Tag Archives: Coldharbour Lane

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)

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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

The Story So Far

There will always be questions left unanswered and ‘missing’ ancestors to be found. Writing a family history therefore means accepting your research will never be finished and deciding to do it anyway.

Gil Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

At the start of a new year, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt so far from my ongoing quest to discover more about my ‘lost’ London ancestors, some of which may be of use to readers contemplating  a similar project. This January marks the start of my second full year of blogging – and my 17th post – tying in neatly with the number 2017. I’d also like to thank those of you who have been following my story over the past one and a half years. It has been wonderful to have you alongside me on the trip, and I look forward to a further year of research and writing. Over the next few months I intend to focus predominantly on the other, previously unknown, branch of the Skelton family, who by dint of their relative wealth and success left an exciting paper trail behind them as they moved throughout the Empire with the confidence of the age.

wot-i-have-learnt-2

Family history is not so much a series of linear, chronological events, as a set of interlinked themes across generations. It is impossible to work neatly backwards (or forwards) without having to move sideways, then zig-zag about in an ungainly fashion. Yet this can be a very liberating discovery as it removes the need to know everything about one group of ancestors before moving on to investigate the next. And the added advantage to writing in blog form is that it usually only needs some minor post-publication editing to change a piece of information that later turns out to be inaccurate in some way. Any interesting new discoveries can either be inserted into a previous post or developed into a completely new one.

Researching records is never a cut-and-dried process. There is a tendency to feel that once a particular area has been researched in the archives all the available information through one particular channel has been amassed. But thanks to my slapdash research methods, which mostly entail scribbling illegible notes in blunt pencil on the back of recycled paper, I have regularly found myself re-researching the same things at various points throughout the year. As well as the obvious fact that new records can appear through digitalisation and/or the lifting of access restrictions (or even due to missing a particular record first time around), this disorganised method often exposes me to different ways of looking at old information as my research skills improve. So I have ceased to worry about the fact that my haphazard approach to record keeping may not be the most efficient one, even if I am not exactly proud of my lax record-keeping skills.

Story-telling creates a coherent narrative. The very fact that every month I have to attempt to create something readable from a variety of different sources makes me see connections and patterns which might otherwise have remained hidden. And while I’m well aware that taking a different approach to a topic may result in the narrative moving in another direction, my monthly deadlines prevent me from obsessing too much about which one is the ‘correct’ way to tell the story – a procrastination device with which other writers may be familiar!

Expect the unexpected. I have found more twists and turns in my family history than in an Agatha Christie novel. From bigamy and madness, to unexplained deaths and unimagined riches (all coming up in 2017), I have been shocked and saddened and surprised at the events that have revealed themselves to me. When I first started my research in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I had naively expected to find what I imagined to be a straightforward history of an ordinary working-class London family, and even learning that the Skeltons had originated from North Yorkshire seemed like an exotic breakthrough. Of course, now I realise that every family, every generation – every life, in fact – is full of stories that might be discarded by a novelist for being too fanciful. And as all family historians know: there is no such thing as an ordinary family.

sleathy-card-2Novelty card featuring my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton (middle), discovered in a Harrogate garden centre!

Do not assume. This pithy three-worder is the companion to the previous aphorism. Most family historians will be aware of this old chestnut – and despite its hoariness it is not one to discard. But while it makes sense when applied to written records which need to be cross-checked (an example of such an error will be illustrated next month), it is often more difficult to follow this piece of advice when it comes to social history in general. Is it somehow wrong to state that James Skelton’s second wife, my great-great grandmother Mary Ann Hawkins, might have once been a local prostitute who met her much older lover and future husband through this profession (see When I Grow Rich)? Or that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton), could have been an alcoholic, dying as she did in her thirties from cirrhosis of the liver (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)? Perhaps the important thing is to make sure that such conjectures are not described as facts, but to lay out the supporting evidence and guide the reader to make up their own mind on the matter.

And what about coincidence? My students tell me that whenever they actively learn new vocabulary from our in-class texts they will often encounter this same expression somewhere else shortly afterwards, even though they claim to have never come across the word previously. So I use this observation to illustrate to them how their vocabulary is being strengthened and developed almost without them being aware of it. Almost, that is, apart from these ‘coincidences’ which remind them that since having ‘learnt’ a new vocabularly item they will start to recognise it in many different situations. And thus it is with research and background reading. It is not uncommon for me to discover a fact about Victorian London, only for it to resonate with a particular tale I want to tell. Or I will visit a new place which later becomes pivotal in the lives of one of my ancestors. I therefore embrace all the chances to learn about my topic in many different ways, never presuming that there is nothing new to discover about a particular subject.

A further point to make in regard to coincidence is that I have found again and again that disparate ancestors often lived in close proximity to each other at different times in their lives. This will become particularly apparent in the coming months as I focus on the ‘lost’ family that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, had with his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. And so it was that my father grew up in a terraced house in Brixton, just a stone’s throw from the section of Coldharbour Lane where, unbeknown to him, his great-grandfather, James Skelton had lived with his first family, one hundred years previously. Later, when my grandparents moved to the new Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood, my father would have seen from his upstairs bedroom window the spire of the church in Gipsy Hill where James William’s children (including Herbert) had been baptised (as Sleath-Skeltons*) in the 1870s. *That three-pronged fabulous offshoot of the family tree, which rapidly grew towards the light, but withered and died before its strange flowers could produce any fruit.

gipsy-hillSpire of Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, from the Bloomfield Estate

On a more personal note, when I moved to London in 1984, little did I know that a few months later I would be living round the corner from the place where my grandfather’s sister, Rose Ryall, lived out her old age (see A Rose in Holly Park). And most recently, after visiting a writer friend at her home in Kensington, I was delighted to discover that one of the ‘lost’ Skelton children had lived in this same Victorian mansion block for several decades. Even the impetus for continuing my genealogical research came from the chance meeting of an old man in Somerset with an identical photograph to the one I had found in my father’s wallet (see In my Beginning is my End).

Coker Wood 1944 (3)The 1944 East Coker photograph that sparked my current quest

Many of the aforementioned coincidences are, however, not so surprising – particularly given the fact that London was smaller in the past and the Skeltons had mostly chosen to make their mark in certain neighbourhoods. But still it can be an uncanny experience to follow these family ley lines across the city, slipping between the centuries and social classes, as one street or suburb gives way to another. Only recently I had such an experience when the large villa in Croydon, where James William had first set up home in the 1860s (in what was then countryside) flashed up on the TV screen. It was a scene from a short political broadcast by the Conservative Party to illustrate the number of new affordable homes they  claimed were being erected in the Croydon area. And this large remaining grand house – now much vandalised, yet once admirably situate, facing Morland Park, was given as an example of a dilapidated building about to torn down and replaced by new flats. In the photograph below, it is just possible to glimpse the block of seventies’ flats which has already been built in what the auctioneer so exquisitely describes in the London Standard of 5th June 1868 as the valuable mansion’s pleasure-grounds and well-stocked kitchen garden.

westle-houseThe’ valuable mansion’ which James William named Westle House

A few days previously I had marked this address in my A to Z as worthy of a revisit for an upcoming London trip, and as I froze the image and rewound and replayed the scene again and again, I felt almost dizzy with the sensation of two worlds colliding. But the oddest thing was that just seconds before the building had appeared on the screen I had this sudden premonition that poor old Westle House was about to feature. I still don’t know where this feeling came from – perhaps it was simply an obvious candidate for the section on regenerating Croydon. It is certainly one of the ‘family buildings’ that has haunted me most since I first visited it one winter’s afternoon, and felt slightly spooked by its appearance – the lone survivor of a bucolic past in a heavily built up area. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2014 a homeless man was found dead in the grounds (now protected by a solid metal fence), and it is hard to reconcile this sad building with the glorious villa it has obviously once been.

So while the rational part of me acknowledges that true coincidences are in fact rare events, there is still a part of me that wonders if my ancestors are trying to prod and nudge me in the direction of their stories. Perhaps it is this continued belief in the magic of my quest which makes me feel that, despite the inevitable frustrations surrounding such a project, it is a worthwhile undertaking.

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moments in Time

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

Andrew Todd Basic Sources for Family History 1987

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

Elizabath and Arthur

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

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

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

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

QUEENHITHE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aldred Rd. (2)
Aldred Rd, circa 1916

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

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2016