Category Archives: Houses

A Tale of Exploitation

The mahogany industry has been, unfortunately, a tale of exploitation. The ‘get rich quick’ policy was adopted by all concerned and many of these people left the country and took their profits with them. No attention was paid to either natural regeneration or replanting, and it is now possible to walk through large tracts of bush which were once full of mahogany and not see a single sizeable tree. Indeed, the only natural wealth of the colony has now been exhausted.

F.C. Darcel, A History of Agriculture in the Colony of British Honduras (1954)

10309484_1506641026218934_7329609308366106728_neeMahogany tree, British Honduras, early 20th century

Back in 1985, at the time I first learned that my great-great grandfather was a widower when he married his young ‘housekeeper’, Mary Ann Hawkins, I had very little interest in discovering more about his previous family – the one I now think of as ‘lost’. In those days genealogy was an extremely time-consuming and relatively expensive pastime, so early on I’d made the decision to only focus on my direct ancestors. I realise now what an incredibly short-sighted view this was: after all, if I wanted to find out more about the man who instigated the London branch of the family, what better way to start than learning about his youthful first marriage? Perhaps I would even also gain more insight into why he later chose to marry a woman who was younger than his own daughters.

When the Waugh documentary (Fathers and Sons) triggered my renewed interest in family history a quarter of a century later (see Begin Again), I straight away began my on-line search for a James Skelton in south London (who was born in North Yorkshire in 1799). When looking for London-based ancestors in the earlier part of the 19th century – before the population of the capital exploded – it is still relatively easy to find those who do not possess overly-common surnames, and thus it was not long before I located James and his family living at Horsleydown Lane in riverside Bermondsey, an experience I wrote about earlier in The Tailor of Horsleydown. This discovery felt like an important breakthrough in my research: finally I would discover more about the man who, like so many during the early 19th century, moved hundreds of miles from his rural home in an attempt to better himself and give his family the opportunities he himself had been denied.

And what I learnt through the subsequent investigations came as a surprise. These children of James’ first marriage appeared to have been markedly more successful than those of his second. (Unfortunately, it would not be until the 2nd half of the 20th century that most of the descendants of the latter group would find doors opening to them through changes in educational policies). And this ‘lost family’ were in fact much more documented than the second one which I belong to – in part due to the fact that they they spread out across the Empire, taking risks along the way (some which resulted in their untimely deaths) in their pursuit of new lives and opportunities in the colonies.

This first family  James had with Sarah Vaughan was predominantly female, except for their middle child. As to be expected, it is this son – sandwiched between two younger and older sisters – whose social and economic rise was the most dramatic. The only one of the children to be formally educated, James William Skelton was sent to the nearby St Saviours’ Grammar School, where he would have had the chance to make connections with other socially mobile boys. It may even have been here that James William met the Bermondsey-born Thomas Schofield, son of a local custom house official. These two men (and their sons) were to form a life-long bond that resulted in them establishing a successful mahogany import business together. It was one which flourished throughout the time of Victoria, when furniture made from this dark, tropical hardwood was very much in demand due to the size of the logs as well as the wood’s known resistance to expanding and splitting in the damp weather of the British Isles.

James William Skelton was a self-made man who encapsulated the spirit of the age, with his colonial business and urge to get ahead, and within a generation he would take his family into the fringes of the lesser aristocracy. Possibly he was carrying on the dream his own father had started when he left his Yorkshire village all those decades ago, but had been unable to ultimately fulfil when, after losing both his wife and oldest daughter in mid-life, he ended up living with the young Mary Ann in a cramped terraced house in Kennington, surrounded by the crowd of noisy, young children he’d helped to bring into the world – and whose existence no doubt embarrassed his oldest son. (But perhaps I am giving James William value judgements that he did not possess, and how can he defend his actions now that he is buried under a slab of pink granite at Nunhead Cemetery?)

Finding out about James William’s exotic and successful business was certainly an exhilirating moment, and one of the high points of my research to date (later dampened by thoughts of colonial exploitation and environmental degradation). From his entry in the school records of St Saviour’s, to his deathbed business transactions and elaborate will and testament, this high-flyer left  behind a paper trail which documented his achievements and those of his children in the kind of detail that I could previously only have dreamt of finding for my family. And I am still coming across clues to his lavish lifestyle today as new records go on-line or revisiting a previous search allows me to see details I originally overlooked.

The book of St Saviour’s school admission records, discovered cracked and musty in the archives of the Southwark History Centre, showed that James William joined the school in early January 1834, a few days after his seventh birthday, and was a pupil there for four years. This school was attached to the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) but the building in use at the time of James William’s school days ceased to be in service by 1839 (and unfortunately no longer exists – the site is covered by one of the many Victorian railway arches which blight Southwark).

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North View of Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School, St. Saviour’s, Southwark, 1815 From: Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 41. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-41

 

However, when I started searching for James William, his schooldays were the last thing on my mind. Having not found him in either the 1851 or the 1861 census, I had almost presumed him dead until I found a James William Skelton living with his wife and children in some grandeur at a residence named Carlton House, The Avenue, Gipsy Hill, in 1871, and describing himself as a Retired West India Merchant. Fast forward ten years and the same James William (now strangely not retired) had moved the family into a luxury apartment in a new development at Clapham Common, gaining several more servants along the way.

At first I thought I’d made a mistake with this wealthy man. I had always imagined that James Skelton’s first-bon son might have followed him into tailoring, taking over the family business at some point, and going into wheeling and dealing overseas seemed a grand departure from the family line (James Skelton himself having descended from Yorkshire wool staplers – more about this in a subsequent post). It was only until I was able to scrutinise his marriage certificate that my suspicions were confirmed – this James William and my half-ancestor were one and the same person. And so began a frenzied search that lasted several months and which finally convinced me I had to commit this whole project to words, illustrating as it did the disparity between the two branches of the familiy and the different lives of the haves and have-nots of Victorian England and beyond.

During this manic period of research, I soon gleaned that the reason James William disppeared from the UK census for two decades in a row is that at some point in his youth he and his business partner, Thomas Schofield, went out to British Honduras (now Belize) and set themselves up in the nascent colony as mahogany merchants (the Schofields seem to have owned land in  Corazol in the northern part of the country), and naming the company Skelton and Schofield. So although James William was most likely moving back and forward between the two distinct worlds of London and the Caribbean during this time, he evades the census which captured his two younger sisters still unmarried and living at home with their father in 1851, and the one ten years later which saw James firmly ensconced in Aldred Rd with Mary Ann and five of their six children.

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Map of British Honduras (now Belize)

But what the census was not able to pick up, other records did. Trade directories show that James William (with Thomas Schofield) had offices in the City – moving location several times until the company settled in the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane off Cannon Street (still standing today, on account of its connection with the church of St Martin’s Orgar). In addition to this, the business had an import office at East Wood Wharf in the West India Docks at the Isle of Dogs. Today the remains of these huge docks and their accompanying warehouses, first developed over 200 years ago,  can be seen at the Museum of London, Docklands.

fig96West India Docks, 1841: Mahogany Sheds in East Wood Wharf visible. From: ‘The West India Docks: Historical development’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 248-268. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp248-268

docklands-2Remaining Victorian Warehouses at the West India Docks
                                                                                                                                                 

James William pops up again and again in the pages of the London Gazette, buying and selling property, involved in business transactions, purchasing a huge clipper ship, (which he names after his first son) and finally bringing this son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, into the business before eventually retiring to Brighton. The firm of Skelton and Schofield appear to have  offices in the most evocatively-named parts of the City: St Helen’s Place, Mincing Lane, Throgmorton Street, (before becoming esconsed at the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane for several decades), some of these buildings which still survive today. His marriage and children’s births are recorded in the newspapers of the time, such as the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times. Maddeningly, there are no photographs of this Victorian success story – only the tantalising description of the Portrait of myself as a boy and  Portrait of myself as a man (presumed to be oil paintings) that he records in his meticulously detailed will, and which I have discussed previously in Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun.

p1030700-4The Old Rectory, Martin’s Lane, Cannon St, City of London

Then, when almost forty, James William does something that confirms in my mind that he was without a doubt a social climber. He shrewdly marries a wealthy young woman whose family own a very lucrative body parts shop in Fleet Street (more about this uncanny-sounding business next month) and double-barrels his name with hers, turning this stunted branch of the family (none of their three children had any issue of their own) into the Sleath-Skeltons. And not only that, but on his wedding certificate in 1866, a year before his father died, he decides not to describe him as a retired tailer (as all James’ other children do), but simply furnishes the registrar with one elusive, snobbish Victorian expression: Gentleman. Could it be that he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his new bride and her family? Somehow I cannot imagine him ever wanting his putative in-laws to know that his father was currently living with a much younger (and uneducated) woman in a scruffy terraced house in Kennington surrounded by a crowd of what my father used to affectionately refer to as ‘snotty-nosed brats’.

During her lifetime, Emma Sleath seemed to have been close to her older sister, Mary Caroline, who married a successful autioneer-banker called John Green. In the census of 1871 the two families with their young children were living next door to each other in Gipsy Hill, renting large detached houses set back from the road, replete with coach-houses for their vehicles and drivers. The row of grand houses, simply called The Avenue (later renamed Dulwich Wood Avenue) was built in 1859 on open country, not far from both the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham and Gipsy Hill railway station, and overlooked a field with a herd of cows which belonged to the local dairy. Today the road (or at least the section which survived WW2 bombing and post-war development) still maintains a semi-rural feel, and the houses are, of course, eye-wateringly expensive. Although Carlton House (where James William lived) and the Green family’s neighbouring Homedale House were unfortunately at the end of the street which was destroyed by bombing, the remaining section does give a flavour of what The Avenue was once like. Now these buildings and their surroundings are an anomaly in a relatively busy urban area, although the old dairy herd field in front of the houses has been preserved as urban parkland.

gh-house-2A typical Victorian Villa on Dulwich Wood Avenue

gh-field-2The old dairy herd field in front of Dulwich Wood Avenue

I visited Dulwich Wood Avenue on one of my marathon walks around London, trying to get a feel for how the various south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors connected together (something that maps cannot really convey). That Sunday I walked from Brixton (where my father and James Skelton both lived in separate centuries) through sylvan Dulwich and the old turnpike (which put me in mind of Totteridge – see A Rose in Holly Park), and eventually arriving at the disconcertingly busy Paxton roundabout. After wandering up Dulwich Wood Avenue, I crossed the park and walked up Gipsy Hill to Christ Church (opened in 1867) where the little Sleath-Skeltons were baptised (and whose brass lectern was gifted by John Green, while church warden from 1867-69). From that vantage point I marvelled at the sight of St Paul’s and the City in the distance – a view spectacular enough to rival the one from the hight point at Nunhead Cemetry where the ostentatious pink granite Skelton family grave (courtesy of James William) is located.

gipsy-hill-church-2Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, built 1867

gh-view-2Evening view of the City from Christ Church, Gipsy Hill

Later that day, as the unseasonably warm March sunshine gave way to a sudden cool evening, causing an exodus from the local parks onto public transport, it suddenly occured to me that not only were the exhausting walks I was undertaking perhaps the same routes that my ancestors had trodden as they spread outwards across south London from riverside Bermondsey, but that these roads were like genealogical ley lines across the capital. And there at Gipsy Hill, at that place where the Roma once lived in the Great North Wood, was evidence of these tracks meeting. On one side of Gipsy Hill were the remaining smart villas of Dulwich Wood Avenue – and on the other side, higher up, the houses of the newer Bloomfield Estate which my grandparents moved to in the 1930s, delighting at their modern  cottage-style council house with indoor toilet and electric lights. And not far from there was the Victorian terraced house at Romanny Road where my grandfather lived at the turn of the old century with his father and new stepmother and assorted siblings.

But if there was one place (node?) which seemed to pull all these elements together, it was the Crystal Palace. From my father’s lifelong recollections of the terible conflagration he observed from his upstairs bedroom window in Brixton, to the knowledge that a great many of my London ancestors, the poor and the wealthy, would have gone there at some point in their lives (either to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, or later to the park and buildings in Sydenham), the grounds and its last remaining statues seemed to me to be a symbol of the great social leveller. I later discovered that the Sleaths had won medals for their moving body parts at the Great Exhibition, so no doubt the young Emma and her family would have been a visitor in 1851, while as a young woman living in Gipsy Hill she may have attended concerts there or accompanied her children to the park, perhaps noting with disdain the growing number of amusements and fairs in the grounds that were encouraging greater numbers of working class visitors

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p1030883-2Ghostly reminders of the lost Crystal Palace in Crystal Palace Park

A different day of exploring south London took me to The Cedars at the north side of Clapham Common, which was the subsequent home of the Sleath-Skeltons. Having moved with their coachman and hs family (each apartment came with a mews flat – themselves now worth a pretty penny), the family also took some of their existing servants and acquired a footman – already becoming a dated concept in the 1880s. By this time the two Boys, Herbert and Stanley, had been sent away with their cousins, Sydney and Percy Sleath Green, to Cheam prep school to prepare them for Eton (which would no doubt prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge &Etc.) James William’s youngest child, his daughter Maude Beatrice (a marginally classier name than those of her brother and cousins – at least to modern ears), was educated at home, possibly with her cousin Daisy Winifred Green, who was like a sister to Maude right up until their deaths in the 1950s.

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p1060887-2The Cedars (and their mews) at Clapham Common, built in 1860

I intend to write about each of James William’s children (Stanley, Herbert and Maude) in separate chapters, as this dated-sounding troika led strange and colourful lives which, given their social status, were much documented in records and contemporary sources. However, in addition to these three children, there was also an  unknown teenager  who appeared on the 1871 Gipsy Hill census alongside baby Stanley and Herbert, but disappeared shortly afterwards. This turned out to be the Caribbean-born daughter of James William, who at some point must have been brought over to England from British Honduras, and had been given the rather aristocratic name of Louisa Arabella. Sadly, this young woman died at the family home at Gipsy Hill from the horrific-sounding Renal Anasarca (swelling of the body tissues due to renal failure)  at the age of twenty-one. It is heart-breaking to think that this young woman, who no doubt expected to have been initiated into London society, died at the age she would have been ‘coming out’ and taking her place in the world. But her memory lives on in the oral history of the descendants of the Sleath-Green family who today still talk about the rumour that there was exotic Caribbean blood in the family. As Daisy Winifred’s grand-daughter (more about this unexpected contact soon) wrote in an early email exchange with me: One thing that has always interested me is another bit of family lore, and that is that there may be a ‘local’ from the Caribbean in our ancestry, but I have found no trace.

In Deborah Cohen’s book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Cohen devotes a chapter to describing the fate of the illegitimate children of British colonists with indigenous women – a not uncommon occurence. Although these children were  sometimes brought back to the ‘mother country’ and assimilated into the new family, many of them were packed off to lesser-known English boarding schools, often at a distance from the family home in order to avoid the obvious questions which might arise from their darker complexions. In the case of Louisa Arabella, she appears to have come to England once James William had set up home as a respectable married man, and it would be interesting to know how Emma Sleath dealt with the arrival of this older step-daughter in the family at the same time as she was having her own children. Unfortunately, the death certificate of this young woman is the only official record I currently have which documents her existence (discounting the 1871 census), yet I hope one day to be able to tell Louisa Arabella’s story in more detail. 

And what of Louisa Arabella’s birth country of British Honduras – now Belize, and an independent nation since 1981? Many people have heard of the country through  its growing reputation as a world-class scuba-diving destination,  popular with American tourists, (not least because of the prevalence of English.) In addition, eco-tourism is making an increasing impact on the economy, and although there is no longer a mahogany exporting industry to speak of, bananas, citrus fruit and sugar are some of the main crops  now grown. However, the mahogany tree is still an important symbol in the country: it is the official national tree and features on the country’s flag – along with the phrase Sub Umbra Floreo (under the shade I flourish). The Belizean national anthem (video link below) also includes the patriotic line No longer hewers of wood we shall be – a reference to the period between 1750 and 1950 when the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling and squaring the mahogany trees which grew deep and scattered in the rainforest was carried out (originally by slaves until this was outlawed in 1838) for the benefit of the colonists.

flag_of_belize_svg

As a postscript, I would like to add that after my initial excitement at learning about these wealthy and successful ancestors, I soon began to question my reaction to their life stories. Why did I somehow feel better about the Skelton family, knowing that there was at least one branch who left their mark on the world? And what did it say about myself and my motives for carrying out family research if I thrilled more about adventures in the Empire and the discoveries of  large houses and servants than I did to trips to local parks, and terraced houses and factory labourers?

These are all questions that I will attempt to answer in the next few months as I explore the privileged lives of the Sleath-Skeltons and their relatives. I will also delve deeper into their connection with the Schofields, culminating in a tale which ends with the rather mysterious death of Thomas Schofield’s son under a train at Warren Street underground station in 1933, shortly after Skelton and Schofield was finally dissolved.

I look forward to continuing my story in the coming months!

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2017

Where there’s a Will .. . and the Sun

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 handbell 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.

roupell st (2)

waterloo st - check (2)

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.

OLD SOUTHWARK (2)

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.

KING JAMES ST

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.  

cambusdoon_house

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 outwith 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 dwellinghouses 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 FIRE INSURANCE SIGN (2)

Sun Insurance firemark on an 18th C house (shown below) in Bermondsey

BERMONDSEY HOUSE (2)

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 detailling my great-great grandfather’s possesions. 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

The Tiny Vibrations of Forgotten Things

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)

The two decades that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, and his first family spent in Horsleydown (from around 1823-42) coincided with changes to public record-keeping which saw civil registration introduced in England and Wales in 1837, followed by the national census in 1841. It was the combinaton of these records which had allowed me to unearth James and his second family in Aldred Rd in the 1860s, but the lack of  data earlier in the century (when records had been kept by individual parishes) was the stumbling block which had prevented me from finding him in Horsleydown (and later Brixton) with his first wife and children – the family I regard as ‘lost’.

However, when I resumed my search in 2010 the internet had already changed the landscape of genealogical research, and suddenly it seemed that everyone was busy downloading parish records, assembling family trees on-line, and posting queries about long-lost cousins. It was with a slight trepidation that I re-ignited my quest to find my lost ancestors, spurred on by the Waugh family documentary that had fascinated me so much (see Begin Again). I knew that once I started it could easily turn into an all-consuming obsession. Would I end up sitting wild-eyed at 2am, telling myself I would have just one more attempt to find an ancestor who had so far proved elusive? (My ongoing search for the ‘doorstep foundling’ Nell springs to mind here.)

Even in the last couple of years, numerous records have been published on-line that were previously only accessible at archive centres: parish rates, divorce petitions, school board admission records. In a peculiar way it can be irksome to find such previously hard-won information suddenly retrievable at the push of the button (and the wave of a credit card). Document searches that used to entail a precious day at the archives – a day in which various choices regarding where to spend limited research time had to be made – can now be conjured up on a screen anywhere, almost devaluing the content in the process.

Some of the records that I found for James Skelton and his family fall into this category – the rate books from Horsleydown Lane being a prime example. Yet I still treasure the moment in the document consultation room in the London Metropolitan Archives when I laid the heavy, leather-bound book on the foam reading supports, untied the ribbons that held the covers together, and eased the pages apart to an ominous creaking, accompanied by a 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, too,  to read the beautiful cursive hand of the unknown pen-pusher who’d transcribed these records almost two hundred years ago, perhaps perched at a high wooden writing desk while he laboriously copied out the scribbled notes of the enumerator.

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.

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 little 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. Each time I discover something new, I have a need to go back and see 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 view them in different seasons and weather conditions, at different times of the day, and in different 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’ life 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 in 1828 at 7 Broad Street, Horsleydown. I already knew from the Horsleydown parish records (found on-line) that James’ son, James William was born in Broad Street in December 1827, corroborating the information in Robsons. Thereafter, the various trade directories show the family as living at Horsleydown Lane, where they were to stay for the next 15 years.

Interestingly, the birth records for James first two children show that they were born in the town of Erith (in 1824) and Printer’s Place, also located in Horsleydown, (in 1826), respectively. As Sarah’s brother and his wife (the witnesses at James and Sarah’s wedding) were from Erith, it is probably safe to say that Sarah was originally from this area and had perhaps returned to her family home to give birth to her first child (Margaret Sarah) a year after her marriage. Unfortunately, many of the relevant parish records for Erith were destroyed in a church fire in 1877, so at present there does not seem to be any easy way to confirm this fact. As Sarah is not a blood relative, I feel I can let her story lapse to a certain extent, although I often wonder if she was the driving force behind James’ success story and at some point would like to try to discover more about her.

I am fully aware that I may be biased in my reporting, but it does seem as if the records give support to my theory of upward mobility. Firstly, James and Sarah have two addresses in the neighbourhood (which we know about) before they eventually settle in Horsleydown Lane for a relatively long period, indicating that they were putting down roots in the area. In addition, James’ appearance in the London trade directories of the time shows that he took ‘growing’ the business seriously.

And finally – and perhaps most fascinating of all – the aforementioned rate books I consulted in the LMA show that James paid initially paid £14 in annual rent for the brick property 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 showed that the house, along with others in the street, was owned by the local landowning Abdy family, and was part of the Horsleydown estate, built on what had previously been Horsley Down, grazing land up to 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  – interestingly it also shows that their previous address at 7 Broad Street (now Elizabeth Street) was literally only round the corner from Horsleydown Lane. 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 LANE MAP (3)Horsleydown in Horwood’s Map of London, circa 1800

Horsley Down RoqueHorsleydown 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 lansdcape 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. 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 William’s 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 (in Lambeth), but has also been replicated to a lesser extent in the area south of Tower Bridge. 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.

P1050069Renovated Victorian Warehouses, Shad Thames, Horsleydown

GOLDEN HINDE 1 (3)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_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569Joris 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).

HorseyeDown1544-399x600 (2)

A few months ago, while looking through slide film of our family visits to London in the early 1970s, I came across the image (below) of my sister and myself, taken by my father,  which inadvertantly captures the area of Horsleydown behind us. It brought back memories of how much of the south bank of the Thames always looked like a different world in those days – dark hulking warehouses, many already closed up, lined the river, cranes jutting out over the water (still visible in the photograph). It seemed to me to represent another London – one that both fascinated and repelled me. I sometimes wished we could go over the bridge to discover what was on the other side for ourselves; however, just like Sir Walter Besant, in the quote at the beginning of this chapter, my father used to say that there was nothing to see there, which was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment.

But perhaps even then my ear was already straining to become attuned to the tiny vibrations of forgotten things.

TOWER BRIDGE 2

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2016

The Tailor of Horsleydown

Monday for wealth,

Tuesday for health,

Wednesday the best day of all;

Thursday for crosses,

Friday for losses,

Saturday no luck at all.

Anon

My family’s London story starts long before James Skelton’s winter-spring relationship with the poverty-stricken teenage single mother, Mary Ann Hawkins: a union which culminated in their marriage shortly before his death from bronchitis in 1867 (see Moments in Time). The story starts instead with another woman – and another family – in a narrow lane only a stone’s throw from the river Thames. And it is a very different story to that which was played out in Aldred Rd, a quarter of a century later.

When my great-great grandfather married his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, in Bermondsey, three years into the reign of George 4th, the couple were not yet in their mid-twenties. They took their oaths at St John’s Church, in the parish of Horsleydown on Tuesday 14th October, 1823, after a summer which had been one of the coolest since observations began in 1659. Thanks to the meticulous records of Luke Howard (the ‘godfather of clouds’), we know that their special day was one which was relatively mild for the time of year – dry and sunny, but unmistakeably autumn, with a gentle breeze and a light scattering of yellowing leaves. As they crossed the churchyard, the earth damp under their feet from the previous day’s rain, I hope they paused for a moment in a shaft of sunlight and allowed themselves to feel a thrill at being alive at this time and place, unaware that they would have only a limited time together.

ST JOHNS

St John’s, Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckley

Despite the old rhyme, their choice of wedding day (Tuesday for health), did not bring the longevity they would have wished for. Twenty-five years later, Sarah would be struck down with an undiagnosed womb disease after raising their five children, precipitating the crisis that sent James in search of ‘fulfilment’ elsewhere. As I sit with their birth, marriage and death certificates, and those of their children and grandchildren, laid out before me like some macabre game of Happy Families, I feel privy to some horrible secret, imagining them arriving at St John’s, all nervous excitement, not knowing what is in store for them.

But on that mild Tuesday in 1823, the church was only 90 years old, and yet to be hit by a bomb in an unimaginable future war from the air, and the surrounding graveyard a long way off from becoming a recreation ground. To James and Sarah (if they did indeed give it a thought) the Hawksmoor church must have already seemed like an antiquity, albeit one that had become a local joke on account of the strange weather vane balanced on top of a tapering spire. This huge iron construction was meant to represent a comet whizzing through the heavens, but to the parish residents it reminded them instead of the wriggling body of a louse. Locally the church was often referred to as ‘St John’s Lousydown’, or simply ‘The Louse Church’. No doubt James and Sarah found it amusing – like everyone, they would have been familiar with the common problem of body lice, even if they did not suffer from it themselves – but to a time-traveller from the 21st century it would need a leap of the imagination to see the iron ‘comet’ morph into the six legs and oval body of a parasite they have rarely encountered.

Bombed St Js (2)St John’s Horsleydown, after bomb damage, 1940

Walking through the old churchyard today, all that remains of St John’s are the Grade 2 listed foundations and crypt, controversially built over in the 1970s and used as offices by the London City Mission. The once large graveyard is a rather dreary public park, frequented by dog walkers, and pram-pushing mother, while some of the last remaining headstones lean forlornly against the foundations of the church. This is, however, not a recent development. Due to the relatively large grounds, the churchyard has been used off and on as a public park since the summer of 1882, when the Illustrated London News reported that headstones were taken up and placed against a wall at the end of the ground, while paths and flowerbeds were laid, and principle walks are shaded by noble trees, beneath which seats are placed.

P1030771 (2)

ST JOHN'S TODAY.JPGThe foundations of St John’s Horsleydown, today

Sarah’s brother and his wife, newly married themselves, were the official witnesses to the wedding, which in keeping with the traditions of the day would have been a low-key event, with the participants in their Sunday best. Whenever I try to imagine Sarah and James walking up the wide stone steps to the church, I cannot help but see them in typical late-regency outfits: Sarah in a still fashionable high-waisted dress, with bonnet, gloves and shawl; James in a smart dark dress coat and waistcoat, his legs encased in the new style of long trousers (all of which he probably made himself). Covering his youthful hair is a top hat made by a local Bermondsey hatter and possible friend. Sarah may have been congratulating herself on marrying such a smart young man who knew the latest cut of cloth and had attained the rank of a master tailor, thus giving him the freedom to set up his own business where he was able to take on apprentices.

Tailoring was, however, a relatively common profession at the time, with most (like James) having their business in the local communities which they served. Notions of segregating work from home were relatively new, and similarly to many skilled artisans, records show that James lived ‘over the shop’. In fact, the whole family would have been involved in the business in various ways, from running messages, to greeting customers, and their young live-in domestic servant would have been a much-needed help for Sarah – especially once the babies came along. This spot by the Thames  was where the family were to stay for almost twenty years before their move out of an increasingly industrialised area to the more genteel semi-rural suburb of Brixton in the mid-1840s.

horsleydown-1830-gif.gifHorsleydown Lane and environs, 1830

As soon as I discovered the existence of this second ‘lost’ Skelton family, I was off to London to visit the evocatively-sounding Horsleydown Lane and surroundings to see whether I could discover any traces of the old neighbourhood for myself. This was the first time I had been back to the capital to do any ‘fieldwork’ since my last foray into south London in 1992, and a low-simmering excitement infused me as I crossed the windy Millennium Bridge (for the first time) over to the South Bank. It was an area I remembered from the early 80s, when the much debated dockside developments were underway and the whole riverside was beginning to take on a different character.

Before my visit to the capital I had already put in some of the groundwork and knew that Horsleydown Lane still existed – it had escaped the demolishment to which other nearby roads had succumbed during the building of Tower Bridge in the 1890s – but I still had no idea of what it would look like in the 21st century.

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge Rd with Horsleydown Lane on the right (circa 1900)

It is a strange feeling to walk through streets where your ancestors once set foot, moving ever closer to the place where for better or worse they carved out a living. In Horsleydown some things would not have changed – the old watermen’s stairs at the foot of the lane where the great tidal river covered and uncovered the slipway twice a day; the glimpse of the imposing White Tower from that precarious spot; the Anchor Tap, still with beer on tap, and having possibly survived so long by virtue of being a neighbourhood necessity. But many things had changed, too – the lane’s other pub (the wonderfully named The Cod Smack) had long gone, as had the 18th century house in which the ‘lost’ children of James’ first family had spent their formative years.

In some ways I was disappointed that so much from that time now ceased to exist, but in other ways I was delighted to come across unexpected tangible reminders of the family’s life. For most family historians the bright moments of discovery are always tinged with a regret for what had once been, and what might have remained to tell the tales of previous lives. But sometimes this enthusiasm for the past can overcome reason, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything old as ‘authentic’ while overlooking the fact that many such buildings had actually replaced much earlier ones.

I had to remind myself that the elegant Victorian warehouses on the west side of the street had necessitated the destruction of a row of 18th century brick houses mirroring the ones on the east side where the Skeltons had lived.  And that the  impressive buildings of the old Anchor Brewery (now private flats) had themselves been built on the site of the original wooden brewhouse (burnt down in 1891 ) that James and Sarah would have recognised. The cobblestones on Horsleydown Lane would have, however, continued to reverberate with the clatter of the drayhorses and their waggons throughout the century and beyond (just seen in the photograph above), until the final demise of workhorses in the mid-twentieth century.

P1030732 (2)

ANCHOR BREWHOUSE (2)

Now Horsleydown Lane is relatively silent, as visitors tend not to wander much from the river and the heritage thoroughfare of Shad Thames, and the main noise is the thrum of traffic on the parallel Tower Bridge Road. Even reminding myself that this busy road and its eponymous bridge are relative newcomers to the area needs a leap of the imagination. More often than not, I find that while on these ‘ground searches’ my ways of viewing the past start to shift under my feet, bringing new perspectives

Popping into the welcoming Anchor Tap for an impulsive mid-afternoon pint, I feel even more confused – time seems to telescope as I step into a series of interlinking rooms where fashionably dark Victorian colour schemes are the order of the day. The friendly barman encourages me to look around the place, intrigued by my genealogical search, and as I move through the pleasing muddle of rooms and head up the narrow twisting staircase to the (now deserted) dining room, I experience the uncanny sensation of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. All at once I realise that they too would have  struggled with the demands of such steep stairs (which maximised precious space). They would have gazed out over the neighbourhood from their upstairs windows, and would have known exactly all the places in the house where the floorboards had come loose, where the walls and ceilings of their rooms sloped unevenly, and where the dustballs chose to accumulate.

ANCHOR TAP

ANCHOR TAP STAIRS

ANCHOR TAP (BACK)

Walking out of the dark pub afterwards, I instinctively blink and narrow my eyes in the bright spring sunshine. For a  moment I can almost imagine that I have stepped into the bustling street of  the 1830s. The brewers, the corn merchants, the watermen, the mariners; they are all busy rushing to and from the river. I pace up and down the lane alongside them, trying to summon up their ghosts. But the shouts of a group of Saturday afternoon revellers spilling out of the pub cut through space and time, and I turn to head back towards the riverside, seeking out the peaceful oasis of the old watermen’s stairs.

I sit there for a while, watching the Thames as it surges and swirls its way up river, past the neo-Gothic wonder of Tower Bridge. Tourists pose for photographs above me, occasionally throwing me a quizical glance, as if they are surprised to see me down here so close to the water. I feel safe here – away from the fray and yet still part of the unfolding scenes of the capital on a warm spring weekend. The thought occurs to me that I myself am like a ghost – a ghost from the future trying to find a way to reach back into the past.

HORSLEYDOWN OLD STAIRS

ANCHOR BREWERY TODAYHorsleydown Old Stairs at the old Anchor Brewery, Horsleydown

Then suddenly it strikes me that the Tower of London, partially seen from those algae-covered steps, would not have changed over the years that separated me from my ancestors. My great-great grandfather, James, would have waited on this same slippery spot for a penny ride over the river from his favourite waterman. He most likely also felt in awe of the ancient building across the water that symbolised the power of the city he now called home. He would have known the same legend about the ravens of the tower and passed it on to his children – in the same way my  father had told me the story as a child. And at that moment I felt as if the centuries had just rolled back to connect us.

THE WHITE TOWER

 To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2016

Moments in Time

With luck, you may find an immobile ancestral family, living half a century in one place. In the space of an afternoon in your library, you can observe them in a succession of census returns. It is hard to bring to mind that the family snapshots you uncover – 1841, 1851 and so on – are moments in time. They tell you nothing of the intervening years of economic slump, ill health, bereavement, day-to-day grind and routine of life in the un-centrally heated and outside toileted 19th century.

Andrew Todd Basic Sources for Family History 1987

When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, married Elizabeth Holton in the summer of 1880, not only was his pregnant bride unable to write her name, but the twenty-one year-old Arthur did not know the occupation of his deceased father. This comes as no surprise – James Skelton was sixty when his second-youngest son was born, and already retired from his profession as a master tailor. When he died from a severe bout of bronchitis in 1867, Arthur had only just turned eight – and as the years passed the memories of his elderly father would have become more difficult to recall, kept alive perhaps through the stories of his much younger mother and older siblings.

Elizabath and Arthur

I often wonder whether the rather feckless life that Arthur seemed to have led was partly due to the early loss of his father, which put the focus of the family on survival, leaving scant opportunity for self-improvement. Arthur and Elizabeth’s relatively poverty-stricken life, which culminated in Elizabeth’s demise from  cirrhosis of the liver in 1895, and the death of their youngest child from malnutrition shortly afterwards, appears to have been blighted from the start (see The Two Arthurs). And yet I had never really questioned this before – it seemed to be a fairly average life history for the period, given their class and background. But years later, when the internet allowed me to dig a little deeper, I found out something that hinted at the possibility of a very different path that could have been taken.

What Arthur probably never knew was that for the first forty years of his life he had had a much older half-brother from his father’s first marriage, who was a successful merchant in the West Indies. Also called James (like his father), he had grown so wealthy through his dealings in mahogany in British Honduras (now Belize), that by the time Arthur was born he could have easily given him and his other half-siblings more than a little nudge in the right direction. However, it seems that James William chose not to acknowledge these children of his father’s second, embarrassing marriage; while at the same time his own boys attended Cheam, then Eton and finally Oxford, hobnobbing with the good and the great along the way.

And what Arthur might also not have realised was that his father, James Skelton, had actually been born a Yorkshireman, taking his first breath among the sheep-covered dales on the last year of the old century. By the time he died in Kennington in 1867, the predominantly rural life into which he’d been born had given way to the Age of Empire and Steam. Over the course of his lifetime he saw his adopted home in South London lose its last remaining garden nurseries, ropeways and tentergrounds to new industries and railways, while the children of his first marriage moved to far-flung corners of the empire in search of wealth and power.

He also witnessed his stable home life derailed by two catastrophes in the late 1840s: the death of his first wife, Sarah, after twenty-three years of marriage, followed two years later by the loss of his eldest daughter, poignantly named Margaret Sarah, after his mother and wife respectively, and possibly the child with whom he was closest. These twin ‘disasters’ precipitated what I now believe was some kind of mid-life breakdown, Victorian style. In the spirit of the era, the fifty year-old James ran full pelt into the comforting arms of a teenage single mother – a young woman who, to later generations, would seem to have walked right out of the pages of a Dickens novel. From her name (Mary-Ann Hawkins), to her background – born in 1830 in the Queenhithe dockside district of the City to unmarried teenage parents who ended up in the workhouse along with her younger siblings – to her rather ambiguous profession of ‘needlewoman’, she oozes mid-Victorian melodrama, and is one of the characters in the family story in whom I am most fascinated.

QUEENHITHE

QUEENHITHE NOW
Queenhithe dock (on the north shore) then and now (with ghost dock remains)

When I first came across Arthur’s parents in the 1861 census at 35 Aldred Road, I naively took the enumerator’s information at face value: that Mary-Ann Hawkins was the young widowed housekeeper to the elderly widower, James Skelton, with her own family of five in tow (the youngest, Sidney, was not yet born). Not only did the children all carry their mother’s surname, but it had even been noted on the census return that these were the children of the housekeeper NOT James Skelton, the retired tailor. So I naturally assumed that there was a chance that our family were in fact a branch of the Hawkins family, causing much merriment (including terrible pirate impersonations) among my close relatives. However, as I slowly gathered the birth certificates of their children together, the true picture of James and Mary-Ann’s relationship came out from the shadows of the census.

More recent research has confirmed what I eventually suspected to be true – that between the 1851 and 1861 censuses Mary-Ann was giving birth to James Skelton’s second set of children, possibly in secret from his other adult children, at various rather seedy locations throughout The Borough. Until Arthur and Sidney (who was also mistakenly christened Arthur!) arrived and the family were established at Aldred Road near Kennington Park for almost half a century (making me one of the lucky researchers mentioned by Andrew Todd above), it appeared that James continued to live with his grown-up unmarried daughters in his much grander family home in Brixton. It was not until 1864 that the 65 year-old James – perhaps aware his time was running out – made his relationship to the 34 year-old Mary-Ann legal, turning all six children into Skeltons in one fell swoop.

Arthur and Sidney’s birth certificates were what eventually led  me to the Hawkins-Skelton family at Aldred Rd, their details caught on paper by the 1861 census. As I have already pointed out, in those days it was impossible to search for a census return unless you had an address, unlike today where a name search can suffice. I had thus never been able to find my great-great-grandfather, James Skelton, previously to 1861 – and had spent hours in the public records office in Chancery Lane poring over the microfiche of the Newington  census returns in the hope of locating him living somewhere in the district.

When years later I finally found him in 1851, he was officially living at Sutherland Terrace (part of Coldharbour Lane) in Brixton, with two of his unmarried daughters and a general domestic servant. Jumping back yet another decade, he was ensconced in Horsleydown Lane in Bermondsey, a stone’s throw from the river, with his full quota of family around him: his wife, Sarah; four daughters; and his son, James William, (plus the inevitable domestic servant). Further research filled in the gaps between the censuses, but the general pattern was one of upward mobility. In fact, in the late 1840s, when James was faced with the two deaths that changed the course of his life, he had already moved his tailoring business to more lucrative premises at East Cheap in the City.

The late Georgian house in quiet semi-rural Brixton into which James (no doubt proudly) moved his family in 1844, was much grander than the small 18th century terrace house by the Thames, where they had lived for almost twenty years while James built up his tailoring business in a shop below their living quarters. The first census returns for the poetically named Horsleydown Lane in 1841 show that many of the residents made their living from the river – often working as mariners, waterman or lightermen, while in Coldharhour Lane (a name now unfortunately associated with the 1981 Brixton riots)  the householders mostly earned their incomes from  trading and working in the City,  as well as the new middle-class professions, such as teaching and accountancy. And not only had their neighbours’ status changed with the move, but  the noise and chaos of the nearby Anchor Brewery in Horsleydown had been replaced by the peacefulness of Brixton’s market gardens – including a  large cabbage field in front of  their house, which was not developed on until much later in the century, and a relatively large garden of their own to tend at the rear of the dwelling.

HOUSE _BERM (2)
A similar 18th century  house in Bermondsey today
COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)
James Skelton’s old house in Coldharbour Lane today

Aldred Road in Walworth certainly appears to be a backwards move for the middle-aged James,  whose  Brixton residence was officially named ‘Crichton House’ (although perhaps not by himself). Not only was there no extra domestic help, but there were the six hungry mouths to feed, and all the time the critical gaze of his successful adult children would have been upon him (who no doubt looked disparagingly at their father’s non-legal set-up with a woman younger even than themselves). And while these children had been encouraged to clamber out of their class through hard work, education and shrewd marriages, their father had in effect thrown away everything he had spent his lifetime working  for in order to bring up this second family of wild little Cockney kids, none of whom he would see grow to adulthood.

Throughout his father’s later years, and even after his death, the upwardly-mobile James William insisted on refering to James Skelton as a ‘gentleman from Brixton’ in what I believe was most likely a willing attempt to obscure the last two decades of his father’s life and blot out the existence of the widowed Mary-Ann and ‘those other children’.

Aldred Rd. (2)
Aldred Rd, circa 1916

This is obviously a complex and sensitive story, of which more details will emerge later. But in many ways I am very proud of my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, for defying convention to stick by his much younger lover, who he could just have easily discarded at some point between the censuses. Aldred Road may not have had quite the same cachet of ‘Crichton House’ in Brixton, or the lively qualities of riverside Horsleydown, but it certainly gave those six Hawkins-Skelton children the chance of a stable family home for as long as possible, turning them into the ‘immobile ancestral family’ quoted at the start, very few of which are to be found among the Victorian urban working population. 

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2016

A Rose in Holly Park

As in 1882, the largest shopping area is Whetstone High Road, with several blocks of shops, including multiple stores, public houses, and offices, most of them modern. The rest of the parish is covered mainly by commuters’ semi-detached houses. Some of the Victorian and Edwardian terraces in Holly Park are decaying and others are divided into flats, but most are structurally sound. Friern Barnet Lane, bordered by Friary park and the golf course, is the least populous part; with grass verges, it still seems rural, despite the felling of trees in the churchyard and in front of the alms-houses.

 T F T Baker and C R Elrington (ed), A History of the County of Middlesex: Vol 6, Friern Barnet, Finchley, Hornsey with Highgate (1980)

In January 1985, when I began my short-lived career as an heir-hunter (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I finally moved into my first London flat with a friend from my university days. It was on the top-floor of a red brick, ex-council house  in Whetstone, so far out on the Northern Line that it was practically in Hertfordshire. This was not an ideal location – even walking back and forwards to the doll-like Victorian train station of Totteridge and Whetstone took at least half an hour out of every day. But after having endured several weeks of exhausting accommodation searches, courtesy of the ‘To Let’ section in the Evening Standard, I was extremely grateful to have found a place at all. And the £70 a week rent (£35 each) was just within our range, even though it ate into a large chunk of our weekly pay cheques.
HOBART CLOSE (2)
The top-floor flat at Hobart Close today

Like many such opportunities, it came through ‘a friend of a friend’ who had inherited the house on the death of his grandmother. The boxy flat was a veritable time warp, complete with the original late 1920s bathroom and kitchen fittings, some of which would not look out of place in the pages of Period Homes today. Although there was no central heating (a definite disadvantage to the retro look), the living room had the original open fireplace and tiled hearth with mantelpiece. This ‘feature’ was very cosy in winter, but of course the grate needed cleaning and setting every evening before the room could feel even vaguely warm. However, despite the hardships – doing the washing in the bath certainly qualified as another – I loved my first proper grown-up home.

And one day, when I was out shopping along Whetstone High Road, I discovered a way into the countryside right on my doorstep which felt almost as magical as falling through the back of a dusty wardrobe into Narnia. This was Totteridge Lane. Thirty odd years ago it still felt like a rural backwater, and walking up to the hamlet of Totteridge and beyond was akin to slipping back in time to when London’s growth was stopped in its tracks by the green-belt regulations. The walk was further enhanced by the discovery of the Rising Sun pub at the Mill Hill end – and more surprisingly a return bus service from there to Arnos Grove via Whetstone, which enabled an easy ride home after a visit to the pub.

The Rising Sun
The Rising Sun, circa 1900

In the 1980s, the Rising Sun still functioned as a traditional pub and had an original snug bar which felt like the kind of place  the characters of a Thomas Hardy novel would patronise (I was going through a Hardy phase then). The whole area, with its millponds and weatherboard ccttages, commons and village church, fed into my   fantasy about the southern English countryside, encouraged by my reading of Hardy and my father’s tales of life in Somerset during the evacuation. And a couple of times when life in London depressed me so much that I could not even bear to take the train to work, I phoned in sick and headed off to walk the fields and lanes of the Totteridge/Mill Hill green belt instead, allowing nature to restore me.

P1050476 (2)
Cottage, Totteridge
totteridge church (2)
St Andrew’s Church, Totteridge
views at totteridge (2)
Green belt views, Totteridge

But my long hike along the lane for a pint at the Rising Sun (now a popular Italian restaurant) was at the end of a day’s sojourn in the footprints of some ‘rogue’ ancestors who had ended up exchanging south London for north of the river. What I had not known in 1985 was that less than twenty years previously my grandfather’s older sister had also lived – and died – in Whetstone, a five minute walk away from my flat at Hobart Close. Just one of the many coincidences which I have come across while researching my family history.

Rose – christened the enchanting Rosina Lilian – was named after her maternal aunt, Rosina Holton, and was the oldest daughter of Arthur and Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton). The five Holton sisters (the product of two different fathers) seem to have been close throughout their lives and beyond. Sometime after Elizabeth’s death in 1895, her two daughters, Rosina and Elizabeth jnr, went to live with two of their maternal aunts as domestic servants, an arrangement that was no doubt beneficial to both parties. When the widower Arthur remarried the widow Harriet Pushman (née Wales) the following year, there were four extra children to take on board, and the adolescent Rose and Elizabeth were perhaps relieved to get away from the new family set-up. In any case, they had completed their compulsory schooling by then and would have needed to find work somewhere.

At least Rose and Elizabeth had attended school, however peripatetically. Their mother had had no formal education and had been unable to sign her marriage certificate in 1880, putting a cross instead. It may seem shocking today that no-one was able to teach her how to even write her own name. However, Elizabeth snr. and her contemporaries might have been equally surprised to learn that large numbers of future generations of young women would not even have basic needlework skills, or would be unable to skin a rabbit.

While Elizabeth jnr went to stay with Aunt Louise in Camberwell, Rose ended up in Holly Park Road in Friern Barnet (then predominantly rural), to live with her Aunt Emma, who had married a Bedfordshire-born farm carter, George Kidman. The Kidmans had four children, and presumably Rose helped to take care of her younger cousins as well as carrying out her household chores. Possibly Rose had the better deal as Emma had a much smaller family than her older sister Louise (who had eleven children). 

Unsurprisingly, Rose eventually met a local boy, George Ryall (a plasterer), and married him in 1905 while expecting their first child, also setting up home in Holly Park Road, where she was to spend the best part of the rest of her long life. Sadly, her Aunt Emma never had the chance to attend the wedding as she  was dead by 1902. However, one year later George Kidman remarried (a pattern that was repeated with all the Holton sisters’ marriages, apart from with Rose’s namesake, Rosina). But I was heartened to discover that Rose’s older brother Arthur and step-sister Harriet Pushman came up from Thornton Heath to be the witnesses. And in December of the same year, when Rose had already given birth to her first daughter – Nellie Rosina, she and George travelled to Thornton Heath to witness Arthur and Harriet’s own wedding.

Having never explored Friern Barnet when I lived in Whetsone, I was excited to be finally heading out to see where Rose and Emma had lived, taking the Picadilly line from Central London to Arnos Grove (a station I had sometimes used in my Whetstone days). At the turn of the century, Friern Barnet would still have had a village feel, despite the relatively new brick terraces which had sprung up (of which Holly Park Road was one) near to the railway station at New Southgate (Colney Hatch) on the Great Northern Line. However, today the area is very much part of the north London urban conglomeration and walking along Friern Barnet Road it was difficult to imagine how quiet it must have felt at the end of the 19th century. Despite its evocative name and the fact that it was tucked away behind the main road, almost free of traffic, Holly Park Rd reminded me of its sister streets in south London. Here were the same Victorian terraces beloved of Arthur and Elizabeth, some of the houses now looking rather shabby and neglected (although several were in various stages of gentrification).

Holly Park Road 1915

HOLLY PARK RD
Holly Park Rd then (1915) and now

But my disappointment soon turned to delight as I headed into Friern Barnet Lane towards Whetstone and the house in Church Crescent where Rose had died at the great age of 86. For on that bright spring morning I stumbled across a site that gladdened my soul as much as the early daffodils nodding at the side of the road: namely, the beautiful church of St James the Great. Now used by the Greek Orthodox Community, the church and surrounding churchyard is in a setting almost as rural as that of St Andrew’s Church in Totteridge Lane – a reminder of how Friern Barnet Lane might once have looked like before it was widened and developed in the 1920s.

friern barnet lane 1900- horse (2)
Friern Barnet Lane, circa 1900 (c) The Friern Barnet Photo Archive

What excited me in particular as I pushed  open the wooden gate and stepped between the yew trees which guarded the entrance to the churchyard, was the knowledge that this bucolic spot was where Rose’s Aunt Emma had been interred in 1902 – along with her little boy, who had died as an infant in 1892 (and was buried just two days before her sister Elizabeth gave birth to my grandfather, Sidney). Perhaps even more thrilling for a direct descendant like myself, it was also the final resting place of Francis Holton, Rose’s grandfather (and thus one my own great-great -grandfathers).

churchyard (2)

St James (2)

church
St James the Great, Friern Barnet

When Francis Holton’s second wife died at Royal Terrace, Kennington Park, in 1887, from exhaustion and bronchitis (did that pesky oil of vitriol factory play a role in her demise?), he went to spend the last four years of his life at Holly Park Rd with his daughter Emma and her family. I have always been fascinated by Francis Holton, who was named after his father – a Westminster butcher, even though as a non-Skelton he is slightly out of my research orbit. Not only is he in possession of such an elegant-sounding name, but when his daughter Elizabeth was born in 1859 he listed his occupation as Labourer at Buckingham Palace. At that time the Holtons also lived in Westminster at 4 Belvoir Terrace, Vauxhall Bridge Rd. Surprisingly, the late Georgian houses in this very busy (and grimy) road are still standing, and are now listed buildings.

Belvoir Terrace
Georgian Houses, Vauxhall Bridge Rd

I have often wondered whether Francis was involved in putting in the new sewers in the palace, a move precipitated by ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858. On the death of his wife in 1887, he was described as a ‘Board of Works Labourer’. This organisation was set up in 1855 to provide London with the infrastructure badly needed to support its rapid growth, and was involved in constructing some 2100 km of sewage tunnels under the city, including Buckingham Palace. A year later, in 1888, it became officially known as the London County Council (LCC). However, in 1881, on Elizabeth’s marriage certificate (where she put an X in place of her name), his occupation is given as ‘porter’. So perhaps his involvement with the Metropolitan Board of Works was rather precarious in nature and these brief descriptions of his employment cannot readily be joined up to make a coherent history.

Sadly, Francis Holton’s grave and that of his daughter and baby grandson are no longer to be found amongst the decaying headstones, many of which have now succumbed to ivy and bramble vines, and it is doubtful whether any of their descendants past the subsequent generation even knew such graves existed. However, the topic of Victorian grave searches is one to which I will return in a future chapter where I will recount the discovery of a Skelton family plot in Nunhead Cemetry, the knowledge of which was hidden (for reasons which will soon be revealed) from Arthur snr and his descendants.

graves (2)
The graveyard at St James the Great, Friern Barnet

But what of Rose, the eponymous heroine of this chapter? My aunt has always been under the impression that Rose was one of the last Skelton children, and had died relatively young. She once wrote that: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when your father and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!

My father also vaguely remembered an Aunt Rose as a rather glamorous woman in a fur coat who came to visit them with gifts. As he was born in 1928, this must have been in the 1930s, when Rose Ryall would have been in her 50s. One plausible explanation is that their Aunt Rose was actually bringing them the cast off toys of her own children (the last of whom was born in 1923). Perhaps to a child’s eye she appeared younger and more glamorous than her years – although this does not explain the apocryphal story of her rather gruesome death. Another explanation is that she was not their aunt at all, but a family friend named Rose who had been confused in their young minds with their namesake aunt.

Like the mystery of the doorstep foundling Nell, (see The Two Arthurs), I am prone to while away countless unproductive hours trying to get to the truth of the story. And that is one of the reasons why I have committed myself to this genealogy project. By pulling disparate threads together in order to create a coherent narrative, I hope to see connections and patterns that I might otherwise have missed. This is an approach I would recommend to anyone attempting to put meat on the bones of a skeleton family history. There is no point in waiting until all the questions have been neatly answered as that time will never come!

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2016

The Two Arthurs

London City, like British rule in India, has drawn all. But it is the southern side of the river that offers the most extraordinary contrast to what it presents in our time. In 1833 the only portion that was laid out in streets and houses and might be considered ‘town’ was the portion comprised within the curve of the river, and bounded by a line drawn from Lambeth Palace to Newington, and ending at Bermondsey. Outside this “pale”, as we might call it, all lay open . . . Between Vauxhall Gardens and Lambeth Palace was an open tract, which spread away to Newington Butts and Kennnington, whose “common” was then unenclosed. It is extraordinary to contrast with this the densely populated streets that in a short space of time have since spread over these regions.

Percy Fitzgerald, Victoria’s London: The Suburbs (c.1890)

view of gipsy hill.JPGSouth London (Gipsy Hill) today

My great-great grandfather, Arthur Skelton, was born in Southwark in 1859, and grew up in a newly built terraced house near to Kennington Park (part of the former Kennington Common), and within sniffing distance of the wonderfully named Messrs Farmers Oil of Vitriol Manufactory (see A Tale of Two Parks). Perhaps it was the sulphurous gases which hastened Arthur’s elderly father’s end from bronchitis; or perhaps James Skelton’s death at 67 (when Arthur was only eight) was simply brought on from decades of living in ‘London over the river’, and of breathing in the fumes of coal fires, smelting houses, tanneries, glue factories and all the other noxious emissions which were the unfortunate by-product of 19th century ‘progress’. 

The house in Kennington is no longer there – it survived the Blitz but not the post-war development of the area – and in its place are blocks of flats, part of the pioneering Brandon Estate of the sixties. Number 35 Aldred Road was, however, like every other house in the terrace: a simple two-storey brick building, flush against the pavement. A road which, in its turn, would have been similar to other streets in the neighbourhood. Walking through south London on a grey winter’s day with Charles Booth’s 1899 poverty maps in one hand, and an A to Z of London in the other, I find myself criss-crossing roads and terraces and avenues which seem unchanged from that era: places where Arthur and his siblings later lived as tenants, often for less than a year at a time.

The only thing that marks many of these streets out as belonging to the 21st century are satellite dishes, wheelie bins and parked cars – and the lack of Victorian window dressing, something which Booth and his social investigators obviously considered an important detail. When describing nearby Lorrimer Road, Booth’s assistant, George Henry Duckworth, mentions disparagingly that there was not a flower at any window, but then adds China pots with overgrown ferns in front windows. In another Kennington street of predominantly costermongers, he states that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. Perhaps if Duckworth had touted the streets with a female companion he might have gained a better insight into the semiotics of Victorian window dressing, but as it is, his comments add some splashes of real brightness to the sometimes confusing colour-coded street maps.

However, Charles Booth’s 1899 map may not be of much use when it comes to the earlier social make-up of Aldred Road in the 1860s. Streets in the capital are liable to change class of resident almost overnight. Factories or a railway move in and the better tenants seek to move further out. At the time of Booth’s survey, when Arthur’s youngest brother, Sidney, was living at number 35 with his growing family, Aldred Road ranged from faded pink (Mixed. Some comfortable, others poor), perhaps indicating a neighbourhood in decline.

By then the sulphuric acid factory had been pulled down to make way for St Agnes’ Church (unfortunately destroyed in WW), so there had at least been some improvements to the area. During the 1870s and 80s, many of the street’s residents (including two of Arthur’s sisters) worked as machinists at William Robinson’s Bootmakers at number 37 Aldred Road, conveniently located next door to the Skelton household. The bootmakers was a family concern which had been there from the street’s early days, so it is perhaps safe to say that the neighbourhood had always been predominantly working class, but with a mixed group of inhabitants.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Kennington, c1916

THE BRANDON ESTATE (2)The Brandon Estate today, site of Aldred Road, Kennington

At the end of the 19th century, while Arthur’s brother Sidney was subletting part of 35 Aldred road from their widowed mother for several shillings a week, Arthur and his second wife, Harriet, were moving around south london with their shared brood. In 1901 the census showed them living at Rommany Road in Gipsy Hill, close to where my grandparents lived in the late 1930s (see I Remember, I Remember). I sometimes wonder whether my grandfather specifically chose to relocate to that area because of having spent part of his childhood there. Today the romantic-sounding Gipsy Hill (named after the Roma population of the great Nor’wood) has a relaxed leafy village vibe, with a mixture of period housing much sought after by young families.

Romanny Rd (2)

Romanny RoadRommany Road, Gipsy Hill (with ghost sign)

Arthur’s oldest child, also called Arthur, ended up marrying his step-sister, Harriet, thus creating the oddly named partnership of Arthur jnr and Harriet jnr. They eventually set up home at Thornton Heath, near to where Arthur snr and Harriet snr had moved. This relocation was no doubt precipitated by the growth of the railways and cheaper housing, and is an area where several descendants of Arthur jnr still live: relations that had not known of my existence until the internet brought us together after posting identical family trees on-line. 

I consider myself particularly lucky to have made contact with Richard Skelton, one of Arthur jnr’s grandsons, who was able to furnish me with copies of several family photographs. I was pleased to see that the jovial-sounding (according to Richard and other relatives) Arthur jnr definitely had a ‘Skelton look’ about him – especially around the eyes. But it was the image below of Harriet jnr and her three eldest children which I found the most haunting. Taken in 1915, several months after her husband had enlisted with the Royal West Surrey Regiment, it most likely marked the christening of the latest arrival, baby Peter (Richard’s father). Whatever the occasion, it had no doubt been meant as a keepsake for Arthur jnr, who was active on the Western Front from 1915-17, before being captured by the Germans and taken as a prisoner of war – an event which may have saved his life.

Harriet Skelton and children (3)Harriet Skelton jnr and children, Thornton Heath, 1915 (c) R. Skelton

Harriet’s gaze pierces the photograph (for me this is the punctum of the image – see Those Ghostly Traces), while the children seem to radiate the healthy good looks of future generations. After Arthur jnr returned from Germany in 1919, there were two more additions to the family, before Harriet sadly died from breast cancer in 1925 at the age of forty. This left Arthur jnr with five children to bring up on his own, mirroring the experience of his father, thirty years previously. However, unlike Arthur snr, he did not remarry, but instead presided over a chaotic but functioning household, which included the widow of his brother James (who was killed in WW1) and her daughter (who was deemed to have learning difficulties), in addition to a ‘doorstep foundling’! Perhaps this arrangement suited them all well, as James’ widow, Dolly (or Aunt Doll, as she was fondly remembered as), kept house for them all in addition to looking after the children. In fact, when Florence (the little girl pictured above) died of fever after the birth of her first child, it would appear that Aunt Doll brought up the infant until the father remarried.

Amy_Louis_Skelton(Aunt_Doll)_Raye_Seagraves_outside_22_Elm_Road_001 (3)Aunt Doll and great niece, Elm Rd, 1950 (c) R. Skelton

Despite the fact that we have yet to have our mooted ‘reunion’, I am extremely grateful to my Croydon cousins for filling in some of the gaps in the history of the 20th century Skeltons, in which the two Arthurs played some of the leading roles. From these previously unknown relatives I have heard about numerous family births, marriages and deaths. I have heard, too, about a small brick terraced house next to a railway line where the tea cups rattled in their saucers whenever the steam trains roared past. A house where a middle-aged woman with so-called learning difficulties sat sewing in a recess under the stairs, while chickens clucked and scratched around in the back yard.

This same house in Elm Road was the place my aunt remembered from thirty years before this, when she visited her Skelton cousins in Thornton Heath as a child in the 1930s. My grandfather was close to his brother Arthur jnr (no doubt after losing their other brothers in the war), so the families often met up on Sunday afternoons. However, I know my grandmother was not best pleased when Sidney once took my father and aunt over to Thornton Heath without her, then left them with their cousins on the steps of the local pub while he and Arthur were imbibing. Interestingly, this was something the children recalled fondly in later life due to the fact they were given crisps and lemonade – a special treat in those days.

My aunt also had positive memories of spending holidays with her cousins and being given a farthing for pocket-money while there, and (as one of the youngest) washing last in the tin bath. She also mentioned that: It was there that I learnt to ride a bike and was told the facts of life before I was ten. Twice she was a bridesmaid at the weddings of her older female cousins, and remembered that when the ice-cream van came round Uncle Arther said: Here’s half a crown – give them all wafers! (As these cost tuppence each, they were normally too expensive to buy).

Arthur_Skelton(on_right)_and_unknown_gentleman_001 (3)Arthur jnr (right) with unknown man at a wedding (c) R. Skelton

By the time of his death from bronchitis in 1930 at the age of 71, Arthur snr had been widowed twice (Harriet snr had died in 1923), and was head of a large family which included his step-children and countless grandchildren. Perhaps it was the untimely death of his step-daughter/daughter-in-law, Harriet jnr, or perhaps it was just simple geography, but it seems that Grandad Arthur spent his final years living near to his son, Arthur jnr, and his family, at what my aunt called ‘the other house’ (the family rented two houses near to each other in Elm Road, Thornton Heath).

Despite this part of the family history being in reach of living memory, there are still many questions to which I have no answers. For example: Who lived at ‘the other house’ in Elm Road with Grandad Arthur? And why, in the 1911 census, is he found to be still officially married, yet living at alone in a working man’s hostel with no sign of Harriet? And who exactly was the foundling Nell (Born Nellie Major), who later married a neighbour, Alf Cosstick, then quarrelled with my grandfather during the war, leading to the story of the lost toys (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)?

Does it really matter if these mysteries go unsolved? No family historian can reasonably expect to find an answer to everything, but it is often these missing facts that can niggle away at us, precisely because they are the details which give colour to the imaginary ‘lost’ family films inside our heads. There is one such film that I have of my grandfather and his brothers which I particularly like to replay, thanks to a letter my aunt wrote, in which she mentioned: Father used to tell tales of how he and his brothers used to walk from Peckham to Thornton Heath, presumably to take work for his father (a bootmaker). In those days it was all countryside. Not like the crowded streets of today.

Perhaps it was not quite the rural idyll as nostalgia would have my aunt or grandfather remember – after all, by 1900 a large proportion of the famous market gardens of Peckham had gone, and speculative development had already linked Croydon to London, swallowing up Thornton Heath in the process. but in comparison to today, it would have been a semi-rural route, the roads relatively quiet once away from the main thoroughfares. And the boys would most likely have made a point of finding the most interesting way home.

Peckham RyeHomestall Farm, Peckham Rye: demolished 1908

So I like to imagine my grandfather and his brothers, no doubt moaning about the long walks ahead of them, but unknowingly tramping by the last vestiges of the market gardens, farms and dairies of south London which had yet to be torn down or built over in the name of progress.

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2016

 

 

Of Lost Toys and Mothers

A family without secrets is rare indeed. People who live in families make every effort to keep certain things concealed from the rest of the world, and at times from each other as well. Things will be lied about, or simply never mentioned. Sometimes family secrets are so deeply buried that they elude the conscious awareness even of those most closely involved. From the involuntary amnesias of repression to the wilful forgetting of matters it might be less than convenient to recall, secrets inhabit the borderlands of memory. 

 Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (1995)

When I was a child, a vague sense of my father’s feelings of wartime ‘rootlessness’ was communicated to me by his reluctance to talk about his own childhood, and even to put names to the places where he’d lived. And he in turn was possibly affected by the silences kept by his parents about their own unsettled beginnings, which were marked by death and poverty – particularly in the case of my grandfather.

The theory of transgenerational ‘haunting’ (or cryptonomy) described by the psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok, may provide one answer for these silences. They believe that the hidden traumas of previous generations can affect the lives of their descendants, and that this knowledge is passed on through what is hidden or not said, rather than what is implicitly stated. The 2nd World War was certainly an uncanny time in history, being haunted by memories of the previous – and relatively recent – conflict, and would have revived negative memories for those who had lived through that time. It was only when I was older that I began to appreciate the fact that, like many of those born in the latter half of the 19th century, my grandparents had lived through two long periods of war, something which must have impacted on their lives in various ways.

Years later when my father returned to visit East Coker (where he was evacuated during the war: see In my Beginning is my End), he was disappointed and saddened by the experience and did not want to talk about it. The lane which led to Burton farm  – once a dirt track with one or two cottages – was now graced by a row of detached suburban-style houses, while the original village centre had expanded outwards to swallow other nearby lanes and hamlets. This does not detract from the intact feeling of the place for the modern visitor, but would represent major changes to someone who had waited almost half a century to return. Like his father before him, who did not recognise post-war Brixton, he could not easily reconcile this version of a more ‘sanitised’ East Coker with the one he had kept in his memory. And devoid of the people he had once known, the place might have given off the eerie feeling of being a simulacrum of the village he had once called home.

The Day They Took the Children

It was around this time that I, perhaps thoughtlessly, gave my father a book detailing the personal childhood experiences of the evacuation (The Day They Took the Children, by Ben Wicks), thinking it would be something in which he might be interested. Later I discovered that he had put it away, unread. The children’s evacuation had exerted a fascination for me ever since I’d watched the 1974 children’s BBC drama Carrie’s War, (based on the book by Nina Bawden), and I had always regarded it as something exciting – almost wishing I could have experienced it for myself, despite the hardships the story portrayed. And in some way my father’s time in Somerset had become entwined with those thoughts of escape and adventure.

One thing which happened at the time of the evacuation which I had heard about was the story of the lost toys. Growing up in a household full of practically every plaything I could reasonably wish for, this tale has always seemed especially poignant. Pieced together from shared memories, it concerns the day, relatively early on in the war, when my grandfather brought some of the furniture and belongings from the bombed house in West Norwood down to Somerset, travelling from the railway station in a pony and trap. When the children knew that their father was bringing their cherished possessions from the old house, they were in a great state of excitement at seeing their father and being reunited with their favourite things again. Alas, it was not to be. None of their toys were among the objects on the cart, including my father’s beloved fort and my aunt’s dolls’ house, both of which I believe had been made for them by my grandfather, who had a gift for working with wood. It turned out that Sidney had stored some of their belongings with relatives in Norwood with whom he had eventually quarrelled, and he had never been able to go back to fetch these items.

I often wonder what happened to those toys – which were no doubt greatly loved at a time when children had few playthings. I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a china doll bought in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

So it is little wonder that the one possession my father still had from his childhood was tucked away at the back of his section in my parents’ wardrobe, thus taking on a magical significance in my eyes. It was a book of fairy tales which had been given to him for Good Work and Conduct in 1936 while a pupil at Crawford Road School, situated round the corner from the house in Denmark Rd. It seemed strange to me then for an adult to keep a children’s book hidden away like that, and the moment our parents’ backs were turned my sister and I used to sneak the book out of the wardrobe, revisiting our particular favourite stories again and again. We enjoyed being spooked by the graphic descriptions of evil deeds and the accompanying evocative line drawings. Blue Beard and his Seven Wives was one story of which I never tired – and I would reread with relish the descriptions of the forbidden closet where Blue Beard’s ex-wives’ bodies were plastered against the walls. And as children we believed that the book had been hidden in order to protect us from reading about such horrific events.

Fairytales

Eventually it ended up in the hall bookcase – the pages had been so badly smeared with grease from our cake-eating fingers that there was little point in keeping it away from us any longer. But we were never admonished for ‘defacing’ the book (I had even scribbled over the dedication), whose first owner had kept in immaculate condition. Maybe there was a sense of liberation from the past when two living and irreverent children found joy anew in the gruesome tales? Thankfully the book survived intact, in part due to its special status, while its counterpart (my mother’s fairy tale book) at our McKay grandparents’ house did not.

This book was possibly my father’s link to his stable pre-war childhood – and had probably been a prized possession in a house that had few books (even as adults my parents never collected books in the same way my sister and I do, although we were certainly given plenty as children). This period in my father’s childhood seemed to have created the strongest memories, many of which I only know through my mother. I learned that the family had once had a pet dog called Ronnie, and had kept hens for a while; that Sidney rose early on cold mornings to light the fire before the family stirred, and that he could turn his hand to almost anything: he grew vegetables, made things from wood, and knitted intricate patterned woollens (a skill he had learned in the army).

The Swing that Grandad Skelton Made, 1968
Grandad (Sidney) Skelton looking for some DIY jobs to do: Ayr, 1967

For her part, my grandmother, Edith, was a very motherly woman who fussed over her brood to an extent that my father eventually found claustrophobic: the very fact that she kept them all together during the war is testament to her desire to give them a continued sense of family. In short, both my grandparents dedicated themselves to raising their three children, trying (perhaps even unconsciously) to give them the safe childhood that they themselves had lacked.

We know already that Edith lost her father at a relatively young age, and had also to move from her childhood home to less salubrious surroundings (see I Remember, I Remember), but what of Sidney? When I was doing my initial research in those far-away, pre-internet days I only had access to the census up until 1891, but once I was able to continue my search I had both the 1901 and 1911 census at my disposal. This data in turn threw up more avenues of research in the form of birth, marriages and death certificates, which in turn created more leads (such is the nature of genealogical research). Parish records – particularly for the London area – were now on-line, and school and workhouse registers could be viewed at the London Metropolitan Archives – before many of them eventually also became digitalised. And so it was that I was able to find out more about my grandfather’s beginnings.

It seems that Sidney Skelton was born on February 12th 1892 in part of a multi-occupancy house which the family rented at 78, Cator Street in Peckham (near the Old Kent Road and the now long-gone Surrey Canal). He was the fifth child to a working-class couple in their early thirties – his father Arthur was a journeyman bootmaker. (This meant he had served an apprenticeship but had not reached the level of master where he could hire apprentices). Arthur Skelton had named his son after his younger brother – who had inadvertently also been christened Arthur (!) but was known as Sidney.

CATOR STREET
A handful of well-preserved original houses in Cator Street today

From the various records I consulted,  the Skeltons appear to have led a precarious existence: as their family grew, Arthur and his wife Elizabeth (neé Holton) were constantly moving around Lambeth in the search for cheaper rents and employment (often renting two rooms for the whole family). In contrast to most of their siblings, Arthur and Elizabeth seem to have been a rather feckless pair. They had met as teenagers in Kennington where they’d lived in adjoining streets, and married soon after, when Elizabeth was six month’s pregnant with their first child, Arthur jnr. Elizabeth had no education and was unable to write, while Arthur snr. had grown up not really knowing his father, who had been 60 when he was born. Arthur  snr. was, like his own son Sidney was to be, also the fifth child of six: in his case he was the product of a long-term relationship between a middle-aged widower and a teenage single mother. His mother (who was in her thirties when widowed by her 67 year old husband of 3 years) eventually had to go out to work in order to support the family, and Arthur left school at the age of 10 (as was normal in those days) and started work as a milk boy.

In June 1895, when my grandfather was three, the family (who had already moved several times since his birth) were now living in Daniels Rd, Nunhead opposite the famous cemetery.  At around this time Charles Booth described the street (which was built in 1863) as 2 story houses, flush with sidewalk; broken windows occasional; numerous and noisy children: a low standard street; difficult to say what the people do for a living, but some work as labourers in the adjacent cemetery, others as builders’ labourers etc. Broken windows seemed to be a relatively common feature of the area – Booth’s notes for the neighbouring Nunhead Grove mention that A small boys’ battle was raging while we were in this street, with stones flying about unpleasantly, but apparently no damage done. One of the common complaints of this section is that of boys who break a window instead of cutting an enemy’s eye open.

It was while living at Nunhead that Sidney’s mother Elizabeth was admitted to St Thomas’s Hospital with Cirrhosis of the Liver and Jaundice. She died on the charity ward there, several weeks later. We do not know what caused this illness – whether she had contracted a hepatitis infection or had been imbibing to escape the privations of her life. Unfortunately, the impressive looking, red leather Death Book from St Thomas’s, which I consulted in the LMA, did not give me any more details. Soon after his mother died, little Sidney (who even as an old man gave the impression that he had never quite developed into his full height) was sent to the local school with his siblings – possibly because there was no one now at home to look after him. However, the following year (1896) Arthur married a neighbouring widow (Harriet Pushman) who had several children of her own, necessitating yet another house move.

What really saddened me was when I discovered that some of Sidney’s experiences had actually closely mirrored (albeit in different circumstances) one set of his grandchildren, who, over seventy years later, were themselves left motherless at a vulnerable age. This made me curious as to why he had never told any of the family about the loss of his own mother. Had he in fact even remembered the event? When it came to his grandchildren, Sidney played a major role in helping them and their father come to terms with their situation – but he was also adamant that his grandson should learn to stand on his own two feet. With hindsight it would seem that (whether consciously or not) Sidney wanted him to deal with his loss in the same stoical way as he had no doubt done, having had little choice in the matter. I often wonder what it would have been like for such a young child to have suddenly gained not only a new step-mother, but also a collection of step-siblings near to him in age. (His oldest brother, Arthur, eventually went on to marry his step-sister, Harriet, both of whom were named after their respective parents).

There is, however, a sad post-script to this story. Several months ago I came across the records of the baptism of another little boy who was born to an Arthur and Elizabeth Skelton of Daniels Rd in Nunhead. I would seem that he was ‘one of ours’. Yet why had I never heard of this child? My father’s family had always assumed that Sidney was the last of the brood. But it turned out that Elizabeth had actually given birth to one more child at the age of 35, a year before she succumbed to her illness. A boy called Frederick Edward. So what had become of him? Some more research soon revealed the horrible truth: he had died alongside his mother at St. Thomas’s from Rickets (3 months) and Marasmus (in other words, severe malnutrition) at the age of 7 months. It seemed that no-one in the family had ever known of this little fellow’s existence: an infant who would not have been allowed to lose his life in the London of today.

It is perhaps the death of Frederick which makes me (rightly or wrongly) judge Arthur and Elizabeth harshly. Was Elizabeth an alcoholic who was unable to care properly for her children? Was Arthur already in a relationship with Harriet Pushman before Elizabeth’s demise? Were they actually both unfit to be parents?

Some things we will never know, and it is perhaps better so. But the idea that the repressed memory of such events may find their way down through the generations in different ways is certainly appealing. And there is yet one more twist to this tale. The night my grandfather died (and before we received the news in Scotland, as we had no telephone at the time) my father – who was by no means given to flights of fancy – awoke to find his father standing at the bottom of the bed, smoothing down the coverlet. It seems that even as Sidney was leaving this world, he was trying to let his children know that he still wanted to take care of them. 

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2016

I Remember, I Remember . . .

I remember, I remember

The house where I was born

The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day,

But now I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away!

Thomas Hood (1826)

The day I came across this poem by Thomas Hood in an anthology, it gave me a strange feeling – as if a voice was speaking to me from the past. I knew I’d heard those lines somewhere before, but couldn’t quite place them. Perhaps it was something we’d had to learn at school and read out in morning  assembly? Or maybe it was in one of the children’s poetry collections we were given for Christmas? But after a while I began to hear the voice of my father, reciting the poem in that slightly hammy way of his which always made us laugh. The words were faint at first, but grew louder in my head until I could hear his South London accent almost as though he were in the room. Yet however hard I tried, I could only ever hear him saying the first three lines over and over again.

As a child I’d presumed he’d made the poem up himself, just as he often came out with his own jokey rhymes to amuse us. Then I realised that most likely he had been the one who’d studied it at school, and the memory had stayed with him since (as is often the case with poetry rote-learned when young). And it was obvious that as an adult he would have realised the final lines of the first verse might have sounded rather macabre to children growing up in times when death in childhood was not a common occurrence.

The poem started me thinking about the places where we are born. I knew from my father’s birth certificate that (despite him once fancifully telling my mother he was from Blackheath for some inexplicable reason), that he’d taken his first breath in a crumbling mid-Victorian terraced house in Brixton. A house which had neither electricity nor an indoor toilet. A house that had afforded him a view of the Crystal Palace burning down in 1936 from the upstairs bedroom. A house which, when my grandfather had the chance to buy the freehold for around £100 in 1938, was condemned out of hand by his brother Arthur (a ‘builder’, of whom my grandmother was rather suspicious). I knew those details because my aunt – who’d also been born in the house – had written to tell me all this when she first discovered I’d been delving into the family history. Her letter, which contained snippets of intriguing information about the family, ended with the ominous words . . . the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.

My grandmother, Edith Stops, outside the house at 95 Denmark Rd, Camberwell (circa 1910)
Edith Skelton (neé Stops), outside 95 Denmark Rd, circa 1910

So my grandparents never owned a house (the war put paid to that, amongst other things), and were of the generation that saw nothing unusual in this. But it was probably just as well my grandfather did not risk buying 95 Denmark Road as the street was eventually badly bombed in an air raid, and today the road is mostly home to post-war housing association blocks. However, by the time the Luftwaffe were preparing for their assault on London,  the family had already been allocated a semi in Durning Road on the Bloomfield Estate – a  1920s cottage-style garden development near to Gipsy Hill, built on the site of the former Bloomfield Hall. Over seventy years later, my aunt could still remember the move with affection: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it.

 

The house in West Norwood today
The ‘luxury’ council house in Durning Road, West Norwood today (now privately owned)

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, for our story starts in Fulham in another terraced house where my grandmother, Edith Stops, and her two older brothers were born in the 1890s, and where to all accounts the family had led an untroubled life, and one typical of late Victorian artisans.

My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops, was a blacksmith and wheelwright. His father, William (also a wheelwright), had come to London from Wendover in Buckinghamshire and had settled in the Hackney area, siring a family of seven children, six of whom were male.  Thomas, one of the middle sons, married Harriet Burnell in Wandsworth in 1887 at the age of thirty-four. Harriet, who was originally from Somerset, had left school at the age of twelve to take up a position as a domestic servant in her native Highbridge, and had eventually moved to London: the 1881 census showed that she worked for a corn merchant and his young family in Camberwell (although if typical of the period, she most likely moved employers several times). Thomas and Harriett were both in their thirties when they married, perhaps marrying later for financial reasons in a bid to rid themselves of the poverty into which they’d been born, and they settled into their two-storied house on part of a new estate of Victorian terraces off the Wandswoth Road, in Fulham, raising three children after a six year hiatus which was no doubt unplanned and unexpected!

According to Charles Booth, who sent his social researchers to prowl around the area at about this same time creating his famous poverty mapsThe main feature of Fulham is its newness. Twenty years ago it hardly existed. There is still a fair amount of open space in the form of market gardens at the western extremity and private houses and grounds at the southern extremity, but each year both are eaten into by the builder with amazing avidity. The researcher goes on to say: The new tenants come from every part of London, especially from south-west London, drawn hither by the fact that there are houses to be had and that they are suited to their needs.

By ‘their needs’, I am assuming this is referring to the affordable rents, and the fact that the area was regarded as a reasonably respectable part of town, although the notes do go on to mention that as regards proximity to work, Fulham is at a disadvantage for it is hardly possible to be in London and further away from the City. For Thomas Stops this wasn’t a problem, as he worked locally as a coachman and blacksmith.

However, in 1906, this family idyll came to an abrupt end when Thomas’s life was cut short through contracting tuberculosis in his early fifties, leaving the widowed Harriet with three children to care for. The family had already moved to Denmark Road by this point, and Thomas died in the nearby Lambeth workhouse infirmary. Despite the grim-sounding name, attending the hospital which was attached to the local workhouse was relatively common in those pre-NHS days, and simply meant the patients did not have the means to pay for private healthcare. Nevertheless, it is also likely that the family had fallen on hard times, which had perhaps precipitated their move to Lambeth in the first place. Thomas’s failing health may have been the cause of this, and is a  salient reminder of how insecure life was for even the ‘respectable’ working classes at that time.

After her husband’s death, Harriet took in boarders to help pay the rent, as many other householders did at that time. She was to remain at 95 Denmark Road, later sharing her house with her married daughter and family, and survived just long enough to give my father a vague memory of an old lady dressed in black who sat in a chair in a corner of the living room.

The Stops Family, 1909, 'Taken soon after father died' (c) Margaret Andrews
The Stops Family, ‘Taken soon after father died’, c1906

The two old photographs above – which no-one in my immediate family had ever seen before – were sent to me by Margaret Andrews, the grand-daughter of Thomas Stops (my grandmother’s oldest brother). Margaret was carrying out genealogical research into the Stops family at around the same time as I had returned to my own investigations, and it was a serendipitous on-line ‘meeting’ that eventually led to me gratefully receiving these lost images  which illuminated the unknown (and hitherto unimagined) childhood of my grandmother. This unexpected glimpse into her early life gave me an almost vertiginous feeling of falling back through a rip in time. Could it really be that I was seeing my long-dead grandmother rise up again in front me as an Edwardian child?

For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother  standing at the gate. My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?

I thought too about the wary-looking girl who stood there, feet splayed out in front of her in a way that reminded of my grandmother in the later years of her life, lumbering flat-footed through Kew Gardens, her handbag held at her side as if it were a lump of wood. Graceful she was not! But it was hard to imagine the dumpy old lady with the dimpled arms and the long yellow teeth as this gangly pre-teen, arrested forever in a single moment in a springtime over a century ago. On that day she is standing half-way between the house and the street,  poised on the cusp between girlhood and adolescence. We do not know if she is going out – perhaps to run an errand for her mother – or whether she is waiting for a friend or relative. Is she still unsure about a fatherless future on the other (wrong?) side of the river, where lodgers come and go (not realising that one day her future husband will be among them)? Is it one of her beloved brothers who is taking her picture, calling out to her as he presses the shutter? Edie, smile, will you!, laughing at his little sister’s seriousness and the way she grips the iron railing as if to stop herself from toppling backwards into a precarious past.

And it is that wistfulness which seems to be reflected in her eyes in the second photograph a studio image of a family grieving, which may seem strange to us today. Harriet is in black, looking slightly out-dated for the period, and holding something in her hands that could be a reference to her departed husband. Brother Tom, in long trousers, already seems to be taking on the role of protector to his younger siblings, his expression emanating a slight air of detachment from the whole palaver associated with the rituals of the photographer’s studio.

Every time I look at this photograph I am drawn to the arm that Edith has placed tentatively around her brother’s shoulders and the funny, twisted (yet fashionable at the time) necklace at her throat. I want to tell her that everything will be fine – she will keep her big brothers, despite the awful war they will fight in. This future war will even give her a chance to forge a short career as a telephonist. And later, when it is all over, she will meet a returning soldier who comes to board in the spare room at the house in Denmark Road. Eventually she will go on to have two boys and a girl of her own with this, sometimes taciturn, man who has witnessed things of which he can never speak. And those children in turn will one day give her a brood of grandchildren to enrich her later years.

Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the garden of her own house in Hampton in 1963
Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the back garden of the house in Bishops Grove in 1963

So now we see Edith (or Edie as she was known as) over 50 years later in the garden of another house – the council house in Bishops Grove, Hampton where the family moved in 1948 (after renting two rooms at the top of a house in Teddington for two years after the war ended). They were lucky, as houses were in short supply, but determined to stay  near to my aunt, who had married and set up home in the area. The long years of conflict and the resulting evacuations and relocations had scattered everyone, and there were no strong familial ties in south-east London any more. In the end, my grandparents were to remain in this genteel corner of the capital, enjoying the post-war period of peace and prosperity, until their deaths in the mid-1970s.

But it is only in their very last house that I really remember them – a small, ground-floor retirement flat round the corner from Bishops Grove, where they moved during their final years. When we came down from Scotland to visit them (which was relatively infrequently), it was always a disappointment to me that the house held no memories of my father’s boyhood. In contrast, our McKay grandparents’ house in Edinburgh was full of traces of  our mother’s life as a young girl, and we delighted in the stories which connected our childhood to hers through a sense of place.

Now I realise that part of the feeling of being disconnected from my grandparents’ past, and that of my father’s, was because we had always visited them in that neutral, ‘story-free’ space. No family events had ever taken place in those bright, modern rooms. No pre-war possessions cluttered up the flat (most having already been lost or destroyed through bombs or carelessness). Unlike the long-demolished house in Denmark Road, it was a place which did not surrender any clues to what had gone before.

Edith_Xmas64
Edith Skelton (née Stops) with two of her seven grandchildren, Bishops Grove, Christmas 1964 (I am the baby on her lap)

Merry Christmas! from The Incidental Genealogist, December 2015.