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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.

Local residents mentioned in the 1901 Census. Pics: Charles Walker

Local residents mentioned in the 1901 Census. Pics: Charles Walker

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.

27 Chelmsford Road in 1907.

27 Chelmsford Road in 1907.

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In about an hour from now, Hogarth’s House will once again be open to the public.  Wonderful timing for the great man’s birthday this Thursday. After a total refurbishment that dragged on for three years because of serious fire damage in October 2009, the 1715 Grade 1 listed country retreat opens its doors to us at last. Hogarth lived in the place with his wife Jane from 1749 until his death in 1764. In those days the building was surrounded by fields. Today it goes largely unnoticed as thousands of cars zoom past each day on the A4 dual-carriageway.

Although William Hogarth extended the house to include a studio, its main function was a country retreat: he continued to do most of his work and business at his town house in what is now Leicester Square. The Hogarths made their home available as a wet nursery for foundlings left at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, an institution which Hogarth actively supported. [I haven’t got this quite right: please read Val Bott’s detailed comment]

The refurbishment project has been led by Val Bott, a distinguished local historian and museum consultant who is a trustee of the William Hogarth Trust. We’re proud also to have Val as a member of London Historians. She has been in charge of the decor and all new display materials which are substantial compared to previously. There is a section which features other owners and residents of the house over the years, something which was not really addressed prior to the restoration.

Here is a picture I took last Tuesday, when everywhere was a maelstrom of last-minute preparations. I shall visit during this week and add some interior shots.

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9 November: And here they are. Mostly uncaptioned, I think they’re kind of self-explanatory to give you a flavour of the place and also to encourage you to go yourself and have a look! My overall impression: fabulous!

hogarth house chiswick

Here is Hogarth's statue (2001) in Chiswick High Road and the sculptor's maquette on which it was based. I love marrying up statues and their maquettes!

hogarth house chiswick

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There are some more pictures on the History Today web site, here.

The house is free to visit and will be open every day except Mondays, from noon to 5pm. The best way to visit the house is to take the Tube to Turnham Green. Walk up Turnham Green Terrace and check out the 2001 statue of Hogarth and his pug on Chiswick High Road. From there it’s a 10-15 minute walk (best to use Devonshire Road, I reckon) to the house.

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isleworth

Isleworth looking downstream

On a very hot day it’s a great opportunity to go on a guided walk, but not too far, not too taxing. So this afternoon we went on one of the last walks of the summer run by Hounslow Heritage, in this case a stroll around historic Isleworth. At just £2, pretty good value. The above picture, taken at very low tide, shows a view looking downstream towards All Saints Church. Isleworth Ait is on the right, the larger section of the river runs on the other side. All that remains of the original church is its fine 14C tower. The nave was completely rebuilt in the early 18C following designs by Wren. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed in 1943 – not by the Luftwaffe – but by schoolboy arsonists who also destroyed one other church in the area and damaged three others in a week’s spree. They were apprehended and sentenced but I am told by local historians who know who they are, that to this day they show no remorse for their actions. The modern brick replacement you can see to the right was built in the 1960s.

On the bank immediately in front of the barges is the spot which was once Isleworth Stairs. This is where both Catherine Howard and a few years later Lady Jane Grey – both teenage girls at the time –  embarked on their final journeys to the Tower and execution. Both of them had been staying at Syon House on the massive Northumberland estate which starts just beyond the tree line.

Just right of centre is the London Apprentice, so-called because apprentice boys from the City would come up-river to go on the lash at this pub on their days off .

The neo-Gothic white town house immediately to the left of the church, a mini-Strawberry Hill House from the outside, was decorated thus in the 1960s!

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All Saints, Isleworth

The tower has ten bells which are still rung on alternate Sundays. The clock, from 1774, was made by Messrs Thwaites of Clerkenwell.

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Richard Reynolds House

Not literally Richard Reynolds’s house, but where his home apparently once stood in the 16C. After the seizure of Syon Abbey by Henry VIII, Reynolds refused to recognise the king as the head of the Church and was hanged, drawn and quartered for his troubles along with John Haile, vicar of Isleworth: the Isleworth martyrs. Isleworth has a strong underground Catholic tradition.

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Mill Plat basin

This final section of a lengthy tributary of the Thames, known as the Duke of Northumberland’s River, was actually dug by monks from Syon Abbey long before the Percys ever set eyes on the area. It powered a mill which operated from medieval times right up to the early 20th Century. The bridge is Georgian period and is listed.

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Alms houses

isleworth

There were many alms houses in the Isleworth area, but these from 1664 are the oldest that survive, endowed by Sir Thomas Ingram, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Privy Councillor to Charles II.

This is a flavour of our walk today: we saw lots of other interesting stuff too and I took dozens of photos. This just goes to emphasise that you don’t have to travel to town to enjoy a rich and deeply absorbing historical experience. Just walk out your front door and go for a stroll.

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On Saturday a friend suggested we meet for tea and cake at The Original Maids of Honour tea room opposite Kew Gardens, an establishment that many readers probably know well. What could be more agreeable?

Maids of honour are a type of tart, the recipe of which has been handed down the generations, apparently since the time of Henry VIII. They have been served from the earliest times in Richmond and then in the present premises since 1887. The building was damaged by a V2 flying bomb during WW2 and restored. It’s extremely pleasant and relaxing without the tweeness that one might expect. The word “Original” in the name of the tea room suggests there must have been some proprietary dispute over these delicious comestibles at some time in the past.

Anyway, while we visited the Original Maids of Honour it was fairly busy, but we got a table easily enough. We chose to have the menu item which included tea, sandwiches, cream & jam scones and a maid of honour for £14.95 each. The food was delicious and I squeezed four cups of tea from my pot, so not bad value. Service, though cheerfully given, wasn’t the fastest in the world, but when you’re having a great time with friends and in no particular hurry, this hardly matters.

The OMoH sells a wide variety of treats, savouries and breadstuff to eat in or take away.

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A good day for West London. First, the 157th Boat Race showing off our beloved neck of the woods to the world at large. Helicopter’s eye view of wonderful bridges and Thameside sites. It’s surprising how much greenery still exists in these built up areas. The Boat Race organisers no doubt kindly arranged the start for 17:00 hours so many of us could get home sharpish in time from the 31st West London Local History Conference.

The conference is sponsored by local history societies:
Acton
Barnes & Mortlake
Brentford & Chiswick
Fulham & Hammersmith
Hounslow
Richmond
Twickenham
Wandsworth
West Middlesex Family History Society

This year’s theme was Scientists & Innovators in West London History. The near sell-out audience were treated to talks on a variety of absorbing topics: Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan scientist from Mortlake, the remnants of whose library give us one of the biggest bodies of source evidence for Western natural philosophy in the late 16C;  George III’s scientific instruments from Kew (now in the Science Museum); the history of Price’s, the biggest candle manufacturer in the world during the Victorian era, which finally shut down as recently as 2000, although its brand name lives on; the potions, powders, pharmaceuticals and popular grooming products of McLeans and Beechams of the Great West Road (now part of GlaxoSmithKline); innovative 18C nursery gardeners in West London who nurtured pineapples, pears and elm trees.

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My favourite was Price’s candles. We take candles for granted, today they are fripperies. But not so long ago, except for open hearth fires, they were our only source of artificial light. Beeswax candles we all know about. But it was interesting to discover how the 19C chemists at Price’s went to enormous lengths to find alternatives to the stinky and cheaper tallow-based models. Now I feel educated on the topic.

At just £8 for a full day’s worth of fascinating local history, this is terrific value. We congratulate the organisers for a fabulous conference and look forward to next year.

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If you live in the greater London area, please check our list of local history societies here, and do let us know if we’ve missed yours out.

Local history groups are part of the bedrock of the London History scene and I’ve made it my business over the past three or four months to get to know them by attending monthly meetings. So far, I’ve been to Brentford & Chiswick and Hounslow – my two “home” groups – plus Twickenham, Sheen & Mortlake and Camden, all easy striking distance from home. During this year, I’ll try to get to as many of the rest as possible. I have found out that:

1) They are value for money. Typically they cost £5 – £12 per annum.
2) They hold monthly talks of the highest quality, free for members and typically a quid or two for non-members
3) Their meetings are well-attended, usually over 50 members show up in my experience so far
4) The demographic is the elderly

I’d like to address the possibly delicate question of 4). At most of these meetings, I am invariably among the youngest there, and being in my early 50s, I’m no spring chicken. Through Twitter, Facebook and other agencies, I know that London is packed with history lovers of all ages, yet there seems to be little Venn diagram crossover between these groups and local societies.

Where does this leave local groups? When their members pass on, will they wither and die? I don’t think so: most of these organisations have been around for over 50 years and all appear to be thriving. I believe that when people reach a certain age – say 55-65 – they tend to start doing things such as gardening, playing bridge… and joining their local history society. I’m aware that I’m generalising a bit here, but I believe this is the demographic that nourishes the local groups from the bottom end.

So if you’re under 50 and reading this, do yourself a favour: check out your local history society, you may be missing out.

Oh, and by the way, membership of a local history group gets you a £10 discount off membership to London Historians, please contact us to find out how.

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russ willey and mike paterson

Russ and Mike

After several false starts, co-authors of this blog Russ Willey and your correspondent finally managed to hook up in South Ealing to spend several pleasant hours yakking about London history (and pinball!) and for Russ to sign copies for his excellent book Chambers London Gazetteer for some of our members. The Gazetteer is becoming quite hard to obtain of late (persist!), but Russ’s newer title, Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable came out in its paperback edition at the end of October. Russ is too much of a gentleman to plug his own books here, so I shall do it for him: they are throroughly researched, absorbing to read and have an excellent lightness of touch usually lacking in reference works. In short, your London history bookshelf is incomplete without them!

Russ is hard at work on his latest book, the contents of which are under wraps for the moment.

P.S. This is a very grim picture of me, belying my innate cheerfulness: blame the cafe owner.

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