Tag Archives: Crystal Palace

Return to East Coker

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

T.S.Eliot, East Coker (1940)

CROSSROADS.JPGSignpost to Naish Priory in the woods at Burton, East Coker

It was not a particularly auspicious weekend weather-wise when I travelled to Somerset with my cousin last month. We had arranged to meet up with our elderly aunt on the Saturday of our long weekend in the West Country, and so decided it would make sense to look around East Coker the day before our planned visit. This would allow my cousin to see the places that I hoped my aunt would still be able to describe to us from her memories of the wartime evacuation, and make the experience more meaningful.

Thus it was a cool, wet and blustery Friday afternoon when we arrived in the village – not what I’d intended at all. My first visit in July 2005 (see East Coker) had certainly been influenced by the good weather and I’d wanted my cousin to have the same initial impression. However, fortified with tea and cakes from the National Trust café after our trip to nearby Montecute House, and sporting the matching bucket hats we’d purchased in Sherborne the day previously, we decided there was nothing to stop us exploring the village in the wind and rain. And maybe it would even clear up later, we told ourselves rather optimistically. (It didn’t).

A lucky coincidence saw us approaching East Coker by way of the sunken lanes I’d already described to my cousin. I’m not quite sure how much Sandra appreciated having to squeeze by a number of large vehicles exiting the village, but she certainly agreed with me that it was an ‘exciting’ way to arrive. It also brought home why the new Keyford housing estate is slated to be situated near the Dorchester Road at the far end of the village. Those pesky narrow lanes effectively sealed off the other part of East Coker (where our fathers had lived with our aunt and grandmother during WW2) from further development, and thankfully could not be widened due to planning regulations.

HOLLOW LANE.JPGA sunken lane on the approach to East Coker

We soon passed the old hamlet of Burton and the end of Burton Lane (which led to the farmhouse cottage where the Skeltons had lived for the duration of the war). We had, however, already decided to head straight for the heart of the village (what had once been called Up Coker), and park by the almshouses next to the church. Not only did this mean we could start our walk by viewing the impressive St Michael’s, with its T. S. Eliot memorial, but it also gave me the opportunity to show my cousin the first cottage in which our grandmother was billeted (West Wells), and where I was told she’d only stayed for a short time as she’d been unhappy about being made to ‘feel like a skivvy’ by the woman of the house.

ALMSHOUSESThe 17th century almshouses by the church

A wedding rehearsal in the church meant we only had time for a cursory look around, and I was glad that I’d had the chance to attend a Sunday service with my mother on our first visit back in 2005. It was on that July morning that I felt the sense of the community that pervades the place, as well as delighting in the Englishness of the service, which was so different from my memories of attending the Church of Scotland in my youth.

Conscious of the worsening weather, we did not stop for a drink in the Helyar Arms as planned (called The New Inn until 1948), but headed past the pub and along the road leading to Sutton Bingham – once a scattered village and now a reservoir, whose medieval church with pre-reformation wall paintings had been preserved. My mother and I had visited the church on that first trip, and had wondered at the homes which had disappeared. My father would have known the village (where there had been a railway station, closed in the early 60s, but not as part of the reservoir development), and it must have been an uncanny experience for him to return to the area and see that great expanse of water where once there were farmhouses and fields.

COKER MARSH ROAD.JPGCottages at Coker Marsh

In the end we only got halfway up the road before heavy rain halted us in our tracks. However, it was enough to give Sandra a feel for this part of the village – called Coker Marsh – and where our uncle’s extended family (the Bouchers) had lived in one of the stone cottages which lined the road. Walking back the same way towards the church, I noticed a small stream running along the left-hand side of the road which, judging from the stone channel in which it ran, looked like it might have once had a purpose beyond just taking away runoff water. The remains of a cress bed? I could not remember it from my earlier visits, but wondered whether this was because it had been dried up previously. This made me think about other aspects of the village I might have missed, or forgotten about, and I realised that although I generally prefer to explore places on my own, by showing Sandra around East Coker I was strengthening my own mental map of the area.

Our next plan – to walk via Back Lane to Burton – was stymied by more heavy rains so we missed out going there on foot, much to my disappointment. While it was certainly useful to have a car, particularly in such horrible weather, I have always relished my own rambles around the area, climbing the many wooden stiles and taking the lanes that lead to the neighbouring villages. Being a non-driver admittedly closes off some opportunities, but also means that walking long distances becomes commonplace (just as it once was). For years I was slightly ashamed of this proclivity for visiting new places under my own steam, often in combination with public transport, as I always felt it made me seem like a second-class citizen. But now that eschewing car ownership has suddenly become more mainstream, I feel less defensive about my lack of driving skills.

BACK LANE.JPGWild Flowers in Back Lane

Although we missed out on the very charming footpath up Back Lane – which my aunt later told us was one where she would go with our uncle before they were married and wanted some privacy – I did, however, convince Sandra to park up at North Coker and walk along the road to Burton Cross. This meant that we were able to admire the stone cottages, many with thatched roofs, and their bright and blowsy, albeit rain-soaked, gardens. We passed by what had once been the shop and post office, a sad reminder of how little of these services remain in rural locations. On my first visit in 2005 it had still been trading and my mother and I had been grateful to be able to purchase snacks and a newspaper. No doubt my father would have spent any hard-earned pocket money there – as had most of the village children throughout the years – as well as in the small shop next to the pub, which had long since closed. And I pictured him scampering along the road, after having helped out with the harvest or haymaking, wondering whether to spend his precious farthings and ha’pennies on liquorice or boiled sweets.

As we walked up Burton Lane to the cottage where my grandmother and the three children lived during the war, I tried to picture it as it had been in the 1940s, devoid of the new bungalows which were squeezed in between the row of original cottages and the fields. I had once come across a photograph of the lane, taken shortly before the war, which showed a herd of short-horned cows being driven along a narrow dirt track bounded by hedges, trees and fields. In the distance all that could be seen was the roof of the wooden gospel hall – the building my grandmother cleaned in return for reduced rent on the rather spartan Burton Farm cottage opposite.

BURTON LANE (2).JPGLooking down Burton Lane from the road end today

On this visit, I was more conscious of the modern houses which flanked the lane, looking shabbier now that previously. And I could swear that a couple of newbuilds had popped up between them in the once generous gardens, giving the lane a more hemmed-in feel. In contrast, the original cottages nearer the road-end appeared even more attractive next to their characterless suburban-looking neighbours. Yet I was aware that to have lived there once would have meant putting up with cold and damp and darkness for a good part of the year.

As Sandra is particularly interested in old buildings (but still wants to live in a modern one), I had little difficulty in persuading her to take the sandy track which ran by the chapel towards Culliver’s Grave (the name of a field) and at a crossroads in the woods turns off to Naish Priory. This 14th century Grade 1 listed building is now a private home, and although it was never a true priory, it did once have religious connections. It is, however, a remarkable survivor from the period with a price tag only the super-wealthy can afford. Currently it’s owned by the local conservative MP and arch-brexiter, banker Marcus Fysh,  which may explain the number of EU flags draped over the front gates of several more modest houses in the village!

NAISHSide view of Naish Priory

The following afternoon, when I told my aunt of our trip to the priory through the woods, she explained that this was the way she’d walked from the farm cottage to pick up the school bus to Yeovil (a 1920s charabanc brought out of retirement for the evacuees). Although it did not seem like much of a short cut, I’m sure there was a good reason for my aunt to use this trail, rather than take the road. Perhaps she’d simply wanted to avoid someone (such as the farmer who was rather touchy-feely) or had enjoyed the lonely track, which she’d undertaken in all weathers.

Asking someone at an advanced age about their reminscences is obviously something which needs to be handled sensitively, and I was conscious of the fact that it felt just as important for us to talk to our aunt about the present as the past. Luckily Sandra – who knew our older English cousins much better than I did – was able to supply that side of the conversation. While she browsed through photographs of a recent family wedding, I showed my aunt some of the old family photographs I’d accumulated over the years. Most of these she could remember, as either I’d sent her copies in the post or she’d been the one to furnish me with the originals. However, viewing them together was a completely different experience. Each image released a most astounding array of sharp memories, as if the photograph had been taken yesterday. For example, a great-uncle I’d never known (my grandmother’s beloved older brother) was described by my aunt for the first time as being ‘pompous’. Even as a boy you can see it in the way he looks!

Sometimes I just had to catch my breath and listen carefully as my aunt described such momentous events as The Crystal Palace burning down in a relatively matter-of-fact way: Mother called us to the window and said there must be a huge fire going on somewhere over South London. We did not know then that it was the great Crystal Palace where we went to listen to bands on a Sunday. My aunt then told us about the car races in the grounds of the Crystal Palace that my grandparents took them to watch. The car racing at Sydenham was something I had not known about, and seemed a strange thing for a young family to do. But then when reading more about it afterwards, I discovered that these were really popular events, which in the 1930s would have perhaps fascinated a wider variety of people.

Crystal_Palace_fire_1936Crystal Palace burning down, November 30th, 1936

And so it was that the afternoon continued in a most delightful fashion, my aunt moving lightly from the present to the past, depending on the topic of conversation, her face a range of flickering emotions. Shafts of late summer light from the garden fell through the open stable door of my aunt’s tiny 18th century cottage lighting up her features, which, as Sandra remarked later, made her look like Nana and Grandad rolled into one person. Behind my aunt on the wall, a clock ticked ominously, making me aware of the limited hours we had – and not just on that afternoon. It was one of those rare moments (or rather a collection of moments, strung together like delicate fairylights illuminating the dark) where it seems that time has ceased to exist in normal terms. I felt as if we had almost slid into another world: one in which we could glide between 1929 and 2019 with ease, summoning up ghosts along the way.

My aunt’s stories – delivered in that funny old-fashioned clipped London accent that the whole family once had – triggered a range of emotions in me that Sandra later told me flitted across my face in the same way as my aunt’s (and, if truth be told, just like Sandra herself). With my aunt’s uncanny ability to describe past events in exquisite detail, frozen moments in photographs were suddenly set free to take on their own momentum. A picture of the back yard at Denmark Road reminded her of how she and my father used to dare each other to climb over the fence into the next door neighbour’s garden at night and run around without getting caught. She explained that this was because the neighbour’s back yard was actually planted out with shrubs and flowers and had a lawn – as opposed to the more functional space to the rear of their own house.

Another photograph of my aunt and father in fancy dress brought back a memory of a party at school. My aunt explained that my grandmother had been so delighted with the sight of her two children all dressed up in their costumes (number three was yet to be born) that they went straight from their junior school in nearby Crawford Street to a local photograper’s studio in their outfits. And that slightly superior-looking smile on her face? Well her Pierrot suit had been specially made for her, whereas my father had just had to contend with what he could find in the dressing up box.

P1070488 (3).JPGMy aunt and father in fancy dress c1933

That afternoon I also learnt that the dog my grandfather brought home to Denmark Road one day, surprising his children, had actually never been meant as a family pet but as a guard dog to protect the house from a ‘light-fingered’ family two doors down. My aunt laughed to recall that one night when they all returned home from a day out (perhaps at the Crystal Palace), the house had been ransacked and the dog was found quivering under the table.

Such tales, although not dramatic in themselves, are important to family historians. Not only do they bring the very human side of genealogy to the fore, but also illustrate the concerns of previous generations – which may have been very different from our own. They also help us to understand the behaviour of our ancestors. As a child I always thought it strange that my father obsessively checked all the locks on the doors and windows of our bungalow every night and admonished us if we left our bicycles outside. I wonder, too, if he perhaps felt guilty that his childhood dog was just left out in the back yard most of the time. In contrast, our own family dog went everywhere with us and was (according to the vet) literally walked to death by my father and myself.

JET.JPG

Our Cocker Spaniel, Jet, 1974-1982

My aunt, however, does not suffer fools gladly (just like my grandfather and father) and certainly could not simply be described as some sweet old lady siting in a rocking chair waiting for her relatives to visit. One of the reasons I had not seen so much of her over the years is that she and my father did not always have the easiest of relationships. He found her bossy; she found him difficult. But their younger brother (Sandra’s father) was the adored baby of the family who kept the infrequent family reunions going throughout the years. My last memory of my aunt on that Saturday afternoon is of her standing in her front garden as we prepared to take our leave (with promises to return in a few months) jabbing at the twisted trunk an old wisteria tree with one of her walking sticks. She was annoyed with the fact that while she wanted the tree cut down to let in more light, her neighbours wanted it to remain. This was because the old wisteria’s spreading branches also decorated the facades of their own cottages, added value to the homes.

Later that evening, esconced in a quiet country pub, Sandra and I browsed through my copy of East Coker: A Village Album by Abigail Shepherd, a book very much rooted in the tradition of oral history. My cousin was able to easily recognise the old photographs of the places we’d visited, so little had changed in East Coker over the last century and a half, and we both expressed our amazement that our aunt (who also had a copy) had been able to recognise so many people in the book. Not only had she been able to locate Sandra’s father as a child from a sea of other schoolchildren who were all in fancy dress to commemorate the end of the war, but she was able to put names to the blurry faces of some of the adults standing sheepishly at the back. I found it equally impressive that she’d known who everyone was in my father’s boyhood photograph of the 1944 Whit Monday trip to Coker Woods, the discovery of which had reawakened my interest in my Skelton family history (see In my Beginning is my End). 

Coker Woods.pngThe photograph of my father (right) with friends, East Coker 1944

Since returning from my visit to Somerset, I’ve been rereading Abigail Shepherd’s informative and entertaining book about East Coker, discovering facts I’d previously missed or forgotten about,  and tying in some of the stories my aunt told us about (such as Queen Mary’s visit to Mrs Dorothy Walker-Heneage at Coker Court in 1941) with the reminiscences  outlined in the book.  As East Coker: A Village Album was first published in 1997, many of those interviewed are no longer alive today to tell their tales, including my father’s friend, Alan Cornelius, who as a teenager had taken the group photograph in the local woods with his father’s Box Brownie.

I’m glad that I was finally able to meet Alan Cornelius, and learn about his wartime boyhood experiences, and am grateful for the copy of his (unpublished) notes on the subject of the ‘vacuees.  By chance, my aunt told me last month that one wartime Christmas the only electric bulb they possessed in their small farm cottage gave up the ghost, prompting her mother to ask her to go to the Cornelius household to see if they had a spare. Of course, my aunt being my aunt simply put her foot down and refused to go out begging for a lightbulb on Christmas Day, and so the family had to celebrate in candlelight. Which sounds as if it might have been wonderful for everyone but my poor grandmother!

A VILLAGE ALBUM

Of course, today marks the day 80 years ago when my aunt and father were evacuated with their respective schools: my aunt to East Coker with Charles Edward Brook School for Girls in Camberwell, and my father to Leatherhead in Surrey with his school. However, only a few months later my grandmother was able to move to East Coker with her youngest son and bring the three children together under one roof, while my grandfather continued to work in London. For a fourteen year old like my aunt, the evacuation seemed more like an adventure away from the restrictions of her parents, in particular my grandfather, who could be a rather strict father.

As Alan Cornelius pointed out to me, there was great excitement in the village when the evacuees arrived and a lively social scene grew up, with boys’ and girls’ clubs held at Coker Court, as well as local dances, sports events and cultural activities. It is not surprising then to learn that many of these wartime friendships blossomed into relationships and then into the inevitable (in those days) marriages. It seems strange to think that my aunt’s lifelong connections to the area – cemented by her marriage to a popular local East Coker boy – all hinged on the lottery of the evacuation on the 1st of September 1939.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2019

 

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

Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water.

Frank. T. Bullen, The Log of a Sea Waif (1899)

Grace_Harwar_SLV_AllanGreen19th C Barque, (c) Allan Green, Library of Victoria, Australia

This year I have already discussed the Sleath-Skelton family at length (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), as well as describing the charmed life of Maude Beatrice Floersheim (née Sleath-Skelton) who married the literary barrister Cecil Floersheim (see The Fortunate Widow). Regular readers may also have become aware of another figure who is still on the sidelines of our story but about to loom large: Maude’s brother, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath. Herbert’s biography is perhaps the most fascinating one of my genealogical quest, and I intend to feature his story before the year is out. Yet I feel no picture of the Sleath-Skelton children would be complete without first mentioning Maude and Herbert’s older brother, Stanley.

While both Maude and Herbert had more than a few column inches devoted to them in their lifetime, Stanley seems to have been content to stay firmly in the background, flitting throughout the stories of his more interesting brother and sister like an uninvited guest. As the sensible older sibling of the three, Stanley was the first child to be born in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home, Carlton House, in The Avenue at Gipsy Hill (now Dulwich Wood Avenue), in South London, on March 25th, 1869. And even though the house is no longer there, enough of the original villas remain in the street to give a flavour of the neighbourhood in its heydey, when the countryside village of Gipsy Hill was sought after by those who wanted the luxury of an escape from London but also proximity to the City and West End.

However, while the popularity of Gipsy Hill began to boom when the railway station opened in 1856 (part of the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway built to bring visitors to the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham), it also resulted in less salubrious homes eventually being built: as the upper-middle classes desired more exclusivity they began to move out to other areas. Thus although many new roads were originally planned in the style of The Avenue – one of the first grand residential  streets in Gipsy Hill  – terraced housing for the new commuters eventually became a more popular alternative.

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upper-norwood-dulwich-wood-avenue-c1955_u42024

upper-norwood-dulwich-wood-avenue-1898_42650Early 20thC views of The Avenue (including nearby Crystal Palace)

Like his younger brother and sister, Stanley was baptised at the newly built Christ Church* in Gipsy Hill by the Reverend Richard Allen – a man who drew huge crowds due to his preaching skills, and who ministered at the church for over thirty years. Stanley’s uncle (on his mother’s side) and next-door neighbour, John Green, appears to have been a Church Warden at this time, and it is documented that he presented the church with a new brass lectern. Incidentally, when Lambeth Borough Council established the new Bloomfield Estate on the site of Bloomfield Hall in the 1920s – where my Skelton grandparents lived from 1938-42 – it also then came under the jurisdiction of the parish, so no doubt my father had attended Christ Church at some point, too!

*This year the church celebrates 150 years of worship – no mean feat considering that much of it was rebuilt after WW2 bombing, and then a new building was erected alongside the original after a major fire in the 1980s. (The old Victorian tower is now private apartments).

gipsy hill

I imagine that as he grew older Stanley would have retained fond memories of his formative years in Gipsy Hill: the field of cows from French’s dairy right in front of the house (the ‘meadow’ is still there – minus the cows), trips to the nearby Crystal Palace, his cousins fieldas next-door neighbours and playmates, his older teenage half-sister from British Honduras now living with the family, perhaps spoiling him rotten. Then quite soon there was Herbert, later followed by Maude Beatrice. I can almost imagine this little triumvirate as a Margaret Cameron-style photograph (instead of a stilted studio portrait) sitting together on a bench in the garden, Stanley with his arms slung proprietorially around his younger siblings.

Sadly, there are no such images of the little Sleath-Skeltons, charming or otherwise, and we can only guess what these 1870s children would have looked like. But it is not hard to picture them playing exuberantly in the garden of Carlton House, perhaps even making a tunnel through the bushes to reach their next-door cousins more easily, free from the high Victorian mores to which their parents would have had to adhere. We know about the greenery from the rental agreements of both Carlton House and Homedale House, currently in the Southwark Archives, where it is clear that the large gardens had been planted with a number of trees and bushes which the residents were expected to maintain. Interestingly, both those neighbouring houses were offered at only the annual ‘peppercorn’ ground rent of £1 for 84 years, suggesting (as rental properties) that they may have been part of a wider business arrangement between the parties concerned. Advertisements for these houses in The Times from 1862 and 1879, describe them below as such:

Fetch (3)

homedale (3)

Homedale House appears to have become a private girls school by the turn of the century, and during World War 1 was used as an auxiliary hospital for the war-wounded from Lambeth Hospital. Unfortunately the building was destroyed (along with Carlton House) during the blitz, although most of the rest of the street remains intact to this day.

whitakerslistofs00unse_0006 (3)

school

s-l1600 (4)Homedale House as a School, and Auxiliary Hospital in WW1

In 1875, when Stanley was but six, his British-Honduran half-sister Arabella Louisa died at home from renal failure (see A Tale of Exploitation) and shortly afterwards, as described in a previous post, the family moved to a grand apartment at The Cedars in Clapham Common. Was this to rid themselves of the terrible memory of Arabella’s lingering death? In any case, Stanley was soon sent away to Cheam Preparatory School with his brother and male Green cousins (Sydney and Percy), and after that went on to Eton alongside his male relatives. His future as a member of the establishment was more or less secured by this move, but at what price his childhood? We have no way of knowing whether he was happy or not at the exclusive boarding school, although many biographies of that time have shed light on some of the rituals that would go on to scar alumni in later years.

What we do know is that, like his brother and sister, Stanley would eventually marry but have no children. So there are no living descendants who might be a repository for passed-on memories and anecdotes – and those tantalising family photographs that we can only imagine. In fact, the only one of the three Sleath-Skeltons to have any children of sorts was Herbert, who had a step-son and daughter through his marriage to the actress Minnie Ellis Jefferies, the ex-wife of the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon-Howe (younger son of the 3rd Earl Howe). Only Herbert’s step-son (the actor George Curzon) went on to have a family of his own. The current Lord Curzon, Lord Howe, (Herbert’s step-grandson) sits in the House of Lords as a conservative peer, and I doubt very much whether he even knows that his (deceased) father once had a ‘colourful’ step-father!

However, one fact has come to light which, although not able to tell us more about Stanley, provides us with an interesting peek into the life of a successful Victorian merchant. For in 1873, James William Skelton applied to the Board of Trade to rename a ship after his son: the French ship Gaston which he had recently bought and newly registered at the Port of London was to be henceforth called Stanley Sleath. By this time, James William already had four children, but by naming the ship after his first born son he was perhaps also signalling that he regarded Stanley as the one who would later join him in his business ventures.

And so it came to pass that, in 1890, when Stanley was twenty-one, he officially became part of his father’s firm, Skelton and Schofield, which specialised in mahogany importing (see  A Tale of Exploitation). James William had founded the company several decades earlier with his boyhood friend, Thomas Schofield, the son of a Bermondsey custom’s official. Thomas had retired in 1888, leaving his son, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, to take over his role. George – who was a good few years older than Stanley – had joined the firm in 1881 at the age of twenty-five, several years prior to his father’s retirement. Thus by the time Stanley was welcomed into the company, it was his father and George Schofield who were the senior partners.

The late 1890s must have been a difficult time for the Sleath-Skeltons. Although Maude Beatrice and Stanley married in 1896 and 1898, respectively, their mother Emma died on January 1st 1898 at the age of 57 from a serious bout of bronchitis which had resulted in heart failure. By then the family had moved to Kings Gardens on the seafront in Brighton (James William spending time at the Grosvenor Hotel while in London), and the two adult sons appeared to be living close by, with Stanley being listed as ‘present at the death’ on his mother’s death certificate. Two years later this role would fall to the unmarried Herbert when his seventy-three year old father succumbed to Chronic Bright’s Disease and Uremic poisoning – basically renal failure.

James William had officially retired only six months previous to his death – ill health had most likely forced the issue – and on January 1st 1900 Stanley and George Schofield were made the two senior partners, while still carrying on the business of Skelton and Schofield at 29, St Martins Lane, off Cannon Street in the City. However, by the early 20th century the craze for heavy, dark mahogany furniture was on the wane and in conjunction with the depletion of rainforest reserves, it would appear that the old business model was no longer such a viable option. Several years later, in 1906, Stanley officially left the company, to work as a stockbroker. In the 1901 census, Stanley and his wife, Annette Skirving, are recorded both as staying with the Floersheims in Kensington (they had married in 1898 at the nearby St Mary Abbotts in Kensington High Street) and at their home in Brighton. Stanley is recorded as a General Merchant in 1901, but a decade later he describes himself as simply ‘Stock Exchange’. Although George Vaughan Arthur Schofield kept the family business going for a further two decades, it appears that this was also through dealing with other Central American products, such as rubber.

Records seem to indicate that both Stanley and his old business partner began to suffer a decline in their fortunes throughout the Edwardian period – even though James William’s will shows that Stanley had inherited a large proportion of his father’s generous estate. But by 1911, Stanley and his wife Annette were listed as living in a small flat in Brighton with only one domestic, while Annette appears to be working as a dressmaker. Stanley and Annette had already been married 13 years then and no doubt realised they would remain childless, so perhaps his wife was simply looking for something to fill her hours while her husband was in London. However, James William’s will of 1900, made shortly before he died, mentions that his oldest son Stanley should receive ten thousand pounds less than his siblings due to the fact that he had recently had an advance loan of that amount. So was Stanley in debt through bad speculation or had he wanted this money to reinvigorate Skelton and Schofield once his father had finally handed over the reins?

One thing I did discover is that Stanley’s ex-business partner, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, lost his life in rather suspicious circumstances when he fell under a tube train at Warren Street tube station in 1933 (he had been living at the Grafton Hotel in Tottenham Court Road with his adult daughter since being widowed in 1925). Although he did not die at the scene, he was taken to the nearby University College hospital where his injuries proved to be fatal – his spine and chest had been crushed.

This is a terrible way to end a life and despite the fact that there were no newspaper reports of the event or surviving documents, there had actually been a coroner’s inquest which declared the death to be ‘accidental’. (I later found out that many of the inquest records had been destroyed in order to create more space in the records office. One in every ten was kept – but in mathematical sequence, so not necessarily the most interesting ones. As the archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives pointed out, it was a short-sighted move).

i00004qgThe old Warren Street Station

George Schofield made out his will in 1926 when Skelton and Schofield was wound up and he was newly widowed, but by the time he died 8 years later he only had an estate of around £500 to give to his spinster daughter, Madeline. I often wonder if George had actually jumped into the path of the train himself for some reason (bankruptcy brought on by the Great Depression?), although of course by this time he was an elderly man and may have actually slipped or been inadvertently knocked off the crowded platform. It is strange to think that I also used this tube station most days when I worked at University College Hospital (another coincidence) in the virology lab in the mid-1980s (the first job I took after working as a probate genealogist), and I remember how much I disliked the crowded old-fashioned station with the stuffy, dusty air and the legions of mice running up and down the dark tracks.

When Stanley died in Brighton in 1948 of prostate cancer, he had also been widowed for a good few years. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a record of his wife’s death, and wonder whether she died overseas – not an uncommon event, as my family history can attest to. Annette Justine Skirving was the daughter of Colonel William Skirving and had been brought up on the Welsh-English border before her widowed mother moved to Brighton when Annette was a teenager. It was there that she began to act and no doubt met Stanley through his actor-manager brother, Herbert Sleath-Skelton, who started out treading the boards in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home town. Perhaps Stanley had also enjoyed acting in the days before his business concerns dominated his life.

However, I can’t help but think that when Stanley died alone and intestate in his house in Brighton in 1948 – his sister, the wealthy widow Maude Beatrice Floersheim never bothered to claim the sum of approximately £1,500 he left her (see The Fortunate Widow) – that his life had perhaps not quite worked out the way he had expected or wanted it to. Perhaps as the oldest son he felt the pressure of following in his father’s footsteps, despite the fact that he lived through a different economic mileu when the fruits of the Empire were beginning to shrivel up. I wonder, too, what he did with the portrait of myself as a boy that he inherited from his father, along with his watch and chain and pendants and pearl pin, (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun). The painting of his father as a boy is possibly the only link he had to his paternal grandfather, James Skelton, and as he is the relative we both share, this is obviously of particular interest to me.

But I’d like to leave readers on a positive note with a glorious description of the ship that was named after the infant Stanley – the Stanley Sleath. The extract which follows below comes from The Log of a Sea-Waif by Frank. T. Bullen, an account of the author’s first four years at sea on merchant ships from 1869 to 1873. Published in 1899, one section describes how, while becalmed on the Atlantic, the author’s ship, the Harrowby, came across the Stanley Sleath, whose crew had run out of fresh water due to rats drowning in the water vat and poisoning their only supply. After giving the commander of the Stanley Sleath 200 gallons of water for the return journey to London, they received in return a huge sow, two gallons of rum and a case of sugar. As Bullen points out it was the best deal made by our old man for many a day. As it turns out, the rum was packed in lime-juice bottles and only the cabin-boy knew that the skipper was imbibing for the rest of the journey!

georges gastonThe George Gaston (the Stanley Sleath?) by Louis Gamain, 1866

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water. Great limpets, some three inches across, yard-long barnacles, and dank festoons of weeds clothed her below the water-line from stem to stern, and how she ever made any progress at all was a mystery. She smelled just like a reef at low water; and it looked as if the fish took her for something of that nature, for she was accompanied by a perfect host of them, of all shapes and sizes, so that she rolled as if in some huge aquarium. She certainly presented a splendid field for the study of marine natural history.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2017

A Tale of Exploitation

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

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

10309484_1506641026218934_7329609308366106728_neeMahogany tree, British Honduras, early 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

figure0740-041

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

 

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

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

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

00005_00009-_a_history_of_british_honduras_page_005-3

Map of British Honduras (now Belize)

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

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

docklands-2Remaining Victorian Warehouses at the West India Docks
                                                                                                                                                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2017

When I Grow Rich

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Hawkins, was born on 24th September 1830, exactly one month to the date before her young parents were married at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch in London’s East End. The church, which was recently used for the filming of the award-winning BBC TV series, Rev, is the one refered to in the children’s nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons, and I often wonder if William Hawkins and Catherine Fitzgibbins thought of this as they stood at the altar that day. Were they hopeful of a prosperous life together, or did they already have intimations that their future would be a constant  struggle against poverty and destitution? Unsurprisingly, the teenage Catherine was unable to sign her own name, but she had at least one member of her family to witness her nuptials – her older brother, William Fitzgibbins, who was also born in Ireland. Could it be that the two of them had initially come to London  together to search for work, like many young Irish at the time?

london_changes_shoreditch_church_1839bShoreditch Church, c1839

In the autumn of 1830, the future husband of Catherine and William Hawkins’ newborn infant, Mary Ann, was already a father of three, with another child on the way. Married to Sarah (née Vaughan), a respectable two years younger than he was, James Skelton probably never imagined that twenty years hence he would end up starting a second family with a woman who was the same age as his daughters. I do, however, feel quite proud (for want of a better word) of the way James stayed with Mary Ann, helping her to ‘grow rich’ by offering her and their children – plus her son from another relationship – a steady home, and eventually going on to make everything legal between them shortly before his death from severe bronchitis in 1867, just after turning 68.

Of course, however biased I might be, I don’t believe for one minute that my great-great grandfather was a saint in matters of the heart (and loins). The late marriage and the different addresses for the birth of the children – plus the empty ‘father’ space on two of the children’s birth certificates, later proven to be James’ – does seem as if he was initially evading some of his responsibility. At the same time, I believe he was probably under enormous pressure, at least in the beginning, to hide the relationship from his four remaining children, in particular his son, James William, the social climber whose own children were educated at Eton and Oxford and later hobnobbed with minor aristocracy.

But what I respect above all about my great-great grandfather is the integrity the older and financially stable James showed in his relationship with his young mistress: he was fully aware of his commitment to her and their shared brood and honoured that, despite the opportunities he possibly had to walk away. Indeed, I often wonder, given her background, whether Mary Ann Hawkins could have actually been a local prostitute whom James visited on a regular basis, before the birth of their first child brought them into a closer relationship. It was not uncommon at that time for impoverished young women to set themselves up privately in this line of business, and some even went on to establish a home with a regular client, particularly if she became the mother of his children.

Another piece of information which may add weight to this argument is the fact that on the Skelton-Hawkins children’s birth certificates Mary Ann’s profession was usually described as a ‘needlewoman’ – a job that would have brought in meagre earnings. Around about the time she met James in 1850/51, it looked as if she was living in lodgings in the insalubrious Waterloo Road district with two other young ‘needlewomen’, which might indicate that they (also) worked together as prostitutes, taking clients to their shared rooms. On the other hand, Mary Ann may have simply been doing piece work at home for James or another local tailor, and was introduced to her future husband in this manner. There is, unfortunately, no way of discovering how they actually did meet, and if I had a time machine which could only be deployed once, that is probably the very occasion in which I’d chose to use it.

As the daughter of a mother who sewed (those homemade kilts spring to mind again), and whose own mother had been a professional dressmaker in the 1920s, I am well aware of the skill involved in needlework, particularly before the age of fancy sewing machines and other relatively modern inventions, such as the zipper. And yet my Scottish grandmother was never as proud of her profession as I thought she should have been, even having to give it up when she married, in case it would reflect badly on my grandfather’s ability to provide for her. When I was old enough to appreciate the beautiful and intricate work she could do (both by hand and treadle-wheel machine) I elevated her in my young mind to the level of a fashion designer. But as my mother explained, dressmaking was a relatively common apprenticeship for young woman at that time, and the skills that my grandmother possessed would once not have been seen as out of the ordinary.

When I was slightly older my mother also told me that the term ‘dressmaker’ was once sometimes regarded as a euphemism for a prostitute. At the time I was rather shocked – I could not see the connection between the two roles, and felt sad that my grandmother’s talents might be demeaned in some way by this, particularly as she was such a stickler for propriety. It was only once I learned about the dressmakers from previous generations – the Victorian seamstresses who worked long hours at home taking in routine sewing, for which they were paid a pittance – that I made the connection between the professions. The vast majority of the work which these needlewomen did was not specialist, and there was an increasing supply of other able bodies available should anyone complain about the pay or fall behind with orders. So it is little wonder that many younger women sought to find another way to boost their income, particularly if they also had a young child to feed.

But what was Mary Ann’s story, and how did she come to be in this position in the first place? It’s an interesting one, reflecting as it does the harsh realities of life in the mid-eighteenth century when food prices were extremely high in relation to incomes (social historians estimate around 60% of a family’s income would have been spent on food at this time), and an economic recession had led to high unemployment, giving rise to the description of the decade as ‘the hungry forties’. The repeal of the unpopular Corn Laws in 1846 helped to mitigate the situation slightly, but the truth was that most poor families relied on bread, butter and dripping and other off-cuts of meat for their sustenance, with many not even having the wherewithal to prepare hot food in their lodgings or in fact even the utensils needed for cooking and eating. In such a case, the only chance to obtain a decent meal would have been at the many street stalls or from itinerant sellers, offering everything from hot pies, baked potatoes and pease soup to jellied eels and sheep’s trotters. Anyone who has been following the recent BBC2 series The Victorian Slum can attest to how unappetising to modern tastes some of these latter items appear to be!

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Baked Potato Seller c1850

Mary Ann’s Irish mother, Catherine Fitzgibbins, was fifteen when she married the twenty-year old labourer William Hawkins in 1830, having already given birth to their first child (Mary Ann) the previous month. Although the couple married in Shoreditch, they spent most of the time living in the dingy streets and courts around St Paul’s cathedral, their address changing as regularly as some of my other ‘struggling’ ancestors later in the century, most notably my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton (Catherine and William Hawkins’ grandson).

p1050549-2The Hawkins ‘stamping ground’ in St Paul’s Conservation Area

P1050540 (2).JPGCrane Court (off Fleet St) today, where the Hawkins lived in 1837

By 1850 Catherine and William had a family of six, most of whom were girls with names that would not sound out of place in the 21st century: Catherine, Sarah, Sophia, Emma. And in the middle of these sisters there was a boy, unsurprisingly named William. To me the name Mary Ann, while certainly not as timeless and elegant as that of her younger sisters, is one which sounds pleasant enough. However, my mother is of the opinion it was a rather common name in Victorian England (in both the literal and pejorative sense) and to her it always conjures up a street-wise, smart-talking ‘Cockney gel’ – the kind who was adept at using her charms and guile to escape the life of poverty into which she’d been born.

We know for a fact that the family were extremely poor because around the time that Mary Ann gave birth to her first son William (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) her parents and younger sisters ended up as inmates of that most dreaded of Victorian institutions – the workhouse. Sadly, for most of the 1850s the Hawkins were in and out of the City of London Union workhouses. The only family members who escaped this fate were the three older children: Mary Ann, Catherine and William. While Mary Ann found her own escape from destitution, her sister followed another path – that of life ‘in service’. In the 1851 census, the seventeen-year-old Catherine was working as a domestic servant to an elderly widow and her unmarried daughter living in Fleur-de-lys court, off Fleet Street. Their brother, thirteen-year-old William Hawkins, may have been in lodgings in nearby Cock Lane with several other young men, and working as a ‘reading boy’ – someone who reads out proofs to a publisher. If this is ‘our William’ it would point to the fact that he had at least picked up the ability to read along the way, but as a male child living in the City of London he stood a better chance of receiving some sort of charitable education than his sisters, or those who lived outside of the mercantile centre.

cock_lane_ghostCock Lane c1850 – site of the famous Cock Lane ‘Ghost’

As it turned out, William’s two younger sisters did gain an education of sorts: at the ‘Pauper School’ attached to City of London Union workhouse. I sometimes wonder if it was Mary Ann’s mother’s final pregnancy which precipitated the family’s decision to enter the workhouse, where the youngest daughter, Emma, was born in 1850. Those who are familiar with the history of this Victorian institution will know that this was a fate most people tried to avoid. Not only would families be separated – as happened to the Hawkins – even though they usually had to register together in order to gain entry, but the conditions were so grim that it was viewed by the majority of the population as a ‘last resort’. The workhouse was (as the instigators of the 1834 New Poor Law had planned) a deterrent for all but the destitute, forcing able-bodied inmates into hours of drudgery in return for the most basic of living conditions. Thus it is little wonder that many impoverished women would have regarded prostitution as the only alternative.

workhouse-2The City of London Union Workhouse at Bow c1849

1395255027266The Bow Workhouse being repaired after a fire in 1935

When the pregnant Catherine Hawkins and her daughters were admitted to the Mile End Workhouse, William Hawkins (who had worked as a casual labourer and porter) was sent instead to the nearby Bow Workhouse. This had been erected in 1849 by the City of London Union – an amalgamation of 98 individual parishes, which had previously offered mostly outdoor relief (as many parishes were too small to have their own workhouse). Although the building looks rather palatial, the vast majority of union workhouses were much more architecturally severe and functional in style, replacing the old ad hoc arrangement, where individual parishes utilised anything from old farm buildings to empty country houses, as well as creating purpose-built structures.

The historian Norman Longmate describes this post-1834 building boom in his book The Workhouse (1974) thus: Any traveller riding down the dusty lanes of Southern England between 1835 and 1840, or rattling in the mail coach along the fine new turnpike roads, could not have failed to notice the vast new buildings which seemed to be springing up everywhere. In market towns they dwarfed the surrounding shops and cottages; in the depths of the countryside they stood gauntly in hitherto untilled fields or on desolate stretches of waste land. Usually they consisted of a bleak, two-storey block, built around a courtyard, with vegetable gardens lying behind it. At the front there was a narrow gate, guarded by a porter’s lodge, with a large bell hanging above it, and the premises were invariably surrounded by a high wall.

There was, however, one positive aspect of the controversial New Poor Law for the Hawkins family. And that was the fact that instead of the whole family being incarcerated in the workhouse – a place primarily designed for adults – the law gave provision for the children of workhouse inmates to be given a basic education and trained in the type of jobs that would make them employable. For girls this usually meant as domestic servants, while boys would be equipped with the skills for a life at sea, or learn trades such as tailoring and shoemaking, which would help them to obtain apprenticeships. The Norwood School of Industry at Westow Hill, which prior to the New Poor Law had been run privately as a pauper school for London children by Frederick George Aubin and his wife (for which they recieved 4 shillings and sixpence per child), was the place which was chosen to be one of the workhouse schools for the City of London Union. Not only did it have a relatively good reputation, but it was several miles away from the morally and physically polluting influences of the capital.

The school had been set up earlier in the century in order to ease the plight of the destitute children who had been ‘farmed out’ by the City parishes as infants to the cottage homes of some of the poor and old residents of the parish (who needed the financial relief this opportunity gave them). Such a system was obviously open to abuse, and entry to the school at seven would have improved many of the children’s situation, despite the fact that initially there were no recreational activities on offer and the inmates were mainly expected to carry out menial tasks, such as sorting bristles for brushes. In addition, when pupils eventually did leave the care of the school it was often only to end up in the hands of unscrupulous employers who wanted the premium they were granted for taking on such a child.

However, after the New Poor Law came into effect the school was inspected several time (there had been a large number of infant deaths from cholera earlier in the decade) before commissioners were satisfied that enough improvements in education and sanitation had been made to issue an annual grant to allow the school to expand its facilities and employ more teachers (selected in Scotland), alongside skilled handicraftsmen for the workshops. By 1840 conditions seemed to have improved, and a visitor in the summer of that year writing in the Chambers Edinburgh Journal remarked that: Mr Aubin being a benevolent man, willing to engraft any improvement in his system, the routine of the estate was revised and remodelled a few years ago; on the recommendation of Dr. Kay, Poor Law Commissioner for the London district. It now serves as a pattern for the organisation of workhouse schools throughout the country. The great object held in view is to fit the children to engage with alacrity and ease in any species of useful employment to which they may be put on leaving school.

By the time the Hawkins children arrived at the Norwood School in 1849, it had been under the jurisdiction of the Poor Law Commissioners for several years. In the Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Board in 1836, Aubin had already mentioned the problem that these peripatetic workhouse children could cause (previously most children had entered the institution at a young age and remained there several years). He described how these new inmates were now often older and more likely to cause ‘trouble’ at the school, particularly as they only stayed for as long as their parents were in the workhouse, often leaving the school only to re-enter several months later . Records show that this was exactly the pattern the Hawkins sisters followed throughout the 1850s, until in 1858/59 Catherine and her two younger daughters (Sarah having no doubt found work as a domestic servant by then) entered the Christchurch Workhouse in Mint St, Southwark. This was a place which the medical journel, the Lancet, would soon condemn for its appalling conditions, including disease-ridden wards and lack of sanitation, just one of many cases reported which helped to change the law to force workhouses to create separate infirmaries (many of which eventually became NHS hospitals in the 20th century).

new-poor-law_posterContemporary Poster criticising the New Poor Law c1834.

Around this time, the Norwood School moved to new premises in the countryside at Hanwell, while the original buildings  were demolished and the land sold for development. The arrival of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1851 had changed the nature of the neighbourhood and created a demand for suburban housing, which was soon to be followed by the railway. And it was to this area that my grandparents would move with their young family in the 1930s, my grandfather having spent part of his boyhood in the area  during the period when his father, Arthur  (Mary Ann’s son), was dragging his family all over south London in search of work and cheaper rents.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenArrival of the Crystal Palace  at Sydenham in 1851

In a curious side note, it was at this very same Union School in Hanwell where Charlie Chaplin and his brother were educated in the 1890s while their mother was an inmate of the Newington workhouse. In his autobiography, Chaplin recalls that his mother went to the bother of extricating herself from the workhouse in order to retrieve her sons, and spend the day with them at Kennington Park (a place with a connection to my own family, see  A Tale of Two Parks). At the end of this halcyon few hours, the family had to face the degrading process of admitting themselves to the workhouse all over again. This was not an uncommon event, as families attempted to meet up with each other, however briefly, or survive outside the workhouse for longer periods. But it could be extremely difficult for ex-workhouse inmates to re-establish themselves in the community, and before long the family would often have to be re-admitted – as was the case with the Hawkins.

However, in 1850, when Sarah and Sophia Hawkins, aged thirteen and five respectively, were at the Norwood School, a very special visitor came to visit the institution: namely the writer Charles Dickens. In an article in Household Words (the new weekly journal he edited) entitled London Pauper Children, Dickens describes the school buildings as being as dingy and ugly as a small brewhouse. However, it is his in-depth description of the children and their education that forms the bulk of the article, and which is particularly fascinating to me in light of the fact that he may have briefly seen Sophia or Sarah in the course of his exploration of the school. 

Dickens  describes the pupils as follows: The children, on their first appearance at this Norwood School, are usually in the most lamentable plight. Ignorance and dirt, rags and vermin, laziness and ill health, diseased scalps, and skins tortured by itch, are there characteristics. They are the very dregs of the population of the largest city in the world – the human waifs and strays of the modern Babylon; the children of poverty, and misery, and crime; in very many cases labouring under physical defects, such as bad sight or hearing; almost always stunted in their growth, and bearing the stamp of ugliness and suffering on their features.

And if this was not bad enough, he goes on to say: Generally born in back alleys and dark courts, their playground has been the streets, where the wits of many have been prematurely sharpened at the expense of any morals they might have. With minds and bodies destitute of proper nutriment, they are caught, as it were, by the parish officers, like half-wild creatures, roaming poverty-stricken amidst the wealth of our greatest city; and half-starved in a land where the law says no one shall be destitute of food and shelter. When their lucky fate send them to Norwood, they are generally little personifications of genuine poverty – compounds, as someone says, of ignorance, gin, and sprats.

His article goes to great lengths to praise the Norwood institution – in particular the education of the boys, who not only had books and learnt proper trades, but also undertook military-style parades, and naval exercises on board a replica ship (made by a Greenwich pensioner). Unfortunately for us, he does not expend so many words on the girls’ education, except to say that they had less book-learning and were taught houshold occupations the rest of the time. Although he points out that the majority of the pupils’ parents were inmates of the workhouse, Dickens mentions that there  were also a few foundlings at the school, giving us the examples of little Olive Jewry and Alfred City. In the 1851 census schedule (which lists Sophia and Emma Hawkins), the very same Olive Jewry (age 3) can be seen,  as well as a boy called James Park – sad reminders of how desperate their poverty-stricken mothers must have been to have abandoned them in such a way.

It is not clear what befell the Hawkins children in later years, nor indeed exactly what happened to their parents, although all evidence to date seems to point to the fact that William and Catherine finally separated. Catherine Hawkins appeared to live out the last decades of her life working as a cook/housekeeper for a group of Irish clergymen; firstly at St Patrick’s RC Church in Soho Square, then following the missionary, Father Francis Cotter Beckley, to the new St Patrick’s Church in Wapping (built for the Irish dockers and their families). It was at this clergy house where she died, in 1894, at the magnificant age of 80. Perhaps later in life, like many of us, she felt the pull of her roots and wanted to embrace the religion she’d left behind when she married her English husband. Sadly, it would appear as if her older brother William – who had made a living as a coal whipper – had died decades earlier at the age of 36, leaving a wife and five children. At least his English-born family would not have suffered the ignomy of being  repatriated to Ireland if they had attempted to seek parish relief after his death, a fate which befell many Irish nationals at the time.

If this is indeed our Catherine Hawkins (and there is no reason to assume otherwise), then she would surely have known the life trajectory of Mary Ann – the daughter who escaped the degredations of the workhouse, despite her difficult start in life. She would also most likely have known her Hawkins-Skelton grandchildren – and even their own children. It certainly would be fitting to think that she was able to share in her oldest daughter’s good fortune in marrying James Skelton: the man who helped Mary Ann ‘to grow rich’ by giving her the emotional and financial security to keep all her children safely together under one roof, a privilege which had been denied Catherine.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2016