Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part two)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

In part one we heard about the ‘uproar’ and ‘hubbub’ that greeted proposals to open publicly funded libraries in the parishes of Southwark. Read on to find out what happened next.

The first parish within what is now Southwark to pass the Public Library Acts was Bermondsey in October 1887. Many local authorities did the same that year to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Rotherhithe adopted the Acts soon after but Christchurch were the first to establish a rate-supported library, which opened in rented premises (on Charles Street, Blackfriars Road) in October 1889.

John_Passmore_Edwards_by_George_Frederic_Watts

John Passmore Edwards

Camberwell eventually adopted the provisions of the Public Library Acts in 1889 after Mr. George Livesey made a handsome offer to build a library should they do so. Newington adopted the Acts in 1890, followed by St Saviour’s in 1891, leaving St George the Martyr the only parish in the area that had not done so. The money thus raised by the rates, however, was nowhere near enough to build, furnish and stock new libraries so public donations of both money and books were essential.

One of the most generous philanthropists was John Passmore Edwards, a journalist and newspaper owner from Blackwater, near Redruth in Cornwall. In his short autobiography A Few Footprints, he writes:

As I had accumulated mainly by the labour of others, I thought, and think, it was only reasonable and just that others should share in the garnered result: and to act accordingly was a duty and a privilege – a duty as a citizen and a privilege as a man.

Between 1890 and his death in 1911, aged 88, Mr. Passmore Edwards was instrumental in the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, convalescent homes, schools, museums, art galleries and twenty-five public libraries: eight in Cornwall, one in Devon (Newton Abbot, his mother’s birthplace) and sixteen in London. In A Few Footprints, he states:

Public libraries are, in my opinion, entitled to public support because they are educative, recreative, and useful; because they bring the products of research and imagination, and the stored wisdom of ages and nations, within the easy reach of the poorest citizens […] All may not use them, but all may do so if they like; and as they are means of instructing and improving some, all are directly or indirectly benefited by them.

In July 1895, the Daily Chronicle published a letter that drew attention to St George the Martyr’s need for a public library but inability to pay for it, due to the poverty of the inhabitants, and asked for help. Mr. Passmore Edwards wrote a letter that was also published in the paper, offering to pay for the building if the parishioners would adopt the Acts to maintain it. A poll was taken and the Acts adopted by a majority of 1,814 in 1896. The foundation stone of what would become Borough Road Library was laid by Mr. Passmore Edwards on Thursday 2nd December 1897.Borough Road exterior

Camberwell particularly benefited from his munificence as he had lived there for some time. Dulwich (1897), Nunhead (1896) and Wells Way (1901, now in Burgess Park) were all Passmore Edwards libraries. The foundation stone for Nunhead Library was laid on Saturday April 11th 1896. At the ceremony, Camberwell Vestry extended its thanks to Mr. Passmore Edwards, saying “We are honoured and encouraged by the special favour you have extended to Camberwell, and we are glad to know that, as a young man, you resided in its historic grove.” Mr. Passmore Edwards, in reply, noted that it was “not his fault that he had to leave Camberwell Grove about a quarter of a century before, as the house in which he happened to live at the time had to be removed in obedience to the inexorable demands of a railway company armed with parliamentary power.”

When Dulwich Library was opened on Wednesday, 24th November 1897 by the Lord Chancellor – Mr. Passmore Edwards having contributed £5000 of the total cost of £5800 – the Times opined “Probably no portion of the metropolis is better served by public libraries than the parish of Camberwell”, remarkable progress in under a decade. The foundation stone of Nunhead bore the motto, “Good deeds live on when doers are no more” and this is certainly true in the case of John Passmore Edwards.Dulwich opening ceremony invitation 24 Nov 1897

When the various parishes were amalgamated into the Metropolitan Boroughs in 1900, Bermondsey boasted two permanent libraries, with a third to follow within two years; Camberwell four, with a fifth within two years and Southwark four.

In some ways, these libraries were quite similar to the service we provide today. Belying, even then, the cry that libraries are “just books”, a thriving programme of lectures and exhibitions was soon in full swing. There were books for lending, books for reference and a range of newspapers and periodicals. In other ways, they were quite different. The Southwark library by-laws of 1902 contain clauses that make interesting reading.

7.—A person who is resident in a house where a case of infectious disease exists, or has occurred, shall not within one month from the removal of the patient to hospital and the disinfection of the premises, or if the case be treated at home, within one month from the patient’s complete convalescence, use the Libraries in any way.

19.—Every person above the age of ten years resident, rated, employed , or attending any Educational Institution in the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark shall be permitted to borrow books for home reading […] the person desirous of becoming a borrower [must have] obtained a ratepayer to become a guarantor for him […] in lieu of such guarantee the applicant may deposit with the Librarian the sum of ten shillings…

Ten shillings would have been a huge amount of money to the poorer inhabitants of Southwark – in 1898 an ordinary labourer in England earned on average 16s. 9d. a year, rising to 17s. 5d. a year in 1902 – so, while the library was, in theory, open to all “ratepayers and inhabitants”, in practice, it is doubtful that poorer inhabitants would have been able to make use of the lending library.

Until after the First World War, most libraries operated a “closed-access” system, rather than today’s “open-access”. The bookshelves were not available for browsing. Instead you had to consult the catalogue and note the number assigned to your desired book before examining the indicator board at the counter. The indicator board in the Livesey Library, for example, was crowded with red and blue lights, one of each assigned to each book the library held. If the blue light was on, the book was available and an assistant would fetch it for you. If the red light was on, it was out on loan. At busy times, making your way through the crowd apparently required tact, strength or both!

Too many of the books thus borrowed, some thought, were fiction, which was a waste of time and money and lacked any educational value. This was a recurring criticism of public libraries. Mr. Passmore Edwards spoke in their defense at the opening of Borough Road Library and was quoted in the local press:

It was not true that public libraries were only used by fiction readers. As an instance, he said that from the Camberwell Central Library nearby, there were issued the year before more than 500,000 volumes and nearly 200,000 of them were books of general reading, including historic, scientific, artistic, biographical, religious, educational, and other works.

If any one of these 500,000 books were back late, they would have attracted fines – in Southwark in 1902, these were set at a penny for the first week and tuppence per week beyond that. Other contraventions, however, attracted far severer punishments. Stealing a book or three, as attempted in 1897 from the Livesey Library, resulted in a sentence of three years penal servitude for the thief while cutting a column from a daily paper, as a customer of Camberwell Central Library discovered in 1902, resulted in a fine of ten shillings or, if not paid, seven days in prison.

In many ways, we’ve come a long way. Some things, however, appear to be eternal. In reminiscences, Mr. William Hahn, Chief Librarian of Camberwell Libraries from 1938 to 1955, recounts how the red-headed Mr. Edward Foskett, the first Chief Librarian, would encounter “rude little boys rushing into the Central Library with a shout”, who would “call out ‘Yah! Ginger Foskett!’ if they caught sight of him, and rush out again”.

To find out more on this subject, drop in to Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part one)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

For an institution so embedded in the fabric of our communities, so ingrained in the public consciousness, the free public library is a surprisingly recent innovation in this country.

The Public Libraries Act 1850, sometimes called the Ewart Act after its originator, William Ewart, allowed for local rates (taxes) to be increased by a halfpenny in the pound in order to pay for the provision of public libraries and museums—but the act had quite strict limitations. It only applied to boroughs with a population numbering over 10,000; the ratepayers of the parish had to vote, by a two-thirds majority, to adopt it; the money thus raised could only be spent on buildings and staff, not on stocking the libraries (for this they had to rely on public donations of books and money).

William Ewart

William Ewart

Further legislation was passed in 1855 and 1866 and the public library movement gained momentum, though not so much in London. The first public library in London established in accordance with this legislation opened on Great Smith Street, Westminster in early 1857, with a branch library in Trevor Square following soon after in June 1858. Yet, by December 1882, this was still the only instance in London in which the Acts had been adopted. This sorry state of affairs was lamented in an article in Trubner’s Literary Record (July 1866), reprinted in the Illustrated London Times (4 August 1866), which blamed a lack of local philanthropists willing to fund a library service:

London, which, of all other cities in the world, owes most of its position to the intelligence, education, and activity of its citizens, stands, to our thinking, degraded and disgraced for its apathy in this matter. Is there no public spirit among our bankers and merchants […] Is the accumulation of wealth alone the object of ambition to our citizens, and have they no desire to contribute aid towards the elevation and improvement of the masses?

While no London parish outside of Westminster adopted the Act in the first three decades after its passing, it was not simply ignored. The question was first raised in Camberwell in 1858. A newspaper article from 1932 quotes from a poster of the time proclaiming that a public library “would allay the prejudices of caste […] open to all comers; Rich and Poor would meet on an equality” and exhorted the population to resist “those small politicians, the niggardly do nothings […] lack-brains and know-nothings who miscall themselves your representatives who will try to divert you from your purpose of voting in favour of this gracious act!” Sadly, the required two-thirds majority did not agree with him.

Old Workhouse, Camberwell

Camberwell Workhouse

By 1866 the need for a two-thirds majority was abolished and replaced by a requirement for a simple majority. Still, this was not enough to pass the measure in Camberwell where, according to the South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times, a meeting of the parishioners in the dining hall of the Workhouse “decided almost unanimously that the proposition was inexpedient”. This meeting is very unlikely to have included any of the poorest inhabitants of Camberwell. In order to vote at this time you had to be a man, aged 21 or over and also living in housing valued over £10 a year, which excluded six out of seven adult men. Those in property of a lower value were unlikely to be ratepayers and were not eligible to vote.

The main argument against free public libraries was financial, with many opposed to the increase in taxation.  The South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times referred to it in November 1879 as “laying another straw upon the back of that marvellously-patient animal, the Camberwell ratepayer”. Some detractors, such as Mr. Merry in Kensington and Mr. West in Islington, whose views were reported in the Times, claimed this would be wasted money as such libraries would be used by the middle class—“those who could well afford a guinea a year for books”—rather than the intended beneficiaries, the working classes. Locally, the South London Observer wrote in November 1879 that Mr. Wesson of Camberwell caused “uproar” when he claimed that “working men could have plenty of books of their own if they didn’t handle the pewter pot so freely”. He was supported by Mr. Lond on the grounds that “he ought not to have to pay for another man’s enjoyment”.Free Libraries Act poll sign, Camberwell

Arguments for free public libraries stayed much the same over thirty years, at least in Camberwell where, in 1879, ratepayers voted once again against the adoption of the Acts with a majority of 627 (1306 against, 679 for), the resolution being defeated in every ward. The South London Observer celebrated:

And as modesty has ever been a characteristic of the South London Observer, we really don’t see why we should not have a crow for once on our own account […] We write fearlessly, and we don’t scruple to denounce this detestable state of things as a condition of positive parochial apostacy [sic], for what ought to have been a blessing, and was at the outset a very creditable notion […] has grown at Camberwell into a grim and gaunt Frankenstein before which even Shelley would have cowered, and whose one idea is to snap and devour the monies of the residents and rule them with the iron rod.

At the meeting where the result was announced, the crowd bayed for Dr. Rogers, chief proponent of the adoption, to explain himself. Feelings at the meeting were clearly strong and the South London Observer had a detailed report:

At last amidst the heat and row and squeeze, the Scottish champion got on the platform, but only to be hissed and groaned at as with no little fortitude he repeatedly bowed his acknowlegments [sic] à la favorite [sic] of the footlights. In vain he essayed to obtain a hearing. In vain Mr. Lassam grew crimson and Mr. Hunt nearly burst a blood vessel in yelling their hopes that the meeting would listen to the rev. gentleman. In vain Mr. Fermor, no longer the chairman, chirped his convictions that the ratepayers would not refuse to hear the originator of this movement […] Uproar drowned his [Dr Rogers’] voice, but his pantomimic gestures were supposed to be indicative of a plea for silence, but in the midst of the hubbub the gas suddenly turned off, and the meeting came to a very brisk end indeed, the cheering being renewed outside.

It would be another eight years before any Southwark parish adopted the Acts. We will explore this further in part two.

Camberwell vestry cartoons p13210 and 11

A satirical depiction of a typical Camberwell vestry meeting

Roman Southwark

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

For more than 2000 years, Southwark has been a place of settlement, business and trade.  The Romans established a foothold on the south bank of the Thames shortly after establishing their city of Londinium on the north bank from around AD50.

This southern location, around present day Borough High Street, then grew into a major “suburb” feeding the new trade and travel routes to the South coast and thrived under nearly 400 years of Roman rule.  Sites and artefacts have been found all over Roman Southwark helping us to build a picture of this fascinating period.

Roman Cinerary chest lid (C15232)

The Cuming Museum has over 600 items of Romano British archaeology in its collections, some dating from the earliest days of archaeological excavation.  Early digs in Egypt tended to be focussed on excavating treasure for profit, rather than intellectual understanding and most found their way to traders.

Richard Cuming, the founder of the collection, would have purchased or traded for curios from these digs.  Henry Syer Cuming, his son, was much more interested in archaeology as a discipline.  But even so was keen to take items given to him by workmen who were themselves “excavating” London for new roads, embankments, tube tunnels and other developments.  Henry tended towards Roman British finds rather than Ancient Egypt and there are a large number of small, often personal artefacts from all over London.

The rest of the Cuming’s archaeology collections come from digs during the 20th century.  Professional archaeologists such as Kathleen Kenyon, who went on to make her name as one of the world’s foremost archaeologists in places such as Jordan, carried out extensive excavation of sites around Borough High Street.  Look out for a blog about her soon!

The Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Excavation Committee (SLAEC), which continues to this day, also carried out extensive excavations of sites.  Much of the material came to the Cuming Museum as the nearest place of repository.

However, in the late 20th century the main place of repository for archaeological excavation material was the Museum of London.  The Cuming’s collections still contain large amounts of material from Kenyon’s and SLAEC’s digs however, and we are working with Museum of London to review it all.

Roman Hunter God statue (C15236)

London Borough of Southwark still supervises major digs in the borough, along with professional archaeology companies such as Pre-Construct and Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) as the north of the borough in particular is rich in archaeological evidence.  Companies who want to build or alter premises have to have an archaeological survey carried out and if there are finds then work can be paused in order for archaeologists to record and preserve the sites and any material.

“Pots and Prayers” is a new free exhibition at Morley College, giving a glimpse of Southwark’s Roman story by showcasing from the collections of the Cuming Museum.

It will run from Wednesday 1 March to Wednesday 19 April 2017 and will be in the college’s main foyer.

Events during the exhibition run include talks, walks around Roman Southwark and creative workshops. Families will be able to make Roman mosaics, try a toga or create a Roman city.

While the exhibition only scratches the surface, you will be able to learn a lot more during Morley’s 10 week Roman London course, starting Wednesday 26 April 2017.

Historic Peckham

Southwark’s historic villages: Peckham

Peckham appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a very small settlement of just four households – one villager and three smallholders. There was enough farming land to plough with a single team of eight oxen, as well as two acres of meadow. The Tenant-in-chief was the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was Lord or tenant-in-chief to over 30 places in Surrey at that time. Though Peckham was only small in 1086 its mention in the Doomsday book shows that it was a respected and established settlement.

Valued at 30 shillings, Peckham was owned by King Henry I who gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The Earl later married the heiress of Camberwell, uniting the two properties under royal ownership.

Hard as it is to believe today, but in the early 13th century King John was thought to have hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that having killed a stag he was so pleased with his sport that he granted the inhabitants of Peckham the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week-long event at its high point and included wild beasts and birds newly imported from around the world as well as stalls and curios. The Cuming family were known to visit the fair in the early 1800s and purchased items, such as small toys, which became part of the Cuming Museum collection. The fair developed quite a boisterous reputation and it was finally abolished in 1827.

 

Peckham grew in favour as a residential area and in the 16th century it became home to some quite wealthy people. Sir Thomas Gardyner owned Basing Manor, close to the corner of Peckham High Street and Rye Lane, and wrote of the extensive orchards and gardens nearby which he owned or had access to. With the lack of refrigeration, food had to be grown close to its final market and Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep. Exotic fruits such as melons, figs and grapes were all grown here, some ending up on the royal table. The success of the Peckham farmers is still remembered today in the naming of ‘Melon Road’ just off Peckham High Street.

Painting of Basing Manor (GA01722)

Peckham was an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their livestock to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in local hostelries, such as the Kentish Drovers.

By the end of the 17th century Peckham was home to around 120 households (a population of 600-700). Although still officially a hamlet some documents from the time refer to ‘Peckham Town’. While this may have been to distinguish Peckham from Peckham Rye, the choice of town rather than village may reflect the increasingly urban character of the area. The population continued to grow over the 18th century and was recorded in 1792 as 340 households (1,700-2,000 people).

Partly due to the poor condition of the roads, a Peckham branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built. The plan was to take it to Portsmouth but it never went beyond Peckham due to lack of funds. The canal entered the Thames at Surrey Commercial Docks and originally carried soft wood on barges for construction. Some timber merchants are still located alongside its course.

Grand Surrey Canal Basin – Peckham Branch (PC00155)

Though the majority of Peckham’s residents were employed on the farm land there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard and poverty was all too often the reality for many.

The peaceful country life of Peckham continued to change. In 1833 the South Metropolitan Gas Works opened on the Old Kent Road, which meant some local roads were lit at night, but it was to be many years before most homes had gas.

In 1851, fourteen years before Peckham Rye station opened, communications and travel from Peckham were improved when Thomas Tilling started a horse drawn omnibus service. Unlike most of his rivals Tilling’s horse drawn carriages picked up passengers only from pre-arranged stops. This helped his services to run on time earning them the nickname of “times buses”.

Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses; another fifteen years later he had nearly 1,500. In 1888 he experimented with using pneumatic tyres designed by Dr John Dunlop on some of his carriages. His horse drawn services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed for the war effort.

Thomas Tilling Bus Company (P09166)

As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. As the 19th century drew to a close the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments.

To preserve some greenery in the area Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 to be maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. The common proved so popular with residents and visitors that it became increasingly overcrowded on holidays and it was felt that an expansion was needed. Homestall Farm sat alongside the common and was purchased for £51,000 to be opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. And with the sale and closure of the farm the tradition of farming in Peckham drew to a close.

We will continue our look at Southwark’s historic villages in future posts. Next up: Historic Camberwell.

 

Sam King MBE (1926 – 2016)

Sam King (credit: Georgina Cook/South London Press)Sam King MBE was born in Jamaica in 1926.

After serving as an RAF aircraft engineer, during the Second World War and until 1947, King sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush in June 1948.  Unlike most of those arriving (including many ex-servicemen), King decided to rejoin the RAF and served until 1952. During that time he and his brother, Wilton became the second Caribbean family to buy a house in Southwark.  Having endured racism when he first arrived looking for ‘digs’, he was again to receive the same treatment when he applied for his first mortgage in 1950.  He was turned down and told to ‘go back to the colony’.  Undeterred he went directly to the home-owner selling the property, who was so appalled by the treatment King received he personally gave him the mortgage.  Thus, King owned his first house in Sears Street, Camberwell.

As an ex-serviceman, King was able to find employment in the postal service, working his way up to Postal Executive for the South Eastern district.  King married Mavis Kirlew in 1954, at Emmanuel Church in Camberwell.  Later in life he become active in politics, joining the Labour Party in the 1970s, getting involved in the Race Committee in the 1980s and becoming a Southwark Councillor, serving Peckham’s Bellenden Ward, in 1982.

King was elected Mayor of Southwark in 1983 in recognition of his community work which included among other activities, his work within schools, helping to set up the first West Indian carnival and working as Circulation Manager for the first Black newspaper in the UK, the West Indian Gazette. As Southwark’s first Black mayor King received death threats from the National Front who objected to his position.  These threats became world news and King began to receive support from as far as South Africa.

Sam King was awarded an MBE from the Queen in 1998 for services to his community.

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Southwark Park Lido

Guest blog from local historian, Pat Kingwell

With summer here how lovely to see so many children and their parents in Southwark Park playground.  I wonder how many of them realise the swings and slides they are enjoying are located on what was once an outdoor swimming pool!  ‘The Lido’, as it was known by local people, was closed to the public in 1992 due to unsustainable costs. In 1999 the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to fund improvements in Southwark Park, but alas the lido could not be rescued.  A much-needed playground was created instead, though the structure of the original pool remains in place, hidden below the surface.

The idea of a ‘bathing lake’ had first been suggested in 1891, but it was not until September 1923 that a reinforced concrete outdoor pool was achieved by the London County Council. It cost £4,999 (about £150,000 today) and was impressively large – over 55m long, 18m wide and in parts over 2m in depth.  To begin with it was open all-year round, but there were no changing facilities, just benches, and bathers were screened from the rest of the park by an earth bank formed from the excavated material.  However, by 1924 ten individual changing rooms and two communal dressing sheds were provided.

Initially there was no charge to use the lido, but costumes, slips and towels had to be hired.

The pool quickly became popular and the Southwark Recorder of 25th June 1926 reported:

“During the recent heat wave the number of swimmers using the open-air bath at Southwark Park leaped to the substantial total of about 1,200 a day.  In the height of the season, when the weather is most favourable, it is no unusual occurrence for the weekly average of bathers and swimmers to be maintained about 5,000.  During this period of the year the baths are open from 6 a.m. till about 8.45.”

During the 1920s the moral issue of mixed bathing greatly exercised the minds of the authorities, and it was not until the summer of 1930 that it was allowed, but only on two days a week, including Sunday.  To take part in a mixed session cost 6d (about £1 today). From the outset one day a week had been reserved for women only, an arrangement which in 1933 the South London Press felt obliged to comment upon:

“At Southwark Park during the lunch hour a crowd of males stood listening with envious ears to the sounds of happy laughter within.  Inside, Eve, free from male presence and attired in the flimsiest of costume, gamboled and sported like mermaids in a summer sea.  A sylph-like creature in a brilliant green costume poised for a moment silhouetted against the sky and cut the water like a rapier.  The men mopped their brows and tried to get into the indoor baths, whose opening times are not easily ascertained.”

 

By the late 1930s a trip to ‘The Lido’ was a regular part of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe life, which even the Second World War could not totally disrupt.  Although much of Southwark Park became a military base, and the lido itself was bomb damaged, the public continued to have a typically very cold ‘dip’ throughout the hostilities.  For about thirty-five post-war years they continued to do so in an increasingly revitalised park. Better changing rooms were installed and by summer 1949 it was reported more than a thousand people per day were attending.  In 1954 a new café and fountain added to the attraction.  Greater access was encouraged through low charges, or none at all in the case of older and visually-impaired people, and by 1957 the South London Press could report on a heatwave day:

“Park regulations about decency in dress were cheerfully ignored by all, and bikinis were not thought out of place in the streets.”

In 1971 Southwark Park was devolved by the Greater London Council to Southwark Council. A few good years for the lido followed but diminishing use, wear and tear and unsustainable running costs cast a shadow over its future. In 1981 it was closed, only in the face of public outcry to re-open a year later.  In 1984 the café building was closed to become an art gallery under the management of Bermondsey Artists Group.  The lido itself struggled on until 1992, when it was permanently closed. For a decade it lay as a sad eyesore in the centre of the park, much lamented by the local community, until the site was replaced with the current children’s playground.  Occasionally there is talk about building another lido in Southwark Park – now that would be something.

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Appeal for images:

Unfortunately we don’t have any photographs of the Southwark Park Lido in our collections.  If you have any photographs which you would like to donate to the Local History Library and Archive please get in touch: LHLibrary@southwark.gov.uk

Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Dickens’ Southwark: Mint Street Workhouse

Mint Street Workhouse c.1920 PS03225 web

 

The workhouse in Mint Street dates back to 1729. The initial number of residents was relatively small, and conditions were recorded in ‘An Account of Several Workhouses’ in October 1731.

“There are now in it 68 Men, Women, and Children, of which all that are able, spin Mop-Yarn, and Yarn for Stockings, which are knit by the Women; and beside this Work, 25 Children are taught to read, and say their Catechism.”

Dickens 3 cropThe St. Saviour’s Union Workhouse at Mint Street is thought to have provided Dickens with the model for the scene in Oliver Twist where the starving boy ‘asks for more’. When Dickens was young, lodging in nearby Lant Street, he passed Mint Street on his way to work. He would have seen the pauper children on their way to work in nearby workshops and factories. Dickens revisited the area as an adult, including Marshalsea Prison. His journalistic writings show he frequently went on fact finding missions to schools, hospitals, factories, workhouses and slums. It is very likely he would have visited the workhouse on Mint Street.

Map of St Saviour's Union Workhouse, Mint Street. 1872The Lancet investigated conditions in London workhouses and their infirmaries for a series of articles. Their description paints an abysmal picture of life in Mint Street Workhouse:

 For the last three years and a half this house appears to have suffered from various epidemics, and especially from typhus. Many cases are admitted into the house from the neighbourhood; but many are developed in the house, and apparently in this way: The tramp ward for the women is a miserable room, foul and dirty, with imperfect light and ventilation, the floor being simply bedded with straw. Into this open sty the women are passed in, often with little or no clothing; and there, in considerable numbers, they pass the night. There being no watercloset attached, a large can or tub is placed in the room. This is the sole accommodation which the apartment possesses. The master informed us that there is no matron to look after the women, and that the place was really ‘a den of horrors’… We cannot doubt that, with such a history and so many surroundings, it is our duty to condemn this workhouse, which ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood.

They recorded the meagre food rations in Mint Street Workhouse as follows:

Full Diet (Male and Female.)
Breakfast:           Bread-and-butter, 4 oz.; tea, 1 pint.
Dinner:                Bread, 4 oz.; broth, 1 pint; potatoes, 8 oz.; meat, 4 oz.
Supper:                Bread-and-butter, 4¼ oz.; tea, 1 pint.

Mint Street Copper C05140 webThe pot, or ‘copper’ from the workhouse was donated to the Cuming Museum by the Workhouse Board of Guardians in 1921. It stood in the corner of the large stone hall at the workhouse and the broth or gruel was ladled out to hungry inmates. A circular brick wall around the base held in the fire, but was damaged when the museum was hit by a bomb during the Second World War.

Though the The Lancet articles caused an outcry which was a significant factor leading to the passing of the Metropolitan Poor Act in 1867, the Mint Street Workhouse itself remained in use until the 1920s.

Today, much of the former site is home to Mint Street Park, with just a small stretch of original workhouse wall remaining.

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This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts, and if you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.

Dickens’ Southwark: Marshalsea Debtors Prison

Charles DickensCharles Dickens first came to Southwark at the age of 12, when his parents and all the Dickens children except for Charles and his sister Fanny, were imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtors Prison for a £40 and 10 shillings debt owed to a local baker. Charles moved to nearby Lant street to be close to his family in the prison. His experiences of poverty as a child strongly influenced his writing and are found in descriptions and characters in many of his novels. He described many places in Southwark which he had known as a child and some are still recognisable today.

What remains of the high prison wall forms one side of a pathway which runs alongside Southwark’s John Harvard and Local History Libraries on Borough High Street.

A cast iron water pump stood in the courtyard of Marshalsea when Dickens’ family was imprisoned there in 1824. Charles must have passed this pump when visiting his family at the prison. It was donated to the Cuming Museum, after the prison building was demolished, in 1924.

Key to Marshalsea PrisonThe museum’s collection also includes a key to Marshalsea prison with a label attached which reads: “The key of Marshalsea Prison. Given to S. W. by her father 1884. Where little Dorrit was born. Written by Charles Dickens.”

Little Dorrit Stained Glass WindowLittle Dorrit, one of Dickens characters from a novel of the same name, was indeed born in Marshalsea Prison, and was christened across the road at St George the Martyr church, built in 1734 and commonly known as ‘Little Dorrit’s Church’ . One night she returned to the prison too late and was locked out for the night so she slept in the vestry of the church with the register for a pillow. It was this same church in which she was married to Arthur Clennam, and in the bottom right-hand corner of the modern stained glass window at the east-end of the church is a representation of Little Dorrit wearing a poke hat.

This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts in a series of blogs. If you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.

Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens

Young Dickens - colourCharles Dickens has a long and deep association with Southwark, both personal and literary, and particularly with the area known as the Borough.

Born on 7 February 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens at 1 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Commercial Road), Portsmouth. The young Charles Dickens spent his seemingly idyllic early years on the move, as his family relocated from Portsmouth to London, then Sheerness, before settling in Chatham, Kent until the age of 11. At this time Dickens’ father was recalled to London amid rising debts as the family lived beyond its means. John Dickens was sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison in the area known as the Borough and was joined by his wife and youngest children, as was customary at the time.

Lant St PS02087 webPoor Charles was left to lodge alone, at the age of just 12 years old, in nearby Lant Street. And this is where his long and deep association with Southwark, both personal and literary, began.

This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts in a series of blogs. If you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.