9 Crystal Palace Park Road, Sydenham
Do you ever wonder who lived in your property before you did? Who were the original residents? What was the story of the inhabitants of your house? I did and found a northern merchant family and a tale of Victorian Manchester, London and Beirut – the Victorian Paris of the Middle East and the most important port in nineteenth-century Lebanon.
My first Victorian property was a red-brick, neo-gothic Victorian villa. Of course I didn’t get to keep all of it to myself. My portion was a flat on the first floor and if the conifers in the shared back garden hadn’t been so enormous, I would have had a view straight into Crystal Palace Park. It was pretty messy but it had avoided sale by auction, being in good enough condition for Bromley Council to sell it through the local estate agent. By rights it shouldn’t have been mine at all. Someone had beaten me to it but then pulled out at the last minute because there was so much work to do. So, it was in a dream-like-state that I climbed the steps, turned the key and finally moved from room to room.
There was a strong sense of the house still having a ‘whole’ identity, even if each floor now housed an independent family. The neighbours all loved the house so much that they were keen to invite me into their flats. Many a day we would congregate on the main stairs, discussing whether to buy the freehold so that we could oversee the repairs to the roof, or just looking out of the enormous stairwell windows onto the world outside. There was something special about the house and we all knew it.
As a researcher, I naturally start digging and asking questions. One thread took me off around the history of the Park and the local area and I discovered the connection between my house, the Park, and the Crystal Palace Company. (See earlier blog post: The beginnings of an obsession.) The other was a more inward journey, connecting with the people who had walked its floors and passed through its doorways before me. A bit like an episode of Through the Keyhole, I could hear Lloyd Grossman’s voice saying “Who lives in a house like this?”, except in past tense. I’d already worked with the census for my doctoral study of the households of businessmen and businesswomen in Victorian London. Thankfully, locating people in the census is addictive stuff. So, it didn’t take me long to reveal the human story of my house. Built in the late 1870s, the 1881 census tells me that in its early days this house was home to Thomas and Catherine Letts, their five children (Rosa, Percy, Norah, Bertha, Victor), a cook, a housemaid and four boarders! However, that’s another story. Here I’m going to tell you about some longer-term residents, a northern merchant family.
The Whitehead family hailed from the North West. William Henry Whitehead, the archetypal middle-class head of household, was originally from Broughton in Salford, near Manchester. He had long since made his fortune as a merchant of East India and the Levant (the area bordering the Eastern Mediterranean) and when he brought his family to Whitethorns, he did so as a man of plenty – a man living on his own means.
Looking back to the 1871 census, William (34) was living in Broughton with his wife Julia (28) and their two daughters: Florence (3), their eldest, who had been born in Beirut; and their younger daughter Clara (1) who was born back in the UK. Life was comfortable and affluent in the family’s home on Hope Street. Their house Riversdale was large enough to accommodate a nurse for Clara (Elizabeth Vernon), a cook (Mary Gear), and a housemaid (Sophia Ladmore). Also residing with the family was an annuitant widowed-aunt, Frances Buckley (55). The Whiteheads were very much living in a community of their peers. Hope Street is in an area of Broughton known as ‘the Cliff’. The Cliff was one of the earliest residential suburbs for the professional classes commuting into Manchester and Salford. On high ground overlooking the River Irwell, it was a very desirable location and was also home to numerous prosperous merchants, especially those from or trading with the Middle East. Today it is a conservation area and a number of its buildings have been listed.
William Wyld, Manchester From The Cliff, Higher Broughton, 1830. © Manchester City Galleries
However, this picture book family was about to enter a more fractured and novelesque chapter. The family went off on their merchant travels again and then it would seem that disaster struck. According to overseas birth and death records, in the mid 1870s Julia and Julia Ethel, the family’s new baby, died whilst the family were back in Beirut.
By the eve of the 1881 census, Florence and Clara, had made the long and costly journey to London and were staying with their father’s sister, aunt Mary. Now known as ‘Mary Dommett’, William’s younger sister had married a respectably successful solicitor, Charles. They, their young family, William and Mary’s spinster-sister Emily, and various servants resided on Thicket Road, Penge, South London. This is actually only a stones throw from Whitethorns (my house) and it too borders the Crystal Palace Park, intersecting with Crystal Palace Park Road at the Penge Entrance. Mary’s house being only a few doors away from Whitethorns, it seems likely that William, now a widower and single father, was actively looking to take a house near his sister.
By the 1891 census, William, Florence, Clara and aunt Emily (44) had left Thickett Road and moved around the corner to settle in Whitethorns - A substantial property with four floors. As at Riversdale in Broughton they had servants: Eliza Parkins was an experienced cook; Jessie Butcher was the Parlourmaid and and teenager Eliza Blake had the heavy duty of housemaid. They were surrounded by similar upper middle-class families: Another successful merchant, Otto Leverhus headed-up the family next door; a little further up lived the independently wealthy Mary Ingold and her daughters; and also shipbroker, Thomas Walton and his family. This was a good location for a wealthy family of standing and this Victorian park villa would become their long-term home in a period when it was still common to move frequently.
Florence married in the spring of 1896 but Clara would stay on with her father at Whitethorns and is still found there as a resident in the 1901 census, where now aged 31 she is officially referred to as a spinster. Kelly’s Suburban Post Office Directory of 1902 also still lists William Henry Whitehead, who would have been well into his sixties by this time, as the head of the household at Whitethorns.
Beirut was a winter tourism spot for wealthy American and British Victorians.
Lovely painting: Beirut and Mount Lebanon by Edward Lear, 1812-1888. Oil on canvas.
A useful weblink on British trading and political relations with the Middle East, the Levant Company and the East India Company is: http://www.answers.com/topic/britain-and-the-middle-east-up-to-1914