A guest post by London Historians member Lissa Chapman who writes about one of the many projects that owe their origins to the Blue Plaques scheme.
I was followed home from Walthamstow Central on Thursday evening – wasn’t sure at first, but the footsteps speeded up when mine did and I started to worry. Just as I was weighing up my chances of getting into the house before these apparent muggers struck, a diffident voice asked if I was the blue plaques lady. The two shadowy figures resolved themselves into an inoffensive, anoraked man and elderly dog.
Should have realised – just another history punter. I keep meaning to count up the exact number of plaques there are in my own and the half-dozen surrounding roads – it’s heading on 200.
There’s nothing unusual about these streets now – late Victorian terraces like countless others – any more than there was when they were new, Venetian blinded, and gas-lit. Ours is only one of many projects inspired by English Heritage’s now apparently-doomed blue plaques scheme.
But these blue plaques, which display information taken from the 1901 and 1911 census returns, are helping to build up a vivid snapshot of the social history of what was then a new town of outsiders with their way to make in the world. And so many of their successors want to know who cooked in their kitchen, treasured or ignored their garden and chose that bottom layer of wall paper, all just outside living memory.
When I bought my own house, I acquired, along with pink-flowered shrubs and some oddments of crockery in the attic, a small stash of papers. One of them was a letter from a gentleman who was brought up there in the years leading up to the First World War – it includes a precise description of his home as he first remembered it.
This was enough to send me to the census website. The 1901 residents were a silk weaver from Bethnal Green his wife and six children. The adult daughters worked in laundries; the youngest son was deaf and dumb. By 1911 they had moved, to be replaced by the letter-writer and his family. Curiosity soon turned into a project as more neighbours asked to join in, and I have got used to the particularly spider-like writing of one census enumerator and solved several minor mysteries in the way of renaming and renumbering.
But not a single famous name: mostly married couples with children; almost all the adults born outside the area. Not one unexpected occupation, unless you count a plumber-musician and an Abyssinian well borer. Many are clerks and shop assistants, with a smattering of teachers and journalists, builders and tradesmen and an occasional porter and labourer. A few independent women (adult daughters have occupations, wives do not); a widow and her medical student daughter. And no living-in servants.
The project has awakened other stories and reclaimed more. One couple have found that the house they moved into just after the Second World War was once home to relatives they knew little of. A returning evacuee knocked at the door he had last seen in 1939, emboldened by his grand parents’ names in the window.
Our next plans are oral history interviews and a website with an interactive local map. There must be other parts of London with blue plaque outbreaks – ideas exchange, anyone?
Another nearby house was home to a family of eight in 1911. The eldest son’s childhood memoir is preserved alongside a sketch map of the local streets, showing every vacant lot (good for ice skating and fights) and corner shop. His parents would not allow him to take up his grammar school place, so he went to work in a shop in the High Street, putting in a sixty-hour week for 5s. Seventy years later, he wrote of walking home at 2am after busy Saturdays around Christmas: “a bit much for a fourteen-year-old”. On some cold evenings I half expect to hear his footsteps on the side streets on the way from the station.