Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.

 

 

Murder or suicide? The death of John Broome Tower in Stoke Newington (part 2)

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For the first part of this story follow this link

Ernest Cogdon saw John Broome Tower several times on 31 December 1884. The two men were friends and Cogden said they met at Haycroft and Gilfillon’s offices   in Great Winchester Street where Broome Tower worked as an underwriter’s clerk.

The course of his work meant that Cogden, a fellow clerk, ran into Tower three more times that day before the pair took a train back to Finsbury Park (where Cogden lodged) at 6.30 that evening. They dined with a Mrs Earl and her daughters (one of whom was sweet on John) before going to a service at St John’s Church in Highbury Vale. It was well past midnight when they parted company on Green Lanes, Cogden going back to Finsbury park and Tower to his digs at 109 Dynevor Road in Stoke Newington.

That was the last time anyone saw John Broome Tower alive but Cogdon was sure he left his chum in good health, sober and with money in his pockets. They’d agreed to meet the following day for lunch. Cogdon was also puzzled that Tower’s body had been found where it was, as he was not on his normal route home; what had caused him to change his habits that night and did he take his own life, or was he murdered?

The police were pursuing the second option: when Tower’s body had been recovered it seemed as if he’d been attacked. His hat was battered (and it wasn’t an old hat), he collar looked as if it had been wrenched from his neck, and the state of his coat suggested the wearer had been involved in a struggle. More than one set of footprints were discovered near the bank of the reservoir where the body was found, and only one matched the boots Tower was wearing. A scarf or large handkerchief was around his neck, spotted with blood, and the press and police speculated that he had been strangled with it.  However, there were no other wounds that might have accounted for his death.

It was a proper Victorian ‘murder mystery’ in ‘the rapidly growing northern suburb’ as the Penny Illustrated Paper described Stoke Newington. It provided its readers with a sketch of the locality and an artist’s impression of the finding of the body at the reservoir (above). No one had heard a sound that night despite there being several potential witnesses including a cab driver, two carriages, and two young lads being close to the scene of the supposed attack at the time.

The police had employed divers to search the reservoir, men working for Doewra and Co., but they had not uncovered anything that might help explain the circumstances of the death. The police, under the direction of N Division’s Superintendent Green, remained baffled and were offering a reward of £100 for information.

Several days later the police investigation had still not resulted in an arrest. Enquiries at Tower’s workplace had now revealed that ‘discrepancies’ in his accounting which hinted at workplace theft. The amounts were significant but not huge – £60-80 – and no cheques were missing. Had Tower killed himself to avoid disgrace? It seemed unlikely, especially as Dr Bond (who examined his body) found no sign that he’d drowned in the reservoir. This suggested to him that he’d been killed first and then thrown into the water. Bond (who was later to be involved in the Whitechapel Murder case of 1888-9) was ‘clearly of opinion that death resulted from homicidal strangulation, and that two or more persons had been engaged in the matter’.

Two years later the case remained unsolved. A man did confess to killing Tower and robbing him with an accomplice but his evidence contradicted much of what the police already new and little credibility was given to it. In 1886 the papers reported that Chief Inspector Donald Swanson was convinced that the poor man had committed suicide. Another theory was that he had been decoyed into the area of scrub near the reservoir by a woman, and then attacked and killed. Swanson may have been content to put the mystery to bed as suicide because it relieved the police of responsibility for finding the killer/s, however unlikely it seems from the evidence presented to the coroner.

The mystery certainly caught the attention of people at the time and the 1886 confession (by a man named Thackery) was not the only one. In January 1887 George Charles Wilson also said he’d killed the underwriter’s clerk but he was dismissed as being unfit to do so suffering as he was, from ‘a disturbed mind’ and being found wandering as ‘a lunatic’.

In the end the crime was and remains unsolved. Somebody killed John Broome Tower or else he made it look that way. It had briefly propelled the outlying suburb of Stoke Newington to national attention, something I’m not sure its inhabitants would have welcomed.

[The Penny Illustrated Paper, 12 January, 1884]