The stretch of the Wandle Valley near where I live has a cluster of Victorian cemeteries with enough history to keep any graveyard sleuth fully occupied for several lifetimes. They each have a different charm, but running up the hill towards Wandsworth Prison and the Common, between the railway line and Magdalen Road, Wandsworth Cemetery seems upon first impression, more regimented and less interesting than the others. Little pockets of colour do however spectacularly illuminate it. Whether it’s the flowers, brightly coloured ribbons and bows on elaborate wreaths or grave-side ornamentation symbolic of horses and life on the road, they catch the attention and make you want to stop and say hello. One very striking collection of graves are those of the Hilden family, close to the entrance near Beatrix Potter School. They speak of much-loved family members and cherished memories of lives lived well. Often accompanied by photos of the deceased, the graves are well-tended and are frequently populated with fresh flowers. In many cases there is a seat or somewhere to rest. The headstones and surrounds will most likely bear the symbol of a horse or caravan, or some other motif indicating the heritage of the people who are buried here. Many of them are what I have come to know as ‘The People of Wardley Street’.
There are two small permanent Traveller sites nearby, in secluded pockets along the River Wandle. They are so discreet that many local residents may not even know of their existence. A number of homes in the area display horseshoes, a wheel or some kind of garden ornament alluding to this history. Its not unusual to see a horse and trap go past but the days of a rag and bone man walking his horse and cart up and down the roads off Garratt Lane have passed. It was a common enough occurence twenty years ago and that lingering memory, the presence of the sites and the graves made me want to seek out why there is such a strong Romany and Traveller tradition in this part of Wandsworth.
There are a few bits and pieces in the local archives but not too much in the history books. What there was however is a lively online presence in ‘Romany Roots’ forums and chat groups, with so many of the memories centred around one particular road, Wardley Street. Its still there, much-changed but nestled between two pubs, the Jolly Gardeners and the Grosvenor Arms. Both would have seen it in its hey-day and could surely tell some tales. The Summerstown182 First World War centenary project researched a couple of soldiers with connections to Wardley Street and I started featuring it on my guided walks. So many people seemed to have had a relative there and spoke proudly of them and the community they came from. When we started commemorating ‘forgotten’ history in this area through putting up plaques, ‘The People of Wardley Street’ seemed an obvious contender.
Things really came to life with the discovery of a lively four page article in a 1948 magazine called ‘The Leader’. On the cover was a photo of George Matthews, ‘Father of the Costers’ tending his horse. There were loads of photos and quotes from residents, some of the names I was already familiar with from the graves in the Cemetery. Here was confirmation that Wardley Street was something special. It was a refreshingly positive and optimistic article about the lives and work of these ‘costermongers’. The usual mentions of ‘horses being kept in houses’ or policemen only visiting the street in pairs were noticeably absent. It focused on the great pride of the people, their hard work, long hours and a world of flowers, horses, family and community. It hinted that things might soon change and within ten years the houses began to be demolished. A self-sufficient world of mobile shop-keepers and recyclers, people who moved with the seasons, providing flowers and fruit and veg in the summer, logs for the fire in winter, was all but gone.
By 1957 most of Wardley Street was condemned and the greater part of a lengthy road of eighty homes stretching from Garratt Lane to the Wandle would be exchanged for characterless industrial development. In 1968 the Caravan Sites Act gave local authorities a duty to provide caravan sites for nomadic people. For a while in the early 70s, some of the empty spaces around Wardley Street were rejuvenated as caravans reappeared and community leader Roy Wells asserted his people’s traditional right to live in the area. As a result the council relocated families to the site alongside the Wandle, just over the bridge at the end of Trewint Street in Earlsfield. Cornered uncomfortably between a waste recycling plant and a towering new residential development, nearly fifty years later they are still there. Back in truncated Wardley Street, only three of the original houses and a pub on the corner remain. A fourth house has been converted from former stables. A small new-build care residence called ‘Wardley Street’ supports younger and elderly adults including people with learning disabilities
And Roy was right – before the station, before the rows of terraced houses and factories, before the name ‘Earlsfield’ was even considered, this was an area that had been somewhere that Travellers had long visited. With the Wandle threading its way gently towards the Thames, this stretch of its valley had attracted people on the move, emerging from rural Surrey, seeing an opportunity for livelihood in the rapidly developing city. Pasture by the river was ideal for horses and a seventeenth century map of fields in the All Farthing Manor indicates that where Wardley Street now stands was a plot of land called ‘Horse Leaz’.
The 1861 census showed two encampments and 68 occupants in seven caravans and five tents at Palmer’s Field, Wandsworth, close to where the bridge would soon be built. Some of these people described themselves as basket-makers and a nearby area of marshland fringing the Thames was famous for its osier beds and a tradition of making baskets from willow shoots. A history preserved in the naming of Osiers Road and Osiers Square. Palmer’s Field was engulfed by the gasworks and is currently submerged by the Riverside West development off Smugglers Way.
In 1871, 50 caravans were noted on nearby York Road and in 1879 the Croydon Advertiser reported that ‘many dozens of tents each holding 8-10 persons’ had appeared in Garratt Lane. Any visions of pastoral life for those stopping along this part of the Wandle were soon dissipated when the Harrison Barber company set up a horse-slaughtering yard close to where the Henry Prince Estate now stands. Its presence spawned a wave of noxious associated industries; bone boiling, glue making, cats-meat production. Maps of the time coyly indicate it as a ‘Chemical Manure Factory’ as if to disguise its true purpose. The best account of what it was like is in a book published in 1893 ‘The Horse-World of London’.
The building of an enormous new ‘Wandsworth and Clapham Union Workhouse’ on Swaffield Road must have cast a further shadow over people living in the area. Those maps however also indicate a patch of greenery, perhaps a small market garden, cheek by jowl with the knacker’s yard and the workhouse. Somehow, between 1874 and 1896, this small cluster of allotments evolved into the fledgling Wardley Street and its neighbours, Lydden Road and Bendon Valley.
A key moment appears to be what happened in 1879 and the purchase by William Penfold and Thomas Mills of a number of houses in the new road. This coincided with the Commons Acts and a number of encampments being moved from Wandsworth and Wimbledon Common. The pair rented out the yards of a number of these dwellings and a Romany/Traveller presence was maintained. In 1880 it was recorded that 25 caravans were stationed in Wardley Street. Around this time, Penfold and Mills were summoned after a report by the local Medical Health Officer claimed that the site was ‘a nuisance and injurious to health’. Their defence was that nomadic people had always lived there and the claims were withdrawn for lack of evidence. Sadly the negativity and prejudice would persist with derogatory and widely-reported comments from Charles Booth at the turn of the century.
As in neighbouring Battersea, some people would stay here in the winter months before hitting the roads for the fairs and hop-picking in summer time. As more houses were built, some of these families settled in bricks and mortar. Many continued to work with horses and carts, sold flowers or rose early to collect fresh produce from Covent Garden to bring back and sell in the neighbourhood.
A trip down the road in the 1911 census reveals a truly fascinating street of about 80 separate dwellings. So many flower-sellers, hawkers and dealers with an equal amount of general labourers. There are wood-choppers, cutlery grinders, boot repairers, horse handlers and dealers in sawdust. A smattering of musicians, organ grinders, even a ‘street pianist’ would have kept things lively, though one of these indicated that he had been ‘totally blind since nine months of age’. A few of the residents were born overseas in Italy and Austria. A yard at No60 appears to have been home to a cluster of caravans inhabited mostly by families working as flower-sellers; familiar names are Hughes, Hilden, Bassett, Anderson and Smith. Elizabeth Penfold lived in ‘a room above a stable’. At No36 George Matthews (very possibly a relative of the future ‘Father of the Costers’) proudly scrawled across the census form that ‘two sons serving in the 19th Hussars did not sleep here last night’. Quite a few people were gardeners but many of the women worked in a laundry and the Primrose Laundry was conveniently next door in Bendon Valley. There were also quite a few charwomen. Living in a prominent position at No2 was Charlotte Gess, a 71 year old widow ‘of private means’. She was part of a notable family involved in travelling shows.
It was common for organised religion to establish a presence in urban locations where travelling people settled and there was a branch of the London City Mission in Wardley Street. Just across the road on Garratt Lane, The Anchor Church parish magazines reveal sporadic attempts to set the ‘gypsies and flower-sellers’ on the path of righteousness. ‘There are few places in the County of London where aggressive Christian work is more necessary’ it stated and it would seem that Miss Esther Thompson ‘a converted flower-seller’ was a regular speaker.
One person accounted for in that census was Ernest Briggs, father of ‘The Snowman’ author and illustrator Raymond. He grew up in neighbouring Lydden Road and the locality features in the animated film ‘Ethel and Ernest’, Raymond’s heartwarming homage to his parents. Ethel was a bit snooty about her milkman husband’s roots and he was never keen to bring her home. They ended up living just the other side of King George’s Park in Ashen Grove.
Around this time an intruiging episode was the visit to the area of about 120 ‘Galician Gypsies’, many of whom were coppersmiths, passing though on their way to South America. Some apparently rented properties in Southfields and Garratt Lane. Others pitched tents on Wandsworth Common. Quite what Ethel would have made of them disturbing her Southfields suburban dream is unrecorded but they created quite a stir with sensationalist press reports fixating on their ‘display of priceless silks, bizarre colours, heavy gold and Oriental luxury’. A young photographer called Robert Scott Macfie spent much time with them documenting their progress with many extraordinary photos. It would have been most unusual if they hadn’t also popped in to visit Wardley Street.
Two Wars smashed this area apart. The First World War was a big adventure for many, an opportunity to escape the grinding poverty and lack of prospects. Former policeman Harry Daley describes his visits to the street in the 20s and 30s when it was ‘thick with deserters’ and claimed that prospective employers blanched at the name of Wardley Street. Failing to serve the country or show ‘loyalty’ would have been another populist way of castigating ‘The People of Wardley Street’ but doesn’t sit with the stories of many soldiers contributing to the war effort in both conflicts, families like the Hammonds, Woods and Wards of Summerstown, Emmanuel Bassett in the Persian Gulf, Harry Morris in North Africa. At least two Penfold graves in Wandsworth Cemetery commemorate family members killed in the Second World War. A photo of the street festooned in patriotic decorations for the silver jubilee of George V in 1935 would seem to suggest a lack of revolutionary zeal.
About five years ago I stumbled onto the London Gypsies and Travellers website and discovered their digital heritage map project. We went to an event at City Hall to hear more and met Anna Hoare and Ilinca who have become great supporters. They came on our hugely popular walks and joined an extraordinary event at the Anchor Mission Church on Garratt Lane just before Covid descended upon us in 2020. On a cold Wednesday afternoon, over 100 people piled into the tiny Church to listen to a talk and presentation. So many of them recognised their ancestors or family members in the Leader article. One of them, Noah Hilden, photographed as a boy in 1948 was present. I’ve lost count of how many other people have discovered ancestors featured in that magazine. Penfold, Hilden, Gumble, Matthews, Anderson, Botton, Bassett, Hughes…
At the event, we first raised the prospect of a historic plaque celebrating ‘The People of Wardley Street’. The response was wildly enthusiastic and further Walks since that day and the interest of the wider public have clearly confirmed that the people of this area are keen to see this heritage acknowledged and more widely known. In February, we took it one step further and discovered the yards and sites in the Battersea area. Mills Yard, Donovan’s Yard, Gurling’s Yard, Manley’s Yard are names that regularly pop up in Traveller family histories.
Some of the old press cuttings describing the sites make difficult reading, peppered as they are with racist sentiment and heavy on eulogising the evangelising of the missions. Although few traces remain, it was an education for us to stand at these locations and try to imagine what life was like for country people thrust into the Victorian industrial maelstrom. The tangle of railway lines which seem to come from every angle in this area seemed to sum up their predicament.
Another Walk will take place on 14th May, we will be back in Earlsfield, visiting the Cemetery, the site of the Chemical Manure Factory and Wardley Street. All are welcome. We are so proud to now have permission to put a plaque on one of the original Wardley Street houses and are grateful for all donations received so far to help pay for this. All being well, we hope to put the plaque up later this year. And on our Walk we will stop at that Hilden grave. Amy Hilden passed away in 1972 aged just 56. She and her husband look so happy in the photograph on their headstone. She was 32 and a young mother when she featured in the Costermonger article. It is such a glorious connection, proper living breathing history as witnessed by the care and attention given to her own and surrounding graves. Another of them is Lily Looker – a descendant on the Battersea Walk told me how she sold flowers around Piccadilly and the west end. Carnations, orchids and lucky heather. Closer inspection of her headstone reveals a motif of a flower basket etched into the red granite.
Look around you, talk to the elders in your neighbourhood, search for the little details and get to know all aspects of where you live – you never know what you’ll find but I guarantee you will end up appreciating it all the more. Wardley Street is a survivor, a remnant of another age and a different way of life. The ‘People of Wardley Street’ plaque will ensure this history is known by many more people, it acknowledges its value to wider society and will, we would hope, add to understanding. It is our very great honour to commemorate it in this way and pay tribute to all the people who have passed through it or made it their permanent home.
Thanks to Anna Hoare and London Gypsies and Travellers for their great support, enthusiasm and encouragement for this project. To Surrey History Centre for their excellent ‘Gypsy Romany and Traveller’ resource and for pointing out Alan Wright’s outstanding book ‘Their Day Has Passed’. To Wandsworth Heritage Service for the map facility used to pinpoint the development of Wardley Street. To Getty Images for images from ‘The Leader’ magazine. To Luci Hammond for the photo of the Hammond and Wood families. To Anchor Church for facilitating our research group. To the many individuals with family connections to Wardley Street and its neighbouring streets who have taken an interest, shared precious stories and memories and attended our Walks.
We continue to connect with so many people who have memories of Wardley Street and the recollections of Betsy Cooper (pictured below) are invaluable in capturing life there in the decade before most of the houses were demolished. See you all at the plaque unveiling on 22nd October!