, meet up with friends and family and escape from the four walls which have dominated our lives for so long. Last spring, as the world entered into lockdown, I wrote about the importance of gardening and the links to my own family history (see April is the Cruellest Month). Even before the pandemic hit us, there had been increased interest in the mental health benefits of being outdoors (or at the very least bringing the outdoors inside, whether that be with flowers in a window box or a collection of shells in a bowl). Any small act, in fact, to remind us of the importance of nature and how necessary it is to our own health and wellbeing.
So this month I revisit that post I wrote five years ago about the two parks in South London I visited in the course of my research, and which have links to my own family. Since then I’ve discovered other outdoor spaces with connections to my ancestors. The grounds of Crystal Palace, for example, or the much smaller Horniman Gardens in Forest Hill. I recall a September visit there with my mother where we went to visit the eclectic museum and afterwards strolled around the landscaped gardens in the warm early autumn sun. I wondered if my father had ever visited on Sunday outings with his parents and siblings before the war, yet my mother thought it unlikely as at that time they were living in Brixton. However, when I recently met my aunt she told me that they had indeed gone there. This was because they were able to travel free on the tram when their father was working as the conductor. For that reason they often used to plan their outings according to his route, and so when he was working on the tram that passed Forest Hill they hopped on to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens.
Horniman Museum Gardens c1910 (c) Horniman Museum Archive
I have often felt closest to my ancestors when I walk the routes they once did, particularly in places that have not changed much over the intervening years. Although fashions in parks and gardening are constantly in flux, there will always be paths that remain the same or trees that continue to thrive. Sometimes it’s just that small thing – the sight of an old yew in a dark corner of a garden, a glimpse of old metal railings, or the glint of morning light on the surface of a still pond – that connects us to the past and those who went before us.
With the rapid development of the surrounding area in the first half of the 19th century, Kennington Common lost its ancient agricultural purpose and became a mere dumping ground for rubbish. In 1849 an observer stated that “The stunted herbage is trodden and soiled by a troop of cows belonging to a neighbouring milkman. A kind of pond near one corner, and a deep ditch opposite South Place, are the cemeteries of all the dead puppies and kittens of the vicinity.” The vitriol factory on the east side gave off a constant stream of sulphurous vapour, and the ditches presented “an accumulation of black offensive muddy liquid, receiving constant contributions from numerous unmentionable conveniences attached to a line of low cottage erections”.
Survey of London: Vol 26, Lambeth, F H W Sheppard (ed): 1956
A manufactory for oil of vitriol, on the east side of Kennington Common, occupies three acres of ground; and between that and the Kent-road are, a smelting-house for lead and antimony, a tannery, a manufactory for glue, another for tobacco-pipes, with manufactories for floorcloth and for carriages.
A Topographical Dictionary of England: Newington, S Lewis (ed): 1848
In 1852, the Kennington Common Enclosure Act led to a revoke of the rights of the local population to use the common land of the Manor of Kennington in the way they had for centuries. Many of the area’s wealthier residents must have sighed in relief. The Common had always had a rather chequered history – it was the site of public hangings in the 18th century and a place where dissenters gathered, as well as an area for local sports and festivities, which could sometimes get out of hand, not to mention the rather dubious activities which went on under cover of darkness.
The famous failed Chartist rally of 1848 – spectacularly captured on daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn (see below) – had been the final nail in the common’s coffin. Thereafter, efforts moved quickly to consolidate the wishes of local reformers, clergy and politicians to have the land enclosed.
Kennington Common, Chartist Rally: 10th April, 1848 (c) The Royal Collection
N.B. The large building in the background of the image is the afore-mentioned Messrs Farmers oil of vitriol manufactory, showing the extent to which it must have dominated the neighbourhood. In this remarkable picture, it seems to resemble a rather menacing symbol of industrialisation looming over those who were demonstrating against the political subjection of the time.
In 1852, six-foot high iron railings were erected around the perimeter of the old common and over a period of two years the badly neglected fields were turned into a public park, which finally opened in March 1854. However, the completed grounds did not at first meet with a particularly welcome reception, and were described by one contemporary as: intersected by un-level, puddle-holding walks, some of them unsightly and crooked, others leading to nothing and nowhere. Other criticisms focused on the lack of evergreens and the unstructured nature of the planting without regard to heights, habits or colours. But from 1858, under the leadership of John Gibson (who’d previously worked as superintendent of the new Battersea Park), the design of the park began to change. Elaborate flower beds were laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentions a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory will let them be.
While all this sounds relatively positive (apart from the air pollution, of course), it is worth considering that for others the enclosure of the old common land was regarded as a political move which attempted to suppress the free speech of the working classes. The park was fenced and patrolled, and subject to a list of rules and regulations governing its usage. Due to the lack of space and the amount of people using the park, ball games were not allowed, and an early attempt to open a gymnasium for the local children failed because of the amount of adult men who were monopolising the equipment. However, it is also important to note that less than half a century later, in 1898, Walter Besant was bemoaning the fact that Kennington was the only place in the parish of Lambeth where the enclosed common land had been kept free of new building developments. And, true to its Chartist heritage, today Kennington Park is once more a popular starting point for local political rallies and marches.
When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, and his siblings were growing up at nearby Aldred Rd in the 1860s and 70s (see The Two Arthurs), the park might have been a welcome place for Sunday strolls and games en famille, despite the lack of real freedom for children to play as they pleased. It would certainly have been a vivid contrast to the above-mentioned oil of vitriol factory, spewing out its noxious vapours at the eastern border of the park, and no doubt affecting all those who lived in the neighbourhood – including the residents of 35 Aldred Rd.
In Full Bloom at Kennington Park , c1909
I first went to Kennington is search of Aldred Road in the summer of 1991, shortly after returning from two years spent overseas. When starting my genealogical search in the mid-80s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) it had somehow never crossed my mind to venture south of the river to seek out the old family haunts. It seems strange to me now that I waited so long to do so. I already had a nascent collection of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates I had accumulated, as well as information from the five censuses up to 1881 – as well as more living relatives to question! The only thing which might explain my reticence was this rather strange idea I once had about South London.
The farthest south I had ever been was to the George Inn in Borough High Street on a night out with friends. (In the 1980s, west and north London were the areas to which I stuck – and at that time they seemed ‘cooler’ than today, when the action has moved on elsewhere). Apart from forays across the river to the Southbank Centre or the pubs near to London Bridge, I’d only ever seen bits of south-east London from a train on a visit to a friend in Kent. Then I had gazed down on rows of terraced houses with their tiny yards and outhouses, and imagined my ancestors living in such a street, constantly battling with the twin Dickensian evils of crime and grime. To my mind, the streets on the other side of the river seemed old and dark and permeated with some kind of Victorian miasma that might threaten to overcome those who dared to stray too far from the bright lights of the south bank. The scenes from the train out to New Beckenham from Charing Cross reminded me of Gustav Doré’s iconic image of rows of workers’ houses crowded into what appears to be a subterranean world.
Gustave Doré: Over London by Rail, from London: A pilgrimage, 1872
It was with a slight sense of trepidation that I headed off to Camberwell on that summer’s day in 1991, in search of a handful of old family addresses, my list augmented by the recent release of the 1891 census (scrutinised on microfiche in the Chancery Lane records’ office). However, not being able to search by family name in those days was extremely limiting, and meant that a great deal of information went unfound. I was still not yet up to the birth year of my grandfather (in 1892, in Cator Street, Peckham) and had been surprised to find another family recorded as living there the previous year. But as I later discovered, the Skeltons were all carrying on with their lives round the corner at Edmund Street, going undetected there until the internet liberated their location from obscurity over twenty years later.
When I think back to that August afternoon, thirty years ago, two things remain in my mind. Firstly, that I had been completely unaware of just how many elegant Victorian and Georgian buildings graced the streets of south London, hidden behind the layers of dirt and soot. Secondly, that a number of these old buildings seemed to be in the process of either being gentrified or pulled down.
Aldred Road – where Arthur’s family had lived for four censuses in a row – had disappeared off the map (after morphing into Aldred Street somewhere along the line), so I headed along Camberwell New Road to try to find what was left of Cator Street, amazed at the sight of so many architecturally stunning Georgian houses at one stretch. Farther along, I took a short cut through an unexpected open expanse of fields that looked like it too might have originally been part of an old common – although there was something about the place that gave off an eerie feeling of impermanence. Roads that led nowhere. Bridges over dry land. Instinctively I took out my new camera and photographed several old buildings that seemed as if their days were numbered. As I snapped away, a sense of panic rose up inside me at the thought that Cator Street was possibly turning to rubble (as Aldred Road/Street obviously had) before I had the chance to discover it for myself.
That day I knew nothing about the history of the area I’d just crossed – which officially began its post-war life as the North Camberwell Open Space – and had been renamed Burgess Park in the 1970s (after Jessie Burgess, who was Camberwell’s first female mayor in 1945). Later I discovered that these plans for a great ‘Hyde Park of South London’ from the bomb damage of the 1940s had been mired in controversy for over half a century, chiefly because they had involved the ‘removal’ of the remaining homes within the new park’s borders. What I was actually witnessing that afternoon was the imminent destruction of some of the last of the buildings clinging to the fringes of the burgeoning Burgess Park.
Ludovic Noel and Sons, chain of French Grocers: 1860-1960. 77-85 Coburg Rd
According to the current Wikipedia entry, Burgess Park is still not complete and contains some former roads which have been stopped up but not yet grassed over. The boundaries of Burgess Park remain a matter of dispute, and because the park has never been finished, it is regularly the subject of proposals to build housing, schools, or transport links of the sort that would never be contemplated in one of London’s more traditional Victorian Parks.
Back in June 1972, The Evening Standard reported that: Unfortunately clearing this 150 acre park involves displacing nearly 6000 people. Some live in tenement blocks and terraces from which they will be glad to escape to council flats. But also due to come down are some rather fine 19th century houses, rare visual delights in the otherwise uninspiring area between the North Peckham redevelopment to the south, and the monumental new Aylesbury estate in Walworth. (The Aylesbury Estate can be seen on the left of the photo below)
The George (Pub), 231 St George’s Way (Rd). Demolished circa 1991
As Southwark Council mention on its website: The park grew steadily, taking in hundreds of demolished dwellings, thirty streets, a few factories, churches, and filling in an old canal. It was always intended that the park would have regional importance yet its management and funding over the years have failed to deliver this ambition and although it is an important part of many local people’s lives there is a consensus that the park has never been ‘finished’.
In The Story of Camberwell, Mary Boast points out the fact that Burgess Park is an anomaly. Simply put, the creation of a park from what was once streets packed full of terraces and factories and shops and pubs is a reversal of the normal pattern of events in the capital. Land that was once open fields was given over to market gardens; which in their turn were built over by speculative developments. But now that land has once again become open fields, easily accessible to those living close by.
This came over a century too late for my grandfather’s older siblings, who would possibly have found their recreation along the old Surrey Canal (filled in by the 1970s) during the brief time they lived in the area. The outline of the waterway can still be traced in Burgess Park, with many of the canal’s bridges still intact, creating the strange effect of a lost landscape. Perhaps that is what I found so unsettling about the park on my initial visit – it was if the land was still attempting to redefine itself. However, returning recently on an unseasonably warm March Sunday, when the park was being utilised to full capacity, the sombre feelings that had accompanied me on my earlier visit were dissipated by the sight of so many young families enjoying the (much improved) public space. Did many of the Victorian residents of Kennington also regard their park in a new light once it was in full bloom and memories of the old common had faded away?
One of the most charming aspects of Kennington Park today is the late Victorian, Arts and Crafts tearooms, which were recently refurbished after lying vacant for several years. I stumbled across the Kennington Park Café on a bright spring morning after trekking several miles round the neighbourhood on an empty stomach, and fell upon my generously-filled toastie and mug of builders’ tea like Esau on his pottage. Now, whenever I am exploring the area I detour just to eat here, and if weather permits, sit on the terrace and enjoy the friendly green vibes of the park.
Although the tearooms were built too late for Arthur’s family to enjoy, previously there had been a purpose-built wooden building in the park where visitors could buy food and drinks (from 1861-88). Even further back, when the park first opened, the park keeper’s wife sold refreshments from the rear porch of the Prince Consort Lodge. Now occupied by the national charity Trees for Cities, the Lodge is a semi-detached house which was designed as a showcase for model workers’ dwellings by the Society for the Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, of which Prince Albert was president.
Originally built for the Great Exhibition in 1851, the building was later moved to the front gates of Kennington Park, where one of the cottages could be inspected by the public (two park attendants lived in the other cottage). While some believe it was – and still is – an important reminder of the Chartist legacy, others feel that the cottages served more to appease the conscience of the middle classes. In the end, very few houses to this design were actually built for workers in London, and it was to be almost a century later before many of Arthur’s children could live in a house that contained such luxuries as an indoor flushing W.C. (see I Remember, I Remember).
Prince Consort Lodge, Kennington Park
Nearby Burgess Park also boasts its own brand of ‘model housing’ – in this case the old alms houses of the Female Friendly Society Asylum in what is now Chumleigh Gardens. Built in 1821 they suffered bomb damage in WW2, and although incorporated into the park, were not renovated until 1981. They now house the park offices, community centre and café, and are surrounded by the popular multicultural garden. An interesting heritage trail which takes in these buildings and other historic sites in the park is described on the wittily-named Bridge to Nowhere website, run by the Friends of Burgess Park.
Alms Houses at Chumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park
Although there will always be a certain amount of tension between private and public space, at the same time it is indisputable that urban parks are an important hub for the surrounding communities. Having had to adapt to changing fashions, these parks now play a wide variety of roles, with local residents more involved in their management than previous generations. And alongside an increasing emphasis on education and encouraging biodiversity, urban parks have become much less formal places.
Even my generation can recall the slightly stilted atmosphere of the gardens of our local park in the 60s and early 70s, when dressing up and promenading through the grounds (while bands played!) were still a feature of family Sunday outings. Arthur and his siblings would have been subjected to even stricter regimes when visiting Kennington Park – and may have preferred the freedom of the traffic-free streets – although their parents were no doubt pleased that they did not have to worry about the possible dangers (real and imagined) of the nearby common.
Both parks – Kennington and Burgess – are separated by a century of policy and changing attitudes to public space. Products of history and circumstance, they link one generation of my London family to another, however tenuously. Whenever I am in south London, I am pulled back to them again and again, even if they can no longer offer up any clues to my family’s past.
With my grandparents, 1967
I go to Kennington Park to wonder at what it would have felt like to stroll the more formal (and no doubt very crowded) mid-Victorian gardens of Arthur senior and his siblings; to Burgess Park to wonder at the lost streets and the filled-in canal, and the densely-packed community that once thrived where now there are fields and gardens and an artificial lake. And every time I visit the two parks, I wonder what my south London ancestors would make of these now very modern, urban spaces.
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2021