Geoff Simmons is a local historian and a graphic designer. He has worked on and led a great deal of community projects in Wandsworth, including most notably the Summerstown 182 project, which charted the lives of the 182 servicemen inscribed on the war memorial in St Mary’s Church. Before lockdown, Geoff frequently led walks throughout the borough, bringing alive layers of history to those who attended. Themes included Tooting’s jazz singer, Sadie Crawford; Peter Barr, a nurseryman who popularised the daffodil; and the horses of Garratt Lane. He has very kindly made these walks available on the Summerstown 182 blog. He has also campaigned for plaques around the borough, including that of Peter Barr, Sadie Crawford, Sidney Lewis the youngest WW1 soldier, and Hazelhurst Road’s V2 site.
How long have you lived in Tooting, and what do you like most about it?
When I first came to my present abode, a long-time resident referred to it as Summerstown which is a pretty name. Its also next door to Wimbledon Stadium. That makes me quite mixed-up but I like to think it also allows me to free-range a bit. Certainly I’ve lived in the SW area, whether Furzedown, Southfields, Wandsworth for over 30 years, the entire length of Garratt Lane and all the way through Tooting to the bottom of Southcroft Road (hence my appreciation of all things Streatham).
You have done a great deal of work to make local history visible and accessible to your local community – what initially inspired you to do this, and what keeps you doing it?
I had done a lot of my family’s history but always wondered if I could be intrigued by the stories about people I had no knowledge about. The First World War centenary got me going when I had a chat with the local vicar and he showed me the war memorial in the church next door to my house. It was sad that no one knew anything about any of the names on it. It took about five years but we put that right. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the troubles made me very aware of history unfolding around me. I feel its really important that people know something about where they are living and what went on there. It always amazes me that so few people do so I love to get out there and try and make them interested. Who wouldn’t be curious about a group of people doing a tour down their street or around their estate? On one occasion it was the anniversary of a soldier’s death and we were outside his home and I called for a minute’s silence. There were about thirty of us with our heads bowed when the person living there came out. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I really love being out on the streets doing a Walk. My Dad was a Clergyman and my Mum was a Cook’s Guide so maybe I’ve taken a bit of both but its been great to discover something quite late in life which gives me such fulfillment.
A lot of your work is about uncovering the hidden history that is right under our noses! Is their a particular project you have enjoyed working on most, and why?
I loved seeing the story of Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ get such a good response! It was just wonderful, everyone loved hearing about the nurseries and how relevant our area was in the development of this humble flower. I was really proud of the way it was extended into a growing project, sourcing and distributing ‘historic’ bulbs. My friend Kate really helped with this and its lead to a dynamic gardening project for Fircroft School. We walked around Tooting with sacks of labelled bulbs giving them to mosques, community centres, churches, charities and every primary school. It all finished off with BBC ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ visiting Peter Barr’s house on Garratt Lane. All this only happened thanks to George Dear’s research 25 years ago and it was a privilege to take that a step further. George was a grounds maintenance manager with Wandsworth Council who sadly passed away a few months ago. He didn’t think he was going to be able to attend the plaque unveiling but ended up coming all the way over from Furzedown on his mobility scooter. The latest downloadable walk is named after him.
The ‘Stripes of Peace’ doves were very close to my heart. It was so incredibly moving to have them dangling on fences, gates and front doors of locations where the Summerstown 182 once lived in the weeks leading up to the Centenary Armistice. A really great way to climax those five years. It was so fitting that the council made a posthumous civic award to Judith Lawton who played such an important part in this and on a previous occasion to Sheila Hill who did so much research.
How important have volunteers been to the work you have done, and what new skills have they learned from working with you?
I couldn’t do any of this without the support of people like Sheila and John who have helped since the first project began. So many others have helped such as on the craft side of things, like Berit and everyone at the Scrapstore. I think its more a case of me learning skills from them rather than the other way round. Undoubtedly its encouraged us all to look more closely at our community and break out from our comfort zone. We’ve collaborated with groups like BATCA, got involved in Hazelfest, Wandsworth Heritage Festival, Tooting Community Fun Day, Wandle Fortnight, and dare I say it crossed over into some other boroughs! We’ve all learnt about the great resources on our doorstep here in London, places like Wandsworth Heritage Service, London Met Archives, National Archives, Migration Museum. Also we’ve made strong connections with local groups and historians who’ve been active in this field for years. The Streatham Society have been particularly generous in sharing their knowledge and have always been so enthusiastic and supportive. We continually learn new things and its an exciting time to have an interest in history with a clear need to promote our more recent heritage and a different way of looking at things that happened a long time ago.
You have recently been researching gypsy and traveller presence in Wandsworth – much of which is undocumented. How did you go about your research, and what did you find out?
I’ve long been fascinated by local stories about a community based in the Wardley Street area and the way a very marginalised group still have a presence in the area today with two sites on opposite sides of the Wandle. That strikes me as quite phenomenal with so many changes and developments in our area. I’ve been talking about it my Wandle walks for the past few years, weaving it into some of the WW1 soldiers’ stories. Then I heard that the London Gypsy Travellers organisation were setting up a heritage mapping project and they came on a walk and have become friends. Before lockdown we had an incredible event in the Anchor Church where over 100 people turned up on a cold Wednesday lunchtime. I gave a brief talk but there was so much knowledge, enthusiasm and information in that room and the aim is to try and get some of that onto the LGT map and put up a plaque to create local awareness. The Surrey History Centre in Woking are very keen to help and this will I’m sure pick up momentum again after Lockdown. In the meantime ‘The Horses of Garratt Lane Walk’ which was part of the postponed Wandsworth Heritage Festival was one aspect of this and you can still get a sense by downloading a guide online.
Lastly, what have you been working on during the last few months, and how are you staying sane during lockdown?
I’ve really missed being out on the streets doing tours but repurposing my walks and coming up with a few more has really kept me going and been a great way of expanding my boundaries even further. Lockdown life suits me fine and I’ve been cycling around planning new circuits and there are now 20 of these Walks for people to do. I’ve had some really great feedback and hopefully I can keep adding to them. Another good thing was when ‘Meet and Make Spaces’ asked me to get involved in an online community event at the end of May and I did a Tooting History Walk which was filmed and edited by Lawrence Evans. The end result is pretty amazing and will be a great way of attracting people to take an interest in local heritage in this area and also for anyone living further afield to see what’s going on.
Thanks very much, Geoff! Geoff’s walks are available here.