Its about half way down Mitcham Road heading south of Tooting. The colourful yellow, green and black façade of Mixed Blessings West Indian Bakery will soon be further enlivened by the addition of a blue plaque. Anyone crossing the zebra will have their spirits raised by the sight of two magical words; ‘Reggae’ and ‘Music’. It will be placed there this summer and be a wonderful addition to the rich musical heritage of south London, a permanent reminder of the beautiful sounds created at this special location. And when people seek out the names of the artists who recorded there, they will be amazed at how many of them are so familiar!
The idea for a plaque came out of the Black Lives Matter protests on Tooting Common last summer and a Black Pound Day Cycle Trail in September. On one of the stops I was asked to say a few words about the history of the recording studio, that people vaguely know was once located here above the bakery. There is a roll call of famous reggae names, synthpop pioneers, funkateers, glamrockers and of course the Bob Marley story! The owner came out and we suddenly thought why not put up a plaque so everybody gets to hear about this. A Crowdfunder appeal soon kicked into action as we set about raising the cash. Various lockdowns have slowed things up but people have been very generous and we soon achieved our target. The plaque is being manufactured and once its ready, we will sort out a day to put it up and invite everyone along to see it unveiled.
So many people have passed through what was generally known as the TMC Studios (Tooting Music Centre) but its perhaps the reggae musicians who have left the greatest legacy. Aswad, Maxi Priest, Dillinger, Black Slate, Sly and Robbie, Toots and The Maytals, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Errol Dunkley, Mikey Dread, Osibisa, Leroy Smart, the list goes on and on…There are so many connections and threads, best summed up by lovers rock pioneer Dennis Bovell and Matumbi entwined with Wandsworth school friends Nick Straker and members of New Musik. Various engineers who worked there went on to be involved with some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Bernie Proctor, an ex-Merchant navy seaman who drifted into show business set up a record and music shop here in the sixties. His main claim to fame was an appearance as a harmonica player in the 1962 Second World War film ‘The Password is Courage’ starring Dirk Bogarde. Tooting had quite a Teddy Boy scene in the fifties but evolved into a major pop music venue with big names appearing at The Granada and Wimbledon Palais. Pubs like The Castle ran a blues club and rock bands appeared at The Fountain on Garratt Lane. They all passed through; The Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Mott the Hoople, The Faces, Status Quo. A teenage Mod called Marc Bolan moved in just round the corner. Bernie wanted a bit of the action and in 1971 working with engineer Steve Vaughan he decided to have a go at running a recording studio. One of the first to visit were Errol Brown’s Hot Chocolate. Other major seventies hitmakers, Mud and The Glitter band would soon follow. A procession of punk rockers, synthpopsters and rockers would soon also be on the trail to the Mitcham Road hit factory; The UK Subs, The Slits, Girlschool, The Mobiles, Captain Sensible, The Lambrettas, The Piranhas, on and on…
One enduring connection is Euel Johnson’s ‘Music Specialist’ shop in Tooting’s Broadway Market which has traded for 49 years, for a while alongside another outlet in Brixton. In 1971 with Earl Martin and Pat Rhoden he founded a new independent label called Jama Records. Using TMC as their main recording studio, Jama Music started with an 8 track studio downstairs in the shop. ‘We would bounce from one track to the other yet produce beautiful, terrific sounds’. Mr Johnson opened his shop in the Market in 1972 and Bernie was a regular visitor most Saturday mornings, popping in to listen to demo discs or new releases. A few years later he improved the studio massively incorporating a 16-track system with all the available adjustable features necessary for a modern studio. ‘The word soon went out around Europe about this great sound coming out of Tooting which could compete with any world-class recording sound.’
One of the engineers there Andy ‘McEdit’ Geirus would agree. ‘There was something about the studio that the reggae artists really loved – they even referred to it as ‘Channel Two’. The construction was solid, creating a great quality of sound so it became a favourite place to record’. He recalls frequent all-night sessions there, preferred by most reggae artists and a procession of top names passing through. It was hard work mind, with the pressure of having reggae royalty like Sly and Robbie on the other side of the glass booked for a two hour session. But so many good times when they would all ‘just sit there grooving the night away.’ Word got around that this was a studio in London where engineers like Andy and the late Rick Norton really knew their reggae and could give people what they wanted. Though Chris Lane of Dub Vendor recalls recommending it to UB40 for their first album and by mistake they ended up going to another TMC, The Music Centre in Wembley. Andy was for a while part of a house band which featured Limmie Snell and was also a member of the Nick Straker Band. Another engineer Pete Hammond went on to work for Stock Aitken Waterman churning out the hits for the likes of Kylie Minogue. Safta Jaffery became a huge name in music industry management working with The Stone Roses, Coldplay and discovering Muse.
There were numerous sightings of famous names in the area to add to the TMC legend. One local resident, pregnant at the time, remembers being knocked over on Mitcham Road by a member of Mud. The band came running towards her pursued by a crowd of screaming schoolgirls. Les Gray apologised profusely and all was well. Musicians were constantly spotted crossing the road, having a quick drink in The Mitre or hauling equipment about. ‘World of Sport’ favourite, the masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki had terrified shoppers running for cover when he turned up at TMC to record his entrance music dressed in his full costume. Costa, whose shoe repair shop next door has been there longer than the studio recalls fixing up a pair of boots for Gary Glitter.
There will be many stories of good times and great nights at this location but perhaps the one that most local people have heard of happened shortly after the owners of the bakery moved in. Renovations took place and they pulled back a temporary partition to reveal a wall covered in signatures. Clearly distinguishable among them was the name of Bob Marley. Sadly this was before everyone took photos of everything and in the building work chaos the wall was broken up and loaded into a skip. Bob was of course based in London in the early seventies and later lived for a period just up the road near Battersea Park and Kennington. A Mauritian friend of mine swears he saw him on a bus in Blackshaw Road but the story that he had a girlfriend nursing at St George’s might be stretching it.
Tragically, Bernie’s son was killed by a drunk driver and TMC Studios rather sadly faded away sometime around 1987. Bernie has also passed away and all that’s left are lots of fond mentions and scattered reminiscences online. It’s a place that clearly held very dear memories for a lot of people and is associated with so many extraordinary talents that it deserves to be acknowledged. On behalf of everyone who has contributed towards the plaque, we are so proud to bring this story to a wider audience. Its our show of appreciation for all the musicmakers, engineers and technicians whose artistry and skills have given people so much pleasure.
Growing up in Northern Ireland in the early seventies, we needed an injection of glam rock more than most and ‘Top of the Pops’ was my weekly shot of escapism. Slade, Sweet and Wizzard were all pretty exciting but leading the charge for freedom was a delicate London Boy whose wild hair, eyeliner and glittery cheeks suggested something more exotic. His hypnotic electric beats and poetic lyrics delivered in a dreamy laidback drawl mesmerised this nine year old. I may have had posters of Lou Macari and Pancho Pearson on my bedroom wall but I truly loved Marc Bolan and his band T.Rex. Who would have thought that 50 years on I would be living in the street next to where his old family home was, planning to champion his memory with a blue plaque!
Summerstown, near Wandsworth in south west London has had a bit of bad press which is not fair when you think where it is. About eight miles out of central London, not far from Wimbledon and just up the road from vibrant multicultural Tooting. Next door Earlsfield is a homely place with lots of coffee shops and hairdressers. Its renowed for its gypsy/traveller heritage which Marc might have appreciated had he lived in the area a bit longer. Connecting it all is a historic route called Garratt Lane, off which the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan grew up. This is the valley of the River Wandle, low-lying and fertile but prone to flooding. One story says it got its name because it was only habitable in the summer months. ‘It is flat and low, suitable rather for vegetables than men’ wrote the poet Edward Thomas when he passed through in 1913. A few years earlier, social reformer Charles Booth described it as ‘exceedingly depressing one should suppose to health, as it undoubtedly is to the imagination; a feeling enhanced by the presence of two fever hospitals, two cemeteries, a lunatic asylum and a prison’. By the time Mark arrived they were all still there, and are still here today! Some of the allotments have been converted to sewage treatment works and a strip of car showrooms, warehouses and light industry are dissected by an intimidating procession of electricity pylons. It’s all a very long way from Carnaby Street and Stoke Newington, but this is where the Feld family; Sid, Phyllis, Harry and Mark came to live in the early sixties.
Their prefab was on a road running alongside the famous Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium where dog racing and speedway were still attracting huge crowds. The local glamour boys at the time were the speedway stars who rode for the Wimbledon Dons. Its unlikely that the thirteen year old Marc was impressed. Their home might have been brand new, with fitted furniture and TV, but being rehoused on the other side of London away from all his friends would have been a huge shock. There’s a certain vibe around here that I feel must have helped kickstart his teenage dream – driving a van, flipping burgers or going to the dog track was definitely a world he needed to get away from. Having said that, the sport crowds might have meant good opportunities for busking, as was the proximity of a cluster of local pubs; The Prince of Wales, The White Lion, The Corner Pin and The Plough, all literally minutes from his front door. According to Mark Paytress, author of ‘Twentieth Century Boy – The Marc Bolan Story’ after leaving school, the teenage dreamer spent a lot of time kicking-back on his own in that prefab – reading, listening to music and planning his escape route whilst the rest of the family were at work. Sid drove a delivery van for the nearby Airfix factory which made model aeroplane kits. Phyllis gave up her job on a fruit stall at Berwick Street market and now worked for the Post Office Savings Bank at Olympia. Brother Harry, with whom he now shared a bedroom had an office job in Wardour Street.
Over the last seven or eight years I’ve been promoting local history in this area. A great way of doing that is by putting up plaques which are paid for by donations from people who come on my regular guided walks. We called our project ‘Summerstown182’ because the first thing we did was research 182 names on a local First World War memorial. About 25 of them lived in the road into which the Felds moved; indeed many of their relatives were still around. A hugely popular topic on the walks has been Marc’s connection with the area. The prefabs are long gone but I alway liked to stop close to the site of his home to talk about him. The Felds new residence was a highly-desirable Scandinavian-designed ‘Sun Cottage’ prefab. Described in the blurb as ‘20 by 18 feet, containing a lounge, two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and all fixtures, fittings and furniture’. Mark Paytress wrote that it was like ‘a luxury caravan with a pointed roof’. Wandsworth Council put sixteen of them up on a site opposite the stadium in 1961. From the mid to late sixties Marc pulled away from the area as he got deeper into the music, drawn to the clubs and boutiques in the West End. It was still very much his family home though and ‘Wimbledon 0697’ was the prefab telephone number used by Marc in July 1967 in an advert in Melody Maker to recruit for his new band ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’. It was also where payment was sent by the BBC the following year after an appearance on John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’ show.
The family connection would however continue for some years. An electoral roll from 1970 shows his parents, Simeon (Sid) and Phyllis still there, at No27 Summerstown, their younger son on the cusp of international fame. They moved a few miles up the road to live on the Ashburton estate in Putney where Sid worked as a caretaker. Marc later bought a property nearby at 142 Upper Richmond Road which was where he and Gloria were driving on the fateful night when he was killed, 16th September 1977.
I’ve met a number of people on my walks who remembered Mark Feld from his early Summerstown days. It was a long time ago, but one person recalled ‘my cousin practising with him at my Auntie’s house on Headworth Street’. Someone did his Mum’s hair in the salon on Aboyne Road. Others spoke of a very well-dressed young man buying cakes in Carter’s bakery. He had a swagger and was often seen with a guitar slung over his shoulder. People reminisce about his brief time at Hillcroft School (now Ernest Bevin College) on local social media, where he appears to have been one of the first Mods. John Ford, who went on to form The Strawbs and have some big hits himself recalls being in the same leaving year there as Mark in 1963 and hanging out at his home in Summerstown.
Another old friend mentioned him being part of a teen band called ‘The Cabinet’. They practised in the youth club at Tranmere Road School (now Earlsfield Primary). Friday night there was ‘Record Night’ and there were regular Sunday morning sessions outside the prefab jamming old Elvis numbers. They performed at wedding receptions on Henry Prince Estate. ‘We got paid about a fiver and all the beer we could drink’. Occasionally they went to a jazz club in the Surrey Tavern pub at the top of Burntwood Lane. Mark’s part-time jobs included washing dishes at the well-loved Wimpy burger bar and a brief stint at Edgar’s menswear shop near Tooting Broadway. Mark Paytress recounts a visit to the local labour exchange ended up with Mark filling in a form stating his profession as ‘a poet’. Quite a few people refer to his modelling and the fact he was always very well-turned out.
He had been featured in an article about the emerging Mod scene in ‘Town’ magazine and must have relished the fact that Tooting was full of tailors shops at the time. His friends recall Mark buying a pair of jodphurs from a riding and saddlery shop on Garratt Lane called Rawle & Son. Its very fondly recollected for having a life-size model of a horse in the window. The boots would have helped with the modelling which was his main source of income around the age of 15. Occasional work with some very well known clothing chains included John Temple and even an appearance in a Littlewoods catalogue. He is remembered as being generous with his clothing, often giving any spare gear to his friends.
Another local memory recalls Mark buying a guitar at ‘The Treasure Chest’- an ‘aladdin’s cave’ run by an eccentric Dutch wheeler-dealer known as ‘The Maniac’. Somewhere that might have been passed on the way to school, it set the pulses of local youths racing – as well as musical equipment, selling ‘air-guns, catapults and harpoons’. Its now a grocery store opposite the Tooting Islamic Centre.
He read avidly, Tolkien, Rimbaud, C.S. Lewis and the mystic poetry of Kahlil Gibran. Second hand bookshops were dotted around Tooting Broadway like the one beside the pie and mash shop on Selkirk Road. When Andy Ellison visited the prefab to have a chat about Marc joining ‘John’s Children’ he recalled him reading a copy of ‘The Tin Drum’ by Gunter Grass. He also served up mushrooms on toast.
I’ve been talking about Marc quite a lot on my walks and would probably have tried organising a plaque for him some years ago were it not for a huge redevelopment in this neighbourhood. The old greyhound stadium site opposite where the Felds lived was demolished a few years ago, the site was flattened and is now being transformed into an enormous housing development cradling a new football stadium which has been up and running since November. It’s a fairytale return to the area for AFC Wimbledon who have been exiled for almost thirty years and though he might not have been much of a sports fan, Marc would surely have appreciated the romance. The pub buildings are all still hanging in there, though in different guises; a tile warehouse, a flooring shop and a supermarket. The Corner Pin is the last great survivor, still doing what it says on the tin and joined by a relatively new kid on the block, a very successful micro-brewery called By the Horns.
There is a photo on the ‘Palaces for the People’ Facebook group which is believed to be the Feld prefab. The location would appear to be about half way down the road called Summerstown and very close to the By the Horns brewery. There’s another very good aerial photo of these dwellings alongside the stadium on the cover of a Wimbledon speedway programme. Apparently the Feld homestead was in the middle of the front row. The Sun Cottages disappeared in the early seventies at about the same time as Marc was storming the pop charts. They’ve been replaced by a string of light industrial units which may not last much longer themselves. Its an odd collection; a carpet shop, a car repair unit and somewhere that makes sash windows, rubbing alongside the hipster brewery. Although all has changed quite drastically, I feel the spirit of Marc hangs over this area, never more vividly than on the night of 16 September 2017, the fortieth anniversary of Marc’s death. I had a word with the DJ who had his decks set up outside The Horns and as the pink sun sank over the old dog track, we raised a glass of Hopadelic to the sound of ‘Solid Gold, Easy Action’. I often think about him when I go past that bakery or the pubs that he busked outside. How much better it would be if there was a plaque with his name on it so that everybody could know about this!
One of those pubs I mentioned, The Prince of Wales is now a Tesco Express. It’s a very old building and will survive the changes all around it. Part of it extends seductively behind the main shopfront, beckoning people towards the stadium and the road called Summerstown where the Felds lived. Its overlooked by a terrace with a rather ornate balustrade, adding a nice touch of theatricals. It seems like a great place for a plaque and that’s where we would like to put it. But we need Tesco to agree so are waiting to hear from them. The above visual was created to show them what we would like to do and the words on it have not yet been finalised.
We would love any fans of Marc to come to Summerstown, to visit the area where he spent his early teenage years. The place where he morphed from Mark Feld to Marc Bolan and set out on his path to stardom. We are now planning a ‘Marc Bolan Teenage Dream’ tour. It will happen in mid-September around the time of Marc’s death when a lot of fans often come to London. We’ll meet at Tooting Broadway tube station and I’ll walk everybody round and introduce the to some key locations. There’s a lot of history here, Marc may not have played at the famous Tooting Granada venue, now a bingo hall, but he was around when The Beatles were there in 1963 and he saw The Rolling Stones there the following year.
At the dawn of the age when people were wearing flowers in their hair, I feel sure that Marc would have appreciated our connection with the daffodil. We’ll walk about a mile or so to Summerstown, passing the site of the old nurseries where Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ cultivated the nation’s favourite flower. We celebrated him with a plaque recently and a campaign called ‘Blooming Tooting’ has encouraged people to plant bulbs. Even if we are still living under restrictions, there will be a self-guided walking tour available to download. That’s what I’ve been doing with all my local history walks, with people using them as their lockdown exercise breaks. You can find all the information here https://summerstown182.wordpress.com
We may not be able to put up the plaque as planned due to the current pandemic but we would however like to give Marc Bolan fans the opportunity to contribute to making it happen. If lots of people chip in small amounts then we can all say we were part of it. As soon as we know we have permission, we will publicise the fact and set a Crowdfunder up and try to raise the £500 needed. If normal life has returned, we will try to create an event around the unveiling, as we have done in the past. Some speakers, a poetry recital, maybe even a bit of music up on that terrace. We will of course need a special person to do the unveiling. Who could that be? All suggestions are welcome! We would naturally be delighted if any of Marc’s family were able to be involved or attend.
I’m very grateful to a local musician called Jack Hardman who approached me a few months ago pointing out that Marc’s connection to the area is still largely unknown. We’ve decided now is the time to really do something. 2021 seems like an appropriate moment, half a century on from those first unforgettable T.Rex Number Ones, not to mention the significant ‘Electric Warrior’ anniversary and the disappearance of those Summerstown prefabs! The old ‘Prince of Wales’ pub is in a prominent place on a roundabout at the junction of the very busy Garratt Lane. A plaque would be seen by so many people, not least all the football fans going to the new stadium. As local residents, it will be a further reason for us to take pride in the area where we live and encourage future generations to have an awareness and appreciation of Marc’s music.
We intend to keep everyone notified about how this idea progresses but I wanted Marc’s fans all over the world to know that there is another special place, here in a little corner of south west London where his legacy lives on. Whether there is a plaque to look at or not, I really hope you will come to visit and perhaps participate in the proposed ‘Teenage Dream Tour’. In one of his best-known songs, Marc asked ‘Whatever Happened to the Teenage Dream?’ Let me tell you everybody, it is here in Summerstown and ‘Blooming Tooting’ and we can’t wait to share it with you. FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Look out for ‘Marc Bolan’s Tooting Teenage Dream’ Summerstown182 Zoom Talk, happening 7pm, Thursday 25 March. Thanks to everyone on local social media sites whose members contributed their recollections; including ‘I Grew Up in Tooting’. ‘Tooting History Group’, ‘Earlsfield in the 70s/80s’. Mark Paytress’ book ‘Twentieth Century Boy – The Marc Bolan Story’ gives great insights into his time in Summerstown. The ‘Palaces For The People’ website has more about prefabs.We particularly look forward to welcoming members of the Official Marc Bolan Fan Club to ‘Blooming Tooting’!
Raising spirits as we went into lockdown, this spring saw a glorious carpet of historic daffodils emerge all over Tooting and along Garratt Lane. A blast of sunshine cheering people up on their daily exercise and thanks to extensive social media coverage, something everyone was able to share at a difficult time. A beautiful art installation exhibiting at Tooting Market for Wandle Fortnight showed just a small selection of the photos we received. Please try and visit and see if your daffodil is there! NOW EXTENDED BY POPULAR DEMAND TO 31st OCTOBER!
Its hard to explain just how wonderful last year’s Tooting ‘Daffodil Day’ was. On a patch of grass at the entrance to the Aboyne Estate, Garratt Lane, over one hundred people attended the unveiling of a blue plaque celebrating Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ on a glorious September afternoon. With the King Edward VII statue outside Tooting Broadway station garlanded in flowers and clutching a giant daffodil, the Tootopia and Wandle Fortnight festivals in full flow, there was a glorious buzz in the air. Historic daffodil bulbs of the type grown here by Barr had been acquired and The Chair of the Royal Horticultural Society Bulb Committee flew in from Holland to plant the first bulb.
On that occasion and over the next weeks, daffodil bulbs were distributed to the Tooting community; schools, mosques, churches, charities, estates, food banks. Many of these were planted in public spaces like Streatham Cemetery and the Aboyne and Hazelhurst estates. Daffodil fever gripped Tooting and we gave out almost 5,000 bulbs and instructions on how to plant them. We tried to ensure every primary school got a selection but wanted to include some spontaneous drops, so we slung a couple of sacks over our shoulders and went walkabout to find suitable homes. There were some stand-out moments.
Walking past the Al-Muzzamil Mosque we ran into the Imaam who got out his phone to show photos of his spectacular sunflowers. Six months later he texted a picture of the beautiful daffodils they grew. At the United Reformed Church they were serving up lunch at the Graveney Canteen. I got up and said a few words and we handed out bulbs which were as well-received as the tasty dinner. Bulbs were also planted at significant locations in Tooting history. A car-park at Tooting Broadway marks the site of the Drouet’s children’s home cholera outbreak of 1849. It took a really strong daffodil to break through there, but what a view, looking across Garratt Lane at some of the places where Peter Barr once lived.
In November, at the end of a poignant 75th anniversary ceremony involving nearby Smallwood School, daffodil bulbs were planted at the base of a historic plaque which marks the site of a Second World War V2 bomb which caused extensive damage and loss of life in Hazelhurst and Foss Road. This was done by people who had lived there at the time or lost relatives that day, 19th November 1944.
Streatham Cemetery was carpeted with yellow and has probably never been so awash with daffodils since Peter Barr trialled his flowers there in the 1880s when it was known as Springfield Nursery. Another batch were grown by the Share Community Garden, located on the Springfield Hospital site where planting them gave students the chance to achieve some of their core units working towards gaining their diplomas in horticulture.
Most of the daffodils popped up all over Tooting and beyond as people grew them in their front gardens, on window sills or in many cases in planters or the bases of trees on their street. One was planted outside the Earlsfield home of recently-deceased 100 year old Ralph Norbury, one of the last survivors of Arnhem. Thanks to one and all for the tremendous response to this and to everyone who helped to make it happen. The cost of the plaque itself and the bulbs were paid for entirely by local people attending Summerstown182 historic walks over the previous year. Truly, this was a case of FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Thankfully the first wave of the greatest spring uprising of daffodils in Tooting for 150 years was fully enjoyed by people before lockdown. People looked out for them and enjoyed them on walks in Streatham Cemetery and Aboyne Estate. As this started we encouraged people to share photos of the Tooting daffodils on social media. I like to think it gave us a bit of light relief at a worrying time. Later, a series of downloadable versions of our local history Walks enabled people to view the daffodils as part of their daily exercise allowance.
We attracted some great attention with a feature on BBC Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time where their team visited Peter Barr’s old garden in Garratt Lane, a short walk from Tooting Broadway. There was an article in The Daffodil Society Journal and the Gardens Trust blog.
Surely it can now be confidently said that as well as being famous for Tooting Bec Lido, St George’s Hospital and Sadiq Khan – Tooting is becoming known for its part in the development of the daffodil. The initiative has been picked up by local schools with gardening and growing projects flourishing at the likes of Fircroft Primary.
‘Blooming Tooting’ doesn’t finish here and there is much more which can be done to promote awareness of this history, including our connection with the Huguenots, William Rollinson, Nelly Roberts and the Exotic Orchid Nursery. Exciting times here on the banks of the Wandle!
Covid-19 has restricted our ability to promote the initiative with more guided walks but sharing photos of the daffodils was a great way to keep things bubbling along. Thanks to a grant from Wandle Valley Forum, we have now put together a stunning artistic installation showcasing some of these photos. Please come and see it in the world famous Tooting Market! We are part of Wandle Fortnight. Its sometimes hard to forget Tooting’s Wandle connection but the rich alluvial soils of its valley were perfect for daffodil experimentation and the nurseries extended for a great stretch along Garratt Lane and up Tooting High Street. A great way to explore them is to do a Blooming Tooting tour which is available to download here.
Tooting Market is hosting this exhibition from Friday 11 September. It will be open from 8am until 1030pm every day, from 9am on Sunday. We are happy to be playing a small part in bringing this precious part of our area, serving the community for over 80 years back to life after the devastating period of lockdown, so do look out for the exhibition when you are in there. A local artist has displayed the photos in a highly imaginative and creative way, evoking the Victorian era with artefacts from the period and utilising the daffodil artwork made by local children and the Tooting community last year in the build up to the plaque unveiling. Indeed this is going to be an ongoing exhibition. Once its time to move on, it will reload with new photos and hopefully set up again somewhere else. We really hope you enjoy it and that it encourages you to grow some daffodils next year and we can do this all over again.
If anyone would like a fabulous colourful reminder of all this, a beautiful 60x40cm ‘Blooming Tooting’ ready-to-hang canvas print has been kindly donated by Marion Gower of The Streatham Society. The highest bidder for this stunning artwork gets to live the daffodil dream every day. All proceeds will go to Fircroft Primary School gardening project. Closing date 30 September.
It was approaching the longest night of the year as a rainbow of sweetly-scented summer flowers ushered me into the Dairy Walk. Barely a tennis ball’s throw away from the world famous tennis courts, I was following a path once taken by milkmaids delivering to the grand houses dotted around Wimbledon Common. I could scarcely imagine where it would lead me and what I would learn over the next weeks about the Village and its people. The outrage at George Floyd’s death in America this summer, the tumbling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and local Black Lives Matters protests all coincided with me delving a little closer into some of the history on my doorstep.
Unable to do my guided tours, I have been devising a series of self-guided walks for people to do as their daily lockdown exercise. The Wimbledon Championships was cancelled this year and thinking that it might be nice to do something for people missing out on that, I found myself looking in a little more depth at the tranquil gentility of Wimbledon Village. I thought I knew it quite well from the tennis, walks on the Common and visiting the pubs. I had a vague idea of the history but somehow with its grand houses, gardens, golf courses and chocolate-box perfection it hadn’t enticed me to look that closely. It really shocked me then to discover things that have probably changed my mind forever in the way I look at British history. I also stumbled upon an incredibly touching yet troubling story.
My Walk started at the imposing St Mary’s Church, a very central player in the story. At the top of the hill, about ten minutes walk from the tennis courts. Its the one the TV cameras love to pan over to at the end of a day’s coverage on one of those dreamy midsummer evenings. Dairy Walk passes through an old turnstile and winds its way down to Marryat Place, a fairly recent housing development adjoining Marryat Road. This is a road I’ve been familiar with all the time I’ve lived in London. It descends from Parkside on the edge of Wimbledon Common, sweeping past expensive properties on its way straight down to the All England Lawn Tennis Club on Somerset Road.
There are spectacular views over the tennis courts to the distant London skyline. Perched here at the top of the hill, until about 1900 would have been the 100 acre grounds of Wimbledon House, purchased in 1815 by Joseph Marryat. A Member of Parliament, Chairman of Lloyd’s, a merchant with many interests in the West Indies. He died in 1824 but this would be his family’s main home for the next 30 years. It then became the residence of Sir Henry Peek whose endeavours ensured the protection of Wimbledon Common. It was all demolished by the turn of the 20th century as other houses repopulated its landscaped gardens, though some remain in the grounds of the Thai Buddhist temple on Calonne Road.
I had a vague idea of some sort of Wimbledon link to the slave trade. An exhibiton in the Museum coincided with the bicentenary of abolition in 2007. I knew of the connection with William Wilberforce, but that he was more associated with Clapham. University College London has since 2009 undertaken a major study, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, amongst other things, unravelling exactly where the £20 million compensation money paid by the British tax payer went. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 but it took another 26 years to effect full emancipation. Even then this only happened due to a grant of £20 million paid by British tax payers to compensate slave owners. Its taken 182 years to pay this debt off. The recent research has been highlighted in various BBC programmes fronted by David Olusoga. A family who feature prominently in the UCL findings are the Marryats.
Joseph Marryat was no ordinary slave owner but a major force in the anti-abolition movement, a role well documented on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. The MP for Horsham and later Sandwich, an agent for various islands in the West Indies with plantations in Trinidad, Grenada, Jamaica and St Lucia. In 1807 he actively petitioned against the abolition of the slave trade. In 1816 in his pamphlet ‘Thoughts on the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ he attacked the ‘wild and dangerous political doctrines that are now circulated under the guise of humanity’ by ‘a certain class of Methodists, a sect who profess superior sanctity’. Joseph Marryat was also the chairman of Lloyd’s from 1811 to 1824. Just a few weeks ago, Lloyd’s of London and the Greene King brewing company announced that they would pay reparations‘to benefit the BAME community and promote diversity’ to address their founders involvement in the slave trade. Its a great irony that although they never lived there at the same time, Marryat’s Wimbledon House and Lauriston House on the south side, associated with his opponent Wilberforce, almost faced each other across Wimbledon Common.
From the UCL records it would appear a total of 1,466 slaves were owned by the Marryats and subsequently the family were compensated for their loss with an amount which equates today as roughly £8.5 million. As was not uncommon, Marryat even fathered children in Grenada. One of these, Ann Marryat ended up owning slaves and receiving compensation herself. Joseph Marryat died in 1824 before the money was paid but his sons certainly benefited from it. His American wife Charlotte continued to live at Wimbledon House until her death in 1854. She was the driving force behind the gardens ‘unrivalled in the neighbourhood of London for the beauty and variety of their flowers’ and was one of the first women members of the Royal Horticultural Society.
She was described as ‘a keen Evangelical Christian, who took control of ensuring that the moral character of the Village was maintained’. This included banishing the fair on the High Street. Henry Lindsay became Vicar of St Mary’s Church in 1819 and married Maria, Joseph and Charlotte’s oldest daughter. The Church website describes the good works Charlotte did for the poor including building almshouses on Camp Road. She also regularly spent Sundays reading the Bible to gypsies on Wimbledon Common.
One of her sons Frederick had joined the navy at an early age and had a highly distinguished career. He went on to become a well known children’s author. One of his many residences was a house called Gothic Lodge on Woodhayes Road, opposite Crooked Billet on the southwest corner of the Common. An association marked by a commemorative plaque similar to the one on Wilberforce’s house five minutes walk away.An English Heritage blue plaque graces another of his homes at Spanish Place in Marylebone, where he hung out with the likes of Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank. A number of other abodes and associations were in the Fulham, Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush area. The family lived in a large house on Askew Road. Nearby Bassein Park Road gets its name from his naval exploits in Burma.
There is a Marryat Court near the Hammersmith Town Hall development and until fairly recently a Captain Marryat School in St Dunstan’s Road. Its now the site of the William Morris Sixth Form College. Not too far away is a Marryat Square in Fulham. He also lived in a large house on Fulham Palace Road, nowthe site of Charing Cross Hospital. This was Sussex House and had been owned by the Duke of Sussex who laid the foundation stone of Hammersmith Bridge in 1825. Frederick Marryat also lived for some time in Brighton, hanging out with the King at the relatively new Royal Pavilion. He died and is buried in Norfolk. The family influence extended around the world with one branch settling in South Australia where Marryatville near Adelaide and the town of Port Augusta received their names. Gothic Lodge, close to where people on Wimbledon Common sprawl on the grass outside the Hand in Hand and Crooked Billet pubs on summer evenings was probably a convenient pad to crash when visiting his mother.
Captain Marryat served for many years with the Royal Navy. In 1824 this lead to his involvement in the First Anglo-Burmese War. A key access route to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, Burma was seen as threatening the interests of the British East India Company. Coincidentally, Eagle House on Wimbledon High Street was built as his country home by one of its first directors, Robert Bell. Back in Burma, Marryat was involved in a naval action on the River Irrawaddy, advancing on the cities of Rangoon and Bassein. He appears to have returned with quite a hoard of souvenirs. Many were treasures that he tried to donate to the British Museum in exchange for a place on their board of trustees. A gold buddha statue was accepted and was on display there until quite recently.Over one hundred itemsincluding the state carriage of the King of Burmaand a massive royal throne were displayed by the Royal Asiatic Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. There are lurid accounts of rubies and other jewels ‘torn from the dead bodies’ of elite Burmese warriors known as ‘Invulnerables’. Some of these were kept at Wimbledon House and shown to garden party guests by Marryat’s mother.
At this point I must have mentioned my interest in the Marryat family to a friend Jen. She responded by telling me that she was a descendant of someone whose life had been turned upside down by Captain Marryat. I was now introduced to Sophar Rangoon. Born around 1819 in the Kingdom of Ava, Burma, Myanmar, call it what you like. He is buried in Lambeth Cemetery, a short walk from where I live. He also has his own Wikipedia page and a genealogy site where various descendants have outlined his extraordinary story.
Golden treasures weren’t all that Captain Marryat brought back from Burma when HMS Tees arrived at Chatham on 11th January 1826. When he returned from his adventures, he sought to advance his status in high society and became equerry to the Duke of Sussex. Prince Augustus Frederick was the brother of King George IV who would become Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle. Possibly as part of the arrangement, Marryat‘gifted’ him an eight year old boy who had returned with him on his voyage from Burma. This was Sophar Rangoon. It appears the Duke was a kindly and eccentric soul, much amused by Sophar, who became a page and joined his household at Kensington Palace. Here he was educated, taught a trade and grew up through a succession of royal events including the coronations of William IV and Victoria. A major event in his life would have been Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840 when the Duke of Sussex gave her away .
The Queen was a year younger than Sophar and was born and spent her childhood at Kensington Palace. It’s hard to believe that they didn’t meet. The Duke was married twice but had no heirs, so there wasn’t another Duchess of Sussex until Meghan Markle. Sophar remained in Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle in the Duke’s service until the Duke’s death in 1843 when he would have been aged around 27. His ceremonial attendance at the Duke’s funeral and lying in state is reported in the Illustrated London News. Sometime after this he left the Royal household and found work as a tailor. He married Margaret Sophia Green, the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Holborn and had at least seven children. One of his sons, born in Southwark in 1859was named Frederick Augustus, after the Duke of Sussex and it is from him that my friend is descended.
Sophar and Margaret lived at various locations around London over the next decades as they raised their family. At first in the Chelsea and Knightsbridge area. Possibly, as that became more gentrified, they crossed to south London and lived In Lambeth and Southwark through the 1850s and 1860s. This included lengthy spells at Marshalsea and Adams Place. The Charles Booth map shows these as areas indicated by dark blue and black, the very poorest streets, a world away from Kensington Palace.
Perhaps attracted to the area by the fairly recently transplanted Crystal Palace, it appearsthat from the late 1870s, Sophar’s family lived at 4 Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill. It sounds like a crowded but happy household. In the 1881 census, Sophar and 56 year old Margaret were living there with two adult sons, William and Edward. Their married daughter Margaret and their infant grandson. Sophar worked as a tailor, William was a painter and Edward a labourer. The house still stands today. A beautiful curving characterful street at the foot of Norwood Park. Sophar died aged 73 on 22nd January 1890 and is buried in Lambeth Cemetery. He was buried in a public grave and there is no headstone or any marker to indicate where it is. Family members have worked out where his plot is, on the southern side of the cemetery, near to St George’s Hospital.
The genealogy site that they have put together has further details about Sophar, including speculation as to how he might have come to be brought back to Britain by Captain Marryat and his possible status as a son of the Chief of the Kingdom of Ava. Its an extraordinary story and I am grateful to his descendants for sharing it with me. I hope when we are able to meet and congregate, that we might be able to gather in Lambeth Cemetery to remember his extraordinary life. Among them will be my friend Jen, acknowledging the memory of her Great Great Grandfather, possibly a Prince of Ava. When the Duke of Sussex died, a list of his possessions was reported in the Illustrated News. One of these was ‘the portrait of a black boy in uniform’. The family believe that this painting is out there somewhere and they would love to find it. Little appears to remain of the Marryats in Wimbledon, apart from the name of the road. A family tomb in St Mary’s churchyard is unidentifiable apart from their crest. I look forward to visiting Wimbledon Museum and finding more about them. This has been a difficult story to tell, but perhaps it would be fitting for residents in Wimbledon Village to also in some way acknowledge the 1,466 lives of those enslaved people who are as much a part of their history as anyone. If you want to follow the trail of the ‘Village People’ and see some of the locations associated with this story, download the walk here.
Britain’s examination of its colonial past is very prevalent at the moment and there is no hiding place from it. To their great credit, a member of the Marryat family provided information for the UCL research. I couldn’t resist checking the database to see what I could find about a family name on my mother’s side. My Great Great Grandmother was a Beresford and they are there. I don’t recognise the particular name on any family tree I’ve ever seen, but the connection with the Beresfords was considered worthy enough for it to be one of my middle names.
Something was stirring in south west London on Saturday. It was the eve of Storm Ciara but the skies above the Wandle could not have been bluer, or it’s waters more serene and twinkly as we followed the riverside path from Summerstown to Colliers Wood. This was a road once trodden by Francis Kitz and we were on the ‘Wandle Wake-Up’, kick-starting our celebration of his remarkable life and work.
I first came across him seven years ago. His great granddaughter Lynda was working with me on a project to acknowledge a local Second World War bomb incident. Three of the 36 people killed when a V2 rocket landed on Hazelhurst Road were members of her family. We did them proud, various commemorations and a plaque at the site of where the bomb landed have recalled that tragic day and those who lost their lives. In our countless email exchanges Lynda told me about the father of one of the victims, another family member of whom she was immensely proud. The more I heard about him, the more I liked the sound of him myself. Francis Kitz was putting himself on the line in a very different way from the Summerstown182 First World War casualties we were researching at the time, but he had my equal respect. I wrote a post on my blog about him and introduced him on my Walks as ‘The Summerstown Anarchist’.
That was probably a bit unfair – Merton was more his orbit and there was much more to Frank than anarchy. What kept the pot boiling was the search for a photo of him. I joined family members in the hunt which has certainly taken us to some interesting places, but he remains elusive. I quite like that, always one step ahead of his pursuers. What clinched the magic though was a day a few years ago when we were driving down Merton High Street and I pointed out one of the locations associated with him. At that precise moment a Sex Pistols song came on the radio – what else but ‘Anarchy in the UK’?
Photo by Madeline Meckiffe
Interest in Kitz fired up again when we met ‘Made in Merton’ last year at the brilliant Merton Heritage Discovery Day. They were demonstrating some great ways of showcasing the beautiful patterns created by Wandle workers to a wider audience. I was blown away by images they had produced of William Morris fabric designs blasted all over a building. They saw what I had written about Frank and wondered if we could do something together and perhaps put up a plaque alongside a community print-making activity. Why not? We planned some walks to raise funds and that’s how we all came to meet up for the ‘Wandle Wake-Up’ and a chance to get up close to some of the locations and places where Frank Kitz had lived and worked.
We set off past Blackshaw Road, heading down Plough Lane towards the Wimbledon Stadium development. It wasn’t mentioned, but thoughts must have been on the events of 1944. Not far beyond the Summerstown Towers was No36 Hazelhurst Road, destroyed by the rocket and where Annie, the mother of Frank’s ten children had lived for 30 years. Our route was overshadowed by the towering blocks and cranes of the Stadium and its frantic construction work. In six months time, if all goes to plan AFC Wimbledon should be back on their home turf after almost three nomadic decades. Their ongoing efforts to raise funds and keep the club owned by its fan base is surely something Kitz would have admired. A dramatic left turn was made as we encountered the Wandle and entered a tranquil and peaceful world, very far removed from the choking traffic and noise on Plough Lane. The path quickly lead us to the dramatic ‘meeting of the waters’ – the spot where the River Graveney emerges from a concrete channel and merges with the River Wandle. One attendee remarked that the previous week they had visited the confluence of the Nile but that this was so much more uplifting.
As always when on a Wandle tour, I couldn’t resist mentioning Eliza James, ‘The Watercress Queen’. Her main fields were a little bit further up the river but beds where this was grown would have been on both sides of the river and a number of other locations close to the Merton Printworks. Frank Kitz would have been very familiar with it and I’m sure well aware of its magic powers.
After negotiating the Wandle Meadow Nature Park, for so long the home of the sewage treatment works, we crossed the river over a bridge dedicated to the late Colliers Wood councillor, Gam Bahadur Gurung. Formerly a Gurkha and fittingly celebrated with some colourful Nepalese prayer flags fixed to the bridge. Just before the Connolly Mill we emerged at the historic Wandle Bank, leading us directly alongside the river to Merton High Street. Here we stopped outside No5, where Lynda’s grandmother was born and she spoke very movingly about Francis Kitz, her great grandfather who had come to live at this address sometime in 1885. It was a very special moment.
We can only touch very briefly here today on the question ‘Who was Frank Kitz?’ but I hope these few words will conjure up some idea of the man himself and perhaps leave you wanting to know more. So, who was Frank Kitz? You could describe him very aptly as a Rebel with a Cause. And what was his cause? A lifetime crusade fighting for the rights of working men, women and children, not just in the South but further afield too: in the North, the Midlands and Wales. In his memoirs Recollections and Reflections, he describes himself as: “an antagonist of the capitalist system who spent the best years of my life in persistent warfare against it”. So, what do we know about him? Well, in spite our very best efforts we have been unable to find a photo of Frank. However, what records do give us, is an insight as to his appearance and personality: ‘A fine burly figure, with a mass of light brown curly hair, blue eyes, rather heavy features, a pleasant, jolly smile’ and ‘A bluff, breezy chap, fond of his beer and jolly company’ and ‘Ebullient and impetuous…’ and ‘One of the wittiest public speakers I have ever known’. Frank Kitz was born in 1849 in Kentish Town, North London. In fact, his real name was Francis Platt, the child of Mary Platt and, we believe, a German émigré. He was brought up in poverty in the West End by his single mother, who was in domestic service, and had to fend for himself at an early age, finding work as an errand boy, porter and messenger. He was fascinated by revolution and it was in his formative years that he witnessed the injustices of society and the stark class divisions of the‘have and have -nots’. It was no surprise that he took the rebellious route he did and championed the causes of the poor. During his tramp around the country he states in his memoirs: ‘I found everywhere the same conditions – the factory with its iron discipline, the mazes of mean streets and insanitary slums for the workers, the enslavement of women and children’.
A dyer by trade, Kitz was employed during the 1880s by William Morris at his Merton Abbey Works. However, he was not just an employee but also a ‘comrade’ helping Morris with propaganda and speeches for the socialist cause. Morris commented: ‘He is certainly somewhat tinged with anarchism… but I like him very much’. Kitz lived his life in poverty and was always a ‘rebel by temperament’. William Morris stated after a visit to Merton: ‘I called on the poor chap at the place where he lived and it fairly gave me the horrors to see how wretchedly off he was, so it isn’t much to wonder at that he takes the line he does’. Frank was a revolutionary who maintained his extreme opinions throughout a lifetime of fierce political activity. His inventiveness, his turn of phrase and way with words made his public speaking so appealing to the crowd. The important point about Kitz, apart from his working-class background is that he LASTED as a revolutionary. He is still as relevant today as he was then. He championed the workers and, with others, helped to lay the foundations of the benefits, rights and freedoms we all enjoy today.
It was fitting at this point that we were joined by David Saxby, historian and archaeologist, who continued a moving eulogy to a dogged and committed campaigner for better working conditions who put the lives of others above any care of his own. David also emphasised the closeness of his relationship with William Morris. If anyone on the ‘Wandle Wake Up’ doubted why we wanted to put up a plaque to Francis Kitz they surely knew now that this rebel was a worthy cause.
Outside the big Sainsbury’s store, Portia stood on a wooden block and told us about ‘Made in Merton’. How they were awarded a grant in 2018 by the Mayor of London for their ‘Stich, Print, Process’ project which celebrated Merton’s textile heritage. They are now going to add a splash of dramatic colour to our plaque unveiling event and we’re thrilled to be partnering them. We were now in the heart of Frank Kitz’s world on the site of the William Morris Printworks and just a stone’s throw from the dye house where he worked his magic. Across the road was the location of the Merton Abbey branch of the Socialist League and the Surrey Labourer’s Union where Frank would have stood up so many times in support of his comrades. Beside the Gourmet kebab house once ran Wandle Road, another of the places where he lived at No23. Just around the corner from that, another address was 97 Deburgh Road. Newspaper cuttings indicate the family were here from at least 1893 and four years later when their fourteen year old son John Walter Kitz was tragically killed in a railway accident at Wimbledon station. Kitz came to this area in 1885, Morris just a few years before that. Very different backgrounds but a shared vision of better lives for workers.
We crossed the Wandle for the second time and wended our way along the riverside park in front of the superstore – our heads spinning as we tried to imagine the busy printworks and also consider the neighbouring presence a few centuries before that of a gigantic medieval priory. We passed one of the original walls of this to be greeted by some early daffodils as we crossed the Pickle Ditch. We were now on the edge of a retail park, choked with Saturday afternoon shoppers. It was quite fitting given the amount of industrial and retail parks in this vicinity that we should now mention Ronnie Lyon, the man credited with inventing them. Overlooking us at every turn, the massive tower from which he once ran his empire was once voted ‘London’s Ugliest Building’. Now re-clad in white, its filling up with people looking for the best view in Collywood and sits a bit more comfortably in its historic surroundings. The Burger King at this juncture was once a Kitz location, ‘Barnes Cottages’ conveniently opposite The Royal Six Bells pub. That’s where Frank, Annie and eight of their children are recorded in the 1891 census, the homes of Wandle workers surrounded by mills, watercress beds and feeding it all, the twists and turns of the ever-present Wandle. Their cottage looked across at what is now Wandle Park, once the site of Wandle Bank House, whose grounds were the scene of idyllic fishing afternoons enjoyed by Horatio Nelson in the company of his mate James Perry. On a little bit further, on the other side of the road is the Holiday Inn Express, the site of yet another Kitz abode called Clare Villas. In spite of everything being so utterly different, as the river flowed past, it was not hard to imagine all the activity in this area and the busy transient lives of those who supported its industry.
We were now firmly on Stane Street and heading towards Tooting. Straight as an arrow, down the old Roman Road. A final Kitz location here on the site of the world famous Tooting Market was in an area called Angel Court, adjoining the old Angel Inn. That’s long gone and currently the home of Iceland. It was in this pub that Lynda’s parents had their wedding reception.
The final leg of our journey took us up Garratt Lane and back to Summerstown. On the way the family recalled how Annie, the mother of Kitz’s children had sold flowers at Streatham Cemetery. I had heard from some elderly residents that the last nursery in this area had been on the corner of Smallwood Road and there’s a passageway behind this that would have been a cut-through to Hazelhurst Road. Easy to imagine Annie making that short journey every day. It was now dark, but a special moment as we looked across at the cemetery gates and tried to imagine Annie there with her flowers. She passed away in 1940, four years before the bomb and is buried in the cemetery.
Frank himself died in 1923, ending up living a few miles further away in Battersea. The last years were tough on him as he struggled to make a living and at odds with his family. Consolation must have been the great esteem and affection in which he was held by his comrades. This poster dating from 1920 advertises ‘a socialist carnival’ including a ‘Historical Revolutionary Dress Contest’ to raise funds for him at Battersea Town Hall. ‘He is now between 70 and 80 years of age and has worked to the last, although weakened and handicapped with his conditions. It is our wish to aid our old Comrade in his dark years and to make his last days as smooth and pleasant as we possibly can’.
Everyone on the ‘Wandle Wake-Up’ Walk came away feeling they are involved in something quite special. Frank Kitz was someone who helped the workers cause at a time when the breakneck pace of the industrial revolution threatened to crush the working man and woman. He did this at great personal sacrifice. He worked on the Wandle and helped create beautiful textiles and fabrics. He is symbolic of many who did a similar job and our plaque salutes all of them. Please look out for details coming soon about the unveiling event which will be accompanied by a ‘Made in Merton’ community craft activity. It will be a day to remember and probably in mid-September to coincide with the Wandle Fortnight. In the meantime, we need to continue raising funds to pay for this plaque and another great walk is planned. Saturday 25th April is the big day and we are calling it ‘Frankie Goes to Collywood’. Join us at 2pm outside Colliers Wood underground station for a historic tour of the area, featuring the site of the William Morris Printworks and Merton Priory. If you enjoy it, please do throw in a few pounds to help us remember Francis Kitz.
A huge thank you to the Kitz family, particularly Lynda, Sylvia and Debbie for so generously sharing so much of their information and research about Francis Kitz. We are also very grateful to David Saxby whose years of research and publications about the Wandle, its industries and its workers have been such an invaluable resource for so many of us. A big shout to everyone who came on the ‘Wandle Wake-Up’ and donated so generously towards this plaque initiative.
It seems like a lifetime ago, when London puffed its chest and presented itself to the world in a glorious inclusive month of colour, harmony and the very best of Britishness. From Danny Boyle’s NHS-celebrating opening ceremony to that golden Saturday night when Mo Farah danced around the track, the Games of 2012 were truly an unforgettable time, when we knew for sure that we lived in the best city in the world. A small army of volunteers in pink and purple seemed to sum it all up, radiating warmth and a welcoming joie-de-vivre that embodied the spirit of the Games. There had been a few doubts beforehand but that month left us all feeling so proud of ourselves and the afterglow lasted for years. The smile of a cheery Somali-born runner summed up the greatest Games any of us could remember and cemented our love of a wonderful multicultural city that its been a privilege to raise my children in.
A few days before it began, the Olympic Flame come down Garratt Lane, past the site of our very own athletic stadium in Summerstown. The story of the Victorian pedestrians who provided such a sporting spectacle at Robert Sadler’s Copenhagen Grounds at Althorp Lodge was told and presented to us in an outstanding book by Kevin Kelly. That summer to coincide with the London Games, Kevin gave a talk about another little-known local athletic story. This was also someone with a special local connection, whose athletic feat was surely the greatest that any athlete from these parts has ever achieved. His name was Albert Hill and he won two gold medals at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. Not just any ones, but would you believe, the highly prized ‘blue riband’ middle-distance double of 800 and 1500 metres. This was the domain of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Kelly Holmes but when they were burning up the track, little was ever said about a railway worker from Trevelyan Road who trail-blazed the golden path so many years before.
Albert George Hill was born on 24th March 1889 in Bath Street, Southwark. Its a road on a site now submerged beneath the site of South Bank University near the Elephant and Castle. His father William worked as a stationary packer and was originally from Wiltshire. His mother Elizabeth came from Cornwall. Albert was one of eight children, reared on Commercial Road, now Upper Ground the road that runs along the Thames behind the Royal Festival Hall. Next to the timber yards and wharves, this was a poor area later devastated by the Luftwaffe and property developers. When he was fifteen Albert had joined the Gainsford Athletic Club, believed to have been located somewhere just across the river near Drury Lane. Here he participated in swimming, cycling and athletics and from 1907 to 1909 was a London junior champion.
What a relief it must have been for the Hill family and their talented athletic son to move from the riverside to the suburbs around 1908 and a home in one of Tooting’s most characterful roads. Next to Longley Road ‘Tooting’s Beverley Hills’, Trevelyan Road was allegedly built for the servants of the theatrical royalty who resided in its slightly grander neighbour, where lived the likes of Harry Lauder, Harry Tate and Charles Whittle. With its quirky range of house styles, it was much-loved by local doctors. There was even a golf course nearby where Prime Minister Arthur Balfour did the rounds. Residents very possibly had their bins collected by a muscular young dustman called ‘Tiny Ted’ Foster From Tooting Grove. A few years later he distinguished himself with a Victoria Cross in the First World War.
Trevelyan Road would later become known for its extensive Irish community and a boarding house where the Beatles slept or at least ‘hung out’ in. Stories abound of sightings of the Fab Four in the summer of 1963 when they came to play at The Granada on the Roy Orbison tour. As with many other Tooting locations, rumours have also swirled about a Daniel Defoe connection at the curiously ornate Norfolk House.
In 1906 Mount Vesuvius erupted, snuffing out Rome’s hopes of hosting the 1908 Olympics. In stepped Lord Grenfell to bring the Games to London for the first time. As a blossoming junior champion, Albert would certainly have taken a keen note of events in White City, Shepherds Bush. It was a few years before his statue popped up in Tooting, but Albert might have noted the controversy at the opening ceremony when the Americans refused to dip their flag to the watching King Edward VII. Albert was working at a printers that year when his family began their connection with the house in Trevelyan Road, one that would last for four decades. In that optimistic Edwardian decade Tooting came alive. As it’s population exploded, arriving on the scene were its famous trams, the groundbreaking Totterdown Fields estate and grand public buildings like the Central Methodist Hall.
A pie and mash shop opened in Selkirk Road that year and Albert very likely sampled Bertie and Clara Harrington’s famous liquor. Assuming it had a sports department in those days, he may even have bought some of his kit in the recently-opened Smith Brothers store. Both still do a roaring trade today. Young Albert might have enjoyed a visit to the King’s Hall Picture Palace at the end of his road. The first purpose-built cinema in Britain opened for business in 1909. A few years later the magnificent Broadway Electric Palace emerged round the corner, just a few weeks after the sinking of The Titanic.
In 1910, Albert won the UK Championship four mile race at Stamford Bridge, home of the recently formed Chelsea Football Club. He now worked for the London Brighton & South Coast railway in their ‘Dispatch Dept of Accounts’ office and subsequently became a ticket collector at London Bridge. Meeting someone called Lily Wood may have been a bit of a distraction to Albert’s athletic ambitions as he didn’t take part in the British championships in 1911 and 1912 and missed out on the Olympics. A big moment that year was joining the Polytechnic Harriers Sports Club, where Sam Mussabini of ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame became his coach and rejuvenated his career. The legendary Mussabini who coached gold medallists at five Olympic Games has his own plaque at his former home in Burbage Road, backing onto the Herne Hill Stadium.
The 1912 Olympics were in Stockholm. This was a big year for Albert, in July he married Lily Wood in St Nicholas Church and moved to East Dulwich. His parents lived on in Trevelyan Road until their deaths and his sister Olive continued to reside there with her husband Arthur Edwards until after the outbreak of the Second World War.
It was at this address that Albert’s parents waited anxiously for news about him in the First World War, when he served in France as a wireless operator in the Royal Flying Corps for three years. The 1916 Olympic Games were scheduled for Berlin but the world had other things on its mind. Albert had joined up in 1915, a year when local recruitment spearheaded by an undertaker called William Mellhuish went into overdrive. Patriotic fever was whipped-up, expressing itself sadly in a number of attacks on German-owned businesses like Peter Jung’s bakery on Tooting High Street. Albert survived the war apparently without any injury, though smoking between 60 and 80 cigarettes a day at this time can’t have done him any good. He started training again when he came home in 1919 but Albert was about to turn thirty and having been through the War and back to a wife and small child, not to mention a ferocious nicotine habit, he could surely have been excused from pursuing further athletic challenges. What happened next is all the more admirable and extraordinary. In August 1919 he equalled the British record for the mile with a time of four minutes, sixteen seconds. His sights were now set on the Olympic Games in Antwerp.
What happened in Belgium in the summer of 1920 is well-documented online – you can even watch a film of the race. At thirty one, Albert Hill was considered too old for selection and had to battle the blazers of the Amateur Athletic Association to gain a place. There might also have been a touch of snobbery about the inclusion of a railway worker from a humble background in south London. There are stories about how poor the conditions were, how Albert got sick after a rough Channel crossing and how he travelled to the stadium in the back of a lorry. Apparently he trained for the race on a diet of Stella Artois and cashew nuts. Whatever the case Albert came home with two gold medals and a silver in the 3,000 metres team event. This involved running seven races in eight days. His feat would not be repeated until 1964 and not again after that until Dame Kelly Holmes in Athens in 2004.
In 1921 Albert’s second daughter was born and he set another new British mile record. The time of four minutes, thirteen seconds lasted or ten years. He was involved for some time in coaching but after his eldest daughter emigrated to Canada he joined her in 1947. He died there in London Ontario, shortly before his eightieth birthday. Half a century after his death, a century after his triumphant summer in Belgium, seems like a very appropriate time to make sure more people in our area know about Albert Hill and take pride in his achievement. What better thing to do than put a plaque on the house that was once his home in Trevelyan Road. Alongside that we will as always be promoting this event at schools, community events, Wandsworth Heritage Festival and through our informative and entertaining walks and tours.
As ever, we invite you to contribute to this promotion of our local heritage by attending some of our Summerstown182 History Walks in the Tooting and Wandsworth area over the next months and perhaps making a donation towards the plaque. Albert will be following in some famous footsteps; Sidney Lewis, Sadie Crawford, Tiny Ted Foster VC, Robert Sadler and Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’. All these unveilings have been unforgetable community occasions and this will be no exception. Already a date has been fixed, Saturday 25th July, to coincide with the start of the Tokyo Olympics. Trevelyan Road will be the place to be that afternoon, so look out for our Summerstown182 twitter feed and blog for precise details about what is happening and how to get involved. Let’s salute the triumph of Albert Hill one hundred years ago and once again, bathe together in the glorious spirit of London 2012!
Last Friday lunchtime, a great floral garland of vibrant yellow and cream appeared on our famous Edward VII statue outside Tooting Broadway tube station. Just to be clear what was going on, he also clutched a large arty daffodil made out of canvas, chicken wire and a cardboard drink carton. Bewildered passers-by gazed curiously at the newly-decorated monarch and reached for their phones. Perhaps a clue may have been the direction he was gazing – looking towards Garratt Lane and the Tooting Nurseries – towards the realm of a regal rival, Mr Peter Barr, ‘The Daffodil King’. Dressed to impress for the arrival of Mrs Langtry, Queen Victoria’s eldest has done many things and been to many places, but had he ever waved a giant daffodil from the Work and Play Scrapstore?
Twenty four hours later Mr Jan Pennings, Chair of the Royal Horticultural Society Bulb Committee, straight off the plane from Amsterdam, stepped out of the station to be welcomed to ‘Blooming Tooting’ by a Dutch-speaking Rose. He was carrying a huge bag of bulbs. It was game on, The Day of the Daffodil was underway. What followed saw Garratt Lane in Summerstown transformed for a few hours into a fragrant magical garden, inhabited by enchanted ‘daffodil people’. It could not have been any more joyous. A glorious day at the end of September beneath the bluest of skies. They came to salute Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ and find out more about our wonderful horticultural heritage on the banks of the Wandle. And they came for their historic bulbs…
This was the grand climax to a year of Walks, Talks, participation in community events, visits to schools and trips to libraries, museums and archives, learning much more about daffodils than I thought it was possible to know. Our plaque unveiling day was proud to be part of Wandle Fortnight and the annual three day TOOTOPIA festival. But it was also the beginning of something – bags of bulbs were furiously swept up by people clearly enthused by our ‘let’s plant’ call. Now it’s over to the good folk of Tooting, Earlsfield and Wandsworth to plant those daffodils in time for a spring uprising not seen in these parts for one hundred and fifty years!
The entrance to the Holborn Estate opposite the almshouses looked magnificent that morning. A resident’s Mum had made us some beautiful yellow and green bunting which made sure everyone knew that something special was happening. It was so hot we couldn’t tape the curtain over the plaque without it coming away and our planned exhibition on the wall of the gardeners hut kept falling down. Vijay’s cool warm-up tunes kept us calm as the two Johns ran up and down the ladder more times than Bob the Builder. It didn’t matter, there was something special in the air as people gathered at the entrance to the Aboyne estate. Some didn’t know what was going on, others had been told something about the daffodil man by their children who had been learning about him at school, a few had been looking forward to this day for years. Surely none more than 85 year old George Dear, all the way from Furzedown on his mobility scooter. The man who researched this story 25 years ago. I do hope he’s forgiven us for putting the plaque here and not on a wall in his hometown Pevensey. Road.
Also there was Sally Kington. We first met her in the summer when on a blazing hot day, we invited her to join us on a mad midsummer jaunt to St Albans to honour Frederick Sander, ‘The Orchid King’. It was such a big deal to get Sally’s blessing for this project and her enthusiasm and support has been boundless. Once upon a time she was International Daffodil Registrar, keeping track of 28,000 varieties of daffodil and thrilled when she got the call from Tooting to help George with his research. Joining this daffodil royalty and representing The Daffodil Society, also present was another former winner of The Peter Barr Memorial Cup, Reg Nicholl. He was so pleased to be among us – what an honour to have this trio of ‘Daffodil people’ grace our special day. The Mayor of Wandsworth made sure they all got a special welcome in her opening address which referenced the Huguenots market gardeners who first turned the soil onthis stretch of Wandle Valley.
The mighty John ‘Mr Streatham’ Brown gave a rousing account of George’s efforts to dig out this history and how they had battled to carry out their research in a pre-internet era. Bruce from the Wandle Valley Forum spelt out how none of this would have happened without the presence of the sacred Wandle waters and the particularly blessed Trewint Street to Plough Lane stretch through Summerstown. We are mightily humbled to be part of Wandle Fortnight and recipients of a grant of £250 towards putting on our event. John Byrne’s exclusive plaque-unveiling recitals are a much-loved feature of these occasions and he didn’t disappoint. All the more relevant than ever this year as he is a long-term resident of Pevensey Road. He was a tough act to follow but Nardia and Mithuna from Broadwater Primary School blew us all away with their unique observations on the daffodil growing activity on the fields where their school now stands. It’s been wonderful to have this school so involved and engaged in this project alongside Fircroft and Smallwood.
To a dramatic drum-roll from Vijay, Sally and Mr Pennings unveiled the plaque and set the seal on another piece of Garratt Lane history. Shortly afterwards the Dutchman showed us how it’s done, stepping forward, trowel in hand to plant the first ‘Blooming Tooting’ bulb at the foot of the plaque. It was a glorious moment and the Mayor of Wandsworth followed suit and another historic daffodil prepared to take root in the grounds that a century and a half ago made horticultural history.
With the plaque unveiled and planting on their minds, the history-hungry hordes turned on Kate’s wheelbarrow and her beautifully packaged bulb-bags were gleefully received. Van Sion, W.P. Milner, Albatross, Mrs Langtry, Irene Copeland and Barrii Conspicuus, all dating from the 1870s, prepared for their return to the Tooting earth. A sight to make any daffodil-person blink back Angel’s Tears.
It was time for the second part of the great event and the crowd moved slowly down Garratt Lane to Streatham Cemetery. The previous day a ‘Great Chain of Daffodils’ a quarter of a mile long, had emerged on the cemetery railings. A handmade floral tribute of Scrapstore materials created by local people of all ages at various workshops at community events over the preceding months. Interspersed among them were the thoughts of pupils from Broadwater School alongside colourful tags indicating the names of some of the daffodil types once grown here by Peter Barr.
The madness of Garratt Lane yielded to the shade and tranquility of Streatham Cemetery. The former Springfield Nursery has never felt so welcoming. Some lost themselves in the delicious tea and cake provided by The Friends of Streatham Cemetery, others joined Roy Vickery of South London Botanical Institute in a ‘Wildflower Walk’ perhaps imagining themselves with Peter Barr in the high Pyrenees on the hunt for long-lost daffodils. All too soon it was over but as the evening sun passed over the Aboyne Estate, the new plaque seemed to light up like a dazzling sapphire.
A week later, we await more daffodils arriving soon from Mr Scamp in Cornwall. Three days of rain has been good for those already in the ground and softened up the earth for more digging. Daffodils have been planted in Streatham Cemetery and churches, organisations and schools are jostling to get their orders in. We gave them out in the market the next day as part of our ‘Throwback Tooting’ history talk for TOOTOPIA. On our way to deliver the Tooting Sikh community their bulbs this evening, we passed the Al- Muzzamil Mosque – there was huge enthusiasm, the Imam has put in a big request and showed us photos of his sunflowers to confirm his green-fingered abilities. Truly ‘Blooming Tooting’ is underway and somehow our neighbourhood already seems a brighter, more fragrant place – FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Look out for your daffs coming through in the spring. Take photos and let us know about it on social media #BloomingTooting. If you need bulbs in the next few weeks, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do. Failing that they are very easy to get hold of at any garden centre or DIY store. Keep an eye out for further Blooming Tooting Walks next year as we continue to spread the word and expand our knowledge of the other things grown here. ‘The Orchid King’ lead us to RHS orchid painter Nellie Roberts and some kind of memorial on her unmarked grave in Lambeth Cemetery is on our radar.
They came from Tooting, Earlsfield, Wandsworth, Summerstown and Streatham, united in the joy of newly-discovered shared history about the place where they live. It was the warmest of Saturdays in mid-September, a day I will never forget. For almost a year we have been absorbed with the story of Peter Barr ‘The Daffodil King’ and trying to tell it to as many people as possible. It’s involved trips to museums, libraries and archives, consulting with experts. We’ve done guided tours, talks and school visits to spread the word. There have been trips to daffodil farms and involvement in community events encouraging people to make handmade flowers, write poetry and paint murals. We have found out about the likes of horticultural contemporaries such as Nellie Roberts, Frederick Sander, William Copeland and Henry Moon. We have sourced historic bulb varieties and will be giving them out for people to plant. We have learned more about daffodils than I ever thought there was to know. Nothing though was quite like the trip to Peter Barr’s grave in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley on ‘The Primrose Pilgrimage’.
An article in an edition of ‘The Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer’ in the Lindley Library Archive indicated that a few years before his death, his daffodil work done, Peter Barr turned his attention to wildflowers. He was working on a classification of primroses – cowslips and oxlips also tickled his interest. His ‘Daffodil King’ legacy assured, but his wildflower work only beginning, he remarked in a letter to fellow daffodil afficianado H.P. Brotherston ‘I wonder who will plant my grave with primroses?’ How could we resist!
St Pancras and Islington Cemetery opened in 1854. Newly arrived in London and settled in Islington, it’s likely Peter Barr and his wife Martha bought a plot there. The 1861 census has then living at 31 Cloudsley Square. The cemetery is an enormous two hundred acre site with almost one million burials, one of the largest in the country. It was a magical day when we located his resting place a few months ago after a furious search in a densely overgrown section. Under a canopy of trees, midsummer sunlight danced on his headstone. We bathed in a green otherworldliness as we pulled away the ivy to reveal the names of Peter Barr, Martha, their daughter Alice Maud and her husband Edward. Perhaps most movingly of all was the surprise find of a fifth interment. Indicated by the top two lines on the headstone. ‘Samuel Hewlings Barr – born at Tooting July 31st 1869 – died September 17th 1869’ One hundred and fifty years after his infant son’s death, it was as if our connection with Peter Barr was rubber-stamped by these words on the family grave.
On Saturday we gathered at Tooting Broadway, local residents tickled, curious and most certainly a little moved by this history that most of them knew nothing about a few months ago. We were armed with a spade, trowels and secateurs. We also came with primulas, all the way from County Down and ‘Barrii Conspicuous’ daffodil bulbs from Ron Scamp’s farm in Cornwall. We also had Peter Barr’s Plaque, making a final outing before it gets fixed to the entrance of the Aboyne Estate. Our twenty two stop journey on the Northern Line whizzed by in a whirl of excited anticipation as we read some of the words written about The Daffodil King by pupils at Broadwater Primary School.
It was all going so well as we tumbled out at East Finchley. Boarding the wrong bus took us off-piste, but gave us a chance to view a bit of suburban north London dissected by the North Circular. Spirits remained high as we met up with Sam Perrin, historian and cemetery guide, who got us back on track and provided some fascinating insights into this remarkable cemetery. To show that Peter Barr is not the only royalty here, on our way to him we passed Henry Croft the original ‘Pearly King’. As we entered the heavily wooded section it all came back and we diverted from the path and tentatively took the plunge into the deep green realm of The Daffodil King.
At this point something magical happened. Our group of ten, who hadn’t planned what we were going to do – without any words and almost as one, sprang into glorious action. We pulled back twisted ivy roots and tore into the tangled mess on the grave. Removing some of the growth revealed the word BARR in four large letters at the edge of the plot. A small stone urn was straightened. Leaf mulch was gathered and the soil was turned in preparation for the planting of our historic bulbs. (By the way, it’s the same spade you’ll be using next week Mr Pennings!) Water was collected from a nearby tap in plastic bags to feed the voraciously thirsty earth. We then took it in turns to each gently dig in one of the bulbs. It took no more than forty minutes, though maybe I just dreamt that and we were there for hours. In any case I may never again witness a more moving display of teamwork or genuine show of the power of community history to bind people together.
All our connections worked out on the way home but it’s the one between Peter Barr and our area that had brought us together and our mission to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery has bound that more strongly than I ever believed was possible. Who would imagine such a scene a few days before the 110th anniversary of his death? We will be back soon, Mr Barr to check on our pilgrimage progress – FLOWER TO THE PEOPLE!
Harvest time at a small family run Cornish daffodil farm! Peter Barr’s plaque hits the road…
We contacted Scamp’s Quality Bulbs as they had been highly recommended, not only are they a small-scale family run farm in the UK but they are also capable of supplying historic daffodil bulb varieties that would have been cultivated and pioneered by Peter Barr in his Tooting nurseries. We intend to give these out to local residents and schools as part of our ‘Blooming Tooting’ initiative, celebrating the placing of a plaque for ‘The Daffodil King’. Not only that, but over twenty years ago Ron Scamp had helped local historian and nurseryman, George Dear cultivate a daffodil named ‘Sarah Dear’ in memory of his daughter. Armed with the historic plaque and a daffodil yellow vintage camper van we made our way down to Cornwall.
It seemed almost a journey back through time as we moved from the bustle of Falmouth, through the sprawling new housing estates and business parks, then finally into open farm land. Scamp’s Daffodil Farm is situated on the stunning South Cornish Coast tucked away from view, down a steep tree covered country lane lined with brimming hedgerows. As you reach the top, standing proud against a dramatic back drop of sea and sky is the huge green barn, testament that you have now arrived at a working farm.
It is a busy time for daffodil growers and Scamp’s is no different. At this time of year bulbs are being lifted, sorted and made ready for dispatch. On our arrival the whole family were hurriedly sorting bulbs in the sunlit covered courtyard.
We received such a warm welcome from Adrian Scamp and were given a tour of the farm and the opportunity to see our order being prepared. To my surprise it was not a very mechanised process at all by modern standards. I am sure Peter Barr’s Tooting Nursery wouldn’t have been much different. It only took a little imagination to remove the gentle sloping fields criss-crossed with hedge rows and place them in the once rural fertile belly of Tooting.
Adrian’s father Ron Scamp (once a winner of the Peter Barr Memorial Cup) and founder of the family business willingly shared his detailed knowledge too. He explained that his love of daffodils started as a small boy and though now in his seventies, he still has an infectious childlike enthusiasm.
In fact what struck this cynical Londoner more than anything about our trip to Scamp’s was the passion and love that goes into every bulb.
We are just three months away now from a momentous occasion on Garratt Lane, Tooting in south west London. On Saturday 21st September, a gathering on a patch of grass outside a utility building at the edge of the Aboyne Estate at the junction of Garratt Lane and Wimbledon Road will witness the unveiling of a historic plaque commemorating the extraordinary horticultural heritage of this Wandle Valley area. We will pay homage to a Scottish seedsman called Peter Barr, whose remarkable mission one hundred and fifty years ago, to rejuvenate the daffodil in this country, was undertaken at his nurseries, here in this locality. It very rightly led to him being renowned all over the world as ‘The Daffodil King’.
This year, as if anticipating the great event, they came early – I saw my first daffodil in Sussex on New Year’s Day. Thankfully though, they were in their glory by the time of the first ‘Blooming Tooting’ Walk in mid-March. Over the past six months, funds for this initiative have been raised through a number of local history walks on the site of the ‘Tooting Nurseries’. Local schools have got involved, most notably Broadwater Primary who have produced some excellent material which can be seen at an exhibition on Unveiling Day. Talks were given to Mitcham Horticultural Society, at Merton Heritage Discovery Day and to various charities and community groups. There has been huge enthusiasm, Work and Play Scrapstore hosted and provided upcycled materials for a very successful ‘daffodil-making’ craft workshop at their Hazelfest event where Berit’s stunning blooms were a star attraction. It will be repeated at the Broadwater Road Fun Day and also the Friends of Streatham Cemetery Open Day. We’ll be using these magnificent creations made by local people to decorate ‘Peter Barr’s Hut’ on Unveiling Day. The response has been overwhelming, Tooting has truly been engulfed with ‘Daffodilmania’.
Two more Walks in July will continue to explore the area and its horticultural connections. On 6th July ‘Blooming Tooting’ features the site of Springfield Hospital and the Share Community Nursery. ‘Fields of Gold’ on 27th July takes in both Lambeth and Streatham Cemeteries and the ‘Fairlight’ area in between. All these sites were once populated by nurseries and market gardens, a great swathe of yellow on my map. Of course it wasn’t all daffodils that were grown, Peter Barr alone was renowned for his tulips, snowdrops, irises and peonies – but the romantic vision of ‘Fields of Gold’ is hard to shake off. On 13th July we’ll have a presence at the wonderful Broadwater Road Community Fun Day in Tooting. Come and see the plaque, have a chat and help make some daffodil decorations for Unveiling Day. Beautiful Streatham Cemetery was built in 1892 on what was previously Springfield Nursery. We’ll be there with our stand at the Friends of Streatham Cemetery Open Day on 15th September. Listen, we’ll go anywhere to make sure the story of Peter Barr and his Tooting connections gets to as wide an audience as possible. Only last week it was up to City Hall to show the plaque to the Mayor of London.
Old maps and archive material indicate that Peter Barr’s footprint covered a good stretch of Garratt Lane in the three decades he was associated with this area. His family were all raised here and on one momentous day in 1879, six of his children were baptised in St Mary’s Church in Summerstown. These children were all under ten when he first settled in Tooting and would have grown up amongst the flowers and sweetly-scented daffodil fields. The Broadwater pupils were particularly taken with Agnes, born in 1866 who was a small child when the family came to Tooting. She was encouraged by her father to illustrate various specimins to aid identification at a time when there weren’t any cameras. Clearly he had high expectations of her as in one correspondence he sternly notes ‘She is only young at flower painting but has good promise with practice’. She carried on this illustration work until after she married, an inspiration perhaps for fellow south Londoner, RHS orchid illustrator Nellie Roberts, buried in Lambeth Cemetery.
Finding a location to put up the plaque was not easy. Peter Barr was definitely associated with numbers 6, 10 and 18 New Road, the name of which changed twice later. Now the last grand blast of Garratt Lane before it hits Tooting Broadway, at least two of these fine houses still stand, though they bear a very different address. Built around 1855, not long before Barr’s arrival in Tooting, they fulfil James Thorne’s description so aptly, when in 1876 in his Handbook to the Environs of London, he described the area as ‘A region of villas and nursery gardens, very pleasant’. With their long-disappeared names, Myrtle Villa, Slaveley Villa, Wycombe Villa and Sussex Villa, these were the villas and they formed a gateway to the nurseries of Garratt Lane.
They stretched all the way up Garratt Lane to Summerstown covering land now filled with streets and houses, Broadwater School and Streatham Cemetery. On the other side of the road was Bell’s Farm and the Exotic Nursery run by Robert Parker, renowned for his orchids. The Barrs was definitely resident at Bell’s Farm for a while around the time of the 1881 census and they pop up at a Park Terrace in Summerstown before relocating to more spacious surroundings in Surbiton around 1891, thus ending their 30 year connection with Tooting.
It was agreed that a better place to place a plaque would be somewhere that daffodils were actually grown. Helping us find such a location was none other than Peter Barr himself, with a little help from E A Bowles’ transcription. Filling in a few of the gaps in George Dear’s research, we made visits to the RHS Lindley Library, Kew Gardens Herbarium and the RHS Archives at Wisley. All proved extremely productive and made us understand even more distinctly just what a significant figure Peter Barr is. The Kew Archives contained fascinating correspondences but it was hard to beat the thrill of opening up a dense volume of pressed ericas grown in the Tooting nurseries in 1859. They might have pre-dated Peter Barr by a few years but it really was quite a jaw-dropping moment to see something so old, grown in our area, preserved for the nation in such an auspicious collection.
Amongst the extensive notes in the Lindley Library at Vincent Square, we found one key indicator as to where his nursery was – certainly in 1885 when he wrote it. Peter Barr was giving directions to someone and described how they could get a train from Waterloo to Earlsfield. He even knew the times of the trains! The visitor was advised to check with the station-master and come down Garratt Lane and look out for the entrance of ‘Barr and Sons Grounds opposite the Holborn Almshouses’. Built in 1848, the beautiful Holborn Estate almshouses are still there and it’s across the road from them that we will put up Peter Barr’s Plaque.
It will be fixed to the small building currently used by council maintenance staff looking after the estate. A patch of grass directly in front of this has potential for future developments; some planting, an information sign, perhaps a bench. Somewhere to sit and ponder the magnitude of the horticultural activity that took place here. Its certainly not an unpleasant view, looking out on one of the oldest most ornate buildings in the area, a view more akin to the rustic Cotswolds than south London SW17. A zebra crossing connects the location with the almshouses. Garratt Lane intersects with Wimbledon Road via a roundabout. Close to a number of schools and a bus-stop, its a busy place with thousands of people passing by every day. The Aboyne estate is known by many who live there as having been built on the site of the grounds of Springfield Farm. Very few knew about its earlier association with the nurseries.
George Dear viewed the plaque for the first time a few days ago and was thrilled to see another step forward in the work he started 25 years ago, Just how relevant that was became clear to me when RHS International Registrar (Daffodil & Delphinium), Melanie Underwood showed me the files at RHS Wisley, containing all his carefully preserved notes and correspondences. Her predecessor Sally Kington helped George all those years ago and did additional research later. It is very fitting that she will be attendng on 21st September. She has been a great help in advising on the wording for the plaque as well as the location. Sally has also identified a number of varieties of daffodil grown by Peter Barr which we hope to have on hand on the big day to encourage local planting. Thanks also to John Brown, Marion Gower, Kate Filby and Sheila Hill who have all contributed to getting to know Peter Barr a little better.
And thanks most of all to the good people of Wandsworth and further afield who have come on our walks and donated so enthusiastically and generously towards this initiative. A huge thankyou also to everyone at the Royal Horticultural Society and The Daffodil Society who have been so helpful and supportive. We’ll never forget the first visit to the Lindley Archives and the hushed, almost reverential aura as Peter Barr’s portrait was brought to us on a trolley with great ceremony. Encased in a box, the lid was slowly raised to reveal his familiar visage and a pair of piercing turquoise eyes danced with delight. Surely I believe at all the fuss we are making of him. He deserves it – Flower to the People!