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 now 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.
South London, Harry Williams (1949)
Tower Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family
Last month, I revisited an earlier post I’d written about the Thameside parish of Horsleydown where my first London Skelton ancestors settled, two centuries ago. In this chapter, I intend to continue my exploration of London over-the-river, and as such have found it a pleasure to reread and edit my earlier writing on the topic. Despite not being able to return to the UK currently, I like to visit old and new London in my mind and reflect on my research and experiences to date. It is a comforting reminder of the time when a short trip to the capital could be organised in a couple of mouse clicks, and those long weekends were greatly anticipated events. Part of the pleasure was planning where to go and what to see, although latterly I’d often allowed myself to become distracted on tandem activities, which although not directly related to my genealogical research, did at least help to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the city. Sometimes it was, in fact, those random occasions – often serendipitous in nature – that offered me glimpses into the lives of my ancestors.
I started documenting these experiences last month (see Returning to the River in my Mind – Part 1), and continue to do so in Part 2, below. Perhaps my descriptions may even encourage some readers to visit this part of London, once life returns to normal.
I will always treasure the moment in the reading room of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) when I carefully laid the heavy, leather-bound rate books from Horsleydown Lane onto the large foam supports. My fingers struggled to untie the old ribbons which held the covers together, and I nervously eased the pages apart to an ominous creaking sound – accompanied by a rather worrying 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 to read the beautiful cursive hand of the unknown pen-pusher who’d transcribed these records almost two hundred years ago, perhaps perched all in black like a crow at a high wooden writing desk while laboriously copying out the scribbled notes of the enumerator.
Yet 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 in the 21st century.
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 tiny 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. Every time I discover some new fact, I feel I want to go back and view 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 see them in different seasons and weather conditions, at various times of the day, and in ever-changing 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’ lives 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 from 1828 to 1843 in Horsleydown. The rate books I later consulted in the LMA showed that James initially paid £14 in annual rent for his brick, Queen Ann house 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 indicated that the property, along with others in the Lane, was owned by the wealthy, local land-owning Abdy family, and belonged to the Horsleydown estate, built on what had previously been Horsley Down – which, as the name suggests, was grazing land up until 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. 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 in Horwood’s Map of London, circa 1800
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 landscape 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, an event which I documented last month. 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 Williams’ 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, but has also been replicated to a lesser extent in the area south of Tower Bridge, in part due to the attractions of the bridge itself. 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.
Renovated Victorian Warehouses, Shad Thames, Horsleydown
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, 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.
It’s hard to imagine the area around Horsleydown currently attracting the same amount of interest if the 1943 County of London Plan to which Harry Williams refers had succeeded in having the ‘anachronism’ of Tower Bridge replaced by a ‘splendid new bridge’! As the most iconic bridge in London, Tower Bridge is frequently mistaken by visitors for London Bridge, whose historical claim to fame is not even hinted at in the modern river crossing. Sometimes I have difficulty myself in believing that Tower Bridge did not even exist when my own London grandparents were born. As I mentioned last month, my great-great grandfather from Horsleydown would be surprised today to see the addition of both Tower Bridge and the Globe Theatre in his old stamping grounds. As if the past had arrived in the future with no thought for the centuries in-between.
And that is what I find so strange and fascinating about shape-shifting London.
The Incidental Genealogist, June 2021