Category Archives: South London

The Stories Which Connect Us

But the vast mass of men and women in every time do not leave behind them either renown or testimony. These people walked our streets, prayed in our churches, drank in our inns or in those that bear the same names, built and lived in the houses where we have our being today, opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases. They were moved by essentially the same passions and griefs that we are, the same bedrock hopes and fears: they saw the sun set over Westminster as we do. Yet almost all of them have passed away from human memory, and are still passing away, generation after generation.

Gillian Tindall, The House by the Thames, (2006)

BOOK

When I picked up a copy of The House by the Thames by the historian and writer Gillian Tindall, I had no idea that it would be one of the first of many books I would accumulate on the history of London, yet would remain my favourite for years to come. Since then I have reread it several times: not just for the detailed historical information, but as a masterclass in the art of creative non-fiction, a genre which endeavours to both entertain and illuminate readers. The book has also influenced my own writing on the topic of my ancestors, and I continue to aim for the standard Tindall has set, aware of how much I still have to learn about the craft. However, the act of writing is inextricably bound up with the quest for improvement, and is part of what makes it such a life-affirming thing to do.

In the intervening years I have amassed a healthy collection of books about the capital, as well as those pertaining to life in the Victorian era. But a decade earlier, just before I returned to researching the history of my London family (see Begin Again), I did not quite know where to start with my research. A plethora of texts was available, some of which seemed overtly sensationalist, others appearing off-puttingly dense, and some spanning different areas and/or time frames from my own focus. However, The House by the Thames, which combined a historical narrative with a storyteller’s gift, proved to be an ideal entry into the history of London’s south bank for a novice like myself.

The book initially appealed to me on several levels, not least because it was centred on a Thameside neighbourhood close to where my ancestors settled, in nearby Horsleydown. The fact that the story revolved around a single house, also gave it an obvious focus that some other texts might lack, thus making the topic more accessible to a non-historian. And hadn’t I already noticed this unusual house when first crossing the Millennium Bridge after years away from the capital? There on the cobbled streets of bankside I had encountered not only the new Shakespeare’s Globe (how did that get there?), but the surprising remnant of a row of early 18th century houses, incongruous beside the iconic bulk of the old power station which now houses the Tate Modern Art Gallery and the new-fangled glass and steel towers which surround it.

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

Right from the first page of the book, with chapter one entitled In Which we Find the House, I knew I was in the hands of a word alchemist. We are pulled into the narrative with the tantalising opening line: You can reach the house in a number of different ways. (And I thought about my own way there, across ‘the wobbly bridge’ from St Paul’s). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Tindall leads us expertly through time and space to finally arrive outside the eponymous house, telling us that: Occasionally strangers will be brave enough to tug the ancient bell-pull, which jangles a bell within on the end of a wire, and enquire if the house is a museum that can be visited. They are politely turned away. (We can certainly sympathise with such behaviour as by now our own curiosity is piqued). This is followed by the tantalising description: Before the door is shut again they will get a glimpse of a panelled room and an arched doorway, rugs and a longcase clock, perhaps a whiff of logs smouldering on a pile of soft ash in an open fireplace. Here, surely, is the past, on which the door has fleetingly opened? But there is no automatic admittance to the past. A way has to be found.

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

Of course we know that Tindall is going to find that way for us. And what a route it is. On the journey there we learn about the history of the south bank and the factors which contributed to make ‘the Surrey side’ different from ‘the City side’ over the centuries. There are diversions into a myriad of related subjects: everything from the Thames watermen and lightermen who operated between these two shores, to the building of the bridges and the coming of the industries which would change the area for good. The majority of these topics also affected my own ancestors, and many are ones I have chosen to explore in relation to my family history. As Tindall’s book uses the history of a house, rather than a family, as the main subject, this keeps the focus to a specific area of London. And what makes this story such an appealing one to follow is that the writer is so evidently alongside us as we read – an authorial voice which is sometimes critical, other times surprised and enthusiastic, yet which never over-rides the narrative.

MILLENIUM BRIDGEThe route to The House by the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral

Since then, I have read a number of non-fiction books which explore the history of South London specifically. Some of the most fascinating have been those written in another period, such as Harry Williams South London (from The County Books Series), published in 1949, giving us an insight into the post-war mind. Although Williams writes in such a style which seems shockingly un-PC to the modern reader – and often makes blithe generalisations about the neighbourhoods he explores – there is something prescient in the summarising statement of the book: The history of the twentieth century is too close at hand to make any review of it possible, but at least it can be said that its influence upon the ten boroughs has been largely negative. We have rid ourselves of much of the misery, cruelty and danger of early days, but apathy towards ugliness is growing, a remorseless process of decay set in motion by the blindness of men who thought and still think only in terms of material prosperity. The foul congeries of slums of South London have disappeared, but the tenements and new housing estates that have taken their places have been built without faith in themselves or in the future.

SOUTH LONDON

Throughout the book, William veers between nostalgia and anger at the demise of south London’s past glories. When it comes to Bankside he takes great delight in describing the 16th/17th century neighbourhood, with its pre-Puritan theatres and taverns. The world was a gay place for Londoners back then he muses sadly; then goes on to state: Dignity and quality were there, music and colour, and of all these attributes, only music has survived in the ordinary life of England. The post-war drabness of his own world has obviously affected him greatly. He then goes into full purple prose to describe Shakespeare’s time in Bankside (where the old Globe theatre was located), which is worth quoting in full below:

Shakespeare is supposed to have derived his close knowledge of ships and the sea from the long row of riverside hostelries with projecting balconies and snug tap-rooms, which lined the river along Bankside and Bermondsey. There, in these friendly inns, the sea captains, pirates, smugglers, rovers and honest sailors from a hundred wandering ships of all nations nightly congregated to drink and sing and exchange the tales of their trade. We can see on a dozen balconies, leaning out over the scurrying blackness of the river, clusters of men, hard and craggy with the rigours of their calling, but never hard-faced. Gaily dressed – for the deadening uniformity of clothes had not yet stifled the English scene – they swopped sailors’ yarns in that rich and vital speech which was the prerogative of the meanest scullion in Shakespeare’s day. And somewhere Shakespeare himself would be lurking and listening and drinking, and in the end disputing in friendly argument. For wit matched wit in his time and inventiveness of thought was the monopoly of no man and no class.

N.B. With such a rum-sounding bunch packed into these ‘snug tap-rooms’ and ‘projecting balconies’ and on the sauce, I somehow think there must have been more than just ‘friendly argument’ going on!

However, when reading Williams’ descriptions of contemporary run-down post-war Bankside, we get the sense that he cannot get out of the neighbourhood fast enough. He stands in front of number 49 (although he never names it) looking wistfully to the City and states: And so we take one glance across the river at the majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Wren must have looked so often from his house on the south shore; then averting our eyes from the disgusting contrast, let us retrace our steps back to the bridge foot (of Southwark Bridge).

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

BANKSIDE 1940Bankside, 1940 (no 49 is partly visible on on the left)

Both Images: ‘Old houses on Bankside’, in Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 54. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-54

Giving us a late Victorian’s view of South London is the prolific Walter Besant, who in 1898 wrote in the introduction to his book on the topic (described on the frontispiece as being the companion to ‘London’, ‘Westminster’, ‘East London’ etc): I hope that ‘SOUTH LONDON’ will be received with favour equal to that bestowed upon its predecessors. The chief difficulty in writing it has been that of selection from the great treasures which have accumulated about this strange spot. The contents of this volume do not form a tenth of what might be written on the same plan, and still without including the History Proper of the Borough. I am like the showman in the ‘Cries of London’- I pull the strings and the children peep. Strange spot indeed!

References to Williams and Besant have cropped up in some of my previous posts, as both writers are highly readable and at their most enjoyable when they go ‘off-piste’ to rant and rave (albeit gently) about their own hobbyhorses. This is Besant’s take on local churches (including my own family’s original parish church in Horsleydown): It is a great pity that in the whole of South London lying east of the High Street (the current Borough High Street) there is not a single beautiful, or even picturesque church. Look at them! St Olave’s (now St Saviour’s Cathedral), St John, Horsleydown, St. Mary Magdalen, St Mary, Rotherhithe, the four oldest churches in the quarter. It cannot be pretended that these structures inspire veneration or even respect. Modern day readers may wish to disagree (and may even feel frustration that St John’s was destroyed by WW2 bombing).

ST JOHN HORLEYDOWN (2)St John’s Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckler c1799

Similarly to Harry Williams, although fifty years earlier, Walter Besant was rather disparaging about the south London of his day. In fact, he was forced to issue an apology in future editions of the book for describing the perceived lack of culture in the area. His original paragraph is reproduced here: In South London there are two millions (sic) of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad – but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges, apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centre – unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm – one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of the very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs, it has no public buildings, it has no West End.

The brief (and rather unenthusiastic) apology he later added as a post script to the book states: NOTE. – Since this was written several new theatres have been built in South London. I should therefore like to correct the passage on p. 320 which states that the Theatres are humble. Also I would like to acknowledge the existence of local newspapers, and instead of saying that it has no public buildings I would say only one or two buildings.

We come away with the impression that such patrician writers of another age are perhaps not quite to be trusted with their stories – yet they now allow us to view places and their history through the eyes of a different generation. We know, for example, that Besant regards the contemporary 1898 south London population figure of two million people as being extremely high, and states: I cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages (the old scattered communities) in 1801 with that of the great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. (There was a ten-fold increase in south London’s population in the 19th century, compared to five-fold north of the river). Today, although there is currently around double that number living in south London, the rate of population growth has been slower, and thus the changes Besant viewed in his lifetime must have been so much greater than those observed over the course of the last century.

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

Tindall – who most definitely knows how to separate fact from fiction – has the luxury of writing a hundred years after Besant and thus being able to extend the history of Bankside and the surrounding area into the 20th century, and to see it come full circle in many respects (as it returns to the ‘gay place’ of the past that William’s described). She also has access to a large number of documents that previously would not have been available as they were either still locked away and/or not available to the general reading public. The most obvious of these records are the official census returns, which are only released one hundred years after they have been taken. These ten-year snapshots in time, which began in 1841, are a boon to genealogists and social historians, yet can sometimes distort a family’s story if not used in conjunction with other records (see Moments in Time for my treatment of this subject). Yet the past is always moving forward, and as Tindall points out: The identities of all those who lived in the house in 1911 and in subsequent decennial years are lying quietly in an archive as I write (in 2006), but neither I nor any other researcher can access them till the requisite term of years has elapsed.

The online release of many more 20th century records – such as electoral registers and phone books – has gone some way to fill in the gap between the 100-year rule and living memory which is always going to exist due to the span of a human life. But all family historians will sympathise with the frustration at moving from an era where there is a relative abundance of records, to one where there is an information gap, despite the fact we feel we should be able to discover more as we move closer to our own time. In fact, detailed parish records of the pre-registration time in 1837 often yield up more information than later official records, with the main advantage that a certificate does not have to be bought unseen, always an irritant (and loss of a tenner) if it proves to be the wrong one. This can often be the case if the family name was a relatively common one. (Earlier records can also circumvent this issue due to the significantly smaller population of the time). I still remember from my ‘heir hunter’ days in Holborn (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) how many dud certificates the company ended up paying for, but as we needed to move fast to beat the competition then the net had to generally be cast far and wide.

The issue of researching a too-common name certainly does not come up when it comes to the occupants of number 49 Bankside from the mid-18th to 19th centuries. Tindall is able to trace the Sells family from their (recorded) beginnings in the area as Thames lightermen, to their ownership of the house and its neighbours through their successful expansion into the lucrative coal business. Their story ends a century after their arrival in Bankside, when the direct descendants of the original family (now the Peronnet Sells) leave the heavily industrialised Bankside of the Victorian age to relocate to a quieter semi-rural area further inland from the river, just as my own great-great grandfather (James Skelton) did when he moved to Brixton from the nearby riverside parish of Horsleydown.

And here is where the story of this Bankside family entwines with my own family history in an unexpected way. By 1871, Edward Perronet Sells Ill, who was born in 1845 and lived in no. 49 Bankside as a child, had moved into the same street on the outskirts of Croydon where James Skelton’s oldest son, the wealthy mahogany dealer, James William Skelton, resided. When the young Sells takes a house in Morland Avenue to live alongside all the other merchants and brokers – a high proportion being (like James William) described as West India merchants, it was still considered an undeveloped semi-rural outpost. The handful of houses in this once salubrious street had the luxury of extensive gardens to the rear, as well as facing onto Morland Park, and were often just referred to by their fancy titles. James William called his own residence ‘Westle House’, a recurring family name whose significance I have yet to discover as it possibly related to his mother’s side of the family, the branch from which I am not descended.

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

I have mentioned the sad history of Westle House before (see The Story So Far), which was advertised for sale in 1868 shortly before James William moved to Gipsy Hill with his new wife (and thus he may have actually just missed having Edward Peronnet Sells as a younger neighbour). It was described as including ten bed and dressing rooms, four reception rooms, and convenient and extensive domestic offices, but is now in its death throes (if it hasn’t already been put out of its misery). I went in search of this villa in Morland Road, some years back, on the off-chance that it was still standing, amazed at my good luck that of all the houses in the original street it was James William’s which was the sole survivor.

It was hard to imagine this house once being described – in the estate agent parlance of the day – as being admirably situate and standing in its own pleasure grounds, with well-stocked kitchen garden. A detailed map of the ‘new’ street that I was able to access in the Croydon archives prior to visiting the house showed that there had once been a circular driveway at the front of the building. At the rear was a long narrow garden, consisting of a lawn and shrubbery and a vegetable garden, with fruit trees furthest from the house. It seemed strange to think of a single man living there, so far from town, until I recalled the fact that he’d brought back his half-Belizean daughter to London with him at some point in the 1860s. Was he perhaps ashamed of this girl, whose mother he appears never to have married? Did he want to hide her away from society? Sadly, Louisa Arabella did not survive past the age of 21, dying of TB in Gipsy Hill several years later. Her story is one that I have always wanted to be able to tell, but she leaves no records other than her death certificate.

I try to imagine her sitting in the garden of Westle House on a summer’s day, pining for the warmth of the Caribbean. Perhaps she was already instructing the gardener to grow the plants that reminded her of her homeland and to nurture the herbs that would bring back the taste of her childhood in Belize. But these thoughts only occurred to me afterwards, and on that wet October day when I set out along the busy Morland Road I certainly knew that, even if the house was still standing, this delightful large garden would never have survived. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared to find the house boarded up and surrounded by ugly security fencing. (In the space which once was the garden was a block of modern flats). If truth be told, I could not get away from the place fast enough, such was my distress at seeing the building in its current state.

WESTLE HOUSEThe old ‘Westle House’ in Morland Rd Croydon today

A few months later the poor old boarded-up house even appeared on television, starring (of all things) in a conservative party political broadcast which highlighted how Croydon’s conservative MP would replace such dilapidated housing with affordable flats. The strange thing is that I do not think I’ve ever watched a party political broadcast in my life – and certainly not a conservative one – but was either waiting for the news to come on or too lazy to switch off afterwards. Of course, when I heard the word ‘Croydon’, I glanced up with a certain amount of interest. But as the story of the local housing crisis unfolded, I suddenly knew with a chilling certainty that Westle House was going to appear. And then everything moved so fast – the house was there on the screen and the MP was wittering on about how many flats could be fitted into the space. The whole thing spooked me considerably, and when I found out later that someone had recently been found dead in the grounds of the house (which presumably explained the security fencing), I felt that the building had most definitely come to the end of its natural lifespan.

This made me realise how pleased I was that the old Skelton family home – that of James William’s father – in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton was still very much in use and seemingly well-loved by its current occupants. One day I happened to glance inside while walking by (perhaps ‘happened to’ is an understatement) and saw what looked like a lively family with teenagers sitting round a big table. If I’d had enough guts I might have been more like Tindall’s Bankside strangers and knocked on the door, hoping that instead of turning me away, however politely, they would have invited me inside and told me their own stories of the house.

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

Knocking on strangers’ doors is the kind of thing that the writer Julie Myerson was not afraid to do when she researched her non-fiction book Home: The Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in my House, which was first published in 2004. After I’d read The House by the Thames, I must have been hungry for more stories about south London homes and Myerson’s book was an obvious choice, although her mid-Victorian terraced Clapham house is a lot younger than the Bankside one and thus the social history focuses on a different timespan. It is also a very different style of book as stories of Myerson’s own life (past and present) are interspersed with that of the occupants of the house.

As a novice to historical research, Myerson describes learning about the different types of records and archives available, as well as documenting the ways she attempts to contact people connected with the house and her delight and frustration at the responses – or lack of them. So the book also functions as a sort of beginner’s guide to undertaking genealogical research. But what really makes Home stand out is that Myerson has the novelist’s capacity to weave stories from the information she collects, slipping from fact to fiction and back again with ease, and bringing the tales of the inhabitants to life in a way that allows us to see them as people who (in the words of Gillian Tindall above): opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases.

x293

Starting with her own experiences of buying the property in the late 1980s, she moves the narrative gently backwards so that we feel we are being pulled back with the house through the years until we reach its beginnings in 1871. The final chapter, entitled Grass and Silence, opens with the eerie Number 34, it’s time to finally undo you. You’re coming apart pretty fast now – bricks, slate, cement, mortar, nails, joists flying away as hurriedly as they appeared. London gravel and clay are pouring back into your deepest foundations – shovelled and levelled, a layer of turf and gorse flung quick as a blanket over the top.

And there on the last page is the line: Bazalgette’s men break soil at first light on Monday. Just as when I came across the name of Edward Peronnet Sells in the census for Morland Road in Croydon in 1871, it is an uncanny reminder that all our histories of London are interconnected.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019

 

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A River Ran Under Them

There is something about an underground river that trumps all the other subterranea out there. Deep shelters, gas mains, disused Tube channels and cable ducts have their charms for some, but these are the latter-day products of an infrastructure-clogged age, whereas a river lives on in the mind as something primordial and pre-societal.

Jon Newman, River Effra: South London’s Secret Spine (2016)

effracoverIn my previous post (see Looking for the Lost), I introduced the hidden River Effra and its course from the hills of Norwood (in what was previously the Great North Wood) to its current outlet at the Thames at Vauxhall. This month I want to focus on the connection between the river’s route to Vauxhall from its two main sources in Upper and Lower Norwood and the south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors through which it passes, albeit underground.  

My family’s London story starts almost two hundred years ago with the arrival of my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, a master tailor, from North Yorkshire to the capital. He established a tailoring business in the Thameside parish of Horsleydown (near to the southern approach of today’s Tower Bridge), living ‘over the shop’ with his Kentish wife and later young family (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). As he grew successful he moved further out of London – to then semi-rural Brixton in the 1840s, while his successful son, a mahogany merchant, bettered him still with his upmarket residences in Croydon, Gipsy Hill and finally Clapham.

Even by the time James Skelton arrived in London to seek his fortune in the 1820s, polluted sections of the River Effra had already begun to be covered up or ‘arched over’ as it passed through the inner south London suburbs, where it was more often than not used as an unofficial sewer. Less than fifty years later, when my great-great grandfather lay freshly buried up in Nunhead cemetery, new housing developments covered huge tracts of what had formerly been fields and market gardens, the river had to all intents vanished into London’s much-needed new underground sewerage system, a project which gained in impetus after The Great Stink of 1858.

But had James Skelton been even aware of the watercourse which ran through his adopted home? When he moved from Brixton to Walworth with his second family in the early 1850s (see When I Grow Rich), did he know that the new estates which were springing up around Kennington Park were pumping their waste into a covered waterway which still ran and sparkled further out in the hills of Norwood? Perhaps when he’d lived in Cold Harbour Lane in the 1840s, he’d seen evidence of that same water course in the open ditches of Brixton. Here there were still uncovered channels which had begun to stink from the effluence from householders, and which demanded attention from angry residents. In fact, his own relatively new house, which like others would have been fitted with a new-fangled ‘flushing toilet’ most likely used the river as a sewage outlet without the occupants even realising where their waste was deposited.

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)James Skelton’s ‘new’ house on Coldharbour Lane

By the time his oldest son, the mahogany merchant James William Skelton moved to Gipsy Hill in 1870, James senior had finally succumbed to the chronic respiratory infection which shortened his life and that of many other Londoners . He therefore he never had the chance to visit James William and his family in his newly built home in the relatively rural village of Gipsy Hill, made popular by the arrival of The Crystal Palace in 1851 after its removal from Hyde Park when The Great Exhibition finished. In their rather grand villa in The Avenue – now Dulwich Wood Avenue (see Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship) – the family would have had glimpses of the giant glass-paned roof of this building.

DULWICH WOOD AVENUECrystal Palace from The Avenue, Gipsy Hill

The burgeoning suburban enclave of Gipsy Hill, with its new railway and glass palace (or monstrosity, depending on your viewpoint), was a place and time that straddled modernity and antiquity. James William Skelton’s villa also faced onto a large field used by the local dairy for their cows, so the family would certainly have felt the collision of these two worlds. Part of that field still exists today, a tree-bordered segment of grass caught between busy streets in a strange sort of parody of a country green, whose various names over the years of Bell Meadow, Hunter’s Meadow or French’s Field are testament to its long history. And it was through this damp field that the Upper Norwood Branch of the Effra once ran.

gh-field-2French’s Field in Gipsy Hill today

I have already mentioned the fact that my father’s boyhood home in Denmark Road, Brixton (from where he watched the Crystal Palace burn down in 1936), was located just around the corner from the old Coldharbour Lane family home of his unknown great-grandfather (separated in habitation by almost a century, although both houses were roughly of the same age). Those who have followed my quest from the beginning may remember that when my grandparents moved out of Brixton to Gipsy Hill in 1938, they also unknowingly once again found themselves only a few minutes away from where a member of the ‘other Skelton family’ once lived.

It seems strange to think that my father or grandfather might have walked past the houses in The Avenue, or Coldharbour Lane, admiring them for their grandeur. Not for the likes of us! they might have said (my father always liked to remind me that I was barely two generations away from having to become a domestic servant when I grew up). In another twist – although it is perhaps not so strange, given the terrain – the Lower Norwood Branch of the river once ran through Norwood Park, made from the remains of Norwood Common, in Salters Hill, just a hop, skip and a jump away from my father’s new home in Durning Road, and a green space where he possibly played with his schoolfriends from nearby Gipsy Hill School in the short time he lived in the area before the outbreak of war necessitated his evacuation to the countryside.

NORWOOD PARK 1890Norwood Park 1890

These two Norwood branches of the Effra eventually meet at Croxted Road (previously Croxted Lane), where the eminent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, recalled playing as a child in the 1820s at the same time as my great-great grandfather was setting up his tailoring business in riverside Bermondsey. As the historian John Newman points out in his book about the River Effra, the meandering path which followed the trajectory of the old watercourse at this point still felt like a quiet spot until developers finally took advantage of the stream-free land. This was also the point where, in 1865, the Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer for the new Metropolitan Board of Works (previously the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers) linked up the river to his newly-created Effra Branch of the south London sewerage system. This underground brick sewer interrupted the natural path of the Effra to channel the water through the growing suburbs. When it reached Deptford it met up with the Southern Low Level and Southern High Level sewers, the effluence from these three sources pouring out into the Thames down river at Crossness.

In reference to Croxted Lane, Newman quotes Ruskin (from his strange 1884 autobiography Praeterita), who described the demise of the winding thoroughfare as such: The fields on either side of it are now mostly dug up for building, or cut through into gaunt corners and nooks of blind ground by the wild crossings and concurrencies of three railroads. Half a dozen handfuls of new cottages, with Doric doors, are dropped about here and there among the gashed ground: the lane itself, now entirely grassless, is a deep-rutted, heavy-hillocked cart-road, diverging gatelessly into various brick-fields or pieces of waste.

CROXTED LANE c1870.pngCroxted Lane c1865

Ruskin also mentions this spot when reminiscing about his youth (he was born in 1819). In Praeterita he states: The summer of 1832 must, I think, have been passed at home, for my next sketch-book contains only some efforts at tree-drawing in Dulwich, and a view of the bridge over the now bricked-up “Effra”, by which the Norwood Road then crossed it at the bottom of Herne Hill: the road itself, just at the place where, from the top of the bridge, one looked up and down the streamlet, bridged now into putridly damp shade by the railway, close to Herne Hill Station.

HALF MOON LANEBridge over the Effra at Herne Hill, 1823

We have all known rural or semi-rural spots that exist no more, so can sympathise with Ruskin’s sentiments. When I lived in Whetstone in North London in the 1980s, I often used to walk up to the green belt area around Totteridge Village to soak up the atmosphere of what to me (as a young Scot) appeared a very English idyll. By approaching the village and surrounding countryside from the intensely built up streets around Whetstone, it seemed to give the place a more bucolic air than had it been buried in the countryside, so much was the contrast between the two areas (see A Rose in Holly Park). My final destination – the snug bar in The Rising Sun, at that time a very traditional English pub – was the icing on the cake (or the froth on the beer) of a walk in that locality.

TOTTERIDGE PATHEnticing Footpaths at Totteridge Green Belt

I sometimes feel that pockets of countryside in and around towns and cities are more poignant places to visit because of the urban sprawl that surrounds them, and I appreciate Ruskin’s ‘gateless’ description of Croxted Lane. For him the absence of gates was certainly negative, despite the fact that earlier in the century such constructions were more often associated with the unpopular inclosure acts. Wooden gates and stiles which lead onto twisting paths lined with trees and hedges always appear inviting to me, and are one of the things I love about walking in the British countryside. I am currently reading Praeterita (such are the interesting side shoots of family history research) and notice that for Ruskin the gates and stiles often appear to be symbols of entrance onto public rights of way (rather than deterrents), something that the contemporary walker can appreciate.

Writing in the decade after Ruskin, in his book South London, the Victorian novelist and historian, Walter Besant, states that: In older days – at the end of the eighteenth century for example, the Effra, a bright and sparkling stream, ran out of the fields above what is now called the Effra Road, and so along the south side – or was it the north? – of Brixton Road. Rustic cottages stood on the other side of the stream, with flowing shrubs -lilac, laburnum and hawthorn – on the bank, and the beds of the simpler flowers in the summer: the gardens and the cottages were approached by little wooden bridges, each provided with a single rail painted green. What can be more enchanting than this image – if it did indeed exist.

However, by 1865 Bazalgette’s sewerage system had drained off most of the river at the points where it met or was intersected by the three main sewerage channels in south London, mentioned previously. So while my great-grandfather may have recollected some of the still open ditches which carried the river through south London in the mid-19th century, when he died in 1867 the new sewers had removed almost all traces of the river from sight. Only when the ‘river’ flooded (a relatively regular occurrence until the creation of storm relief sewers at the lower parts of the river at the end of the century) did the waters of the Effra reassert themselves.

It is a fascinating exercise to lose yourself in one of the many detailed Victorian maps of the area and see sections of the Effra, spring to life once more. Perusing the detailed Stanford Library Maps of London and its Suburbs from the 1860s and 70s (link here) it is possible to follow the course of the river from its Lower and Upper Norwood sources (and become confused by its many tributaries) until it disappears at Brixton. But to scroll through these maps is as painful – if not more so – than the experience of looking at the images in Lost London, which I described last month. Out jumps Bloomfield Hall – restored again to all its glory with the ornamental lakes – before it was pulled down in the following century to make way for the Bloomfield Estate where my grandparents moved to in 1938, full of awe for their indoor bathroom and electric lights. And look! Here comes the Effra snaking into Brixton shortly before it would disappear for good into Bazalgette’s underground sewer.

BAZALGETTEJoseph Bazalgette (top right) at the northern outfall sewer being built below London’s Abbey Mills pumping station. Photograph: Otto Herschan/Getty

What a place the outer suburbs were then – mineral springs and nurseries and market gardens are spread throughout south London with lanes and waterways linking and defining them. Footpaths follow watercourses (as in the example of Croxted Lane, above) which the cartographers have lined with trees, making one ache to be able to step inside the map and walk along their shady paths. The names of these places – Water Lane, Springfield, and Brockwell House give away the old sources of water, many of which allowed the market gardens to proliferate (also aided by their proximity to a steady source of manure) until selling the land to speculative builders became a much more lucrative proposition.

Perhaps we should leave the last word (almost) to Walter Besant, who wrote the following in his book entitled simply South London, in 1898: It is difficult, now that the whole country south of London has been covered with villas, roads, streets, and shops, to understand how wonderful for loveliness it was until the builder seized upon it. When the ground rose out of the great Lambeth and Bermondsey Marsh – the cliff or incline is marked still by the names Battersea Rise, Clapham Rise, and Brixton Rise – it opened out into one wild heath after another – Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney, Wimbledon, Barnes, Tooting, Streatham, Richmond, Thornton, and so south as far as Banstead Downs. The country was not flat: it rose at Wimbledon to a high plateau; it rose at Norwood to a chain of hills; between the Heaths stretched gardens and orchards; between the orchards were pasture lands; on the hill sides were hanging woods; villages were scattered about, each with its venerable church and its peaceful churchyard; along the high roads to Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth bumped and rolled, all day and all night, the stage coaches and the waggons; the wayside inns were crowded with those who halted to drink, those who halted to dine, and those who halted to sleep: if the village lay off the main road it was as quiet and secure as the town of Laish*. All this beauty is gone; we have destroyed ii: all this beauty has gone for ever; it cannot be replaced. And on the south there was so much more beauty than on the north. *A biblical oasis, in present-day Israel, now called ‘Don’

Since Besant wrote his book, there has been much more destruction of south London, not least in twentieth century wars that he would not live to experience. Yet his text was written at a time when ideas of progress were often different from today, even though it often feels a case of ‘two steps forward; one step back’. If Besant were to travel forward to our current time (and what a trip that would be!) he might be both shocked and surprised in equal measure. The killer London smogs have gone, but air pollution from traffic-congested roads has replaced them. Rows of so-called ‘slum dwellings’ have been eradicated, although cheaply built and isolating tower blocks now stand in their place. 

Besant would most likely soon realise that we are now grappling with issues that were once seen as the answers to the very problems the Victorians (and those who came after them) tried to solve. However, I believe he would be interested in the contemporary solutions which aim to rectify some of the mistakes previous generations made. One of these is the London Wildlife’s Trust Lost Effra Project, an urban greening initiative which aims to combat the problem of flooding in the Effra catchment area after heavy rain. As mentioned last month, this is done through soft engineering solutions which at the same time also increase biodiversity in inner city neighbourhoods. No doubt Besant would be heartened by the current awareness of such environmental issues and the local involvement in this project and others like it. It’s a message he might be keen to take back with him to the 19th century.

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2019

Looking for the Lost

Old photographs have a truth and clarity to them which is lacking from architectural prints, drawings or paintings. Depicting people and places frozen in time, and at random moments of their existence, they convey a haunting message of mortality. As primary sources of historical evidence, they are by their very nature, impartial, and bear witness to past places or events, undistorted by the interpretation of their creator. Unlike the artist, or draughtsman, ostensibly the camera never lies, so photographs provide a direct, tangible link to a long-distant past.

Philip Davies, Lost London 1870-1945, (2009)

images

These days it often seems as if we cannot get enough of ‘lost London’: its lost buildings, lost streets, lost stations, lost rivers etc. Whatever has been lost in the capital, there’s a book to celebrate/commiserate the demise. And I cannot deny having my own share of such publications. In fact, on returning to my genealogical research a few years ago, the first item I acquired was the heavy black-and-white illustrated tome simply called Lost London 1870-1945 (a period straddling the birth of commercial photography to the end of WW2). It is a book which has delighted me since. Not only did it allow me to view some of the long-gone churches in which my ancestors had been baptised or wed, including the iconic Hawksmoor church of St John Horsleydown , which was badly damaged in WW2 and never rebuilt (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), but I was also able to take a peek into the neighbourhoods in which these same family members had lived, worked, played and died.

bombed-st-js-2St John Horsleydown or ‘The Louse Church’ in 1945 (after WW2 bombing)

Sadly, many of the places featured in the book were wilfully destroyed during early 20th century ‘improvements’ to the city, as well as in the post-war era, and yet are streets and buildings which a few years earlier my grandparents may have known when young. Almost stranger still were the glimpses of neighbourhoods before their damage during WW2 bombing raids – places which my father might have walked as a boy, and thus still within the capture of living memory. These poignant photographs seemed to be the last link between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ London, and when turning each page revealed yet another loss I became almost panicky at the thought of these terminal vanishings. (Once on returning with my camera a year or two later to photograph an old Victorian tenement where my great-great grandmother had lived I was horrified to find it already gone and replaced by a modern block of flats, even though I realise this was a better use of limited urban space).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral Old and New London collide: The Shard and Southwark Cathedral

For a long time I could only really deal with the book in small doses, such was the affect of the images. To add to this, the often ghost-like people who peered from upstairs windows or stared from shop doorways almost seemed to be willing the viewer to make a connection with them, as if they wanted to defy the very march of time itself. As Davies states in his preface: The spectral figures of people and vehicles, which are the product of long exposure times, add to the haunting quality of the images. Figures stare at the camera, and, where they have moved, leave a ghostly trace on the plate.

I often had the disquieting feeling that by seeing these places made whole again by the photographic image I could somehow intervene to prevent their disappearance. In his book Camera Lucida, the French writer and philosopher Roland Barthes (see Those Ghostly Traces) describes this peculiar nature of photography: A painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, with photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality, and of the past. He goes on to state: what I see been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.

Today as I glance through my much-loved copy of Lost London, I realise that many of the photographs have taken on a new meaning in the years since I began my genealogical quest. Places I could barely locate on a map I can now anchor in their neighbourhoods and the districts to which they connect. I do not by any means pertain to have a fraction of the kind of knowledge possessed by a London flaneur, but realise that my long weekends of pounding the capital’s streets until my legs ached have at least been of some use. And in fact, the truth is that these were the happiest times I spent in London. Just me and an A to Z and an Oyster card (which was often left untouched in my pocket). In those moments of freedom – setting out over one of the bridges towards ‘London-over-the-water’ in the morning with the wind off the Thames stinging my eyes was always an exhilarating moment – I felt as alive to the city as I do to the sea or the mountains at the outset of a long hike.

Some weekends my walking would take me to the door of a conveniently located research centre – like the Lambeth Archives housed in the Minet Library just around the corner from my father’s boyhood stamping ground. Wonderfully placed for researching the streets which surrounded it, this was where I learned about the beginnings of my grandmother’s home in Denmark Road, where she lived as a child and married woman (see I remember, I remember), and about my great-great grandfather’s house in nearby Coldharbour Lane. Although this early Victorian semi-detached villa-style house was but a short walk away from Denmark Road, none of my immediate relatives had ever been aware of the ‘other family’ before. Unfortunately, knowledge of the first London Skeltons had been ‘lost’ to the generations that followed due to their tangled double-family genealogy. And it is this story with which my project is mainly concerned: by creating a chronological narrative, I hope to eventually have built up a framework on which to hang these knotted threads for further disentangling.

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)

COLD HARBOUR LANE HOUSE (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Brixton houses: two different families

The one thing, however, which unites both Skelton family branches (the lost and the found; the wealthy and the poor) is south London. And this is the place I usually head to on my safaris around the capital. From riverside Bermondsey to Camberwell and Gipsy Hill, and beyond to Croydon, the family has steadily (and typically) moved further south from the river. The master tailor, James Skelton, who first arrived from Yorkshire in the early 19th century, started the trend for moving to somewhere cleaner and more wholesome in which to raise a family, while benefiting from the extra living space – not to mention the increased status such addresses brought. As respiratory problems affected a great deal of Londoners, shortening their lives and causing them misery, including many in my own family, moving away from centres of industry and the burgeoning railways (see A Riverside Rest) was a smart and obvious move for those who  could afford it.

But then as these places themselves fell foul to speculative building, and the once green fields and market gardens were covered with rows of hastily built stockjobbers’ houses, the wealthier sought to move further out. Sometimes that trend was temporarily reversed, as was the case with James Skelton when in middle-age he set up home with an impoverished teenage single mother, shortly after the death of his first wife (see When I Grow Rich). Thus instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement in his leafy Brixton neighbourhood, he had to ‘downsize’ to more industrial Walworth to enable him to bring up six children! I sometimes wonder if, when he died in Aldred Road from bronchitis at 67 (not a bad age in the 1860s), he ever regretted filling up his remaining years with the duties of maintaining another family, or whether those new children had given him a reason to carry on until the end. This was despite the probable distaste his grown-up ‘other’ children had for his union with a young pauper girl, which was only made legal in 1864, shortly before his death.

Aldred Rd. (2)Aldred Road, Walworth c1916

In many ways my family research is not merely an attempt to learn about my unknown London ancestors, but to also discover London in a way that takes me to places I might not have ever visited. As I’ve mentioned previously, despite living in the capital for three years in the mid-eighties, I rarely went south of the river, being content to enjoy the then ‘coolness’ of north and west London. Now it seems inconceivable that I did not think to venture farther than the George Inn on Borough High Street, or the South Bank Centre, but Southwark had always seemed so gloomy to me (from the other side of the river) and childhood memories of boat trips to Greenwich passing dark and forbidding warehouses (where anything might happen) had only added to this impression.

When I did start to explore the streets of ‘London-over-the -water’, I was surprised and delighted at the variety of architectural styles, the hidden gardens, the helpful folk who often appeared whenever I pulled out my A to Z on a street corner. If I was tired, I’d hop on a bus to get a better overview of the surrounding neighbourhood and have the added advantage of seeing into living rooms and gardens as the bus dawdled at lights or crawled up many of south London’s unexpected hills. Sometimes I’d get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere unplanned, but I always tried to see this as an opportunity to discover somewhere new. Tranquil gardens, like those at the Horniman Museum, or wonderful streets, such as Camberwell Grove, would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a wrong turning or a mistaken bus route. Even if there was not a direct ancestral connection, these places were just as fascinating to visit as the neighbourhoods of my forebearers. Oftentimes I wondered if I was walking in the ghost footsteps of someone who had gone before me: Did X ever walk down this road and marvel at the houses just as I do now? Did Y ever visit these gardens and take the same pleasure I do in strolling between the flower beds and sitting under the trees?

Horniman Museuem Gardens c1900Horniman Museum Gardens c1900 (c) Horniman Museum

My favourite activity was to connect up the neighbourhoods in which my ancestors once lived, walking along what I liked to think of as ‘genealogical ley lines’. This is how I came to learn about the River Effra – what the historian and writer Jon Newman describes in his eponymous book as ‘South London’s Secret Spine.’ The name Effra was already familiar to me through my walks in Brixton where there is an Effra Road, Close, Court and Parade, as well as other landmarks which include Effra in their title. Thus I always associated the word ‘Effra’ with that area, just as I did the name ‘Ruskin’ or ‘Denmark’, but without initially giving the etymology much thought. It was only later, when I could map out South London in my head and roughly understand how all the different parts were interconnected that the Effra began to mean more to me than just another ubiquitous street name.

The turning point was when I heard about the relatively new Lambeth Heritage Festival – a month-long series of walks and talks in the area held every September since 2013. Having attended one or two of these events previously, in 2016 I was interested to note that the programme included a trio of excursions which covered the route of the river Effra from its source in Norwood to its outlet into the Thames at Vauxhall. The walks were led by Jon Newman, the head archivist at the Minet library, who had recently published his book on the topic. The first walk was concentrated on the ‘High Effra’ and was advertised as: A horseshoe walk, descending the Lower Norwood branch of the Effra from its source and then returning up the Upper Norwood branch to that stream’s source. The next walk (the ‘Middle Effra’) was described as: A walk along the Effra valley as it passes between Knights Hill and Herne Hill. Finally, the ‘Low Effra’ was billed as: A walk following the course of the ‘new cut’ of the river dug in the middle ages from Kennington to the Thames.

effracoverMuch to my frustration, I wasn’t able to join any of these walks or attend the lecture which accompanied the book launch. However, the following year another talk on the subject was scheduled during the Lambeth Heritage Festival. I took my mother along with me as it coincided with our yearly trip to the capital, and the location – a modern upstairs conference room in Southwark Cathedral – was relatively close to our digs in Bankside. (It would be the last time we would visit London together before all the walking became too much for her). On instinct, I kept the title of the talk a secret from my mother – as I felt befitted the subject. I also had the feeling that the idea of an underground river in south London would not excite her in the same way that it did me. I hoped, however, that the content of the talk would lead her to come to the same realisation that I had.

Halfway through the event, when Jon Newman paused to take a sip of water, my mother turned to me and hissed Our family are the River Effra! And I knew then that she had ‘got it’, too. From Gipsy Hill to Coldharbour Lane to Kennington and the River Thames, the course of the vanished river was like a geographical history of our family. Back in our rooms at the LSE Bankside that night, we scoured Newman’s book and let our eyes linger on the images and maps which accompanied the story of the river from its beginnings in what was once known as The Great North Wood to its artificial ‘outfall’ into the Thames. It was frustrating to note that any photographs which appeared to be of the Effra were only of the old river bed, the watercourse having already been mostly directed underground by the time this technology was in place. As Newman himself points out: Just as London’s nature writers missed out on the Effra so, by and large, did London’s photographers; the river’s vanishing act just pre-dated the growing affordability and portability of cameras.

 River Effra 1870The River Effra channel at Norwood c1870

Perhaps that is why the history of this river exerts such a hold on so many people. The very fact that there are no true images of the Effra as an actual river means that we must rely on other evidence to tell its story – documents, sketches, paintings, maps, place names, the physicality of gurgling drains. But despite all this, the Effra is still hidden to us – in more way than one – and can never be returned to us, for all the fanciful thinking out there. Except perhaps in our imagination, where it rushes and sparkles.

This is also why I believe we are drawn to our family histories: they are like stories forced underground that bubble up to the surface at certain points and intersections, yet can only be fully understood by our own plodding research into the archives. But still we walk the streets, searching for the more physical traces of our ancestors, every so often experiencing a feeling that we cannot quite describe, but briefly sense it to be one that has passed through the generations. The smell of the Thames at high tide from a set of watermans’ stairs; the bells at St Paul’s on a rainy Sunday morning; the taste of roast chestnuts on a winter’s afternoon in early December. Or we might glance up for no reason and see a ghost sign advertising the rental of carriages on the side of a building, or turn into an unexpected alley in the City which smells of beer and grilled chops and hear the chink of cutlery, the sound of laughter. And in those moments we may feel the shape-shifting nature of time.

The physicist and writer Carlo Rovelli talks briefly about the nature of time

Just as many of our ancestors bemoaned what was being lost, perhaps fearing that time was racing forwards without their consent, we too are often nostalgic for the buildings and places that no longer exist – in particular those which are just tantalisingly out of the reach of living memory. Yet there can also be a danger to this way of thinking: we should not forget that our past was once someone else’s future. The restored Victorian warehouses which line the Thames in my great-great grandfather’s Horsleydown neighbourhood (now part of Bermondsey) are nothing less than modern replacements for the old timbered ones my ancestors would have known. The Tower Bridge, loved and revered by so many, involved the destruction of local neighbourhoods on either side of the river (including part of Horsleydown Lane), and it is easy to forget that many eminent Victorians disliked such displays of the Gothic pastiche that came to dominate the architecture of the time. In some quarters there were even calls for its removal in the post war development of the city. (Writing in South London in 1949, the opinionated but highly readable historian Harry Williams contends that: The Tower Bridge is inefficient and a back-number, but it is part of the London scene for, as previously remarked, the river without it is almost unimaginable.  It must be replaced since it is an anachronism, but it should be succeeded, not by the underground tunnel recommended by the County of London Plan, but by a splendid new bridge, a magnificent conception to lift up our hearts every time we gaze upon it).

TOWER BRIDGEThe ‘new’ Tower Bridge – with Horsleydown Lane on the right

When we think about the sad story of the Effra, polluted and pushed underground over the years in the name of progress, it is hard to see this as anything but the converse. Newman points out that today such a river would most likely be regarded as a ‘soft’ engineering solution to the increased rainfall caused by climate change – in the same way other watercourses have been ‘re-natured’. Not only does this provide an attractive landscape for local residents and restores wildlife habitats, but a natural, meandering watercourse slows down and incorporates water that may cause flooding downstream during heavy rains.

For all our nostalgia over lost churches and streets, perhaps it is the loss of this unphotographed natural splendour – and others like it – which we should mourn most of all.

To be continued next month in A River Ran Under Them.

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2019

Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman

During the 1910s, women’s fashion favoured a more natural body shape and a decline in fussy ornamentation – an altogether less cluttered line. Ancestors can look fairly plain in photographs of this period, when wearing the popular blouse and skirt combination that formed the basis of the female wardrobe. Typically, a white or coloured blouse with a high collar, or slightly lower neckline with a rounded collar, was teamed with a plain tailored skirt, the skirt rather narrow or moderate in shape and sometimes featuring ornamental buttons.

Jayne Shrimpton,Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs, (2014)

edith at 18My paternal grandmother, Edith Matilda Stops, at age 18 in 1916

My London grandmother, Edith Matilda Skelton (née Stops), died on the 31st March 1976, two years into her short widowhood. She was found at her ground floor flat in Hampton, ensconced in her favourite comfy chair, a book on her lap, her weak heart having suddenly given out after 78 years. As a child, I had thought this a most normal-sounding death, but of course I now know better. When I think about the horrific-sounding demise of my Edwardian  actor/manager ancestor Herbert Sleath-Skelton in Holloway Asylum (see Herbert Sleath: His Decline and Fall), or that of his father’s junior business partner, George Schofield – who was crushed under a tube train at Warren Street Station towards the end of his life – then I know that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones.

The informant of my grandmother’s death was my fifty-year-old aunt, who lived nearby, and visited her mother regularly. She had been alerted by a neighbour who’d noticed from the communal garden that my grandmother had been sitting at the window in her chair all day, something which was very unlike her. In fact, earlier that morning she’d hung out a wash, then brought it inside, folding it in preparation for an ironing which would never happen. All those details I know as they were related to my parents in a phone call later that same day, no doubt to impress upon them that the death had been unexpected and that my grandmother had not suffered it any way. As it was, we’d only just had a telephone put in at our home – partly because when my grandfather died two years earlier, the family living next to us were contacted first. (We were not particularly close to them, so that probably was a slightly awkward scenario for all concerned).

glenmill.jpgThe flats at Glenmill, Hampton, with the communal gardens

It must have been that ugly grey phone, bolted high up the wall next to the hall mirror, which delivered the bad news about our grandmother to our house. I remember being  told very little about the event, at the time, and my father set off down to London for a slightly tense meeting with his siblings (there being some sort of friction between my aunt and uncle, as is often the case after the death of a parent). A few days later he came back with a rather kitschy swan vase for me – one of several ornaments my grandmother had out on display during my childhood. But I never felt as if it contained the essence of her, and sadly I lost it in one of my many moves over the years.

grandma's swanAn almost identical swan vase to my grandmother’s

What I really wanted (had I been asked) was the funny green plastic cup that I was told was actually called a beaker, and which could magically hold hot tea without melting. It had a strange but comforting smell – especially if you bit softly into the rim. When we finally arrived from Scotland at our grandparents’ house off the overnight bus (via the newly-built M1), all of us were exhausted and out of sorts, and I was always glad to be given sweet tea in that cup.

There were, however, very few items my grandparents had in their retirement flat which had accompanied them throughout their married life. This does not surprise me as they had the misfortune to be born in the 1890s, which would see them both involved (in their own way) in two world wars and all the disruption that entailed. And as regular readers may recall, when my grandmother and the three children all ended up being evacuated to Somerset to escape the Blitz, many of their possessions, including my father’s and my aunt’s favourite toys, were misplaced (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

However, recently I was pleased to discover that one of my cousins (with whom I share a birth year) had inherited my grandmother’s ‘wedding teapot’ through her father. She’d specifically asked for the item as it was a precious link to both her father and the beloved grandmother who had helped to look after her and her brother  when – in an uncanny mirroring of our paternal grandfather’s childhood experience – they had been left motherless at a very young age.

GRANDMAS TEAPOT.JPGMy grandmother’s silver-plated ‘wedding teapot’

As previously mentioned (see I Remember, I Remember), the one house that could have been described as the Stops-Skelton family home was 95 Denmark Road in Brixton*, where my grandmother lived from an early age until she turned forty. Not only did she meet my grandfather there when he came to lodge with her widowed mother, Harriett Stops, in 1922 (after serving in WW1), but all her three children were born in the house, and Harriett lived out her last years with the family, dying of heart disease in 1930, at the age of 73 at the local Lambeth Hospital (where her husband, Thomas Stops, had died of TB in 1906). Despite the  whole family being delighted to eventually be able to move to a modern cottage-style council house in West Norwood which had both electricity and an indoor toilet, I expect there must have been some degree of sadness when they closed the heavy door of number 95 behind them for the last time in 1938.    

*Lambeth Archives holds the details for this house, and I was fascinated to learn that it had been built on the site of gardens and orchards in the 1840s during a speculative building boom in the area. Thereupon the house changed hands several times, but always being used for rental income of up to £50 a year. It had been sold initially for £100 with £6 annum ground rents (on an 80-year lease), rising to £175 (possibly more), before it was reduced to £100 again by the 1930s. However, my grandfather’s brother (a builder) warned him not to buy it when he had the chance, which was a wise move given that the house was hit by a bomb shortly before it could celebrate its centenary.

denmark roadMy grandmother outside 95 Denmark Rd, Brixton, c1910

When I was a child, my grandmother always came across to me as a very motherly type, so it is hard for me to imagine her before her marriage as an independent young woman with a career as a telephonist at the central telephone exchange. That was in the early days of phone use, when calls had to be put through manually (something I can still just remember before STD or subscriber trunk dialling came into nationwide effect). She took up this job at the outbreak of WW1 and remained in it up until her marriage to my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, in 1924. In the photograph (below) of my grandmother with her mother and brother Tom, a telegraph clerk, taken in 1916, just before he went off to war, she appears very confident and grown-up in her smart but unfussy outfit – very different from the shy-looking little girl she seemed to be a decade earlier, in the image entitled ‘After Father Died’ (shown further below).

thomas_and_edith_with_mother_harriett_'before_going_to_the_war' (2)Edie with Tom and Harriett, ‘Before Going to War’ c1916

tom_fred_and_edith_with_mother_1909_taken_soon_after_father_died-3Edie with Tom, Fred and Harriett, ‘After Father Died’, c1906

From examining all the photographs of my grandmother in her youth, I have the sense she was once quite an active person, as there often appears to be an aura of restrained movement about her. In one particular image of her mother Harriett sitting in a chair in the back garden in Denmark Road, it is just possible to make out what looks like Edie (and the tail of a cat?) moving about behind her. However, as this was believed to be taken in 1923, a year before Edie’s marriage, it may have been another young female friend or relative.

It is strange feeling to think that this was also the same backyard* my father played in as a child, and which over the years contained a coal house, dustbin, outside toilet, dog kennel and henhouse. Despite all those multiple uses of what would not have been a particularly large space to begin with, it does even look as if there was the semblance of a garden as well.     

*As a child I found it odd  that my father called our suburban back garden a ‘back yard’, despite the fact I kept reminding him that, as it was covered in grass and had flowers and vegetables, it was technically a garden. For years I thought he’d picked up the expression from Americans he’d known, but of course it was only later I realised that a back yard really was what most old Victorian terraces had!

harriett june 23 Harriett Stops (née Burnell) in the back yard of 95 Denmark Road, June 1923

My grandparents’ wedding ceremony took place on Saturday 25th October 1924 at the parish church of St Matthews, in Brixton. Despite the fact that the following week would be the infamous  general election of 1924 (and the 3rd in two years), in which ex-prime minister  Stanley Baldwin* would be re-elected in a landslide win for the conservatives – the newly-married Edith was still not allowed to vote. She had to wait until 1928 (when ironically she turned thirty in any case) before the law changed to give all woman the same voting rights as men, who had been given the franchise in 1918 at age twenty-one (along with women over thirty, on conditions related to their properties or those of their husbands) under the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

I had always thought this age restriction was just due to some outdated notion that women were deemed to be more politically immature, but I have since discovered this it was created to redress the imbalance in the population caused by the loss of male voters during the Great War. By adjusting the voting age in such a way, it was reasoned that there would be more equal numbers of men and women.

*As surprising as it may seem, there is a vague family connection (through marriage) to Stanley Baldwin in the wealthy ‘other’ Skelton family, that readers may recall (see The Kipling Connection or Not So Great Expectations).

marriage_edith_stops-sidney_skelton (2)Skelton-Stops Wedding in Brixton, Saturday, 25th October, 1924

Edith must have been pleased to have Tom and Fred there beside her  on her ‘big day’, as both her older brothers had been active in the Great War, leaving her at home to lend support to Harriett while they were away. Due to this (the fear that she might lose them), and the strong bonds they created among them when they were all left fatherless at a relatively young age, my grandmother was to remain devoted to her brothers all her life. (This was lucky for me, as the only reason I have most of these photographs is because of Tom’s granddaughter, who I discovered on a genealogy website a few years ago).

As my own quest is centred mainly on the Skelton family, I have kept research into the Stops family to a minimum, even though, from a genetic point of view this is quite illogical. But at every new pairing there are more family history alleys one could travel down, and keeping my search to the Skeltons simplifies things, giving me more of a goal-orientated feel. If I were to start to investigate the Stops in any detail, I feel I would have to focus equally on the Burnells (Harriet’s family), then divide those into two branches, and so on*. I did, however, do this superficially for fun one day, and discovered that the first wife of Harriett Burnell’s brother, George, was called Matilda – and their little girl (who would go on to be called Daisy Matilda) was listed in the 1891 census as Not Named 4 ½ hours old! Was this the source of my grandmother’s middle name? As it turned out, the two cousins (Daisy and Edie) would become firm friends over the years, and my aunt recalled meeting Daisy as a child when she’d already left her native Somerset to take up a job in London as a waitress  at Selfridges .    

*I have sometimes been rather horrified to see huge sprouting family trees like ancient oaks where too many relatives seem to dilute the information – although I’m aware that ancestor-gathering does seem to be the aim of some researchers.

But to return to the Stops family. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops was a trained wheelwright/blacksmith, born in 1853 in Hackney, the middle son of another wheelwright (William Stops) from Wendover in Buckinghamshire. While these jobs sound very much like rural professions to our modern ears, there would most likely have actually been more of such work in the capital due to the number of horse-drawn vehicles on the streets. Despite this, William Stops was never able to make much money from his trade, and the growing family moved to different accommodation in East London on a regular basis. At one point they were living in Tower Hamlets at Pleasant Place, which sounded anything but pleasant if a contemporary description of the street by a physician investigating the sanitary conditions of London is to be believed.

It is worth quoting the extract in full, taken from the book Sanitary Ramblings being Sketches and Illustrations of Bethnal Green: A type of the condition of the metropolis and other large towns by Hector Gavin MD FRCSE (1848), due to the light it sheds on the plight of the insecure working class in the middle of the nineteenth century: This central square (consisting of Pleasant-row and Pleasant-place) is made up of swine-pens and yards in which dung-heaps are piled; in it are the privies of the northern half of the row, forming the south of the square. Immediately facing Pleasant-row is a ditch, filled with slimy mud and putrefying filth, which extends for 100 feet. The space between Pleasant-row and the central square is, beyond description, filthy; dung heaps and putrefying garbage, refuse, and manure, fill up the horrid place, which is covered with slimy foetid mud. The eastern end has likewise its horrid filthy foetid gutter reeking with pestilential effluvia; the southern alley is likewise abominably filthy: there the same slime and mud overspreads the broken up bouldered path; and there, the same most disgusting odours are given off, which are common to this area of putrescence. I do not think that in all my journeying through the degraded haunts of wretched poverty in this poor parish I have found a scene so distressing.

The houses in Pleasant-place are chiefly two-roomed and let at 3s. 6d. a week, but some of the two-roomed and all the three-roomed houses let at 5s. a week. I entered one of these houses on the southern side, and found that every individual in a family of seven had been attacked with fever, and that a daughter, aged 22, who had been convalescent eight weeks, on her return from the country to her miserable home, died of a relapse in two days. The body was retained in the house, because no means could be found to raise the money necessary to bury it, and was then lying in its coffin. The privy of this house is close to it, and is full and overflowing, covering the yard with its putrescent filth; the stench was perfectly unendurable; the house itself was most shockingly dirty. 3s. a week were paid for this den of pestilence, while the husband and wife together, by working night and day, could only earn 15s. a week. To permit a continuance of the state of things I saw would be, as it were, voluntarily to tolerate the elimination of a fatal poison to be sucked in at every breath of the occupants, who, this condemned to death, perish not by the momentary pangs of official strangulation, but by the more miserable death of loathsome typhus. How lost to all sense of charity and brotherly love, how forgetful of the value of human life, are those who apathetically survey such sad scenes of wretched misery.

So William Stops had left the rural town of Wendover to better himself in the capital and it had come to this? It is ironic to note that at the same time as William was struggling in the East End, living at the very unpleasant-sounding Pleasant Place, his father Joseph Stops, was ironically working as an agricultural labourer at Paradise Water Mill* (and maltings) in the village of Wendover, in Buckinghamshire, working for the miller Eizabeth Hoare (whose sisters ran a private boarding school for young ladies in the 1840s and 50s), while his wife (William’s mother) worked as a washerwoman.  

*Paradise House is now a grade 2 listed building and an extremely attractive private dwelling today, described in the town guide as being an 18th century construction which incorporates a much older one.

Despite the ‘paradise’ name, it is debatable whether life in the countryside was any easier than in the London ‘slums’. While places like Wendover are now highly desirable locations, particularly if in commuting distance to the capital (as Wendover is today), increasing industrialisation and threats from globalisation meant that the old rural trades, such as the lace making trade in Wendover, were now dying out. And even though living conditions in the capital were less than ideal, there was no rural idyll in the countryside either, with agricultural labourers earning a pittance for insecure work and living in poor quality housing.

However, it was often the next generation that was able to build on the risks their parents had taken through movement and migration, and so it was that when Thomas Stops married the Somerset-born domestic servant, Harriett Burnell, in 1887 after an eight-year stint as a soldier with the Royal Artillery, they were able to rent a terraced house on a new estate at Sands End in Fulham. It was there, at number 61 Cranbury Road, where several years later they had their three children: Thomas William Burnell (Tom) in 1893; Frederick Arthur James (Fred) in 1895; Edith Matilda (Edie) in 1898 (when Harriett was 41).

A few years ago I went to see the house, expecting an ordinary Victorian terrace. So I was rather surprised to see that number 61 had been merged with 61a next door to create a large five-bedroomed home now named ‘Lavender House’, which has been featured in several prominent glossy magazines (see article here). Currently worth about three million pounds, it is a far cry from the old Cranbury Road houses of the 1970s, a time when  the area had become slightly run down, and it was possible to buy a period property for around three thousand pounds.

lavender house

lavender house gardenLavender House, Cranbury Road, Fulham, today (front and back)

And perhaps here – where it all began – is a fitting place to end the first part of our story. The Stops family left Fulham for Denmark Road in south London in the early 1900s and shortly after that Thomas died of tuberculosis, leaving Harriett to bring up the children alone, taking in a series of lodgers to help pay her way (one of whom would become my grandfather). Unfortunately, it is impossible to know why the family moved to the other side of London as the only connection they had with the area was the fact that Harriett had worked as a domestic servant for a family in Camberwell when she arrived from her native Highbridge in Somerset.

However, I have in my possession (courtesy of my aunt) a copy of a wonderful cabinet portrait entitled ‘Edie with Dog’, which was possibly taken by one of those itinerant photographers who called from house to house, most likely when the family still lived in Fulham. I’m not sure if the dog was the family pet, but it is certainly the kind which was popular at the time, and might instead have belonged to a friend or relative. Edie looks like she’s wearing her best Sunday bonnet and white dress. So was it a special occasion, or had she been dressed up especially for the photograph?

The background (a suburban garden fence supporting hollyhocks and climbers) makes me believe this photograph was taken in the garden of 61 Cranbury Road, shortly before the family left the area. Although the copy is of poor quality, I still find the composition exquisite. There is the angle of Edie’s head as she gazes at the unseen photographer. The nonchalant way she is holding the lead of that tiny dog. The slightly wild vegetation which frames her, suggesting a ramshackle garden that would be enchanting to a child.

Even the faded sepia copy lends the image an ethereal quality, making Edie appear like an Edwardian ghost child. As a child myself, I would have loved to have reached back through time and played with this little girl from another age in her wild back garden. Yet when my grandmother was still alive, I could never really have imagined her as anything other than lumpen and yellow-toothed. And I find that impossibly sad.

p1070485 (2)‘Edie with Dog’, c1903

To be continued next month . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2019

There is a Time

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940) 

124 (2)

In the dark – but often spiritually illuminating – time between Christmas and New Year, it is customary to look back on the previous twelve months, while attempting to plan for the next. I say attempt because not only do good intentions often go astray, but there are many events that can derail future plans, not least human fallibilities.

Five years ago I made the resolution to write up my unknown London family history in a series of blog posts intended to replicate the chronological chapters of a book, although the project did not become a reality until 2015. Prior to that, I had been going around in circles, unable to finish any one topic because there was always something extra to research, another fact to verify, or a new location to visit. But by setting myself official monthly deadlines, I was eventually able to circumvent this procrastination, at the same time moving my story forward in ways that I had not imagined at the beginning of my quest.

I do sometimes feel, however, that there is a price to pay for this ‘living in the past’. Not only can it be quite dispiriting to see how quickly a life is begun and ended, but it can be tempting to ignore the hardships our ancestors faced and instead become nostalgic for the lives they once led, particularly in today’s crowded and fast-paced world. This feeling is particularly prevalent at Christmas – a festival that we naturally associate with the 19th century, especially London, in part due to Charles Dickens’ perennial Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol. Yet, we often forget that many of the Christmas traditions we associate with the Victorians were only being established at this period, and that there would have been huge gaps in the expectations of the wealthy and the working class.

L_3293-1987_christmas_card_1000pxThe first Christmas Card, designed by J.C. Horsley, 1843 (c) V&A 

Having been born in the last year of what was once called the old century, my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, would have witnessed those changes throughout his life. It was not until he was a relatively mature father of five (in 1834) that Christmas Day was officially declared a public holiday, and several decades before Boxing Day was also given this status. Christmas Day for James and his growing family would not have differed much from other days – as it was for my Scottish grandparents up until the 1950s – but by the time he had established his second family in the 1860s many of the customs we now take for granted were already in place. I therefore like to think that the Christmas traditions I experienced as a child, and which my father inherited from his parents and grandparents, stretched back over a hundred years, while being modified on the journey.

As I have previously described (see The Ghosts of Christmas Past), Christmas for us as children was celebrated more in the English style. (Although Scotland had caught up in the intervening decade or two, I was aware that many of our family rituals seemed rather overblown in comparison to my friends). Along with Guy Fawkes’ Night, it was the festivity we most associated with our father, who did not recognise our Scottish customs of Halloween and New Year. While I don’t remember the big London Christmases of my early childhood, most of those same traditions were carried on in our own family home throughout the 1970s and into the 80s. As our Scottish relatives did not live nearby, it was usually just our nuclear family of four, and I always enjoyed that quiet period in the days between Christmas and New Year where there was nothing much else to do but go for long walks with the dog, returning to new books and mince pies, along with a glut of fresh pens and paper for all those creative endeavours that petered out during that first week back at school in January.

P1040601 (3)A London Family Christmas, 1966

Like many people, I continue to associate this time of year with contemplation and reflection: a chance to not only think about new ventures, but to consider the direction in which our lives are going and how to find our way back to the old paths we might have allowed to become overgrown with the passage of the years. And family history can help us to do just that – to reassess our future in relation to the past. Unhealthy patterns of behaving or relating may be discarded or amended in the light of knowledge of the effects of past actions on future lives. We realise that relatives who fell out with each other over something petty went on to deny subsequent generations the chance to connect with each other. We wonder if a misguided late Victorian parent may have prevented a bright child from reaching their potential. And we learn that war created upheavals that reconfigured family dynamics for decades to come.

Of course there are kindnesses to consider, too. An unknown aunt who bestowed much-wanted toys on younger relatives before dying young; a grandfather who handmade intricate dolls-houses (with real electric lights and wallpaper!) for all his four grand-daughters; the Somerset villagers who showed compassion towards a family of London evacuees. And in the present day, there are newly-discovered relations (some too distant to ever have met in the traditional way) who have supplied photographs and documents as well as those all-important personal anecdotes. And that is before mentioning other researchers, historians and writers who have offered advice and guidance, some becoming friends along the way.

Genealogy can also encourage us to regard time differently. Past, present and future may slip and slide into each other. What would my Bermondsey ancestors make of present-day Bankside, with the strange apparition of old-new Tower Bridge appearing from the river mists at the end of their narrow, cobbled lane? Or at the sight of Shakespeare’s Globe rising out of the debris of what to them was modern wharfs and warehouses? Of course, any visit to the capital after some years away can create similar sensations in the modern mind. When I first returned to London to pick up the genealogical quest I’d started in the 1980s, the unexpected changes to the city confused me. Hadn’t there once been an iron railway bridge across Ludgate Hill, spoiling the view of St Pauls’ Cathedral from Ludgate Circus? And look! There was the ‘lost’ Temple Bar, re-erected in an unrecognisable reincarnation of Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s. Strange new tube stations had also sprung up in unexpected places like fungi arising from the hidden network of their underground mycelium. Not only that, but a fast train line now linked London with France, bringing us closer to our continental neighbours.

LUDGATE HILL (2).jpgLudgate Hill Railway Viaduct, London, early 20th Century

However, it is the social aspects of family history which I often find most illuminating. In my own quest to find out about my London ancestors I have been both surprised and disappointed by the fact that the ‘lost’ wealthy branch from my great-great grandfather’s first marriage (in particular his merchant son, James William Sleath-Skelton, see A Tale of Exploitation) seemed unwilling to help the other second family to prosper in an increasingly competitive and industrialised world. Although the unorthodox – yet not uncommon – living conditions of my great-great grandfather and his much younger partner (who only became his wife shortly before his death) may have offended the High Victorian sensibilities of the adult children from his first marriage, I wonder if they did not feel some sort of duty towards the struggling descendants of this union, most of whom had to leave school relatively young and take up manual work. Was there no Christmas spirit among them which might have seen a food hamper delivered to the Hawkins-Skelton’s cramped terraced house in Kennington, or a box of toys for the children? After all, these were their half-siblings, children whose many descendants  would spread out over south London, going on to fight for King and Country in the 20th century’s future wars.

While Dickens was spreading the message that Christmas should be a time of giving and togetherness, many wealthy families up and down the land, including the Sleath-Skeltons, were obviously donating to specific charities. But while it may have been easier to give to anonymous individuals under the umbrella of a charitable organisation, it seems that when it came to their own relations some preferred to shun those deemed less successful than themselves. Ironically, it was just at the time that Christmas was reinstated as a public holiday, the New Poor Law of 1834 was coming into effect, something I have discussed before in relation to my great-great grandmother’s (Mary Ann Hawkin’s) immediate family, most of whom fell foul of this law and ended up incarcerated in separate workhouses, despite their protestations for parish relief (see When I Grow Rich). 

Dickens was vehemently against the amendment to the poor law, which saw parish or ‘outdoor’ relief being replaced by the punitive workhouse system. He viewed the new law as anti-Christian, writing his novel Oliver Twist in response to this and other social injustices of the time, particularly towards children. It is interesting to note that several years later he visited the Norwood School of Industry (a sort of children’s workhouse) in South London, to which Mary Ann’s younger siblings had been sent while their parents were in the separate (male and female) City union workhouses. Were little Emma and Sophia Hawkins aware of the illustrious visitor in their midst that day in 1850, when they were no doubt displayed as examples of how ‘industrial schooling’ was able to improve the lives of what Dickens called compounds of ignorance, gin and sprats in his article about the school (entitled London Pauper Children), which was later published in his new journal Household Words?

Scrooge (2)Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) by John Leech

Perhaps the last words of this post should be given to Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, Tom, who appears at the start of A Christmas Carol, explaining to his embittered  uncle why he believes in celebrating Christmas: I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Happy New Year! from the Incidental Genealogist, January 2019.

 

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost.

Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin, Forgotten Voices of The Great War, Max Arthur, 2002

P1050403 (3).JPGMy grandfather, Sidney Skelton, at a family picnic, 1966

In last month’s post (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier), I described my London-born grandfather’s service in the British army during WW1, relying on the war diaries of the 19th Hussars held by the National Archives to give me a more accurate picture of a cavalryman’s life on the Western Front. Contrary to what I’d imagined, it wasn’t all trench warfare, and I was rather surprised at the varied tasks the troops had to undertake, as well as the number of other activities that went on ‘behind the line’, such as parades, horse shows and football games.

The November 1918 entries for the war diary finished abruptly on the morning of the 11th at around 8:30am – with unfortunately no mention of the Armistice.  The diary was restarted the following month when the batallions  were in Germany and continued to detail the clean-up operations (as well as the fate of the horses) until the troops left for Southampton on the 30th of March the following year. Sadly, many of the entries list the large numbers of men who died from the 1918 influenza outbreak, so-called Spanish Flu, something which must have been a terrible finale to a terrible war.

While back in the UK recently, I attended a screening of Peter Jackson’s documentary about the Great War, They Shall Not Grow Old, which was created using digitalised footage from the Imperial War Museum and sound recordings with veterans made fifty years after the outbreak of war. The film (which was shown on BBC2 on the evening of the 11th of November to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice) was an incredible piece of cinematography that brought home the horrors of the First World War in a way that was more relatable than any other documentary I have seen about the conflict.

As many reviewers of the film have pointed out, watching this modern-looking footage of the soldiers engaged in trench warfare was akin to seeing ghosts rising from the dead and reaching out to us. Particularly poignant were the moments when individual soldiers casually called out to the camera (and thus to us in the audience), with comments such as Hey lads, we’re in the cinema! and Hello, Mum! Hearing the men speak (through a judicious combination of lip-reading and actors’ voiceovers) gave the clips of the troops an eerie timelessness that only served to underscore the horror of the battle scenes. Did those men – who so jauntily call out to us today – live to see old age, as my grandfather did; or did they end up as one of the many bloated and disfigured corpses that the film did not hesitate to hide from the viewer?

Perhaps the saddest scenes in the film were the clips taken at the end of the conflict, when the British soldiers fraternised with some of the German prisoners-of-war, declaring them to be ‘just like us’ and ‘decent family men’. It was heart-breaking to see them larking around together, albeit warily, for the camera, trying on each other’s hats and swapping cigarettes and photographs of their families ‘back home’, underscoring the futility of the whole venture. But in those days ‘the other’ was most certainly an unknown quantity: an ordinary soldier would never have had the chance to travel (or live and work abroad), mixing with other nationalities, as we do now. And thus it was easier to brainwash (for want of a better word) the troops into hating the enemy, who likewise had been taught to hate them. If anything, this makes a plea for more integration and cultural understanding.

Another point the film impressed on me was the question of what happened to the ex-servicemen after the war, and the callous way that many were almost thrown on the scrap heap when they returned home, particularly those who had suffered injuries. This puts my grandfather’s thirty-year stint as a tram (and later, bus) conductor with London County Council Tramways into perspective, and I feel ashamed that I (blessed with a free university education in the 1980s) had always deemed this job as beneath him. Grandad felt himself lucky to be able to take up regular work once he came out of the army after serving his allotted twelve years. And whether he wanted to leave then or not, by 1922, the 19th Hussars had amalgamated with the 15th Hussars as cavalry troops ceased to be of importance due to the technological advances in warfare that had escalated throughout the four years of conflict.

gettyimages-82094211-1024x1024Tram Conductor, London, 11th Nov 1929 (c) Imagno/Getty Images

After finding stable employment, my grandfather possibly felt even luckier to marry his Brixton landlady’s 26-year-old daughter, and have the financial security to start a family of his own, while taking over the role of ‘man of the house’ at 95 Denmark Road. There the couple were to remain (with Edith’s widowed mother living out the rest of her life with them) until almost the outbreak of the next war. Denmark Road was just round the corner from the Camberwell Tram Depot and was no doubt why Sidney took lodgings there in the first place. The house is no longer there as the street was bombed during the Blitz and the damaged properties later torn down to make way for post-war housing schemes. However, similar terraced streets in the neighbourhood are very appealing and I imagine that if 95 Denmark Road still existed it would be a much sought after property (as other period houses in the area have become).

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)My grandmother outside 95 Denmark Road, circa 1910

denmark-road-00253-640 (2).jpgDenmark Road after bombing in WW2 (c) Ideal Homes

P1030829 (2)Similar remaining houses in the Denmark Road neighbourhood

This house, which I have written about before (see I Remember, I Remember), must have witnessed a great deal in its 75 year lifespan. All three of the couple’s children were born in that crumbling Victorian terrace: my aunt in 1925, my father in 1928, and my uncle in 1935. Today it is hard to imagine choosing to give birth in a house which did not have electricity or an inside toilet, or the other mod cons we now take for granted.

By 1938, the family were glad to escape from what I imagine to then be a rather dark and dreary house when they moved to the newish cottage-style, council-owned, Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood. Not only had all these semi-detached houses electricity and a bathroom, but a side passageway from the front to the back garden (or yard in those days), meant that messy coal could be directly deposited in the coal shed at the back. And when Denmark Road was eventually bombed, my grandparents were pleased they’d not taken the advice of my grandfather’s brother, Arthur, to buy number 95 outright for £100.

P1030886 (2)The ‘new’ house at Durning Road, West Norwood

My grandparent’s relationship was to all accounts a very traditional one, with Edith’s role that of mother and housewife, despite working as a telephonist in the years prior to her marriage. My mother told me that even when they had retired, my grandmother always had to ‘get home’ in time to make the evening meal if she had been out visiting friends or family, mostly spending time with her grandchildren. But what might seem chauvinistic today was the norm for most families at that time, even until relatively recently. In fact, my own parents, while believing themselves to be very modern, still had very traditional roles, and I remember my father’s occasional hissy fits when my mother was delayed in her part-time job and not back home in time to help prepare dinner.

When researching my grandfather’s life, post-war, I was fortunate enough to discover a chapter entitled ‘Omnibus and Tramway Services’ in the New Survey of London Life and Labour (Vol. 8, London Industries 3), published in 1934. This survey of working class households in London was conducted during 1928-32 (mostly in 1929-31), and was based at the London School of Economics. It was led by the retired government official and social reformer, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith*, with the objective being to measure the current levels of poverty in London, in order to chart the changes in living standards (and other aspects of working class life) since Charles Booth’s pioneering investigations forty years earlier in the 1880s and 90s.

*Interestingly (in terms of the Great War), Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith headed the British economic section at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918-19, and became chief economic adviser to the post-war government. He was a strong supporter of the League of Nations, and was the British member of the economic committee from 1920 to 1927. He was also a leading personality in all negotiations affecting international trade and the commercial repercussions of the war.

Smith’s New Survey outlined some of the conditions for tram and bus conductors prior to the 1933 London Passenger Transport Act, which consolidated the services under the one public authority of the London Passenger Transport Board. It described how the new electric trams (previously they had been powered by steam or horse-drawn) were a growth industry, with the number of conductors and drivers almost doubling throughout the 1920s, due to the increase in services throughout the expanding London suburbs. By the 1930s, diesel buses had begun to play an even greater role, although my grandfather remained as a tram conductor until this mode of transport was phased out in the 1952 under the ominously named ‘Operation Tramaway’, which came into effect in 1950. Thus for the last few years before his retirement he worked ‘on the buses’ – a phrase which brings back memories of that irreverent 1970s sitcom set in a London bus depot that once so entertained us as a family!

However, in the inter-war period many more men applied for the job of tram driver or conductor than there were jobs available, although it would seem that preference was given to returning servicemen who were able to fit the job description in terms of age (over 25) and height (over 5 foot 6 inches, but less than 5 foot 11 inches). I am of course assuming that this was what enabled my grandfather to obtain employment at the Camberwell Tram Depot, particularly after having been a professional soldier for over a decade, having enlisted with the 19th Hussars several years before the outbreak of war. With no proper education after his basic schooling, the army was the only training he knew, but would have given him a number of transferable skills (in today’s parlance), not least discipline and stamina, and being seen as a good team worker.

2624182_1024x1024Camberwell Tram Depot, 1930s (c) London Transport Museum

From what I can gather, Sidney was relatively happy in his employment and I believe it suited him more than a desk-bound job. The tram driver and conductor had to work closely together, coordinating their movements, something with which an ex-soldier would have been familiar. In addition, there were many opportunities to help the public (see poster below), to quip with the passengers – particularly the regulars, and perhaps more importantly for someone used to military life, to keep moving around and with opportunities to be ‘outside’. (Although perhaps breathing in the often smog-laden air of London was not ideal).

gettyimages-464494493-1024x1024LCC Tramways poster, 1932, by J. S. Anderson © Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

I have a strong memory of riding on the top deck of a London bus with my grandfather on a warm summer’s day in the early 1970s (when there still were conductors and the jump-on-jump-off system at the back) and witnessing him admonish a couple of boys in the seat in front of us who had thrown something from the window (a red sweet I think it was) onto the head of an older bald man waiting at the bus stop in the street below us. I remember how I felt, shrinking into my seat, while Grandad gave those lads a colourful earful: pride, fear, embarrassment, all these emotions were going through my mind, and I wondered why he had spoken up when no-one else had. But of course it all makes sense now, given his earlier career. Like most children, I did not know or even care much about what my grandfather had done for a living before I was alive, although for some reason I cannot remember a time when we had not known about his role in the Great War.

P1040720 (2).JPGWith my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, early 1970s.

According to Smith’s New Survey of London Life and Labour, mentioned above, a tram conductor working for the London County Council in the early 1930s would have been paid around 72 shillings a week* (with a penny bonus per day for an accident-free day). He was expected to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, completing a 48-hour week. Holiday pay was given for a fortnight every year (starting after the first year’s service), and there was a staff benevolent fund of which most were subscribers, allowing payouts in times of hardship (employees payed in a penny a day, which was matched by the employer). In addition to this, there was also voluntary schemes with staff-organised friendly societies.

*This amount could be augmented by Sunday and public holiday bonuses, as well as extra earnings for split shifts.

All this would have been a far cry from the situation which existed before the war, where casual labour would have been more prevalent, and men would sleep out at night near to the stables and garages, hoping for paid work the following day. As Sidney had experience of these conditions at the docks, before enlisting in the 19th Hussars, he would have been grateful to find this improvement in working conditions that social reformers, such as Sir Hugh Lewellyn Smith, had brought about.

During the 2nd World War, my now middle-aged grandfather continued to work as a tram conductor (a reserved occupation), while Edith and the three children were eventually all evacuated to the Somerset village of East Coker, this story being the starting point for my genealogical quest (see In my Beginning is my End). Up until the that time, they appear to have been a close family unit, and Sidney was also used to making regular trips to Thornton Heath to visit his older brother, Arthur, and his family.

Perhaps this was because Arthur had also experienced life in the Western Front, spending the final year of the conflict as a prisoner of war in Germany. In addition, their middle brother, James Francis Skelton (who was named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively) had been killed in September 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, leaving behind a young widow and baby who lived in Arthur’s household during and after the war, becoming a mother figure to the children when Arthur’s wife Harriet died of breast cancer at the age of 41 in 1925. James (nicknamed Ginger, presumably on account of having red hair) had been in the Royal West Surrey Regiment along with Arthur after they both signed up at the outbreak of war. 

This loss no doubt brought the two remaining brothers closer together, particularly as they would have known of the horrors that James went through in the mud of Flanders. In addition, one of their three step-brothers, Peter Pushman, was killed in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. (Records indicate that their other two step-brothers – George and Bertie Pushman – seem to have survived the war).

In the course of my research for this post, I discovered that James Skelton’s name is inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial, near to where he was killed at Passchendaele, while Peter Pushman is commemorated at the earlier (pre-1917) memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I doubt that any of the family has been to visit these sites, so I have already planned to make the trip next year – something I can perhaps do for my grandfather, who possibly would never have wanted to return to Ypres*. As Arthur’s youngest son, Peter Sidney (born in February 1915) appears to be named after both Peter Pushman and my grandfather, I believe this indicates that Arthur was close to his step-brother. Peter was only a year older than Sidney, and they had lived in the same household from a young age, so there may have also been a strong bond between them.

*I am delighted to have since discovered (see comments) that one of Arthur’s grandaughters attended a ceremony in Tyne Cot last year to honour the fallen, in which James’ name was read out. It is wonderful to think this young man has not been forgotten, even though he has been ‘lost’ to living memory.

AWM_E01202-L

CEM1988316_1436080540

tyne-cot-cem-2015-n13_orig (2)

tyne-cot-cemetery-belgium-123rf-15203002-rf_tablet.jpgTyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial over the last century

Despite the fact that my grandmother was not so happy about Sidney’s trips to Thornton Heath (she was none too keen on Arthur, I believe), my aunt has fond memories of spending time with her cousins, which I have mentioned before (see The Two Arthurs). However, all these visits came to an end when the next war broke out and were never re-established. As my aunt once wrote: the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.

After 1945, things changed completely for the family. My aunt married her teenage sweetheart from East Coker and became a teacher, the young couple living first with my grandparents (as was normal at the time), before setting up home nearby.  The family had been rehoused (their West Norwood ‘dream home’ had also been bombed during the Blitz) in Teddington, temporarily at Bushy Park Road until they moved to Bishop’s Grove, where they remained until the early 1970s.

For my father, who’d spent the majority of the war as an evacuee in Somerset, Teddington was not a place which held memories or old friends. He was not particularly close to his sister, and the seven-year gulf between him and his younger brother was not surmountable until later in life. My own belief is that there was a feeling of impermanence about the family at this time: the halcyon family years of the 1930s were long gone, and the children were now growing up and had to find their own way in the new post-war world. Like many families, the war changed the dynamics of family relationships, the consequences of which I believe have rippled down to the next generations.

For my grandparents, the years immediately following the Second World War were mainly about helping to look after my aunt’s three young children (at least for my grandmother) while later in retirement Sidney threw himself into woodwork and gardening and learning to drive, as well as having a mysterious part-time job in the neighbourhood which no-one alive can now remember (although it possibly involved joinery). But it illustrates the fact that Sidney liked being busy, making and mending, and co-operating with others. Whether this was his personality or because of his time in the army, or both, it is difficult to say.

P1070475 (2)With their new Morris car, Sid and Edie Skelton, Hayling Island, 1955

I think of Grandad Skelton now as an ‘old school’ pensioner: the type I remember from my childhood who was always working on allotments or building or painting things. These men would invariably always wear a checked flat cap, have rolled up shirtsleeves and a handknitted tank top sweater in a muddy colour or with a fair isle pattern. Shapeless grey or brown trousers were often held up with braces, while strange contraptions kept up woollen socks and held back unruly shirtsleeves. Long johns were worn under trousers in winter, but apart from that the uniform did not seem to change much with the seasons. Whether at the beach with us in summer, or walking through Bushy Park in autumn, collecting conkers, the outfit was always the same.

P1040559 (3)Grandad Skelton in his pensioner’s ‘uniform’, c1967 (age 75)

While it seems strange to imagine my grandfather sporting the jeans and fleece combo of today’s pensioners, it seems stranger still to think that all our allotments, sheds and parks were once full of old men who had served at the Western Front. Now that there are no veterans left – and we are fast approaching the same scenario for the 2nd World War – it is hard to imagine that communities were once full of ex-soldiers who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare, and yet were mostly quietly getting on with their retirement, appreciating their years of freedom, but certainly aware of the fact that this was something many of their fellow servicemen had been denied.

Although it is common knowledge that most returning veterans did not want to talk about the war to their families, I have since come across the theory that this was not necessarily simply because they did not want to relive the horrors, as previously assumed, but more due to the fact that those who had not experienced life on the Western Front could not be expected to understand what they had gone through. Yet, amongst themselves old soldiers would privately reminisce, particularly about those who had not survived the conflict. And I believe it was this bond which held Sidney and Arthur together during the interwar years.

As I look through the few photographs I have of my grandfather, I realise that he never seemed to look terribly happy – always a little uncomfortable, never smiling. But I do not want to leave my readers with the sense that Sidney was permanently melancholic. So I have managed to unearth a rare image in which he seems to be genuinely relaxed: one which which was taken on a summer’s day just a couple of years before he died in 1974 at the age of 82.

P1040615 (3)

Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2018

 

 

 

 

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier

The children of the street are equally different from one another in character and appearance, and are often startlingly good-looking. They have shrill voices, clumsy clothes, the look of being small for their age, and they are liable to be comfortably dirty, but there the characteristics they have in common cease. They may be wonderfully fair, with delicate skins and pale hair; they may have red hair with snub-nosed, freckled faces; or they may be dark and intense, with long, thick eyelashes and slender, lithe bodies. Some are apathetic, some are restless. They are often intelligent; but while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily life, others seem quite unable to do so. They are abnormally noisy. Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?

Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week, (1913)

GRANDAD SMy paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, c1908

As November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, I have decided to devote this month’s post to the early life of my English grandfather, Sidney Skelton, who fought in France and Flanders during the Great War. Sidney was always referred to in our family as ‘Grandad Skelton’, whereas our younger Scottish grandfather (whom we saw more regularly by dint of basic geography) was simply called ‘Grandad’. As a child, this difference in appellation used to worry me – I always thought that my English grandparents would feel that they had been relegated to second-best. Thus I hope by writing this post I can make amends for the fact that I never really knew my English grandfather well enough to learn to love him.

As a working-class Londoner who was born at the tail end of the Victorian period, not only did Sidney experience two world wars – firstly as a soldier, then as a working civilian –  but also the resulting social changes which swept through the 20th century.  I have written about my grandfather before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and those who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning may recall that he has cropped up at various points throughout my story, most notably in connection with his father and oldest brother, both of whom were named Arthur (see The Two Arthurs). Arthur Senior’s  mustachioed face can be seen in my grandparent’s wedding photograph in the banner image above, looking like a leftover from another era. Known as ‘Grandad Arthur’, his jolly-looking countenance belied the harsh life he had led – when this photograph was taken he’d already lost two wives and had endured periods of great poverty that would seem Dickensian today.

Perhaps Sidney had not expected his father to still be around for his wedding day in the autumn of 1924, when he himself was already a relatively mature man (for those days) of thirty-two. Perhaps he’d not even expected to have survived to that age – he had spent many years as a professional soldier, serving in the Great War, and had suffered the loss of an older brother and step-brother in the conflict. For my grandfather, the marriage must have been a bittersweet moment as his thoughts turned to those of his family who could not be there, including his own mother who had died when he was just three, and his step-mother whom he’d lost the year previously.

P1060932 (2)Sidney and Edith on their wedding day, 25th October, 1924

Despite his unease in his borrowed wedding suit (it surely couldn’t have been made for him), he does appear to look vaguely triumphant in his wedding photograph. Perhaps this is not as much in evidence as in the portrait taken to mark his official entry into the 19th Royal Hussars – after all, by 1924 he was no longer an innocent young man who was excited by the prospect a life of adventure, having finally experienced what real war meant. However, on that mild October day, when he married the daughter of his Brixton landlady, he was surely a contented man. His new bride, twenty-six year old Edith Matilda Stops (a name I’m ashamed to say I found ridiculously old-fashioned as a child), was an outgoing young woman who’d started work as a telephonist towards the end of the war, while no doubt still helping her widowed mother out around the house. As both her older brothers had served in the war, she was no stranger to the emotional impact of the conflict, something which was perhaps a comfort to my grandfather.

Whenever I think about my grandparents, it seems hard to reconcile their older selves with the young couple in the photograph above. By the time I came along, Grandma Skelton was already a dumpy women with thick grey hair tied back in a bun (strands of which still kept slipping out) and long, yellow teeth. She had a strange line in pork-pie hats and shiny dresses, and walked in her ugly lace-up shoes with a peculiar flat-footed gait. But I can also remember her lively dark eyes and olive complexion, her easy smile and wonderful cackling laugh. As I child I sensed that she was a happy person, despite the hardships I later discovered she’d endured. In contrast, my grandfather was thin and wiry with pale gnarled limbs and a sunken face, and always seemed to be on the verge of a bad mood. He was also rarely without a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, which was slightly off-putting for the children of non-smokers. So we turned to our plumpish grandmother for hugs instead.

P1040821 (2)With Grandad Skelton, Christmas 1966

Thus poor Grandad suffered by comparison to his easy-going wife. It was a while after his death before I realised how varied his talents were – for woodworking, knitting, growing fruit and vegetables, and anything else he put his mind to. He was the sharp ‘brains’ of the family, but also the most tortured of all my grandparents. As my father inherited many of his characteristics (both good and bad), I know it is too simplistic to blame his experiences on the Western Front for his grumpiness in later life. But it breaks my heart to think that such a talented man ended up spending more than half his working life as a tram (and later, bus) conductor. This is not to denigrate such a job – he’d been delighted to be given such an opportunity in the lean years after the war – it is more that I believe he was the type of young man who would have greatly benefited from a recognised apprenticeship (as my Scottish grandfather did). However, his father was not in any position to support him in such a way.

When Sidney Skelton was born in Lambeth on 12th February 1892, Grandad Arthur and his first wife, Elisabeth (neé Holton), were living in rented rooms at 78, Cator street, near the Surrey Canal. A year later, when Sidney was baptised at the brand new church of All Saints, North Peckham (since dismantled), they had already moved to number 116, where they rented two unfurnished upstairs rooms from the live-in downstairs owner. This part of London was heavily bombed in WW2, resulting in a large area being turned into Burgess Park after the war (see A Tale of Two Parks), a process that took several decades to complete (and is still ongoing). Although these Cator Street houses no longer exist, the last remaining ones in the last remaining part of the street are now very much sought after residences. These period houses have a cottagey feel, yet it is also possible to imagine rows and rows of such identical multi-occupancy terraced houses, grimy in the soot-laden air, and understand why post-war planners were itching to eradicate them.

CATOR STREET (2).pngOriginal houses in Cator Street, Peckham, today

I have a strong feeling that Sidney’s mother was already ailing when she gave birth to him, her fifth child, that winter. Three years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver, her new-born son, Frederick Edward, following her to the grave shortly afterwards. His malnourished rickety body was simply too weak to carry on without her. So little Sidney already had a rocky start in life, which possibly became even rockier when his father quickly remarried a widow with her own children, and the new patchwork family continued to move around south London, the youngest members being registered in different board schools every few months. Although Arthur was a shoemaker by trade, he’d never attained the level of master (as his own father had with his tailoring business), so led a more precarious existence as a journeyman, mending his customers’ shoes in whatever home the Skelton family happened to be living at the time. This would explain why my grandfather once told my aunt that he and his brothers had to walk long distances over south London in order to collect and deliver shoes for their father.

In the 1911 census, I was rather surprised to find that 52 year-old Grandad Arthur was found to be staying at Rowton House (at the Elephant and Castle), which was a fee-paying – albeit philanthropic – hostel for impoverished men. He was still married to his second wife, a widow named Harriet Pushman, but had possibly separated from her at this point (divorce being only for the wealthy). Unfortunately, after having been later used as a hotel and then a hostel, the old Rowton House building was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair, so I was unable to see it for myself. Yet, in 1897, when it was newly built, it was described as an impressive six-storey building, housing over 800 men, each of whom had their own small sleeping cubicle, open at the top. In addition, there were cooking facilities, opportunities to buy food and hot drinks, as well as communal living rooms, games rooms and libraries, alongside toilets and washing facilities. As one night cost around six old pence – although a room could also be booked on a weekly basis – the hostel was designed for ‘bona-fide working men’ who happened to be down on their luck. Residents who were tailors, shoemakers and barbers also offered their services, and I wonder whether Grandad Arthur was able to pick up some work while staying there.

ROWTON HOUSE (2)Rowton House, Newington Butts, c1900

By then, Arthur Skelton’s youngest son Sidney was already enlisted in the army and was most likely out of the country at that time (as he cannot be found on the 1911 census). Years later he told my father that before the Great War he had served overseas ‘somewhere hot’ (my mother thinks it was India, although it could have been in the Middle East) and there he had worn a special hat with a fold down part at the nape of the neck to protect against the sun – a style that is commonplace today due to increased concerns about UV radiation. However, in those days this issue was not people’s chief concern, and when my father was sent out to Africa with the air force in the early 1950s, my grandfather’s advised him to get out in the sun as much as possible right away, so he would quickly become acclimatised. As my father had inherited the olive skin tone of his mother, this was not a problem for him, and it seemed to me as a child that he was forever looking tanned and healthy. In fact, after years of living overseas, one of his major gripes about Scotland (and Britain as a whole – that damp dreary island in the North Atlantic) was the awful weather. So from an early age, I was picking up subliminal messages that life might be warmer and more exciting elsewhere.

My grandfather’s decision to join the British army was most likely financial. Prior to that, he had only been able to take short-term labouring jobs (as did his brothers), and years later told my parents about how he used to have to go down to the docks (possibly the Surrey Docks) to try to find daily work. As my mother once remarked, being small and wiry, Sidney might not have immediately stood out as one of the obvious men to employ for physically demanding work, and he often had to return home empty-handed. So signing up to the army gave working-class boys like Sidney a chance to have paid regular employment, to be housed, clothed and fed, and to be trained in various skills. My mother remembers how surprised she was to once come across Sidney knitting an intricate aran pullover as an old man, an unexpected benefit of being in the army.

It was only when I recently accessed the war diaries from Sidney’s regiment, the 19th Hussars, that I realised why the soldiers would have learnt such skills as knitting. Despite how I imagined life at the Western Front, it seems that in between the skirmishes there was a certain amount of time waiting and preparing for the next stage of warfare, so keeping busy would have been paramount. From 17th October 1915 (when Sidney arrived in Wardrecques, France, as part of one-hundred strong reinforcements) there are many entries which describe several days staying in billets (while waiting on commands), interspersed with trench digging, reconnoissance parties, transporting weapons etc.

In addition, soldiers constantly had to undertake bayonet and rifle drills, as well as keeping their horses fit and trained, and most unexpectedly, regularly playing football. In fact, while reading the diaries for 1916, I actually began to think that ‘playing football’ was a euphemism for some sort of military tactic. But of course, such ‘games’ would not only have improved physical skills, but also increased cohesion within the battalion and improved the soldiers’ morale. There were also descriptions of church visits, inspections, parades and horse shows (which the local population often came to watch), some of which had to be cancelled due to last-minute manoeuvres, and soldiers occasionally helped local farmers with harvests, in return for food and grazing.

74300666_3Horse show behind the lines (c) National Libraries of Scotland

The British army war diaries, which have only been available for the general public since 2014, can be read in situ at the National Archives in Kew, or can be ordered on-line for the price of a pint of beer. They are not always easy to decipher as some of the entries have been written (or scrawled) in pencil, and individual officers varied in how much information they recorded. Without prior military knowledge, it can also be challenging to follow many of the manoeuvres described, and the very matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes makes it difficult to work out when the important events are taking place. But to anyone wanting to know more about an ancestor’s movements during that period, they are certainly worthwhile reading, particularly if key battle dates are known. It is also relatively easy to plot the movements of troops if a detailed map of the area described can be accessed at the same time. Thus the diaries are an invaluable guide to visiting the battlefields, something I hope to do at some point in the future.

74300538_3British cavalry waiting for the order to move up (c) SNL

57_3British cavalry preparing to advance (c) SNL

And so it was that I found myself honing in on the 8th August 1918, when  I saw (with a horrible thrill) that for the first time in the diary the officer in charge had simply written Battle Front in the space designated for the name of the town or village in which the 19th Hussars were billeted. To follow the Battle of Amiens in ‘real time’ was an uncanny feeling, particularly in light of the fact that we know what those who were fighting cannot. I am able to read about the conflict, knowing that the war would soon come to an end and my grandfather would survive. Yet, how harrowing it must be for those who are following the hour-by-hour descriptions of a battle where their ancestors lost their lives.

74408646_3Cavalry patrols advancing over open countryside (c) SNL

74407759_3 (2)Cavalry passing Albert Cathedral, August 1918, Tom Aitken (c) SNL

Some of the notes taken during the battle were particularly descriptive. For example, at 7pm on the evening of the 8th of August, the officer in charge wrote: Enemy aeroplanes appeared in large numbers, as many as 20 or 30 being in the air above us at the same time, and commenced shooting at our horses, no damage. A few of our Scouts (S.E.5’s) were in among them, and we had the satisfaction of seeing one machine burst into flames at a height of about 1,500 feet, and fall rapidly down on the west side of the valley in which the horses were standing. The pilot jumped out and fell a little further looking like a little rag.

74407355_3British scouting planes (S.E.5s), France 1918, David McLellan (c) SNL

But perhaps the notes that enthralled me the most were those which captured the often petty-sounding (but obviously important for discipline and morale) issues of everyday life on the Western Front. Soldiers were admonished for smoking while on horseback, for shooting rabbits in the French countryside, for not changing their socks within a 24 hour period. And so the list of regulations and demeanours went on. Food was also an important topic for the troops; for example, on the 2nd of May, 1918, the reporting officer wrote the following: Information received that the peanut cake now being issued, is better boiled, this producing a less irritating and purging effect. Day passed quietly. I don’t think he realised the unintended humour of these two, possibly unrelated, statements!

74406582_3Cavalry soldiers relaxing, while their horses graze (c) SNL

A family anecdote relating to my grandfather’s time in the army which I have always found particularly fascinating is an event which took place on a cold winter’s morning when my grandfather was coming home on leave. As Sidney was walking through the suburban streets of south London in his cavalry uniform, there was a commotion when the local milkman’s horse slipped on the ice and fell over. Knowing that a fallen horse is in a difficult situation – especially on ice – and that it needs to be helped up onto its feet before it does any damage to itself, Sidney ran over to the horse and kneeled on its neck. This was presumably to prevent the animal struggling, and would have been second nature to him after his army training – as to lose a horse in wartime is obviously a grave concern. However, it would appear that the milkman was not best pleased to see this soldier diving onto his horse, and used some choice swearwords to show his disapproval.

img004Edwardian milkman, Norwood Dairies, South London

4f02678fe8e81fda7a561677109e2816--war-horses-climbingHorse falling down railway embankment, Western Front 1917-18,

Although everyone in the family seemed to find this tale quite funny, I have always thought it rather sad. I wonder if this is because it illustrates the different worlds that the two men inhabited. Sidney would have been proud of his equine skills and no doubt believed that his role in the army was for the greater good; the milkman may have felt that he was being shown up by this younger serviceman, and may have had conflicted emotions about not actively fighting in the war himself (despite the fact he may have been too old for service). For soldiers coming home on leave from the front, it must have been a strange, unsettling experience.

But perhaps it was even harder when the war was finally over.

74408227_3 (3)A cavalry patrol (c) SNL

To be continued next month in Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2018