The Man from Dancing Ledge


Lance Corporal John Lander of The Rifle Brigade is not one of the men whose home is indicated with a poppy on our map because, although his name is on the war memorial, so far we haven’t been able to connect him with this area. The closest he gets is 18 Burnaby Street, Chelsea, a good three or four miles away, in the much-changed Sands End area on the other side of the river. Now associated with the Chelsea Harbour development and overpriced luxury flats, it was once an industrial area populated by a close-knit working class community. His disappearance is noted in the August 1918 edition of the St Mary’s parish magazine, where it is observed that he had been ‘reported missing’. He had been for five months. Like William Nicholls of Huntspill Street, 38 year old John was swept up in the German Spring Offensive and his date of death is recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as 24th March 1918. John was a stonemason from a prominent local family in the Dorset village of Langton Matravers, a few miles from Swanage, at the heart of the Isle of Purbeck stone trade. The son of Samuel Lander, a quarrier and his wife Frances, he has become the first Summerstown182 member whose Mother we have located a photograph of. The Lander presence is still highly visible in Langton Matravers as I found out on a recent visit. A quarrying company on the edge of town bears the name, as do at least half a dozen graves in the churchyard. I took a photo of one of them to find out later it was John Lander’s parents. I also took a photo of a poster advertising a forthcoming talk by local historian called Reg Saville. We have since been corresponding and this extraordinary nonagenarian has been able to fill me in on some Lander background. At the age of 11, John is listed in the 1891 census as already working as a labourer. The family lived in one of a row of cottages built at Mount Pleasant by a Mrs Frances Serrell of Durnford House. This manor house later became a school, but not for the likes of John Lander. It toughened up young gents for Dartmouth Naval College, route-marching them down to the sea to jump naked into the water at Dancing Ledge. A swimming pool was hewn out of the rocks for use during rough weather and this spot, with its haunting collection of disused quarries and sweeping limestone downland is one of the most dramatic coastlines in England. But ten years later John Lander was in London. I was curious why a 21 year old with a trade and strong family ties, would leave one of the most beautiful parts of the country and move to London. John was living in Battersea in 1901 and in 1911 with his brother Albert, also a stonemason at lodgings in Chelsea. As Reg explained ‘London was growing very fast and stonemasons and workers in stone were in great demand. A brother would be left in Dorset in charge of the quarry, he would extract the stone, work it and load it on a stone barge in Swanage Bay, and it would then go off to Greenwich, where the other brother would collect it and build with it. The whole of Wandsworth, for example, was constucted in that way’. He told me about one stonemason from Langton Matravers called James Webber. ‘One of my great-grandmothers was his sister. He left his brother (who was blind) in charge of the quarry and he employed some six quarriers. When their mother died, James came down from London and pulled down the tiny cottage where she had lived and built one of his Wandsworth houses, consisting of a cellar and three storeys, with front ornate wall of the local stone, and side and back walls of red brick. He left tie-stones so that his neighbours would be able to follow suit. Everyone in this village has always hated the incongruous building’. ‘Another area of London known as Kensal also housed many men from Langton Matravers and Worth Matravers on a temporary (up to ten years) basis. The new London Cemetery had been opened on Kensal Green and the road beside it, known as Kensal Rise, was nicknamed ‘Little Langton’ because of the number of monumental masons from the village who lived there and worked in their back gardens making tombstones every day’. So there would have been plenty of work for John Lander in London, and who knows, he may possibly have used his skills in the construction of St Mary’s Church in Summerstown? The foundation stone was laid in 1902 and the houses on neighbouring Keble Street and Burmester Road were also built at this time. Its possible that John Lander was known to the church through his involvement in its construction and that might explain his inclusion in the Summerstown182. Perhaps Mr Reg Saville will be able to find out and let us know. It wouldn’t surprise me. Have a look at his wonderful website to find out more about this fascinating and most stunningly beautiful area. Its only two and a half hours drive from Summerstown and well worth a visit!

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