The house whose history is under discussion is blessedly silent. It is the place to which we all return after the story of each of its owners or tenants is told, to gather our thoughts, digest what we have learned and mull the wider implications before setting out again down a new avenue.
Lucy Mangan, A House Through Time Guardian newspaper, May 26th, 2020 (full review here)
The third series of the wonderful A House Through Time with David Olusoga, which aired on BBC2 last Tuesday, was much-awaited in our (hundred year old) house. The history of the 300-year-old townhouse in Bristol is already proving to be just as exciting as its counterparts in Newcastle (series 2) and Liverpool (series 1). Like the previous houses featured, number 10 Guinea Street was originally built for the newly wealthy Georgian middle classes, and by dint of its architectural interest and listed status has managed to survive into the 21st century.
Conserving such old buildings is, however, a relatively modern concern – mainly dating back to the last quarter of the 20th century. Unfortunately, large swathes of urban housing were swept away by new developments during successive building waves, particularly in the late Victorian era and after WW2. Those of us who can trace our beginnings to more humble abodes will often discover that the houses of our ancestors are no longer standing – perhaps even the whole street or district has vanished. Listed buildings may also have been granted their status too late to have saved more than a handful here and there, and as with the Bristol house featured in the programme, often just a strip of the original street remains.
This was the situation when I sought out Cator Street in Peckham – the birthplace of my grandfather in 1892, when the family of seven (my grandfather was child number five) all lived in two upstairs’ rooms, privately rented from the downstairs’ tenant. A fairly common enough set-up at the time, this was often organised by widows or spinsters who needed to make extra income to cover their costs. It was for the same reason that my newly-widowed great-grandmother rented out a spare room in her house at Denmark Road in Brixton to various lodgers after the death of her husband (see I Remember, I Remember).
My grandmother outside the house at Denmark Road c1910
Of course, it just so happened that one of these boarders was a First World War veteran (born in 1892 in Cator Street!) who went on to marry her daughter. This was perhaps not the most romantic of set-ups, but possibly a practical one as my grandmother would have been able to closely observe her new beau’s domestic habits before committing herself fully. Yet, when my grandfather arrived there in 1922, newly discharged from the stripped-down British cavalry, he probably would never have imagined he’d end up living there for almost two decades, becoming head of the household along the way (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian).
Unfortunately, many of the houses in Denmark Road were damaged during the Blitz and a low-rise post-war housing scheme occupies the site of number 95 and environs. But because of their novelty and old-fashioned charm, the houses which have survived have become more valuable and sought after, a situation that has been replicated all over the capital, including Cator Street, where the remaining houses have an almost cottagey feel. While none of these Blitz survivors (pictured below) were the actual ones my grandfather’s family had inhabited, I was pleased to find at least some of them still standing as they enabled me to imagine how the street might have once looked – although it would certainly not have appeared so charming in the 1890s.
Remaining houses in Cator Street, Peckham
The afternoon I discovered these last original houses in Cator Street was towards the end of a long day tramping the streets of south London. Earlier I’d moved even further back in time to the 1860s (a leap of one generation) to the site of Aldred Road in Kennington – the place where my grandfather’s father, Arthur Skelton, was born (see The Two Arthurs). Just like my maternal great-grandmother, Arthur’s mother also took in lodgers when she became widowed in her thirties with six children to support, although she was also able to work locally as a ‘nurse’, looking after the children of wealthier families. Eventually she rented out two rooms in her home to her grown-up son Sidney (my grandfather’s namesake uncle) and his young family, which sounds a win-win situation for all concerned.
Aldred Road c1917
After a bombing raid in WW2 destroyed much of Aldred Road and the neighbouring streets, a few houses limped on until the 1950s when the whole of Aldred Road (since renamed Aldred Street) disappeared to make way for a new estate. Three 18-storey blocks of flats, which constituted part of the pioneering early 1960s Brandon Estate, took the place of the tight rows of Victorian terraces; and it is easy to see how such high towers set among green spaces were considered to be the future of urban architecture. Low-style dwellings and existing older housing stock (or rehabilitated houses in the architects’ parlance) were also included in the development of the estate, as were shops, a library and cultural centre and – rather surprisingly – a Henry Moore statue.
The Brandon Estate, Kennington, London
In the end, I was able to obtain more of a flavour of the 19th century neighbourhoods in which my ancestors mostly lived while not searching for their old homes. Quite by accident I stumbled into an intact enclave of late Georgian terraces just off Waterloo Road on an exploratory walk along the South Bank. This area is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself south of the river, and unsurprisingly is occasionally used as a film set for period dramas. In many ways I felt that wandering around those streets brought me closer to imagining the neighbourhoods of my ancestors than standing next to a busy road, craning upwards to look at a house where they’d once lived, yet whose surroundings had completely changed from the time it was inhabited by my family.
Roupell Street off Waterloo Road
This was certainly the case with the Brixton house in which my Yorkshire-born great-grandfather, James Skelton, had once lived in the 1840s (when the area was being developed) with his first wife and family. Reminder: James was the father of Arthur through a second marriage, who was the father of my grandfather, Sidney. While the elegant house is still standing on the busy Coldharbour Lane, whose name suggests the rural beginnings of the area, it is a mixed neighbourhood of architectural styles, and it is hard to imagine this dwelling house in its heydey, when it would have been set among leafy semi-rural streets and surrounded with the market gardens which once predominated in the area. As the gentrification of Coldharbour Lane continues apace, this house and others like it will certainly become more desirable. Despite it being located almost directly round the corner from Denmark Road, my grandfather never knew that his own paternal grandfather had once lived in such a relatively grand house, only a stone’s throw away from his own family home yet almost a century apart.
James Skelton’s residence in the 1840s, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton
When researching a family history, it is relatively common to come across neighbours marrying neighbours – whether they be young and entering into new relationships, or widowed and choosing second partners. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that my grandfather’s parents grew up on adjoining streets in Kennington: Arthur Skelton (of Aldred Road) married the pregnant Elizabeth Holton (of Royal Road) in 1880 when they were both around twenty. Later, when researching the Holton family, Elizabeth’s birth certificate led me to another wonderful row of listed Georgian terraced houses – this time on the busy Vauxhall Bridge Road .
The original name for this section of the road was Belvoir Terrace, making it harder to trace the location of the actual house without the use of old maps. In the case of the Brixton house (shown above), which was described as being 22, Sutherland Road in the 1851 census (part of Coldharbour Lane), there was a great deal of digging about (no pun intended) in the Lambeth archives pertaining to the local sewerage systems before I could map the house onto the modern numbering of the street. I was unable to do the same with Belvoir Terrace – or possibly unwilling to put in the work as it would have entailed visiting another set of archives on the other side of town.
Listed Georgian houses on Vauxhall Bridge Rd (formerly Belvoir Terrace)
Data from the British Listed Buildings website describes the row of houses such: This row, first called Belvoir Terrace, dates from c.1827. An Act was passed in 1826 enabling the development of lands belonging to the the Rev. Henry Wise, and the terrace is shown on the 1829 edition of Crutchley’s map of London. It stands within an area known previously as Neat House Gardens. Vauxhall Bridge and its approach road were opened in 1816, opening up this part of London for development. Directly behind Belvoir Terrace ran an open sewer (closed over in 1844). An early development in this part of Pimlico and one of the few to survive in this area. The terrace, now shorter than when first built, possesses various features of interest including the former projecting centrepiece to the row, which endows the fronts with an architectural presence. The remaining houses of Belvoir Terrace are listed as characteristic examples of late Georgian domestic architecture laid out along a new arterial road.
However, although I was sure number 4 was long gone, I was content just to know that somewhere in this street my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Holton, was born in 1859 during the brief period when her father, William Holton, was working at nearby Buckingham Palace as a labourer, possibly for the Metropolitan Board of Works. This job may have been connected with setting up the sewerage system, that great Victorian legacy which has helped house historians so much. Sadly, Elizabeth, who never learned to read or write, died 36 years later with her malnourished youngest child on a charity ward at St Thomas’s hospital from Cirrhosis of the Liver and Jaundice. My grandfather was only three years old when he lost his mother in the summer of 1895, and never knew he’d once had a baby brother called Frederick (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).
When I started my most recent wave of family research, I’d hoped there might be a house standing somewhere that could be seen as the London Skeltons ‘ur-home’. Perhaps in my mind I secretly dreamed of living there one day, of finding a space which would contain my families’ essence in the way that our modern 60s bungalow never did. My grandparents 1970s retirement flat in Hampton certainly did not qualify, and their post-war council house in nearby Bishops Grove held no links to their south London roots and extended family. But the only three houses that had sheltered the Skeltons south of the river for any length of time to be classed as family homes were Aldred Road (c1850-1880) in Kennington and Denmark Road (c1900-1938) in Brixton, both of which were long gone. However, I’m aware this is a greater timespan than many other working class families in urban areas, it being more common to move around on a regular basis as incomes rose and fell.
There is nothing like doing your own family history to underline such trends. Arthur and Elizabeth seemed to be constantly changing their residence – even in Cator Street they moved between rented rooms in different buildings within the space of months – and different records showed different addresses throughout the years. One of the places where they lodged that particularly appealed to me was Rommany Road in Gipsy Hill. Not only did the name connect the area to the history of The Great North Wood (Norwood) where gipsies were said to have camped, but it seemed to me to be a quintessential south London terraced street. And its location was – just like Coldharbour Lane in Brixton – another geographical crossing point of the disparate branches of the Skelton families (see A River Ran Under Them). Both these happenstance situations were due to speculative builders throwing up brick terraces to follow the wealthier farther out from the industrialised areas close to the Thames and into the new suburbs.
Terraced houses on Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill
If truth be told, the house at nearby Durning Road might be a better contender for a more modern, 20th century version of our London family home. Not only does it still exist, but it was the place that my grandparents moved to when they decided to leave Denmark Road for somewhere with more ‘mod cons’. An outside toilet and no electricity might have been acceptable for my great grandmother, but by the 1930s, and with a family of her own, my grandmother wanted something a little more luxurious. As my aunt once said about their move to the cottage-style house on the Bloomfield estate in 1938: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it. Unfortunately, the upcoming war put paid to the family’s plans to remain together in their new home for any length of time.
The old family home at Durning Road, Gipsy Hill
Those who have followed my blog from the beginning may recall how the story of the literary Waugh family triggered my renewed interest in my genealogy project (see Begin Again). As I wrote back in September 2015: The Waughs were clearly the kind of family that had heirlooms, and family paintings and draughty piles in the country (and in their particular case, a literary legacy). And even though they’d had their share of ups and downs over the generations, it was obvious they knew their place in the world. Not only had they things to prove it – pieces of furniture that were passed from one generation to another, as well as documents and graves to confirm their existence – but there was the intangible wealth tied up in the family name with its reputation and traditions.
What I hadn’t expected to find during my research these last few years was the evidence of another Skelton family. One who, like the Waughs, left more of a trace in the world by virtue of their money and connections and travels overseas. This was the line of relatively successful south London Skeltons, descended from the first marriage of my great-great grandfather, Yorkshire-born James Skelton. I always think of them as ‘The Lost Family’ as they vanished leaving hardly any descendants – and were also unknown to my own branch of the family and the many twigs which sprouted from that fecund limb.
While I like to think that I have been equally fascinated by both sides of the family – the lost and the found; the rich and the poor; the shrewd and the feckless – the tantalising glimpses into the more glamorous world of successful and intrepid Victorians of which my direct ancestors were never a part, has often pulled my focus disproportionately in that direction.
And it is to them and their houses to which I will return next month.
The Incidental Genealogist, June 2020