Watercress beds to: other people’s foot prints
Until just a few years ago a very old lady lived in Rutland Road who said she knew the neighbourhood when it was mostly green fields. Several 2013 residents remember her – her earliest memories were probably of around 1890.
And in 1890 the area where our houses now stand was still mostly plum orchards and watercress beds – a stream ran near what is now Rutland Road. It still does – only now it runs under ground.
Two hundred years ago, Walthamstow was a small country town. The first-ever census of 1801 records a population of just over 3,000. The built up area centred on St Mary’s Church, and the only houses on our side of Hoe Street were a scattering of elegant mansions. The Chestnuts is the only one left today.
It was the coming of the railways that changed Walthamstow beyond recognition. By the time the lady in Rutland Road was a child, the area was being developed at immense speed to provide houses for the new breed of less prosperous London commuter.
The census of 1891 contains no listings for any of our streets. But by 1901 they were almost all there, providing homes for some of the 96,720 people who now lived in Walthamstow. And by the time of the 1915 Ordnance Survey map, most of our streets are built up, although only half of Devonshire Road is complete.
The blue plaques now in the windows of over 100 local houses are part of the first stage of a local history project to tell the story of our streets and people. The information on the plaques is from the 1901 or 1911 census returns, which record who lived in each house, their ages, occupations and relationship to the head of the household.
When the houses were new, most of the people who lived in them were newcomers – places of birth include everywhere from Bethnal Green to Barbados. And the census returns of 1901 and 1911 help us to build up a striking and sometimes poignant picture of life here.
Although the majority of households consisted of a married couple and their children, there were other ways of life too. There was a widow and her medical student daughter; a significant number of relatively young widows and widowers; a scattering of independent women and single men.
Often the overcrowding is mind-boggling. The houses, almost all with three bedrooms, were then even more uniform in size (there had been no time for extensions and attic conversions). Yet families with five, six and even seven children were not unusual, and many households also included other relatives or a lodger.
A wide variety of occupations is listed. There are printers, clerks, a few journalists, teachers and shop keepers. At this time there was almost literally a shop in every corner, and they were virtually all independent traders. The building trades, including carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and plasterers are also represented. There are also a considerable number of what might be termed minor skills – boot tree makers, French polishers, piano tuners and a bicycle finisher. There are some porters and general labourers, but unskilled occupations are in a small minority.. Few of the married women worked, but adult daughters were teacher, nurses, some of the first typists and laundresses.
Some discoveries have already been made, not only from the census forms but from material in the Vestry House Museum, from items in local houses and from neighbours’ memories. And this is the generation all too many of whose children fought and died in the First World War.
Now there are plans for a website and book about our area. – not just about 1901 but about recent memories too. We are especially interested in local gardens and in how communal outside spaces, from the street to waste ground to the local cemetery, have been used over the years. And there may be further opportunities to take part in the blue plaques project.