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
London 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.
Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today
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?
‘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, 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 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.
St 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 Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family
The Incidental Genealogist, October 2018