April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)
April certainly feels like the cruellest month this year. It can be hard to appreciate the days lengthening and nature re-asserting itself after the long winter when we are unable to take advantage of the season in our customary manner. Yet, at a time when out of necessity our movement has become very much restricted, any green spaces we can still access will become even more precious to us in the following weeks.
For that reason, I would like to focus this month on the way that various gardens – both private and public – have shaped the lives of my London ancestors. From the story of the creation of two very different municipal parks (see A Tale of Two Parks) to my grandmother’s Edwardian childhood (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman), and the presence of Crystal Palace in many of my south London ancestor’s lives (the poor and the wealthy), gardens have always been entwined with my family story to some degree.
Crystal Palace and grounds, Sydenham, c1854
This probably comes as no surprise, however, as the desire to have a small piece of land to call one’s own seems to be imbedded in the British psyche, whether one is much of a gardener or not. Notions of privacy and control over personal space play a pivotal role as do ideas of resurrecting some part of a lost arcadia. This desire seems to cut across all the social classes, illustrated by the notebooks collated by Charles Booth’s researchers when constructing Booth’s famous poverty maps. These jottings indicate that even in some of the most impoverished of neighbourhoods the residents still attempted to brighten up their streets with flowers in window boxes.
When describing a road in Kennington near to where my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton, was raised, Booth’s assistant, George Herbert Duckworth, mentions that Flower boxes and windows are brightest in the poorer coster streets. He compares this with another street, slightly higher up the social scale, where there was not a flower at any window, deducing that It almost seems as though it were thought respectable not to have flowers. This is an interesting observation, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that in these residences there was more space for indoor plants, or that plants were grown at the rear of the house, out of sight. Perhaps flower boxes placed at the front of the house might have given those who were unsure about their social status the sense that they were advertising the absence of no other growing space.
Duckworth appeared to be particularly interested in all things horticultural as he often added descriptions of the plants and gardens he encountered on his research trips accompanied by the local policeman, thus giving us a vivid snapshot of late Victorian London. For example, in the description of another Kennington street he notes: China pots with overgrown ferns in front window. This allows the street to come alive for the modern reader in a way that surpasses descriptions of two-shilling weekly rents and numbers of factory labourers.
By the time Booth’s poverty maps were being created, the local green space, Kennington Park, previously Kennington Common and once the site of political gatherings and demonstrations, had been a formal, gated park for four decades. In 1858, after a false start, elaborate flower beds had been laid out in symmetrical patterns, a style which was once at the cutting-edge of mid-Victorian garden design and would soon be adopted elsewhere. For the local residents it was a unique chance to see large areas of flowering plants, and the Gardener’s Chronicle of the time mentioned a bordering of flowers as bright as the smoke and vapour from an adjoining vitriol factory (in photograph below) will let them be.
Kennington Common, Chartist Rally, 1848* vs, Kennington Park, c1908
*Copyright, The Royal Collection
In her book How to be a Victorian, the writer and historian Ruth Goodman points out that not all plants could survive in the polluted London air, where chemicals mixed with precipitation to create an acid rain which poisoned the soil. As the time of Booth’s investigations coincided with the peak of the London smogs, the window boxes thus represent an act of faith by the families who had established them. Perhaps that is why they were more predominant in certain streets and neighbourhoods. Those who had little say in their economic conditions and cramped environments might have sought to exercise some sort of control over nature, which also gave them a sense of hope.
Goodman describes the growth of urban gardening in the mid-18th century as such: The 1830s to 1850s were the heyday of florist’s societies. Groups of mainly urban men, whose working lives were spent in small, home-based workshops as weavers or frame knitters, carpenters or nail makes, flowers became their passion. They raided new varieties, selected the strongest seeds and perfected their chosen flowers over years of patient, careful propagation and superb horticultural skill. The plants they grew were cultivated on tiny patches of ground around their homes and workshops, and in pots and containers which stood in yards and on windowsills.
Whenever I look at informal photographs of my ancestors, I find myself trying to glean the lost details of their day-to-day routines. The images act as a portal into the past, which although can be a limitation in terms of freezing one moment rather than other (see Those Ghostly Traces), does offer up some clues as to their daily lives. For that reason, I treasure the photographs of my grandmother’s family at 95 Denmark Road, Brixton, possibly taken by her older brother. Not only was this house my grandmother’s home for over three decades, but it was the place where she lost both her parents, met my grandfather, and gave birth to her three children, before the building succumbed to WW2 bombing raids.
Edith Stops at 95, Denmark Road, c1910
In the picture above, it is the building itself and the small strip of garden in front of the house which intrigue me almost as much as the image of my young grandmother. I described my reaction to receiving this photograph (amongst others) from the grand-daughter of my grandmother’s brother in one of my earliest posts (see I Remember, I Remember) as such: For days afterwards I scrutinised every detail of the photographs, hoping that repeated viewings would reveal more. I became particularly obsessed with the image of the house at 95 Denmark Road. The squinty old building fascinated me almost as much as the sight of my grandmother standing at the gate.
My gaze was drawn to the blinds and the net curtains at the windows; the plant on the window sill of the front room; a flower bed of what look like tulips in a tiny sad strip of garden; iron railings which were yet to be removed for a future war; a boot scraper in front of the rather forbidding-looking front door. I longed to see through the sash window on the ground floor to the room that lay behind the fussy nets. I imagined it to be dark and over-stuffed with furniture, shabby too. Perhaps a room they only used ‘for best’. And what is that shadowy object lurking just out of sight between the curtains? An aspidistra? A mahogany plant stand? Or Harriet sitting on the good chair, reading the newspaper?
In other photographs, we can see the back yard of their terraced mid-19th century house – basically a functional outdoor space, with space for some flower and vegetable beds. As no-one thought to photograph the back garden from the other side i.e. facing the back of the house, it is only these partial glimpses that we are afforded. However, I should imagine that by the time my grandfather became the head of the house, the garden would have become his undisputed territory, although with a henhouse to contend with as well as young children, this was most likely a purely practical project.
In fact, my aunt recalled that in the 1930s she and my father would dare each other to climb over the wall that separated their property from the neighbour’s and run around their immaculate garden under cover of darkness. Part of the excitement was the illicitness of the activity – but there was also the lure of entering a forbidden garden of sorts. And one which was given over wholly to beauty and pleasure. Of all the anecdotes my aunt has furnished me with, this one stands out in my mind as it seems to encapsulate the world of childhood in one secretive and daring act.
The Stops Family in the back garden of 95, Denmark Rd, c1923
In later years, my grandfather would spend a great deal of time gardening, both at the family’s new post-war accommodation and in the gardens of his three children as they settled down and raised families of their own. In fact, our very own suburban garden in Scotland owes a debt to my London grandfather, not just in the way it was laid out, but in the advice he gave to my father over the years. As a child I remember seeing retired first world war veterans working in their gardens and allotments, some who had been gardening for years and building up a wealth of experience along the way. Many would have initially wanted to provide for their families (a strong instinct in my grandfather), as well as feel some sort of control over their own environment.
My parents in my grandparents’ back garden in Hampton, April, 1963
Grandad Skelton in our back garden, Alloway, c1967
Although my own father was not yet seventeen when the war ended, and thus not involved in the conflict, he did his required period of national service and then stayed in the forces, spending many years overseas in the RAF. For the rest of his life he always said that having his own home and garden was something he would never take for granted. Simple things such as not sharing a bathroom or having his own bedroom seemed like a luxury after years of living in shared digs. And of course this would have been compounded by the fact that during the war the family left their home for a cramped and draughty farm cottage in East Coker (see East Coker), even though it was through his experiences of being evacuated to Somerset that my father grew to love the British countryside.
As a child I always used to laugh at the fact that in the summer evenings he would go out and walk around the garden, smoking the stub of a cigar (often on a toothpick) telling us he was just off to survey the estate, the dog padding at his heels. At the time I never really understood what all that surveying entailed, but of course all he probably wanted were some moments on his own to contemplate life quietly in the garden, taking pleasure from the things he’d planted and nurtured there, and perhaps planning future changes to the beds and borders.
Although the garden was relatively small (but much bigger than the yard in Denmark Road), we made use of the space to grow our own fruit and vegetables in a sort of kitchen garden which was separated from the recreational part by a trellis fence over which climbing roses were trained. Like most children I enjoyed cramming my face with illicit fruit and ate things that felt instinctively good, but at the time I had no idea if they would help or harm me. I chewed on whole peapods before the peas were properly ripe as I loved the juicy taste of the pods. (I did not know about mange tout at this stage in my life!) I ingested handfuls of elderberries (which my father used to make a particularly awful wine) before thinking I was going to die and then lying down on my bed awaiting my grisly end, too scared to tell my parents I might have eaten poisonous berries. I sucked the juice out of crab apples and threw the sour flesh away – until the day I bit down on a wasp. And the blackcurrants that were earmarked for our favourite jam were scoffed in great quantities by myself and friends, out of sight behind the trellis.
One of the wonders of going to London to visit our family was to see the amazing things they could grow in their gardens on account of the warmer, drier weather. Their vegetable gardens felt like jungles compared to ours; although to be fair, the fact that our back garden was often in partial shade was a disadvantage. Yet we clung to the British tradition of hiding the kitchen garden away from prying eyes, meaning that our sunny front garden was mostly underused (despite the fact that it was set back from the road in a dip), apart from the times when my mother sat sewing in the porch on warm spring afternoons.
In the sunny front garden of our house in Alloway, c1968
Steps down from the road to the front garden in the ‘dip’, Alloway, c1965
But for most of my ancestors such an expanse of front garden would have seemed like a luxury not to be wasted on decoration. Either they possessed the narrow strip gardens illustrated by the Denmark Road photograph, or their terraces were flush again the pavement. As backyards were mostly functional, then trips to local municipal parks, such as Kennington Park, would have been important fixtures of summer Sunday outings. When we visited our grandparents in West London (where they moved after the war), most of the excursions we undertook with them involved going to nearby parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew or Bushy Park – always in Sunday best, of course!
At Kew Gardens with Grandma Skelton, c1971
At present when we cannot access many of the local parks and gardens that we love, we could do worse than to take inspiration from those Victorian gardeners who planted up pots and other containers to brighten up their surroundings. Even if the nurseries and garden centres have closed their doors, as long as we have access to some sort of growing media, we can propagate plants through a wide variety of methods and share seeds, cuttings, bulbs etc. with friends and neighbours, just as many of our ancestors would have once done through financial necessity. A window box or an indoor windowsill can still offer up the pleasure of nurturing life, and by watching it grow we can gain hope and strength for the upcoming weeks.
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Easter!
The Incidental Genealogist, April 2020