Back in 2021, Poets in the Archives met for a session to engage with material fromAlo-Wa, a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark which formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living or working in Southwark.
During the poetry session, we looked through Alo-Wa material and then participants came up with questions to ask one another to inspire what would eventually be the writing of new poetry. These were:
What does the phrase ‘back home’ mean to me?
What does my family history look like?
What are my childhood memories / how do I re-connect to a country I saw years ago?
Why did my father / mother never teach me…
What do I wish I knew more about my family?
Below are the poems the group produced in response.
Stories by Nirma de Silva
Embraced in the Alo-Wa spirit they were brought together. A sense of purpose, togetherness
warmed by community air. Reminiscing about sun filled days and swaying palms the sweet smell of the earth the taste of tamarind, fried plantain, sweet potato vibrant patterned kaftan fabric and shimmering blue waters they connected to others, to the community in a celebration of culture by sharing food, experiences, their own stories.
It began as storytelling voices from the past of grandparents, an aunt, family ‘back home’ why they came to Southwark challenges they faced stories of courage and resilience that amaze, inspire and stay with you. Writing their own histories like threads woven into a rich tapestry of a community’s heritage in a new home.
Back D’Home (dom) by Joanna Cielecka
Finding my Forked tongue
One goes to the country Misty evenings amongst the fields Of corn, kukurydza, coucou rice The sun is friendly Even though I ignore it, typing Ferociously these words.
The other slithers through Southwark From jaunty Elephant’s Cheap Street Crosses at George’s Circus And swings back to watery Bankside To sit on the slimy steps And laugh with the rabbles.
How loudly was it sang By guys climbing onto buses In July twenty eighteen, While twelve of us women Sat quietly with herbs In Prostitutes’ Graveyard?
How muted now it feels Being alone with a Weegee In a dreicht Polish village. Estranged by Brexitannia Speaking in the dialect of Dogs, children and angels: The prayer of hope.
Hope for home Where we all belong.
Gentle like a sway of breath Like mother’s heart Like moth’s wings.
Gentle yet powerful Like St Paul’s bell
Let Hope ring
Let the forked tongues Dissolve tonight
While I thank you, dziekuje For joining me here As if nothing else existed
I feel our union.
Not on paper But above it.
Not a blur, Nor a flicker. No memory of this place. Yet now it enthralls me Now it entices me
The paanwallah’s potion Invites me to submit To breathe its scent To taste its touch To smell its air.
The sun clogs my skin The dust clouds my lungs. I’ve entered its body I live its life Surrender my mind. Soon it will have my soul.
No Shoes by Eugenia Sestini
No shoes Or washing machines A ship Across the ocean The hope And longing New beginnings With footwear And appliances A language to be learned And one to be forgotten Do we choose what we want to remember?
My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina after WWII, and my dad was born in Argentina. When he was in school, the teachers told my grandparents not to speak Italian because it was confusing him, so they never spoke Italian at home, and they never returned to Italy. I think they were worried that things would still look like they did when they had left. They both wanted to remember and wanted to forget.
Prediction by Colleen Cameron
Poverty, plucked from peaty ash, Petals my rosey-cheekbones, Inherited from women scrubbing A cleanliness privilege grants me now. They, unknown, behind my looks Look out – History, marked by rows of wind-battered tombstones Etch a line of youth dead before their Time, Birthing generations of men more fruitful than they Who look out – Hills, rolling like our shape, shadowed by Scottish Pine, high, like our legs made for walking Miles, and the stamina of a population Striving to survive – But that – Still, they look out – Sighs of déjà-vu echo now, green Guttural – the harshness Palpable – the silence Comfort keeps History an unanswerable prediction Yet, they look out – They see the world now through my eyes And the world holds them still – Through me.
A Long Story by Barbara Robson
Oh do not ask me about my family history unless you are ready for a tale of woe told from the very pit of existence. Would it were different, but my heart tells me that now, coming up ninety-two, honesty matters most to me. Gone is the time I needed to impress or please others. What have I left to lose? You see, I come from a long line of poor suckers from foreign parts. To survive their daily grind, they resorted to secret fantasies to keep hope alive. But like a sand castle, this could not withstand the in-coming tide. This unfortunate habit was passed on to me willy-nilly. Although this may seem extremely
silly to you, it has all but cost me my life. For assuming fantasy is safe when kept secret, combined with a smile plus stiff upper lip, is the stuff of a horror story. So it has proved. For suddenly I seem to have a choice: to let go the illusion that my forbears bequeathed. Many were the stories both my parents told. Not least being the one about my birth. How the midwives prophesized over me ‘This one will become the lady of the family.’ They also named me ‘Rosebud’ due to my my dainty, pursed mouth. But try as I might, all this has proved rubbish down to this very day. Now I can only attempt to count my blessings, few though they seem. But maybe I am mistaken. The gist of my story is that, though I come from a long line of dupes, undoubtedly well intended but truly f—ed, I am, in fact, no more or less so than others.
Mi yard in peace by Andrew Akpenyi
I was having a stroll in Southwark Park away from my yard
To take time to think to be solely away from everyone To take time to think to be in a location that’s not common To take time to think to be under a tree that’s providing me shelter when it hammers down with rain To take time to think to be in a place as though I’m Chris Tucker laughing on stage
After that I skedaddled to Walworth Road library on the bus because I wanted to find a book on nature
To take time to think if I live in a real abode To take time to think if I need to move to a different type of housing To take time to think if my roots are factual
My next destination was a walk along Southwark Bridge to view the River Thames
To take time to think about the boats that pass under and when they’re gonna return To take time to think about residing in a place around that area
In the end I got the bus back to my real home to just kick back and unwind
Southwark Archives have digitised a collection of photographs and ephemera from royal celebrations in Southwark’s past. We’ve made the following selection available for you to enjoy in time for the Platinum Jubilee.
This year’s double Bank Holiday marks the historic Platinum Jubilee – the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch in British history, ascending the throne. There are events planned all over the Commonwealth and right here in Southwark: exhibitions, street parties, picnics, pageants, and concerts. Maybe you’re going to attend an event – or even organising one!
Council officers created some of that material, and heritage staff collected newspaper cuttings. The council probably bought some other photos, taken by photojournalists, from press agencies. But local people gave us a great deal of the material we hold on royal festivities, especially mementoes like tickets, programmes, flyers, and the like.
In fact, most of Southwark’s heritage collections come from the generosity of Southwark people past and present! They were keen to make sure that people in their future – our present – knew what life was like decades, even centuries ago. And that includes not just pictures and film that show us how places like Walworth and Bermondsey have changed, but things like letters and diaries that show us how they thought and felt about their world.
Today’s present is tomorrow’s past – and the times we’ve lived through in the past couple of years are unlike any Southwark’s ever seen. Southwark Heritage staff will do their part to protect the objects and records that document Southwark today for the people of the future, but we need your help to make sure we capture as many of the borough’s diverse stories as we can.
If you’ve got records or objects that tell modern Southwark’s stories, and you’d like to help us protect them for the future, please get in touch with Southwark Heritage staff at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t have email, you can phone us on 020 7525 0232. You can find more information about our collections and services on our website. If you’re interested in learning more about the borough’s past, keep reading – there’s lots more to discover on this blog!
This year is the Platinum Jubilee, marking the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II taking the throne. Some people will be planning a street party, a picnic or viewing the platinum pageant – if so, you’re following in the footsteps of Southwark residents of a century and more ago.
Having the monarch live in a set place is a relatively young idea. In the Middle Ages, when many payments were made in kind rather than money, the royal court moved around the country, visiting royal estates. The royal court would have been familiar with Southwark, since London Bridge was the only Thames crossing near the royal palace at Westminster – visiting cities to the south of London, like Winchester, or royal holdings in France, would require travelling down Borough High Street to the Elephant.
Moving forward in time to Queen Victoria’s reign, we would definitely recognise the pomp and circumstance surrounding her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Tuesday 22 June 1897 (two days after the actual anniversary) was a special Bank Holiday; there was a procession featuring 50,000 troops and officials from all over the Empire – the entire route, starting and ending at Buckingham Palace, was highly decorated and packed with people. The route crossed the Thames at London Bridge, continuing down Borough High Street and Borough Road to St George’s Circus before re-crossing the Thames at Westminster Bridge. To mark the occasion, the obelisk at St George’s Circus was replaced with a clock tower – later demolished in the interwar period before the obelisk was replaced there in 1998.
Edward VII and George V had similar coronation processions – in 1902, the procession stopped outside the St George the Martyr vestry hall in Borough Road to allow the mayors of the metropolitan boroughs of south London to give good wishes and pledge their loyalty to the new monarch.
Edward VII’s coronation festivities also included the King’s Dinner. Schools, settlements, and mission halls all over modern Southwark hosted festive meals and entertainment for poor local residents (likely to be older people) – rather charmingly, many of the invitations ask attendees to bring their own cutlery.
By the time of King George’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, celebrations were locally organised; by the individual metropolitan boroughs or individual streets or estates. However, Bermondsey Metropolitan Borough – a poor area hard-hit by the Great Depression – didn’t allocate any money to marking the jubilee, citing lack of funds. This led Mayor SR Weightman to turn down an invitation to meet the new king because, as he pointed out, his mayoral funds were earmarked for sending local disabled children on a holiday and he couldn’t personally afford the £80 to £100 outlay (up to £7,500 in today’s money). This principled stance wasn’t universally popular. In fact, newspapers reported that he was burnt in effigy outside Bermondsey Town Hall on 6 May by a crowd protesting his supposed lack of patriotism. Bermondsey locals organised over 200 neighbourhood street parties, funded by donations from residents – providing a treat for some 5,000 children. Most of them, luckily, had a budget surplus: the Cadbury Road committee used theirs for a children’s cinema outing, while organisers in Leonard Street saved theirs for a summer outing.
Two years later, celebrations for George VI’s coronations were much the same: organised and paid for locally. On 12 May, neighbourhoods all over modern Southwark threw street parties for local children, paid for by local residents clubbing together. Children attending usually got gifts, for instance a souvenir mug and box of sweeties, to take home. The Dog Kennel Hill estate’s party turned into a riot, as adult gate-crashers tried to make off with the children’s treats. Moreover, it rained on the day: local newspaper coverage suggests that some parties were spoiled entirely.
The festivities continued through the month. The metropolitan borough of Camberwell organised a party on 20 May for more than 20,000 schoolchildren at Crystal Palace, featuring concerts, sports, dancing, a Punch and Judy show, and a display of Maxim flying boats.
For Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, Bermondsey didn’t have to worry about balancing its books, since a wealthy American, Margaret Biddle, footed the bill. Although she was living in Monte Carlo, she’d spent time in Bermondsey during the Second World War, including a stint as a volunteer PR officer for the borough’ council. Bermondsey took the voyage of the Mayflower as the theme of its coronation festivities (quite probably to say thank you): MGM even loaned the borough a model of the ship!
The metropolitan borough of Camberwell kicked off its festivities by lighting a beacon on One Tree Hill. Camberwell also cleverly avoided the dilemma facing Bermondsey some 20 years earlier, by making the annual children’s holiday to Bexhill an official part of its celebrations. As in earlier years, there were lots of street parties. One in Vicarage Grove was recorded by the BBC and broadcast in Australia: as local newspapers reported, one listener was so moved by the loyal speech given at Vicarage Grove that he sent the speaker a care package!
The Silver Jubilee of 1977 saw a recreation of the historic Southwark Fair on the South Bank near the Globe theatre, with a parade of “living history“ – locals dressed in costumes ranging from the Elizabethan to the futuristic. As well as street parties, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe hosted the Queen during her Royal Progress down the Thames on 9 June â€“ this river trip echoes the journeys made by Elizabeth I, and featured in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations as well. While in Southwark, the Queen unveiled a commemorative engraved stone and received a book containing old prints of Southwark, created by students at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication).
The Industrial Revolution created an increase in the middle classes who were both well off and politically powerful, but it also created a huge influx of job seekers to cities. London’s population grew six-fold in the century between 1800 and 1900; sanitation and housing could not keep up with the revolution’s progress. Many people worked in poorly paid, unstable labouring or factory jobs. As Charles Booth’s Survey of London showed, poor communities lived in the shadow of rich ones, untouched by the optimistic progress of the Victorian era. In the late 19th Century, reformers tried to improve conditions by breaking the segregation between rich and poor neighbourhoods – and more importantly, by giving a neighbourly hand up, not a condescending handout. This neighbourly help came from settlement houses – community centres – that relied on live-in volunteers to organise, provide services, and lead courses. These volunteers were usually privileged young people, who gained the opportunity to live and work in urban communities and broaden their horizons. Settlement volunteers and users alike shared their skills and knowledge to help improve the communities they shared.
A number of Southwark’s settlements were founded specifically to meet women’s needs. While poor women faced dire living conditions, many better-off Victorian women (expected to be decorative, obedient, and largely confined to their homes) found their skills and education going to waste. In 1887, a group of women, led by Mina Gollack of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded an organisation to help these young women of education and leisure use their ‘time and talents’ to help others – this ideal was so important that it gave the organisation its name.
Time and Talents London settlement moved to Bermondsey Street in 1899. It offered classes in arts, crafts, cooking, reading, and writing, a library and canteen, clubs for young people, and from 1913, a hostel even provided girls with a safe, supportive place to live. It remains a vital community centre for Rotherhithe today.
Other settlements sought to harness the time and talents of other groups of women. The Women’s University Settlement began in 1887 in Nelson Square: Octavia Hill was one of its founders, and Helen Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) was the first warden.
The Settlement gave female university students the opportunity to live independently as they provided educational and youth services to one of the poorest areas of London. It offered mother-and-baby clinics, youth clubs, and workshops providing employment opportunities for disabled people. After the Second World War, its work expanded to other areas of the community, which prompted its renaming to the Blackfriars Settlement in 1961. Blackfriars Settlement is still an important hub for the community and beyond, located in the heart of Blackfriars.
The Union of Girls’ Schools Settlement (better known later as the Peckham Settlement) was founded in 1896 and first operated from Calmington Road, Camberwell. By the early 20th century, the Union of Girls’ Schools for Social Service as it then became, had expanded to include hundreds of schools all over the country: this made the Peckham Settlement one of the biggest in London. Its wide base of support allowed it to provide funds to other organisations, and pioneer social welfare: the Settlement’s savings club was a model for the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1935, it opened London’s first nursery school, and a government sponsored job club – the first in a charity – in 1987. The settlement had royal approval, being supported by Princess Margaret until her death in 2002 and then the Countess of Wessex until 2012. Although the community centre closed in 2012, the Peckham Settlement continues to fund local charities and communities.
We have mentioned a few of Southwark’s historic settlements in this blog but we have a range of reading material on the history of many others. If you would like to visit Southwark Archives to view this material, please book an appointment by emailing email@example.com.
Alo-Wa was a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark, they formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living and working in Southwark at the time. They were based at the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street.
At Southwark Archives, we first came across the group through a selection of photographs from the Phil Polgaze collection. These photographs document a writer’s workshop specifically for black women, taking place during Black History Month in 1991, where some of the Alo-Wa group attended.
We have been able to speak to two members who were part of the group, Marion Desouza and Gillian Walters, to find out more about the group’s history and activity. The story of Alo-Wa begins with the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street. Women who formed the group were attending the centre, and were already acquainted with one another.
Alo-Wa formed through an invitation from Wendy Francis. Francis was employed by the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre in Peckham specifically to carry out oral histories. She had heard about the women’s centre, and went down to invite black women to form a new oral history group. The Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre was a community education project based in Southwark who worked with schools and adult groups to reflect on changes and issues in the borough. The centre was located 48, Willowbrook Road, Peckham.
The group started by meeting once a week on a Sunday, coming together at the Women’s Centre where they would share food, and look at the inspirational stories of women such as Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones and Nanny Maroon. When they began to turn to their own stories, they started to use a tape recorder to document their conversations. Marion said, “Wendy was good; she got us to tape everything. It was a good time in our lives.”
ALO-WA’s name comes from the Yoruba term for Our Story. The name of the group sets an expectation for a collective form of storytelling. The group’s main aim was for “self-appreciation and appreciation of others, self-understanding and understanding of others”[i]
During the sessions, they asked questions about one another’s families, and Gillian said it was much about understanding parent’s stories, in order to understand their own. Gillian remembered that a point of inspiration for her was how Lillian had taped her father before he died:
“Her father was of African heritage and came here when he was 19; that was also quite an interesting aspect. The majority of us had Caribbean parents. That was a tie in regards to looking at things to help us understand each other differently. Some of us were from different islands. Therefore, that also incorporated our understanding of people’s experiences and expectations.”
Some of the questions they asked were documented in a book they went on to publish called Our Story (1991).
The Alo-Wa group existed in a wider context of woman’s activity. The international women’s liberation movement of the 60s, which went on well into the 70s and 80s, brought direct attention to women’s histories, and women’s lives.
Marion Desouza was the Afro-Caribbean worker at Southwark Women’s Centre from 1990- 1992, where the Alo-Wa group met. At the Women’s Centre, Marion carried out various sessions to encourage women to get together and discuss women’s issues regarding sexuality, race, and offence. Marion told me it was a very inclusive space. There was also assistance to help women gain access to housing, benefits and pregnancy testing.
The Southwark Women’s Centre was the result of active work during the women’s movement. It was set up through the Southwark Women’s Actions Group linking up with the Southwark Women’s Equality Unit to find premises. A local housing association had four empty commercial units on Peckham High Street, and they said it could be used for the Women’s Centre. This created a very accessible space for women to drop in, whether that be on the way home for work, or, as it was a child friendly location, during the daytime. Alo-Wa’ s Gillian said that she would head there in-between work shifts and that Southwark Women’s Centre allowed her a place to rest, relax and be amongst other women to talk.
Alo-Wa produced Our Story in 1991. They had a book launch, attended by Harriet Harman and the South London Press and, it took place during Black History Month 1991. To produce the book, Wendy Francis ran writing skills workshops for the women, and worked with them as an editor during the project.
During the project, the group applied for external funding which they received and put towards the cost of producing a book to document the group’s activity, and tell stories through writing. In both conversations with Marion and Gillian, they stressed to me that the oral aspect of the project, the live moment of the storytelling and the interactions and relationships that grew within the group, was though the real work and activity:
“We came from a place of being able to verbally say these things, and now you are asking us to write them down and put them in a book. When we spoke to Wendy afterwards, this is about us maturing as people and we stepped into an area that we had some understanding of, Lilian had a small understanding. The rest of us possibly had none. It was about putting it down on paper, in a way that can be visualised by other people. When you tell a story, when you tell a good story the person is having a visual experience of when they read the words. We had never done that, we always used our voices.”
The women went to Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, where they were shown how to use computer software to work out the layout and graphics for a book. After this, they discovered that Southwark had its own printers, and this is where they did the printing for the book. They were shown around behind the scenes and learnt about the paper, grades and ink, and able to see the printing process in action.
During the conversations with Marion and Gillian, they both stressed that the relationships have been long lasting, and that a few of them have managed to stay in touch across the years. This seems like a testament to the group’s activities. Gillian said:
“It would be interesting for all of us to be coming together again. However, would it be that people would wish to be in the format together again, and what would we be discussing? The thing about it is, life goes on. The truth of it is, it was a fantastic experience.”
During the few years in which the group was active, they also worked with the well-known social historian Anna Davin, were interviewed for a BBC radio show by, Nerys Hughes, a copy of which we are still trying to track down. They worked closely with Jackie Holder, from the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre and alongside others Brenda Ellis, the LGBT worker at the Women’s Centre, Nashmin Sukasad, and Madhu Patel – both at Southwark Women’s Centre. They also worked with Peckham Black Women’s Centre located at 69 Bellenden Road.
At Southwark Archives, we are in the process of digitising a booklet containing texts the group used to inform their autobiographical writing, which may have influenced the writing in Our Story.
Southwark Archives are facilitating a creative writing session on Tuesday 5 October 2021 as part of the Poets in the Archives series, taking inspiration from Our Story.
When you come home after work or school, what do you do? Turn on the lights, put the kettle on, start making dinner…? Maybe you play some music, or, if you really want to relax, turn on a dehumidifier. All these processes require the flick of a switch or press of a button to turn on electricity. It is these everyday, routine actions that remind us of the continual significance of Michael Faraday, who’s discoveries on electromagnetic induction enabled the development of electricity and its wide spread use across the world. Today we celebrate his 230th birthday, marking the date 22 September, 1791 when he was born.
In the 1830s, Faraday was building on the research of the scientific community into electricity. He discovered that a magnetic field could produce an electric current, paving the way for generators to produce electricity and transforming how electricity could be applied to technology. Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction has reverberated through the years to the point that, now, his principles are continuously put to use, from using our phones to driving a car.
Faraday is considered a giant of the scientific community due to this discovery and his contributions to the understanding of electromagnetism and electrolysis: no one can doubt the relevance of his legacy in our everyday lives.
But nowhere is his legacy felt more on a physical scale than in the borough of Southwark. Take a walk around the borough, and you will find his name in several places. He was born in Newington Butts (around Elephant and Castle, now part of modern Southwark) but his family moved to north London soon after and so, there is not much said about his time in Southwark. Despite this, Faraday may be the most prominent of Southwark’s former residents: From his ambiguous blue plaque on Larcom Street (which gives no hint as to why it is located there), to Michael Faraday Primary School, Faraday Gardens and even an entire Electoral Ward named Faraday, Southwark remembers the scientist.
His legacy is loudest and shiniest in the middle of Elephant Square thanks to the Michael Faraday Memorial. This is not a public toilet, an ill-timed realisation that many (myself included) have come to, but is, more appropriately, an electricity substation for the Northern and Bakerloo tube lines that go to Elephant and Castle. The modernist architect Rodney Gordon designed a stainless steal box structure emulating the endless possibilities of science hailed in by Faraday and his contemporaries, and in 1961 it was constructed in proximity to Faraday’s birthplace. There is not a lot of visible interpretation that explains the Faraday connection and many pass the monolith everyday without acknowledging the reason behind its existence. Despite this, the memorial is still considered an iconic part of Elephant and Castle. In the 2012, Southwark Council implemented a new disco-themed lighting scheme that reflected pinks and purples off its stainless steel sides, following a nation-wide competition to improve public space. This Blue Peter competition was won by a local schoolgirl who wanted to see the memorial lit up in colour.
This year, another dedication has been made to Faraday further down Walworth Road where the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library has recently opened – here you can experience one of Faraday’s electromagnetic experiments.
Walk through the doors of the library, go up the stairs, and you will discover at the very back a room you probably weren’t expecting. The walls are lined with copper, and it is dimly lit with two low hanging lights, creating the atmosphere of a secretive World War 2 bunker. This is a real Faraday Cage, invented by Faraday in 1836 to block electromagnetic fields. The effect of this is used in microwaves and to protect planes from lightening. In the library, it stops you from accessing the internet while in the meeting room. Visitors to the library will be able to book the room (Covid allowing) and immerse themselves in an authentic experience free from the distraction of phones and the Internet. This experience is supported by a display of objects from the Cuming Collection that were owned by Faraday: his watch, a family bible with notes marking births and deaths, and a disk dynamo (which was shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition) as well as a bust of his likeness – all creating a personal insight into the man behind the science. These are set next to another display of early 19th century scientific instruments, illustrating the transformative scientific world that Faraday and his contemporaries both were shaped by and contributed to.
Readers can use the Faraday Room to get their scientific fix and be inspired by the wonders of physics and electricity. The placement of this room in a library, surrounded by books, has more meaningful depth than meets the eye. Faraday did not have a formal education, but left school early to work in bookbinding. While surrounded by books, he discovered his passion and drive for science and looked to improve his knowledge through reading and attending lectures. We are left with another of Faraday’s legacies: the legacy of the joy of learning, discovery and experimentation, which was key to Faraday’s success and enduring memory; and can now be discovered in the Southwark Heritage Centre and Walworth Library.
In 2014 whilst working in Southwark Archives, an ex-colleague Steve, came to me with a card from the card index and asked me if I knew anything about the details on it. On the card was the title of a film – My Little Grey Home in the West by John Goldschmidt, a student of the National Film and Television School. The card stated that the council’s social services had purchased a copy of the film and it was shown at a Welfare Committee meeting on 13th January 1970. The film was about Newington Lodge Public Assistance Institution for the homeless, a portrait of some of its residents. The film was released in 1968, one year before its demolition. I will return to this…
From orphanage to infirmary to workhouse to homeless institution to lodge
Throughout its history, Newington Lodge changed its name and its use several times. Although from 1852 it was the Workhouse for St Mary Newington parish, run by the Governors and Guardians of the Poor, the building started life in 1850 as a children’s home and school. The need for workhouse accommodation however, was becoming desperate and the children resident there were moved to a District school in Anerley. The new workhouse which replaced the overcrowded one on Walworth Road opposite the present day Westmoreland Road, was designed by Henry Jarvis (the same architect who designed Newington Vestry) and constructed on the other end of Westmoreland Road, near to Thurlow Street. It occupied the area of what is now Latimer Block (opposite the Hour Glass pub) on the Aylesbury Estate. The area was called Walworth Villa Estate and was part of Walworth Common.
Men and women were housed in opposite parts of the workhouse. The infirmary was located roughly in the middle and there was accommodation for around 500.
Being sick, having a mental illness, being too old to care for yourself or unemployed and without the financial means to help yourself left you little choice in finding shelter, food or care in 19th Century London. A spell at the Workhouse was the last or only choice, particularly if you were single and unmarried with children. However, the 1834 Poor Law Act which was brought in to overhaul the poor relief system introduced a more robust administrative system in England and Wales. Local parishes formed Unions and within these were an elected body of Guardians, each with the responsibility of the care of the poor across their individual parish.
The new act contributed towards a change in attitudes toward the poor and their predicaments were seen as self-inflicted. The Workhouse would be seen more as a deterrent and a place to work in order to earn food and shelter. The new act meant that it was now unlawful for any poor able-bodied unemployed man or woman to claim poor relief (though outdoor relief remained for widows, children and the sick).
Conditions at workhouses up and down the country are well documented and St Mary Newington Workhouse was no different. Sharing bathing water and towels, skin infections, poor quality diet, back-breaking work, high mortality rates and poor sanitary conditions are just some of the experiences reported. There was an open sewer, part of the Earl Sluice, situated by the shed of the workhouse which also happened to be the place that the very sick were sent for fresh air and separation from other inmates. It was not difficult to see why people felt that they were in a prison, their crime being poverty.
Moreover, being given the term ‘inmate’ which was the general description given to residents at workhouses and asylums and carried out into the 20th Century, undoubtedly contributed to a general stigma and prejudice that existed toward the poor. So much so that it was not uncommon for people to record alternative addresses for babies born in one.
The discovery of “unclaimed” bodies at St Mary Newington Workhouse being sold to the Anatomy School of Guy’s Hospital by the Workhouse master, Alfred Feist and his collaborator and undertaker, Robert Hogg, showed the dispensability with which those in power could treat the poor. However, this discovery proved to be a major scandal for the Southwark Board of Guardians, particularly as it was revealed that the relatives of those who had pauper funerals were defrauded. The coffins were filled with stones or the bodies of their relatives substituted with the bodies of other inmates (The St James’s Chronicle, 21 January 1858). Adding insult to injury, during their trial at the Central Criminal Court in 1858, Hogg escaped prosecution owing to a deal between his solicitor and the Poor Law inspector, while Feist, although found guilty of collusion, was freed on a point of law which basically said the relatives did not originally specify that they didn’t want their deceased relatives dissected. Careful what you do not wish for.
During the 1860s and 1870s a number of extensions took place at Newington Workhouse to accommodate the increasing number of poor, sick and homeless people. For example in around 1866 a 2-storey female ‘vagrant’ ward was added.
In 1869 St Mary Newington and St George the Martyr Parishes joined St Saviour’s Union. So the administration of St George’s, Mint Street, Christchurch, Marlborough Street and Newington Workhouses came under one Board of Guardians. (It’s worth pointing out that St Mary Newington Guardians remained the owners of the buildings used for poor relief in their parish, which meant that St Saviour’s Union paid St Mary’s rent, which they in turn could use to improve the Walworth Common Estate). A new female infirmary with laundry and bakery was built along Thurlow Street.
By 1877 it became necessary to convert Newington Workhouse into an Infirmary for the large number of sick in the St Saviour’s Union area. Outbreaks of smallpox still blighted the Infirmary and overcrowding soon became not just a health issue but a nuisance to the local residents, who endured the sight of daily removals of dead bodies from the Infirmary. The Infirmary now had in excess of 1000 inmates. Meanwhile, a new, larger infirmary was built on Champion Hill in 1887 and the sick poor were soon moved there from Newington Infirmary. The mother of screen legend, Charlie Chaplin, stayed there in 1896. A seven year old Charlie and his brother stayed in the Newington Workhouse along with some 1300 inmates.
Children’s activities in the workhouse varied; girls mainly did household work and learned the duties of being a housemaid which would see them fit for work outside of the Workhouse. Boys were educated and given religious instruction and taught skills like blacksmithing.
Apart from another change in name in 1899 to Newington Institution, possibly as a result of the formation of the metropolitan boroughs, the building’s purpose was unchanged. It was still run as a workhouse, though now under the administration of the new Southwark Board of Guardians as the day to day administration of the former vestries was transferred to the Metropolitan Boroughs of London. Further alterations and additions were made in the turn of the 20th Century. One of them being the married couple’s quarters and a few years later it would be possible for older couples to make their own meals!
However, overcrowding and understaffing continued to be a major problem for the workhouse. The treatment of inmates was still archaic and often cruel.
Newington Institution survived World War I largely unscathed, though it did its bit like many large establishments in helping the war effort by providing accommodation for the sick and injured and recycling food by-products for munitions.
By 1929 with the introduction of the Local Government Act, Workhouses were replaced by Public Institutions and the Board of Guardians replaced by the London County Council (LCC) and a new Public Assistance Committee. The new committee assumed responsibility for the workhouses of Gordon Road, Christchurch and Newington. One of the major changes during the 1930s was to no longer admit the mentally ill. They were sent to asylums. Single men, women and the elderly infirm were still admitted. Other aesthetic changes were made, including the inclusion of radios, flowers, a reduction in the number of beds, lockers for residents, bed side chairs, table cloths and so on. Crucially, from around 1937 residents were allowed leave for the day.
Newington Public Institution suffered extensive bomb damage during the Blitz in 1941 but it carried on housing residents and provided accommodation for families made homeless as a result of bomb damage to their homes. Like elsewhere food rationing was a fact of life. By 1947 the over 60s had free movement and whilst bomb damage repairs were being undertaken, there was a reduction in beds which accommodated the elderly, infirm, healthy and a small unit for expectant mothers. From 1948, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act, the Institution became temporary accommodation for homeless people and families.
Changes and conversions continued apace in the 1950s, mainly to try and remove reminders of the workhouse days, though it was impossible to do that for the exterior of the building, which remained imposing and drab. It was renamed Newington Lodge, replacing ‘Institution,’ a term reminiscent of workhouse days. Televisions and new upholstery were introduced and further extensions and modifications were made for elderly couples.
For all the praise Newington Lodge received for these positive changes, the conditions in which its homeless families were purported to be living was becoming an ever increasing issue in the late 1950s and 1960s, gaining the attention of television broadcasters and the press much to the increasing irritation of the LCC, who felt that it was an intrusion into the lives of the elderly and homeless.
“Up to three families are crammed into one room at Newington Lodge, and the rooms contain up to thirteen beds. Edna shares two toilets with sixty-four other people….
…the doctor told Edna that there was dysentery “in the walls” and warned her to keep her children as clean as she could” (Families Without A Home, by Jeremy Sandford , The Observer, 17th September 1961).
In 1966 the new London Borough of Southwark were more amenable and gave permission for the BBC to film in the old hostel block of the Lodge. This surely added to the perception of an archaic institution, still stuck in the past, when scenes from the film were used in the controversial docu-drama Cathy Come Home, a film about homelessness.
By the mid 1960s, the number of elderly, infirm and homeless families accommodated was down to around 15. Even though the old area of Walworth Common, including Newington Lodge was now earmarked for redevelopment for the building of the new Aylesbury Estate housing area, amenities carried on being provided for the mainly elderly residents.
Some images of the former Newington Lodge, c.1969 from Southwark Archives
Back to that Index card
The last warden of Newington Lodge was Mr R Morley and it was under his management that approval for a film about the residents at the Lodge was made in 1968 by John Goldschmidt. My Little Grey Home in the West would be exhibited at the National Film Theatre and Royal College of Arts the same year to critical acclaim. By the following year the number of residents at Newington Lodge was around 272. They were transferred to various sites including the new Livesey old people’s home and by 17June the last residents were moved out, leaving the former workhouse empty after 117 years. On 31July 1969, Councillor Mrs L N Brown, Mayor of Southwark removed the first brick from Newington Lodge, beginning its demolition.
Sadly, the copy of the film purchased by the social services department in 1969 could not be traced, but knowing how important it was to have a copy for the borough, particularly given the year it was made, shortly before its demolition, I decided to contact Mr John Goldschmidt directly and the rest is history (sorry) as they say.
I put the British Film Institute in touch with John who, as a true professional, had safely stored both the original negative and soundtrack. Arrangements were made thereafter to digitise the film with the BFI and a DVD copy was donated to Southwark Archives. We thank both John and the BFI and of course, my ex-colleague Steve who showed me the index card with the title of the film on it.
The film is available to view within the archive for privatenresearch purposes and it is hoped that one day it will be available on BFI player.
Much of the research for this blog comes from A History of Newington Lodge 1849 – 1969 written in 1970 by Mr B G Morley of Southwark Council’s welfare department. We owe a debt of gratitude for the research he undertook.
Living in the Shadows, Southwark News, 7 July 2005
Southwark Civic News, No.9 October 1969
Grim Realities – a Model Workhouse, by James Greenwood (copy of essay, Pamphlets collection ref. 362.51)
It counts everyone, and everyone counts in it – that’s the point of the census. For Southwark’s current communities, an accurate census means accurate population data, which means funding for vital services like schools, transport, and doctors’ surgeries. But for people in the future, the census is a treasure trove of information on individuals, families, households, and communities – one that lets family historians re-trace family connections through the ages and helps explain how the neighbourhood populations of London’s most historic borough have changed through nearly two centuries’ of time.
Every 10 years since 1801, the census has asked questions about the population of England and Wales and compiled information about the make-up of local neighbourhoods; data on individuals survives from 1841 onward. The personal information shared at every census is kept confidential for 100 years. After that, it’s open for the public to explore, and to learn about the life and times of their ancestors and those who lived in their communities in the past.
The census return is a list: of all the buildings in a given street, including unoccupied ones, and all the households within a given building. Separate returns exist for large institutions, like workhouses, hospitals, schools, and prisons. Each household’s return includes the people present there the night the census was taken; these may include visiting friends, lodgers, and even patients in hospital wards and prisoners in jail cells! The information collected about individuals varies with each census, but usually includes their name, birthplace, age on census night, occupation, and how they relate to others household members.
This information can be incredibly valuable for people interested in family, local, and social history. Tracing a person through the census shows them growing up; tracing an address shows how neighbourhoods change through the years. But it also provides unique insights. Answers to census questions on health, birthplace, and immigration shine a light on the diversity of Southwark’s residents – a diversity that often doesn’t show in other record collections. Questions about employment show how common child labour was in the past, and a host of occupations, from brushmaking to toshing, that no longer exist.
On a street or neighbourhood level, census information shows changes in environment and land usage, but questions about housing also show how values and norms have changed; over time, what counts as “overcrowded” or “sub-standard” residences vary a lot. Sometimes what you find is totally unexpected, like the 5 year old homeworker Roger Little of Dulwich – as the return explains, Roger was an Airedale Terrier, and his work was being the Little family’s watchdog.
But more than that, the census gives the future a snapshot of the past that includes everyone. The voices – and the silences – in the census send a message about who we are, where we live, and what we value. It can provide vital evidence of the problems we thought were important and how we sought to fix them. But it does something even more important: it ties all our individual stories together into the story of a place and a time. That gives people – now and in the future – a hook to hang their own stories on, an opportunity to belong somewhere and somewhen.
Taking part in the 2021 census is your chance to help future generations discover their past. By completing your census questionnaire on 21 March 2021 you leave your mark on history. And maybe that’s something your friends, family, and colleagues hadn’t thought about. So we hope you’ll encourage them to do their bit too.
We recently had a request at Southwark Archives for images showing the inside of Jones and Higgins department store in Peckham. Most available photographs show the exterior of the store with its iconic clock tower on the corner of Rye Lane and Peckham High Street. Diving into our Jones and Higgins archive collection though, we found these pictures from inside the store, and they were too good to not share for History Begins At Home under the theme of Trading Spaces.
The images show a variety of departments from about 1910 as well as in the 1960s-70s. Do you remember shopping at Jones and Higgins or other similar department stores of the past? Share your memories on Twitter.