Category Archives: Literary Lewisham

Literary Lewisham – Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Running Past occasionally covers some of the writers that have formed part of the Lewisham’s literary heritage.  This has included some with clear links such as CS ForesterDavid Lodge and Robert Browning, plus a few where the links are a little more tenuous – including Thomas Dermody – a Lewisham resident only in is his dying days and burial at St Mary’s Church.

Graham Swift was born in Lewisham, and, if my memory has served me correctly, in a nursing home on Woolstone Road; this was based on an information board that used to be at Kirkdale Bookshop.  Certainly, Swift was born on the borders of Catford and Sydenham.

There are South London settings to many of his novels – his debut novel, the wonderful ‘The Sweet Shop Owner’ featured both Upper Sydenham (perhaps then home to his maternal grandparents) and Wandsworth; ‘Shuttlecock’ was set around Clapham Common and Greenwich Park featured in the brilliant ‘Waterland.’

His father was Lionel Allen Stanley Swift who was born in 1922; in the 1939 Register he is listed as living at 176 Fairlawn Park  – wrongly transcribed as Fareham Park – the house is still there, although did suffer damage following a V-1 rocket attack at the junction of Fairlawn Park and Sydenham Road. Swift’s paternal grandfather was listed as a ‘clothiers warehouseman and his grandmother doing ‘unpaid domestic duties’. There was another household member, presumably an aunt or uncle whose details are redacted.  They weren’t sharing, so it was a step up from some on the street.

His mother was living at 29 Burghill Road in 1939, his maternal grandfather an engineer/tester for a typewriter manufacturer, Swift’s maternal grandmother like the paternal one doing ‘unpaid domestic duties’. It was a house that they seem to be shared though with the Weiners – a mother and son, the latter a grocer’s assistant. The house was built a little later than many of the original homes on the street, and like Fairlawn Park suffered damage from a V-1 rocket which hit the junction of Burghill Road and Sunnydene Street.

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Swift’s parents were married in Lewisham in the second quarter of 1943 and Graham Swift was born into rationing in 1949. It was

a lower-middle-class postwar family in a time of austerity and retrenchment, with no one in the family who was in any way artistic or a potential mentor to a budding writer

The family moved a few miles to the south to Croydon in his early years, right on the edge of the city.  He was a scholarship boy at Dulwich College before heading to the spires of Cambridge via another scholarship.

His best known novel is Last Orders, it won him the Booker Prize – it is a gentle, moving road trip of four Bermondsey friends, carrying out the last wishes of their fellow drinker and mate for a scattering of the ashes in the sea at Margate. The novel subtly and poignantly tells their sometimes intertwined histories which ‘skeletons’ gradually emerge from.

The lives were spent mainly within a few streets of each other; the location could have been anywhere in south London, indeed anyone can put their own mental images of the places and it would work – mine was of Jamaica Road just east of the tube station.  It is a beautifully told story, perfectly-paced but not the perfect novel.   Swift has remarked “I don’t research; it’s a great destroyer of the imagination.”

There perhaps lies the reason for the slight imperfection, while the lack of research wasn’t important in terms of the location, I suspect that he missed a little of the linguistic nuances of that part of south east London spending a few hours in Manzes pie and mash shop on Tower Bridge Road and an evening or two in the local pubs might have ‘solved’.

The film of the book was equally good, filmed around Bellenden Road in Peckham in the early stages of its gentrification; it featured Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Michael Caine, Ray Winstone, David Hemmings and Tom Courtenay – poster above on Creative Commons via Wikipedia.

 

Notes

Details of V-1 damage from Lawrence Ward (2015) ‘The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945’

Census and 1939 Register data from Find My Past.

A World War One Childhood in Hither Green

One of the more surprising literary links to Lewisham, and Hither Green in particular, is that of Dora Saint, much better known as ‘Miss Read’ who wrote about the fictional, very rural, hamlets of Thrush Green and Fairacre.  She spent some of her formative years in the then more suburban Hither Green – opposite Park Hospital.

While her gentle, observational novels about seemingly cosy, idyllic and probably idealised bucolic landscapes sold well, particularly abroad, she never featured that strongly in the British public consciousness.  In addition to her novels she wrote a series of short autobiographical volumes, the first of which related to a few years in Hither Green.

‘Miss Read’ was born as Dora Shafe in South Norwood in April 1913, her father was an insurance salesman who was conscripted during the First World War. Her mother kept on his ‘round’ of door to door collections to maintain the family income and the family moved to Hither Green around 1916, where Dora grew up surrounded by a close-knit extended family of aunts and grandparents.

imageThe family home’s location isn’t clear, there was no mention of the family in the Kelly’s Directories of the era (maybe sometime I will trawl through electoral registers…), but much of Dora’s early childhood was spent at the home of her grandmother at 267 Hither Green Lane opposite the then Park Hospital.  The house is still there and the first volume of her autobiography paints an interesting picture of life and growing up in Hither Green during World War 1.

It was relatively well-to-do home, dominated by strong women – her maternal grandmother, Sarah Read, and two unmarried aunts – Jess and Rose.  The latter seems to have lived elsewhere but spend most of her non-working time at 267, probably contributing heavily to the household income.  Dora’s own mother and her uncle who also lived at 267 rarely get a mention.  As the older Dora noted the chief attraction of the house, in retrospect, was the affection with which Dora and her sister were surrounded.’ (1)

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The House

She describes the house as a solidly built red brick house, it had a vigorous climbing red pyracantha at the front – Aunt Jess would lean out of the front bedroom to cut branches to take to school in the autumn (2);  the red brick is now painted and the pyracantha is long gone though. The house is visible between the trees on postcard above.

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Whilst it well into the 20th century Sarah Read’s ‘house in Hither Green Lane was a Victorian one, and furnished in the Victorian style, sombre and heavy.’ This was contrasted with her paternal grandmother’s home in Walton on the Naze which reflected the relative ‘gaiety’ of the Edwardian era. (3)

The ‘drawing room’ at the front was Dora’s favourite – recalling plush red upholstered furniture and carpets, conch shells on the mantelpiece, when the fire wasn’t lit there was a beaded screen with arum lilies in front of it (4). There was a piano which had china cherubs perched on top, there was a small octagonal table with a potted fern.

The dining room was reached through rarely opened double doors and was dominated by a large mahogany table and chairs, with a corner cabinet containing the best and specimen china (5).  There was a conservatory at the back where fairy lights in small, different coloured glass jars were once lit (6).

Upstairs, there was an inside toilet and a separate bath with brass taps and encased in wood (7) – having an inside WC made it at the more genteel end of London living. Dora remembered being forced to spend time there to ‘try, dear’ before heading off to school.

Beyond the bathroom was Grandma Read’s room where Dora was meant to sleep in bed in afternoons before she was of school age and then during school holidays ‘tucked up under the eiderdown in just my vest, liberty bodice, chemise, knickers… petticoat and socks.’ (8). However,  she often just investigated the room rather than sleep – heading for the lace mat covered dressing table (9). There was a coloured glazed door from the bedroom through which the young Dora would imagine an underwater world through a blue pane, and a world of winter sun through the crimson glass (10).

Her aunt’s room was at the front of the house, looking out towards the hospital which even then had trees big enough to screen it (11) – perhaps remnants of Wilderness House that was on the site before the hospital.

The house was set up for servants with a set of bells operated by handles next to the fireplaces which rang in the kitchen (12).

Out and About in Hither Green

Grandmother Sarah regularly went to the then new Park cinema, the building is still there on the corner of George Lane, where the films were changed a couple of times a week.  Sometimes she went on her own, sometimes with friends, although there is not mention of the young Dora going too (13).

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cats-meat-man-x300-m-1482-204x300There was a ‘cats meat man’ with a raucous voice whole sold skewers threaded with cooked horse meat (14) although the young Dora misunderstood the concept and was worried that it was the meat of cats that was being sold from the back of the trap (picture source).

 

 

Church, Sunday School and Singing

Sarah, Jess, Rose as well as Dora and her sister, all seemed to go to St Swithun’s Church a little further up Hither Green Lane (15); Rose ran the Sunday school there – ‘simple hymns and prayers alternated with handwork, making Moses in Plasticine, for instance, to put into a carefully woven cradle…There was quite a bit of marching…’ (16).

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Congregation members often came back to 267 to sing around the piano in the ‘drawing room’.  Dora and more particularly her sister found this quite boring and hid behind the piano amongst the sheet music (17).

It wasn’t just church music though that was sung, Sarah clearly had been to music hall as there was lots of singing of music hall numbers as well as some of the more contemporary wartime songs (18).

Goodbye-ee, Goodbye-ee

Wipe the tea, baby dear,

From your eye-ee!

Wartime Memories

There was little recollection of the war itself other than the difficulties of getting certain foods, although as the youngest, it seems that Sarah spoiled Dora by putting her with sugar in sandwiches for her (19).

Soldiers and sailors regularly turned up at 267 for post church singing during the war (20), but apart from that the only mention was noticing a crater from a bomb one morning after a raid (21).  This was almost certainly in May 1918 when the area was attacked by aircraft, 2 bombs were dropped, one near St Swithun’s Church, where about 20 houses were damaged; the other bomb on Hither Green Lane, damaged 12 houses. No people were injured or killed, and, presumably, the second was some distance from 267, otherwise Dora would have probably recalled it.

The sisters were frightened that the Kaiser was hiding behind curtains on the landing ready to pounce! (22)

School

Their aunt, Rose, was a teacher at Ennersdale Road (now Trinity) School (23) and took both Dora and her elder sister to school with her. Dora’s first visit was the day before her fourth birthday in 1917 (24) her sister was already there.

The route to school involved walking down Ennersdale Road, the rumbling of the trains overhead terrified the young Dora (25).

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At Play

Dora played a lot in the kitchen, often with her Aunt Jess, whilst she iron or made clothes.  She modelled with plasticine – mimicking the grocer cutting and wrapping up butter from the marble slab at the Home and Colonial Stores (26), which were at 180 Hither Green Lane, between Lanier and Theodore Roads (the picture is illustrative rather than Hither Green Lane – Creative Commons source here)

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Other shopping games were played in the kitchen too, whilst most of the ‘purchases’ were imaginary, a request for ‘a farthing’s worth of currants’ would often lead to the real thing being brought down from a large metal canister on a high shelf (27).

The early books that the young Dora had read to her at 267 included many of the Beatrix Potter, which had begun to be published at the turn of the century (28).

Dora and her family moved out to the more rural Chelsfield soon after the war ended – both she and her mother were seriously ill as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 to 1921 – and they moved for the country ‘air’ whilst her father continued to work as an insurance salesman.

Notes

  1. ‘Miss Read’ (1982) A Fortunate Grandchild (Boston, Houghton Mifflin), p58
  2. Ibid p48
  3. ibid p101
  4. ibid p48
  5. ibid p50
  6. ibid p51
  7. ibid p51
  8. ibid p52
  9. ibid p53
  10. ibid p55
  11. ibid p56
  12. ibid p57
  13. ibid p15
  14. ibid p38
  15. ibid p15
  16. ibid p35
  17. ibid p16
  18. ibid p18
  19. ibid p19
  20. ibid p19
  21. ibid p40
  22. ibid p47
  23. ibid p29
  24. ibid p31
  25. ibid p39
  26. ibid p19
  27. ibid p28
  28. ibid p28

The postcards are all from eBay, downloaded during 2015 and 2016.

Robert Browning’s (Possible) April Ode to New Cross

One of the slightly more surprising Lewisham literary links is to the Victorian poet, Robert Browning, who lived for a while in the borough in the 1840s.

On a trip to Northern Italy in 1845, probably just before he met Elizabeth Barrett, he wrote ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad.’  Browning ‘paints’ a picture of an almost idealised English pastoral idyll, but the rural England he had temporarily left behind was ‘Plowed Garlic Hill’, now known as Telegraph Hill, then an area of market gardening then owned by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers – with a home  just over a couple of hundred metres from New Cross Gate station.

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Perhaps the chaffinch on the ‘orchard bow’ was on what is now Erlanger Road and the elm tree on Pepys Road? Home Thoughts from Abroad was published later in 1845 as part of ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.’

Robert Browning was born around three miles further west along the A202 in on the Camberwell/Walworth borders in 1812 at the delightfully named Rainbow Cottage, on the still remaining Cottage Green off Southampton Way.  Any elements of arcadia will have disappeared within Browning’s own lifetime.  The cottage name lives on in a nearby street name – Rainbow Street.

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Browning also spent sixteen years living 200 metres to the south east at Hanover Cottage on what is now the corner of Coleman Road and Southampton Way between 1824 to 1840 – it is now a dry cleaners, but marked with a blue plaque.

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His father, also Robert, was a well paid employee of the Bank of England; he seems to have been largely disinherited by his father, a St Kitts slave owner, for his abolitionist views.  Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 5 years before the poet’s birth. His mother was a devout non-conformist and a talented musician.

robert_browning_2His education was largely home based, making use of his father’s large library; he started to write poetry at 12 and seems to have lived with, and have been financially supported by his family, until he was 34, this included funding the publication of his early poetry such as ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.’

The family moved to New Cross in 1841, five years before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrettt.  Their home in New Cross, ‘Telegraph Cottage’, was on the corner of what is now Musgrave Road and Jerningham Road which Browning described as looking like a ‘goose pie.’ In a great bit of deduction, the Transpontine blog identified a probable picture of Telegraph Cottage during the conversion of the former canal to the railway in 1839, a couple of years before the family moved there.

Browning’s stay in Lewisham only warrants a local maroon plaque, although its backdrop of one of the gates to Haberdasher Aske’s College in Jerningham Road is rather more impressive than its Southwark counterpart.

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And finally, part of my interest in Robert Browning was a purported family link – my paternal great grandmother was apparently partial to claiming an unspecified linkage between the poet’s and, presumably, my great grandfather’s family trees.  Alas, dear reader, if I am allowed to mix my writers, the linkage seems to have been just wishful thinking, it is in name only – Robert Browning’s genealogy has been fairly well documented by going back to roots in Dorset; the claimed linkages for my own family would have been around 75 miles to the west in Devon with no obvious intersections between the two lines.

E Nesbit, The Railway Children and Lewisham

It was a simple street name sign in Grove Park that this post had its origins in …

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Between 1894 and 1899 Edith Nesbit lived at Three Gables in Baring Road – roughly between the Ringway Centre and Stratfield House flats. Grove Park was then a popular middle-class residential area and still with a number of small farms. The home backed onto the railway and there are suggestions that it may have inspired the Railway Children. Three Gables has long gone, although part of its garden is now Grove Park Nature Reserve, but Nesbit’s time there is remembered with a path which forms part of the Green Chain Walk.

There have been suggestions that the character of Albert Perks, played by Bernard Cribbens in the 1970 film version, was modelled on Southern Railway employee, William Thomson, who worked at Grove Park station and lived in Chinbrook Road.

She had moved to Well Hall by the time she wrote ‘The Railway Children’ though, a four-storey house next to the ‘Tudor Barn’, Well Hall House – shown in ‘engraving’ on the information board in, what is now known as, Well Hall Pleasaunce.  Her name is also remebered in an unattractive cul-de-sac between the Pleasaunce and the elevated A2 dual-carriageway leading to a bowling club.

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The backdrop to the children’s novel was a thinly disguised version of the Dreyfus Affair, whilst Nesbit was writing ‘The Railway Children’ Dreyfus had been pardoned, with the acquittal almost coinciding with the publication in early 1906.

I must admit to not having read ‘The Railway Children’ since school and my recollections of it are more shaped by the 1970 Lionel Jeffries film than the book and the current theatre production at the specially built Kings Cross Theatre. The film and play at least, evoke an almost idealised Edwardian rural middle class lifestyle.

The Railway Children Books About Town bench - Greewnwich 2014

The Railway Children Books About Town bench – Greewnwich 2014

Nesbit’s own adult life was very far removed from this; she was one of the co-founders of one of the Labour Party’s forerunners, the Fabian Society and had brief links with Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, although found it a little too radical for her. Another author with Lewisham connections, David Lodge, covered the period at Well Hall in passing in his biographical novel of H G Wells, ‘A Man of Parts.’ She effectively lived in a ménage-a trois with her husband, Hubert Bland, and his mistress. Nesbit too had numerous affairs, including one with a young George Bernard Shaw.

As for her other Lewisham links, Edith Nesbit lived in several locations in Blackheath, Lewisham and Lee before her stay at Three Gables. The first seems to have been 16 Dartmouth Row, Blackheath (top left photo, below) where she moved in 1879 prior to her marriage to Herbert Bland. They moved to 28 Elswick Road, off Loampit Vale in Lewisham in 1882 (top right) which was recognised as part of Lewisham’s maroon plaque scheme.

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She seems to have spent several years around Lee; the 1891 Kelly’s directory has her husband living at 2 Birch Grove, just off what is now the South Circular. There is also a small park and children’s playground at the corner of Osberton and Leland Roads which bears her name, reflecting the time the she lived in the nearby Dorville Road

Whilst at Three Gables she wrote a couple of children’s books with local connections ‘The Treasure Seekers’ (1898) where the Bastables children’s ‘ancestral home’ was ‘a semi-detached and has a garden, not a large one’ at 150 Lewisham Road, before moving to The Red House in Blackheath in ‘The Wouldbegoods: Being the Further Adventures of the Treasure Seekers’ (1899)’

A quick skim read through on-line finds mentions of The Quaggy and the Lewisham Workhouse (now Hospital) in the ‘New Treasure Seekers’ (1904) concerning attempts to get rid of a Christmas Pudding with an unintentionally soapy taste paid for by subscription by the wealthy folks of Blackheath Park and Granville Park.

Nesbit was important in children’s literature with her biographer, Julia Briggs, suggesting that she was ‘the first modern writer for children’, and credited her with having invented the children’s adventure story – paving the way for the likes for Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ after World War 1 and Enid Blyton (whose life in Shortlands was touched upon in the blog last year) ‘Famous Five’ around 40 years later.

C S Forester & South London

CS Forester is one of a number of authors with a strong Lewisham connection, living in Sydenham for around 7 years in the 1930s.  One of the houses in Longton Avenue was where he started the Hornblower series before moving to the USA in 1939.

I was rather put off Forester, the ‘pen name’ of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, by being forced to ‘study’ one of the Hornblower novels at around 12 or 13. This ought to be a post about Horatio Hornblower and one of the military campaigns in the Peninsula War, or ‘The African Queen’ which he also wrote in Sydenham.  However, I have eschewed them, and, instead, I’ll go back to one of his earlier novels in a very different genre – the crime novel ‘Payment Deferred’ – which has a south London setting.

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The starting point of ‘Payment Deferred’ is a relatively simple one – William Marble is a middle-aged bank clerk with two children and an extravagant wife, and as a result the household is living way beyond its means.  Being a crime novel, well there has to be a crime, and not surprisingly this is murder.

I won’t spoil the plot, but it is well constructed by Forester, with an excellent final twist and sting in the tail/tale to the novel. What makes it an absorbing novel is the way in which, Forester ‘documents’ the murderer’s inner torments, their obsessions and their knowledge of that they are just one mistake away from the gallows – something which dominates everything they do.

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The setting of the fictional house of 53 Malcolm Road is probably an amalgamation of several locations. At the time of writing, Forester was living at 58 Underhill Road in East Dulwich, having grown up in the Peckham/Camberwell borders of Shenley Road.  Certainly the feel of the long walks up the long streets from Peckham Road appear in several passages, but the house in Malcom Road was much smaller – much more reminiscent of some of the streets of smaller houses on the Peckham and East Dulwich borders – my own mental image is of Nigel Road in Peckham..

Forester moved to 58 Underhill Road as a 16 year old, in 1915, and it was his home until 1929; English Heritage installed the blue plaque there in 1990. He moved onto Upper Sydenham in 1932 living in several homes close to Wells Park – only 7 Longton Avenue remains and this is where the first of the Hornblower novels were written.  The detached house is ‘locally listed’ – Lewisham’s listing text describing it as

Villa. Detached. Late C19. Red brick and plain clay tile with stucco dressings, two stories, three bays. Hipped roof with pyramidal element surmounting canted projecting bay to right. To left, flat arched, three light casements. Central canopied entrance surmounted by oriel that rises through eaves. Projecting bay has hung tiles. Primarily of historic interest, formerly being C.S. Forester’s house

Underhill Road (left) & Longton Avenue

Underhill Road (left) & Longton Avenue

Forester split up with his wife just before WW2 and emigrated to the United States, working for British Information Service on propaganda and continued with the Hornblower series up until his death in 1966 – the final novels being published posthumously.

Literary Lewisham – Henry Williamson & the Zeppelin Attack on Hither Green

During the research I undertook for the post on the Hither Green Zeppelin attack, it emerged that there had been a fictionalised account of the events in a novel by Henry Williamson, best known for Tarka the Otter, “the Golden Virgin”. 

The link, according to the Henry Williamson Society was that one of the characters in the book ‘Lily Cornford’ was based around ‘Lily Milgate,’ the Milgates were one of the two families decimated in the attack.  There seems to have been some confusion about the name though, the Milgate’s daughter who was killed in the attack was Edith Mabel Milgate who according to 1911 census data was around 17 at the time of her death. While there appears to be no evidence of a Lily Milgate, both the father Samuel, and the oldest son, Percy, both had ‘Lilly’ as their middle name – presumably a family tradition.

As was covered in the article on the Hither Green attack, the Milgate’s lost four children and the father in the raid.  They were a family decimated by the war, as they had already had two deaths before the raid. Eldest son Percy lost his life as a Royal Navy Reservist on 14 July 1915 (aged around 22); and his younger brother John who was in the London Regiment had died too – on 1 October 1916 (aged around 21).

The Golden Virgin (1957) was the sixth novel in Henry Williamson’s partially autobiographical fifteen-volume ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’ which followed the life of Phillip Maddison from the late Victorian period to WW2. It is set in 1916 and the central part of the book covers the Battle of the Somme, where the ‘hero’ in injured early on.

There are two ‘Golden Virgins’ – the first a religious statue on a church roof in Albert (around 25 km from Amiens) which partially toppled during the fighting.

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Source – Wikimedia Commons

The second was ‘Lily Cornford’, Williamson describes her as being delectable and having

large blue glistening eyes and loose smiling mouth, tall white neck and golden hair coiled under straw hat with a spray of forget-me-knots circling its dark blue crown.

Williamson depicts her as having had a tragic life – raped when she was fourteen years old by an unpleasant plain clothes detective,who in the novel, is on the look-out for deserters and spies, and seems to consider the ‘signed off’ Philip Maddison to fall into the first category.

Towards the end of the novel, Phillip and his friend Desmond go up onto the Hill (presumably Hillyfields) to watch for Zeppelins as there had been a warning of a raid.  As they argue, and later make-up, about Lily, the Zeppelin appears, a bomb is dropped and the airship shot down.  They rush to the scene, which would have been at least a mile and a half away, and find Lily, her mother and others dead.

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The destroyed houses in Glenview Road, now Nightingale Grove – source Wikipedia Commons

There was a degree of artistic licence in the re-telling in that the Zeppelin was never seen nor heard, the Zeppelin was not shot down in London (it met its demise in south eastern France)  and it was ‘Lily’s’ father rather than mother who died, and the real life Williamson was nowhere near the incident at the time.

There is no evidence that Henry Williamson knew Edith Milgate, although the Henry Williamson Society suggest that one of his friends, Terence Tetley, may have done.  The reality is probably that Williamson wanted to include a story that he would have undoubtedly known about both through local connections and the national coverage that the bombing received.

As for Williamson he was an author with strong local connections – he was born in 1895 at 66 Braxfield Road, Brockley before moving to 11 (now 21) Eastern Road on the edge of Hillyfields – which remained his home until 1921.  He attended Colfe’s School (which was then on Lewisham Hill) when it was a Grammar School and joined the London Rifle Brigade as a ‘territorial’ in early 1914. He was mobilised on 5 August, the day after war broke out.  He is best known for ‘Tarka the Otter’.  He was a fascist for a while – a member of the British Union of Fascists, supportive of Hitler and detained for a short period early in WW2.  While he claimed to have ‘abandoned’ politics after WW2, his sympathies appear to remain – the final book in the series ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’, sees Maddison questioning the moral and legal validity of the Nuremberg Trials.  He died in 1977 as his best known work was being filmed.

Shakespeare and Lewisham

If one was thinking of places that might be associated with Shakespeare, a list might include Stratford upon Avon, Southwark, Bishopsgate, Verona or perhaps Venice; but Lewisham? However, there is an important link in that it seems that Brian Annesley, Lord of the Manor of Lee, was, at least partially, the inspiration for King Lear.

The Annesleys lived in what seems to have been a large moated house, roughly where St Margaret’s Lee, Church of England School is now. In the old St Margaret’s Church, only the ruined tower remains now on Belmont Hill, there were some memorials to the Annersleys – including Nicholas Annesley, who died in 1593, and his son Brian Annesley was a ‘gentleman pensioner’ to Queen Elizabeth.

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Brian was clearly an influential man – he was granted a monopoly to ‘buy and provide steel within the realm’ and along with his son in law John Wildgoose, was granted the Manor of Lee for life in 1597.

The events that seem likely to have influenced Shakespeare came at the end of his life. Brian Annesley’s will of 1601 passed his estate to his youngest daughter Cordell, two years later she took charge of his affairs as he started to suffer from serious mental health issues.

His two older daughters, Grace, the wife of John Wildgoose, and Christinna contested the will suggesting that Brian Annesley was ‘insane’ when he made it.

Cordell successfully defended the case on her father’s behalf. The older daughters also, unsuccessfully attempted to have their father committed but after the intervention of Robert Cecil, a minister of James VI & I, he was not committed and lived his last few months be cared for by a family friend.

I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind
King Lear, Act 4 Scene VI

This case was a ’cause célèbre’ around 1603 and 1604 and even if Shakespeare didn’t keep abreast of news he would probably have known about it anyway as his friend and patron was the Earl of Southampton. Southampton’s step father, William Hervey was a friend of Sir Brian and also the executor of his estate.

It would be wrong to suggest that the tale of Brian Annesley was the only source for King Lear; there had been the story of King Leire told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s less than reliable “Historia Regum Britanniae”. This tale in turn had been turned into a play, King Leir, around 1594 by an unknown author, and there have been suggestions that Shakespeare may have acted in it.

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Source – Wikipedia

However, the timing of the first performances of King Lear, and the re-publication of King Leir both happened around 1605, the year following Brian Annesley’s death, would suggest a linkage at the very least of jogging of Shakespeare’s memory. At least with the real life version of events there was a relatively happy ending for Cordell, Lear’s Cordellia was hanged, but Cordell won the legal battles and married William Hervey two years after her father’s death.