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.


Russell Duffy said...

My Grandfather, born in Peckham, used to tell my mum he was born in Surrey. Perhaps he was right after all.

Elena said...

This is so interesting! Amazing how you were able to find the pre WW2 image of your GG grandfather's home, and again the newer image of the same!

Perfect Virgo said...

The house (and thousands like it) was demolished in the 1950s in the rush of rebuilding after WW2, so that aerial view is probably all that remains. The other is a nice example of the type and I'm surprised that one has survived.

Elena said...

At least you were able to find the example building. You'd make a great detective!

Michelle said...

I want to live in the Peckham you describe from 150 years ago:

"...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."

Sounds heavenly.

Perfect Virgo said...

My gr, gr, gr aunt Sophia married James Fletcher in Peckham. In 1851 his address was Archer's Row, West Side of Melon Ground. Lovely!