Tag Archives: Aldred Road

Moments in Time

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

Andrew Todd Basic Sources for Family History 1987

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

Elizabath and Arthur

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A similar 18th century  house in Bermondsey today
James Skelton’s old house in Coldharbour Lane today

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

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

Aldred Rd. (2)
Aldred Rd, circa 1916

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

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2016

The Two Arthurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By then the sulphuric acid factory had been pulled down to make way for St Agnes’ Church – since destroyed in WW2 – so there had at least been some improvements to the area. During the 1870s and 80s, many of the street’s residents (including two of Arthur’s sisters) worked as machinists at William Robinson’s Bootmakers at number 37 Aldred Road, conveniently located next door to the Skelton household. The bootmakers was a family concern which had been there from the street’s early days, so it is perhaps safe to say that the neighbourhood had always been predominantly working class, but with a mixed group of inhabitants.

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

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

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

Romanny Rd (2)

Romanny RoadRommany Road, Gipsy Hill (with ghost sign)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peckham RyeHomestall Farm, Peckham Rye: demolished 1908

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

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2016