Half-way down Garratt Lane between Wandsworth and Tooting, Earlsfield was until quite recently derided as a rather dull suburban nesting spot, lacking the history of Wandsworth or the multicultural buzz of Tooting. How wrong could you be! With its rich romany heritage, legendary tattooist Barry Louvaine, Louis de Bernières writing books in the library, the Airfix factory and the self-styled ‘Finest Laundry in England’ its always punched above its weight in the quirky stakes. Why else would Ian ‘Stupid Boy’ Lavender choose to live here above Ace Supplies in his ‘Dad’s Army’ heyday? What’s not to love about having a New Avenger at the end of your road? Even if it was Gareth Hunt, not Joanna Lumley. For a long time its most famous home-boy was Michael Aspel, newsreader and smoothie TV presenter, now its Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London from the Henry Prince estate.
One question that does pop up quite a lot is where Earlsfield gets its name. I assumed for most of the twenty five plus years I have lived here that it had something to do with Lady Di’s ancestors, the Spencer family who were famously extensive landowners in the area. Not so. Its believed that Earlsfield, Wandsworth, SW18 takes its name from a businessman called Robert Davis. Around 1868 he purchased Elm Lodge, the All Farthing Lane Manor House, looking out over a vast network of open fields, high on the eastern side of the Wandle Valley.
He enlarged it substantially and renamed it Earlsfield. This would appear to have been in honour of his mother, whose maiden name was Earls. It also referred to the place they lived in Ireland. These Irish roots hadn’t been widely mentioned and I first stumbled across them in a Council document which drew on information provided to the local Heritage Service by a family member in 2005. Apparently Earlsfield was near Manorhamilton, ‘Lovely Leitrim’ not too far away from Sligo where I have family and know quite well. I determined to set about discovering what we have come to call, the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’.
There is very little about Robert Davis in that Wandsworth Heritage Services local enquiry file but what there is is filled with delicious clues as to who he was and what he did. Two of these are brief newspaper accounts from the Wandsworth Borough News in relation to his death and funeral. It appears he died aged 71 on 31st March 1890. Earlier that day he had performed his duties as a JP and in the evening attended a quarterly meeting of the Wesleyan circuit at the Wesleyan Church Schoolroom, East Hill, in his capacity as church secretary. He was seen to stagger, was guided to a chair but died shortly afterwards. The death notice mentioned how this highly-respected individual ‘Came to London with the proverbial sixpence in his pocket – by dint of energy, perseverance, and the care of small things which has always characterised him, he succeeded in pushing his way up the social ladder to become a partner in Messers Brown, Davis and Co’. Intruigingly its suggested that this company came to ‘a most unfortunate termination’. The passage contains the information that he bought Elm Lodge in January 1868 from the heirs of William Nottidge, The house stood on the site of the old Manor House of All Farthing whose extensive grounds stretched to the railway and formerly extended across the cutting. That swathe of land was sold when the London to Southampton railway was built in 1836. ‘From 1877 Davis embarked on a series of developments in the area and as a result of this speculative building Earlsfield Station opened on 1st April 1884’.
The second newspaper account details his funeral on 12th April 1890 and the procession to Putney Cemetery from St John’s Hill Wesleyan Church. It is mentioned that the shops in Wandsworth pulled down their shutters as a mark of respect. He was seemingly ‘interred in the family vault’.
Also in the files are some brief correspondences with two family members, only one of which mentions the Irish link. One dating back to 1983 refers to a 20 page family history which would make very interesting reading. It mentions some other family members including a brother Thomas who was a doctor who married into the Hazlett family from Derry. Here’s hoping one of them gets in touch to fill in a few of the blanks.
Census records and an Ancestry tree provide other interesting insights into Robert Davis’ life and movements, particularly those of 1871 and 1881 when he was resident at Earlsfield House in Wandsworth and raising a family. Robert is indicated as being born in Leitrim, Ireland on 28th May 1819, one of the ten children of Robert Davis and his wife Mary Jane. It seems he married Mary Jane Heeley from Birmingham in Staffordshire on 4th July 1850. A year later in the census of 1851 he was aged 31 and living in Islington, north London and listed as working as a ‘Manchester Warehouseman’. The couple have a servant so clearly things are good. Their first child Robert Frederick was born here a year later, followed by Kate, Clement and Mary. A fifth child in 1861 was Ellen Rutherford Davis. This middle name indicates a link with another prominent landowning Manorhamilton family who went on to live at the Irish Earlsfield. Robert and Mary had nine children in total but very sadly she died aged 43 ‘after a brief illness’ in December 1869, not long after they had bought Elm Lodge. Just a few months earlier Robert’s mother Mary Jane Earls passed away in Ireland. To add to this, very tragically their youngest child Agnes May Davis also died that year. It would appear that it was around the time of this triple tragedy that the name of Elm Lodge was changed to Earlsfield House. This newspaper cutting from the 1920s recalls local memories of the elm trees in the area.
The Davis family were still in Islington in 1861 but a year later Arthur Earls Davis was born in Wandsworth. The 1871 census saw the widowed Robert Davis living with eight children aged from 4 to 18 years old. Esther Heeley, Robert’s sister-in-law was working as their housekeeper and there were three servants. Robert now 57 was a wholesale warehouseman and probably at the peak of his powers. But it wasn’t all business, and in October 1871 he married again to Anna Halse in Kent. The funeral note in the newspaper had stated that his company was ‘Brown, Davis and Co’ and some indications online suggest that a company of that name invented the concept of the button-up shirt. Its not a big leap from ‘manchester’, cotton and linen to shirt-making, so could this have been the source of his wealth? ‘Brown, Davis & Co. were a firm of Tailors and Gentleman’s Outfitters trading from Aldermanbury, London who in 1871 registered the first patent for a shirt that buttoned all the way down the front. Up until this time shirts were pulled on and off over the head’. This connection is still to be proved!
Did the ‘unfortunate demise’ suggested about his business force Robert to seek an alternative career as a property developer? A key moment was the purchase in 1876 of a further 59 acres which he began building on shortly afterwards. Earlsfield Road, arrowing south west from almost straight in front of the house down to Garratt Lane was authorised in 1878 and other streets to the west of Garratt Lane such as Summerley, Skelbrook and Trewint emerged a few years later. The railway station opened on 1st April 1884, prompting even more frantic house-building. Swaffield Road popped up with the monstrous new ‘Wandsworth and Clapham Union Workhouse’ at the end of it in 1886. When Robert died, the remainder of his land, house and property were sold off to build Barmouth, Swanage and Killarney Roads. By 1900 the area to the north of the station was fully built up and would have been almost unrecognisable from the one Robert Davis moved into. I like to think that Killarney Road, which would have run right across the southern side of the house was a nice little reminder of the owner’s heritage, though it is a long way from Manorhamilton.
In the 1881 census, four of the Davis children were stll living at Earlsfield House and the family had a staff of seven to look after them. Clearly Robert Davis was highly successful and life was good. Although his property development was in full swing, on the census records he indicated the profession of ‘Manchester manufacture’. Whatever the case, he was a very wealthy man and would leave £28,366 in his will when he died in 1890.
The ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’ search went off in completely the wrong direction when I became convinced that the Irish version of Earlsfield House was Mercy Convent just outside Ballymote, not far from Sligo. It fitted the bill for a great story, especially when the eleven bedroom property went on the market, complete with one nun still in residence. A local historian put me straight, he told me that the Gore-Booths of Lissadell had owned it and the Earl in question was the Earl of Shelbourne. I should have paid closer attention to the council document as the real Earlsfield was less than a mile outside Manorhamilton. No trace of it though on any map so I had to call in local assistance. Thankfully I was put in touch with Dominic Rooney.
Dominic wrote back immediately sharing my enthusiasm for the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’ and alerting me to a historian in the Manorhamilton area called Margaret Connolly. He confirmed that Earlsfield was a locality on the outskirts of Manorhamilton, in the townland of Donoughmore, one mile east of the town on the Enniskillen Road. He also identified a John Davis and a Robert Davis who had once lived in the neighbouring village of Lurganboy in the 1790s. They both added their names to a petition by residents of Manorhamilton and Glenboy to the Earl of Leitrim in 1792 deploring a recent act of parliament against distilling which had ruined the local whiskey distilling trade; and again in 1798 to a second petition by the same residents requesting the building of a proper barracks in Manorhamilton. The second petition describes the signatories as all ‘gentlemen’ which shattered my hopes of a rags to riches tale. Much later, it appeared that a Richard Earls Davis, Robert’s brother was the first secretary of the famous Sligo Leitrim Railway.
Later that week Dominic sent me a map pinpointing precisely where Earlsfield was. Parish baptismal records from the 1880s indicated a Wesleyan Methodist connection and this seemed to fit with Robert Davis’ own Methodist convictions. It was clearly now the same family and we knew where they came from. I resisted the temptation to google it and set off to see it for myself on a visit that coincided with helping my sister move house.
Just before I left, Dominic sent a newspaper account detailing how a recent owner of Earlsfield House had created a prize -winning garden there in 1973. A very evocative photo gave a tantalising glimpse of it through tall pine trees. Very sadly we heard that the house was destroyed by fire in December 1987, though it seemed another property was rebuilt on the location. It was a wet weekend and although we were on a major deadline in a van hired to move Margaret’s boxes, we couldn’t resist trying to find it ourselves. For two days we assumed it was a charred ruin close to the old railway line on the edge of the town. We were so wrong.
On Saturday night, worn out after a day of frantic de-cluttering, we passed through Manorhamilton on our way back from Enniskillen and saw that there was activity at the old Methodist Church, now an arts venue called The Glens Centre. We stopped and were invited in to an an Irish Language Event. That was interesting enough in itself but afterwards when we announced out mission and chatted about the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’ , the banter and enthusiasm was tremendous. The Methodist influence in this town is notable, with John Wesley visiting here on at least seven occasions. The Earls and Davis families were clearly moved by the message but whilst some converted to the cause, other family members stayed with the established Church.
We met Margaret Connolly on our last day. There was snow on Benbulben and all the mountain tops on the way down as we drove over from Sligo. It lashed rain and sleet as she took us to the site of Earlsfield. If we’d taken clearer note of Dominic’s original instruction we might have found it earlier. We had been passing it on the road to Enniskillen every day. Margaret’s car pulled up an avenue to a solid olive green coloured farmhouse. We knew the sad story about the fire and that what was there now was very different from Davis times, so the house felt oddly of little interest. It was more about the setting and the area itself. So this was the place from where the man who gave the name to Earlsfield, SW18 had set out. We had made the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’.
We are indebted to Des Keaney for sharing photos of his family’s home. His grandmother bought it in the late 1920s from a Dr Rutherford who was descended from the Davis family. Tended by Des’ father, the garden won the Bord Fáilte National Roadside Garden competition in 1973 and earned him the title of ‘Ireland’s Gardener of the Year’.
Margaret took us next to Cloonclare Parish Church to be met by Rosemary and June who welcomed us warmly with a wonderful photographic index of all the old grave records ready for us to look at. There were indeed plenty of Rutherford and Davis burials but the one that jumped out was Thomas Davis, the doctor mentioned in the Wandsworth Heritage Service communication.
There was a tablet to him at the church indicating his vital community role as the Medical Officer of the Manorhamilton Workhouse and Lurganboy Dispensary. Its not inconceivable that he might have held this position at the time of the famine. We had already visited the site of the workhouse and famine memorial, on a hill behind the Health Service Offices. The photograph below shows the Fever Hospital which stood behind the workhouse. Its a sad, bleak place, memories of dark times when one million died and another million emigrated. The Davis family with a substantial house on good land would have had the resources to avoid the full effect of this, but the potato famine of 1844-49 could very well have precipitated Robert’s move to England.
Margaret took us past that house called Rockwood where Thomas Davis lived with his wife Alice. She also showed us the home of another brother, Robert Earls Davis in nearby Lurganboy. We also visited the church where we think he may be buried but the headstones are worn and very difficult to read. He was Secretary of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway from 1877 to 1895.
With two prominent brothers and so many local links, Robert Davis had a very strong base in the Manorhamilton area but chose to make his name across the water. Quite literally. He couldn’t have left a more outstanding legacy than the name of a suburb in one of south west London’s largest and most noteworthy boroughs. There is still so much to do, a leading local railway historian has offered to help and people on both sides of the Irish Sea are curious to find out more. We’d also love to hear from the Davis family.
I had to have a look for Robert’s grave and after working out that the obvious Putney Vale Cemetery only opened up in 1891, I thought I’d look in the old Putney Lower Common Cemetery near Barnes. By chance I happened to be cycling past one sunny morning on my way over to Kew Gardens to do some research on ‘The Daffodil King’. I popped in and found him within minutes. ‘In Loving Memory of Robert Davis of Earlsfield, Wandsworth Common’. An ornate raised sarcophagus, close to the Chapel, that he would have visited twice to bury his wife Mary Jane and baby daughter. A nice touch is that the names of all nine of his children are inscribed on it; Ellen Rutherford, Arthur Earls, George Herbert and Edith Alice on one side. Robert Frederick, Kate, Clement Francis and Mary Emily on the other. Agnes May who died as an infant in 1870 is on one end. His second wife Anna (formerly Halse) died in 1900 and is in the neighbouring grave along with her daughters.
Sadly there is no trace at all of Wandsworth’s Earlsfield House which was located at the top of All Farthing Lane, just as it bends around after the junction with Barmouth Road. Killarney Road ran across it and a local resident remembers that the shop on the corner, which still stands, was where a number of the properties were managed from. He also recalled a Methodist Chapel on Crieff Road. The name does live on, a severe-looking block of private residences which were for a long time a children’s home and an off-shoot of the Workhouse, stands on the corner of Swaffield Road and Garratt Lane. The main Wesleyan Chapel that I suspect Robert attended was on East Hill opposite the alms houses. Sadly it was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
So, the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’ has been established but there is still lots more to find out so stay tuned for more discoveries. We’ll be visiting some of the locations mentioned here on my ‘Walk the Lane’ Tour on Saturday 8th June as part of this year’s Wandsworth Heritage Festival. Local residents and councillors here have shown great enthusiasm for the story and wouldn’t it be lovely if the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’ resulted in some kind of official recognition of this lovely piece of shared heritage. A sign, a plaque, a few exchange visits, maybe even a twinning? Stranger things have happened. We have so much in common!
Thanks so much to Dominic Rooney, Margaret Connolly, London Metropolitan Archives and Wandsworth Heritage Services for helping establish the ‘Earlsfield Celtic Connection’.