For as long as I can remember: Using film in reminiscence and outreach

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved watching films. As a young girl I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Odeon Cinema in Elephant and Castle. The noise of the young excited audience was deafening, but somehow you managed to work out the plot of some cowboy and Indian film or ‘Lardy Hardy’ flick (my childhood translation of Laurel and Hardy) amongst the pea shooters, sticky gum and chanting. Cinema-going up the West End was rare and only if you were flush. So I tended to stay local, and between Peckham and the Elephant my enthusiasm for watching films was satisfied.

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Camberwell Odeon, Denmark Hill, 1955

Films have stood the test of time and, if seen in the cinema or as another type of theatrical screening, this medium is perhaps the only one where you cannot really rush it. You have to go at the film’s pace. You can’t swipe, skip, delete, forward, select or delete sections. You have to sit, wait and watch a film that will either have wasted your money and the last 90 minutes of your life, or will have completely immersed you in it, left you in awe, questioning, wondering and may even have rocked you, just a little. Whether you like or dislike a film, it has the power to change your emotions and awaken your senses and for some, bring to life memories and thoughts that were buried.

The first reminiscence session I organised using films from the Film Collection at Southwark Local History Library and Archive was in May 2017 at Camberwell Library, with the help of Storm Patterson, Screen Heritage Archivist from London’s Screen Archives. I was keen to organise a reminiscence session, having attended the LSA’s conference on using film as reminiscence in 2016. I did so, and just three people attended. Initially, I was disappointed. I’d done my preparations, choosing a suitable location, risk assessing, getting the signage just right, ensuring the refreshments were laid out and publicising the event as best I could. Storm provided a compilation of films and I provided a range of photographs on different themes relating to the Southwark area. So, where was everyone?

As well as having Storm from London’s Screen Archives, I was also lucky enough to have Anne Williams, volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society with me that day. By observing Anne, I learned how to be person-centred when working with people with dementia. Anne patiently sat with a gentleman who watched the films and browsed the photographs and they struck up a beautiful conversation about his life and work.  Anne recalled that experience:

“I will never forget an older gentleman at Camberwell library who had cared for his wife with dementia until her death. The screening of local cinema footage evoked strong and happy memories of a Friday night ritual with his mother when they would visit the pictures, enjoy the films and interval music and then share some fish and chips on the way home.  He was moved to tears remembering this period of his childhood and I felt privileged to listen to his precious memories.”
Anne Williams, volunteer, Alzheimer’s Society, 2018

Between us three helpers we went on life journeys with our three elderly guests who enjoyed looking at the visual memorabilia which sparked their memories. It got me thinking… what a wealth of knowledge and history we have in this room!  It was Anne who reminded me that it was quality not quantity that mattered and wondered whether our guests or we, as helpers, would have got the quality of conversation and engagement had more people been there.

I learned a great deal from that experience, not least that ‘outreach’ means what it says – you must reach out, and certainly when working with people with dementia, being respectful of their physical and emotional needs is crucial in organising any event for them. So, one way I could achieve this was by reaching out to my audience and going to places where they are most comfortable.

In 2018 I had the pleasure of collaborating on many outreach events with local and other organisations as well as a local Nunhead artist, using films and photographs from Southwark Local History Library and Archive. I have worked with the Alzheimer’s Society delivering reminiscence sessions at their coffee and drop-in sessions at Time and Talents in Rotherhithe and at the Daffodil Café at The Green, Nunhead’s Community Centre. The people with dementia and their carers enjoyed watching the films (a selection of Bermondsey Borough Council and other local films) judging by the conversations that followed.

Memories were triggered about particular places featured in the films. The groups wanted to talk about their lives and how they remembered those places and share stories. I remember a conversation that started about East Street Market between a lady who was born in Jamaica and another who was born in Cyprus, both of whom had lived in Southwark for much of their lives. Neither was engaged in any conversation before the photographs of the market from the 1970s were passed around. “Do you remember the Sarsaparilla stall?” I asked them. Both studied the photographs in silence and then, their expressions changed.  “Ahh, yes!…” they said and from that moment the two were sharing memories. I couldn’t get another word in after that, nor did I want to.  It was so interesting listening to them and how they remembered East Street Market, especially the particular stalls.

“Thank you so much for taking the time to attend the Daffodil cafe today. Both the film made by the school children from the Walworth school and the hop picking film were ideal choices for our service users. They were engrossed in the plot of the first film as well as enjoying recognising local landmarks around Burgess Park.  For people unable to get to the cinema it was a unique opportunity to watch a relevant and suitably short film programme.”
Anne Williams, volunteer, Alzheimer’s Society, 2018

Being person-centred means putting the person at the heart of what you do. The preparation I do for the sessions involves asking the co-ordinator of the group to give me some information about the users – where they lived and when, what they did as jobs and what they would be interested in seeing again. Research into reminiscence sessions has taught me that just because someone lived through the Second World War doesn’t mean they want to be reminded of it! So, there are certain subjects I tend to avoid and I take my cue from those who know. It does help, however, if you know a little history about some of the resources you are handing out, as this too can start conversations and engage people.

That said, even if you know a little about your subject, it doesn’t necessarily mean you always get to say anything on the subject. I have also delivered reminiscence sessions at Blackfriars Settlement. These were very lively events, particularly during the film screenings where the audience would get a running commentary from one or two knowledgeable members of the audience. “That was where Peak Freans was, my mum worked there”, “That was the Town Hall”, “That’s Tower Bridge Road Market!” “You see all those trees, Ada Salter was responsible for those…” and so it went on. The knowledge of the audience was amazing and to be perfectly honest the audience answered many questions that I’d wondered about myself! Wonderful!

“What a great afternoon. Thank you so much. I love when my members get taken back to their yester years. It was magic. And, I thought the Children also learned a lot . On our tables, they couldn’t believe how Walworth Road looked before.  They loved listening to stories. And the little singalong was an added bonus…. Alice who is 97 in August and Veronica who is 92, were so happy talking about the good old days and looking at photos and the film. We should do this more often.”
Tina Johnston, Co-ordinator for Positive Ageing, Blackfriars Settlement, 2018

By the end of these sessions, groups of people would be reminiscing together, sharing photographs, sharing memories, laughing and singing. The atmosphere in the room was a completely different one by the time the session ended.

At one session, Tina Johnston, co-ordinator for Positive Ageing at Blackfriars Settlement arranged for a group of children from the local secondary school to join the reminiscence session. They were looking at photographs of the areas they lived in from 50 or more years ago. “That’s what the Elephant and Castle looked like over 100 years ago”, I said to one totally disinterested pupil. He glanced at the photograph, raised his eyebrows and said “Is it?” and proceeded to look through all of the photographs in silence and in awe. The banter between the older people and the school children was fantastic and both enjoyed each other’s company. Intergenerational reminiscing is a fantastic way to teach history to children.

For Black History Month this year, we invited Nunhead artist and co-founder of Women in Film SE15, Tracey Francis, to talk about her career as an artist and present two of her films – ‘Peckham Wall’ and ‘Landscapes of Girlhood’.

Watching ‘Landscapes of Girlhood’ was one of those times when my senses were awoken. This short but moving film, which gives a voice to 5 girls with learning difficulties left me and the audience quiet and reflective and the young people in the audience asked questions about how they might do what Tracey did. This is how you inspire, I thought.

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Tracey Francis presents her films at John Harvard Library for Black History Month 2018

My most recent collaboration was with LinkAge Southwark where, with the help of Catrin Waugh and her volunteers, we delivered a reminiscence session on the Kingswood Estate, using photographs and film to a very astute group of pensioners whose questions were coming in thick and fast. (I think I managed to answer most questions with the help of one or two local history books I shrewdly brought along – phew!)  The group were engaged in conversations around different themes, remembering cinemas, parks and markets and the film compilation finished off the session nostalgically. The group were a real pleasure to be with.

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Reminiscence session for the pensioners of LinkAge Southwark, Kingswood Estate November 2018. Photo courtesy of LinkAge Southwark / Catrin Waugh

The Film Collection at Southwark Local History Library and Archive is a fast growing one, now with around 215 titles, originating from different film and video formats on a variety of themes.  Included in it are information films that were made by the Bermondsey Borough Council from the 1920s to the 1940s, Southwark Council commissioned films from the 1970s to the 1990s on a variety of themes (e.g. redevelopment of  Surrey Docks in the 1970s, Elephant and Castle shopping Centre, elections etc), amateur films by cine enthusiasts like Brian Waterman and Richard Morgan, makers of the Brandon Estate Cine Club films, copies of broadcast television programmes and community films such as Tracey Francis’s.

All 215 titles are available to view on DVD free of charge within the archive during opening hours. All of the original film and video that is owned by Southwark Council (around 60 titles) has been digitised and is available to view online via London’s Screen Archives and its YouTube channel.  London Screen Archives is the virtual hub for the film collections of London’s archive repositories.

We are continually collecting films significant to the story of Southwark. So, if you have a film that you would like to deposit with us, get in touch. For details of all the titles available to view, visit our website or contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

I would like to thank the following people and organisations for helping me to deliver reminiscence and other outreach sessions from the Southwark collections in 2018. I (and my colleagues with whom I share knowledge) have learned much from you and the outstanding work you do: Anne Williams, Sheena Ogilvie and Chloe Pardell from the Alzheimer’s Society, Caroline Clipson from Southwark Dementia Action Alliance, Tina Johnston and staff at the Blackfriars Community Centre, all the staff at The Green, Nunhead Community Centre, staff at Time and Talents, Rotherhithe, Sands Films Studios, Tracey Francis, Catrin Waugh and Gemma Kern from LinkAge Southwark.

Of course a big shout out to my colleagues, Patricia Dark, Chris Scales and Lisa Moss at Southwark Local History Library and Archive for their help and support. I look forward to future collaborations.

Southwark and the Mayflower Part 4: Old Kent Road

The Old Kent Road has been an important thoroughfare since Roman times, connecting London to Canterbury and Dover. This short tour from Burgess Park towards Elephant and Castle takes in some Mayflower connections and a link to some much earlier pilgrims.

St Thomas-A-Watering, Old Kent Road

St Thomas-a-Watering is a very significant site in Southwark’s history, but it is easily overlooked amid the hustle and bustle of the junction of Albany Road with Old Kent Road. It was at this spot that pilgrims travelling from St Mary Overie (a predecessor of Southwark Cathedral) to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury made their first stop to water their horses and take refreshment. The pond in Burgess Park was said to be where Chaucer’s Pilgrims took their horses for a drink.

St Thomas-A-Watering represented the southern boundary of the parish of St George the Martyr and as such also represented the limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction in Surrey. Once a year, the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London rode in procession, all wearing scarlet gowns, over London Bridge to open Southwark Fair and to inspect the City’s boundaries at St Thomas a Watering. There is a plaque inlaid into the nearby former fire station that marks this spot.

The Mayflower connection comes from protestant martyr John Penry, who was executed here on 29th May 1593. His body was hung on a gibbet on the Old Kent Road. Some regard Penry, a Welshman, as the true founder of the Brownists, not Robert Browne. Penry sent a letter from the King’s Bench Prison, dated 24th April 1593, advising his followers to consider emigration. This is the start of the Pilgrims’ journey, first to Holland and then to America.

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Plaque marking the southern limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction

Bricklayers Arms Roundabout, New Kent Road

The Pilgrim Fathers Memorial Church, which originally stood at Deadman’s Place in Bankside was relocated in 1864 to Buckenham Square, close to this site. Its gardens were named the Mayflower Gardens and contained a memorial to the ship; a sundial set on a large stone with a panel depicting the Mayflower on one side. When the Bricklayers Arms flyover was built in the 1970s there was much disruption. The Pilgrim church moved to Great Dover Street but Mayflower Gardens was left behind, complete with its monument. St Saviour’s & St Olave’s School for Girls was built close by, and the memorial is now inside.

St Mary Newington Church, Newington Butts

The original site of this church is now occupied by a park on the west side of Newington Butts. Thomas Gataker was Rector here from 1584 to 1593 before he became Rector of St Mary Rotherhithe. Later, Thomas Wadsworth was Rector, as well as being Pastor of the Pilgrim church. Nearby “Newington woodes” was recorded as the site of the arrests of some of Browne’s followers.

P00349 St Mary Newington

Next week: The Borough

Southwark’s Blue Plaque nominees 2017: The Kennington Theatre

Voting has opened for this year’s Southwark Heritage Association Blue Plaques scheme. There are seven worthy nominees, of which only one will get a plaque this year. But who are they and why should they get your vote?

The Kennington Theatre is one of the nominees. For all the lowdown on its history we couldn’t really improve on this article on the Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History Website!

 

Kennington theatre 1933

 

Southwark’s Blue Plaque nominees 2017: Thomas Middleton

Voting has opened for this year’s Southwark Heritage Association Blue Plaques scheme. There are seven worthy nominees, of which only one will get a plaque this year. But who are they and why should they get your vote? To help you decide we’ll be featuring one nominee per week over the next 7 weeks of voting.

This week, read on to discover more about Thomas Middleton.

Thomas MiddletonThomas Middleton (1580 –1627) was a prolific playwright and poet. T.S. Eliot described him as ‘second only to Shakespeare’, but he has not always been given the credit that he deserves. Until relatively recently Middleton’s play, The Revenger’s Tragedy was thought to have been written by his contemporary, Cyril Tourneur. Modern analysis of the style and language has dispelled this myth.  More recently, evidence has emerged that Middleton was the co-author of All’s Well That Ends Well with William Shakespeare. His work continues to fascinate and surprise researchers in the field of Jacobean theatre.

Middleton was born in the City of London in 1580 and moved to Newington Butts sometime between 1603 and 1608, soon after his marriage. His new home was near the theatres of Southwark and far enough away from London to avoid a recent outbreak of the plague. His time in Newington was very productive. In addition to his writing he took on the role of City Chronologer (a position that was something like the City of London’s official historian) and for a time he was also responsible for producing the Lord Mayor’s shows.

The biggest success of Middleton’s career was his play, A Game of Chess, which was performed by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre for nine consecutive days in 1624. It would have gone on even longer but closed in response to a complaint by the Spanish ambassador. In fact, its allegorical portrayal of party politics upset quite a few people and Middleton had to go into hiding. His son Edward was arrested and brought before the Privy Council. Middleton himself was held for a time in the Fleet prison.

Middleton died in 1627, probably in somewhat reduced circumstance, having lost his position with the City of London. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Newington.

 

In summary:

A talented playwright with a rebellious side who gave Shakespeare a run for his money. Walworth should be proud! Will you #VoteThomasMiddleton?

Voting ends on 15 September 2017. You can vote by emailing Southwark Heritage Association: admin@southwark.org.uk or the Southwark News: owen@southwarknews.co.uk. You can also vote in person at all Southwark libraries and at both the Mayflower, Rotherhithe Street and Half Moon, Herne Hill.

 

 

Historic Walworth

Southwark’s historic villages: Walworth

The name Walworth is Saxon in origin and has been recorded at various times as Wealhworth, Wealawyr, and in the Domesday Book, Waleorde. It translates roughly as ‘farm of the Britons.’ The name Newington is thought to have been given more specifically to the area around the church, which stood on Newington Butts, where the road bends to the south-west. The buildings erected around it in the middle ages gradually acquired the name of ‘the New Town’ and the parish as a whole was named St Mary Newington.

The area around this junction is also known as Elephant and Castle. This name comes from the coaching inn that once stood at the crossroads where we now have the roundabout and the Faraday memorial. As with other inns at major transport intersections, such as the Angel and the New Cross, the Elephant and Castle gave its name to a railway station and is now used to refer to the surrounding area more generally.

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The Elephant and Castle c.1860

One of the earliest references to the manor of Walworth is its presentation as a gift by Edmund II to a court jester named Hitard in c.1016. Hitard in turn made the lands of Walworth over to the monks of Canterbury Cathedral and to this day certain parts of Walworth are still owned by the Church Commissioners.

Walworth was once famous for producing and selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Much of the area consisted of orchards and gardens where special varieties  such as the Newington Peach were grown. In 1792 James Maddock, florist, of Walworth published The Florists’ Directory; or Treatise on the Culture of Flowers. At about the same time John Abercrombie published a book on flowers which included an account of the then newly introduced chrysanthemum. Walworth was also known far and wide for the Surrey Zoological Gardens, which from 1831 occupied the grounds of the former manor house.

Two particularly remarkable residents of Walworth were Richard Cuming  and his son, Henry Syer Cuming. Between them, during the late 18th and the 19th century, they acquired all kinds of objects from around the world, which became the Cuming Museum.

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The Cumings’ original catalogue and Richard Cuming’s childhood collection

The 18th and early 19th centuries brought many changes to Walworth. New bridges over the Thames and improved roads made it easier for richer people to live just outside of London and commute into town every day by carriage. They would have occupied grand Georgian houses like those still standing in Surrey Square. The Elephant and Castle area became a thriving shopping area with its own department store, Tarns,  and many other places to spend money on clothing and cosmetics.

 

Factories, warehouses and railways replaced many houses in the centre of London, which meant that London’s overflowing population spread out into Walworth. As a result, Walworth changed from a small community into a highly populated area. In 1801 there were 14,800 people in Walworth. By 1901 the figure had risen to 122,200, much higher than it is now, which shows how cramped conditions must have been. It is no wonder that in the 1880’s and 90s poverty increased. For the poorest in Walworth this meant being admitted to the Newington Workhouse. In 1896 a seven year old Charlie Chaplin briefly became an inmate there, with his mother, Hannah and half-brother, Sydney.

In response to this legacy of poverty Walworth became the location for some pioneering social work and  services. It boasted the first family planning clinic in the country, while its celebrated health services department in Walworth Road brought all health facilities under one roof for the first time in London and preceded the NHS by ten years. The Clubland youth club, which started in rooms below the Walworth Methodist Church in 1922 provided life changing opportunities for thousands of teenagers in the area and improved public attitudes both to young people and to the less privileged in society.

The first and second World Wars saw Walworth take heavy casualties both civilian, during the London bombing, and in the field. The Elephant and Castle area was so ravaged by bombing that it had to be rebuilt practically from scratch, although the Metropolitan Tabernacle managed to survive the Blitz unharmed. Post-war planning by the London County Council resulted in The Elephant & Castle traffic scheme and the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, the first covered shopping mall in Europe. Today we are seeing more dramatic changes to the landscape. Whatever the outcome, Walworth will remain an important focal point for Southwark, attracting travellers from all over London and the world.

Elephant and Castle Redevelopment

The Elephant and Castle during redevelopment, 1963

 

The Last Giraffe of Walworth

Opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth hosted a huge number of grand events; from re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and The Great Fire of London, to spectacular fireworks displays and hot air balloon flights. The gardens housed a large music hall as well as one of London’s first zoos.

The Zoological Gardens included a large circular domed conservatory at its centre which housed a pond of exotic fish and birds as well as cages of large carnivores, including lions and tigers. Feeding time was a big affair and keepers were known to tease the hungry carnivores to ‘put on a good show’ for the visitors. Other exotic animals such as pigmy elephants and monkeys were kept at the zoo which rivalled the equally new London Zoo at Regent’s Park.

In 1843 five young giraffes were purchased for the Zoological Gardens. Bred from captive giraffes in Africa, they were bought at just 6 weeks old and were hand-reared. Their journey to Walworth took them across Africa travelling for 35 days to Cairo. At such a young age it was too far for the young giraffes to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels for transportation. From Cairo they travelled along the Nile by boat. Passage to Britain was booked on a ship from Alexandria, however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. Once arrived in London the animals were walked through the streets, from the docks to the zoo, under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents. The giraffes, the first on public display in Britain, caused quite a stir – their “Nubian attendants” even more so, becoming celebrities in their own right.

Giraffes and their attendants (P02185)

The Cuming family visited various events, fairs and fetes at the gardens and saved posters, tickets and souvenirs as part of their growing collections. The only surviving souvenir from Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens is a lovely plaster of Paris model of a one of the young giraffes, which stands around 38cm high. This was added to the collection by Henry Syer Cuming in the mid-1800s.

However, in 2013 a fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall which housed the Cuming Museum. The model giraffe was rescued but sadly had been broken into six pieces, all of which were dirty and discoloured from the smoke and fire, as well as being water damaged in the aftermath. Along with other damaged items the giraffe was sent to Plowden and Smith for restoration.

After numerous trials conservator Francis Toohey decided that the most suitable way to clean the fragile surface was with deionised water and white spirit, applied with a moist cotton bud and immediately dried. It was very slow and delicate work.

Once cleaned, work could begin on putting the giraffe back together piece by piece. PVA adhesive was used to bond the fragments together again and small holes or missing parts were made up with a soft acrylic filler and plaster of Paris tagged with Barium sulphate. As well as referring to photographs of the model before the fire conservators also researched giraffe anatomy, paying particular attention to the shape of the skull, to ensure the reconstruction would be accurate.

As different fragments of the giraffe suffered different fates during and after the fire – some badly scorched or soot damaged, others more seriously water damaged – it meant that although the structure was once again intact, the damage was still noticeable. It was decided that while any fills would be colour matched as closely as possible the patchwork colouring of the different fragments would remain, conserving the damage caused by the fire as part of the history of the object itself.

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You can now view a 3D model of the reconstructed giraffe on Sketchfab.

Amazing Aeronauts

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Throughout our history we humans have been fascinated by the idea of flying and have admired and venerated the creatures which can do this with ease.

Great Montgolfier Balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1838.

Hot air balloons were our first successful flight technology capable of carrying humans.

Although tethered and unmanned attempts were made for centuries beforehand, people only managed to sustain a proper balloon ‘free flight’ in the late 18th century when in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers managed to get their balloon, manned by fellow Frenchmen Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlande, to fly untethered at around 1000 metres, for 10 minutes.

It seems this act had as big an impact on the popular imagination of the time as the moon landing did in 1969. Balloon images were everywhere, in clothing, jewellery and endless prints of the feat.

But while NASA took some time to send the first women into space, the first lady balloonists started appearing only a year after the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon first flew.

In 1784 Elisabeth Thible made a voyage in a hot air balloon that was to spark a forty year popular obsession with women “aeronauts”.  Women like Jeanne-Genevieve Labrosse, Elisa Garnarin, Sophie Blanchard, Lizzie Ilhling Wise, Wilhelmine Reichard, Carlotta (Mary) Myers, Leila Adair, the fabulously named Leona Dare and Mrs (Margaret) Graham all took to the skies, many in solo flights.  These women became famous and celebrated although very few are spoken of today. Most were doing it for thrills, many became world-wide sensations, some were doing it as stunts with their male partners and some, like Wilhelmina Reichard, were also undertaking scientific experiments.

Sophie Blanchard was the most famous of these and her tiny, timid and bird like character apparently completely changed once off the ground.  She toured alone and was highly successful until a fatal crash in 1819 ended not only her life but also some of the audience’s taste for ballooning – although it surged again in later years.

Female balloonists were famous across France, Germany and America, while Britain’s own sensation, Mrs Margaret Graham, was making a splash nearer to home.

I first came across references to this lady in posters in our collections for events taking place in Walworth at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.  Mrs Graham claimed to be the only English female aeronaut, which might have been true, but her posters also claimed she was the “only female aeronaut in Europe” which, given the number of other ‘balloonistas’ at the time, was probably poetic licence.

Mrs Graham's balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1837.

As a skilled self-promoter she knew a good story when she saw one and wrote thrilling accounts of her exploits, including the time when, just as she was touching down, a man with a lit taper came up behind the balloon and accidentally set fire to it.

Margaret Graham at first worked with her husband in their joint balloon ascents but by the 1840s he had all but stopped.  Mrs Graham carried on alone, occasionally accompanied by one or more of her seven children, especially her daughter Alice.

Balloonists risked life and limb, particularly as they were fond of setting off fireworks from the balloon cars once in the air, which, although spectacular, seems unwise.  Balloons were filled by attaching to gas valves and Mrs Graham recounts “filling up” at Lambeth gas works before a flight – which sounds a hair-raisingly risky operation.

Mrs Graham had her share of accidents, including one which caused her to miscarry, but she often turned these to her advantage as she used the danger to promote the next flight after her recovery.

Unlike many of the intrepid balloonists she lived a long life and died peacefully in bed well into her seventies.

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After the fire

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building.  The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.

All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them.  The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects.  Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.

In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.

Cuming Museum displayLike most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions.  The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.

Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators.  Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job.  Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare.  So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm.  For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.

Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job.  They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.

The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire.  It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.

When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke.  However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged.  The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.

The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires.  It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere.  It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.

Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display.  The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.

So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.

Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.

Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.

Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections.  People either love it or hate it.  Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.

Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum.  This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road.  The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.

Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.

In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.

Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them.  However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them.  In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.

Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.

 

 

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.

A Brief History of the Cuming Museum

The Walworth Road 1799

In the late 18th century Walworth Road was not the commercial street of shops that we think of today, but lined with grand terraces of Georgian houses, much more in keeping with the style we now associate with areas of London such as Bloomsbury.

Henry Syer TN03705

Miniature of Henry Syer Cuming

Richard Cuming, and his son Henry Syer Cuming, lived in a part of Walworth Road which now lies between Manor Place and Amelia Street, and they had a passion for collecting.

Between them, during the late 18th and the 19th century, they acquired all kinds of objects from around the world – from Japanese shoes and ancient Egyptian amulets to a brown bear, purchased from the Leverian Museum in 1806. In An Introduction to The Cuming Family and The Cuming Museum author Stephen Humphrey describes the more local additions to the collection:

And all the time, father and son accumulated the printed and pictorial ephemera of everyday life – advertisements, catalogues, tickets and programmes, letters and circulars, and even the paper bags in which they bought their rolls from the baker – which have become one of the most compelling sources for local 19th-century history.”

 

CollectionHenry died in 1902 and left funds in his will to create a public museum, which opened above the Newington public library on Walworth Road near Elephant and Castle in 1906.

Camberwell Beauty LDCUM1985.003_1

Camberwell Beauty

Many local history objects have been collected, from the early 19th century right up to today, expanding the Cuming Museum collection and reflecting Southwark’s rich and diverse history, and its unfolding story.

In 2006, the museum opened new public spaces adjacent to Newington Library, on the ground floor of the former Walworth Town Hall. This new space housed regular events and changing exhibitions alongside permanent displays showcasing key items from the collections.

A fire in 2013 damaged the Walworth Town Hall and since then the museum has been without permanent display galleries. However, successful projects and programmes have taken place in locations around the borough. These include the Cabinet of Curiosity, our programme in Southwark’s libraries; Cuming Explorers, our early years offer, in conjunction with Inspire and Victory School; Natural Selection, our collaboration with artist Janetka Platun and Peckham Platform; and our most recent project with the MA Animation students at London College of Communication.

Past Projects

The Cuming museum will return to the former Walworth Town Hall building when it reopens in a few years. In the meantime, look out for consultation opportunities concerning the redevelopment and follow us here and on Twitter to get regular updates about our work and events.