Many of our regulars have been documenting this period of lockdown in their own way. Hilaire and Stephen, a poet and an artist respectively, have been working together (apart!) during lockdown to produce an illustrated poetry pamphlet which documents their experiences of lockdown in Battersea. We were delighted to receive a copy of the pamphlet, and even more so when Hilaire and Stephen agreed to answer a few of our questions, and let us share some poems and illustrations from the pamphlet!
How important is observation to your work, and what sort of things do you notice that most of us don’t?!
Stephen: I now see what birdwatching is about. The singing – they respond to whistles. The various flights and featherings, and their learnt fear of humans.
Hilaire: It’s often a small detail that will start me off on a poem. A sound, an odd juxtaposition, and perhaps an attention to the linguistic or personal associations that the detail may prompt.
How has nature reclaimed your part of Battersea while we are all indoors?
Stephen: The air is much cleaner. There is a partial loss of that horrid dirty thick layer of filthy air spread over the capital!
Hilaire: I hear much more birdsong. The skies have been beautifully clear, though recently I’ve noticed more planes flying overhead again. Also parks and open spaces are looking less manicured. I love how nature quickly asserts herself when given half a chance.
How does Stephen choose the style of font for each poem?
Stephen: The font is one things, calligraphy another. If your heart is in it, you are free to follow your own zeitgeist & inspiration.
Haiku and Tanka – can you tell us a bit about these forms? What made you choose them?
Hilaire: These are both Japanese forms. Haiku, in English, is traditionally three lines containing 17 syllables in total, spread over the three lines as 5/7/5 syllables. Tanka is like an extended haiku, of five lines, the first three the same as a haiku, and the last two lines both seven syllables. Usually a haiku or tanka will contain a reference to the season or elements of nature. I chose these forms because they are short – which felt manageable, especially as I was aiming to write one every day – and also as I like the challenge of trying to say something new or different in a condensed way.
How has this creative outlet helped you both during this time?Stephen: An apple a day… a little art can make you happy all day
Hilaire: It’s been great to have a focus, to realise that even in restricted circumstances I can create a small poem that didn’t exist until I sat down at my desk with a mug of coffee. And then to see that transformed by Stephen into a striking visual version has been really exciting. Working together gave it a momentum I’m not sure I’d have been able to maintain on my own.
Stephen was a theoretical physicist in a past life! How does this influence his art?
Stephen: I cannot be a happy and peaceful person except through creativity and invention, but even in those pursuits I cannot be rid of intellectuality. The plus side is that not many do art in my way!
The theme of this year’s heritage 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.
Many of the personal papers in our collection come to us via serendipity. Perhaps they are found by new occupiers of a house on clearing out the attic, or by relatives when they have the sad task of clearing out a family home after a death. Most of the time the would-be donor knew the person who created the papers – sometimes they were a close friend or relative. Inevitably, these records are offered to us almost apologetically – with the caveat ‘you probably won’t be interested in these, but…’ and we just know we are about to be offered something both ordinary and special!
Last year, we were offered two school jotters dating from 1926 which once belonged to Margaret White (1914-1979), who lived in Bolingbroke Road and went to Honeywell Road School. One from housecraft classes, and one from cookery classes. Margaret’s daughter wasn’t sure we’d be interested in these – but we were delighted to add them to our collection. These two jotters tell us a great deal about the lives the girls in Margaret’s school were being prepared for.
Margaret was eleven years old when she wrote in these jotters. Her very first lesson was in washing clothes – and there is a hint here that she got up to no good before even starting:
Washing and drying the clothes is broken down in Margaret’s jotter into six (seemingly straightforward) steps, which in reality would have taken several hours:
Quite apart from being horrified at the prospect of eleven year old girls sloshing boiling water around and crushing their fingers in mangles, I was baffled as to what ‘bluing’ was. Turns out that it is a process still used today, although far less common, and is largely for white fabrics. Adding a touch of blue dye to the wash mitigated the yellowing and greying of the whites. Further lessons documented in Margaret’s jotter include care and cleaning of glass, window cleaning, caring for leather boots and shoes, ironing, dusting, care and use of household brushes, cleaning cupboards, washing wood, and cleaning utensils – all of which sound complicated and time consuming!
The likelihood was that Margaret and her classmates would have been putting the cleaning and washing skills they learned at school into practice at home – a reminder of this is the inclusion of infant care classes:
Apart from the [extensive] work involved in keeping the home clean and orderly, there is also cooking to be done. Very little of which, it has to be said, sounds terribly appetising. One of the first things Margaret attempts is ‘Baked Stuffed Fish’, which sounds as flavoursome at the title would suggest:
For her efforts, Margaret is awarded 6 out of 10 – and her teacher’s fading hand indicates that she should also have added parsley, suet, and seasoning [really not sure that the suet would have helped matters – don’t we use that mostly in bird feed these days?!].
I wish I could ask Margaret why she kept these jotters all these years. It seems unlikely she would have referred back to them when cleaning her home as an adult, so perhaps her reasons were more sentimental. Maybe she was fond of her teacher, despite the teacher’s tendency to be a harsh marker. Or perhaps Margaret kept these jotters as a reminder of the expectations and limitations imposed upon women of her generation to share with her own daughter. We’ll never know – but we’re grateful to give them a permanent home!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.