Round the Bend

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If there’s a shop on Garratt Lane that’s guaranteed to bring a smile to the face and a skip to the step, it’s the most splendid Lola and Sidney, named after a couple of rabbits. Phil is always ready for a chat and has been an outstanding supporter of our Summerstown182 project and historical initiatives, always ready to pop a poster in the window and drop a few Quid for Sid. When we were looking for money for the boy soldier’s plaque, he kindly donated £1 from the sale of his stock of Tooting tote bags. Many people have recollections of 812 Garratt Lane as a post office on the corner of Rostella Road, probably fifteen years ago or more now, but in a much earlier guise it was the location of ‘Jas. Hy. Bailey, billiard cue makers’. A vision of still sits rather well, the emerald baize, the hushed lighting, the sense of theatre. If Joe Davis came out of the back room in a velvetine waistcoat waving a cigar, it would not be out of place in this retro paradise. We love it and since a giant striped duck started a wave of multi-coloured polyresin critter creations imported from Belgium, we love it even more. We just wish people would show some affection in return by not leaving their rubbish on the pavement – a blight on this particular stretch of our adored Garratt Lane. We gotta look after it folks!

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One lad who lived not to far away from here and orbited the world of chalk, cue and the gentle crack of bakelite was Harry Percy Keatch. He worked as a ‘billiard marker’ at a licensed victuallers and very likely dropped in to Mr Bailey’s establishment to admire the cut of his cue. Colin, a local lifelong resident, born on Rostella Road and still living nearby recalls his father telling him about the hum of the lathe turning the billiard cues. It would seem the business was around until sometime before the Second World War.

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Billiards was an extremely popular game in the early part of the twentieth century. Played in dedicated halls, pubs, hotels, or club houses of other sporting organisations, it required someone to keep score of the match and ensure the drinks were flowing. It was a job for all ages but boys as young as twelve or thirteen were often employed. Not far up the road was the famous Fountain Hotel where young Harry might even have chalked the cue of Tiny Ted Foster. He may possibly have worked at the Sylvan Billiards Hall at 569 Garratt Lane next to St Andrew’s Church, now home of Earlsfield Snooker Club. Its even possible that he did a spot of marking at the renowned Tooting Conservative Club. It was here, on a magical afternoon a couple of summers ago, that Len Jewell, in his one hundredth year demonstrated his range of trick shots whilst looking for the snooker table there that he recalled sheltering under from a buzz bomb in 1944.

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George Keatch was the son of a millwright born on Garratt Lane. A ‘trading engineer and fitter’,  he was living in Battersea when he married Annie Wagland in 1885. Harry was their third child, baptised at the old St Mary’s Church on 29th March 1891. This would have been around the time its foundations were starting to quake and two years later it was demolished. The family’s address at the time was Park Terrace, Summerstown – part of a stretch of houses on Garratt Lane. By 1901 they were living at 6 Franche Court Road and starting a thirty year association with this popular L-shaped street. It runs east off Garratt Lane then diverts sharply to the left before connecting with Burntwood Lane. Emily was then aged 14, Alfred was 13 and Harry was ten. Electoral rolls indicate they were at this address until 1909. When Emily married Josiah Wilson at St Mary’s Church that year they were resident at 733 Garratt Lane and soon afterwards they moved round the bend to No88. Given his job and the proximity of the developing Anglo American Laundry at this time, its inconceivable that George Keatch didn’t witness the placement of one of its boilers. Julia Creeke provided this extraordinary photograph above of the boiler being transported down one of the streets on its way to Burmester Road. By 1911, Harry was the only child at home when the census was taken. He was now aged 20 and working as a billiard marker. It appears the family moved during the war to No62, then back to No88 for a while before finally settling at No66 where they resided into the mid-thirties. It would seem then that they relocated to Worthing where George died in 1936 and Annie in 1953.

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Leaving the world of laundries and billiard halls behind, aged 22, Harry went in search of a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. He is picked up on a passengers list sailing from Liverpool to Canada in 1913. He arrived in Quebec in August 1913 and indicated his profession as a waiter. Did he return to London to join the war effort or was it because of the charms of a horse bus driver’s daughter from Lewisham? One thing for sure, he was very likely in uniform when he married Ellen Agnes Bartlett there in the final quarter of 1917. At the time of the 1911 census she was 21 and working as a housemaid at The Empress Club at 35 Dover Street. One of the first of London’s ‘ladies’ clubs’, exclusively for ‘ladies of social position’ at one time The Empress had 70 bedrooms available to its 2700 members. On the night of the 1911 census the number of live-in staff had shrunk to 25 (including Ellen) and only 14 guests (all women) were registered as staying the night. Founded in 1897and named after the Queen-Empress herself, this grand venue, boasted ‘two drawing rooms offering a choice between the Louis Quinze or the Venetian style, a dining room, a lounge, a smoking gallery and a smoking room, a library, a writing room, a tape machine for news, a telephone, and a staircase decorated with stained glass windows depicting Shakespeare’s heroines.’ The building survives appropriately enough now the flagship Jimmy Choo store.

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Harry was aged 27 when he died on 9th April the following year so he and Ellen had very little time together as man and wife. His grave registration document on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website indicates that he died of pneumonia rather than being killed in battle. His military record indicates that he was living in Catford and had enlisted in Fulham. His next-of-kin was his wife Ellen Agnes Keatch of 75 Sangley Road, Catford. This was her parents address.

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In the spring of 1918 the German Supreme Command committed itself to a series of large-scale surprise offensives against the Allied lines, an attempt to break the deadlock on the Western Front before the US Army arrived. After initial successes and some significant ground gained, the German ‘Spring Offensive’ ran out of steam, mainly due to an inability to resupply frontline troops with sufficient food, equipment and reinforcements. Considering where Harry Keatch is buried its likely he avoided the first phase of this onslaught. The attack in the Aisne area came the following month and took the Germans to within 80 miles of Paris. This was also when the Americans joined the fray and the tide soon turned.

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At the time of his death Harry was serving with the 517th Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He had a number of different army service numbers and one was the Army Cyclist Corps – something in common then with Arthur Clarke who lived just round the corner at No45 Franche Court Road. All these houses are on my regular bike route to work and I can’t help thinking about that when I whizz past (at less than 20mph of course). Harry is buried in the same small isolated Premont British Cemetery as another of the Summerstown182, William Bonken. A few years younger than Harry, they may never have met. William died the same year it was in a battle some months later. It was close to this cemetery that we found our famous ‘war horse’ shoe which has done the rounds of local schools this year as part of our Lottery Funded project.

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Harry’s widow Ellen was left in Catford. Sangley Road is just round the corner from the giant Catford Centre moggie on the South Circular. She was still living at the address with her brother George until the mid-1930s. Ellen never remarried and died in Braintree Essex in 1972 aged 82. We always look out for the big cat on our trips to Dover and it puts any of Lola & Sidney’s polyresin animals in perspective. It now has a new meaning and we’ll salute it next time and think of the young billiard marker from Garratt Lane and the housemaid from The Empress Club.

Catford Centre, Catford, London 14/6/2013

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