Thursday, 27 August 2009

Who was Janusz Korczak?

Amongst the reasons given by English Heritage for making Louise House, Dartmouth Road a Grade II listed building was the “decisive impression” it made on Janusz Korczak when he visited in 1911. Korczak is little known in this country and it seemed worth finding out about him.

Born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw in 1877 he took “Janusz Korczak” as a pen-name when he began writing in his early 20s. He studied medicine, became a paediatrician, a teacher and then worked in an orphanage, where he began developing his ideas about working with children.

In the Autumn of 1911 Korczak visited London. Political unrest in Warsaw, with rising anti-Semitism, left him uncertain about his future, feeling that his life was “unordered, lonely and alien” and he hoped his visit would relieve this depression. While in London he came to Forest Hill. It seems highly likely that he already knew about the two industrial homes established here in the mid-1870s and he came specifically see how they cared for destitute and orphaned children. Louise House and Shaftesbury House (in Perry Rise and demolished a few years ago) were founded on principles similar to those Korczak was developing; giving respect, care and support to needy children.

The founders of the industrial homes believed that children thrived best in a secure and supportive family environment. Because of unemployment, sickness or death som
e families were unable to provide this support and the industrial homes attempted to offer their children something approaching a family life, away from their home environment. They also offered a basic education and taught skills that would allow the children to find employment.

His visit to the industrial homes made a deep impression on Korczak. In a series of brief notes he described his visit. There were two houses, similar in style (they were designed by the same architect). In each house there were 30 children. The girls had a laundry, and were also taught sewing and embroidery. They walked each day to the local school (Kelvin Grove). Korczak also mentions an aquarium and rabbits, guinea pigs and pigeons kept as pets “like a miniature zoo”. There was also a kitchen garden, where the children could grow food, and a small museum.

In a letter written many years later Korczak described how affected he was by this visit and added: “I remember the moment when I decided not to have my own family. It was in a park near London…” He decided that rather than having children of his own he would “serve all children”.

Thus inspired, Korczak returned to Warsaw to develop his own orphanage along similar lines to those he saw at Louise House. In one of his books he wrote: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be.”

Korczak believed that children had rights and his proposals were eventually incorporated into the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rules in his orphanage were discussed and agreed by the children, who also imposed sanctions on those who broke the rules. The children were also encouraged to write their own newspaper which was published as a supplement with the Warsaw daily newspaper.

His orphanage thrived, his enlightened ideas influencing teachers across the world, until 1 September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was created, a small area of the city to which Jewish people were confined. Korczak was told that he would have to move his children and staff to premises within the ghetto. Korczak was given many opportunities to leave, but each time he refused saying he would not abandon his children.

On the morning of 6 August 1942 German soldiers ordered the occupants of the orphanage to line up in the street. Korczak made sure his children were dressed in their best clothes and carried a favourite toy. The orphanage staff and 192 children were then herded through the streets of Warsaw towards the railway station, with Korczak at their head. During that fateful walk Korczak was again given the opportunity to escape, and again refused. Eye-witnesses said that his only concern was to comfort, reassure and support his children. The group was forced onto a train bound for Treblinka extermination camp. That is the last that was heard of them.

By an extraordin
ary coincidence Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another anti-Nazi who also chose death rather than betray his principles, had strong links with Forest Hill. There is a plaque on the house in Manor Mount where he lived for 18 months before returning to Germany to oppose Nazism. He is commemorated as a “protestant martyr” with a statue above the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Janusz Korczak is also revered as a martyr.

To have two such courageous and principled people, who died for their beliefs, so strongly associated with our area is a rare privilege, and something we should cherish and celebrate.

President Obama at a Korczak memorial
ceremony in Janusz Korczak Square, Jerusalem.
Behind him is the statue
“Janusz Korczak and the Children”.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The World of Herbert Brush

In 1937 two men, a journalist and a film-maker, wrote to the New Statesman outlining their plans for a scientific survey of the everyday lives of ordinary people. They proposed that volunteers should keep diaries, recording their daily lives. The project, which became known as “Mass Observation”, was based at Grotes Building, Blackheath. By 1939 some 500 volunteers countrywide had agreed to keep diaries which were sent each month to Mass Observation. Although some wondered whether anybody was bothering to read them most continued writing their diaries throughout the war, and a few continued until the early 1960s.

The diaries offer a unique insight into the lives of ordinary people during this turbulent period. A few years ago a selection of post-war extracts from these diaries was published*. One of the diarists was “Herbert Brush” from Sydenham, a “retired electricity board inspector”. He began writing his diary in September 1940 and continued until March 1951.

“Herbert Brush” was a pseudonym, but the writer left sufficient clues in the diary to identify him. He was, in fact, Reginald Charles Harpur, aged 73 in 1945. He lived at 25 Kirkdale, on the junction with Thorpewood Avenue, from 1939 until his death in 1959. He shared the house with Winifred Gunton (“W” in the diaries and owner of the house), Dorothy Woods (“D”), and a cat. The relationship between the three members of the household is not clear.
View down Kirkdale with Reginald's house just visible behind the long fence.

Reginald spent much time tending his allotment, round the corner in Baxter Field. He was not averse to experimenting: “I have planted out a row of ‘celeriac’ this afternoon. This is the first time I have attempted ‘celeriac’, and I don’t even know what it looks like”. He was disappointed with the results.

Reginald regularly entered a borough-wide competition for the best kept allotment. In 1946 he was dismayed that he was not even given a certificate. The following year he writes: “I have again put my name down as an entrant to the allotment competition though I nearly made up my mind to give it a miss this year, as I was not at all satisfied with the judging last year and suspect that the Labour Council… was responsible.” Reginald was, in his own words, “a Conservative Nationalist” and distrusted both the Labour council and government.

Gerald was regularly stopped by “Old Ing” on his way to the allotment. William Ing was a retired policeman who lived in Lynton Cottage, Mount Gardens. He liked to pass on gossip, which Gerald would record:
“…met Ing on the road... he always has the latest bit of news. Apparently the postman who delivered our letters and parcels has been caught pinching things and when the police visited his house they found about a ton of things which he had stolen…”
“According to Ing, the landlord of the Woodman went to the Derby… he telephoned and told his family to put their shirts on Airborne… which won. Ing was of the opinion that there was a wangle…”

Another person he chatted with in Kirkdale was Miss Hudson “the ninety-three-year-old nurse… with a voice like a foghorn” who, Ing claimed “can drink beer by the pint.”

Sometimes Reginald was inspired to write poetry:
“Is now too hot
To go to the plot
So I’ll sit indoors awhile
And drink barley water
As everyone ought’er
Who suffers a little from bile…”

And sometimes he would think about numbers: “I have been playing with no.37 today, a very remarkable number. A prime number, multiplied by 3 the product is 111, by 6 it is 222, by 9 it is 333 and so on by multiples of 3 up to 27”.

The diary records frequent visits with Winifred to the Capitol Cinema in London Road, or the State in Sydenham Road. In January 1948 he and Winifred went to the Capitol to see “Gone with the Wind”. Reginald writes that “…there was a queue about 100 yards long when we arrived, but we got in.”

During the summer Reginald creosoted the long fence that still surrounds the garden: “…it is rather a slow job, many people stop to talk about the weather and the iniquity of small boys who like to damage garden fences.”

Once, he records, a woman stopped him in Thorpewood Avenue: “… a large hedgehog was lying near the steps which led up to her house. She was afraid to touch it so I put it in her front garden, saying that it would be a useful pet… the animal had evidently tired itself out trying to escape from the pavement, but the only way was up the steps and I don’t think that hedgehogs can climb steps.”

In 1945 Churchill passed through Forest Hill “… so W, D and I went to London Road near Horniman’s Museum to see him go by. We got there about 6pm but it was 7:10pm before he went past in an open car… making his usual V sign and I only caught a glimpse of him…”

Going to his allotment one evening he saw the postman emptying the pillar box in Kirkdale (it is still there) when a man in a car drove up and tried to hand a large envelope to the postman: “the postman would not touch it and said that the man must put it through the slot... the man had to get out of his car and walk round to reach the slot and then had some difficulty getting it through… the postman then picked the letter out of the pillar box and put it in his bag. The man began to curse him and gave him a few unpleasant names. I looked round several times as I walked down the road with my bucket and hoe, and they were still at it when I turned into Charlecote Grove.”

Reginald experienced two exciting examples of modern technology. Someone lent him a Biro pen: “I am trying it out, just to find whether it would do for my diary writing”. He was impressed, saying that “the ‘Biro’ pen runs so easily it is a pleasure to write with it”.

Reginald was not so easily impressed with television. In 1948 Reginald and Winifred “went into the Sparks, next door [Seymour Lodge, on the site of Hassocks Close], to wish them a Happy New Year and to look at their television picture of the Cinderella pantomime. My eyes are not good enough to see such a small picture well”.
Reginald also gives his views on the younger generation (for him, those born after 1914): “My own opinion is that they are very much worse in every way. Judging by the ones I come across they have no manners at all… London children are absolutely crafty little liars and clever thieves…”

Gerald finds shrapnel on his allotment, sees people sifting through rubble in the grounds of Sydenham School and long queues to buy a loaf of bread. These glimpses of life in Sydenham in the immediate post-war years give a fascinating insight into the issues of the time and especially the mundane preoccupations of ordinary people.

* “Our Hidden Lives”, Simon Garfield (Ebury Press, 2004)

The theft of the Irish Crown Jewels

Sir Ernest Shackleton, who spent part of his boyhood at 12 Westwood Hill, was one of Sydenham's best-known residents. Heroes are fine, but often villains are more interesting and one of Sydenham's most notorious villains was none other than Sir Ernest’s younger brother, Francis Richard Shackleton, known as Frank.

The story begins with a report in The Times of 8 July 1907 that the “Crown Jewels and other Insignia of the Order of St Patrick”, popularly known as The Irish Crown Jewels, had disappeared from a safe in Dublin Castle, Ireland. This regalia had been created in 1830 from diamonds and rubies once belonging to Queen Charlotte and was used on State visits to Ireland. Queen Victoria used the regalia on four occasions and Edward VII once, in 1903.

On 6 July 1907, during the preparations for Edward VII's next visit to Ireland, it was discovered that the regalia had disappeared. It was clear that this was an inside job as there was no evidence of a break-in, and both the strong room and safe had been opened with keys.
The safe was in the office of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms and guardian of the Crown Jewels.

In the official report of the theft, Vicars was found negligent and forced to resign. One "grave charge" against him was that he “associated with a man of undesirable character” and “introduced this man into his office”. In defence, this man was said to be a friend of influential peers and “came from a well-known and highly respected family”. He is not officially named.

Vicars vigorously protested his innocence. His three assistants resigned. One of these, with the job title “Dublin Herald”, was a young man of “charismatic personality” called Frank Shackleton. Frank was, and still is, widely regarded as the most likely suspect. He was probably the “man of undesirable character”. He “lived by his wits and his charm, ingratiating himself into the highest social circles”. He was also homosexual. I suspect that is what “undesirable character” means.

There have been suggestions that the heralds and others were involved in nightly orgies at Dublin Castle.
It is claimed that Sir Arthur Vicars was blamed in order to protect someone else, and that the King himself was involved. In Vicars’ will he states that he was made a scapegoat when they “shielded the real culprit and thief Francis R. Shackleton”.

Frank was never charged with the theft. However some six years later he was found guilty of “fraudulent conversion” when he and another cheated a woman out of nearly £6,000. He was sentenced to 15 months hard labour. On his release he changed his name to "Frank Mellor", and under that name he lived in Cator Road in 1919-1920. He then lived for a time in Penge. In about 1934 Frank Mellor moved to Chichester where he ran an antiques shop. He died there in 1941.

Several questions remain. Why would Edward VII want to protect Frank Shackleton? In early 1907 Ernest Shackleton was making arrangements to lead his first expedition to the Antarctic, an expedition being followed closely by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. They visited Ernest when his ship was at Cowes on 4 August 1907. In September 1907, shortly before leaving for the Antarctic, Shackleton gave a lecture to the King and Queen at Balmoral where he said the King was “very jolly” and “enjoys a joke very much”. Was the unfortunate Vicars sacrificed to save the family name of a national hero?

Another reason for Edward VII's close interest in the case has been suggested. The Marquis of Lorne, who was married to the king's sister, Princess Louise, is known to have been homosexual. He was also a close friend of Frank Shackleton. At this time homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence. If it became widely known that the King's brother-in-law had a relationship with the man, even then, widely suspected of having stolen the Irish Crown Jewels the scandal would have shaken the Monarchy to its roots.

For many, that is the reason why so many vital documents were destroyed, why Shackleton was shielded and why the inocent and naive Vicars took the blame.

And what of the Irish Crown Jewels? There are various theories including that they were sold to a Dutch pawnbroker, or to private collectors, or buried outside Dublin. They were even, according to an official document, offered for sale to the Irish Free State in 1927. Whatever became of them, to this day their whereabouts has remained unknown.

First published in Sydenham Society Newsletter (1999)

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Frightful Accident at the Crystal Palace

On the afternoon of Thursday 18th August 1853 over a thousand mourners gathered in the nave of the partially completed Crystal Palace, on Sydenham Hill. As the clock struck three a procession formed and began the journey down Westwood Hill (then West Hill) to St Bartholomew's Church, described in one account of the funeral as "an elegant modern structure, embosomed in luxuriant foliage, and situated in a most romantic spot". Others joined the procession as it made its way down Westwood Hill. By the time it reached the church there were, according to one estimate, between two and three thousand mourners.

They were paying their last respects to eight men who, with four others, had died while working on the construction of the new Crystal Palace. The men were killed when scaffolding upon which they were working collapsed. Their funeral was conducted "in a very impressive manner" by the incumbent of St Bartholomew's, the Reverend Charles English.

Nearly two years earlier, in October 1851, the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations" had closed. The exhibition had been held in a wonderful building in Hyde Park, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and dubbed by Punch "the Crystal Palace". The building was due for demolition and a new site was desperately sought. Eventually a perfect spot was found, on the summit of Sydenham Hill. The erection of a much larger Crystal Palace began on 5th August 1852.

The rebuilding progressed speedily and within a year much of the structure was in place. By August 1853 work was starting on the arched roof of the great central transept, to become perhaps the most easily recognisable feature of the completed building. This transept, which crossed the central part of the main building, was 384 feet long by 120 feet wide and 208 feet high and had to be spanned by a great arched roof. The builders had to construct a series of temporary trusses to support the arches over which the glazed roof would be built. The trusses were made in situ, 170 feet above the ground, on scaffolding that was supported not on the ground but on already constructed galleries around the central transept.

At about 2 p.m. on Monday 15th August 1853 Mr Chamberlain, a medical man, was walking down Anerley Hill. He heard a sharp noise "like the falling of a plank". He then heard "a loud crack" and saw a large part of the scaffolding in the central transept give way. There was "a great cry followed by a tremendous crash" and he saw (in an unfortunate but graphic phrase) "workmen dropping like partridges". Mr Chamberlain hurried to the central transept where he saw, amongst the debris of the fallen scaffolding, "sixteen or seventeen workmen, dead and dying". In fact, twelve men died, five were injured and one, amazingly, survived quite unhurt. The precise cause of the accident was never determined, and the coroner's inquest was unable to apportion blame. However Messers Fox & Henderson, the building contractors, decided that future scaffolding would be built from the ground rather than from the galleries.

The Times reported that the accident was: " example of the risks to which the working classes are exposed in the course of their employment... The character of the building in which the accident occurred and the favour in which it is regarded by the public insure for this melancholy event an unusual degree of sympathy. These men have perished while engaged upon the construction of a building unparalleled for its magnitude, for the originality of everything connected with it, for its social objects, and for the manner in which it is to be carried out... How little will these [men] be remembered bye and bye when the people are in full enjoyment of their Palace and everything but its transcendent splendour is forgotten".

But these men are remembered, and the Crystal Palace itself has gone. Ten of the dead share a grave, 16 feet deep, in St Bartholomew's churchyard. Their grave is marked by a large flat stone surrounded by a low railing to the right of the middle path, from Westwood Hill to the south porch. It is shaded by a yew tree. Although the inscription is now barely legible those buried in this grave were: James Wardlow, Joseph Copping, George Rolph Smith, George Topham, William Hardy, John Foreman, William James, Henry Fielding, Henry Reading and William Harris. The last two died in Guy's Hospital and were buried in the grave on the following day, 19th August 1853.

An architectural adviser from English Heritage recently visited the monument, and reported on its condition, giving advice on repair and preservation. It is hoped that resources will become available at least to prevent further deterioration and, perhaps, to restore the monument.

Footnote: this article was first published in 2000; the grave was restored and rededicated in 2003.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Cobb’s Department Store, Sydenham

There are more pictures of Cobb's here

For 70 years or more Cobb's was perhaps the most prestigious department store in SE London. In 1900 The Times mentioned it in the same paragraph as Debenham & Freebody, D H Evans, Harvey Nichols, John Lewis and Marshal & Snelgrove. Cobb's was founded by Walter Cobb in 1860 and closed in 1981.

Walter,the son of Frederick and Maria Cobb, was born at Mercery Lane, Canterbury in 1835. His father was a grocer, his shop within yards of the entrance to Cathedral Close. By 1851, when he was 15, Walter was an assistant at a draper’s shop in Dover.

In 1860 he came to Sydenham and opened his own draper’s shop. It was in a newly built parade of shops called Lawrie Place, between what is now Spring Hill and Peak Hill Gardens. His original shop was on the site of the present 301 Kirkdale and Cobb called it “Regent House”, a name that still survives. Walter Cobb, his new wife Mary and two sales assistants lived above the shop.
Walter Cobb was an astute businessman, and the shop prospered. Over the next 30 years he acquired other shops in the terrace, on either side of his original shop. By 1898 Cobb's store extended from 297 to 301 Kirkdale. He also bought other property in Sydenham: 270 and 272 Kirkdale (St Christopher’s Hospice and the paint shop), a depository in Silverdale (recently converted to flats) and 1-3 Railway Approach where he had an estate agents and funeral parlour. Cobb’s became the leading store for the fashion conscious of Sydenham and a considerable area around. People even travelled from Bromley to shop at there.

The shop that Walter Cobb must have coveted most, the present 301 Kirkdale, on the corner of Spring Hill, remained unavailable. From 1861 it had been a butcher’s shop, owned by William Glass. In about 1900 the shop finally became available and Cobb lost no time in rebuilding it to provide a grand entrance to his department store. The upper floors had large arched windows, the central one surmounted by a pediment with carved decoration and the date it was built, "1902". Above this was a lead-covered dome, topped by a flagpole.

Walter Cobb lived above his original shop for a few years, then in Silverdale Lodge, Silverdale and Peak Hill Avenue. In about 1898 he moved to The Old Cedars (then called "Wunderbau") before finally moving to Sussex where he spent his retirement growing prize-winning orchids. He died in 1922.

On 25 October 1940 Cobb's was hit by a bomb. About "three quarters of the building was destroyed with all contents”. The principal material loss was most of the original Lawrie Place. The surviving parts of the building, mainly the 1902 rebuild, was “adapted and fixtured to maintain the restaurant and other departments in condensed form”. Cobb’s suffered other damage, and after the war was rebuilt and restored.

During the restoration much interesting detail was lost. The arches of the second floor windows were filled in. The stonework in the pediment was plastered over, and “1860” (the date the shop was founded) replaced the original “1902” (the date of the building). Cobb’s declined, and finally ceased trading in 1981

In 1997, when the 1902 building was converted to flats, the the original window arches were exposed and restored and the carved stonework in the pediment (and date) was revealed.