The Lesters of Lee New Town 

Running Past has often covered the stories of those living in and around Lee and Hither Green, particularly in Edwardian, Victorian times and before.  Because of the nature of the development of the area it has usually been the stories of the wealthy with servants, shopkeepers and publicans living in what was once suburbia and the farmers in the years before.  

The histories of several working class streets have been told –  notably Ardmere Road and Brightfield Road including under its previous name Robertson Street.  However, there have been few family stories – this post, on a family that lived in and around Lee Church Street for four generations, begins to put this right. Some relatively recent photographs of the area are below.

Lee New Town consisted of small terraced houses, many in narrow alleys on and off the current streets of Lee Church Street, Boone Street, Boone’s Road, Fludyer Street and Dacre Park.  It was built from the 1820s after the estate of Lee Place had been sold in lots. It was demolished both by the Luftwaffe and as part of a late 1950s slum clearance programme.  Boone Street is pictured below, probably from the 1950s before the demolition of the houses.

The Lesters were a long standing family who lived in Lee New Town for much of four generations.  It’s not an attempt to write a complete family history but to try and understand something of what life was like for an ordinary working class household in Lee from the 1850s into the 20th century.  We will focus on one member of the family from each generation.

Charlotte Lester, who successive generations have taken their name from was born in Colchester around 1803. It isn’t clear whether Lester is her birth surname or if she married in Colchester – there is no obvious record of either, although a child of that name was baptised in 1810.

Charlotte had two children in Colchester, James John Lester (1834) and Mary born there around 1838.

By the 1841 census, Charlotte was listed as a servant and living in Lewisham; she had hit very hard times as Charlotte and her two young children were in the Lewisham Union Workhouse. 

The Lewisham Poor Law Union was formed in 1836, serving the parishes of Lee, Charlton, Eltham, Kidbrooke, Mottingham, and Plumstead as well as Lewisham. The workhouse was on the site on the Lewisham Hospital. Victorian workhouse buildings remain on the site, complete with an eroded Lewisham Union badge over the entrance – the part to the left of the arch dates from before the Lesters’ stay, the rest was later (1). Charlotte will probably have been put to work picking oakum – unravelling strands of old rope.

There was a children’s section over the road on the edge of what is now Lewisham Park, so Charlotte was probably separated from James and Mary. Conditions were poor for the children – often suffering from rickets and anemia due to poor diet and sleeping four to a bed in what was a badly ventilated, cold building (2).

It isn’t clear how long the family was in the workhouse or where in the Union they had previously been.  As a servant, losing a job could quickly lead to the loss of home, directly if they ‘lived in’ or indirectly if they were unable to find new employment very quickly.  There was no welfare state safety net. 

Towards the end of 1843, Charlotte married John Kiddle in Greenwich – he was a Londoner who worked as a garden labourer.  Along with a new daughter, Eliza, who was born in Greenwich in 1845, they were listed as living at 9 Boone Street in 1851.  James, now around 15, was working as an errand boy. Houses from elsewhere on Boone Street are pictured below.

Whether they were actually living at 9 Boone Street is debatable – many of the houses on the street weren’t numbered in the census record apart from three households who were all given number 9. Either 19 people were sharing one property or some errors made.  If it was 9 it would have been close to where Boone Street now dog-legs around.  What is now the dog-leg was then Dacre Street.  What is probably more likely is that it was an incorrectly transcribed Boone’s Place where Charlotte was living in 1861.

It seems that John died around 1856, aged around 35.

In the 1861 census, Charlotte and Eliza were living in Boone’s Place, Charlotte working as a charwoman and Eliza, now 16, was still at school.  Boone’s Place was a small terrace facing north about 100 metres from the High Road off Boone Street, opposite the Smithy on the map below from 1893.

The census record isn’t completely clear, but it looks as though Charlotte was the head of the household at number 9 and it was a house that she shared with George and Mary Martin and their young son.  George Martin’s parents and seven siblings lived next door at number 8.

In 1871, Charlotte was still living at 9 Boone’s Place – listed as being the head of household, there was no occupation listed in the census. With her daughter Eliza and her husband Charles Robert Hoy, a baker, who she had married in Deptford in 1870. It isn’t immediately obvious what happened to the Hoys after the 1871 census.

Charlotte despite her hard life lived to around 74, a decent age given life expectancy in Victorian England – she died in Lewisham in 1877.

Back to Charlotte’s son James;  by 1861 he was living in George Square, one of the small  ‘courts’ in Lee New Town.  He had married Maria (née Wells) in Bromley in 1858.  They had two children James (1859) and Henry (1861) they were all listed as labourers in the census, but even in tough Victorian times, babies and toddlers weren’t sent out to work.

The small house that the Lesters lived in was almost certainly off Dacre Street and was shared with another family, the Smiths – there were 9 of them living there.

Infant mortality rates were high, and Henry had died before 1861 was out.  Over the next decade the Lesters had several more children – Maria (born 1863), Eliza (1864), George (1866), Emily (1869) and Samuel just before the census enumerators called again in 1871.  They had moved by 1871, by about 100 metres and were living at 10 Union Place – this was a small turning off the western side of Lee Church Street between the ‘Church’ and ‘Street’ on the map.

George, who will focus on in terms of this generation, was 5 and listed as a scholar, probably going to the National Schools over the road on the opposite side of Lee Church Street – pictured above just before demolition in the late 1950s alongside its current version.  A classroom is pictured below from the same era, but it had probably not changed markedly since George’s time there.

James and family were still living at 10 Union Place in 1881, James, now 46, was listed as a labourer. There were 10 children there ranging in age from 21 to 1. 

In 1881 George was 15 and living with his parents, he was working as a ‘cow boy’ – presumably a young assistant in a dairy rather than riding horseback through Lee wearing a Stetson. There were still several farms in the district which George could easily have walked to from Lee –  Burnt Ash, Lee Manor, College, North Park and Horn Park would fit the bill as would dairies, such as the one in Butterfield Street.

A decade later James, Maria and the family that remained ‘at home’ had moved out of Lee and were living in Victoria Terrace, part of Ennersdale Road. The house is still there although it is now 11 Leahurst Road – it is much bigger than the houses in Lee New Town. They were probably able to afford the no doubt higher rent as a lot of the family was now working – James was still a painter, Maria was working as a laundress, Henry (1871) a butcher, Alfred (1873) a servant, Charles (1875) and Ernest (1877) were both shop boys, with Annie (1878) and Alice (1880) both still at school. James died a few weeks after the census aged 57.

Maria stayed in the area – living in Molesworth Street in 1901, still working as a laundress at (63), with Charles (1875), a granddaughter and a couple of lodgers. She was still there a decade later with Alfred (1873) now a bank messenger, along with 2 boarders. What happened to her beyond that isn’t clear.

We return to George (born around 1866).  He married Sarah Elizabeth Reffin from Brighton in the summer of 1887; she seems to have been also known as Elizabeth – that is how she is referred to in later censuses. He was no longer a cow boy, by 1891 he was working as a bricklayers labourer.  In the early years of the marriage, the family moved around a little – they had three children born in 1889 (Catford), 1890 (Lee) and 1891 (Lewisham) and by the time of the census were back in Lee, living at 6 Dacre Square. Dacre Square was a tiny area of 12 houses accessed off the southern side of Dacre Street via an alley – below the ’R’ of street on the map. Dacre Square is just visible between properties on Dacre Street below (probably from the 1930s) as well as above.

George had a run in with the law in 1897 when he was was charged with being ‘riotous whilst drunk’ and assaulting two Police Constables after having to be ejected from the Swan.  He was found guilty and got a hefty fine of £6 or three months imprisonment with 6/- (30p) costs (3). In 2021 terms, the fine would have been around £800.

By the time of his conviction he was a bricklayer and living at 59 Dacre Street.  He and Elizabeth had 7 children living with them. 59 Dacre Street would have been almost opposite the entrance to Dacre Square – it may well be (just) pictured from the 1930s from Dacre Square below.

George and family were still in Lee New Town in 1911, living at 7 Royal Oak Place in 1911 – it isn’t clear exactly where this is, but logic would suggest it was close to the Royal Oak pub – at the top of Lee Church Street. There were eleven of them in the household ranging in age from 20 to 5.  

It isn’t immediately clear what happened to George after 1911.  However, a couple of George and Elizabeth’s children were still living in the area as war broke out in 1939 – the fourth generation of the family in Lee New Town.  Most of the oth ated to Canada in the 1930s.

Sidney (1897) was living at 7 St Margaret’s Passage and was working as a railway labourer – a house that was on the western side of the alleyway, more or less opposite the end of the Dacre Arms’ garden.  It was demolished for the flats which are pictured at the bottom of the first group of photographs.

The youngest son, Fred, born in 1906, was living at 52 Dacre Park – close to the corner of Boone’s Road – he seems to have worked for coal dealer – although this was incorrectly transcribed as ‘coal miner.’  Fred seems to have stayed in Lewisham until his death in 1983.  The home he was lived in was destroyed in the Blitz – there were prefabs there post war.

Note

  1. Lewisham Local History Centre (1992) Looking Back at Lewisham p56
  2. ibid p56
  3. Kentish Mercury 5 March 1897

Credits

  • Census and related data comes via Find My Past, subscription required
  • The pair of photographs of Boone Street and that of Boone’s Place (with children) come from the notice board adjacent to Kingswood Halls
  • The single photograph of Boone Street, the photo of the classroom along with those looking into and out of Boone’s Square are from the collection of Lewisham Archives and remain their copyright, but are used with their permission
  • The earlier photograph of the school is via Collage – Record number 189098 / Catalogue reference: SC_PHL_02_0327_59_2658 – permission given for use here, but no rights to use elsewhere, it remains their copyright
  • The Ordnance Survey map is on a non-commercial licence via the National Library of Scotland

1 thought on “The Lesters of Lee New Town 

  1. Dee Armstrong

    The Lester’s belong to my family tree on my mother’s maternal side. Sidney Lester was my grandmother’s brother, I remember him. I already knew some of these facts, but I have now learned much more. Thank you.

    Reply

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