Persistent rumours have abounded in SW17 circles over the past few years that Bob Marley spent some time in Tooting. He laid down some grooves at the recording studio above the Mixed Blessings Bakery on Mitcham Lane. He courted a nurse from St George’s Hospital. He was spotted on a bus in Blackshaw Road. As much as we would love it all to be true, our investigations, including conversations with those who would surely know, have failed so far to come up with conclusive proof. It is though well documented that Bob spent quality time just a few stops up the Northern Line in Kennington. Playing football in the park, hanging out at the Rastafarian temple on St Agnes Place and recording Exodus. This was released by Island Records on 3rd June 1977. St Agnes Place was London’s longest running squat from 1969 to 2007.
We’ve already established one fabulous Bob Marley connection with the Summerstown182. His father Norval spent some time at a convalescent camp in Shropshire in 1918 where William Caudle from Garratt Lane was also a patient. Now we have another. Kennington was very much the orbit of William James Wood. The lad lived in nearby Smith Street and inspired by tales of FA Cup Finals at the nearby Kennington Oval, he probably kicked a ball on the same patch of grass as Bob, Bunny and the rest of the Wailers. I’ve also got fond memories of playing football in Kennington Park, most especially scoring a 30 yard screamer against the Wandsworth Warriors on my fortieth birthday match. Its not far from the imposing St Mark’s Church where the war memorial has over 400 names. This was once a place of execution where 21 Jacobite rebels captured at Culloden were hung drawn and quartered in 1745.
Frederick William Wood, a labourer and his wife Mary Ann had their roots firmly in this Lambeth area. They had nine children, five boys and four girls. Frederick their eldest was born in 1881 and John two years later. At least three of their boys served in the First World War and two of them, William and Robert were killed and are on our war memorial in Summerstown. Their third child, Elizabeth Jane was born in August 1884 when the family lived at 9 Clark’s Row, part of a small enclave of streets between Brixton Road and Clapham Road, near St Michael’s Church on Stockwell Park Road. Lilian Baylis who famously managed the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres lived here. Van Gogh also spent a year just round the corner and has a plaque and a road named after him. Its all very close to the elusive Type Archive which I never seem to be able to locate.
The Woods were still there when William James was born on 2nd May 1886. His father is listed then as working as a general dealer. By the 1830’s Stockwell Park was an exclusive early Victorian neighbourhood with many imposing villas. The coming of the railways, and the opening of Stockwell Underground station in 1890, attracted more working people and smaller terraced houses and mansion blocks sprang up. Stockwell Gardens Estate was built in the 1930s, and the Studley Estate in the 1950s. In 1944 a V1 destroyed a number of houses on the corner of Stockwell Park Road and Lorn Road, killing 11 people. Clark’s Row and Halstead Street were demolished in the fifties and are now submerged beneath the Slade Gardens Adventure Playground. By the way, that’s Slade as in the Art School, nothing to do with Noddy Holder. St Michael’s Church dating from 1841, survived extensive damage from this bomb and is still going strong. There are some lovely houses in the area with decorative ornamentation seemingly matching the pinnacles on the church.
This area does have some ‘purple’ on the Charles Booth map. He visited in 1899 and despite its suburban pretensions, described this location as ‘very poor and rough; children dirty’. In 1893 when Fanny was born the Wood family were at 44 Halstead Street. Robert is noted as having been born in Kennington in 1897 so they were probably still in this area. They would most certainly have been around in 1896 to see Reverend Begbie replace the pinnacles on the church and repair the tower.
The 1901 census indicates they had moved a little bit further north and were at 70 Smith Street, off Camberwell Road, not too far from the Oval Cricket Ground. There were nine children at this point, ranging from 20 year old Frederick to two and a half year old Charlie. William was sixteen and working as an errand boy. This venue had been hosting the FA Cup Final until just a few years before. The 1893 final saw West Brom beat Aston Villa 3-1 in front of 33,000 people. Close to Kennington Park this was a crowded area but probably a bit more pleasant. Booth noted nearby Kennington Terrace as being ‘very respectable, all with servants’. Interesting then to note that St Agnes Place where Bob later hung out, was also a road of 22 houses purpose built for the families of servants who worked at Buckingham Palace. Since the 2007 evictions its been completely reshaped into a row of oddly characterless Georgian-style townhouses, contrasting so sharply with its former existence.
Child mortality was of course rife in the early years of the century but all nine Wood children appear to have survived. Only the four youngest were still at home in 1911 when the family pitched up in Summerstown, at 56 Smallwood Road. Fred and Mary had now been married for 32 years. Phoebe and Frances, aged 21 and 19 were working as domestic servants, 15 year old Robert was an errand boy for a chemist and the youngest George was 12. We don’t know where William now 26 could have been and with his army records also unattainable, the rest of his life is speculation. A note in the St Mary’s Church parish magazine from August 1917 states ‘We have heard this month that Robert Wood of the Northamptonshire Regiment and his brother William Wood of the Royal Fusiliers have been killed in action’. This was certainly a long time to wait for confirmation of his death. Identifying him as the person on our memorial took some time but we are almost certain that he was killed on 7th November 1915 and is buried at Fricourt, near Albert. Indications are that he lived in Brixton and a William Wood is one of forty names listed as being on the lost St Michael’s Church ‘War Shrine’.
Raised in Hounslow, the 11th (Service) Battalion (London Regiment) of the Royal Fusiliers were part of the 18th (Eastern) Division of General Kitchener’s Second New Army. Their early days were rather shambolic with few officers to train the new volunteers and no organised accomodation or equipment. They were initially located in the Colchester area but moved in May 1915 to Salisbury Plain where King George V inspected them on 24 June. They were fortunate to avoid Gallipoli and went to France in July 1915 and moved to Flesselles, near Amiens. There are no indications of them being involved in a major attack until the Somme the following year so it appears likely that William died in some isolated action whilst both sides were settling down to the prospect of trench warfare.
A few miles outside Albert, Fricourt was attacked on the first day of the Somme offensive, by then William Wood was already dead. Point 110 Old and New Military Cemeteries are either side of a track to the south of it and named after the contour on the map. Point 110 Old Military Cemetery contains 100 Commonwealth burials of the First World War including William Wood. A small wood on a ridge, the Bois Francais is just beyond these cemeteries, the enemy lines relatively close together as neither wanted to concede the high ground. The trenches near here had London names like Park Lane, Old Kent Road, Duke Street and Shooters Hill.
William Wood may have been settled into his own life by the time the rest of his family came to Summerstown. Certainly he appears more connected to the Stockwell and Kennington area. But his family now living in Smallwood Road placed his name on the war memorial alongside his brother Robert and thats how we’ve come to know about him. When I went to have a look at St Agnes Place I chatted to a very nice lady who told me that her father had worked with Bob Marley during his time in the area and should be able to confirm or deny the Tooting rumour. I’m hoping very much to hear from her. Whenever I go past there in future I’ll certainly think of William Wood along with the movement of jah people.