Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Death by Dancing: New Cross (1940) and Bermondsey (1903)

A couple of tragic tales of death by dancing, hopefully those going out on New Year's Eve can avoid such dangers.  The first relates to the New Cross Palais de Danse - still going today as the Venue in New Cross Road - the second occured at a Christmas party in Bermondsey.

'Witness 'jitterbugs' at inquest on girl who fell' - Manchester Evening News, Friday 24 May 1940:

Giving evidence at an inquest at Lewisham to-day, a young man stepped from the witness-box to give an exhibition of the “jitterbug dance” to the coroner, Dr. W. H. Whitehouse. A verdict of accidental death was recorded on Virginia Guidotti (19), Wickham Road, Brockley, London, who died in hospital. She had fallen while dancing the “jitterbug,” at New Cross Palais de Danse. Henry George Cox, of Park Hill Road. Deptford, said they danced the “jitterbug,” in which he explained they did “ all kinds of fantastic and funny things.” He then stepped on to the coroner’s bench and, locking his hands, went through various movements of the dance. At one stage, he said, the girl fell backwards on the floor and he fell on her.

The Coroner: It is peculiar. It sounds to me very vulgar.

Cox said that after the fall he suggested that the girl should have a glass of water and she said that she would be all right. Evidence was given that the management of the Palais de Danse had made efforts to stop the dance being performed.

'The Fatal Thirteen - Death from excessive dancing'-  South London Press, 3 January 1903:

Dr Waldo held an inquest at the Southwark Coroner's Court on Wednesday on the body of Mary Ann Cocklin, aged 35 years, the wife of a Bermondsey labourer. John Cocklin, the husband, stated that he and the deceased went to a Christmas party at the house of a relative on Christmas Day, and kept on dancing until after midnight. Deceased then lay down to rest, but awoke in a fright, screaming that three men were after her.

Dr Waldo: Had she been drinking any spirits?

Witness: No, sir, only port wine. We had nothing but port wine, any of us.

Dr Waldo: What happened when she came to herself again?

Witness: She went down stairs and resumed dancing to the music of an automated piano organ we had in the house. I next heard she was very ill, and that she had again gone to rest, but had turned giddy and fallen down the stairs.

Dr Waldo: How many?

Witness: The fatal 13.

Susan Poore, a neighbour, stated that she heard the deceased fall. She was taken to Guys Hospital, where she died the same day. The medical evidence showed that death was due to fracture of the thigh caused by the fall, which was the result of giddiness produced by dancing. A verdict was returned accordingly'.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Deptford Town Hall: commoning and history

I enjoyed the New Cross Commoners event at Deptford Town Hall last month (14 November) as part of the Being Human Festival. The aim was to host an  'an evening of open reading and discussions on the possibilities of commoning in New Cross, organised around the preparation and eating of food' with 'Bread and spreads... prepared and eaten by community groups, historians, academics and local people to explore the politics of access, place and eating together'.

The format was very simple - there was lots of delicious food cooked at the Field in Queens Road, or donated by sympathetic bakers, and people just sat around at tables eating, chatting and taking turns in saying a few words from the front.  People talked about commoning, plans for a New Cross food co-op, community energy, and about living as local residents in the streets around Goldsmiths. It was the night after the terror attacks in Paris, and a speaker from Kenya (a country no stranger to Islamist terror) pondered on how the simple fact of people from different backgrounds eating and sharing together represented the 'opposite of terror'.

I gave a quick overview of the history of Deptford Town Hall; here's my notes:

- The Metropolitan Borough of Deptford was formed in 1900 - the area having formerly been divided between the old counties of Kent and Surrey (a boundary marker survives on the green at the back of Goldsmiths).

- The Town Hall for the new Council was built between 1903 and 1905, and for much of the 20th century was at the centre of local political and social life. The building housed the Council Chamber where the Council met to make decisions, as well as offices where people would have gone to sort out housing and other issues. Many of the great and terrible events of the century echoed through this building.

- In the First World War, the Town Hall was used as an enlistment centre. In a one week period in 1915, 750 men joined up there, forming a Deptford  Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery that established its HQ at a disused Thames Ironworks site in Blackheath Road. Many of these men never came home from the war.

'From Deptford, Brockley and New Cross they came : recruits of an excellent stamp : mechanics, shopmen, clerks and labourers' - Lt.-Col. H. W. Wiebkin (1923),  Short History of the 39th (Deptford) Divisional Artillery: 1915-1918/

 - During the mass unemployment of the 1930s, the Town Hall (then with a Labour Council) welcomed marches of the unemployed. In 1932 two thousand unemployed workers met at  Woolwich, and marched with band playing to Deptford Town Hall. The marchers ‘all wearing red rosettes in their caps’ were put up at the Borough Hall, Laurie Grove, being given dinner, a mattress for the night and free use of the public baths. 

- On 29 November 1944 the Town Hall was damaged in the V2 rocket attack which killed 168 people on the site of the Woolworths store opposite.

- As migrants from the Carribean settled in the area from the 1950s they faced racist bans from some local pubs. The Anglo-Carribean Association was established to organise inclusive social evenings and they held events in Deptford Town Hall and elsewhere.

- Deptford Council was merged with Lewisham Council in 1965, so the building was no longer used as the Council HQ although it continued to be used for Lewisham Council offices and for various events. For instance, Lewisham Irish in Britain Representation Group held events there in the 1980s, such as a meeting in October 1987 where Annie Maguire spoke, a couple of years before her nephew Gerry Conlon and the rest of the ‘Guildford Four’ had their convictions quashed.

- Alex James from Blur recalls that on his 21st birthday in 1989, when he and other band members were squatting in a semi-derelict flat at 302A New Cross Road,  Damon Albarn 'climbed on to the roof of Deptford Town Hall next door and changed the time on the big clock, which stayed at the wrong time for several years' (Bit of a Blur: the Autobiography, 2010).

- The Town Hall came under Goldsmiths management from 1998. Of course, its history didn't stop at that point - since then it has hosted many interesting conferences, meetings and cultural events as well as being periodically occupied by students.

- In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the slavery Abolition Act, Paul Hendrich initiated a discussion on the links between Deptford and slavery as embodied in the Town Hall building – statues outside include Francis Drake (who accompanied John Hawkins in 1568 to ‘obtain’ between 400-500 West Africans and sell them in the West Indies), Robert Blake (the head of Cromwell’s navy) and Nelson (who opposed the abolition of slavery). An event at the Town Hall in June 2007 on 'Repairing the Trauma of History: What does an apology of substance look like?' featured a group of people on the Sankofa Reconciliation Walk wearing yokes and chains attempting to make reparation for the acts of the seamen carved in stone on the front of the building.

I was pleased to see that on each of the tables at the New Cross Commoners event there was a Menu with a quote from my late friend Paul Hendrich, who wrote about the history of Deptford Town Hall and the relationship of Goldsmiths to New Cross in his article 'Charting a New Course for Deptford Town Hall' (Anthropology Matters, 2008).  Today (28 December) would have been Paul's 44th birthday, but sadly he was killed while riding his bike to Goldsmiths in January 2008. Paul called for us 'to overwrite the building with a new set of memories and meanings' and it felt like the New Cross Commoners were continuing that project.

'The work we need to do, then, is to overwrite the building with a new set of memories and meanings. The Town Hall retains its original jingoistic overtones, but these serve only for us to reject the imperialist nostalgia and to create a better-informed relationship with the building. The work of generating new meanings is already being done. One local resident, who wished to remain anonymous, supplied me with an alternative narrative for the figures on the front of Deptford Town Hall that plays on the legacy of sadness and regret. The resident said that, as penance for their past misdeeds, the souls of these noble seamen are trapped for eternity inside the statues. They are forced to watch the multi-culturalisation of New Cross and rue their past actions' (Paul Hendrich, 2008)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Open the Window: soundscapes from South London to the World

For the third Christmas Eve in succession, Hither Green-based experimental/improvisational music label Linear Obsessional has released a compilation based on inviting submissions in line with a chosen theme. This year's premise was simple: 'open your window and record two minutes of what you can hear. Interacting with it live if you wish, or editing and processing the recordings later. From this concept has emerged this 85 track, 2 hour 50 minute compilation of extraordinary recordings from all over the world'.

There are many remarkable recordings on this global smorgasbord of soundscapes,  includes several recorded in South London:

Richard Sanderson - Playing - Hither Green features the Linear Obsessional founder playing melodeon over the sounds of children playing outside.

Anthony Osborne - The Story Of A Panic - Ladywell includes some rather scary sounding crows.

Steven Ball - Go From My Window - New Cross - the traditional folk song sung over the sound of the New Cross rain.

Phil Julian - 3 November 2015 - South Norwood - the familar South London sonic sweep of birdsong and airplanes.

Argument Club - Shipping Forecast - Lewisham - traffic noise and radio sounds.

Chris Jones - Drill_Byt - Peckham - processed drill noise.

Sean Dower - Taxi Argument - Bermondsey - the title says it all.

Neil Gordon​-​Orr - Gellatly Road 1940​/​1915 - New Cross - traffic, drone and the names of people killed in the street in World War Two - 'Gellatly Road is a short but busy street in London SE14. 75 years ago, bombs were landing on it. Recalling memories of those terrible times, the sound of today's traffic - usually annoying -appears vaguely heroic: the victory of the everyday over terror and horror'.

Steve Scutt - Somehow Window - Camberwell

Clare and Arthur Wood - Bedtime Background With Oompa Loompa Song- Lewisham

You can download the album, with  62 page booklet, at Linear Obsessional

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Elf Kid - Lewisham High Street Golden Boy

Elf Kid's Golden Boy namechecks Lewisham High Street, Deptford Market and Brockley with a video shot on Pepys Estate, Deptford High Street and Lewisham Town Centre. Out now on No Hats No Hoods records

Greenwich Peninsula History Talks

Greenwich historian Mary Mills  has a new book out. ‘Innovation, Enterprise and Change on the Greenwich Peninsula' looking at the history of the peninsula, its industries and how they brought change to both Greenwich and the world.

Mary is doing a couple of talks this week as part of the launch of the book:  on Wednesday 16th December 2015, 6.00-7.00 pm, at Greenwich Centre Library; and on Thursday 17th December, 7.00-8.00 pm at Blackheath Library.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Ladywell Baths: some history (post updated November 2017)

Lewisham Council has approved (November 2017)  a proposal for the semi-derelict Ladywell Playtower building  to be refurbished as a cinema by Curzon, due to open in 2020. A rival proposal from the Picturehouse/Cineworld cinema chain came second and had been the focus of an 8,000 strong petition 'Do not give our Ladywell Playtower to the union-busting Picturehouse / Cineworld chain!' - workers at the Picturehouse cinema have been in dispute with the firm over its failure to pay London Living Wage (unlike Curzon). It is not clear whether this was a factor in the Mayor's decision, but Lewisham has been actively promoting the London Living Wage. In any event there are already three Picturehouses within five miles of Ladywell - which will now host the borough's only dedicated full size cinema (architect's impression of new scheme below).

The Council's invitation of proposals for the site was prompted by another online petition in 2015 which stated:

'We the undersigned note that the Ladywell Baths (aka 'The Playtower') was listed recently by The Victorian Society as one of England and Wales's 10 most 'at risk' Victorian and Edwardian buildings. This highlights the failure of the Mayor and Council over many years adequately to prioritise the restoration of this building, a prominent and much-loved local landmark, to beneficial use - a total abdication of their responsibilities as owner and custodian of this fine public building. We call upon the Mayor and Council urgently to set in train a process and take all appropriate steps, in partnership with other interested public, private and third sector organisations and in close co-operation with local people, to bring the Ladywell Baths building back into productive use and so secure its integrity and future for the at least next 100 years'. Well I guess they have got what they wanted.

Ladywell Baths in better days... the tower is still there, but it lost its cone in the Second World War

Much of the building fabric remains intact if not in great condition, as an 'urban explorer' who  photographed the inside in 2015 found: 

photograph from slayaaaa at 28 Days Later

'Ladywell Baths were erected in 1884 to the designs of Wilson & Son and Thomas Aldwinkle, the latter a local architect who designed several bath houses of note. The builders were Hobbs of Croydon. The Ladywell Baths were built at a cost of £9,000 on a site procured by the vicar of the adjacent St Mary's Church. At the time, a local paper commented on the juxtaposition of church and baths that 'cleanliness was next to Godliness'. The site was chosen as it is on the main road into Ladywell from Brockley, Catford, Lewisham and Hither Green. 

Local vestries were first permitted to levy a rate for baths and washhouses under an Act of 1846. Largely concerned with the hygiene of the lower classes, however, the Act only permitted slipper baths, laundries and open-air pools until an amendment in 1878 encouraged the building of covered swimming baths. Few authorities adopted the Act before the 1890s, when baths began to flourish. Lewisham Vestry, however, was notably progressive and appointed seven Commissioners in 1882, whose aims was to obtain funds and land to build two swimming pools at Ladywell and Forest Hill. By 1900 public baths were not only being built in large numbers, but also with increasing elaboration. 

On 25 April 1885, the baths were opened by Viscount Lewisham, MP, who remarked that aside from the Paddington Baths (which do not survive), 'there were no others in London of that size'. The Forest Hill baths were opened the following week. The ceremony was reported in the Kentish Mercury of 1 May 1885, which described the baths as 'quite an ornament to the neighbourhood, standing in striking contrast to the ancient church behind it'. The charges for use were 6d for the first class pool and 2d for the second class. On two days a week the pools were reserved for ladies bathing'. 

Interesting the lengths Victorian authorities went to to embed class distinctions in architecture - in this case building two separate pools so that the semi-naked middle classes didn't have to swim in the same water as the great unwashed!

The pools were replaced by the 1960s Ladywell Leisure Centre, now demolished, and the building has been empty for at least ten years having last been used as a play centre and gymnastics club.


At one time Ladywell Baths was a significant centre for swimming, hosting Kent county swimming and water polo competitions and acting as the home pool for Lewisham Swimming Club. In 1906, the world half mile swimming record - then 11 mins. 37 seconds - was set at Ladywell by David Billington (Gloucester Citizen, 14 September 1906).  Eric Liddell, the athlete immortalised in the film 'Chariots of Fire', swam there as a school boy (David McCasland, Eric Liddell: Pure Gold). Edward Temme, the first man to swim the Channel in both directions, attended a gala there in 1927.

Edward W Stafford (1853-1915), a water polo player for Lewisham Swimming Club was one of the seven founder members of the Life Saving Society (later the Royal Life Saving Society), established in 1891 to train people in saving people from drowning, including initiating the Bronze Medallion for qualified lifesavers (James R McClelland, The Bronze Medallion and Lifesaving Story, 2016). Another member of the Club from this period was sometime Goldsmiths student Stephen Gabriel Dadd (1894-1915). He won the Club's 1,000 yards river race in 1911 (as well as running for Blackheath Harriers) and was killed in the Dardanelles during the First World War.

Local running club Lewisham Hare and Hounds - who later became part of the still thriving Kent Athletic Club based at Ladywell Arena - seem to have sometimes used the baths as a starting point
'A good field turned out for this club's 10 Miles Scratch race, and Sealed handicap, which was decided from the Ladywell baths yesterday. Result of scratch race - R.C. Harris, 64 min 10 sec; F W Coldwell, 66 min 45sec, second; F H Williams, 67 min 26 seconds, third' (Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 23 January 1898).


Ladywell Gymnastics Club was founded at the Playtower in 1967 by Jim and Pauline Prestidge and became one of the top clubs of the 1970s, training Olympc gymnasts including Suzanne Dando and Avril Lennox. After moving to Lewisham Leisure Centre in Rennell Street in 1977,  it came back to the Playtower in 1996 prior to moving on to a purpose built facility at Bellingham Leisure Centre in 2004, where it continues to flourish.

The Baths were also used for social events and political meetings. Herbert Morrison spoke at a Labour Party rally for women there during the 1945 election campaign:

'It was a typical cross-section of the women of a London division that filled the main hall of the Ladywell Baths - housewives whose husbands work in the City; women shopkeepers, women who had taken time from work to hear their candidate, and a considerable leavening of young women who had just qualified for the vote. They listened to Mr Morrison with close attention and plain appreciation, and warmly applauded when he pressed home the point that all the reforms of housing, health, child welfare and security which women ardently desire could come to them only through a Labour Government in power' (Daily Herald, 26 June 1945).

The swimming pool is mentioned in E.Nesbit's children's novel The Wouldbegoods (1899): 'we boys can swim all right. Oswald has swum three times across the Ladywell Swimming Baths at the shallow end, and Dicky is nearly as good'.

(post first published December 2015, updated November 2017 with news of plans for building)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

David Lodge on bullet holes in Brockley

The novelist David Lodge (born 1935) grew up in Brockley, living at 81 Millmark Grove from 1936 to 1959. He went to St Mary Magdelen Roman Catholic primary school in Brockley, and walking home from school during the Second World War he had a narrow escape:

'One afternoon we were a few hundred yards from the railway bridge that traversed Brockley Road just before Brockley Cross when a German aeroplane flew over our heads firing its machine guns, perhaps at a train on the line, though its main target was said later to be an anti-aircraft battery on Telegraph Hill... Some of the bullets hit the white-tiled walls under the bridge and left pockmarks which were still discernible the last time I looked, about fifty years later'.

I checked myself last week, and yes the bullet holes are still there more than 70 years after the end of the war.

Brickley Central

David Lodge's 2008 novel 'Deaf Sentence' is the tale of a recently retired academic at a north of England university coping with going deaf and his elderly father's dementia. Said father still lives in the house where the narrator grew up, situated in an area named 'Brickley', a 'drab segment of  south-east London' with 'its streets of squat identical terraced cottages on the flat bits, and larger terraced houses and tall detached and semi-detached villas on the hilly bits'.

The father lives in 'Lime Avenue', a setting clearly based on Lodge's childhood home in Millmark Grove:  'squeezed in on rising ground between a main road and the railway, and it leads nowhere except to the main road at each end. The houses on the railway side have back gardens which abut on to an unusually high and wide embankment' whereas on the other side of the street the gardens are 'raised up artificially on landfill contained by a high concrete wall' backing on to the main road.

'Brickley' also features in his novel The Picturegoers set in a local cinema, while his time at the St Mary Magadelen parish youth club - St Ignatius Social Club - inspired an episode in his novel Therapy.

Lodge's portrait of Brockley/Brickley is less than flattering, but as he notes in his recent autobiograpy:  'When I was growing up there after the Second World War Brockley was a declining, unfashionable suburb, though I did not perceive it as such. After I ceased to live there in 1959, as Goldsmiths College in New Cross grew in size and status it began to attract more sophisticated residents - teachers, artists, actors - and lately it has become almost trendy'.

(Source for all above, except Deaf Sentence quotes, 'Quite A Good Time to be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975' by David Lodge, Random House, 2015).