Janus: the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year

By Wes White, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

On Tuesday 17 January we featured the first ‘Museum on the Move’ at Canada Water Library. Each month we’ll present a themed collection drawn from the Southwark Heritage collections. Original documents and artefacts from the Cuming Museum will be on display, freely available for visitors to see and swap thoughts about in the library, while artworks are shown on a big screen above.

Temple of JanusMy theme for January was Janus – the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year; after whom January is named. He is famous as the god with two faces – one looking into the future, and the other on the back of his head peering into the past. Janus might not be an ‘A-lister’ in the Roman pantheon, being less well known than figures with planets named after them like Jupiter, Mars and Venus; but even so he was a significant figure in Roman mythology, and the Cuming collection actually features a number of objects directly related to him. These come in the form of coins bearing his likeness; and even one showing his temple, from the reign of Nero. The story of Janus’ temple tells that its gates stood open when Rome was at war, but closed in times of peace – and they were rarely closed.

Also featured in the display were some press cuttings sourced from Southwark’s Local History Library and Archives about New Year celebrations in years past; particularly from the year 1900. I picked out that year to look at because of the significance of the turn of the century, only to find myself reminded by the Bishop of Rochester that technically the new century would have begun in 1901.

And considering that New Year’s Eve is famously such a busy time for the emergency services, I was also surprised to find a story called ‘Firemen at Play’ describing the Fire service’s own New Year’s Eve party – it finished up, predictably, with some of them having to get changed out of their party gear to tackle a fire…

Because Janus stood at the threshold of the New Year, he was also the god of all kinds of crossing-over points and doorways. This gave me the opportunity to feature some of the Cuming collection’s keys in the display. Those included a surprisingly small and humble key to Marshalsea Prison (which several visitors thought looked just a bit too easy for the pirates and smugglers the prison held to copy), and a far bigger, heavier, 13th century key to Bermondsey Abbey, which stood until the reign of Henry VIII. The Abbey is widely thought to be the reason that the area is known as ‘The Blue’ – as the colour represented sacredness.

By far the oldest thing on display this month was a fragment of an even older belief system than the Roman myth that Janus was a part of – a fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes. This and other Egyptian artefacts came to the Cuming collection via the explorer James Burton in the 1830s. So, why would there have been a false doorway in a tomb? It was false only to the living: this was the door that the departed spirit was supposed to step through, into the next world.

Fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes

The next outing for the ‘Museum on the Move’ will be at Canada Water Library on Tuesday 14 February, 2pm to 4pm, and you might be able to guess the theme from the date! It’s Valentine’s Day – come and check out an exploration of romance down the ages.

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.

Historic Dulwich

Southwark’s historic villages: Dulwich

The London Borough of Southwark, as we know it today, forms a triangle stretching south from the River Thames for just over five miles. The oldest part of Southwark is the area just south of London Bridge known as the Borough. Until the late 18th and early 19th centuries the area south of the Borough was part of the county of Surrey, and was a rural landscape of meadows, farms, market gardens and small villages.

This is the first in a series of posts which will be looking at some of these historic villages.

The area we now know as Dulwich has a long history. We know there were inhabitants as far back as 50 BC to 100AD as Gallo Belgic pottery, donated to the Cuming Museum, was uncovered near Lordship Lane and Highwood.

It took some time for the area to develop its current name, and although there is no mention of Dulwich in the Domesday Book of 1086, there are earlier references to it as far back as 967AD. It was certainly re-settled by 1127 when the King gave the lands to the Priory of the Holy Saviour in Bermondsey (known as Bermondsey Abbey), who remained as the landlords until 1538.

At this time Dulwich was no more than a small hamlet bordering onto fields and, without a church of its own, inhabitants had to travel to Camberwell to worship. Bermondsey Abbey didn’t appear to interfere much in local affairs, beyond collecting its dues and maintaining order. Surviving court records give us a snapshot of life at the time: William Hosegard was accused of running off with the wife, and many possessions, of Richard Rolfe in 1335; and a jury found themselves on the wrong side of the law in 1407 when they were fined for taking dinner before returning a verdict. Petty crime was common, from drunkenness and minor assaults to the crime of milking other peoples’ cows (probably not something we see much of in Dulwich today!).

In 1538 Henry VIII seized control of Bermondsey Abbey and its assets – including Dulwich. The rights to the village were later sold to a London goldsmith by the name of Thomas Calton, for the sum of £609, 18 shilling and 2 pence. His family held the land for almost 70 years, until October 1605, when it was sold to a famous Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn, for a princely sum of £4,900.

Alleyn had a major impact on the way Dulwich was run for many years. Most famously he built a college to help educate 12 poor children and make provision for 12 elderly people. Dulwich College is now world famous, with scholars such as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.

Dulwich Village still retains much of its rural character due to the protection of the College. Alleyn gave the freehold of his lands and the Dulwich manorial rights to the College, who opposed the over development of the area.

In 1739 a spa was discovered which soon became popular with the visitors. Its site in Dulwich Grove later became Dr Glennie’s Academy, where Lord Byron was educated for two years. At this point Dulwich was still a small, rural development with few links to the outside world – as late as 1792 there was just one public road in Dulwich, which went to Sydenham. The public opening of the Picture Gallery, in 1817 helped to raise the profile of the area.

As with so much of South London, the main cause of sudden growth in the Dulwich area was the arrival of the railways. In 1854 the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham and a railway was constructed to help visitors get there. The railway meant people were able to live further from work and the green of Dulwich began to vanish under new houses.

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

 

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.

Books of Condolence are available at the following locations:

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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

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.

Dickens’ Southwark: Jacob’s Island

DickensAs a journalist in the early 1830s, Dickens would occasionally go out on patrol with the River Police. It was accompanying them that he visited Jacob’s Island and witnessed the poverty and foul stench of Folly Ditch.

“There exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London… In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago… it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed.” Charles Dickens paints a bleak picture of this part of Southwark in his novel, Oliver Twist.

Engraving published in a newspaper depicting the area known as Folly Ditch, Jacob's Island about 1860

This so-called island was created alongside the Thames by the River Neckinger, the docks and a series of tidal ditches. Known as ‘The Venice of Drains’, it’s little wonder that the area was one of the main hotspots for the cholera epidemics in the latter half of the 19th century as the ditches were used for both sewers and drinking water. Sluices at the mills could be opened, allowing the ditches to be filled from the Thames and Dickens writes, in Oliver Twist, that at these times you “will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side, lowering, from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage – all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.”

Jacob's Island, 1813

Such a place seems a fitting location for the lair, and ultimate demise, of Dickens’ monstrous character, Bill Sykes. A specific property in Eckett Street is traditionally said to be the location Dickens’ had in mind for Sykes’ grim abode, and the 1835 deeds for this house are held by the Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Eckett Street was just off the present day Jacob Street and, like most of this area, it has been transformed since Dickens’ day. Most of the early buildings were demolished by 1860, replaced by Victorian buildings. The majority of these were cleared following heavy bombing in the Second World War, though New Concordian Wharf is one survivor.

Horwood map of London, 1819 edition

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This is our final Dickens blog in the series – for now. We will look at other Dickens links to the borough in future. If you can’t wait and want to know more about some of Dickens’ old haunts you can wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself. 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: 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.