One of my first blog posts was back in spring 2016 at what seems a much more innocent point in time. It’s probably just as well that then we knew nothing about what was lined up in front of us: the nasty triumvirate of Brexit, Trump, and Covid-19 that would dominate the last five years, and which still keeps on giving . . .
It’s also hard for me to believe that I was in London last March, attending a weekend writing workshop in Spitalfields, and in my free time visiting the crowded Columbia Road Flower Market and other ‘hotspots’ in the capital, with no idea of what was in store (or in denial about the possibility, like most of us). I wrote about this uncanny experience last year (see Strange Times Indeed) and also about our response to the pandemic, comparing it to that recorded by the diarists of the Mass-Observation during Second World War (see We Are At War). As I discovered – and what the historian Lucy Worsley described so well in her recent BBC documentary Blitz Spirit – the experience of many at that time was not always what we have been led to believe and has certain parallels with our current crisis. As Rachael Sigee noted in The i when reviewing Blitz Spirit : From outrageous government U-turns to stockpiling groceries, to the encouragement of neighbourly suspicion, it felt eerily familiar. If it sounds disparaging to question the morale of those who lived through the Blitz, this documentary did the opposite. The reimagining of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ argued that true respect means acknowledging the reality rather than fuelling a myth.
One thing that has seemed particularly pertinent over the last year is the importance of having somewhere to go where we can be surrounded by nature. A place where we can walk and breathe freely, meet up with friends and family and escape from the four walls which have dominated our lives for so long. Last spring, as the world entered into lockdown, I wrote about the importance of gardening and the links to my own family history (see April is the Cruellest Month). Even before the pandemic hit us, there had been increased interest in the mental health benefits of being outdoors (or at the very least bringing the outdoors inside, whether that be with flowers in a window box or a collection of shells in a bowl). Any small act, in fact, to remind us of the importance of nature and how necessary it is to our own health and wellbeing.
So this month I revisit that post I wrote five years ago about the two parks in South London I visited in the course of my research, and which have links to my own family. Since then I’ve discovered other outdoor spaces with connections to my ancestors. The grounds of Crystal Palace, for example, or the much smaller Horniman Gardens in Forest Hill. I recall a September visit there with my mother where we went to visit the eclectic museum and afterwards strolled around the landscaped gardens in the warm early autumn sun. I wondered if my father had ever visited on Sunday outings with his parents and siblings before the war, yet my mother thought it unlikely as at that time they were living in Brixton. However, when I recently met my aunt she told me that they had indeed gone there. This was because they were able to travel free on the tram when their father was working as the conductor. For that reason they often used to plan their outings according to his route, and so when he was working on the tram that passed Forest Hill they hopped on to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens.
Horniman Museum Gardens c1910 (c) Horniman Museum Archive
I have often felt closest to my ancestors when I walk the routes they once did, particularly in places that have not changed much over the intervening years. Although fashions in parks and gardening are constantly in flux, there will always be paths that remain the same or trees that continue to thrive. Sometimes it’s just that small thing – the sight of an old yew in a dark corner of a garden, a glimpse of old metal railings, or the glint of morning light on the surface of a still pond – that connects us to the past and those who went before us.
With the rapid development of the surrounding area in the first half of the 19th century, Kennington Common lost its ancient agricultural purpose and became a mere dumping ground for rubbish. In 1849 an observer stated that “The stunted herbage is trodden and soiled by a troop of cows belonging to a neighbouring milkman. A kind of pond near one corner, and a deep ditch opposite South Place, are the cemeteries of all the dead puppies and kittens of the vicinity.” The vitriol factory on the east side gave off a constant stream of sulphurous vapour, and the ditches presented “an accumulation of black offensive muddy liquid, receiving constant contributions from numerous unmentionable conveniences attached to a line of low cottage erections”.
Survey of London: Vol 26, Lambeth, F H W Sheppard (ed): 1956
A manufactory for oil of vitriol, on the east side of Kennington Common, occupies three acres of ground; and between that and the Kent-road are, a smelting-house for lead and antimony, a tannery, a manufactory for glue, another for tobacco-pipes, with manufactories for floorcloth and for carriages.
A Topographical Dictionary of England: Newington, S Lewis (ed): 1848
In 1852, the Kennington Common Enclosure Act led to a revoke of the rights of the local population to use the common land of the Manor of Kennington in the way they had for centuries. Many of the area’s wealthier residents must have sighed in relief. The Common had always had a rather chequered history – it was the site of public hangings in the 18th century and a place where dissenters gathered, as well as an area for local sports and festivities, which could sometimes get out of hand, not to mention the rather dubious activities which went on under cover of darkness.
The famous failed Chartist rally of 1848 – spectacularly captured on daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn (see below) – had been the final nail in the common’s coffin. Thereafter, efforts moved quickly to consolidate the wishes of local reformers, clergy and politicians to have the land enclosed.
Kennington Common, Chartist Rally: 10th April, 1848 (c) The Royal Collection
N.B. The large building in the background of the image is the afore-mentioned Messrs Farmers oil of vitriol manufactory, showing the extent to which it must have dominated the neighbourhood. In this remarkable picture, it seems to resemble a rather menacing symbol of industrialisation looming over those who were demonstrating against the political subjection of the time.
In 1852, six-foot high iron railings were erected around the perimeter of the old common and over a period of two years the badly neglected fields were turned into a public park, which finally opened in March 1854. However, the completed grounds did not at first meet with a particularly welcome reception, and were described by one contemporary as: intersected by un-level, puddle-holding walks, some of them unsightly and crooked, others leading to nothing and nowhere. Other criticisms focused on the lack of evergreens and the unstructured nature of the planting without regard to heights, habits or colours. But from 1858, under the leadership of John Gibson (who’d previously worked as superintendent of the new Battersea Park), the design of the park began to change. Elaborate flower beds were laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentions a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory will let them be.
While all this sounds relatively positive (apart from the air pollution, of course), it is worth considering that for others the enclosure of the old common land was regarded as a political move which attempted to suppress the free speech of the working classes. The park was fenced and patrolled, and subject to a list of rules and regulations governing its usage. Due to the lack of space and the amount of people using the park, ball games were not allowed, and an early attempt to open a gymnasium for the local children failed because of the amount of adult men who were monopolising the equipment. However, it is also important to note that less than half a century later, in 1898, Walter Besant was bemoaning the fact that Kennington was the only place in the parish of Lambeth where the enclosed common land had been kept free of new building developments. And, true to its Chartist heritage, today Kennington Park is once more a popular starting point for local political rallies and marches.
When my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, and his siblings were growing up at nearby Aldred Rd in the 1860s and 70s (see The Two Arthurs), the park might have been a welcome place for Sunday strolls and games en famille, despite the lack of real freedom for children to play as they pleased. It would certainly have been a vivid contrast to the above-mentioned oil of vitriol factory, spewing out its noxious vapours at the eastern border of the park, and no doubt affecting all those who lived in the neighbourhood – including the residents of 35 Aldred Rd.
In Full Bloom at Kennington Park , c1909
I first went to Kennington is search of Aldred Road in the summer of 1991, shortly after returning from two years spent overseas. When starting my genealogical search in the mid-80s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) it had somehow never crossed my mind to venture south of the river to seek out the old family haunts. It seems strange to me now that I waited so long to do so. I already had a nascent collection of addresses from the birth, marriage and death certificates I had accumulated, as well as information from the five censuses up to 1881 – as well as more living relatives to question! The only thing which might explain my reticence was this rather strange idea I once had about South London.
The farthest south I had ever been was to the George Inn in Borough High Street on a night out with friends. (In the 1980s, west and north London were the areas to which I stuck – and at that time they seemed ‘cooler’ than today, when the action has moved on elsewhere). Apart from forays across the river to the Southbank Centre or the pubs near to London Bridge, I’d only ever seen bits of south-east London from a train on a visit to a friend in Kent. Then I had gazed down on rows of terraced houses with their tiny yards and outhouses, and imagined my ancestors living in such a street, constantly battling with the twin Dickensian evils of crime and grime. To my mind, the streets on the other side of the river seemed old and dark and permeated with some kind of Victorian miasma that might threaten to overcome those who dared to stray too far from the bright lights of the south bank. The scenes from the train out to New Beckenham from Charing Cross reminded me of Gustav Doré’s iconic image of rows of workers’ houses crowded into what appears to be a subterranean world.
Gustave Doré: Over London by Rail, from London: A pilgrimage, 1872
It was with a slight sense of trepidation that I headed off to Camberwell on that summer’s day in 1991, in search of a handful of old family addresses, my list augmented by the recent release of the 1891 census (scrutinised on microfiche in the Chancery Lane records’ office). However, not being able to search by family name in those days was extremely limiting, and meant that a great deal of information went unfound. I was still not yet up to the birth year of my grandfather (in 1892, in Cator Street, Peckham) and had been surprised to find another family recorded as living there the previous year. But as I later discovered, the Skeltons were all carrying on with their lives round the corner at Edmund Street, going undetected there until the internet liberated their location from obscurity over twenty years later.