Friday, June 29, 2012

The Secret Streets of London

One of my favourite TV programmes on air at the moment is Secret History of Our Streets, a six part series showing on BBC 2 on Wednesday evening.

Participants in the Secret Streets of London

In 1886 Charles Booth, businessman, social researcher and philanthropist began work on a survey of London’s life and labour, a project that would occupy him for the next eighteen years.  As part of his research he produced coloured coded street maps indicating the status of London residents.  Streets were classified from black – lowest, semi criminal; through the blues – poor; to yellow – upper classes, wealthy.  These maps have provided the starting point for The Secret Streets of London.

Charles Booth and the programme makers more than a hundred years later observed the changing fortunes of London streets such as those in Camberwell Grove.  Built for prosperous merchants in the 18th century, these Georgian villas became multi occupancy properties in late Victorian times through to post war Britain.  Today the restored properties form part of a conservation area and are worth in excess of £1 million.

I grew up in Brixton, Lambeth in the 1950s and 60s.  My parents rented three rooms in a Victorian built villa and thought themselves fortunate to have a home at all with vast swathes of WWII bomb sites on all sides of us.

They put their names on the Lambeth council housing waiting list and began to save what little money they could afford.  By 1966 they had saved enough for a deposit on a terraced house in an overspill town in Suffolk, which like Swindon, opened its doors to Londoners in the 1950s.

I thought it would be interesting to chart the history of my old London home, using the same research techniques employed by the programme makers.

St John's Church, Brixton

Work began on the Angell Town estate, Brixton in the 1850s.  The Nicholson family were the second occupiers of 5 St John's Road which later became number 10 following renumbering in 1883. The elegant sweeping road with large Italinate Villas connected Wiltshire Road with Brixton Road.  Isaac Nicholson first appears at number 5 on the census returns of 1871. He states his occupation as clerk to insurance broker and he lives in the 10 roomed house with his wife Louisa and their seven children aged 6-25. Bridget and her brother would live in this house for fifty years until their deaths in 1921 and 1922. 

In 1898 Charles Booth records an increasing number of tradesman occupy property in Brixton, renting out rooms to lodgers.  However, he colours St John’s Road red on his map – middle class, well to do – and some areas receive a yellow colour code, upper middle and upper classes – wealthy, just about as good as it gets.


By the 1950s the house was in multi occupancy with plaster board walls dividing the spacious rooms into smaller, rentable spaces. We moved there in 1954 when I was about six months old.

 In 1955 those who lived at No 10 included Eliza Wheeler, about whom I have no memory although I do remember the misses Emmie B., Lily and Sarah Wines, known collectively as the aunties who shared the front ground floor room and the basement rooms and with whom I played ring o’ ring o' roses. 

Swiss born Heinrich Whiteman lived in the rooms above us; his wife named Louie was loud and excitable and used to thunder up and down the stairs, a source of much annoyance to my mum.  There was also a young German couple who do not appear on the electoral roll.  They lived with their two young daughters in the first floor front room we would eventually occupy when they moved downstairs into the basement rooms.  An elderly Swiss couple lived in the back ground floor room overlooking the garden.



By 1974, less than ten years after we moved out, Lambeth Council found their plans to build more high rise homes scuppered.  Houses on Villa Road, backing on to St John’s Crescent, were occupied by revolutionary, Marxists squatters, many with Oxbridge degrees.  The story of Villa Road, a 2005 BBC4 documentary, can be viewed on YouTube – Lefties – Property is Theft.  I don’t know what my parents would have made of this community living opposite us – barricades and pitch battles with police.  

The battle of Villa Road ended in 1978 when Lambeth Council reached a compromise with the squatters.  The north side of the street was preserved while the south side, along with the north side of St John’s Crescent, were demolished and today a green space called Max Roach Park stands on the site of the former battleground.  My old home on the south side survived these tumultuous times.  How I would have loved to be living there in those revolutionary 70’s.

In the 1980s a complicated cocktail of social and economic factors ignited and saw Brixton embroiled in headline making riots.  Former Conservative PM John Major famously advertised his Brixton roots.  Ten years older than me, our paths never crossed.

Today - a house in Gresham Road, very similar to the one in which I grew up

Today Brixton has reinvented itself – a trendy, expensive place to live - a one bedroom flat in nearby Gresham Road boasts all mod cons and a price tag of £265,000. My mum and dad paid 30 shilling rent for three rooms plus a kitchen on the landing, no bathroom and a shared toilet.




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