Friday, February 26, 2021

Harold Moody & W.E.B. Du Bois - Queens Road SE15 as international anti-racist clearing house

A blue plaque at 164 Queens Road, Peckham, commemorates its status as the one time home of Dr Harold Moody (1882-1947). Moody moved from Jamaica to London to become a doctor, and established his first GP practice at 111 King’s Road (now King’s Grove), Peckham, in 1913. In 1922 he moved to nearby 164 Queens Road, where he lived and worked until his death in 1947.

 An information board outside the house includes further details of his life, including his work as an anti-racist campaigner. Moody founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 to  oppose discrimination. They published a journal, The Keys, and organised social events as well as campaigning against the 'colour bar' in the workplace, the military, housing and elsewhere. Its 1944 'Charter for Coloured Peoples' demanded that: 'The same economic, educational, legal and political rights shall be enjoyed by all persons, male and female, whatever their colour. All discrimination in employment, in places of public entertainment and refreshment, or in other public places, shall be illegal and shall be punished'.

While the main focus of the League was on discrimination in Britain, it also aimed to promote the 'Welfare of Coloured Peoples in all parts of the World' and maintained contact with similar organisations internationally such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the USA.  According to historian Stephen Bourne 'In the 1920s and 1930s, Dr Moody’s home on Queens Road became a popular meeting place for famous Black people who visited London. They included the American singer and activist Paul Robeson; the Trinidadian historian and novelist C.L.R. James; Kwame Nkrumah, who later became president of Ghana; Jomo Kenyatta, who later became the founding president of the Republic of Kenya; and the popular cricketer Learie Constantine, also from Trinidad' (The Life of Dr Harold Moody).We know too that Moody met Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta at Sylvia Pankhurst's house in Woodford Green. The League's Una Marson - a sometime lodger at Queens Road and editor of The Keys - met Haile Selassie when he arrived at Waterloo station in 1936 on a visit to rally support following the Italian fascist invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia.

The League's international signficance is attested to in some of the Harold Moody material available in the online W.E.B. Du Bois archive hosted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Du Bois was a founder of the NAACP and the pre-eminent American Black intellectual of his time. His correspondence with and about Moody largely concerned plans for a Pan African Congress to be held in Britain at the end of World War Two. The Congress went ahead in Manchester in 1945 bringing together opponents of British colonial rule and campaigners against racism in the USA and elsewhere. Moody did not personally attend, but does seem to have been involved in formulating and developing the idea. 

In April 1944, Du Bois  wrote to singer and actor Paul Robeson seeking his support, stating ''I have had within the last month two interesting communications. One was from Amy Jacques Garvey, widow of the late Marcus Garvey living in Jamaica; the other was a telegram for Dr Harold Moody from London. Dr Moody as perhaps you know is a black West Indian, long resident in London and recently elected Chairman of the old and celebrated London Missionary Society. Both these communications asked for my cooperation looking toward a post-war conference to consider needs and demands of Negroes'. In the same month Du Bois wrote to Moody in Peckham about plans for the Congress:

A Letter from Moody to Du Bois (July 27 1944) signs off ''We are successfully negotiating the flying bombs on this side, although they do cause some inconvenience'. In November 1944, Moody was to be one of the first doctors on site of the V2 explosion in New Cross Road, when a German rocket hit Woolworths killing 168 people.

There is a also a letter from Amy Jacques Garvey to W. E. B. Du Bois  (January 31, 1944) in which the widow of Marcus Garvey recommends Moody to Du Bois and provides his address. This is a remarkable letter in many ways - Marcus Garvey and Du Bois did not get on, but Amy Garvey saw the bigger picture: 'Why should I above all people, write to you as I do? Because personal feelings must be forgotten in the unity of effort that is being forged for Africa, and our people...  My people you are no longer Negro rings to strengthen the fingers of your exploiters; you are no longer Negro studs to cover the sinful breasts of alien persecutors. you are precious African links of a mighty chain'.

164 Queens Road was not the only house on a south London residential street that functioned as a significant international anti racist/anti-colonial clearing house. Listening recently to an  interview with Leila Hassan Howe (on the Surviving Society podcast), she recalled how the Race Today collective HQ (at 165 Railton Road SE24) performed a similar function in the 1970s and 1980s. C.L.R. James was living upstairs, and people like the Grenadian revolutionary Maurice Bishop and Walter Rodney from Guyana would pop by for a chat.  Of course C.L.R. James is the common thread as he is of much of 20th century radical history in Britain, the Caribbean, African and the United States - he also knew Moody and wrote an article in 1936 for The Keys about “Abyssinia and the Imperialists”. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Recent radical street art (New Cross, Brockley, Deptford)

From the radical canvas that is the streetscape of South East London, a few recent interventions in the social fabric...

Up against the wall

Seen on the bus stop outside Goldsmiths in New Cross today (20 February 2021):

The full text reads: ' We are all outlaws in the eyes of England / In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge f*ck hide and deal/  We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young / But we should be together / Come on all you people standing around / Our life's too fine to let it die / We can be together/  All your private property is target for your enemy/ And your enemy is we /We are forces of chaos and anarchy / Everything they say we are we are /And we are very proud of ourselves /
Up against the wall / Up against the wall Motherf*cker'

These are in fact the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane's 1969 song 'We can be together', with just one change - substituting England for America in first line. The location is apposite. As discussed here before, Fred Vermorel has stated that he introduced later Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to 'situationism at the 36 bus stop, just outside Goldsmiths College in Lewisham Way'.  McLaren and Vermorel were at this time (late 60s) in the milieu around the radical group King Mob, influenced by the Situationists and the New York group 'Up Against the Wall Motherf*ckers'. Jefferson Airplane lifted some of the lyrics for their song from a text written by the latter.

All that is solid melts into air

Coulgate Street, Brockley, February 2021, a phrase from Marx and Engels written in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto:

The full quote:  'Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind'.  People sometimes miss the point of this quote - Marx and Engels thought it was a good thing that capitalism was progressively sweeping away older ways of life and thought. Were they right? Discuss.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please

Another Marx quote featured on a poster nearby on Brockley Road last summer (2020)

This is from 'The18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' (1852): 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past'. I prefer it with the next line 'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living'. Oh and I think Marx used the term 'Menschen' more correctly translated as gender neutral 'people' rather than 'men'.

Free the Uyghurs

The mass detention and repression of the Muslim Uyghur minority by the Chinese state should be provoking sustained global outrage and solidarity. A bit of a graffiti in Briant Street, New Cross feels inadequate but at least it's there.

Who Lives Here Belongs Here

Posters on an estate agents billboard in Trundleys Road, SE8. Note also Biblical injunction in graffiti 'protect the week', referencing Psalm 82 'Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked'. 

Travis Alabanza Street

Erlanger Road SE4 renamed after trans activist, artist and writer. Seemingly the work of 
Feminist Collages, put up in October 2020.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Lewisham transgender marriage in 1954

I have seen a few mentions on twitter and  facebook about the case of Vincent (born Violet) Jones and Jean Lee who were each fined £25 in 1954 following their 'illegal' wedding at St Luke’s Church in Downham - illegal because Vincent was not legally recognised as a man. An article at Historic England includes a photo of the couple on their wedding day (see below), with a quote from Jones: '‘We both love each other and when everything is put right we intend to get remarried. We shall have a public ceremony. We have nothing to be ashamed of.’

I wanted to see if I could find out more about this and thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry, plus a couple of hints in messages from Bob from Brockley and Running Past, I think we can piece together more of the story.

Joan Mary Lee seems to have been born in Lewisham in 1933, her parents were George and Mary and in 1939 they were living at 120 Capstone Road in Downham with George working as a fitter for Post Office Engineering. Vincent Jones seems to have been born Violet Jones in Steyning, Sussex in 1928. The 1952 Electoral Register has Violet Ellen Jones living at 42 Ringmore Rise in Forest Hill. 

The couple met when they both worked as tracers in the drawing office at the South East London Telephone headquarters - not sure where this was, but it may have been the telephone exchange on corner of Glenton Road and Lee High Road SE13. According to the People (24/10/54) 'Girls who knew them say that "Miss Jones" had arrived at work one day in man's clothes and insisted that "she" had become a man, after operations'.

In September 1954 the vicar of St Luke's, Rev D G N Clark, 'pronounced Vincent Eric Kenneth Jones' of Forest Hill and '21 year old Joan Lee of Moorside Road, Downham, man and wife'  (Daily Herald, 25 October 1954) at a white wedding attended by relatives. 

After a two week honeymoon in Hastings they had set up home in rented rooms at 162 Ardgowan Road, Catford*.  It seems to have been the Vicar who reported them to the police having become aware that Vincent's  birth certificate bore the name Violet Ellen Katherine Jones. Following a police visit to their home in November, the couple were summonsed to appear in court for making a false statement to obtain a marriage certificate.

The case was heard at Greenwich magistrates in December, and both were fined £25, the case receiving national media attention, some of it quite sympathetic. The magistrate said that Jones had 'made a grave false statement to cover your unnatural passion with a false air of respectability'. But this does not seem to have been a case of a same sex marriage by subterfuge - of the marriage of two self-identifying lesbians. Jones clearly identified as a man, telling the Daily Herald (25/10/54) for instance: ''I am a man. There is no doubt about that, and I have nothing to fear. My wife and I are very happy'.  In her statement, Joan said 'As time went of I became increasingly sure of my feeling for him as his for me, which neither of us made any attempt to hide from the world. To me he is as any other husband is' (Daily Herald, 14/12/54). Jones seems to have been recognised as a man at work and elsewhere.

Jones told police 'I am a man but if you mean physically I still possess female organs... I have been to doctors to alter my sex completely but I was sick of waiting'. Jones had 'written to Denmark where there was a case of a woman doctor who changed her sex' (quoted in Alison Oram, 'Her Husband was a Woman!: Women's Gender-Crossing in Moden British Popular Culture', 2007). Gender Reassignment Surgery was in its early stages so it would have been very difficult for Jones to access it in 1954.

What happened next is unclear. Sadly Joan seems to have died in Dartford in 1966, bearing the name Joan Jones which suggests that the marriage continued. A press report from 1954 mentions that 'Joan is bald and wears a wig' which perhaps indicates an underlying serious health issue. There's a little confusion about Vincent - although so named in court, he is also referred to as Vic in press reports (e.g. by Joan's father below).  And it is as Victor E.K. Jones that he is named in a few places on family history website Ancestry, seemingly dying in Hastings in 1991 - decades after his honeymoon there with Joan.

 * press reports give address as Ardgowan Road, I have deduced house number from fact that their landlord Cyril Thomas is listed as living at 162 Ardgowan Road in 1962 electoral register.  Thomas 'in whose house the couple took rooms'  was quoted as saying 'They are a nice quiet couple. Sometimes they go out dancing' (DH, 25/10/54). 

'Girl weds girl in sex change sensation ' (People, 24/10/1954)-
found at British Newspaper Archive

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Bring back the White Hart SE14

Sad to see the White Hart in New Cross Gate closed and empty. Leaseholders Patrick and Joseph Ryan, whose efforts had reinvigorated this iconic pub over the last few years, shut up shop for good on New Year's Eve. They have concluded that the pub will no longer be viable for them as a result of plans to convert the rooms above the pub into flats.

The building is owned by the Wellington Pub Company and their planning application to convert the upper storeys was turned down by Lewisham Council in August 2019 after more than 3,000 signed a petition. A major reason for the refusal was that with flats above it was unlikely that the pub's late night licence and music would be able to continue, a key element in making it a viable business.

The owner/developer appealed against the decision and in October 2020 the Planning Inspectorate overruled Lewisham Council and granted planning permission. The Inspectorate accepted that the changes would mean an end to amplified music at any time, and with only 'live acoustic music (excluding non-handheld percussion)'  allowed, and then only before 11 pm. But they argued that it would be possible for a pub to continue. 

The current building, which is Grade II listed, dates back to around 1870 but there was an earlier building on site with a pub operating there from the 1850s if not earlier.  The pub must be one of the most photographed buildings in New Cross over its long history, occupying as it does a commanding location at junction of two ancient trackways - the road from Dover to London (now New Cross Road) and the road coming off this to head towards Peckham and ultimately Westminster (now Queens Road, but known as Peckham Lane until later in the 19th century). When the pub first opened it was next to the tollgate that gave New Cross Gate it's name.

The original pub next to tollgate in around 1865. Note the Allsopp brewery signage on pub, and the 'Bromley Races' sign on tollgate shelter.

1847: an application for a victualling house licence for the White Hart was refused following opposition from other local pubs including The Five Bells. A licence wasn't issued until 1857 but plainly the White Hart already existed in the 1840s if not as a licensed pub perhaps more as a coaching inn where people could stop off on their way into London.

1855 - The Hatcham Society meets at the White Horse - nearly 170 years later its successor, the Hatcham Conservation Society were campaigning to save the pub

The pub went through a bit of low ebb in the noughties, including a short lived attempt to turn it into a strip joint that prompted protests by Goldsmiths feminists and others. Lately it's been great, I loved the very high quality Irish music sessions and Sunday Roasts but alas no more.

The bigger picture here is that no matter what community value a pub like the White Hart may have, to giant pub companies who own the buildings they are just a line on a spreadsheet of property investments. The Wellington Pub Company owns more than 700 pubs and is owned in turn by the Reuben brothers, one of the country's wealthiest families (joint number 2 on the Sunday Times rich list). They were criticised earlier in the pandemic for their rent policies and must now be sitting on may empty properties, including locally both The White Hart and the former Rose of Lee/Dirty South on Lee High Road. We need to make sure that Covid-19 doesn't become an excuse for closing pubs permanently - we still need them, whether they are economically viable in future will depend on lots of factors, not least how much rent the landlords charge the people running them.

(At this end of New Cross not only is the White Hart closed, but the nearby Montague Arms just over the SE15 border has been empty for a while and a planning application has been put in to demolish it)

The heritage statement produced as part of the planning application has some interesting building detail, though flawed as commissioned by developers.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Blackheath Modernist Houses Walk

Designer and author Stefi Orazi has produced 'Perambulations', a series of  risograph walking guides to modernist houses covering different parts of London (and indeed Brussels). As a lockdown treat we explored Blackheath with map in hand, an area known for 20th century housing from Span Developments 'as well as several individual houses by Britain’s most revered modernist architects including Peter Moro, Patrick Gwynne and Walter Greave'.

(detail from map)

Yes we saw lots of cool modernist buildings and some very grand older ones too. But the real adventure to be had from following somebody else's map is that it takes you to places you haven't seen before. I thought I knew Blackheath reasonably well but there were whole streets and estates I was unaware of.

Morden Road SE3

Sometime Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan lived at 17 Montpelier Road SE3 in the 1970s. Looks to me like the picture below may have been taken at back of the house.

(The latest in the Perambulations series covers West Dulwich and Forest Hill) 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

British Homophone and the Black Vinyl Atlantic

Sandwiched between Surrey Canal Road SE14 (near to the Den) and Rollins Street SE15 is a run down set of buildings named the Excelsior Works. Once upon a time this place had a role in musical history as a record pressing plant from where some great records made their way around the world.

The site seems to have been farm land at the turn of the 20th century, but by the start of the First World War the Excelsior Works had been established, initially occupied by Thomas O’Brien and Company, wholesale ironmongers, and then from 1919 by M. Erdman and Son, portable house builders. 

From the early 1920s Ebonestos Industries Ltd, a plastics company specialising in electrical insulators, moved on site having previously been based in Pomeroy Street SE14. A 1923 report mentions 'A serious fire... at the Ebonestos Insulators Works, Rollins-street, Deptford. A district call had to be circulated, but before the firemen had the flames under control the building was gutted' (Pall Mall Gazette, 19 July 1923). The works faced on to the Surrey Canal, linking it to the Surrey Commercial Docks, until the canal was filled and the docks closed in the 1970s. 

Later in the 1920s the company seems to have started planning to diversify into another plastic product.  In 1928 a share prospectus inviting investment in a new record company Gramophone Records Ltd reported that  'arrangements have been made for the manufacture and pressing of 200,000 record discs per month by Ebonestos Insulators Limited, which company has facilities at its works in London for extension of output as and when required' (Scotsman, 27 March 1928). Shortly afterwards this company merged with another company, British Homophone, under the latter's name. British Homophone had grown out of another company (Sterno) originally set up to distribute records of the Homophon Company of Berlin.

There was however a whiff of scandal about this. John Bull newspaper (12 November 1932) termed the 'Big Gramophone Combine Sensation' an 'investment swindle'. It seems that the record production capacity of Excelsior had been massively exaggerated and it was in fact 'totally unsuited for the commercial production of records'. Shareholders complained that they had been misled.

Rollins House at the back of the site on Rollins Street

Nevertheless record production does seem to have commenced with British Homophone having its own record labels, Homochord and Sterno, putting out dance music and other popular music of the 1930s - including by Mantovani And His Tipica Orchestra. According to Discogs,  it became 'one of the first companies in Britain to process and press records directly for both its own labels (Homochord and Sterno) as well as for independent labels and customers'.  As 1920s/30s dance band enthusiast Michael Thomas has exhaustively documented, British Homophone put out a series of '4 in 1' records which unusually included four full length tunes on each record.

At this point, British Homophone had premises in Kilburn and Stonebridge as well as at New Cross so it may not be clear which records were manufactured where. In 1937 though British Homophone sold off the recording and commercial record label side of its business to Decca and EMI and closed down all of its premises apart from New Cross. 

From this point, British Homophone seems to have only pressed records under contract on behalf of other record companies. It shared the Excelsior Works with Ebonestos:  Sir Herbert Morgan was Chairman of both companies and explained in 1947 that  'the Homophone and Ebonestos companies should be regarded together in that the businesses were carried on in the same premises and, to a very large extent, under the guidance of the same personnel'.  Ebenestos was said to be 'primarily concerned in the manufacture of components for the electrical, engineering, radio and motor industries' (Truth, 3 October 1947).

There was some bomb damage during the Second World War and most buildings on site are believed to date from the period after the war (or possibly the 1930s). Both companies remained on site until the 1980s, when Ebonestos moved out of London. It continues to this day as Welwyn Components Ltd,  part of TT Electronics based in Bedlington, Northumberland. British Homophone is no more but as we shall see, records made there in its 1950-1980 hey day had a major cultural impact.

The Black Vinyl Atlantic

Paul Gilroy famously describes a transnational Black Atlantic culture, constituted by the circulation of black people and their cultural works between Britain, the Caribbean, the USA and Africa. Music 'comprises a central and even foundational element' of this black 'expressive culture' rooted in a common experience of the terrors of slavery and its legacies (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, 1993). In the second half of the twentieth century this culture was embodied in 7 and 12 inch circles of sound crossing the ocean in all directions - let's call it the Black Vinyl Atlantic. 

Concretely, songs might be composed and recorded in Jamaica, pressed on to vinyl in England, and the records exported back to the Caribbean.  Or as Lloyd Bradley describes in his excellent 'Sounds Like London. 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital' (2013) musicians from Africa and the Caribbean might travel to London to record tracks which were then distributed globally from Britain on labels like Emil E. Shalit's Melodisc. Some of these records might then have been brought back to Britain amongst the possessions of DJs, musicians and other migrants moving here. Other records that had already been released in Jamaica or the USA were licensed to be re-pressed in London. 

The British Homophone factory in New Cross was one of the points on this musical and cultural network - a place where the spirit was made flesh as songs were transferred to vinyl. The Discogs detectives have perfected a science of reading the runes and serial numbers on records to work out where they were pressed, and thanks to this have been able to compile an impressive British Homophone discography. This includes some of the great artists and recordings of the Black Atlantic, in particular ska, early reggae and soul.

There are tracks on the Bluebeat label, the ska label started by Shalit, and on R&B Discs and its various subsidiary labels such as Ska Beat and National Calypso (these were run by Jewish couple Rita and Benny Isen from their shop in Stamford Hill).  Tracks on Doctor Bird and Rio records, most of them recorded in Jamaica, including early releases by The Wailers and The Maytals 'Sensational Maytals' LP. And quite a few on Island Records and associated labels, including the famous 'Guns of Navarone' by The Skatalites and Bob and Earl's soul classic 'Harlem Shuffle' (on Sue Records, owned by Island's Chris Blackwell).

President Records

A new chapter for British Homophone started in 1971 when President Records executive Edward Kassner acquired a 50% stake in the company. Kassner, a refugee from Nazi Austria, had started his record company in 1955. In 1968 President Records had secured its first number one single with 'Baby Come Back' by The Equals, featuring Eddy Grant. In the 1970s, President signed Miami artists KC & The Sunshine Band and George & Gwen McCrae, releasing their records on its subsidiary soul label Jay Boy.  They had massive hits including George McCrae's Rock Your Baby (number one in 1974) and KC's  'Queen of Clubs', 'Get Down Tonight'  and 'That's the Way I Like It' (in 1974/5). By this point President was manufacturing its records at British Homophone, with Music Week in 1974 describing it as President's own pressing facility. So yes, it seems that these Miami disco classics, hits in the UK before the USA, were launched from New Cross.

Eddy Grant

By the end of the 1970s the British Homophone plant was in decline. It was bought in 1979 by Eddy Grant who had had a long association with President Records while with his band The Equals. Grant had opened his Coach House Recording Studio in Stamford Hill in 1974, and launched his own Ice record label. In buying the pressing plant Grant was establishing 'the first black-owned manufacturing facility in England' for records (Bradley). This was a busy time for Grant and for Ice, so presumably some of their output was pressed at Excelsior.  But in the music business conditions of the time it was to prove a stretch too far. Grant recalled: 'When it became critical was with the pressing plant, because the bastards at the major companies would use my plant for their overruns – Christmas is coming or Elvis’s birthday or something. They would use my facility and wouldn’t want to pay; there was a particular time when the music business was in such terrible straits that they wouldn’t pay me. So I had on the one hand the brothers who couldn’t pay me, and on the other hand the white companies who wouldn’t pay me' (quoted in Bradley). Grant sold up and moved to Barbados in 1981 and the factory seems to have closed for good by 1985.

The records made here had an international impact, but it's also intriguing to think about records made in New Cross being played locally on sound systems and in blues parties. And in fact we do know there was a direct link between the British Homophone factory and the area's best known sound system, Saxon Studio International - launchpad for the careers of Tippa Irie, Maxi Priest, Smiley Culture and many others. Co-founder Denis Rowe told reggae historian David Katz that his uncle worked at British Homophone 'which was off Ilderton Road in New Cross, so most people used to come to my house to get records; them days, people used to press records for Jamaica over here and American music was printed here and sent to America. So I grew up around records, and started to buy records at a young age.' Rowe's dad ran a shop in Malpas Road, Brockley where parties were held - no doubt playing some records manufactured a short distance away.

Today there are various workshops on a site that seems dominated by second hand/scrap cars.  There are also artist studios, though a few years ago there was a dispute with developers Renewal about their plans to redevelop the site - not sure of the current status of this. Maybe no music here, though elsewhere along Surrey Canal Road other former industrial spaces are being put to good use. By all accounts there have been some great club nights at Venue MOT Unit 18 on the Orion Industrial Estate, while  Digital Holdings on the Juno Industrial Estate has become an important music recording studio for grime and drill artists. Perhaps they are tuning in to the echoes of British Homophone and its outernational sounds. 

Neil Transpontine (2021), British Homophone and the Black Vinyl Atlantic. <>. Published under Creative Commons License BY-NC 4.0. You may share and adapt for non-commercial use provided that you credit the author and source.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Blood and Sugar - 'Deptford is a slaving town, is it not?'

'Blood and Sugar' by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Pan, 2020) is essentially a murder mystery set in late eighteenth century Deptford - 1781 to be precise.  Without giving too much away of the plot, a slavery abolitionist is brutally killed and his friend sets out to investigate. He is obstructed in his enquiries by the local magistrate and by the West India lobby - the wealthy and powerful opponents of any changes to slavery, particular in the lucrative Caribbean sugar plantations.

'Deptford is a slaving town, is it not?' a character asks at the start of the novel, and over the course of the story it is shown that many do have an interest in the slave trade in one way or another. 

The author has done her local history research, correctly noting that 'the town comprised two separate settlements, joined by a road which cut through open field. Deptford Broadway was where the town's merchants lived... Deptford Strand lay nearly a mile to the north, on the banks of the River Thames, and comprised the Public  and Private Docks, the Navy Yard, and workers' housing'. Much of the action takes places in pubs and warehouses near the river front, but with forays into the wealthier houses of the Broadways where some slaves and former slaves work as domestic servants.

The full story of Deptford and slavery remains to be told, and even now there are some who would prefer that we pretend that the area's maritime history is just a lot of  unproblematic messing about on boats. This fictional work puts slavery front and centre, where it belongs.

See previously:

John Evelyn and slavery

Deptford's Runaway Slaves

Friday, January 08, 2021

P W Luton- a New Cross Photographer

Percy William Luton was a photographer in the early 20th century whose Carlton Studio was at 34 New Cross Road SE14.  Electoral Registers and Post Office Directories show that he was there from at least 1909 to 1930, with his wife Florence. 

Portraits taken by him show up on ebay and other sites, often with no information about the subject. Nevertheless they provide a window into the past and its fashions.

An exception to this anonymity is this photograph, from the US  Library of Congress  which includes the name J.Lemm as well as name and address of the photographer. Seemingly this is John Lemm, a wrestler and a weight lifter variously known as the “Swiss Mountaineer”, the  “Swiss Mountain Climber" and the "Swiss Hercules" (I think we can surmise he was from Switzerland). 

Lemm competed in Europe and the USA in the years leading up to the First World War, including for instance a contest in New York in 1911 and the Oxford Music Hall in London in 1909:

How Lemm came to be photographed in a New Cross studio is anybody's guess, but I wonder if there is any connection with this 1909 photo of the Swiss Gymnastic Society also taken by PW Luton. The London branch of this had its HQ off Shaftesbury Avenue in central London.

The  house at 34 New Cross Road still stands - the left hand building below. Along with its white painted neighbour at no.32,  it is a Grade II listed building as a good example of an early 19th century house of this type.

See previous posts: