23 March 2014

Dirty Pretty Things, Soton Uni 5 May 2006

Southampton University Students Union gets some pretty good rock bands in the grand scheme of things. Last night I experienced the new phenomenon that is Dirty Pretty Things and I mean lived it, up close and personal. Before the gig a restless crowd of about 300 was jostling and maneuvering for best views of the tiny stage but when the band came on the sudden surge of movement left everyone yards from their carefully elbowed spot…
... this is little short of a riot. Dozens swell back and forth carrying unwitting passengers whose feet are off the ground. My mate Steve chooses to edge backwards, I let myself be carried forward on the tidal wave. Within a couple of minutes I am pressed to the stage front with the weight of hot sweaty students pressing hard all around. The music is loud and raucous. Punk rock that ex-Libertine Pete Doherty can only dream of now, while his former band mate Carl Barat swaggers and strides the stage with boyish good looks and black leather charm, singing chidingly, “Bang bang, you're dead, always so easily led.”
This is frightening and exhilarating. Youngsters all around are driven to a frenzy of excitement and this ageing rocker is squeezed in with them. Several crowd surfers pass over my head kicking me in the neck and back. Twice I am swamped to the floor by the tide of humanity. Once a girl lands on top of me, her plump white folds pounding the breath out of my lungs. We find our feet but the long laces of my trainers are hopelessly undone. Another surge and I am practically lifted off my feet. The heat is like a powerful furnace. All around people are wilting under the pressure. Pushing and shoving, hanging on to friends for grim death. My tee shirt is stuck to me like a wet rag. I go down again this time with a group of about ten. Hands and arms reach from the stifling blackness and help us upright then the crowds press in again hot and hard.
The material is all untried apart from the current single but is so reminiscent of the late lamented Libertines that it is immediately accessible. The handful of original Libertines tracks bring deafening roars and waves of further frenzy from the crowd.

By the time the final number comes I am completely overheating, dehydrated and close to fainting. I have been swept from one side of the stage to the other, been at the front then pushed backwards. The body heat is now unbearable and my eyes sting from my biting, salty sweat. Just as I am about to be overwhelmed a passage opens to my left and I stumble blindly into a brief gap. I lean against the side wall and put my head in my hands. Slowly I regain my breath as sweat streams down my face and neck. My ribs hurt like hell and I know they are bruised, if not cracked.

The band returns for an encore but I am beaten. I continue my slow recovery stage left and I am thinking when people ask in years to come, “Where were you when Dirty Pretty Things played their debut tour?” I’ll say, “I was there mate, soaked and filthy and stinking.” Maybe they will just say, “Dirty who…?"

The cold night air brings sweet relief and I meet Steve outside. “You were at the front?” he quizzes, “that’s bloody rock and roll!”

When you are too old to feel the noise like this you really are too old for life. Oh and the music? Yes, punk rock with style and attitude.

13 March 2014

family history and the aerial detective

When you run out of land-based leads... reach for the sky!

Peckham, South London, was home to the single largest contingent of my Victorian ancestors. One hundred and fifty years ago Peckham was a rural village, nestling south of the River Thames, a two hour horse and cart ride from the teeming metropolis of London. It's streets were separated by open fields where market gardeners grew melons, soft fruit and a range of vegetables.

In the mid 1800s a new arm of the Grand Surrey Canal was dug, bringing industry and growth. New housing mushroomed speculatively along the canal bank. I know from the 1881 census that my great, great grandfather Henry lived by the canal with his blended family: his second wife, a new son, two of her children, and just one of his own six. He was a shoemaker by trade.

The rapid pace of development in south London soon saw most open spaces paved over as the capital spilled ever outwards. Swamped by the inexorable tide of Industry and labourers, Henry moved his family north of the river to Holborn and into a newly built complex called Palmerston Buildings, three six-storey blocks housing 72 dwellings.

Behind him, Peckham's once elegant terraces fell gradually into disrepair. By the early twentieth century they were past their prime, blackened by soot, damp from the fog and the canal, and home to the lower classes. This has made me keen to see a photograph of his house, 3 Maria Terrace, Canal Bank, Peckham. In this 1895 map I have ringed it in blue. The mauve ring marks St George's Terrace, a landmark I would soon find useful.

Despite surviving well into the twentieth century and some even to this day, Peckham's elderly housing stock did not attract the attention of late nineteenth century photographers, so I have been unable to find roadside images of Maria Terrace. Victorian Philanthropists toured the area and their reports make grim reading, so I can imagine how the area must have looked but that's not the same as actually seeing.

On a whim I searched the site Britain From Above, a large online archive of high resolution aerial photographs taken in the 1930s. There are half a dozen plates covering the suburb Peckham from various angles, at a height of perhaps a thousand feet. Having studied ancient and modern maps of the area for two decades, I am very familiar with the road layout. In a view looking eastward, I soon spotted the right-angle canal-turn where the Grand Surrey Canal feeds into its Peckham branch. Following an inferred gap between rows of buildings I reached a crossing which carried horse-drawn traffic over the canal and which I knew was right beside Maria Terrace.

Detail in the image was extremely distant and the houses mere dots but I was sure of the neighbourhood. For pre WW2 the resolution in these images is astonishing and I was able to zoom right in and positively identify a short terrace of 13 dwellings that had to be Maria Terrace (blue arrow). This is the tiny corner at full zoom.

In the left middle distance is St George's Terrace (mauve arrow) which stands nearer to us on the East bank and a little back from the canal. That there is a canal and parcels of land between the two terraces indicates the considerable distance from which this photograph was shot and the foreshortening of perspective. Note the five windows and one door to each house in the row. Now look at the same St George's Terrace in 2012 from Google Street View.

The door and window openings are unmistakeable; this, considered with numerous street maps I have from the mid 1800s, is more proof that the distant row in the background of the aerial photo is Maria Terrace. Knowing that Henry rented no. 3 (for seven shillings a week [35p]), I can now point to an image of his house, admittedly rather a small image, but probably the only one in existence! In the mid 1980s when I first started researching my ancestors, I found the following census page which lists Henry and his family, including five year old Ambrose, Henry's only child by his second marriage, and from whom a veritable tribe of modern day Bartons are descended.

08 March 2014

the pawnbroker's balls

... three golden ones, hanging above a shop, was always the traditional indication that pawnbrokers were carrying on business inside. Fast forward to the 21st century and places like Cash Converters rely more on neon signs.

In the mid and late Victorian era a branch of my ancestors, in-laws of my maternal great grandfather, were pawnbrokers in Whitechapel, Westminster and Marylebone, central London. In 1861 a certain Robert Chilvers was plying his trade on a stretch of Commercial Road, Whitechapel known as King's Place.

When identifying a distant ancestor in early census returns I always set myself the task of locating their house (often doubling as their place of work too); a task made harder in big cities with road name changes, renumbering, demolition and redevelopment. Rural areas bring their own problems: little or no numbering, that being unnecessary at a time when villages were small and if you needed someone, you knew where they lived.

King's Place was the historic local name for a terrace of shop-fronted dwellings. Nowadays the same area is all known as Commercial Road and the numbering runs above four hundred. How to trace 15 King's Place? The 1861 census provided a clue. The King's Arms public house appeared to be at the start of the row. Googling the pub revealed that modern Town Planners have luckily preserved that Victorian building although it is now the offices of a foreign bank.

Now we're homing in. Using Google Street View I counted fifteen doors along Commercial Road; not so easy when premises have merged and door and window openings have been moved. 15 King's Place appeared to be an Asian run cheap clothing shop. No signs or placards on it, or on adjacent buildings proclaimed its history. Or did they..?

High on the wall was an ornate but seemingly redundant bracket. I edged into the opening of a side road and viewed the bracket sideways on and zoomed right in, just as all good sleuths should.

I knew what I was looking at, the bracket from which the pawnbroker's balls had once dangled! Sharp eyes will pick out two of the three small hooks, the third is end-on at the bottom. The balls are long gone but the bracket remains and speaks across a century and a half. I can now attach a screen capture saved as a jpeg to the data in my files and feel my ancestors are a little closer.

I have also had a piece of incredible success using Britain From the Air, a web site hosting thousands of high resolution aerial photographs, taken in the 1930s mostly of urban and industrial areas. More on that next time!