Houseproud: People and houses in old photographs

When paying for photographs became more affordable in the early 1900s, it seems that the first thing many people wanted a picture of was their own house. And they wanted to be seen standing outside it too. Some of the better off even managed to buy their own cameras, and took similar photos of their families outside the house.
On the Internet, there are literally thousands of such photos, and I have selected just a few, all taken in Britain, from 1899-1902. I think these are a fascinating part of social history, and I hope you will think so too.

I lived in a house just like this one, from 1978-1985. It was built in 1901

This couple lived in a rather sloping house, which seems to have been built on a steep hill. They were sure to get their little dog included in the photo.

The family members outside this house appear to have worn their best clothes for the occasion of the photograph.
Or perhaps they were just back from Church?

The two women look uncomfortable, posing for the photograph. But the baby doesn’t mind too much.

The man appears to be more proud of his bicycle, than his wife and children. He has ensured that the bicycle is prominent in the photo.

A large family, standing proudly outside their house. At that time, many women had a child every year!

In the countryside, we see two ladies outside a substantial country house. No doubt they were proud of the topiary that had been done on the hedges.

Another country home, with the man of the house wearing his Navy uniform for the occasion.

Perhaps we should revitalise this tradition? All have a family photo taken outside our houses.
In another 120 years, someone somewhere will be fascinated by the images, just as I was.

Bermondsey: The London Of My Youth

I was born and brought up in a borough of London called Bermondsey. Although it has since been amalgamated into the much larger London borough of Southwark, it still retains its own identity with the people who live there. It is adjacent to the south bank of the River Thames, and close to the iconic Tower Bridge.

In recent years, the area has undergone some ‘regeneration’, and become a relatively fashionable place to live. But during my youth in the 1950s, it was an industrial area of central London, and everyone who lived there came from working class families on low incomes.

Some of the typical local houses I used to walk past as a child.
The empty space is where the house was hit by a bomb, during WW2. You can see the wooden supports holding up another bomb-damaged house on the right.

The busy street market where all my family used to get their shopping.

My Mum worked in the Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which can be seen in this later photo from the 1960s.

Other local employers included the Pearce Duff Custard and blancmange factory.

The Alaska Fur Factory was later closed, due to the unpopularity of real fur.
It is now converted into smart apartments.

The library I used to go to all the time to borrow books has also closed. It has become a Bhuddist Centre.

The imposing Town Hall, where I once went to participate in a regional quiz. Also closed, and converted into apartments.

There were many popular pubs in the area. This one still stands. The Gregorian Arms was well-known as a venue to watch Drag artists when I was a boy, and my Dad would occasionally sing at the piano there too.

An Englishman’s Home

With work going on around the house, I got to thinking about the old proverb, ‘An Englishman’s Home Is His Castle’. I looked it up, and it dates from 1581, used in legal terminology to assert the right to defend and protect your own home. In 1781, Pitt The Elder made this law, with his famous quote.
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”

Home ownership is something of a national obsession in Britain. Unlike many other countries, especially France and Italy, where rented houses and apartments are the norm, owning a house, flat, or even a humble hovel, has always been the aspiration of the British way of life. Since the 1970s, the steady increase in property values in most parts of this country has also made it good financial sense to buy your own home, as it can often make you a great deal of money too. As a rented tenant, you have less rights, can be asked to leave, or be subject to rent increases that make it increasingly difficult to balance your finances.
Home ownership has come to represent security.

In more recent times, it has also become something out of the reach of all but those with good regular incomes, excellent prospects, and substantial savings. The last ten years have seen a steady increase in the number of people returning to renting, as the only way to be able to move with jobs, or leave the parental home. The selling off of state and council-owned properties during the time of Margaret Thatcher has also severely reduced the amount of homes available for social rented housing, and many young people are stuck in the family home well into their thirties, or beyond.

But owning your own home also brings with it great responsibility. It needs to be repaired and maintained, and if you are unable (or unwilling) to do this yourself, you can expect to spend a great deal of money above and beyond the purchase price, just to keep that much-desired roof over your head.
So perhaps it is time for us to rethink that national obsession. Relax about home ownership, and stop worrying about our ‘castles’. We will hopefully see a time when you just live somewhere, and nobody asks how much you paid for your house, and what it is worth now.

Napoleon once famously described the English as a ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’.

I wonder what he would make of our now empty shopping streets, and Amazon deliveries?

My London Life

I was reflecting on my life in London this morning, and in particular about where I lived for the sixty years I was a resident. Looking at Google, I was able to find images, in some cases of the actual house or flat. I know some readers enjoy seeing photos of London that are not the familiar tourist sights, so here is a chronological tour of the architecture I lived in.

As a baby in 1952, I was brought home to a two-room flat, upstairs in a house in Storks Road, Bermondsey. My grandmother lived across the road, on the corner with Webster Road. This house in the photo is the one she lived in. The one we lived in is no longer there, but it was the same style.

Photo copyright Stephen Craven.

We moved from there to a house in Bush Road, then in Deptford. The houses were later demolished, and a McDonalds now stands on the site.

Photo copyright Stephen Craven.

In 1960, we moved to a brand new maisonette in Balaclava Road, Bermondsey. I was eight years old. This recent photo is of the actual block. We lived on the first floor, halfway along.

We lived there until I was fifteen. Then my parents bought a house in Bexley, which was then in Kent. It is now a London suburb. This is not the actual house, but is an identical style.

After my parents split in 1976, I moved with my Mum to run a shop in south-west London. In 1977, I got married, and my wife and I bought a flat in the area between Putney and Wandsworth. Although it looks like a house, it was divided into two flats, and we lived upstairs. This is the actual house.

After a year, we sold that, and bought a three bedroom house in the very nice district of Wimbledon Park, close to the famous tennis courts. It was built in 1901, and had many original features. The parking sign for Resident Parking didn’t exist then, but it is the house on the left. My ex-wife remarried, and later had the loft converted. You can see the windows in the roof.

When my marriage ended in 1985, I took what money I had, and bought a one-bedroom house on the newly-built London Docklands Development in Rotherhithe, across the road from the River Thames. My house is second from the left, in this photo. It is directly opposite the tree, which had just been planted when I lived there.

In 1989, I married for the second time, and we lived in that house for a year. But it was too small for comfort, so we bought a bigger house literally around the corner. It doesn’t look very attractive in the photo, but it was huge inside, and had a separate garage in the street behind. This is the actual house, in Redriff Road, Rotherhithe.

When we split up in 1997, I moved outside London, into a succession of rented accommodation, as I no longer had enough money to buy a property that I wanted to live in. After three years, I used my job as a government employee to apply for a subsidised flat in Cumberland Market, Camden, close to the centre of London. I lived in the block on the right, on the third floor, and as you can see, there are extensive allotments for use by residents who want to rent one. The tall building in the distance is the iconic Post Office Tower. That gives some idea of how close to the centre I lived.

Photo copyright ALondoninheritance

I stayed there for twelve years, before retiring from work, and moving here to Norfolk. With one exception, every property I ever lived in still stands, and is still lived-in, to this day.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Gardening, and Houses

After tackling that long grass at the back yesterday, I woke up thinking about gardening today. Not just gardening, but houses in general, and the choices we make in life.

Before we moved to Norfolk, the idea of a big house and large garden had lots of appeal. Prices here are some of the lowest in Britain, and we could have bought a much bigger house at the time, had we chose to. This bungalow seemed to offer the right balance though. Small bedrooms, a large living room, and a kitchen-diner with enough space for a good sized table and chairs. The garden was certainly big enough for our needs, and looked easy to care for. We compromised on only one bathroom (something we have later regretted) as this place offered a garage, and driveway parking for three more cars, if that was ever needed.

Some people seem to take naturally to gardening. They potter about as if in a trance, and with what seems to be very little effort, they produce stunning gardens full of delightful blooms and plants. I am not one of those people. Early attempts at planting exposed my lack of knowledge immediately. Suitable soils, ph balance, acidity, and when to plant. I got all that wrong. I suppose I could have studied the subject, devoted my ‘golden years’ to learning a new skill. But I was interested in other things, like writing and photography. There was a dog to walk too. And weeds, they don’t tell you about those. Despite pulling and spraying, they come back with a vengeance every time, new ones arriving as if on weed coach trips. And that nice patio seating area. The cracks get full of weeds, and moss grows all over the slabs. The guttering around the house fills with leaves and moss too. But as there are no upper floors, I can at least use a short ladder to get up and clear those by hand.

The shade provided by the old oak trees is desirable, until you realise that the fall of leaves will have you slaving like a labourer for weeks on end, just to get rid of the soggy mess that appears in Autumn. So I soon settled for not being a ‘real’ gardener, and just trying to cope with what the previous owner had left behind. Some shrubs that need little attention, a decent-sized lawn area that must be cut, and the leaves from the oak trees that get everywhere, even inside the house, and into both our cars. And that huge expanse of leylandii hedge that provides us with privacy from the near-neighbours has become a fast-growing menace that almost kills me off when I have to attempt to cut it back.

And I got older of course. Less strong physically, and tired more easily too. We don’t think about that when we are excited to buy a new house, do we?

In the space of six years, jobs that were once relatively easy have now become what feels like a marathon task, a chore to be disliked and avoided. And we didn’t end up sitting out in the garden as much as we had imagined, oh no. Some years, what passes for Summer weather has been hard to find. And with months of rain not uncommon, our use of the outside space has been far less that we ever anticipated. And we never budgeted for employing someone else to do jobs. No spare cash for hiring a gardener to do the heavy or unpleasant jobs, or someone to clean the windows and clear the guttering. All of this is still manageable at the moment, but what of the years to come?

Based on my experience, I am going to offer some advice. A list of things to consider, before you rush off to buy that new house in the suburbs, or retire to peace and quiet in the countryside.

1) Think hard about how many stairs the house has. You won’t want to be walking up and down them all the time when you are 70, believe me. Don’t end up trapped in a downstairs room later in life.
2) Remember that a big garden takes a lot of work. Much more than you might imagine, I assure you.
3) Think about your ability to climb ladders, as you get older.
4) Keep money back, and invest it to be available to pay people to do things, like cleaning those top floor windows you can no longer cope with.
5) Really think about how much you will use that outside space once you are old. A small patio or courtyard might end up being all you will ever need, and easier to manage too.
6) Gravel driveways are a weed nightmare. Use some money up front to get them block-paved, or covered over properly. You may not have that money around later.
7) Get a home with a second bathroom, or a second toilet at the very least. People will visit, and problems will arise.
8) Be aware that things feel much heavier when you get older. They really do.
9) And also be aware that you won’t be able to work on jobs all day, like you once could.
10) Don’t buy a bigger house than you will ever need. You will never need it, I assure you.

If you are well-off financially, or anticipate an inheritance or windfall, then all of the above is meaningless. You will just pay for services, and sit back and admire the results. If you are considering downsizing later to a smaller and more manageable property, then my advice probably won’t concern you that much either. But a word of caution. Things rarely turn out like you imagine they will.
And if you are just an everyday person like me, with a fixed retirement income, and some small savings you are guarding, make sure to plan ahead carefully.