Looking backward to move forward

Henry Wismayer

THE WASHIGHTON POST – On September 18, 1940, a bomb whistled through the sky above the neighbourhood where I live in South London. The target was probably the whitewashed factory on Martell Road, originally built in 1915 to manufacture telephone equipment. Its production lines had been converted to pump out air raid PA systems and scrambler telephones to support the war effort.

Like so much ordnance dropped by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, the bomb went astray, instead burying itself in a semidetached house on a quiet residential street, where Ciara Louise Boulding, a 67-year-old widow, was sheltering. She was killed instantly.

The hundred-year-old factory of the Telephone Manufacturing Company is now a modular office space. Today, it is quiet, its offices mostly vacant. The small businesses and design houses that usually occupy them have relocated or adopted remote working practices. Nevertheless, it is hard to reconcile the sepia image of the embattled war factory with its current incarnation as I have come to know it, with its artisanal coffee shop in the atrium, where the baristas apply pretty florets to every cappuccino. Each time I walk past I’m reminded of the social volatility that, over the span of our own lives, we seldom
stop to ponder.

In recent weeks, with my geographical freedom still curtailed by rolling restrictions across London and the United Kingdom (UK), I started researching the history of my neighbourhood. It began as sheer whimsy: a project for a redundant travel writer to pursue in moments of idleness, and an alternative to doom-scrolling through the news. However, over weeks the pursuit has become obsessive, even urgent, as I came to appreciate it as a corrective to self-pity, and a testament to the relentless churn of time.

A little about the mise-en-scene. I live at the intersection of several South London precincts, but the area most familiar to the wider world would be Crystal Palace, named after the vast Victorian glass house that once dominated its hilltop. I’ve lived hereabout all my life but, for most of that time, it would be fair to say that I’ve never concerned myself with the tribulations of long-dead antecedents. I knew vaguely that the history was slow and unremarkable during centuries of rural village life, then tumultuous and mutable as the area was enveloped by the burgeoning city.

A pair of sphinxes, relics of the 1851 Great Exhibition, overlook the former site of the Crystal Palace.
PHOTOS: THE WASHIGHTON POST
A sundial located at one end of the author’s road in south London commemorates the fallen Resistance agents

But I also suspected that there were lessons in the detail, and that I participated in a collective amnesia about the bad stuff, as is society’s (and in particular Britain’s) way.

The keystone of my search for a more balanced accounting of my neighbourhood’s past was the Layers of London website, which allows users to overlay London’s modern street grid with old maps, meticulously annotated, illuminating the city’s story. The maps show that, as recently as 1800, London had scarcely spread to south of the River Thames. The flood plain beside the banks of my borough, Lambeth, was still largely marshland; farther south, my immediate neighbourhood was field and forest. The Great North Wood swathed what we now think of as inner suburbia.

In the first 40 years of the 19th century, with Britain in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, the population of the capital doubled to almost two million. New bridges improved connectivity between the two banks of the Thames, and a new railway network spurred urban sprawl. Mid-century maps show buildings starting to cluster around existing settlements, and new ones emerging around stations of the Brighton & South Coast Railway. A police map from 1837 shows a smattering of black dots – streets of new middle-class housing – appearing in my environ, as the belching smokestacks of heavy industry erupted two miles north, pushing the growing bourgeoisie out into the southern provinces.

A transformative moment arrived in 1854: the Crystal Palace, a triumphalist glass house originally erected as part of a world exhibition in Hyde Park three years earlier, was dismantled, and resurrected on a purpose-built plinth overlooking the southern woodlands. On the Royal Parks website, I found a virtual tour of the Crystal Palace as it was in 1851, poignantly soundtracked with a genteel hubbub, and populated by the phantasmal figures of waistcoated stallholders and women in hoop skirts.

By the time the famous mapmaker Edward Stanford published his meticulous sheet maps in 1862, London’s population was over three million, and the residential grid of my neighbourhood, including my own road, resembled what it is today.

The palace was an avatar of the city’s southward creep. But away from the structure’s great atriums, life for the ordinary denizens of South London was often less refined. Life expectancy in the mid-Victorian era was barely over 40 years. Waterborne diseases proliferated through streets of squalid, high-density tenements and poor sanitation.

William Booth’s famous poverty maps, which the social reformer used to catalogue affluence and indigence in late Victorian London, don’t extend this far south. But the fact that they show supreme wealth in areas that have since declined, and poverty in places now in the grip of supercharged gentrification, testifies to the city’s flux. Some of the densest clusters of destitution, home to what Booth uncharitably described as “vicious and semi-criminal” classes, are in the north of Lambeth, where modern studio flats cost north of a million pounds.

Closer to home, online photo archives put flesh on the bones of the cartographic outlines.

I discovered that the cul-de-sac at the end of my road was originally built for a square of almshouses – charitable residences, often funded by church coffers – to alleviate the scandalous poverty of pre-welfare-state Britain. I found that the industrial estate on my road, now home to a craft brewery, was once an industrial laundry.

One image showed a pencil sketch of the Norwood & Dulwich Laundry and Carpet Beating Works as it was in 1900, a ziggurat of brick buildings, horse carts in cobbled courtyards and chimneys issuing steam.

A half-mile west, a nursing home now occupies the site of what, a hundred years ago, was known as a hospital for “incurables.” Centuries of rudimentary medicine and social stigma were recalled in that one harsh epithet alone.

Again and again, though, I was drawn to the bombing maps. Compiled by the London County Council, the maps comprised a painstaking record of the bomb damage sustained by London’s streets throughout the Second World War. Points of impact were hand-coloured to signify the level of destruction, from yellow (“minor blast damage”) to black (“total destruction”).

On map sheet 137, a couple of inches south of where my house now stands, where the road kinks eastward, a black circle denoted the point of impact of a V1 rocket, Germany’s ‘Vergeltungswaffe’, or ‘Vengeance Weapon’, a long-range ballistic missile. The row of houses within the circle’s radius were colored purple, indicating that they had been “damaged beyond repair”. Today, a 12-story tower block stands directly atop its point of impact. I wonder if any of its residents know.

Much of what I did under the auspices of research involved simply walking around and looking more closely at the historical residue I had spent my entire life passing by. At one end of my road, I found that several municipal apartment blocks are named after Allied spies who were captured while collaborating with the French Resistance. Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo, the latter of whom went to school in Lambeth, were executed in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in the last days of the war.

The palliative effect this historical foraging has had on my own anxiety is one person’s anecdote. But in many respects it makes perfect sense that it should have proved to be a counteragent to many symptoms of our pandemic malaise – not the illness, but the collateral stress we all share.

Over the course of this traumatic year, many of us will have discovered homespun therapies in granularity. This might mean working with your hands, or doing a jigsaw puzzle.

But it can also be an academic endeavor. A psychologist might describe the benefits of this cognitive specificity in terms of “flow,” the buzzword applied to activities that focus the attention on something immediate and tangible, to the exclusion of the cacophonous wider world.

By the time England slumped into its latest lockdown, I would come to think of my project not merely as a surrogate for my latent curiosity but as an inspiration to endure. It just becomes that much harder to bemoan the hardship of wearing a mask in a supermarket when you think of your forebears going to bed each night for a year, waiting for the sirens.

Aside from anything else, it has been comforting to remind myself that the Internet isn’t all bad.

In recent weeks, a new habit has entered my morning routine. After the kids are dropped at school, I take a circuitous route back home, to trace the lineaments of the past in the bricks and pavements of this familiar acre of London.

Often, I find myself thinking about Ciara Boulding’s neighbors in 1941, emerging from their homes, seeing the devastation at Number 6, and looking up, with a mixture of guilt and gratitude, at the reborn sky.

There would be anger, one might imagine, and words of consolation and grief. But then I think of them setting their jaws, fighting back the dread, and continuing with their day.

And I realise that this resolve is as much an immutable feature of the human experience as the challenges that demand it. “Just get through today,” I imagine them thinking. “This, too, shall pass.”