Tag Archives: Durning Road

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

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I Remember, I Remember . . .

I remember, I remember

The house where I was born

The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day,

But now I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away!

Thomas Hood (1826)

The day I came across this poem by Thomas Hood in an anthology, it gave me a strange feeling – as if a voice was speaking to me from the past. I knew I’d heard those lines somewhere before, but couldn’t quite place them. Perhaps it was something we’d had to learn at school and read out in morning  assembly? Or maybe it was in one of the children’s poetry collections we were given for Christmas? But after a while I began to hear the voice of my father, reciting the poem in that slightly hammy way of his which always made us laugh. The words were faint at first, but grew louder in my head until I could hear his South London accent almost as though he were in the room. Yet however hard I tried, I could only ever hear him saying the first three lines over and over again.

As a child I’d presumed he’d made the poem up himself, just as he often came out with his own jokey rhymes to amuse us. Then I realised that most likely he had been the one who’d studied it at school, and the memory had stayed with him since (as is often the case with poetry rote-learned when young). And it was obvious that as an adult he would have realised the final lines of the first verse might have sounded rather macabre to children growing up in times when death in childhood was not a common occurrence.

The poem started me thinking about the places where we are born. I knew from my father’s birth certificate that (despite him once fancifully telling my mother he was from Blackheath for some inexplicable reason), that he’d taken his first breath in a crumbling mid-Victorian terraced house in Brixton. A house which had neither electricity nor an indoor toilet. A house that had afforded him a view of the Crystal Palace burning down in 1936 from the upstairs bedroom. A house which, when my grandfather had the chance to buy the freehold for around £100 in 1938, was condemned out of hand by his brother Arthur (a ‘builder’, of whom my grandmother was rather suspicious). I knew those details because my aunt – who’d also been born in the house – had written to tell me all this when she first discovered I’d been delving into the family history. Her letter, which contained snippets of intriguing information about the family, ended with the ominous words . . . the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.

My grandmother, Edith Stops, outside the house at 95 Denmark Rd, Camberwell (circa 1910)
Edith Skelton (neé Stops), outside 95 Denmark Rd, circa 1910

So my grandparents never owned a house (the war put paid to that, amongst other things), and were of the generation that saw nothing unusual in this. But it was probably just as well my grandfather did not risk buying 95 Denmark Road as the street was eventually badly bombed in an air raid, and today the road is mostly home to post-war housing association blocks. However, by the time the Luftwaffe were preparing for their assault on London,  the family had already been allocated a semi in Durning Road on the Bloomfield Estate – a  1920s cottage-style garden development near to Gypsy Hill, built on the site of the former Bloomfield Hall. Over seventy years later, my aunt could still remember the move with affection: It was like paradise. We had electric lights! We had a bathroom! And wonder of wonders we had a through way from the front garden to the back garden, and we all loved it.

 

The house in West Norwood today
The ‘luxury’ council house in Durning Road, West Norwood today (now privately owned)

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, for our story starts in Fulham in another terraced house where my grandmother, Edith Stops, and her two older brothers were born in the 1890s, and where to all accounts the family had led an untroubled life, and one typical of late Victorian artisans.

My grandmother’s father, Thomas Stops, was a blacksmith and wheelwright. His father, William (also a wheelwright), had come to London from Wendover in Buckinghamshire and had settled in the Hackney area, siring a family of seven children, six of whom were male.  Thomas, one of the middle sons, married Harriet Burnell in Wandsworth in 1887 at the age of thirty-four. Harriet, who was originally from Somerset, had left school at the age of twelve to take up a position as a domestic servant in her native Highbridge, and had eventually moved to London: the 1881 census showed that she worked for a corn merchant and his young family in Camberwell (although if typical of the period, she most likely moved employers several times). Thomas and Harriett were both in their thirties when they married, perhaps marrying later for financial reasons in a bid to rid themselves of the poverty into which they’d been born, and they settled into their two-storied house on part of a new estate of Victorian terraces off the Wandswoth Road, in Fulham, raising three children after a six year hiatus which was no doubt unplanned and unexpected!

According to Charles Booth, who was prowling around the area at about this same time creating his poverty mapsThe main feature of Fulham is its newness. Twenty years ago it hardly existed. There is still a fair amount of open space in the form of market gardens at the western extremity and private houses and grounds at the southern extremity, but each year both are eaten into by the builder with amazing avidity. He went on to say: The new tenants come from every part of London, especially from south-west London, drawn hither by the fact that there are houses to be had and that they are suited to their needs.

By ‘their needs’, I am assuming he is referring to the affordable rents, and the fact that the area was regarded as a reasonably respectable part of town, although he does go on to mention that as regards proximity to work, Fulham is at a disadvantage for it is hardly possible to be in London and further away from the City. For Thomas Stops this wasn’t a problem, as he worked locally as a coachman and blacksmith.

However, in 1906, this family idyll came to an abrupt end when Thomas’s life was cut short through contracting tuberculosis in his early fifties, leaving the widowed Harriet with three children to care for. The family had already moved to Denmark Road by this point, and Thomas died in the nearby Lambeth workhouse infirmary. Despite the grim-sounding name, attending the hospital which was attached to the local workhouse was relatively common in those pre-NHS days, and simply meant the patients did not have the means to pay for private healthcare. Nevertheless, it is also likely that the family had fallen on hard times, which had perhaps precipitated their move to Lambeth in the first place. Thomas’s failing health may have been the cause of this, and is a  salient reminder of how insecure life was for even the ‘respectable’ working classes at that time.

After her husband’s death, Harriet took in boarders to help pay the rent, as many other householders did at that time. She was to remain at 95 Denmark Road, later sharing her house with her married daughter and family, and survived just long enough to give my father a vague memory of an old lady dressed in black who sat in a chair in a corner of the living room.

The Stops Family, 1909, 'Taken soon after father died' (c) Margaret Andrews
The Stops Family, ‘Taken soon after father died’, c1906

The two old photographs above – which no-one in my immediate family had ever seen before – were sent to me by Margaret Andrews, the grand-daughter of Thomas Stops (my grandmother’s oldest brother). Margaret was carrying out genealogical research into the Stops family at around the same time as I had returned to my own investigations, and it was a serendipitous on-line ‘meeting’ that eventually led to me gratefully receiving these lost images  which illuminated the unknown (and hitherto unimagined) childhood of my grandmother. This unexpected glimpse into her early life gave me an almost vertiginous feeling of falling back through a rip in time. Could it really be that I was seeing my long-dead grandmother rise up again in front me as an Edwardian child?

For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother  standing at the gate. My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the  plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?

I thought too about the wary-looking girl who stood there, feet splayed out in front of her in a way that reminded of my grandmother in the later years of her life, lumbering flat-footed through Kew Gardens, her handbag held at her side as if it were a lump of wood. Graceful she was not! But it was hard to imagine the dumpy old lady with the dimpled arms and the long yellow teeth as this gangly pre-teen, arrested forever in a single moment in a springtime over a century ago. On that day she is standing half-way between the house and the street,  poised on the cusp between girlhood and adolescence. We do not know if she is going out – perhaps to run an errand for her mother – or whether she is waiting for a friend or relative. Is she still unsure about a fatherless future on the other (wrong?) side of the river, where lodgers come and go (not realising that one day her future husband will be among them)? Is it one of her beloved brothers who is taking her picture, calling out to her as he presses the shutter? Edie, smile, will you!, laughing at his little sister’s seriousness and the way she grips the iron railing as if to stop herself from toppling backwards into a precarious past.

And it is that wistfulness which seems to be reflected in her eyes in the second photograph a studio image of a family grieving, which may seem strange to us today. Harriet is in black, looking slightly out-dated for the period, and holding something in her hands that could be a reference to her departed husband. Brother Tom, in long trousers, already seems to be taking on the role of protector to his younger siblings, his expression emanating a slight air of detachment from the whole palaver associated with the rituals of the photographer’s studio.

Every time I look at this photograph I am drawn to the arm that Edith has placed tentatively around her brother’s shoulders and the funny twisted necklace at her throat. I want to tell her that everything will be fine – she will keep her big brothers, despite the awful war they will fight in. This future war will even give her a chance to forge a short career as a telephonist. And later, when it is all over, she will meet a returning soldier who comes to board in the spare room at the house in Denmark Rd. Eventually she will go on to have two boys and a girl of her own with this, sometimes taciturn, man who has witnessed things of which he can never speak. And those children in turn will one day give her a brood of grandchildren to enrich her later years.

Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the garden of her own house in Hampton in 1963
Edith Skelton (née Stops) in the back garden of the house in Bishops Grove in 1963

So now we see Edith (or Edie as she was known as) over 50 years later in the garden of another house – the council house in Bishops Grove, Hampton where the family moved in 1948 (after renting two rooms at the top of a house in Teddington for two years after the war ended). They were lucky, as houses were in short supply, but determined to stay  near to my aunt, who had married and set up home in the area. The long years of conflict and the resulting evacuations and relocations had scattered everyone, and there were no strong familial ties in south-east London any more. In the end, my grandparents were to remain in this genteel corner of the capital, enjoying the post-war period of peace and prosperity, until their deaths in the mid-1970s.

But it is only in their very last house that I really remember them – a small, ground-floor retirement flat round the corner from Bishops Grove, where they moved during their final years. When we came down from Scotland to visit them (which was relatively infrequently), it was always a disappointment to me that the house held no memories of my father’s boyhood. In contrast, our McKay grandparents’ house in Edinburgh was full of traces of  our mother’s life as a young girl, and we delighted in the stories which connected our childhood to hers through a sense of place.

Now I realise that part of the feeling of being disconnected from my grandparents’ past, and that of my father’s, was because we had always visited them in that neutral, ‘story-free’ space. No family events had ever taken place in those bright, modern rooms. No pre-war possessions cluttered up the flat (most having already been lost or destroyed through bombs or carelessness). Unlike the long-demolished house in Denmark Road, it was a place which did not surrender any clues to what had gone before.

Edith_Xmas64
Edith Skelton (née Stops) with two of her seven grandchildren, Bishops Grove, Christmas 1964 (I am the baby on her lap)

Merry Christmas! from The Incidental Genealogist, December 2015.