Tag Archives: James William Skelton

The Stories Which Connect Us

But the vast mass of men and women in every time do not leave behind them either renown or testimony. These people walked our streets, prayed in our churches, drank in our inns or in those that bear the same names, built and lived in the houses where we have our being today, opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases. They were moved by essentially the same passions and griefs that we are, the same bedrock hopes and fears: they saw the sun set over Westminster as we do. Yet almost all of them have passed away from human memory, and are still passing away, generation after generation.

Gillian Tindall, The House by the Thames, (2006)

BOOK

When I picked up a copy of The House by the Thames by the historian and writer Gillian Tindall, I had no idea that it would be one of the first of many books I would accumulate on the history of London, yet would remain my favourite for years to come. Since then I have reread it several times: not just for the detailed historical information, but as a masterclass in the art of creative non-fiction, a genre which endeavours to both entertain and illuminate readers. The book has also influenced my own writing on the topic of my ancestors, and I continue to aim for the standard Tindall has set, aware of how much I still have to learn about the craft. However, the act of writing is inextricably bound up with the quest for improvement, and is part of what makes it such a life-affirming thing to do.

In the intervening years I have amassed a healthy collection of books about the capital, as well as those pertaining to life in the Victorian era. But a decade earlier, just before I returned to researching the history of my London family (see Begin Again), I did not quite know where to start with my research. A plethora of texts was available, some of which seemed overtly sensationalist, others appearing off-puttingly dense, and some spanning different areas and/or time frames from my own focus. However, The House by the Thames, which combined a historical narrative with a storyteller’s gift, proved to be an ideal entry into the history of London’s south bank for a novice like myself.

The book initially appealed to me on several levels, not least because it was centred on a Thameside neighbourhood close to where my ancestors settled, in nearby Horsleydown. The fact that the story revolved around a single house, also gave it an obvious focus that some other texts might lack, thus making the topic more accessible to a non-historian. And hadn’t I already noticed this unusual house when first crossing the Millennium Bridge after years away from the capital? There on the cobbled streets of bankside I had encountered not only the new Shakespeare’s Globe (how did that get there?), but the surprising remnant of a row of early 18th century houses, incongruous beside the iconic bulk of the old power station which now houses the Tate Modern Art Gallery and the new-fangled glass and steel towers which surround it.

THE HOUSE BY THE THAMESNumber 49 Bankside (on left)

Right from the first page of the book, with chapter one entitled In Which we Find the House, I knew I was in the hands of a word alchemist. We are pulled into the narrative with the tantalising opening line: You can reach the house in a number of different ways. (And I thought about my own way there, across ‘the wobbly bridge’ from St Paul’s). Throughout the rest of the chapter, Tindall leads us expertly through time and space to finally arrive outside the eponymous house, telling us that: Occasionally strangers will be brave enough to tug the ancient bell-pull, which jangles a bell within on the end of a wire, and enquire if the house is a museum that can be visited. They are politely turned away. (We can certainly sympathise with such behaviour as by now our own curiosity is piqued). This is followed by the tantalising description: Before the door is shut again they will get a glimpse of a panelled room and an arched doorway, rugs and a longcase clock, perhaps a whiff of logs smouldering on a pile of soft ash in an open fireplace. Here, surely, is the past, on which the door has fleetingly opened? But there is no automatic admittance to the past. A way has to be found.

HOUSE DOORWill the door open to 49 Bankside?

Of course we know that Tindall is going to find that way for us. And what a route it is. On the journey there we learn about the history of the south bank and the factors which contributed to make ‘the Surrey side’ different from ‘the City side’ over the centuries. There are diversions into a myriad of related subjects: everything from the Thames watermen and lightermen who operated between these two shores, to the building of the bridges and the coming of the industries which would change the area for good. The majority of these topics also affected my own ancestors, and many are ones I have chosen to explore in relation to my family history. As Tindall’s book uses the history of a house, rather than a family, as the main subject, this keeps the focus to a specific area of London. And what makes this story such an appealing one to follow is that the writer is so evidently alongside us as we read – an authorial voice which is sometimes critical, other times surprised and enthusiastic, yet which never over-rides the narrative.

MILLENIUM BRIDGEThe route to The House by the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral

Since then, I have read a number of non-fiction books which explore the history of South London specifically. Some of the most fascinating have been those written in another period, such as Harry Williams South London (from The County Books Series), published in 1949, giving us an insight into the post-war mind. Although Williams writes in such a style which seems shockingly un-PC to the modern reader – and often makes blithe generalisations about the neighbourhoods he explores – there is something prescient in the summarising statement of the book: The history of the twentieth century is too close at hand to make any review of it possible, but at least it can be said that its influence upon the ten boroughs has been largely negative. We have rid ourselves of much of the misery, cruelty and danger of early days, but apathy towards ugliness is growing, a remorseless process of decay set in motion by the blindness of men who thought and still think only in terms of material prosperity. The foul congeries of slums of South London have disappeared, but the tenements and new housing estates that have taken their places have been built without faith in themselves or in the future.

SOUTH LONDON

Throughout the book, William veers between nostalgia and anger at the demise of south London’s past glories. When it comes to Bankside he takes great delight in describing the 16th/17th century neighbourhood, with its pre-Puritan theatres and taverns. The world was a gay place for Londoners back then he muses sadly; then goes on to state: Dignity and quality were there, music and colour, and of all these attributes, only music has survived in the ordinary life of England. The post-war drabness of his own world has obviously affected him greatly. He then goes into full purple prose to describe Shakespeare’s time in Bankside (where the old Globe theatre was located), which is worth quoting in full below:

Shakespeare is supposed to have derived his close knowledge of ships and the sea from the long row of riverside hostelries with projecting balconies and snug tap-rooms, which lined the river along Bankside and Bermondsey. There, in these friendly inns, the sea captains, pirates, smugglers, rovers and honest sailors from a hundred wandering ships of all nations nightly congregated to drink and sing and exchange the tales of their trade. We can see on a dozen balconies, leaning out over the scurrying blackness of the river, clusters of men, hard and craggy with the rigours of their calling, but never hard-faced. Gaily dressed – for the deadening uniformity of clothes had not yet stifled the English scene – they swopped sailors’ yarns in that rich and vital speech which was the prerogative of the meanest scullion in Shakespeare’s day. And somewhere Shakespeare himself would be lurking and listening and drinking, and in the end disputing in friendly argument. For wit matched wit in his time and inventiveness of thought was the monopoly of no man and no class.

N.B. With such a rum-sounding bunch packed into these ‘snug tap-rooms’ and ‘projecting balconies’ and on the sauce, I somehow think there must have been more than just ‘friendly argument’ going on!

However, when reading Williams’ descriptions of contemporary run-down post-war Bankside, we get the sense that he cannot get out of the neighbourhood fast enough. He stands in front of number 49 (although he never names it) looking wistfully to the City and states: And so we take one glance across the river at the majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as Wren must have looked so often from his house on the south shore; then averting our eyes from the disgusting contrast, let us retrace our steps back to the bridge foot (of Southwark Bridge).

OLD BANKSIDEBankside, 1827

BANKSIDE 1940Bankside, 1940 (no 49 is partly visible on on the left)

Both Images: ‘Old houses on Bankside’, in Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 54. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-54

Giving us a late Victorian’s view of South London is the prolific Walter Besant, who in 1898 wrote in the introduction to his book on the topic (described on the frontispiece as being the companion to ‘London’, ‘Westminster’, ‘East London’ etc): I hope that ‘SOUTH LONDON’ will be received with favour equal to that bestowed upon its predecessors. The chief difficulty in writing it has been that of selection from the great treasures which have accumulated about this strange spot. The contents of this volume do not form a tenth of what might be written on the same plan, and still without including the History Proper of the Borough. I am like the showman in the ‘Cries of London’- I pull the strings and the children peep. Strange spot indeed!

References to Williams and Besant have cropped up in some of my previous posts, as both writers are highly readable and at their most enjoyable when they go ‘off-piste’ to rant and rave (albeit gently) about their own hobbyhorses. This is Besant’s take on local churches (including my own family’s original parish church in Horsleydown): It is a great pity that in the whole of South London lying east of the High Street (the current Borough High Street) there is not a single beautiful, or even picturesque church. Look at them! St Olave’s (now St Saviour’s Cathedral), St John, Horsleydown, St. Mary Magdalen, St Mary, Rotherhithe, the four oldest churches in the quarter. It cannot be pretended that these structures inspire veneration or even respect. Modern day readers may wish to disagree (and may even feel frustration that St John’s was destroyed by WW2 bombing).

ST JOHN HORLEYDOWN (2)St John’s Horsleydown, engraving by John Buckler c1799

Similarly to Harry Williams, although fifty years earlier, Walter Besant was rather disparaging about the south London of his day. In fact, he was forced to issue an apology in future editions of the book for describing the perceived lack of culture in the area. His original paragraph is reproduced here: In South London there are two millions (sic) of people. It is therefore one of the great cities of the world. It stands upon an area about twelve miles long and five or six broad – but its limits cannot be laid down even approximately. It is a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges, apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centre – unless the Crystal Palace can be considered a centre; its residents have no local patriotism or enthusiasm – one cannot imagine a man proud of New Cross; it has no theatres, except of the very popular or humble kind; it has no clubs, it has no public buildings, it has no West End.

The brief (and rather unenthusiastic) apology he later added as a post script to the book states: NOTE. – Since this was written several new theatres have been built in South London. I should therefore like to correct the passage on p. 320 which states that the Theatres are humble. Also I would like to acknowledge the existence of local newspapers, and instead of saying that it has no public buildings I would say only one or two buildings.

We come away with the impression that such patrician writers of another age are perhaps not quite to be trusted with their stories – yet they now allow us to view places and their history through the eyes of a different generation. We know, for example, that Besant regards the contemporary 1898 south London population figure of two million people as being extremely high, and states: I cannot quite avoid the use of figures, because a comparison between the population of these villages (the old scattered communities) in 1801 with that of the great towns in 1898 is so startling that it must be recorded. (There was a ten-fold increase in south London’s population in the 19th century, compared to five-fold north of the river). Today, although there is currently around double that number living in south London, the rate of population growth has been slower, and thus the changes Besant viewed in his lifetime must have been so much greater than those observed over the course of the last century.

COTTAGES IN GIPSY HILL.JPGVillage feel in Gipsy Hill today

Tindall – who most definitely knows how to separate fact from fiction – has the luxury of writing a hundred years after Besant and thus being able to extend the history of Bankside and the surrounding area into the 20th century, and to see it come full circle in many respects (as it returns to the ‘gay place’ of the past that William’s described). She also has access to a large number of documents that previously would not have been available as they were either still locked away and/or not available to the general reading public. The most obvious of these records are the official census returns, which are only released one hundred years after they have been taken. These ten-year snapshots in time, which began in 1841, are a boon to genealogists and social historians, yet can sometimes distort a family’s story if not used in conjunction with other records (see Moments in Time for my treatment of this subject). Yet the past is always moving forward, and as Tindall points out: The identities of all those who lived in the house in 1911 and in subsequent decennial years are lying quietly in an archive as I write (in 2006), but neither I nor any other researcher can access them till the requisite term of years has elapsed.

The online release of many more 20th century records – such as electoral registers and phone books – has gone some way to fill in the gap between the 100-year rule and living memory which is always going to exist due to the span of a human life. But all family historians will sympathise with the frustration at moving from an era where there is a relative abundance of records, to one where there is an information gap, despite the fact we feel we should be able to discover more as we move closer to our own time. In fact, detailed parish records of the pre-registration time in 1837 often yield up more information than later official records, with the main advantage that a certificate does not have to be bought unseen, always an irritant (and loss of a tenner) if it proves to be the wrong one. This can often be the case if the family name was a relatively common one. (Earlier records can also circumvent this issue due to the significantly smaller population of the time). I still remember from my ‘heir hunter’ days in Holborn (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born) how many dud certificates the company ended up paying for, but as we needed to move fast to beat the competition then the net had to generally be cast far and wide.

The issue of researching a too-common name certainly does not come up when it comes to the occupants of number 49 Bankside from the mid-18th to 19th centuries. Tindall is able to trace the Sells family from their (recorded) beginnings in the area as Thames lightermen, to their ownership of the house and its neighbours through their successful expansion into the lucrative coal business. Their story ends a century after their arrival in Bankside, when the direct descendants of the original family (now the Peronnet Sells) leave the heavily industrialised Bankside of the Victorian age to relocate to a quieter semi-rural area further inland from the river, just as my own great-great grandfather (James Skelton) did when he moved to Brixton from the nearby riverside parish of Horsleydown.

And here is where the story of this Bankside family entwines with my own family history in an unexpected way. By 1871, Edward Perronet Sells Ill, who was born in 1845 and lived in no. 49 Bankside as a child, had moved into the same street on the outskirts of Croydon where James Skelton’s oldest son, the wealthy mahogany dealer, James William Skelton, resided. When the young Sells takes a house in Morland Avenue to live alongside all the other merchants and brokers – a high proportion being (like James William) described as West India merchants, it was still considered an undeveloped semi-rural outpost. The handful of houses in this once salubrious street had the luxury of extensive gardens to the rear, as well as facing onto Morland Park, and were often just referred to by their fancy titles. James William called his own residence ‘Westle House’, a recurring family name whose significance I have yet to discover as it possibly related to his mother’s side of the family, the branch from which I am not descended.

CROYDON HIGH STREET c1870Croydon High Street c1870

I have mentioned the sad history of Westle House before (see The Story So Far), which was advertised for sale in 1868 shortly before James William moved to Gipsy Hill with his new wife (and thus he may have actually just missed having Edward Peronnet Sells as a younger neighbour). It was described as including ten bed and dressing rooms, four reception rooms, and convenient and extensive domestic offices, but is now in its death throes (if it hasn’t already been put out of its misery). I went in search of this villa in Morland Road, some years back, on the off-chance that it was still standing, amazed at my good luck that of all the houses in the original street it was James William’s which was the sole survivor.

It was hard to imagine this house once being described – in the estate agent parlance of the day – as being admirably situate and standing in its own pleasure grounds, with well-stocked kitchen garden. A detailed map of the ‘new’ street that I was able to access in the Croydon archives prior to visiting the house showed that there had once been a circular driveway at the front of the building. At the rear was a long narrow garden, consisting of a lawn and shrubbery and a vegetable garden, with fruit trees furthest from the house. It seemed strange to think of a single man living there, so far from town, until I recalled the fact that he’d brought back his half-Belizean daughter to London with him at some point in the 1860s. Was he perhaps ashamed of this girl, whose mother he appears never to have married? Did he want to hide her away from society? Sadly, Louisa Arabella did not survive past the age of 21, dying of TB in Gipsy Hill several years later. Her story is one that I have always wanted to be able to tell, but she leaves no records other than her death certificate.

I try to imagine her sitting in the garden of Westle House on a summer’s day, pining for the warmth of the Caribbean. Perhaps she was already instructing the gardener to grow the plants that reminded her of her homeland and to nurture the herbs that would bring back the taste of her childhood in Belize. But these thoughts only occurred to me afterwards, and on that wet October day when I set out along the busy Morland Road I certainly knew that, even if the house was still standing, this delightful large garden would never have survived. Nevertheless, I was still unprepared to find the house boarded up and surrounded by ugly security fencing. (In the space which once was the garden was a block of modern flats). If truth be told, I could not get away from the place fast enough, such was my distress at seeing the building in its current state.

WESTLE HOUSEThe old ‘Westle House’ in Morland Rd Croydon today

A few months later the poor old boarded-up house even appeared on television, starring (of all things) in a conservative party political broadcast which highlighted how Croydon’s conservative MP would replace such dilapidated housing with affordable flats. The strange thing is that I do not think I’ve ever watched a party political broadcast in my life – and certainly not a conservative one – but was either waiting for the news to come on or too lazy to switch off afterwards. Of course, when I heard the word ‘Croydon’, I glanced up with a certain amount of interest. But as the story of the local housing crisis unfolded, I suddenly knew with a chilling certainty that Westle House was going to appear. And then everything moved so fast – the house was there on the screen and the MP was wittering on about how many flats could be fitted into the space. The whole thing spooked me considerably, and when I found out later that someone had recently been found dead in the grounds of the house (which presumably explained the security fencing), I felt that the building had most definitely come to the end of its natural lifespan.

This made me realise how pleased I was that the old Skelton family home – that of James William’s father – in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton was still very much in use and seemingly well-loved by its current occupants. One day I happened to glance inside while walking by (perhaps ‘happened to’ is an understatement) and saw what looked like a lively family with teenagers sitting round a big table. If I’d had enough guts I might have been more like Tindall’s Bankside strangers and knocked on the door, hoping that instead of turning me away, however politely, they would have invited me inside and told me their own stories of the house.

BRIXTON HOUSEDare I knock on the red door?

Knocking on strangers’ doors is the kind of thing that the writer Julie Myerson was not afraid to do when she researched her non-fiction book Home: The Story of Everyone who Ever Lived in my House, which was first published in 2004. After I’d read The House by the Thames, I must have been hungry for more stories about south London homes and Myerson’s book was an obvious choice, although her mid-Victorian terraced Clapham house is a lot younger than the Bankside one and thus the social history focuses on a different timespan. It is also a very different style of book as stories of Myerson’s own life (past and present) are interspersed with that of the occupants of the house.

As a novice to historical research, Myerson describes learning about the different types of records and archives available, as well as documenting the ways she attempts to contact people connected with the house and her delight and frustration at the responses – or lack of them. So the book also functions as a sort of beginner’s guide to undertaking genealogical research. But what really makes Home stand out is that Myerson has the novelist’s capacity to weave stories from the information she collects, slipping from fact to fiction and back again with ease, and bringing the tales of the inhabitants to life in a way that allows us to see them as people who (in the words of Gillian Tindall above): opened our front doors, looked out of our windows, called to each other down our staircases.

x293

Starting with her own experiences of buying the property in the late 1980s, she moves the narrative gently backwards so that we feel we are being pulled back with the house through the years until we reach its beginnings in 1871. The final chapter, entitled Grass and Silence, opens with the eerie Number 34, it’s time to finally undo you. You’re coming apart pretty fast now – bricks, slate, cement, mortar, nails, joists flying away as hurriedly as they appeared. London gravel and clay are pouring back into your deepest foundations – shovelled and levelled, a layer of turf and gorse flung quick as a blanket over the top.

And there on the last page is the line: Bazalgette’s men break soil at first light on Monday. Just as when I came across the name of Edward Peronnet Sells in the census for Morland Road in Croydon in 1871, it is an uncanny reminder that all our histories of London are interconnected.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2019

 

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

p1030881

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.

cedars-2

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.

flag_of_belize_svg

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