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.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Henry Russell Hustings

With just a week left to complete his term of office as Mayor, Councillor H.R. Hustings died suddenly at the Victoria Hospital on Sunday, October 27, 1940.

A tough speaking, no nonsense Labour politician, Henry Russell Hustings, Swindon's 40th successive Mayor, took office on Thursday, November 9th 1939 as the town got to grips with the black out, air raid warnings and wartime restrictions.

A former trade union organiser for the National Union of Vehicle Workers and the Transport and General Workers' Union, Henry had enjoyed a varied working life and the Swindon Advertiser styled him as the 'Jack of All Trades Mayor.'  His first job was with a firm of agricultural engineers in Dorset followed by stints as a traction engine driver, shop assistant, porter, engine driver in a laundry, miner, stoker, baker and in 1939 he was a window cleaning contractor.

Henry was born in 1883 in the Dorset village of Hilton to John W. Hustings and his wife Susan.  In 1903 he married Alice Maud Ball and the couple had four children.

A member of the Labour party since 1919 Henry began his political career in Devizes in 1921 where he was the first Labour member of the Town Council. By 1927 he was living at 38 Regent Circus, Swindon and represented the West Ward on the Swindon Town Council.

Councillor Hustings was a founder member of the Unemployed Association, launched at a time when Swindon had more than 5,000 unemployed.  In 1939 he was President of both the Swindon branch of the Labour Party and the Swindon Trades Council.  He also served on the Management Committee of the Swindon Co-operative Society, the Council of Social Service, the local Food Control Committee and the Western Area Federation of Trades Councils.

Ten puppies raffled for a local firm's Spitfire Fund

On August 22, 1940 Henry launched Swindon's own Spitfire Fund.  The aim was to raise £5,000 and in less than a week the fund stood at £245.  By October Swindonians had raised £3,300 and were well on the way to achieving their target.  Donations came from across the Swindon and district area.  Two little girls sold some of their toys and gave the 8s they had raised to the fund while Kingsdown brewer J. Arkell & Sons presented the Mayor with a cheque for £100.

At the time of the Mayor’s death the fund stood at £3,956, just over £1,000 short of its £5,000 target.  “The fund had a very good start, but it seems to have slowed down during the last two or three weeks,” said Mr Raymond Thompson, director and general manager of the Swindon Press who was behind the last desperate drive to complete the fund. “We owe this and a lot more to our late Mayor.”

ARP members collecting for Swindon's Spitfire Fund
In just seven days generous Swindonians had donated £1,352 to complete the project inaugurated by Henry Hustings.  A cheque for £5,308 was presented to Col J.J. Llewellin, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aircraft Production by Swindon's MP Mr W.W. Wakefield in January 1940. 

Henry's death at the age of 57 followed recent surgery from which it was thought he was making a good recovery and came as a great shock to fellow members of the Council.  The funeral service conducted by Major W.J. Hills of the Salvation Army took place at the Mission Hall followed by interment at Radnor Street Cemetery.  "Representatives of practically every industrial and social organisation in the town and district took their place in the cortege, and also paid their last tribute at the graveside at Radnor Street Cemetery," reported the Advertiser.  Surprisingly there is no headstone to mark Henry's grave, something family members hope soon to address.

"The public life of Swindon will be much poorer by the passing of Councillor Hustings," Mr G.A. Marshman, presiding magistrate said paying tribute to a man who had devoted his life to the underdog - Swindon's Jack of All Trades Mayor, Henry Russell Hustings.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Harry Potter Studio Tour

I blame the butterbeer for my public display of emotion!

Do not read on if you plan to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour as this may spoil some of the surprises.

I'm not a Harry Potter obsessive - yes, I've seen all the films and I've watched Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint graduate from cute kids to accomplished adult actors.  And I've wowed at the special effects, supposing most of them to be computer generated images.  But I always felt I'd rather missed the Harry Potter boat -  with teenage children when the first books were published, I was too old to be trendy.

However, a tour of the studio has transformed me into a born again Harry Potter nerd - hell bent on reading all the books whilst simultaneously watching the films, pause button at the ready.

It's only on the studio tour that you fully come to appreciate the huge talents of the designers, set builders, artists, craftsmen and women, make up artists - the list goes on and on - who quite literally made the magic that is Harry Potter.  The incredible attention to detail is mind blowing.  Just take a look at this exquisite Death Eater mask.

Some of the sets were surprisingly small and it was difficult to imagine cast and crew crammed in to the boy's dormitory. Personal favourites were the Weasley's Burrow and Hagrid's Hut where Harry and co sat on large furniture while Robbie Coltrane was filmed surrounded by small furniture, simple but effective.

The whole tour is very well organised although there were blips when the studio became almost too busy.  The trick is to wait and let the crowd surge through.  Visitors are definitely from two tribes - the over excited ones who scream at every exhibit and run through at breakneck speed and those who take time to look and read and watch the videos.  Apparently the record for the fastest visit is 45 minutes.  Unfortunately once you have passed through the doors to the outside lot there is no going back.  We took a more leisurely pace, returning to Dumbledore's office for a better look when the visitors had thinned.  We clocked up a four hour visit, two hours behind the longest so far recorded.

There is no restriction on photography, although even with a good quality camera the results can be a little  disappointing.

Number 4 Privet Drive takes pride of place on the outside lot, looking very much like a house in West Swindon I regularly walk past. Do the residents here keep a small boy wizard under the stairs, I wonder?

An expensive day out it might be, especially the gift shop experience, but was it worth it - you bet.

So what was it that reduced me to an emotional wreck.  The piece de resistance is of course Hogwarts - a 1:24 scale model used in the exterior shots of six of the eight films.  The sheer size and intricacy of the model, the subtle lighting effects from daytime to night fall when a myriad of lights twinkle in the windows, the haunting music - well, I was awash.  That butterbeer certainly packs a punch.

What does this have to do with the history of Swindon you may ask? Well, absolutely nothing! Be warned, similar unrelated posts may follow.

Addendum - my friend Graham Carter, co founder of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, tells me there is a Harry Potter/Swindon connection - the Hogwarts Express is a GWR Hall Class loco, built in Swindon.  For more information visit

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Charlotte Wattleworth

During the 19th century the Great Western Railway in the rapidly expanding town of New Swindon attracted workers from far and wide. 

Robert Wattleworth from the Isle of Man worked as a railway labourer before becoming licensee at the Falcon Inn on Westcott Place, his wife Jane was born in Carlisle.  But the Falcon Inn was a mere stopping off point for the wandering Wattleworth family.

Of the seven Wattleworth children who grew up behind the bar at the Falcon Inn, five went to the USA.  Sister Esther also did her share of globetrotting, working as a governess for a military family and living in India.  In 1903 Esther joined her brother Charles in Akron, Ohio but returned to England in 1910.

The couple’s youngest daughter Charlotte sailed from Southampton on the St. Louis in the summer of 1900 to join her sister in Querida, a gold mining town in Colorado.

In 1959 Charlotte, then aged 83, made a return visit to Swindon for the first time in 60 years, where she gave an interview to the Evening Advertiser.

She told how on arriving at her new home she climbed down from the stagecoach and asked herself ,”What have I done?”  Life in the mining community was hard.  “It was a lesson to me to see the women do the things they did,” she told the Advertiser reporter.  “But they stuck by their husbands.”

Charlotte’s sister and brother-in-law James Lewis, ran a hardware and general store, a meeting place for the mining camp and where Charlotte met her first husband.  Within ten months of arriving in Querida, Charlotte had married gold miner, Jay Clifford Goold.

A month before the birth of her second child in 1903, Charlotte’s husband was killed in a mining accident.  Widowed with two young sons to support, Charlotte bought a cow with her husband’s life insurance.
Charlotte went on to marry a second time.  Her husband William Farrell, a copper miner, eventually became president of the Devil’s Head Mining Company.

The 1910 USA Census finds the couple living at East Castle Rocks, Colorado with William’s son by his previous marriage, the two young Goold boys and Margaret, the first of William and Charlotte’s three daughters.

By 1920 Charlotte and her family were living at Englewood, Arapahoe, south of Denver, a town built on the site of the 1858 discovery of gold, which prompted the Colorado Gold Rush.

During her visit to Swindon Charlotte stayed at 1 York Road with her half sister Mrs Mary Parker, the daughter of her mother’s second marriage to carpenter James Brittan. 

The holiday had been paid for by Charlotte’s children and included a trip to the Isle of Man where she was a guest at the Governor’s garden party.  She also visited Liverpool to meet a family she had sent parcels to during WWII.  With excursions to Cambridge and the Cotswolds on her agenda, Charlotte intended to be back home in Denver in time for the city’s centenary.

Mrs Farrell told the Advertiser that she was always convinced the family would eventually be rich, but that her husband had died before a good strike was made.  “I have been rich in my children, though,” she added. Charlotte died in Denver in 1969, aged 93.

The Bassick Mine Company brought prosperity to the Custer County region, however today the former boomtown of Querida is little more than a ghost town.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Penhill - a Diamond Estate

This year Penhill is celebrating it's own Diamond Jubilee along with the Queen.  In 1952 Swindon was designated an overspill town and this aerial view shows the estate still under construction. The estate was built on the American Radburn lines in superblocks with houses grouped in small cul de sacs around areas of park or open space.

Several features are missing from this 1950s photograph; the Royal British Legion Club in Downton Road has yet to make an appearance along with the block of high rise housing in Seagry Court, built in the 1960s.  Building stops at Latton Close at the extreme left of the photograph with the broad sweep of Leigh Road in the foreground.

A hundred years ago Francis Hoddinott was the farmer at Penhill Farm, part of a small settlement just outside the Swindon borough boundary in Stratton St Margaret.  In 1951 Swindon Corporation acquired the farm with around 250 acres of building land and by 1965 there were 2,000 houses.  The 2001 census revealed a Penhill population of over 6,000.

Despite some bad press in the past, Penhill today enjoys a thriving community spirit much of it emanating from the John Moulton Hall.  New initiatives this summer include the setting up of a netball team to participate in the Swindon Netball League this September.  Training starts this Tuesday, June 19, at 6.15pm.   For further details ring 723687 or email

Thinking of entering Penhill's Got Talent - auditions take place 6-8pm on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 June, along with auditions for the Carnival Royal Family.  This year's carnival is on Sunday July 1.

For more information about what's going on in Penhill visit This is Penhill on

Photographs of Penhill under construction are published courtesy of  the Swindon Local Studies Collection - A Man With A Stick - visit

You might like to read

Looking Down on Holbrook Street in the 1950s
Looking Down on the County Ground in the 1950s
Looking Down on Gorse Hill in the 1950s
Looking Down on Cricklade Road in the 1950s 
Looking Down on Cheney Manor Road in the 1950s
Looking Down on Newport Street in the 1950s
Looking Down on Walcot in the 1950s
Looking Down on Rodbourne Cheney in the 1950s
Looking Down on Parks in the 1950s
National Libraries Day 2013

Thursday, June 14, 2012

GWR Casualties

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the Great Western Railway employed about 80,000; 25,479 men enlisted in the services with 2,436 losing their lives by the end of the four year massacre.

Throughout the war the Great Western Railway Magazine published details and photographs of the men who had lost their lives, which are now available to view on the Swindon Local Studies flickr page

Inspired by this project, family historian Ruth Wood decided to launch her own.  “It just came to me that it would be so helpful to others, like me, researching their family history, if they could do a keyword/surname search for their GWR relative,” Ruth said.

Now living in Durham, Ruth grew up in a Swindon ‘railway,’ family with several generations of engine drivers, boiler makers, electricians and engineers; her brother was one of the last intakes of apprentices at the Swindon Works.

Liaising with staff at Swindon Central Library, Ruth launched her own project on flickr and has so far uploaded more than 2,000 images.

I also add each soldier with his details, on to an access database which people can request a free copy of as well or instead of looking at the flickr site,” said Ruth, who describe the GWR Casualties project as a labour of love.

“There are many lists of soldiers in the magazine without photos so they have not been included on the library's flickr page as that is ostensibly a photo site. The next part of the project is to add all of those on the lists to the database. I will also add them to the flickr site with a picture of a poppy and their details. It means that people can still search for their relatives on the flickr site and if they do find their details, they can send me a photo of their relative if they have one, plus any other details they may wish to add.”

Ruth has met with the archivist at the National Railway Museum in York where she deposited a copy of her GWR Casualties database.  The Imperial War Museum in London has added a link to the site and Ruth hopes that STEAM Museum in Swindon will soon do the same.

If you have a GWR ancestor who served in World War One visit the GWR Casualties project on

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Dad's a Fire-eater

Children as young as five will be expected to learn and recite poetry by heart if a major overhaul of the national curriculum in England's schools goes ahead.  Education Secretary Michael Gove would like to see a new focus on the traditional skills of spelling and grammar of which the study of poetry will become an important part.  And as any student of history knows, there is nothing new under the sun.

In March 1884 Francis William Drew, master at Lydiard Millicent Church of England School, was preparing his pupils for the annual inspection.  As a large portion of the school’s funding rested on a pass or fail, and with it Mr Drew’s salary, the inspector’s visit was an important one.

The village school at Lydiard had an average weekly attendance of 139 in the spring of 1884.  Divided into standards according to ability, children enrolled aged five and worked their way through Standards I to VI if their parents could afford to keep them in school that long. Promotion to the next standard was on ability and the result of rigorous testing in the three R’s - reading, writing and arithmetic.  

The school leaving age was 13 but pupils could be withdrawn at 10 if an inspector was satisfied they had passed the required standard.  However levels of truancy were high in this rural area where boys were taken out of school to work at busy times in the agricultural calender; and girls missed out on lessons looking after younger siblings while their mothers worked in the fields.

In 1884 Standard I, the least able children in the school, were set  ‘Lucy Gray; or, Solitude’ a poem by William Wordsworth, to remember and recite.  This story of an obedient child who sets off across the moor with her lantern to meet her mother and is lost in a snow storm runs to 16 verses.

The task for Standard II was The Village Blacksmith by Longfellow, an eight verse tongue twister that ends:

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

In 1884 Standard III have studied that cheery piece the Wreck of the Hesperus, also by Longfellow, in which a ship’s skipper fails to take the advice of an old sailor to put his vessel into port ahead of an advancing hurricane.  As the storm takes hold he lashes his daughter to the mast and takes his place at the helm.

“O father! I hear the sound of guns;
Oh, say what it may be?”
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

Lash to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Standard IV had two set pieces; the inspirational story of King Bruce and the Spider by Eliza Cook – the moral being if at first you don’t succeed etc.   And just in case they felt the absence of doom and gloom they also had to learn and recite The Graves of a Household by Felicia Hemans.

And parted thus they rest, who play’d
Beneath the same green tree;
Whose voices mingled as they pray’d
Around one parent knee!

They that with smiles lit up the hall,
And cheer’d with song the hearth –
Alas! For love, if thou wert all,
And nought beyond, oh earth!

Pupils in Standards V and VI, the most able children in the village school, had learned a selection of verses from Shakespeare.

The 1884 inspection was a huge success.  Mr A.L. Saunders, Corresponding Manager of the school gave a summary of the inspector's report. 'The school has passed an excellent examination, there being not a single failure in any of the subjects of examination.  The infants are most ably taught and the results of the examinations are highly satisfactory.'

So perhaps the Education Secretary might be on to something here.  Note to Mr Gove - please choose something funny. My Dad's a Fire-eater by Roger McGough is a personal favourite.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ted Head

The Battle of the River Plate in the South Atlantic on December 13, 1939 was the first significant naval battle of the Second World War.  The German pocket battleship the Graf Spee, engaged in ambushing merchant ships en route for Britain, was attacked by three cruisers, the Ajax, the Achilles and the Exeter. 

However, prior to this battle, 300 British seaman, already taken prisoner by the Graf Spee, were transferred to the Altmark, a German fleet tanker.

The men should have been released into Norwegian custody when the Altmark sailed past Bergen, but in direct contravention of international law the prisoners were hidden below decks in storage lockers. Despite two searches by Norwegian officials, the whereabouts of the men was only detected when prisoners released from the scuttled Graf Spee informed the British government.

Among those on board HMS Cossack engaged in a daring raid to rescue the prisoners was a Swindon man, Edward Albert Head, the son of Francis and Winifred Head.  Edward, known as Ted, enlisted on February 24, 1939, serving aboard the Cossack as an Engine Room Artificer.

In the summer of 1939 Ted returned home to Swindon where he married local girl Rose Hulme, but the couple were soon parted when Ted rejoined his ship.  To be closer to her husband, Rose made her home in Dunfermline where Ted joined her when on leave.

On April 13, 1940 just two months after the infamous Altmark incident, HMS Cossack formed part of a convoy to escort the battleship HMS Warspite.  The ships were on a mission to destroy German vessels left after the 1st Battle of Narvik. 

During fierce fighting the Cossack was hit seven times, putting her steering gear out of action.  Whilst undergoing running repairs during the battle the Cossack continued firing and managed to silence a field gun shooting from behind Narvik.  Nine members of the Cossack crew were lost with 21 wounded, among them Ted.

Ted returned to Scotland and was nursed on the Ardgowan estate on the Firth of Clyde used as a military hospital during both the first and second world wars.

Ted and Rose’s son was born on July 30, 1941 but by the beginning of August Ted was at sea again, this time aboard HMS Tonbridge.  Engaged in netlaying off the East Anglian coast, the Tonbridge was bombed by German aircraft. The engine room took a direct hit and 35 men, including Ted, were killed. 

The telegram informing Rose of her husband’s death was sent to her parent’s home at 188 Drove Road where she and Ted had begun their married life together.  Her sister and brother in law travelled to Scotland to break the news to her.

Ted died on August 22, 1941, the day after his 26th birthday.  His son William Edward Frank was just 23 days old.  Ted had seen him once.

Ted’s name appears on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.  He is also one of 25,000 sailors from both world wars commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, situated on Southsea Common overlooking the promenade. A copy of the Memorial Register is kept at the Civic Offices in Guildhall Square.

In 1949 Rose received a financial entitlement accrued during Ted’s naval service - £8 5s residue of wages; £16 2s War Gratuity and £6 6s Naval Prize Money.

Ted & Rose pictured on their wedding day in the garden of 188 Drove Road
Ted (front row, far right) recovering at Ardgowan
Damage sustained by the Cossack during the 2nd Battle of Narvik

Many thanks to Louise Liddell, Ted’s granddaughter, for access to family records and photographs.