Tag Archives: Horsleydown Old Stairs

A Riverside Rest

South London is almost crippled by these monstrous growths, unrealized by the traveller tearing along in his daily train. Whole areas have been choked by overhead rail-tracks on these wasteful brick arches, and to get a true appreciation of the sort of thing that can happen, one should pay a visit to Loughborough junction, where three of these monsters meet, or to Southwark Cathedral, where the main line track seems to hold down an area of a small country town.

South London, Harry Williams, 1949

 aerial-view-01693-750London Bridge (with Southwark Cathedral) c1920 (c) Ideal Homes

It’s mid-September and I’m back in London again. I haven’t visited the capital for a year now, although it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because I’m surrounded with my research it often seems as if the city is coming to me through my books and papers. But of course that is no substitute for the real thing, so it was good last month to stride out along the South Bank towards Greenwich, with the first scent of early autumn in the air.

And just as the seasons are edging towards the end of the year, I sense my story drawing to its natural conclusion. I’m moving closer to the centre now – soon out of London (again) and up, up to North Yorkshire. But before I do that I would like to pause at the Thames for a while; catch my breath after all those recent excursions to the far ends of the Victorian Empire. To Australia, to Hong Kong, to Belize, and of course last month, by means of Charles Skelton Tyler’s delightful photographs, to Earls Colne in Essex.

I stop at the old watermen’s stairs at the bottom of Horsleydown Lane, the place where my ancestors would have crossed the river a whole lifetime before the iconic bridge would link the Surrey-side to the Middlesex-side at the Pool of London. And while it is clear to me that Tower Bridge is the odd man out – a fancy-pants of a crossing in amongst all the more functional ones – I still find it a struggle to imagine the great river as my great-great grandfather first saw it when he arrived in London from Yorkshire sometime around 1820. 

P1040281 (2)Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today

Horsleydown Foreshore c1850

Horsleydown foreshore, c1850 (c) Guildhall Library & Art Gallery etc.

Not only would the Thames have been heaving with boats, including those of the watermen and lightermen, but none of the bridges which span the river today would have been there two hundred years ago – at least not in their current incarnations. At that time the crossings closest to Central London were limited to London Bridge, Old Blackfriars Bridge, and Waterloo Bridge, along with the lesser-known iron Queen Street Bridge (replaced by Southwark Bridge) and the iron Regent’s Bridge (soon after renamed Vauxhall Bridge). In fact, depending on when he actually arrived in the capital, James Skelton may have even been witness to the opening of these latter three toll bridges at Southwark (1819), Waterloo (1817), and Vauxhall (1816).

Although I cannot determine exactly when my great-great grandfather made that all-important move to London, I do know he was born in 1799 in Darlington and grew up in North Yorkshire. As a young man he obviously undertook an apprenticeship in tailoring, and by the time he was in his twenties had settled down in the riverside parish of St John’s Horsleydown, now in Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). London Bridge would therefore have been his closest crossing, had he needed to go to the City by road. And he would certainly have witnessed the ‘new’ London Bridge in the process of being constructed next to the old one in the 1820s, and not completed until 1831 when he was already a father of four young children (with another on the way).

Would my great-great grandfather have been excited at this idea of progress? Was it the opening of this improved bridge which helped him decide to move much farther out to leafy Brixton over a decade later, commuting to his new tailor’s shop in East Cheap, near St Paul’s? Or was it the coming of the railways in 1836, spreading out over South London throughout the 19th century, like a spider spinning a slow and stealthy web, which caused him to flee his adopted parish?

The_Construction_of_New_London_Bridge_alongside_the_old_bridge_by_Gideon_Yates,_1828.png‘New’ and Old London Bridge, by Gideon Yates, 1828

I have always been fascinated by the history of London’s first railway line, the London and Greenwich Railway, which opened in 1836 (but did not reach Greenwich until 1838) and ran on a viaduct consisting of 878 brick arches, due to the number of streets that it had to cross. Walking through Bermondsey today, it is hard to ignore this structure, which appears to dominate the neighbourhoods through which it passes. If you add in the noise and pollution the early locomotives would have generated – not to mention the carriages on the rudimentary rail system – it must have been a traumatic change to the area for the residents, particularly those in the more outer-lying parts that were still in open countryside.

Several months prior to the railway line’s opening, The Times of September 3rd, 1835 stated: This enormous mass of brickwork, of which the first stone was laid in last April twelvemonth, is advancing rapidly to its completion . . . It is expected that the railroad to Greenwich will be finished in the course of another twelvemonth, and that the passage of steam omnibuses, &c., will then commence; that they will carry passengers from London-bridge to Greenwich in 12 minutes, and that the charge of conveyance will be only 6d. Whether or not this rapidity of transport will be pleasurable or otherwise, must depend on the tastes of those who ride on the railway. It will no doubt be advantageous to the inhabitants of the metropolis to enjoy rural scenery at a cheap rate and without much loss of time.

London-and-greenwich-railway-1837London and Greenwich Railway, 1837 The Illustrated London News

Three years later, the new London and Croydon Railway opened, sharing the initial section of the line for two miles, the high-level pedestrian boulevards which ran alongside the tracks being utilised for this expansion. On Sundays (when trains did not run) these walkways had been a popular one-penny stroll, and perhaps my great-great grandfather and some of his family had dressed up in their smart Sunday best clothes to perambulate along them, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. I also think they would have taken an early train journey, even just to experience this novel form of transport, especially as the family remained in the area until 1844.

In those days of relatively low-rise buildings, the long railway viaduct would have been an impressive sight. A few days after The Times article in 1835, the Mechanics Magazine stated that: The London and Greenwich Railway viaduct is now fast approaching completion, and presents a very imposing appearance. It forms a highly interesting object from the summit of Nunhead Hill, at the back of Peckham, from which the whole range of arches, seen in nearly its entire length, appears like the “counterfeit presentment” of a Roman aqueduct. Nunhead Hill is decidedly the best point from which to obtain a general view of this magnificent work, which there forms a part of the foreground to an exquisite and comprehensive panorama of the metropolis, in its whole enormous length from Chelsea to Greenwich, with all its “domes and spires and pinnacles”, amongst which those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are of course the most conspicuous.

Several years later, Nunhead Hill would become the site of the new ‘monster’ cemetery of All Saints – one of the ‘magnificent seven’ that were constructed in a ring around the capital in an effort to prevent the overcrowding in the London parish churchyards, and intended as a Victorian capitalist venture (albeit an unsustainable one). Today Nunhead Cemetery makes for a pleasant wooded stroll, as well a place of historical interest. And eventually James Skelton was himself laid to rest here in the ‘new’ family grave, situated at the highest point of the hill, the closest spot both to God and the fabulous views of the London skyline.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640Nunhead Cemetery c1850

When the burial site was initially chosen for his oldest daughter in 1844 (see Present at the Death), the vista of London with which the family would have been confronted was obviously very different from that of today. But St Paul’s would have still been the dominant feature. Somehow this feels very comforting to me, as the cathedral has come to symbolise my times in London. This is because I usually stay at the YHA hostel in the old choir boys’ accommodation in Carter Lane, and from every dorm room the bells can be heard chiming the hours throughout night. Despite what some of the guests say in the morning, for me it is nothing but a soothing sound which seems to be saying that all is right with the world.

FROM NUNHEADSt Paul’s Cathedral from Nunhead today

St Paul’s also symbolises family holidays in London as a child in the 1970s (all Londoners who have experienced the blitz seem to be forever drawn to this special place). I think, too, of my great-great grandfather, who eventually moved out of Bermondsey and set up his tailoring business just a stone’s throw away at 15 East Cheap; of my paternal great-great grandmother who was born in one of the slum courts in the shadow of the great cathedral. She would have grown up with the sound of the bells, while her future husband would have heard them as he travelled into the City each day. And if it hadn’t been for those two bodies lying cold under the earth up on Nunhead Hill (James Skelton’s oldest daughter and his first wife), this young poverty-stricken teenager would never have been able to set up home in South London with my fifty year old grieving great-great grandfather. Such is the way the world turns!

So I see and I feel connections as I walk the streets and parks of London. I feel privileged to know about my ancestors’ lives through technology they could never have imagined, yet despite this knowledge I’m aware that as I tread in their faded footsteps I can never truly recreate their world. Sometimes, however, the city allows me a brief glimpse of a timeless space. The smell of roasting chestnuts on a winter’s day; a windy bridge crossing in early spring, grit stinging my eyes, while the brown-grey waters of the Thames roil and churn below; ghost signs on a wall advertising an obsolete product that was once regarded as commonplace. And for a brief moment I feel my ancestors calling to me over the years.

On that Saturday when I sat on the steps at Horsleydown, watching two separate sets of wedding photographs taking place on the ‘beach’ below me, I thought about the bridges and the railway lines – which had marched on step-by-step alongside the speculative building ventures. And it was inevitable that one day it would all eventually reach sleepy Brixton, far away from the bustle of the river, where my great-great grandfather had moved in respectable middle age. (The new family home on Coldharbour Lane – near present-day Loughborough Junction – was constructed when the street was surrounded by trees and market gardens).

What would James Skelton make of his old riverside neighbourhood of now? There is the fancy-pants bridge on his doorstep, looking like it has been there for hundreds of years; yet the family home no longer exists, bombed along with Horsleydown parish church in some unimaginable future-past war from the sky. Even the Victorian warehouses which tourists come to view would be regarded as  modern interlopers, having replaced  the original timber ones from earlier in the century with which my great-great grandfather would have been familiar. And if he did venture down the old watermen’s stairs to the foreshore and gaze out across the river, would he regard the current City skyline as progess?

Then if he continued to follow the riverside path beyond London Bridge and the Shard, past the hemmed-in but spruced-up Southwark Cathedral – which he’d have known as a simple parish church, and to whose long-demolished grammar school he’d sent his only son, what would his impressions be? The industry has all gone, and the resulting space opened up to pedestrians in pure pursuit of pleasure, as it once was, centuries ago. No doubt he would marvel at the new-old Globe Theatre, looking like something transported from the past to the future, missing out all the generations in between.

He might then wonder who and what had shaped this strange modern London which perplexed him so.

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2018

Choice Shards

Much of the approved Thames path, forever negotiating between private and public, opts for the virtual over the actual, thereby spurning the essence of what London has always been about: its river highway. That restless, sediment-heavy movement. The sound and smell of dying centuries. The pre-human gravity. To begin to understand the complexity of migration and settlement, patterns of trade, fashions in architecture, we have to learn to read the hard evidence, as it has been deposited on the foreshore. The impulse is forensic: bones, smoothed corners of brick, masonry nails, coins, relics hidden among gravel and coal bruises to tempt future detectorists and amateur historians. From these fugitive traces past lives can be assembled like novels missing vital chapters. In the golden hour, when the liquid carpet rolls back, we are free to comb and trawl without challenge, to carry home choice shards from which we can almost taste the biographies of those who were here before us.

Iain Sinclair, London in Fragments (Foreword), Ted Sandling (2016)

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will have probably jaloused by now that I prefer to do my research in the field, and will find any excuse to go wandering off around parks and neighbourhoods in search of traces of my ancestors. Sometimes this limitation is enforced upon me as I am often only in London for a weekend, when it is usually not possible to visit the record offices (apart from occasionally for a few hours on a Saturday). In general, though, I like to combine both types of research during my sojourns to the city, taking my cue from the fickle London weather. And so it was that I ended up on a mudlarking expedition one bright morning in early spring, during one of those rare weekends when the temperature in the capital rivalled that of Athens and the attractions of the city were laid out before me like a particularly ravishing picnic.

First up on that metaphorical blanket of goodies was a Bankside mudlarking trip run by London Walks, one of my favourite guiding companies (I am trying to work my way through their portfolio, joining all the walks that have any connection to my genealogical quest). I had never been in the capital on a weekend which coincided with one of their popular mudlarking expeditions, such walks being restricted to a combination of low tides, weekend dates and the availability of their resident archaeologist. But on this Saturday in March there was a serendipitous collision of these factors, with the sunshine thrown in to boot, and as I waited at Monument Station for our guide, alongside the miscellany of other ingénue mudlarkers, I felt a happy wave of anticipation course through me. (Apart from the moment when I had a quick apprehensive re-reading of the walk’s description as rubber-booted families popped out from the underground carrying metal detectors and bulging rucksacks).

Mudlarking as a modern activity (as opposed to its unfortunate historical counterpart) had always appealed to me. Whenever I had followed the Thames path at low tide (particularly on the south bank of the river) I had always spotted people poking about on the exposed foreshore, either absent-mindedly or with the intense concentration of the serious artefact hunter. And when I first visited the Thames-side neighbourhood of Horsleydown and descended the old waterman’s steps to the river (see The Tailor of Horsleydown) I automatically started searching about in the stones and mud for some long-forgotten sign that my ancestors had once lived in the vicinity. I pocketed a piece of willow-pattern pottery that I imagined could have been part of a bowl from my great-great grandfather’s cramped kitchen at the back of the brick 18th century house in nearby Horsleydown Lane. Had his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, used such crockery in the 1830s, or was this just wishful thinking and I was in fact woefully inaccurate with my historical knowledge of porcelain dating? More strangely, on the unprepossessing foreshore there was also a scattering of strange fingers of pale white stone with dark shiny interiors. They almost looked as if they could have once been prehistoric tools of some sort, and I knew that I needed to find out more about what was in this muddy treasure trove.

Later I discovered that what I and most of those waterside ramblers were doing on the riverbank was called mudlarking – searching for historical ‘artefacts’ that were regularly exposed by the fast-flowing tidal Thames. Some of those engaged in the activity seemed to take their efforts extremely seriously, using metal detectors and spades, not to mention sporting rubber waders and gloves. Others with cameras and smart-casual city clothes looked as if they had accidently ended up close to the water, but while there could not resist the lure of the objects which protruded at their feet as they picked their way along the exposed strips of riverside.

The mudlarking expedition I joined was unsurprisingly a popular one, and thankfully the detectorists were soon dissuaded from the notion of digging for buried treasure: we were told that an approved license was needed for such activity, and even then there was restrictions to where it could be carried out. That explained why I had always seen the professional-looking mudlarks on the north shore, whereas the incidental day-tripping types were mostly to be found on the accessible beach in Bankside below the Tate Modern.

However, those spontaneous tourist mudlarkers were not entirely wrong with their instinctive choice of location. Our archaeologist guide, Fiona, pointed out that there were rich pickings to be had at this site due to its proximity to the old industries which had lined this stretch of the river. Not only were there the remains of boat building (nails and other iron artefacts), but there were also lumps of molten glass which had come from the glassworks further upstream towards Blackfriars, and fragments from the Lambeth potteries. And that was before the ubiquitous clay pipe stems, red terracotta roof tiles, ancient animal bones, discarded oyster shells, and other by-products of several centuries of London life.

Once Fiona had given us a basic introduction to the role of the river, and Bankside in particular, she issued us with plastic bags and latex gloves, along with strict instructions to scrub our hands clean afterwards to guard against the possibility of catching Weil’s disease (a bacterial infection transmitted by rats). Then the mudlarking code of conduct was pointed out – essentially common sense – and we were let loose on the foreshore. There was a fun, competitive spirit among the group as we each tried to outdo each other with our finds. Fiona stood in a prominent part of the beach, and we were at liberty to approach her with anything interesting we found – in particular those items which seemed unusual and which we had problems identifying ourselves.

I soon realised that to gain the most from the session, it would make more sense to curtail my searching relatively quickly and focus instead on listening to the explanations of the findings of the group (most who presented them to Fiona with an endearing child-like enthusiasm and desire to impress). That way, I figured I would learn more about the artefacts in the mud and be better equipped for future solo mudlarking expeditions, particularly around Horsleydown, a place to which I was keen to return with my new-found knowledge.

And so I came to learn the difference between Victorian terracotta roof tiles (a small nail hole) and ones from earlier generations (a larger hole for a wooden peg). Many of these Tudor peg-tiles had been dumped into the Thames during the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire, and Fiona enthused us all by explaining that it was  even possible to find ones still with the scorch marks of the flames upon them. I learnt that clay pipes were discarded almost like cigarette butts are today, but that to find one with both the stem and bowl intact was rare. I learnt, too, that the long white fingers of stone with the shiny dark interiors  that had so puzzled me on my trip to the foreshore at Horsleydown Old Stairs were actually nodules of flint which came from the chalk downs up river. In fact, many fragments of flint found in the Thames have been naturally flaked by their movement downstream and may resemble prehistoric tools to the untrained eye.



P1060925 (2)


My Finds: (1) Tiles (2) Clay Pipe Stems (3) Bones & Shells (4) Flint

As the morning wore on I could see how, as a professional archaeologist, Fiona had to strike a tricky balance between imparting her enthusiasm for mudlarking with tempering the group’s urge to gather all and sundry without regard to the long-term effects of over-collecting. She encouraged us to search selectively, patiently re-explaining why we were not to dig around in the mud, even if we could see part of an exposed artefact (objects must be able to be picked up from the surface), and took some of our more important finds away to be catalogued, making sure they would eventually be returned to their ’owners’. These included an intact clay pipe from the 17th century, and some Victorian railway crockery to mark the Golden Jubilee. Fiona also explained how any rare pre-1700 finds should be reported to the Museum of London to be catalogued. (Even if it turns out that they are, in fact, neither rare or old, and it has purely been wishful thinking on the part of the collector).

Shortly after the mudlarking expedition finished and everyone started stowing away their plastic bags of finds and drifting off for lunch, I rushed along the south bank to Horsleydown Old Stairs to try to reach the foreshore before the tide came in, longing to search there now that I had a better idea of what I was looking for. And although it was certainly more interesting to scour the debris at my feet with all the new information I’d acquired, my search did not yield anything particularly exciting. Certainly the Bankside area had been more forthcoming in giving up its watery (muddy?) secrets.


P1040292 (2)

HORSLEYDOWN_FORESHORE (2).JPGHorsleydown Old Steps and Foreshore

I must confess that I felt quite deflated at my lack of success, and hunger and high tide drove me up Horsleydown Lane to The Anchor Tap (the local pub my ancestors would have been familiar with). Over a cold pint I thought about the architectural interloper of Tower Bridge arriving slap bang in the middle of the neighbourhood, centuries after it had been established, and all the dredging and filling in and general destruction to the river bank the building of the bridge had necessitated. On the mudlarking trip we had learnt about the damage that the construction of the Millenium Bridge had done to the nearby riverside, resulting in loss of areas of potential interest to archaeologists. Every new bridge across the Thames has wreaked a certain degree of havoc on the river bank and changed the flow of the water in some way.

I vowed to make mudlarking an integral part of any subsequent fairweather London trips (tides permitting) – particularly on the foreshore at the foot of  Horsleydown Old Stairs in the hope I might eventually discover something that might link back to my ancestors’ lives in the neighbourhood. Access to the river is not as common as it once was – from the numerous watermen’s stairs that lined the banks of the river there are only a few that still exist, (and which are protected from future destruction) – and it always seems a miracle to me that Horsleydown Old Stairs are still there, particularly given their close proximity to Tower Bridge. Every time I descend the tricky steps to the river, I thrill to the fact that my ancestors would have walked this same way, and feel as I am connecting with those riverside Skeltons who went before me.

As both Iain Sinclair and Ted Sandling point out in London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures, it can sometimes seem almost like trespassing when you descend to the river, away from the hurly-burly of the surrounding crowds, and reconnect with the vast watery highway that both links and divides London. And being able to spontaneously collect the remains of the activities of past Londoners feels like a very special privilege. As Sinclair points out: The practice of strolling and stooping turning over likely stones with boots poulticed in noxious slop, is one of the surviving liberties of the city.   

Yet it would seem as if this liberty is currently under threat, as new guidelines from the Port of London Authority (here) appear to indicate that from 2017 even picking up exposed items will now need a mudlarking licence due to the increase in the number of people collecting on the foreshore. A past-time formerly associated with only  a few ‘eccentrics’ has now become a fast-growing hobby – perhaps through the democratic spread of information, and the tantalising images on the internet of the artefacts that can be found through a combination of luck, patience and know-how. 

But whatever your thoughts are on the matter (and there are clearly arguments for and against the new restrictions), there is no doubt that the original 19th century (and earlier) practice of mudlarking seems horrific to our modern sensibilities. Those who had no other employment opportunities (mostly the very young and the very old) would take to the river in search of anything they could find to sell on: usually lumps of coal, scraps of iron, wood or bone. It was a hand-to-mouth existence in conditions that are unimaginable to us today.

When Henry Mayhew interviewed young mudlarks at one of the watermen’s stairs near the Pool of London in the 1840s, he remarked in London Labour and the London Poor that: It would be almost impossible to describe  the wretched group, so motley was their appearance, so extraordinary their dress, and so stolid and impressive their countenances. He describes the experiences of one juvenile mudlark as such: At first he found it difficult to keep his footing in the mud, and he had known many beginners fall in. He came to my house, at my request, the morning after my first meeting with him. It was the depth of winter, and the poor little fellow was nearly destitute of clothing. His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains. And not only was this affliction  part and parcel of the perilous life on the edge of the river, but Mayhew later mentions that: The lad suffered much from the pieces of broken glass in the mud. Some little time before I met with him he had run a copper nail into his foot. This lamed him for three months, and his mother was obliged to carry him on her back every morning to the doctor. As soon, however, as he could ‘hobble’ (to use his mother’s own words) he went back to the river, and often returned (after many hours’ hard work in the mud) with only a few pieces of coal, not enough to sell even to get them a bit of bread.


For my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, and his family, the presence of mudlarks congregating at certain points in the river would have been a fact of life. I do not know what James thought about the poverty which was endemic in London at that time, but I like to think that his second marriage to Mary Ann Hawkins (see When I Grow Rich) showed him to be someone who believed in equality and the fairer distribution of wealth. His own beginnings in North Yorkshire in the early 1800s would indicate that he knew about hardship and the precariousness of existence in 19th century England. And however much it might be exciting to find a piece of plate or pottery or glass from the quarter century period that James spent living and working as a tailor in Horsleydown Lane (perhaps even an actual fragment from some of those objects itemised in his Sun Fire Insurance documents – see Where There’s a Will . . . and the Sun), there is no escaping from the truth of the matter that these ‘choice shards’ will never tell us what this man thought or felt as an individual. And so, like so much of genealogical research, we are pulled tantalisingly close only to be pushed away again by the impossibility of our task.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2017

P.S. Those wishing to find out more about modern mudlarking can access the plethora of information on the web devoted to the subject, with the colourful website of Thames and Field being a particularly interesting (and eccentric) one to peruse.

The Tailor of Horsleydown

Monday for wealth,

Tuesday for health,

Wednesday the best day of all;

Thursday for crosses,

Friday for losses,

Saturday no luck at all.


My family’s London story starts long before James Skelton’s winter-spring relationship with the poverty-stricken teenage single mother, Mary Ann Hawkins: a union which culminated in their marriage shortly before his death from bronchitis in 1867 (see Moments in Time). The story starts instead with another woman – and another family – in a narrow lane only a stone’s throw from the river Thames. And it is a very different story to that which was played out in Aldred Rd, a quarter of a century later.

When my great-great grandfather married his first wife, Sarah Vaughan, in Bermondsey, three years into the reign of George 4th, the couple were not yet in their mid-twenties. They took their oaths at St John’s Church, in the parish of Horsleydown on Tuesday 14th October, 1823, after a summer which had been one of the coolest since observations began in 1659. Thanks to the meticulous records of Luke Howard (the ‘godfather of clouds’), we know that their special day was one which was relatively mild for the time of year – dry and sunny, but unmistakeably autumn, with a gentle breeze and a light scattering of yellowing leaves. As they crossed the churchyard, the earth damp under their feet from the previous day’s rain, I hope they paused for a moment in a shaft of sunlight and allowed themselves to feel a thrill at being alive at this time and place, unaware that they would have only a limited time together.


St John’s, Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckley

Despite the old rhyme, their choice of wedding day (Tuesday for health), did not bring the longevity they would have wished for. Twenty-five years later, Sarah would be struck down with an undiagnosed womb disease after raising their five children, precipitating the crisis that sent James in search of ‘fulfilment’ elsewhere. As I sit with their birth, marriage and death certificates, and those of their children and grandchildren, laid out before me like some macabre game of Happy Families, I feel privy to some horrible secret, imagining them arriving at St John’s, all nervous excitement, not knowing what is in store for them.

But on that mild Tuesday in 1823, the church was only 90 years old, and yet to be hit by a bomb in an unimaginable future war from the air, and the surrounding graveyard a long way off from becoming a recreation ground. To James and Sarah (if they did indeed give it a thought) the Hawksmoor church must have already seemed like an antiquity, albeit one that had become a local joke on account of the strange weather vane balanced on top of a tapering spire. This huge iron construction was meant to represent a comet whizzing through the heavens, but to the parish residents it reminded them instead of the wriggling body of a louse. Locally the church was often referred to as ‘St John’s Lousydown’, or simply ‘The Louse Church’. No doubt James and Sarah found it amusing – like everyone, they would have been familiar with the common problem of body lice, even if they did not suffer from it themselves – but to a time-traveller from the 21st century it would need a leap of the imagination to see the iron ‘comet’ morph into the six legs and oval body of a parasite they have rarely encountered.

Bombed St Js (2)St John’s Horsleydown, after bomb damage, 1940

Walking through the old churchyard today, all that remains of St John’s are the Grade 2 listed foundations and crypt, controversially built over in the 1970s and used as offices by the London City Mission. The once large graveyard is a rather dreary public park, frequented by dog walkers, and pram-pushing mother, while some of the last remaining headstones lean forlornly against the foundations of the church. This is, however, not a recent development. Due to the relatively large grounds, the churchyard has been used off and on as a public park since the summer of 1882, when the Illustrated London News reported that headstones were taken up and placed against a wall at the end of the ground, while paths and flowerbeds were laid, and principle walks are shaded by noble trees, beneath which seats are placed.

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ST JOHN'S TODAY.JPGThe foundations of St John’s Horsleydown, today

Sarah’s brother and his wife, newly married themselves, were the official witnesses to the wedding, which in keeping with the traditions of the day would have been a low-key event, with the participants in their Sunday best. Whenever I try to imagine Sarah and James walking up the wide stone steps to the church, I cannot help but see them in typical late-regency outfits: Sarah in a still fashionable high-waisted dress, with bonnet, gloves and shawl; James in a smart dark dress coat and waistcoat, his legs encased in the new style of long trousers (all of which he probably made himself). Covering his youthful hair is a top hat made by a local Bermondsey hatter and possible friend. Sarah may have been congratulating herself on marrying such a smart young man who knew the latest cut of cloth and had attained the rank of a master tailor, thus giving him the freedom to set up his own business where he was able to take on apprentices.

Tailoring was, however, a relatively common profession at the time, with most (like James) having their business in the local communities which they served. Notions of segregating work from home were relatively new, and similarly to many skilled artisans, records show that James lived ‘over the shop’. In fact, the whole family would have been involved in the business in various ways, from running messages, to greeting customers, and their young live-in domestic servant would have been a much-needed help for Sarah – especially once the babies came along. This spot by the Thames  was where the family were to stay for almost twenty years before their move out of an increasingly industrialised area to the more genteel semi-rural suburb of Brixton in the mid-1840s.

horsleydown-1830-gif.gifHorsleydown Lane and environs, 1830

As soon as I discovered the existence of this second ‘lost’ Skelton family, I was off to London to visit the evocatively-sounding Horsleydown Lane and surroundings to see whether I could discover any traces of the old neighbourhood for myself. This was the first time I had been back to the capital to do any ‘fieldwork’ since my last foray into south London in 1992, and a low-simmering excitement infused me as I crossed the windy Millennium Bridge (for the first time) over to the South Bank. It was an area I remembered from the early 80s, when the much debated dockside developments were underway and the whole riverside was beginning to take on a different character.

Before my visit to the capital I had already put in some of the groundwork and knew that Horsleydown Lane still existed – it had escaped the demolishment to which other nearby roads had succumbed during the building of Tower Bridge in the 1890s – but I still had no idea of what it would look like in the 21st century.

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge Rd with Horsleydown Lane on the right (circa 1900)

It is a strange feeling to walk through streets where your ancestors once set foot, moving ever closer to the place where for better or worse they carved out a living. In Horsleydown some things would not have changed – the old watermen’s stairs at the foot of the lane where the great tidal river covered and uncovered the slipway twice a day; the glimpse of the imposing White Tower from that precarious spot; the Anchor Tap, still with beer on tap, and having possibly survived so long by virtue of being a neighbourhood necessity. But many things had changed, too – the lane’s other pub (the wonderfully named The Cod Smack) had long gone, as had the 18th century house in which the ‘lost’ children of James’ first family had spent their formative years.

In some ways I was disappointed that so much from that time now ceased to exist, but in other ways I was delighted to come across unexpected tangible reminders of the family’s life. For most family historians the bright moments of discovery are always tinged with a regret for what had once been, and what might have remained to tell the tales of previous lives. But sometimes this enthusiasm for the past can overcome reason, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything old as ‘authentic’ while overlooking the fact that many such buildings had actually replaced much earlier ones.

I had to remind myself that the elegant Victorian warehouses on the west side of the street had necessitated the destruction of a row of 18th century brick houses mirroring the ones on the east side where the Skeltons had lived.  And that the  impressive buildings of the old Anchor Brewery (now private flats) had themselves been built on the site of the original wooden brewhouse (burnt down in 1891 ) that James and Sarah would have recognised. The cobblestones on Horsleydown Lane would have, however, continued to reverberate with the clatter of the drayhorses and their waggons throughout the century and beyond (just seen in the photograph above), until the final demise of workhorses in the mid-twentieth century.

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Now Horsleydown Lane is relatively silent, as visitors tend not to wander much from the river and the heritage thoroughfare of Shad Thames, and the main noise is the thrum of traffic on the parallel Tower Bridge Road. Even reminding myself that this busy road and its eponymous bridge are relative newcomers to the area needs a leap of the imagination. More often than not, I find that while on these ‘ground searches’ my ways of viewing the past start to shift under my feet, bringing new perspectives

Popping into the welcoming Anchor Tap for an impulsive mid-afternoon pint, I feel even more confused – time seems to telescope as I step into a series of interlinking rooms where fashionably dark Victorian colour schemes are the order of the day. The friendly barman encourages me to look around the place, intrigued by my genealogical search, and as I move through the pleasing muddle of rooms and head up the narrow twisting staircase to the (now deserted) dining room, I experience the uncanny sensation of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. All at once I realise that they too would have  struggled with the demands of such steep stairs (which maximised precious space). They would have gazed out over the neighbourhood from their upstairs windows, and would have known exactly all the places in the house where the floorboards had come loose, where the walls and ceilings of their rooms sloped unevenly, and where the dustballs chose to accumulate.




Walking out of the dark pub afterwards, I instinctively blink and narrow my eyes in the bright spring sunshine. For a  moment I can almost imagine that I have stepped into the bustling street of  the 1830s. The brewers, the corn merchants, the watermen, the mariners; they are all busy rushing to and from the river. I pace up and down the lane alongside them, trying to summon up their ghosts. But the shouts of a group of Saturday afternoon revellers spilling out of the pub cut through space and time, and I turn to head back towards the riverside, seeking out the peaceful oasis of the old watermen’s stairs.

I sit there for a while, watching the Thames as it surges and swirls its way up river, past the neo-Gothic wonder of Tower Bridge. Tourists pose for photographs above me, occasionally throwing me a quizzical glance, as if they are surprised to see me down here so close to the water. I feel safe here – away from the fray and yet still part of the unfolding scenes of the capital on a warm spring weekend. The thought occurs to me that I myself am like a ghost – a ghost from the future trying to find a way to reach back into the past.


ANCHOR BREWERY TODAYHorsleydown Old Stairs at the old Anchor Brewery, Horsleydown

Then suddenly it strikes me that the Tower of London, partially seen from those algae-covered steps, would not have changed over the years that separated me from my ancestors. My great-great grandfather, James, would have waited on this same slippery spot for a penny ride over the river from his favourite waterman. He most likely also felt in awe of the ancient building across the water that symbolised the power of the city he now called home. He would have known the same legend about the ravens of the tower and passed it on to his children – in the same way my  father had told me the story as a child. And at that moment I felt as if the centuries had just rolled back to connect us.


 To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2016