Friday, 27 May 2011

Alternative Tooting Rambles

I gave a talk to the Tooting Local History group on Monday 9 May entitled 'Alternative Tooting Rambles'.

I originally toyed with the idea of calling it Tooting's Big Society, but I changed my mind. Although we had been on opposite sides of the political divide, I had admired the late (Conservative Councillor) Frank Staff's contribution to reviving interest in Tooting's history through articles in the local newspaper and then in the book Tooting Rambles. It does not matter if he got some things wrong; we all do; history research and writing is not infallible. Frank rambled through Tooting following his own interests, and so I thought I would go on a virtual ramble based on my interests.

Every area is shaped by a large number of influences, social, economic, geographic, political, and by the actions over time of hundreds of thousands of people, not just residents, who as individuals are relatively powerless to influence the continual process of change, but who can exert influence through collective action, but also land owners, landlords, developers, local businesses, national and international companies, and the interplay between them. We see change going all around us, some we are not worried about, some we may have conflicting views about, and others we object to.

I started at Lambeth Council's Streatham Cemetery in Garratt Lane to tell the story of Jane Rose Roberts, the African American who became the wife of the first President of the independent republic in Liberia, and who died in January 1913 living with Battersea's black Mayor that year John Archer and his wife.

Among the many interesting people buried there are:
Frederick William Judge (1877-1960), an electrical engineer who had lived at 180 Cowick Rd in 1912.
Wyke Bayliss, a painter specialising in cathedral interiors, whom Whistler called 'the Middlesex Michel Angelo'.
Henry-Louis Vandermneerschen (1866-1934), the Belgium horn player, and one of the founders of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1904 owned and run by its members.
Samuel Esdaile (1858?-1939), an orphan who became a horn player inc. in the Crystal Palace Orchestra.
George Jeffreys (1889-1962), the founder of the Elim Pentacostal Church movement in 1915.

Then we moved around to the other Lambeth Cemetery in Blackshaw Rd 'to meet' Rev William Alexander Morris of St Anne's Parish, South Lambeth, who died in January 1904, and whose funeral was attended by a large congregation, including John Burns, and with the banners of trade unions and friendly societies, because of his support for them, especially during the New Unionist period.

Then up Blackshaw Rd, crossing Tooting High St 'to look' at the row of houses behind Waterfall House. These had been built by Solon Housing Association for which I worked. I was able to tell the story of Solon as a pioneer of workers and tenants control, pro-renewal as opposed to redevelopment, and the hostility towards it of the Housing Corporation eventually leading to the forced merger of its South London off-shoots into other associations.

We need went along to 101A Tooting High St, which houses one of the offices of the South West London Law Centres. I was able to tell the story of the Law Centres in Wandsworth and the continual creation, cuts in funding, closure and revival since the mid 1970s. Prior to it being used for a Law Centre office, 101A had been the office of the Threshold Centre which from 1973 had provided single people and childless couples with housing advice, set up on the initiative of the then priest of St Boniface's Roman Catholic Church. The organisation still exists today, with an office in Balham.

We then went passed Tooting Broadway Underground Station into Mitcham Rd to The Antelope, which had formerly been the Foresters Arms and then Jack Beard's. Like many other pubs it had been the meeting place for collective mutual organisations like trade union branches , and was where the meeting to create the Tooting & Mitcham United Football club was held in 1932.

Continuing along the road we arrived at Tooting Library opened in 1902, which allowed me to talk about Sir William Lancaster who funded its building, a key figure in the Prudential, a Conservative Councillor, a freemason, and active in a wide range of organisations. He even wrote poems, one of which was set to music.

One of the turnings off Mitcham Road is Vant Rd, where at No. 66 lived J White, who in 1930 was one of those feted by the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers for having been a member for 70 years of it and those previous unions that had merged into it.

We then arrived at St Nicholas's Church which has a Benefactions Board with the crest, helmet and gilded sword of Sir James Bateman, a local landowner, a key figure in the English financial and commercial revolutions from the 1690s to the 1710s. Until his death in 1718 he was a director of the South Sea Company, which ran the British Crown's slave trading contract from the Spanish Crown.

On the other side of Mitcham Rd is the former Mitre Inn, another important venue locally for mutual, collective self-help organisations including the Benevolent Society of Copper Plate Printers met at the Mitre Inn in Tooting (from 1805), It registered in January 1805, the Tooting Assurance Society (1820-1882), and many more over the decades.

While I am great supporter of blue and other plaque schemes they have one disadvantage. They detract from an understanding that all sorts of interesting people lived in ordinary streets whose contribution to society is largely unrecognised.

Whichever political party you support, the system depends on those Parties having active members, Tooting Streets are full of them. We know more about Labour ones because Party members with an active interest in local history have put some of the detail together. One stands out who perhaps should have a plaque: Eleanor Kathleen Goodrich, who lived at 25 Crockerton in the 1920s: suffragette, teacher, socialist, Labour Party member, Wandsworth and London County Councillor, school governor, mother, and much more.

Then in Upper Tooting Rd we stopped at the former RACS Co-op Store building. Last year's threat of demolition of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society building would have seen the end of perhaps the most substantial physical symbol of what was a strong co-operative movement in the Tooting and Balham areas. The RACS building was an enormous store. But there were also active women co-operators, through the Women's Co-operative Guild. RACS had started at the Woolwich Arsenal and from 1914 at the request of the Sutton Co-operative Society it took over its Tooting, Wimbledon and Raynes Park branches. Its high point year was 1970 with 515,305 members and sales of £41.74m. Even when it merged with the South East Region of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1984 it still had 306,503 members and sales of £152m. The hall in the building was the venue for a variety of activities. I focused on the Tooting, Earlsfield and Mitcham Woodcraft Folk groups welcoming provincial members at a gathering in August 1948 on the eve of their departure for a fortnight’s international camp in Austria. Those from the provinces then spent the night in the Clapham Common Deep Shelters which was also where many of those who came on the Windrush from the Caribbean in 1948 stayed.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s 37 Upper Tooting Rd was the home of A. W. Moody, Secretary of the Balham Esperanto Group.

I concluded with some comments on landlords. As you walk along main roads and residential streets you can see what businesses are being run and from time to time what houses or flats are for sale or to let. Have you ever wondered who the ultimate owner of these properties are? The people who take the decisions on putting up business rents and driving small shop-keepers away, or deciding to have tenants, and often letting the state of the property decay. You get an idea of the sheer number of different players from planning application lists published by Councils.

Before the Thatcher home ownership revolution large numbers of people were tenants of private absentee landlords, many of whom did not keep the repair of the property up-to-date. As a result over the decades a raft of Public Health and Housing Act powers enabled local authorities to intervene. Up until 1974 Wandsworth Council had two policies towards private tenants in poor conditions. Firstly, it re-housed them, which simply allowed the landlord to re-let creating another family for the Council's housing waiting list. Secondly, the Chief Environmental Health Officer was fixated with installing asbestos fire doors in properties with more than one set of tenants, with very little action against disrepair. In 1973 and 74 as a worker at Wandsworth Housing Rights Centre I organised a campaign to change the approach and to adopt the use of the more interventionist powers, from requiring the landlords to deal with disrepair, to carrying out the repair work and charging the landlord, to taking over management control to compulsory purchase.

With my Tooting Local History Group audience I shared detailed information about landlords and developers in Bickersteth Rd, Glasford St and Renmuir St in the period 1983-86, and Council intervention to improve conditions in other streets.