Archives at Home, House history, Housing, Women

Archives at home, part 16

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme. 

Jeanne Rathbone has been a resident of Battersea for many years – she worked in the laboratory of Gartons Glucose factory at one point, so was more familiar with the unique aroma dubbed ‘the Battersea Smell’ than most!  Jeanne has many hats (literally as well as figuratively!), including local historian, campaigner, and humanist celebrant.  She is passionate about Battersea’s history – specifically its historical women.  For the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, we were looking forward to hearing Jeanne’s talk on some of Battersea’s most interesting homes and their occupants.  Jeanne will be doing this talk next year, but for now she has very kindly agreed to tell us a little about four 18th century houses around Lavender Hill and their occupants.

Gilmore house
Gilmore House, courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Gilmore House 113 Clapham Common became the deaconate established by Deaconess Isabella Gilmore 1842-1923, widowed sister of William Morris, requested by Bishop of Rochester to serve in impoverished Battersea. Deaconesses were a mix of nurse, social worker and policeman. Her brother said of her that ‘I  preach socialism, you practise it’ The house was one of a pair built 1750 called the Sister Houses overlooking Clapham Common. As the house had to be in her name this prevented it from demolition. She added a chapel designed by Philip Webb which has a Burne-Jones window. She is commemorated in Southwark Cathedral and listed among the Calendar of Saints.

 

Lavender Sweep House back garden possibly taken by Lewis Carrol
Lavender Sweep House,  courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Lavender Sweep House was home to Tom Taylor 1817-1880, editor of Punch,  playwright wrote Our American Cousin watched by Lincoln when assassinated, and his wife composer Laura Barker. They attracted visitors like Dickens, Tennyson, Clara Schumann, violinist Joachim to their house and musical soirees. Lewis Carroll took the photos of the house and Ellen Terry said  Lavender Sweep was a sort of house of call for everyone of note… a mecca for  pilgrims from America and from all parts of the worlda home from home for people from all the walks of literary, artistic and theatrical life

 

Tom inherited a Stradivarius violin that Laura played with Paganini and Louis Spohr.

 

G.F.Watts, Jane Elizabeth Hughes - J.Elizabeth Hughes /Ptg.by Watts/ 1858 -
Jeanie painted by Watts Wightwick Manor, Staffordshire (The National Trust). 1858.  Image courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Elm House Lavender Hill now the site of Battersea Town Hall was home to Jeanie Nassau Senior, the first woman civil servant. Jane Hughes was known as Jeanie, and her brother Thomas wrote of their early life in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

 

She was appointed government Inspector of workhouses to report on the education of “pauper girls”, was co-founder of the British Red Cross, and founded the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants

Friends included Florence Nightingale, Octavia Hill,  Carmen author Prosper Mérimée, Anny Thackeray, Kate Dickens, George Eliot, Tom Taylor and Marie Spartali. George Eliot wrote about her, Millais and Watts painted her, Jenny Lind sang with her, and Clara Schumann played with her.

As a trained soprano she tested the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall.  She is due to have a Battersea Society plaque.

 

The Shrubbery
The Shrubbery, courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Marie Spartali 1844-1923, a prolific Pre-Raphaelite artist lived in The Shrubbery Lavender Gardens, an Italianate villa which overlooked Clapham Common, now behind St Barnabas Church. She sat for numerous paintings by Ford Madox Brown with whom she trained, for Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Whistler, Stanhope, was photographed by Julia Cameron and was friends of William and Jane Morris. She exhibited at the  Royal Academy. She married American William Stillman a widower with three children and they had another three, lived in Florence and Rome and was the only Pre-Raphaelite artist to work in the United States. She featured in the recent Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. An application for an English Heritage plaque to her has been successful.

 

Many thanks, Jeanne!

 

 

Archives at Home, Gardens, Housing

Archives at home, part 15

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme. 

Hilaire is one half of London Undercurrents with her fellow poet, Joolz Sparkes.  We were looking forward to welcoming them both to read their poetry at the Wandsworth Heritage Festival (though worry not, as I suspect my colleague Kate has plans to rope them into Wandsworth Libraries online programme!).  Hilaire is a regular visit to our searchroom – whether she is looking for inspiration for her poetry, or delving into the history of Battersea! She lives on the Doddington Estate in Battersea, and today she shares her memories of the estate – specifically the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden.

 

How long have you lived in the Doddington estate, and what do you like most about it?

I’ve lived on the Doddington Estate for 30 years! More than half my life, so it’s definitely home. When I first moved here, I liked that it’s quite close to central London. I can walk to Sloane Square in less than half an hour. It’s also great having Battersea Park on the doorstep, and being close to the river. But in the last 10 years, I’ve really grown to appreciate the local area, its history, the sense of community, and especially the community roof garden. It’s a wonderful tranquil green space in the heart of the estate.

Doddington Rollo garden
The garden!  Copyright: The Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden

Maintaining the Doddington’s beautiful garden is most definitely a team effort!  What are your favourite (and least favourite!) gardening tasks?

I’ve always enjoyed weeding (once I’d learnt what to weed out!), it’s a task that can really get you ‘in the zone’ and you see the results of your work straight away. The downside though is that, certainly with some plants, such as brambles and bindweed, it’s an ongoing battle. More recently I’ve started growing veg from seed on my windowsill at home, to plant out later in the garden. It’s so exciting! I give the seedlings little pep talks and greet them in the morning.

My least favourite tasks? I’m really not good at dealing with slugs and snails. I tend to turn a blind eye to them, and hope someone else will tackle them. I’ve also managed to avoid mowing the lawn – the lawnmower scares me!

unnamed
Some of the plants and flowers in the garden!  Images courtesy of Hilaire

You’re a poet – and Stephen Graham, a regular visitor to the garden, is an artist.  How does the garden help your work?

My interest in gardening, and nature in an urban setting, has feed into my poetry a lot over the past few years. In part, it’s a way of celebrating our immediate surroundings. Also, poetry is very much about noticing and particularly noticing details, which often illuminate a lot of unsaid stuff. There is so much to notice when you’re involved a garden over a period of time! The cycle of life, most obviously.
Stephen says: ‘Usually the garden is conducive to art, being peaceful, and full of beautiful subjects, both the evernew product of nature, and positive examples of human work.’

What’s been the impact of the lockdown on the garden?

Lockdown has had a big impact on the garden. We’ve had to close to the public for the time being, and were only allowing two committee members at a time to access the garden, to water and carry out other gardening tasks. We’re a small group of volunteers, so it’s meant areas of the garden have become more overgrown, and with the long dry spell we’ve struggled to keep it watered. Although the restrictions have eased a little, we still can’t open to the general public as we’re unable to manage and ensure everyone’s safety at this point. We are though looking for more local volunteers to help on an ad hoc basis, so we can get the garden ready to re-open safely. If anyone is interested in volunteering, or would like to find out more about what this involves, you can email: doddingtongarden@gmail.com

What advice would you give someone who is new to gardening?

Get stuck in! There is lots of advice online, and you can subscribe to emails from organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Thrive for seasonal tips and advice. I guess it also depends on what kind of person you are and whether you have your own space to garden or are looking for a shared or community space. The joy of a community garden is that you can try different elements of gardening and then focus on an area or the tasks that you most enjoy. As in most areas of life, there isn’t one right way – you’ll find your own gardening path!

 

Archives at Home, Building history, Memories

Archives at home, part 14

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme.  

Today’s blog is written by our Library Assistant, Sofia.  Sofia has lived in Tooting for most of her life, and started working at Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service last autumn.  She works mainly in the heritage service searchroom undertaking research for enquiries and helping researchers.  She has also taken it upon herself to sort out our miscellaneous ‘local history files’ – a project she might well live to regret if she hasn’t already!

Over the last few years it has felt like Tooting has become known for its trendy restaurants, cafes and gastro pubs, attracting many newer residents to the area. In 2017, Lonely Planet listed Tooting as one of the ten worldwide ‘coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now’. To me, Tooting hasn’t always felt this way.

I was born in Tooting, and apart from living in Scotland, I have lived near to Tooting Common with my family for my whole life. Growing up, when questioned in conversation, there was always hesitation and awkwardness for my sister and I about saying specifically where we lived in London. Over the years our vague answers have ranged from a general sounding “South London” to “in Wandsworth” and “near/next to Balham” instead of specifics. Why? It always felt like Tooting wasn’t very well known apart from being next to Balham or simply as a place you would go through to get to better known and more popular surrounding areas such as Wimbledon, Croydon or Battersea. I have come to appreciate the area I have grown up in, and now proudly answer “Tooting” when asked where I live.

PH-388-801 Tooting Boadway
Tooting Broadway, 1950s, , Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

My father moved to the UK in the 1970s having lived all around London for a number of years. He finally settled in Tooting in 1974. Having just moved from a property off Lavender Hill in Battersea, he picked Tooting because he had friends and family in the nearby area – as well as being impressed with the high street. It had a wide range of attractive shops from Marks and Spencer to Sakonis the Asian greengrocer. He specifically chose to live in Tooting Bec because of its convenience with transport links and other facilities; it benefitted from being close to, but removed from the congestion and hustle-and-bustle of Tooting Broadway. House prices in Tooting Bec in the 1970s were slightly higher than neighbouring Balham and Streatham. This may be because Tooting Bec had a tube station, fire station and police station all on Trinity Road, as well as many handy local shops and a common nearby. Tooting Bec was known as a quiet, residential area.

Tooting Library 1968
Tooting Library, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

When first living in Tooting my father worked in Brentford and made his daily commute from Tooting Bec by catching the bus from the stop at the end of our road to Battersea, then changing to get the train from Clapham Junction railway station. By the time he had his first car in 1977, he began exploring different parts of London and the UK.

Tooting in the 1970s was known for its large East African Asian community with many people having businesses and buying properties in the area. Tooting was a place with many Asian clothes, jewellery, and produce shops. My father knew people from the community who already lived around there and part of the appeal for him moving to Tooting was having a familiar local community nearby.

By the 1990s, my father saw that the demographic and community of Tooting had changed to incorporate more Pakistani Asians. Growing up, Tooting was the place where our family could get everything we needed from a wide range of familiar high street and independent shops. We bought locally, ranging from pasties to purple yams, fresh cream doughnuts to laddoos, shalwar kameez to school uniform and stationery.

Gary
Gary, Tooting Market’s cobbler.  This image was taken by Digital:Works for their Tooting Market Project – oral histories and a film of the project can be found here.

When I was young my family and I were conscious of a wider community spirit, which we felt part of. When out in Tooting my parents always seemed to be stopped by someone saying hello. We knew the faces of people who worked in the local post office, local restaurants and takeaway shops, and stalls in the markets in Tooting Broadway. I’m sure this was the same for many Tooting residents at that time. You used to know the people who cut your hair, did your laundry, and over the years living in Tooting, my family and I knew not only the people who ran and worked in the businesses local to us, but saw that their families had continued working in the same places.

Mr Shanji
Mr Shanji, Tooting market’s time specialist.  This image was taken by Digital:Works for their Tooting Market Project – oral histories and a film of the project can be found here.

Both my primary and secondary schools were local to Tooting – just a short walk from my home. Looking back, my primary school was amazingly diverse and inclusive. Children came from different backgrounds and religions, and we had primary school celebrations and plays for Christmas, Eid, Diwali and Easter. During the winter months, lampposts were decorated with lights along Upper Tooting Road and local businesses sponsored them; I used to try and see how many I recognised. The streetlights were put up for Eid, stayed up for Diwali and eventually remained for Christmas until after New Year. It was great seeing local businesses of different backgrounds celebrating various multi-faith celebrations.

Tooting Library 1968
Tooting Library, 1960s, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

School trips during primary school were mainly kept local: visits to Tooting Common and Tooting Library, swimming lessons at Tooting Leisure Centre, and trips around various religious centres in the area. In secondary school we had to complete the final race of cross country through Tooting Bec Common. Our annual sports day took place at Tooting Athletics track.

Celebrations hold particularly fond memories with growing up in Tooting, whether that was children’s parties held in McDonald’s in Tooting Broadway or Wimpy (which was near Tooting Bec station), or wedding receptions and celebrations held in local banqueting halls or community centres.

Claude
Claude, music specialist, Tooting Market.  This image was taken by Digital:Works for their Tooting Market Project – oral histories and a film of the project can be found here.

 

As a child, birthday parties were held at home; and that meant shopping in Tooting. On the morning of my birthday we always set off to Tooting Broadway with each of my family members having specific tasks to do. For my father, it was getting the birthday cake from Marks and Spencer and all the drinks we needed, for my mother it meant getting all the produce that she required to cook up a feast and for myself it was choosing a special outfit to wear from a local clothes shop. The final thing for my birthday morning was for my sister and I to drag home the very heavy wheelie trolley filled with everything we needed ready for the birthday party that same day. This would be in the summer and we usually chose a direct route from the back of Tooting Market to go home – uphill on Blakenham Road. We would both be sweating by the time we finally reached our house! The birthday party invitees included school friends, neighbours and family friends from the surrounding streets and area. Sometimes we had local entertainment such as clowns or a Punch and Judy show. The party would often spill out into our front garden and end with neighbours merrily carrying themselves home, stuffed full with food and drink.

Rocque map Tooting c1745
The Roque map, 1741-5. The intersection at Tooting Bec and the beginnings of the Broadway, can be spotted here.

Growing up my neighbours were a very diverse bunch of people consisting of mainly multi-generational families with and without children. Many families moved to the area in the 1970s around the same time my father moved to Tooting, while many others had lived on our street decades before. In fact my next-door neighbour’s family have lived at the same property for a century! In the 1990s, many long-standing residents worked locally. Neighbours’ professions included a local councillor, family-run business owners, local newsagents, two family-run travel agencies, local primary school teachers, a radiographer in the nearby St George’s Hospital and also included my parents who worked locally in Wandsworth. By the mid 1990s my father ended up working in the local electrical repair shop on Franciscan Road and my mother worked for the Jewish residential care home on Nightingale Lane.

Bingo machines in former Granada Cinema, Tooting, c1990
The Granada, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

My street has certainly contributed to a local neighbourhood spirit where people helped each other out. For my first passport my neighbour helped co-sign my photograph; my neighbour as a local councillor supported my sister’s application to go to secondary school; my father was the street’s go-to handy man and my mother used to cook meals for the neighbours – her traditional Filipino dishes were well-known and loved!

Over the last 10 years there is no doubt that like many areas in Greater London and indeed the rest of the UK, Tooting has experienced socio-economic and demographic change. My sister and I like to play a game where we try to guess the previous business of where a current establishment now stands in Tooting. Sometimes it is very hard to remember what used to be there. I am sad that some shops and restaurants no longer exist, especially some independent cash and carry shops and long-standing restaurants that are no longer able to afford the rent prices that gentrification brings.

The Mitre, Tooting c1880
The Mitre, Tooting, 1880, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

Gone are most of the greasy spoon caffs, fabric and clothing shops, and antique dealers from the 1990s. Still standing are the surviving pubs, Harrington’s pie and mash shop, as well two indoor markets, Asian spice, grocers and sweet shops and of course, some of the long established curry houses.

Tooting for me, has always been known for its South Asian food. Indeed, it’s been nicknamed the ‘curry corridor’ due to the high number of Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants, and other food outlets that run along Upper Tooting Road between Tooting Bec and Tooting Broadway underground stations. Growing up I felt like there was a clear divide of people who frequented certain shops or ate in specific restaurants, and it seemed like this would remain. Over the years I think this has been changing. People are more inquisitive and willing to try different foods and give new things a try. On the whole, it’s been positive to see different sorts of customers across Tooting establishments. Previously it would seem like only people from a certain background or class would feel welcome in certain places.

In the last decade new bars, chain coffee shops and independent cafes have arrived in Tooting. Instead of being known for a specific cuisine, Tooting is fast becoming known for its vast array of all types of food and restaurants. Where this change is most noticeable is in Tooting and Broadway Markets. The markets were about buying clothes, meat and fish, and fruit and vegetables from across the world, as well as getting your keys cut, your appliances fixed (including a shop run by a family friend) and your clothes altered and tailored. Sometimes, outside the market you could find people selling fake designer watches, handbags and perfume out of a suitcase haphazardly set up. I don’t think you would get that nowadays. Now the markets have had a complete change: they’ve been cleaned up, additions and extensions made to the layout, and new premises brought in – specifically restaurants and eateries. The markets still have some independent clothing and shoe repair shops, butchers and fishmongers, and a pet shop, but now the atmosphere is more about sitting in and eating, and looking trendy for more bourgeois clientele.

I view the changes as sometimes strange or funny – but something that was bound to happen at some point in Tooting as it has across the rest of London. Many see the changes as necessary for keeping the high street, and especially the markets and pubs, alive and more popular than ever. It’s great to see that many of the long-established shops and restaurants that my family and I used to visit are still there. They have become cleaner, have a better or wider range on offer and continue to gain new visitors. It is difficult to strike the right balance though. I fear that older establishments will be priced out of the area as rents rise. I don’t want my family to feel uncomfortable or not welcome in certain places because the demographic has changed so much that it could push us, as longstanding residents, out. I do draw the line at a neon sign currently on display in Tooting Market, which reads ‘Tooting so cool right now’. It implies that the newer changes have made it this way. Having grown up here Tooting has always been cool in its own way, although I couldn’t always see it when I was young. One thing I can say is that Tooting has always had character.

Working as a library assistant in the Wandsworth Heritage Service for the past 6 months has been a great learning experience both technically and personally. The most satisfying part of my job is that each day is different, and day-by-day I get to learn more about my local area and what is contained within the local archives. It has been fantastic to meet many local residents and researchers; and assist with research about my borough of Wandsworth and its history. I am always very keen to ask former residents of Tooting about their experiences of growing up or living in the area. What strikes me is that Tooting has always been able to change and adapt to the local residents and community.

The street that my family and I live on has certainly seen changes since we’ve lived here: both positive and negative. I am very fortunate that many of my neighbours and their families still remain on the street, and new residents continue to be welcomed in. Even during these uncertain times of Covid-19 my neighbours have encouraged each other to stay in touch. Every Saturday at 11am for the past 10 weeks and counting, my neighbours come outside to say a socially distant hello to one another. Inevitably the face of Tooting has changed and will continue to do so, but Tooting’s diversity and community spirit remains strong.

Archives at Home, Building history, House history, Housing

Archives at home, part 13

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme.

When I got the job as archivist for Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service, I knew nothing about Wandsworth.  Luckily, my then-colleague Gillian and the local historians who accessed the collections were there to offer their knowledge and support. One of those local historians was Neil Robson.  Neil has been an enormous help to me over the last four years.  He is editor of the Wandsworth Historical Society’s journal, the Wandsworth Historian, which is invaluable for answering all manner of enquiries (not to mention an intriguing read!).  Twenty years ago, he wrote Roomy VIllas about his corner of Wandsworth – Southfields Grid.  You can access the book online here.   I am delighted that he agreed to speak to us about his experience of life there.

NR for Emma
Neil Robson

How long have you lived in the area, and what do you like most about it?

I moved into Southfields Grid just over thirty years ago.  ‘Location, location’ – that’s undoubtedly part of its magic.  Close to good shops, easy access to public transport, in normal times at least, and plenty of open space.  But it’s the people that make a community, of course, and here – perhaps because of the varied nature of the housing stock – we have an extremely healthy mix across the generations.  Our friends over the road have lived there since 1959; in contrast, some of our other neighbours are still learning the art of walking.  So, such a cross-section can’t fail to generate a good spirit within a neighbourhood.

You wrote ‘Roomy Villas’ twenty years ago – can you tell us how you got the title?

Right from the start of the project I was on the look-out for a catchy title.  It had to be short with a bit of a snap to it, and with luck slightly whimsical.  In Battersea Library one afternoon whilst browsing through a newspaper file for 1905 I came across a Wandsworth estate agents’ advertisement promoting ‘roomy villas’ in Southfields – and in a flash I knew I’d found what I was after.

618
Replingham Road, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

Was there anything surprising that you uncovered in the course of your research?

There was indeed!  I was at one point looking at the issues of the Wandsworth Borough News from September 1939 when out of the blue there jumped a brief account of a court case involving a woman who lived in the very house I live in now.  Described as ‘a daily help’ she stole a sum of money from her employer on Skeena Hill ‘to buy clothes for her evacuated children’.  For that she was sentenced to one day’s imprisonment.  A naughty thing to do, obviously, but I can still recall the wave of pity I felt for her at the time.

4020
Brookwood Road, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

What did you find out about the people who lived in the houses when they were first built?

The Edwardian author May Sinclair haughtily described Southfields in one of her novels as a ‘paradise of little clerks’.  She was being sarcastic, of course, but it was pretty close to the truth.  Most of the early residents, on the Grid at least, seemed to have come from what we might primly call ‘the lower-middle classes’.  Almost all of them rented, rather than actually owned their own property, I mean.  They seem so different from us, and yet so very similar.  They knew how to get grumpy with officialdom just as we do, like the man in Replingham Road who wrote to the local paper in 1898 – no WhatsApp in those days – to complain that the smell from the nearby piggery was so appalling that you had to keep ‘all your windows and doors shut for fear of being sick’.

Jubilee Party A
Southfields Grid residents celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, courtesy of Neil Robson

And, like us, they knew how to celebrate too.  On VE Night in 1945 people took to the streets enjoying the warm sunshine, with women in summer dresses and men in just their shirt sleeves.  This May the 8th, seventy-five years on, we did exactly the same (whilst maintaining a proper distance, of course), strolling around in similar weather, calling out good wishes to neighbours, and admiring the often home-made decorations hanging from the fronts of people’s houses.  Extraordinarily touching.

623
Replingham Road, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

What are you currently researching and working on?

Next year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the Borough’s main heritage magazine, the Wandsworth Historian, and I plan to contribute an article on ‘Wandsworth in 1971’.  Even from my first tentative reading around the subject the era feels so far away and yet so close: anti-apartheid protests, the coming of decimal currency, civil unrest in Ireland, efforts to join the European Economic Community.  I can’t wait for lockdown to end; I’m simply itching to get stuck into those newspaper files again!

Thank you so much to Neil for sharing his memories and research with us!  You can learn more about the Wandsworth Historical Society and their journal, the Wandsworth Historian, here.

 

Archives at Home, Casualties, Hospitals, House history, Housing

Archives at home, part 12

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme.

The word ‘home’ conjures up feelings of warmth and safety for many of us – particularly now when we are spending so much time in them.  Many of us have found a silver lining in our current situation as it has allowed us to spend time with those we love in the place we feel most comfortable.  Others are be so lucky, and ‘home’ is not a sanctuary for them.

Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum
The Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum

One of the buildings in Wandsworth which has always fascinated me is that of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building (RVPB).  Now home to residential apartments and, of course, the restaurant Le Gothique, the building was erected in 1858 and opened in 1859.  It was funded by Prince Albert’s Royal Patriotic Fund, and was built as a an orphanage and school for around 300 daughters of soldiers and marines who were killed in the Crimean War.

All-focus
1865 Ordnance Survey map showing the position of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum

The building is in the Gothic style.  Like any building, there will be those who think its beautiful, and those who don’t.  But no one could suggest it was built as a sanctuary – the RVPB website contains a short history of the building which attests to the harsh conditions faced by the girls who lived there.   It’s hard to imagine how a child would feel approaching this building for the first time, but we have an account of this from Connie Buckley’s memoir, Bringing up the Rear, which describes how alienating the experience was:

‘After a short walk we came to the orphanage which looked huge and forbidding.  The heavy gates clanged behind us.  I felt trapped and afraid, and lagged behind…the Victorian building loomed over me…Sister Whitfield then took over combing my hair with disinfectant.  She said the doctor would give me my medical the next day, and that I would spend the night at the infirmary.  This was disappointing; I so wanted to see Ida.  She was all that was left of the family to hold onto.

Sister Whitfield then conferred with the nurse and decided my hair must be cut off, explaining that there was a ring-worm epidemic in the school and they feared I already had it.  I tried to tell them that I often scratched my head when upset, but it was no use.  The relentless clippers went over and over until I was bald.  My one and only claim to beauty, my waist-length corn-coloured hair, lay around me in twisted heaps on the white sheet.

It was too much.  The tears came at last.  The dam of my grief had broken, I was left alone to cry it out.  This was the lowest point in my thirteen-year-old-life.  Hours must have passed, and still the tears flowed.  They brought me food, which I refused, knowing I couldn’t swallow it.  Eventually the doctor came and gave me medicine that calmed me down.

I was put to bed and slept the sleep of exhaustion, waking up to the ringing of a bell.  It was still dark outside, and all I wanted was to sleep on and forget yesterday’s nightmare.  The nurse came and switched on all the lights, which hurt my red and aching eyes.  My head also throbbed and felt strange and bristly.  She put on medication that smelt like iodine.  It stung and I didn’t flinch.  My grief had drained away all emotion.’

Reading this account, its hard to believe that anyone could have viewed the RVPB as a place of sanctuary – but we have evidence which shows otherwise.  During World War I, the building was converted to a hospital for injured soldiers – the 3rd London General Hospital.  From this time, we have the hospital’s magazines and some photographs – and these tell a different story.

Decorated ward, 3rd London
3rd London General Hospital Ward

Both the magazine and the photographs show evidence of medical staff caring for the medical needs of the patients, as well as their emotional needs.

These sources document the activities patients participated in, such as boxing and football matches, drawing cartoons, writing poetry.

 

So for a short time in its history, perhaps this building was a sanctuary – a temporary ‘home’ from home, a place where soldiers could come to terms with the life changing injuries with the help of their fellow soldiers and nursing staff.

 In the next few weeks while our collections are inaccessible, I’m going to be sharing some of my favourite items and collections with you, telling you where they come from, what they tell us about Wandsworth, and why they are important to me.   I am sure I am not the only one missing our wonderful collections, and I hope you will enjoy hearing about them!