Sunday, 29 May 2016

Making a claim to Eltham's history

Annie Morris nee Foster, daughter of an Eltham blacksmith circa 1877
Now I have never been one of those historians that think it is only the rich and the landed that can lay claim to leaving their mark on the past or that they have a monopoly on any one place.  

It may be more difficult for most of us to trace our families much beyond the beginning of the 19th century or to see their stories unfold seamlessly in one location but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there or that they did not shape how Eltham, Chorlton or Manchester turned out.

And so to a family who washed up in Eltham in 1803 and with slight lapses have lived along the High Street and out west beyond the Palace for over 160 years.

They were the Foster family who married into the Morris family and who made the horse shoes, mended the broken ploughs and fixed anything made of iron and in time shaped fine furniture  constructed wooden houses and like most of our ancestors worked in the fields growing the food that graced the tables of the fine houses in Eltham.

Without knowing it I had already begun to weave their stories and now with the help of Jean who is a fellow historian I have begun to put the bits together.

The Forge close to the site of the library, 1909
Jean’s great grandmother was the daughter of Thomas Foster who set up shop as a blacksmith in 1803 on the High Street near where the library now stands.

His family had been handloom weavers, workers whose lives changed for the worst with the coming of the factory system.

She was born in 1848 in Pound Place, married John Morris a carpenter whose father was variously a miner, groom, gamekeeper and gardener and she lived long enough to record her memories of a lost Eltham in the June of 1931.

Reading those memories is to go back not just to the early 1850s when she was growing up but to the very start of the 19th century.

Like others of her generation she would have heard the stories of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, seen the veterans of Waterloo returning along the Kent lanes and pondered on the turmoil of class conflict and political unrest which rumbled on long after she was born.

Horne Farm, 1909
Her husband’s parents who had lived in South Wales and Yorkshire would have been seen the Industrial Revolution as it rolled out transforming communities, would certainly have had tales of the new canals and perhaps even of those exciting and scary railways.

And as that century of promise ran its course so she would have seen Eltham change from a rural backwater to a suburb of London.

Some of those grand houses which had seemed so permanent were in the space of her lifetime to be demolished, transformed into multi occupancy or became schools, religious institutions and in the case of the grandest taken over by a golf club.

In the same way the farms of her youth were all but gone by the time she gave her memories to the Eltham District Times in the early 1930s.

Not that this is all about what was lost for there was much that was better including gas and later electricity along with mains water and a revolution in how we got about the place.

A tram at Eltham destined for Woolwich
So she could by her 47th birthday have traveled in speed and comfort on one of Eltham’s two railway lines into the very heart of capital and a little later taken one of those tall and stately trams from the parish church all the way into Woolwich which in turn opened up new opportunities for the people of Eltham.

This included one of her sons who worked at the Arsenal and of course would work in reverse by creating a whole new estate at Well Hall for munitions workers.

So I rather think we shall be revisiting these families and learning more about what Eltham meant to them and what mark they left on the place.

After all Jean's family lasted in Eltham longer than many of those grand people in their large houses and that in itself says something.

Pictures; of Horne Farm, 1909 and the old Forge, from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers, Annie Morris nee Foster from the collection of Jean Gammons and picture of the tram courtesy of the Eltham Society

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