Alo-Wa Oral History Group

by Helen Savage, Heritage Officer

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.

1991-10-27 Black Women’s Writers Workshop, Peckham. Organised by Southwark Women’s Equality Unit Jackie Holder. .The session was a chance to explore creativity whilst being given some guidance. Some members of the Alo-Wa group attended the event. Photograph from Phil Polgaze Collection, Southwark Archives.

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.

Southwark Women’s Centre was located between 2-8 Peckham High Street

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.

‘Our Story’; book launch with Harriet Harman, 1991. Photographer unknown.
Article in the Southwark Sparrow newspaper, 10 May 1991

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.

Alo-Wa at the 1991-10-27 Black Women’s Writers Workshop, Peckham. Photograph from Phil Polgaze collection, Southwark Archives.

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.


[i] Our Story, Introduction

Newington Lodge: remembering an institution

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

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.

Note the number of people living beyond 90! Sources: A History of Newington Lodge, 1849-1869 (researched and written by B G Morley, L.B.Southwark Welfare Department.

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.

A section from Booth’s ‘Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889’ showing part of Walworth and Newington Workhouse north of Albany Road. Red = well do-do, middle class, Pink = fairly comfortable, Yellow = upper-middle, upper class, wealthy, Light Blue = poor, Dark blue = very poor, Grey = mixed

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.

Section of the Ordnance Survey map of 1951 showing Newington Lodge on Westmoreland Road and Thurlow Street with the R Whites factory on the right

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 17 June the last residents were moved out, leaving the former workhouse empty after 117 years. On 31 July 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.

The Observer, 1969

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.

References

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)

St Mary Newington Vestry Minutes

The census – a snapshot of the UK that includes everyone

by Patricia Dark, Archivist

East Street Market, c.1980

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.

“Incidentally, we have an Airedale terrier – do not know if particulars required, but in case you want them, here they are…” (1911 census return for 118 Turney Road, Dulwich)

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.

For more information on the 2021 census, visit www.census.gov.uk. If you have a Southwark Presents card, you can access the census free online through Southwark Libraries’ subscription to Ancestry Library Edition and Find My Past.

A peek inside Jones and Higgins

by Chris Scales, Archive Officer

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.

Decimal Day 50 years on

by Patricia Dark, Archivist

Shoppers at J. Sainsbury in Rye Lane, Peckham in the 1970s

Sometimes a historic moment plays out like a scene from a movie – think of the opening of Saving Private Ryan, for instance – but other times it’s as everyday as the change in your pocket.

Today is a moment in history that everyone in the country took part in, because 15 February 2021 is the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Not the D-Day shown in Saving Private Ryan, that opened the Battle of Normandy – that’s in June – but the day British currency went decimal.

To understand what that means, 50 years later, we have to dig into the foundations of British money, and those go a lot further back than you’d think. All the way to two of the Roman Empire’s coins, in fact: the silver denarius and the gold solidus.

The denarius was the main circulating coin of the Roman Empire for several hundred years, from the 3rd century BCE to the end of the western Empire in the late 3rd century CE. The solidus began circulation as the denarius stopped being minted, and continued being minted by the Byzantine Empire (as well as copies, known as dinars, minted by various Muslim Caliphates)well into the Middle Ages.

In the late 8th century CE, Charlemagne – whose empire spanned much of modern France, Germany, and northern Italy – revised coinage because of a shortage of gold in western Europe. The new coinage was based entirely on silver: a libra, or pound, of silver weighing a bit less than 500g would be divided into 240 denarii, each weighing about 21 grains. Although the denarius was the only coin in circulation, the solidus remained as a unit of accounting, with 12 denarii to the solidus.

The early English king Offa of Mercia adopted this system with slightly different weights – a “Tower pound” of about 350g, divided into 12 solidii (shillings) and 240 denarii, containing 1.5g of silver each. This system survived for centuries all over western Europe and beyond, and left its marks on languages all over the world.

The libra gave us the name for a number of currencies, including “pound” and “lira” as well as the pound’s abbreviation: “£”.

The denarius’s name survives in the currency name “dinar” used by a number of countries in and around the Mediterranean; the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese words for “money”; and the abbreviation for the smallest unit of British pre-decimal currency, “d”.

The solidus gave us “shilling” and “soldier”, since the Roman military’s pay came in the form of these coins, as well as “sou”, an obsolete French coin whose name still survives in French idioms relating to money.

Southwark’s Mint

Southwark is a part of the story of pounds, shillings, and pence; specifically, Suffolk Place, a 15th century mansion house that was rebuilt in 1522 by Henry VIII’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk. The site is at the corner of the modern Borough High Street and Marshalsea Road. In 1536, Henry exchanged Norfolk Place on the Strand for Suffolk Place; nine years later, the site became a mint – a place where money was literally made. Although the house itself was demolished in 1557, it left its mark on the area – in the names Mint Street and Great Suffolk Street, and in the Liberty of the Mint, an area that was a notorious slum until the end of the 19th century.

The 19th century – some failed attempts

The £sd system, as it was known, was useful in terms of doing mental arithmetic with money, since 240 can be split into a large number of fractional pieces: halves, thirds, sixths, eighths, tenths, and twelfths (so unit-pricing dozens of things like eggs was easy). However, it was not easy to do basic addition on pounds, shillings, and pence, and that difficulty increased with the scale of the transaction. As foreign trade increased, having non-decimal currency became more and more unwieldy.

Efforts to change the system began as early as 1824. Another attempt in 1848 led to the introduction of the “florin”, a coin worth 1/10 of a pound – 24 old pence, or 2 shillings – which remained in circulation until 1993 interchangeably with decimal 10p coins. A final attempt to decimalise in the 19th century was scuppered when two members of the Royal Commission appointed to study the problem – the governor of the Bank of England and an executive of the London and Westminster Bank – stifled the idea.

The 1960s – pressure from international trade

By the last quarter of the 20th century, most countries had moved to decimal currency based on units of 10, making international trade significantly more complicated for those countries which still held to the £sd system (generally, those in the Commonwealth). Starting with South Africa in 1962, these countries converted to a decimal based currency: most followed South Africa’s lead in creating a new currency unit equal in value to 10 shillings, or exactly half of a £sd pound.

In 1961, the UK government set up the Halbury Committee to study and report on decimalisation; its report, presented in 1963 and adopted in 1966, noted that the British pound’s value on the foreign exchange market meant that the new currency approach wasn’t feasible. Instead, the pound and its value was retained, but the number of sub-units to the pound was slashed from 240 to 100 – so the value of the new penny was 2.4 pre-decimal pence. In 1969, the Decimal Currency Act came into force, starting the conversion process.

Decimal coins valued at 5p and 10p – the same size and value as the 1 and 2 shillings coins they replaced – entered circulation in April 1968. A 50p coin followed in October 1969, with its predecessor the 10-shilling note being removed from circulation shortly thereafter. The pre-decimal halfpenny and half-crown (worth 2 shillings 6 pence, or 1/8 of a pound) were withdrawn by the end of 1969.

Coins from the 1950s and 60s from the Cuming Collection.

1971 – D day finally comes

Banks closed at 3:30 PM on Wednesday 10 February 1971, and remained shut until 10 AM on Monday 15 February 1971: Decimal Day. February was chosen because it was the least-busy time of year for banks, transport, and retail; the closure allowed for the distribution of stocks of new coins, processing of outstanding cheques and credits in the clearing system, and the conversion of account balances to decimal – the latter task mostly done manually!

The run-up to decimalisation put the conversion into the spotlight. In 1969 and 1970, increasing numbers of retailers priced goods in both currencies, which probably helped cushion the change and cement new values in shoppers’ heads. Shoppers could get a rough idea of the pre-decimal value of a decimal price by doubling the new price and inserting a slash between the digits. For more exact conversions, shoppers’ guides, conversion tables, and specialist calculators between £sd and decimal values became increasingly familiar – the pen company Parker created a special edition of its Jotter pen with conversion tables in a window. Waddington’s even published a board game about decimal conversion!

The early weeks of 1971 saw a huge publicity campaign as D Day approached. Flyers, leaflets, and posters sprouted, as well as a song by Max Bygraves, a series of short films on the BBC, an ITV drama entitled Granny Gets the Point, and – on D Day itself – a special Merry-Go-Round broadcast for schools featuring Peter Firmin.

On the day, new ½p, 1p, and 2p coins entered circulation, and prices – while still in both currencies – featured decimal first. From D Day, shops still accepted old pre-decimal coins, but returned change in decimal currency — shoppers and travellers using 1d and 3d coins were asked to pay them in units of 6 old pence (equal to 2 ½p) to simplify converting change. Because of this, old 1d and 3d coins were out of circulation by the end of February 1971, and 6d coins were rare; 1d and 3d were officially withdrawn at the end of August 1971, ending the transition period.

But the story doesn’t end there. Popular protests – perhaps because of their central role in wedding lore – meant that 6d coins remained legal tender until 1980. Decimal halfpennies were demonetised at the end of 1984, since inflation had eroded their value. Shillings and florins remained in circulation alongside 5p and 10p coins until 1990 and 1993 respectively, when smaller versions of the decimal coins were released. A smaller 50p appeared in 1997; only 1p and 2p coins remain legal tender from D Day.

The Cuming Collection has hundreds of coins, including examples of Roman and British pre-decimal money: you can explore the collection here. You can learn more about pre-decimal currency and the decimalisation process at The Royal Mint Museum’s website. YouTube has examples of public information films, reporting on D Day from the AP, and an extract of Granny Gets the Point from the BFI’s collection.

The Great Gandolfis: Peckham’s world class camera makers

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

“If I can’t see what the customer wants, I’m in a bit of a flutter… until I get hold of the plane and a piece of wood and then all is peace.”

Fred Gandolfi speaking in the BBC documentary, The Industrial Grand Tour: The Camera Maker, 1974.

The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford holds a rare collection of exhibits that are a part of Peckham’s history. The items in question are large plate cameras and tripods made by the exceptional family of craftsmen, the Gandolfis, whose business was started by Louis Gandolfi in 1885, first at premises in Kensington Place and from the late 1890s onwards at addresses in Old Kent Road, Park Hall Road and finally Borland Road, Peckham.

Portrait of camera maker Louis Gandolfi, taken c.1900
Louis Gandolfi, c.1900

Louis was born in Clerkenwell in 1863 and by the age of 12 was an apprentice to a cabinet maker. Having acquired enough skills at age 17, he began working for a small business of camera-makers – Lejeune and Perken, making large plate cameras in the city. However, after 5 years it is said that he had to leave the business as his skills earned him more money than his colleagues and this caused too many complaints against him. It was then that Louis decided to set up his own camera making business.

Louis and his wife Caroline (who initially undertook the French polishing and brass work within the business) instilled a strong work ethic into their six children. At one time all of the children were involved in the Gandolfi camera business and before Louis died in 1932, he had ensured his legacy by passing on his skills as a camera maker to his sons Thomas, Frederick and Arthur which would see it run for over 100 years.

Photography was a booming business in the late Victorian period thanks to advances in the processing of film, particularly the introduction of dry plate emulsions made from gelatine. Glass plates of different sizes were put into the back of a camera and when the photographer was ready to ‘take’ his photo, he would expose the glass plate to the light, and thereby the image would be captured on the chemical coated plate. The dry plate process meant that the glass plates were coated with the new emulsion, dried and stored until needed. The plates could then be loaded into cameras at convenience and processed any time after they were exposed. This was a huge improvement on wet plate photography. This process involved hand coating the plate with a light sensitive wet emulsion and loading into the camera just before exposing it to light and then developing the plate straight away – a much more laborious chemical operation with larger, more unwieldy equipment.  So the new development in processing meant you could separate the plate from the camera as storage was a much simpler affair and cameras could now be smaller and mass produced.

Initially, Louis’s camera designs were fairly simple to make and assemble, and sold cheaply to accommodate the new mass market. The 1880s also saw a boom in bicycle riding. The convenience of being able to attach one of Louis’s cameras to a cycle increased the company’s success and profile and, of course, profits. However, by the time he was at his new premises at 752 Old Kent Road in 1896, it would be the pre-dry plate camera designs that would give the Gandolfi brand the greatest success and return Louis back to his original skills as a furniture maker and craftsman. 

Screenshot from The Industrial Grand Tour: The Camera Maker, BBC, 1974, showing Fred Gandolfi with one of his finished cameras

These large format, folding wooden framed cameras were more traditionally made and attracted professional photographers.  Louis made two designs – the Universal (which was a square bellows style) and the Imperial (a tapered bellows style similar to the one pictured here).   The cameras were made to order and comprised three main areas of work – woodwork (including French polishing), brass work (with up to 125 pieces in one camera) and assembly. The cameras were patiently and beautifully crafted from the finest Cuban mahogany.  The baseboard of a 15” x 12” Gandolfi camera was made up of 11 separate wood panels alone and a 5” x 4” camera would incorporate some 100 brass fittings, each one lacquered and hand finished. The bellows were meticulously prepared from a variety of fabrics including leather, felt and velvet. It could take around 3 weeks of joint working between the brothers to produce a 10” x 8” Gandolfi camera.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Louis started to secure overseas government contracts, some of which required the new ‘Imperial’, designed to withstand hotter weather conditions and made to any order from half-plate to 15” x 12”. The design was later updated by his sons as ‘The Precision’ and continued to be produced up to the 1970s. By 1928, the business had moved to an old hatpin factory at number 2 Borland Road, Peckham, where there was plenty of room for their workshop.  

Gandolfi cameras were specially commissioned for events like Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1913 and Lord Carnarvon’s Tutankhamun expedition, as well as a commission from Queen Mary. The Gandolfis were also the first company commissioned by the Royal Naval Air Service to provide aerial cameras, which helped the business survive the First World War. Their expertise would also be required during the Second World War supplying cameras for the War Department.

The core values of good craftsmanship and use of quality materials meant that the three Gandolfi brothers would not substitute quality for quantity and turned down lucrative contracts as it was impossible to fulfil them with so few staff, preferring bespoke commissions. However, their reputation for excellence continued to see them receive numerous commissions.  It’s likely, for example, if you see a prison mug-shot from around the mid-1940s, that it was taken from a Gandolfi portrait camera. The Gandolfi tripod – the ‘Portable Studio Stand’ was also a successful line and over 25,000 were produced over the lifetime of the business.

After Louis’s son Thomas died in 1965, the business continued with brothers Arthur and Frederick at the helm.  They would receive commissions from professional photographers, magazines, students and colleges among others. Their skills were in great demand and they were becoming the last of their kind in making hand-made quality cameras. Long waiting lists for their ‘Precision’ camera continued into the 1970s and Thomas’s son, Thomas junior left his career in engineering to join the firm in 1976. Another side of the business was the importance of teaching others the value of hand making cameras and Frederick made several demonstrations for institutions.

In 1980 The Science Museum held a special exhibition commemorating 100 years of camera making by the Gandolfi Family.  By 1982, Arthur and Fred decided they were unable to run the business themselves and reached an agreement to sell it to Brian Gould and Sir Kenneth Corfield. Both men were staunch advocates of the Gandolfi brand and ethos.

Fred died in 1990 aged 86 and Arthur died in 1993 aged 87. Like their father Louis, they ensured the legacy of the Gandolfi name with their cameras continuing to be made well into the early 2000s and immortalised at The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

Find out more

Online
Books
  • Crafts Today as Yesterday in Colour by David Gibbon, Colour Library International, 1976
  • The Birth of Photography: the story of the formative years 1800-1900 by Brian Coe, Ash and Grant, 1976
Press Cuttings at Southwark Local History Library and Archive
  • Gandolfi ‘Centenary’ exhibition, Science Museum, South Kensington, Science Museum Magazine, Dec – Feb 1980
  • Craftsmen Extraordinary by Mick Wells and Adrian Murrell, The Lady, 7 July 1977 
  • Gandolfi – a Family of Camera makers, article by Science Museum
  • Two Grumpy Old Men, The Independent on Sunday, 25 January 2004
  • Wood Camera Construction, transcript of lecture by F L Gandolfi, 1975
  • Family in focus, South London Press, 25 November 1980

Southwark Disablement Association

by Chris Scales, Archive Officer

With the launch of our new Disability history collection online, we thought it would also be nice to feature some more items from our archives about Southwark Disablement Association (SDA):

SDA Independent Living conference, 1991
Aims of the SDA, circa 1980
SDA at the Disability Benefits Rally, Trafalgar Square, 20th October 1990 (Frank Roper)

SDA’s new ‘traffic light’ flyer, 1982, and Call-Out for volunteers

Staff and service users from the SDA Review 1981-1986

Disability history collection launched online

by Chris Scales, Archive Officer

To celebrate Disability History Month we have teamed up with Southwark Disablement Association (SDA) and Southwark Resource Centre to launch a new series online of documents from the archives that tell the story of disability services in Southwark.

The new collection is hosted on the Internet Archive and includes records of the SDA from its founding in 1978 onwards including its Newsletter, Annual Reports and Handbooks on local disabled services in Southwark. All of the records can be read and searched through online, and will be of particular interest for learning about the history of disability during the 1970s to 1990s.

Taxicab Dial-A-Ride Scheme, 1986

Through the SDA records we learn about how the organisation played a key role in piloting the GLC’s new Taxi Card Holders scheme in 1983, as well as taking part in protests in Central London over disabled rights such as the rally in Trafalgar Square in 1990.

Southwark Disablement Association at the Disability Benefits Rally, Trafalgar Square, 20th October 1990. The rally was held concurrently with two others across the UK in Manchester and Glasgow (Frank Roper/SDA)

The resources launched with Southwark Resource Centre include the book Speaking For Ourselves, which was written and dictated in 1983 by service users of the Aylesbury Day Centre and tells of their experiences at the centre:

The new collection can be browsed online.

We hope to add more resources over the coming months. If you have any records you wish to add to the collection please email us.

Anti-Racist Marches and Protests

by Chris Scales, Archive Officer

While exploring the history of Anti-Racism in Southwark (see our recent post for details), we came across a rich history of marching and protests. Documents and photographs held at Southwark Archives show local people and organisations rising up over the decades to fight for equality and human rights.

Campaigns against racism in the 1960s were established in the borough through the petitioning of Southwark and Bermondsey Trades Councils and Southwark Rotary Club, who led the call to launch what became the Southwark Council for Community Relations. Other early organisations include the West Indian League, set up in 1964 following the suicide of a young West Indian nurse at Lewisham hospital. The League aimed to combat loneliness for West Indians in London, and fight racial discrimination.

In the 1970s the Southwark Campaign Against Racialism and Fascism was set up and took to the streets of Walworth and elsewhere to stand up to the resurgent National Front. Socialist organisations and local branches of the Labour Party also took a prominent part in marching. In 1983 the Southwark Black Consortium was founded to represent the community voice at the new Southwark Race Equality Committee. Later, as Southwark Black Communities Consortium, the organisation ran large protest marches against racism in Peckham and Bermondsey. The Southwark Anti-Apartheid Group took the lead in marching against apartheid in South Africa, something reflected also by the council who declared ‘war on apartheid’ in 1984 and ran yearly Anti-Apartheid programming until the early 1990s.

The following is a selection of images found so far, please get in touch with us if you’d like to contribute further images or information.

A History of Anti-Racism in Southwark

by Chris Scales, Archive Officer

This Black History Month at Southwark Archives we have been delving into our collections to try and discover more about the history of anti-racism at the council and in the community. Over the decades countless individuals have fought for equal rights, the removal of the colour bar, and against racism in its many forms, and there are many milestones along the continuing journey.

Pioneering community-led initiatives included: the work of Dr Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930s, among whose many achievements was the lifting of the colour bar in the armed forces; the West Indian League started in 1964 by George Croasdaile, who campaigned for racial equality and supported young people for over 30 years; and the Southwark Inter-Racial Council that became Southwark Council For Community Relations in 1966 and oversaw black and minority ethnic communities’ liaison with the borough over the following four decades.

The 1970s saw a rise in activity from the National Front and organisations rose up to protest against them including the Anti-Nazi League, Southwark Campaign Against Racialism and Fascism, and Southwark Black Communities Consortium, supported by Southwark Trades Council and the local Labour parties. In 1978, Southwark residents and organisations marched to the ‘Rock Against Racism’ rally and protests at Brockwell Park, the UK’s largest anti-racism rally. Through the 1980s and 1990s the community organised local marches and rallies to combat racism across the borough, in Peckham, Walworth and Bermondsey.

In 1983 Southwark Council established a Race Equality Committee and Unit, which provided funding and support for a range of community initiatives, as well as embedding anti-racist practices across the council and leading the way in addressing racist hate crimes. In 1994, Southwark Council won the Commission for Racial Equality’s first Local Authority Race Award for its work prosecuting the perpetrators of racial harassment on housing estates.

The shocking killing of George Floyd this year and the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world have shown that racism is still widespread and there is still much to do. The ongoing Southwark Stands Together programme gives detail on the council’s current work in this area and how “as a borough we knew that now, more than ever, we had to listen, react and together develop solutions”. The latest progress report for the programme can be read online here.

We hope to turn what we find into an online study resource in the coming months, but in the meantime we present here a selection of some key items from the archives that begin telling this story. If you would like to be involved in the project, please drop us an email at lhlibrary@southwark.gov.uk

Click through the slideshow below to see a selection of posters and flyers from 1930s to 2000s about anti-racism in Southwark:

The next post in this series will look at the history of marching and protesting in the archives.