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)
Reading back through some of my older blog posts is akin to entering into another world. One where I could explore the streets and record offices of London at will, popping into cafes and pubs on the way. My weekends in the spartan rooms at St Paul’s Youth Hostel or my September weeks with my mother at the LSE summer bed and breakfast on Bankside seem like memories of another, freer, time where descriptions of global pandemics and lockdowns were mainly found within the pages of fiction.
Eventually I’ll go back, I tell myself. When travel restrictions lift and life becomes a little more like normal again I’ll book a few days in London. But will I? Obviously, friends and family in Scotland are a priority but after that will a trip to the capital be next on my list? I remember a golden early autumn weekend with my husband spent on the ‘Surrey side’ of the river. There we browsed the stalls at Borough Market, filling up our picnic basket, visited Brunel’s magical underwater tunnel at Rotherhithe and stopped for a pint at the Mayflower pub. Another day we caught the boat to Greenwich to visit the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory as well as taking in an evening performance at Shakespeare’s Globe. Even the Morris Dancers who started an impromptu performance on Bankside seemed exotic to us and an important part of the memories of that special weekend.
A visit to London always surprises and inspires and can never bore – although the emotions thrown up may not always be comfortable (as in the last time I was there, when the pandemic took hold, see Strange Times Indeed). It’s a place that enables you to always learn something new about yourself and others and the world at large. Even if I’m not directly undertaking genealogical research (such as in the weekend trip with my husband where no family history searches were theoretically ‘allowed’), any trip to London over-the-river gives me a chance to be some immersed in the world of my ancestors.
Therefore, this month I want to revisit some of my earlier descriptions of exploring my ancestors’ riverside parish of Bermondsey, editing and combining them into two posts (Part 1 in May and Part 2 to follow in June) to satisfy my urge to be there, if only in my mind.
It’s mid-September and I’m back in London. I haven’t visited the capital for a year now, although it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because I’m surrounded by my research it often seems as if the city is coming to me through my books and papers. Of course that is no substitute for the real thing, so it was good last month to stride out along the South Bank towards Rotherhithe, with the first scent of early autumn in the air.
I stop at the old watermen’s stairs at the bottom of Horsleydown Lane, the place where my ancestors would have crossed the river a whole lifetime before the iconic bridge would link the Surrey-side to the Middlesex-side at the Pool of London. While it is clear to me that Tower Bridge is the odd man out – a fancy-pants of a river crossing in amongst all the more functional ones – I still find it a struggle to imagine the Thames as my great-great grandfather would have seen it when he came to London from North Yorkshire sometime around 1820.
Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today
Horsleydown foreshore, c1850 (c) Guildhall Library & Art Gallery etc.
Not only would the great river have been heaving with boats, including those of the watermen and lightermen, but none of the bridges which span the waterway today existed two hundred years ago, at least not in their current incarnations. At that time, the crossings closest to Central London were limited to London Bridge (replaced in 1973), Old Blackfriars Bridge (replaced in 1869), and Waterloo Bridge (replaced in 1945), along with the iron construction of Southwark Bridge (replaced in 1921) and the iron Regent’s Bridge (soon after renamed Vauxhall Bridge and replaced in 1906). In fact, depending on when James Skelton actually arrived in the capital, he may have even been witness to the opening of these latter three toll bridges at Waterloo (1817), Southwark (1819), and Vauxhall (1816).
Although I cannot determine exactly when my great-great grandfather made that all-important move to London, I do know he was born in 1799 in Darlington and grew up in North Yorkshire. As a young man he obviously undertook an apprenticeship in tailoring, and by the time he was in his twenties had settled down in the riverside parish of St John’s Horsleydown, now in Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). London Bridge would therefore have been his closest crossing, had he needed to go to the City by road. He would certainly have witnessed the ‘new’ London Bridge in the process of being constructed next to the old medieval one – which was no longer fit for purpose – in the 1820s, and not completed until 1831 when he was already a father of four young children (with another on the way).
Would my great-great grandfather have been excited at this idea of progress? Was it even the opening of this improved road crossing which helped him decide to move much farther out to leafy Brixton over a decade later, commuting over the bridge to his new tailor’s shop in East Cheap, near St Paul’s? Or was it the coming of the railways in 1836, spreading out over South London throughout the 19th century, like a spider spinning a slow and stealthy web, which caused him to flee his adopted parish? Perhaps it was a combination of both, illustrating the complex relationship each generation has with the technological advancements of the age: where we gain in some areas, we lose in others. (We only have to think of the current trend towards video-conferencing and teleworking the pandemic has exacerbated to see parallels).
‘New’ and Old London Bridge, by Gideon Yates, 1828
London’s first railway line, the London and Greenwich Railway, which opened in 1836 (but did not actually reach Greenwich until 1838) ran on a viaduct consisting of 878 brick arches, due to the number of streets that it had to cross. Walking through Bermondsey today, it’s hard to ignore this structure, which appears to dominate the neighbourhoods through which it passes. If you add in the noise and pollution the early locomotives would have generated – not to mention the carriages on the rudimentary rail system – it must have been a traumatic change to the area for the residents, particularly those in the more outer-lying parts that were still in open countryside.
London and Greenwich Railway, 1837 The Illustrated London News
Writing in his book South London over a century later, in 1949, Harry Williams states that: South London is almost crippled by these monstrous growths, unrealized by the traveller tearing along in his daily train. Whole areas have been choked by overhead rail-tracks on these wasteful brick arches, and to get a true appreciation of the sort of thing that can happen, one should pay a visit to Loughborough junction, where three of these monsters meet, or to Southwark Cathedral, where the main line track seems to hold down an area of a small country town.
London Bridge (with Southwark Cathedral) c1920 (c) Ideal Homes
Three years later, the new London and Croydon Railway opened, sharing the initial section of the line for two miles, the high-level pedestrian boulevards which ran alongside the tracks being utilised for this expansion. On Sundays (when trains did not run) these walkways had been a popular one-penny stroll, and perhaps my great-great grandfather and some of his family had dressed up in their smart Sunday best clothes to perambulate along them, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. I also imagine that they would have taken an early train journey, even just to experience this novel form of transport, especially as the family remained in the area until 1844 and thus had plenty of opportunities to be tempted by the idea.
In those days of relatively low-rise buildings, the long railway viaduct would have been an impressive sight. A few days after The Times article in 1835, the Mechanics Magazine stated that: The London and Greenwich Railway viaduct is now fast approaching completion, and presents a very imposing appearance. It forms a highly interesting object from the summit of Nunhead Hill, at the back of Peckham, from which the whole range of arches, seen in nearly its entire length, appears like the “counterfeit presentment” of a Roman aqueduct. Nunhead Hill is decidedly the best point from which to obtain a general view of this magnificent work, which there forms a part of the foreground to an exquisite and comprehensive panorama of the metropolis, in its whole enormous length from Chelsea to Greenwich, with all its “domes and spires and pinnacles”, amongst which those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are of course the most conspicuous.
Several years later, Nunhead Hill would become the site of the new ‘monster’ cemetery of All Saints – one of the ‘magnificent seven’ that were constructed in a ring around the capital in an effort to prevent the overcrowding in the London parish churchyards, and intended as a Victorian capitalist venture (albeit an unsustainable one). Today Nunhead Cemetery makes for a pleasant wooded stroll, as well a place of historical interest. And eventually James Skelton was himself laid to rest here in the ‘new’ family grave, situated at the highest point of the hill, the closest spot both to God and the fabulous views of the London skyline.
Nunhead Cemetery c1850
When the burial site was initially chosen for his oldest daughter in 1844 (see Present at the Death), the vista of London with which the family would have been confronted was obviously very different from that of today, although St Paul’s would have still been the dominant feature. Somehow this feels very comforting to me, as the cathedral has come to symbolise my times in London. This is because I usually stay at the YHA hostel in the old choir boys’ accommodation in Carter Lane, and from every dorm room the bells can be heard chiming the hours throughout the night. Despite what some of the guests say in the online feedback, for me it is nothing but a soothing sound which seems to be letting us know that all is right with the world.
St Paul’s Cathedral from Nunhead today
St Paul’s also symbolises family holidays in London as a child in the 1970s (all Londoners who have experienced the blitz seem to be forever drawn to this special place). I think, too, of James Skelton, who eventually moved out of Bermondsey and set up his tailoring business just a stone’s throw away at 15 East Cheap; of his second wife, Mary Ann Hawkins, who was born in one of the slum courts in the shadow of the great cathedral. She would have grown up with the sound of the bells, while her future husband would have heard them as he travelled into the City each day. And if it hadn’t been for the two bodies lying cold under the earth up on Nunhead Hill (James Skelton’s oldest daughter and his first wife), this young poverty-stricken teenager would never have been able to set up home in South London with my fifty year old grieving great-great grandfather. Such is the way the world turns!
So I see and I make connections as I walk the streets and parks of London. I feel privileged to know about my relatives’ lives through technology they could never have imagined, yet despite this knowledge I’m aware that as I tread in their faded footsteps I can never truly recreate their world. Sometimes, however, the city allows me a brief glimpse of a timeless space: the smell of roasting chestnuts on a winter’s day; a windy bridge crossing in early spring, grit stinging my eyes, while the brown-grey waters of the Thames roil and churn below; ghost signs on a wall advertising an obsolete product that was once regarded as commonplace. And for a brief moment I feel my ancestors calling to me over the years.
While looking through slide film of our family visits to London in the early 1970s, I came across the image (below) taken by my father which inadvertently captures the area of Horsleydown behind my sister and myself. It brought back memories of how much of the south bank of the Thames looked like a different world in those days. Dark hulking warehouses, many already closed up, lined the river, cranes jutting out over the water. It seemed to represent another London: one that both fascinated and repelled me. I often wished we could go over the bridge to discover what was on the other side for ourselves. However, just like Sir Walter Besant, (quoted at the beginning), my father used to say that there was nothing to see there, which was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment to me.
Over forty years later, on that Saturday when I sat by the river’s edge at Horsleydown, I thought about the bridges and the railway lines which had marched on step-by-step alongside the speculative building ventures. It was inevitable that one day it would all eventually reach* sleepy Brixton, far away from the bustle of the river, where my great-great grandfather had moved with his family in respectable middle age. The relatively new, semi-detached villa on Coldharbour Lane – near the present-day (aforementioned) Loughborough Junction – had been constructed when the street was surrounded by trees and market gardens, and still deemed to be a relatively rural outpost, and it no doubt marked a stepping up in the social scale for the Skeltons of Horsleydown.
*And that it would then extend out even farther, only being stopped in its tracks by the post-war implementation of the green belt legislation.
What would James Skelton make of his old riverside neighbourhood now? There is the elaborate imposter bridge on his doorstep, looking like it has been there for hundreds of years; yet the family home in Horsleydown Lane no longer exists, bombed along with St John’s parish church in some unimaginable future-past war from the sky. Even the Victorian warehouses which tourists come to view and photograph would be regarded as modern interlopers, having replaced the original timber ones from earlier in the century with which my great-great grandfather would have been familiar. And if James did venture down the old watermen’s stairs to the foreshore and gaze out across the river, would he regard the current City skyline as progress?
Then if he continued to follow the riverside path beyond London Bridge and the Shard, past the hemmed-in but spruced-up Southwark Cathedral – which he’d have known as a simple parish church, and to whose long-demolished grammar school he’d sent his only son, what would his impressions be? The industry has all gone, and the resulting space opened up to pedestrians in pursuit of pleasure, as it once was centuries ago. No doubt he would marvel at the new-old Globe Theatre, looking as if it had been transported from the past to the future, missing out all the generations in between. He might then wonder who and what had shaped this strange, modern London which perplexed him so.
To be continued . . .
The Incidental Genealogist, May 2021