As part of the work I am doing for my Artist in Residence project, I have been inspired by conversations with my neighbours – and the loan of some old maps by one of them, to look into the past history of the street. I’ve decided to focus on the census of 1911 – more of the fabric of the current street would have been in place then, so it makes it easier to picture the people of the past living amongst us now. For example my flat was home to a Police Constable, his wife and 7 year old child, and I’m strugging to fit all of me into it! In fact Constable Albert Smith was one of six policemen living in the street. There was a further man on police pension, a naval pensioner, a recruiting seargeant for the army and two female Salvation Army officers, I imagine crime and anti-social behaviour was not an issue for Courtenay Street with this level of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’!
The Smith’s lived in relative comfort, just three of them in what is now a 1 bedroom flat (although as the bath was in the kitchen they would have had a slightly bigger rooms at the back), at the start of the street – no.s 1 to 17 on the odd side – which is where I have begun to try and visualise (see sketch) – there was some serious overcrowding. No.s1, 3 and 5 no longer exist but looking at the street plan from 1914 they appear to be 3 narrow little houses/cottages, the census says ‘4 rooms’ so I imagine these are two up, two down cottages.
At no.1 live Phineas and Louisa Swodbury and their children. Phineas is a Labourer, his grown up sons Thomas and Frederick are both in work as an Electrician’s Assistant and a Tailor’s Trimming Porter (??) respectively. Their 15 year old sister Louisa is a paperbag maker (someone’s got to do it!) and there four younger siblings Rose, Lillian and Grace and Christopher are at school. That’s nine people in four rooms – not four bedrooms but four rooms including the kitchen. The census only excludes halls, bathrooms and sculleries (“as if!” I hear Lousia Swodbury cry longingly).
At no.3 live William and Elizabeth Davies and their chlidren. He is an ‘Electrical Accumulator’ – sounds like he is some kind of human battery but I imagine this is some kind of worker in the relatively new electrical industries – several other people in the street have jobs in this field and some are working in the light bulb packing factory. They have seven children, none of them old enough to work. Marian, Alice, William and Frederick are all at school, Rosina, Agnes and baby Albert are at home with mum. Another family of nine.
And finally at no. 5 we have Henry and Clara Deadman, he is a ‘Carman’ for a ‘meat contractor’. A Carman was effectively a lorry driver where the vehicle was a horsedrawn one rather than a motor vehicle. There are 15 carmen in Courtenay Street at this time. There daughters Clara, 8, Ada, 6, Edith, 5, are at school, whilst Ivy, 3 and George, 1 are at home. When I read the long list of girls and then a son, I thought I wonder if Henry was pleased to have a son at last, and also that he was lucky that George would not be old enough to fight in the war that was looming and would take so many lives in this decade.
Looking at my sketch this morning I reflected that whilst in Courtenay Street this kind of overcrowding is a thing of the past, it is happening again in other parts of London, with rogue landlords packing people into houses, sheds and garages because ‘they can’. And whether we will get to a point where four working adults can’t aford a dwelling that allows them more than four rooms in total in which to house themsevles and four children!
I will be contiuing on with this work on the Shadow Street and also seeing if I can find out who went to war in 14-18 and who came back.