The quickest way to get into central London from here is to jump on a train from Earlsfield and its an eleven minute ride into Waterloo. There’s even a bus No77 which goes all the way, it can take an hour but comes highly recommended, passing a lot of significant south London sights along the way. That may not seem much of a journey these days, but in terms of a century ago it was a very long stretch indeed. Its a bit of a mystery then why someone whose attachment was very much to the Lower Marsh area just to the south of Waterloo station ended up on the St Mary’s Church memorial in Summerstown, six or seven miles away. Such was the case of James Wiliam Hickey.
Named after Waterloo Bridge which was opened in 1817, two years after the battle, the station opened for business in 1848. It was by all accounts quite a ramshackle operation until a major overhaul at the turn of the century combined with extensive slum clearance got things on track. The first five new platforms were opened in 1910 and construction continued sporadically throughout the First World War until the new station finally opened in 1922. The main pedestrian entrance off York Road, is flanked by the spectacular Victory Arch, designed by James Robb Scott and a memorial to company staff who were killed during the first world war. The four panels contain 585 names, including at least one local man, Charles Brackstone from Trewint Street, who was employed as a porter. How many hundreds of thousands of people pass under it every day without noticing it or giving it a thought?
James William Hickey’s orbit appears to be the fascinating collection of streets behind Waterloo Station, some of which still exist adjoining Lower Marsh, a cluster of pubs, cafes and the famous street market that have survived the changes all around. The market would appear to be as old as the station, dating from the mid nineteenth century. In its heyday, around the time James Hickey was born, it stretched right down to Lambeth Walk and Black Prince Road. It was almost three miles long, probably the largest and longest street market in London. The most recent location we can find for the Hickey family was at 3 Tanswell Street. On the corner here now is the home of the Christian Aid charity. This was the address given in May 1917 when nineteen year old James Hickey wrote his will, leaving all his personal effects to his mother Alice. He was killed just a few months later that year on 28th August.The road has since been seriously foreshortened by various developments but Marie’s Cafe, facing Tanswell Street on Lower Marsh, looks like it it may have been around at that time in some guise and ready to serve up a comforting cup of tea. Currently it does a delicious plate of Thai noddles.
It would appear that he was born in Launcelot Road, just a short hop across Lower Marsh. The family lived in at least six other addresses in this area and life appeared to have been one continuous round of upheaval and movement. The connection with St Mary’s, Summerstown, some six or seven miles distant is very difficult to explain, though he’s not alone in that respect. Perhaps a relative with influence put his name forward as would appear to have been the case with Sidney Cullimore. But whilst we established that he had a sister ‘living in Earlsfield’ no such link with James Hickey has emerged. The name though does appear around 1908-1918 in Hazelhurst, Bertal and Foss Roads. Indeed a James Hickey at 37 Foss Road serving in the Bedfordshires is an absent voter. Its most certain that the Hickey family in Lambeth did not have much money. There are no next-of-kin details in his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record and no personal inscription has been added to his grave. His parents, relatively young, with many other worries, may possibly have chosen to simply forget the system that had taken their eldest son and move on. But thanks at least to the memorial in the church we can tell a little of James’ story.
In the March 1918 edition of the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, in the same paragraph mentioning the deaths of Charles Blakeley and Eldred Henden, notice is made ‘that James William Hickey of the Suffolk Regiment has been killed’. There is no other mention of him throughout the course of the war as a serving soldier but clearly notification of his death was brought to Reverend Robinson’s attention and subsequently his name was inscribed on the memorial. Because of this inclusion, its almost certain that the James William Hickey from Lower Marsh, Waterloo is our man.
His parents James Hickey and the exquisitely named Alice Ancient were married at the stunning St John the Evangelist Church on 15th August 1897. Its still there and a highly visible connection to the past on the Waterloo Bridge roundabout dominated by the IMAX cinema. James was nineteen and working as a ‘stocker’, which presumably means some kind of Victorian equivalent of stacking shelves. Given the Bankside proximity, it could have been loading and unloading the barges on the wharves. Their first son James William was born in the January quarter of 1898 so he was well on the way when the happy couple tripped up the aisle. They were now at 68 Launcelot Street, just off Lower Marsh. Incredibly this road still exists, dipping beneath the mess of platforms that make up the nineties Eurostar development of the Waterloo Station concourse. One or two of the buildings on Launcelot Street even look like they were around from James Hickey’s time and thus this fascinating road encapsulates three different centuries of history. Close by is the extraordinary Banksy-initiated Leake Street ‘graffiti tunnel’ which is as interesting to visit as anything you’ll ever find on the South Bank.
In December 1899 John Thomas Hickey was born and the family were now resident at 44 Doon Street, behind the National Theatre, another road that has also survived the changes all around it, though in name only. Charles Booth visited this area at the time and mentions, thieves, prostitutes, brothels, broken windows and children with dirty faces. He remarked that ‘women and children seem to live in the streets more than they do north of the Thames’. By the time of the 1901 census the Hickeys were at 8 Prince’s Buildings, just off York Road and not too far from the London Eye. The road has long gone but neighbouring Chicheley Street has survived in name only. This area is currently the scene of intensive re-development, the site next to the Shell Centre resembling some sort of deep mine, filled with workmen in orange jackets, cranes and diggers.
James was now a timber labourer. This was an area Booth noted was ‘crammed with children’. A third son Harry was baptised on New Years Day 1902. James was now working as a carman and their latest abode was at 25 Carlisle Buildings, round the back of Lambeth Palace. Harry married Lilian Stewart in 1923 and they had six children. Lilian, James, Violet, Grace, Robert and Anne. Their eldest son James William who died earlier this year was named after his Uncle. Harry passed away aged 82 in Lewisham in 1984.
Very sadly John Hickey died aged three in 1903. Another child Alice was born in 1905 by which time the Hickeys were living at Little Thomas Street. In 1911 the ever-resourceful James Senior was working as a scaffolder and the family of five were now living in two rooms at 16 Marshall Street, off St George’s Road. This street was roughly half way between the Elephant and Castle and the Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum (now The Imperial War Museum). The road is now submerged beneath a housing estate but would have been opposite Hayles Street and the Prince of Wales pub where James Senior would certainly have enjoyed a drink or two. The neighbouring road, Gaywood Street still exists and the photo above gives us an idea of what the houses in Marshall Street would have been like. Oddly enough Alice had been raised next door at No14, her father William Ancient was a carpenter and she was one of nine children. James was now thirteen. All this moving around, different jobs, child mortality… points to a difficult and unsettled life in an over-populated and very poor part of London. With a nod to Ray Davies, this was a few years before Waterloo Underground, but there were most definitely millions of people, swarming like flies. As would have been the case for thousands of other young men, the army would have been a way out of this. It offered the prospect of regular food and pay, foreign adventure and an escape from the drudgery of inner-city depravation.
James Hickey served in the 11th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, known as The Cambridgeshire Suffolks. Its possible that he may well have been transfered to them in the wake of their horrendous losses on the first day of the Somme, however his medal card doesn’t indicate an involvement with any other regiment. On 1st July 1916, 800 men of the 11th Suffolks had advanced on German positions. 186 of them lost their lives and a further 505 were injured. On 26th August 1917 they participated as part of the 34th Division in a successful attack on Malakhoff farm and the trench system in front of the village of Hargicourt. The Suffolks lost 31 men killed on 26th, most were buried in Hargicourt. James Hickey was almost certainly injured in this action, dying of his wounds two days later. Tincourt, just a few miles away and where he is buried, was a centre of the casualty clearing stations at the time.
In the report of the assault of 26th August in the 11th Suffolks war diary, the battalion were at a place called Roisel, east of Peronne. Its noted that the whole battalion were in position by 230am, having moved in silence so as not to alert the enemy. Also mentioned was the terrible weather and that ‘the men were very cold before starting off’. Hard to imagine how nineteen year old James Hickey could have felt that morning. The diary states that the attack started at 430am and by 450am ‘all objectives were gained’. The inclement weather continued and was ‘very wet making work difficult and conditions wretched’. It was in this action that Corporal Sidney Day from Norwich won the Victoria Cross. He was in charge of a bombing section who successfully cleared enemy trenches, killing two and taking four prisoners. He then went out alone to contact neighbouring troops. He returned to find that a stick-bomb had landed in a trench with five wounded men. Corporal Day picked it up and threw it away, where it exploded harmlessly. He completed the task of clearing the trenches and remained in an advanced position for 64 hours under constant fire. His conduct was regarded as an inspiration to all. Its possible one of the wounded men in the trench could have been James Hickey.
There are over 2000 casualties in Tincourt New British Cemetery including 150 Germans and 136 Americans. The Germans withdrew from this area in March 1917 to the Hindenburg Line and recaptured it in the Spring Offensive of 1918. Its so very hard to believe now, that this tranquil landscape of scattered farms and cows grazing gently on rolling pastureland, could once have borne witness to so much violence and destruction. Perhaps here James Hickey found a peacefulness in death that the boy from the back streets of Waterloo never found in his short and very hectic life.
UPDATE – Shortly after this post was first published we made contact with the Hickey family and on 8th December we met Anne, youngest child of Harry and Lilian Hickey and James’ niece. We had a wonderful day with her, wandering around the Waterloo area locating some of the places that were connected with her family, so many years ago. With a Charles Booth map to hand, helping to identify some of the streets that no longer exist, seldom have I felt the hand of history hovering so intensely over us. We met at St John the Evangelist Church, where 119 years earlier her grandparents tripped up the aisle. Ann remembers them well and provided the fascinating information that James Senior supplemented his income by practising as a bare-knuckle boxer. She recalled her father telling her that as a boy he once followed him out to witness an organised street brawl. He was so shocked by what he saw that he never repeated it. Apparently Alice was also quite a tough cookie and acted as his regular sparring partner. Indeed she packed such a fearsome punch that in her ninetieth year, she knocked someone out after a row in a post office. Intruigingly it would appear that James also served as a soldier in the First World War.
In 2016, LSE Library’s Archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903) was inscribed into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The archive comprises over 450 volumes of interviews, questionnaires, observations and statistical information. We’ve used the Charles Booth poverty maps extensively in this particular story and the new improved website on which this and his notebooks and diaries can be accessed is quite simply a revelation. Unfortunately the maps only go as far as Wandsworth so don’t cover the Summerstown area. Booth did however visit us around the same time when he was writing his ‘Religious Influences’ survey and made some very choice observations about our neighbourhood! I attended a lecture at the LSE by historian Sarah Wise earlier this week, part of the Library’s activities around the launch. I found myself sitting next to Charles Booth’s Great Grandson and what a great pleasure it was to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoy quoting his ancestor on Summerstown182 Walks.