The Clapham Society Local History Series — 1

Eric Smith and the Historians of Clapham
by Peter Jefferson Smith

The Eric Smith Lecture 2005, delivered at the Clapham Society’s meeting on 20 April 2005

For some 50 years, Eric Smith was the Hon Secretary of the Clapham Antiquarian Society. Indeed for most of that time he was the Society. Brave attempts were made to continue it after his retirement, but no-one had the time or single-minded devotion to local history to make it possible. The Antiquarian Society has now been merged into the Clapham Society, where the study and promotion of interest in local history fits in with our aims of encouraging local pride and identity; and as part of the merger, it was agreed that each year, we would hold an Eric Smith Lecture. The aim would be to invite a distinguished historian, usually from outside Clapham, to share with us his insights into London history.

This first year however is an exception, since I want to devote it to Eric himself, and his position in a sequence of historians of Clapham. I want to look at how earlier generations approached local history, then at Eric Smith’s own work, and lastly and very briefly at how we approach local history today.


I think that local history as a subject we can recognise starts in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The first historical account of Clapham that I know of was published in 1792, by the Reverend Daniel Lysons in his Environs of London. Lysons was a curate at Putney, and a close friend of Horace Walpole, who nicknamed him Stumpetty Stump, probably for the way he and his brother went about compiling his history — on the stump, talking to people who could give them the information they wanted. Walpole wrote of ‘the two Lysons, and their strong legs and activity and perseverance. Of their being so absorbed by their pursuits as to believe those who they speak to are equally interested with themselves’. That seems a fair comment on most local historians.

Lysons’ introduction to Environs of London sets out what he did and why. I will quote part of it:

‘Whilst a taste for local history so generally prevails, it is somewhat singular that the counties adjacent to London should not have had their due share of illustration; … [The author] offers to the public what he has been able to collect, relating either to the ancient history or present state of the several parishes within twelve miles of the capital, … A brief description of the situation, soil, produce and manufactures; the descent of the principal, particularly manerial property; the parish churches and ecclesiastical history; the state of population, and the biography connected with each parish; are the principal objects of the following work.’

That framework, the topography of the parish and then its principal features and leading characters, has repeatedly been followed by local historians.

Much of Lysons’ description of Clapham is history as we would understand it. He got off to a bad start, attributing the name to Osgod Clappa, an error that has taken some two centuries to dispose of. He had material about the manor and its estates and about Sir Dennis Gauden’s Great House and the Hewer estate, though not based on any detailed research. He described people when the information was accessible from published works and he was interested. Thus the only Lord of the Manor to get much attention is Henry Atkins, physician to James I, and the only Rectors to get more than a sentence each are Nicholas Brady and his successor Anthony Blackwall — Brady in order to disparage his hymns and Blackwall for an anecdote, probably spurious. (1)

Lysons’ most solid facts were what he could gather by looking or talking to people. Thus, he described in detail the most important monuments in the surviving north aisle of the old church, followed by a list of the principal tombs in the churchyard. He also had up-to-date information about the extent of the parish, its wealth and population — he concludes that ‘The population of this parish appears to have increased in a much more rapid degree than any other whose history I have examined.’ And he is the sole source of our knowledge of Christopher Baldwin’s improvements to the Common, information he must have got on the stump. After he published in 1792, he went on collecting material, and got more from the Rector John Venn, which appeared in a supplement in 1814. This included the first record of the long standing boundary dispute between Clapham and Battersea.

Manning and Bray

About the same time as Lysons, another clergyman was researching a history of Surrey. He was Owen Manning, vicar of Godalming. After he died, his work was completed and published by William Bray, and the three volume work is now usually referred to as just ‘Manning and Bray.’ They drew on Lysons, from whom they lifted whole paragraphs verbatim; but they were not interested in modern statistics of population or wealth and had access to much more documentary material relating to the manor and church in the Middle Ages. They included a very detailed description of the monuments surviving in the old church — just as well, for it was demolished in 1814, the year the volume containing Clapham was published — and the first long list of Rectors of the parish. On the whole they avoided anecdote, so Manning and Bray come much closer to our idea of a scholarly history than Lysons, though one has to say that compared with Lysons their account of Clapham is twice as long but only half as interesting.


Both of these accounts were by outsiders and part of larger works. The first account of Clapham by a Clapham historian appeared in 1827, as a part of Batten’s street guide. Written anonymously, it was by George Hyde Wollaston, who lived on West Side; neither a clergyman nor an academic, he was a City businessman; but he evidently either had the leisure and taste to do a lot of original research, or he had access to the work of someone else who did. (2) Anyway, he put together a historical and topographical account which was a major step forward. Inevitably he used Lysons and much of Manning and Bray (though with less antiquarian detail), but he made important additions. We find for the first time the history of the springs and ponds on the Common, including Henton Brown’s creation of the Mount Pond; on William Hewer, he was able to quote Evelyn’s diary (though not Pepys, since that was still to be deciphered and published). He followed Lysons in giving biographies of some of the Rectors, but without the Lysons’ prejudices and anecdotes. He was the first to use the parish records, many of them rescued from destruction by John Venn (Lysons tells us that), and from those records he got a detailed description of the parish boundaries, and summaries of what he called parochial occurrences from the seventeenth century to his own times. There is a wealth of financial and social information there, though one has to question his balance when he finally devoted several pages to the grisly murder in 1823 of a lady living on South Side. A touch of sensationalism there.

I have dealt with Lysons, Manning and Bray and Wollaston at length because they are the foundation for all that followed. Wollaston in particular has been much used later, but perhaps because his work appeared in the back of a street guide, without the acknowledgment it deserves.

Whitehead and Grover

Even though Wollaston appeared in a guide book, none of the accounts I have described so far were exactly popular reading. The later nineteenth century brings us two popularisers and another important source for any local history — The Oldest Inhabitant. That was the title which Henry Whitehead, a curate at Holy Trinity, gave to a lecture he delivered in 1859, to what seems to have been some sort of educational institution for older boys. He had to do it at short notice when the scheduled speaker fell ill, so he cobbled together a mixture of Wollaston and what he had been told by a number of elderly parishioners. Despite its origins, the lecture was popular enough to be printed, doubtless because, while it was instructive, it was also enormously entertaining and anecdotal. For example, many of the old inhabitants remembered the Clapham Volunteers band of 1803; different people remembered different names, but they all remembered that Tom Hobbs played the cymbals. Whitehead was puzzled, until he got one person to admit, “Why sir, he was a very handsome man, and went by the name of the lady-killer. And then his attitudes in playing the cymbals were very fine”. But what Whitehead was told was not always reliable. He was the first to record the existence of a military encampment on the Common; he was told it was in 1745, which puzzled him since there was nothing relevant in Wollaston for that year; in fact it did happen, but much later.

Another person to rely on and record what older people had told him was the distinguished civil engineer John Grover. We owe to him the rediscovery in 1885 of the lost Atkins monument in St Paul’s Church. It had been buried in a sealed vault in 1815, and Grover knew where to look for it because someone had accidentally broken into the vault in the 1830s, and there was a tradition among older people about where it was. A year later, Grover gave a long lecture called Old Clapham. As a member of Holy Trinity Church he was keen to celebrate the past achievements of the Clapham Sect, with whom much of Old Clapham is concerned. He also drew on the work I have already mentioned, especially Wollaston, but like Whitehead added much of his own, relating to his own times or passed on to him by people he had known. As with Whitehead, there is a problem in knowing how much of these traditions can be trusted. He is probably sound enough when he is near the source of the information; but some traditions which he repeats, such as the connection of Bishop’s Walk on the Common with Bishop Wilberforce, seem to me distinctly suspect. Despite these doubts, Old Clapham is of great value as a source, and was extremely popular in its day, as witnessed by the fact that, though it was printed locally and is a beautiful collectors’ piece, it is still possible occasionally to pick up a copy.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there was some even more suspect history in circulation, relating to the Romans. Julius Caesar is supposed to have marched across the Common in 55 BC; later, in the third century AD, two Roman generals, Carausius and Allectus, allegedly fought the Battle of Clapham Common, and the emperor Constantius defeated and killed Allectus. I have no idea where these stories started — the people are real, but the links with Clapham complete fantasies; but the great statesman John Burns swallowed them whole. I repeat them here as a slim excuse to repeat to you Eric Smith’s view of garbled history. He once read, he would not say where, the following: ‘It is a local tradition that many houses of various dates stabled Oliver Cromwell’s horses when his troops were defending against the Chartists and camped here.’ He commented: ‘This is no doubt referring to the famous occasion when the Chartists, under the Duke of Wellington, having defeated the Russians at the two battles of Waterloo and Paddington, crossed the Channel, landed at Hastings and by a forced march reached the outskirts of Clapham in a single day. This feat is still commemorated today by the name Bon Marche, at Brixton.’ (3)

Robert de M Rudolf

To return, however, to real history. I am now moving on to the 1920s, to the founders and early members of the Clapham Antiquarian Society, and to a very productive period for Clapham history. The first President was Robert Rudolf, a retired civil servant and churchwarden of Holy Trinity (and incidentally brother of Edward Rudolf, the founder of the Children’s Society). Rudolf had already published one work on Clapham history which made a start on bridging the gulf between dry antiquarian research of the Manning and Bray type and the readable popular account. Clapham Before 1700, published in 1904, starts dry enough, with the wills of various sixteenth and seventeenth century residents, though in the middle of all that, Rudolf quotes a letter from a man who was hoping to buy the Manor House in 1594, a panic stricken letter to Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister, trying to fend off the expense of a royal visit to Clapham. The wills out of the way, Rudolf’s little book gets much more readable when he gets to the church and its services and then to parochial activities. He still included long verbatim extracts from the records, many of them rather tedious financial lists, but linked them with commentary which gives them context. Then, right at the end, he takes his readers on a walk round Clapham in 1700. It is as he makes clear, an attempt ‘to imagine what we should have seen two hundred years ago [he was writing in 1904] had we visited Clapham from London’. It is obviously a nice sunny summer’s day, and the flowers are blooming and the cattle grazing contentedly; but it is none the worse for that.

In 1927, the Clapham Antiquarian Society published a book of essays under the title Clapham and the Clapham Sect, which included a large part of their researches, and is still a major source for Clapham history. Rudolf’s earlier work was reprinted in it, and he added an account of the Clapham Sect. He based it on published works, but added at the end extracts from parish records illustrative of life in Clapham in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

RJ Lister

A few years later, in 1930, the use of the parish records was taken a step further by another retired civil servant, RJ Lister. He published a short booklet, Clapham in the Eighteenth Century, which used the parish records to illustrate various aspects of Clapham life. Unlike Rudolf, Lister selected and grouped his material under subject headings, starting with aspects of the lives of the poor. What follows does not seem to me to follow any clear scheme; but he gave a wide range from some of the activities and wealth of the leading local residents, to the skittle alleys in the pubs. So like Rudolf, Lister was trying to give life to the dry records.

TC Dale

Another of the Antiquarians went in for meticulous original research. The Revd. TC Dale was curate of St Paul’s Church in Rectory Grove, and some time in the 1920s, he published a tiny volume called Our Clapham Forefathers. This is not quite what you might infer from the title, but is a listing of the 850 monuments and gravestones in St Paul’s Church and its churchyard, complete with their inscriptions. It must have been, no pun intended, a monumental labour, and it is just as well he did it, since in the 1930s and 1970s most of the gravestones were removed and smashed up, and time has dealt harshly with those that are left. For the book Clapham and the Clapham Sect, Dale did an update of Manning and Bray, and a history of the Atkins family, owners of the manor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But for me his most interesting contribution is called Clapham Common in the reign of Charles II. Dale had found in the Public Record Office the witness statements from a lawsuit in 1719 between the parishes of Clapham and Battersea over the rights to Clapham Common. He summarised or quoted from the depositions of eighteen witnesses, all but three of them named. Most of the witnesses were tradesmen or agricultural workers, and their statements gave a vivid picture of the many activities on Clapham Common in the half century or so before the lawsuit. I know of nothing else quite like this in the records of Clapham history — so I wonder what more might we find in the judicial records if only we looked?

Michael Burgess

The youngest of this group was Michael Burgess, born in 1888. It was his initiative that led to the founding of the Clapham Antiquarian Society in 1923, and he became its first Secretary. In his early life he worked for the United Africa Company in the City, and later he was a courier with Thomas Cook. (4) Somehow, and the pace of modern working life makes it hard to imagine, he fitted in his own researches into Clapham history. For Clapham and the Clapham Sect, he wrote an essay on Cubitt’s development of Clapham Park and the subsequent occupants of the big houses, so bringing the writing of Clapham history into the latter part of the nineteenth century. But his major contribution was a beautifully produced book, published in 1929, The Chronicles of Clapham (Clapham Common).

Burgess had got hold of the notebooks of Thomas Parsons, a member of the Antiquarian Society who had been born in 1838, and died at the age of 88. There were five volumes, and they contained a mixture of what Parsons had read or discovered from various sources and his own memories. Burgess published extracts relating to Clapham Common, using Parsons’ own memories so far as possible, and supplementing them with notes of his own. Supplement perhaps understates it, since the section containing Parsons’ notes runs to 35 pages, and Burgess’s to some 75. The book is difficult to use, since you have keep turning from Parsons to Burgess and back again; but if used with care, it is still a good source for the history of the Common and the houses surrounding it. Care is needed in any event, since Parsons was prone to improbable theories about earlier buildings; but Burgess and Eric Smith both thought that his personal reminiscences could be trusted.

Burgess planned to publish a second volume of Parsons’ notes, but never did. Eric Smith published a few short extracts in Antiquarian Occasional Sheets (5), but we are left to wonder what was in the rest of the notebooks, and what happened to them when Burgess died. Did Eric Smith get them them, and if so are they among his papers at Lambeth Archives? (6)

John Battley

The 1920s and 30s saw something of a local history boom. One person who did much to popularise the history of Clapham was John Battley, the local printer who was also a leading local Labour politician and took great pride in Clapham. He collected books, pictures and photos and published periodically a Clapham Guide, which he filled with essays on Clapham history and leading figures of the past. Over the years, the Guide grew. I have the final 1948 edition, which contains two general histories of Clapham, one by Battley himself, biographies of the leading members of the Clapham Sect, of leading literary figures, histories of the main churches and schools. If you add that to all the information about Clapham in 1948, it is a real treasure trove.

So — many people, much research, but coming to an end around the Second World War. What followed was a period when Clapham history was dominated by one person, and that was Eric Smith.

Eric Smith

Eric Smith joined the Antiquarians when he was 20, and in 1937, when he just approaching his thirtieth birthday, he became its Secretary, a post he was to hold for over fifty years. But his written work, at least as far as I know it, started only after the Second World War. During the war, the Society was dormant, and when it was revived in 1947, its leading members decided it would benefit from a regular publication. The intention, as the first of the so-called Occasional Sheets declared, was ‘to have a medium through which members could seek an answer to some query which intrigued them or pass on information which should rightly be recorded’ as well as to have a record of meetings for those unable to attend them. A pattern was soon established. Each sheet began with a report of the previous meeting; if this was a talk which gave new information about Clapham, the report could be long. The whole of the back of the sheet was taken up with historical material. The plan for it to be a sort of local Notes and Queries was followed to some extent, though this soon became secondary. Usually, there was an article or series of articles on aspects of Clapham history. At first, they were the work of several people, but by the latter part of the 1950s, they were almost entirely by Eric Smith.

Michael Robbins, a distinguished London historian, once described the Occasional Sheets as chippings from Eric Smith’s workshop. In one sense, this is misleading, since they constitute the largest part of his writings. But in another sense, they are indeed chippings, since chippings fall all over the place and it can be hard to tell what wood they came from. The Occasional Sheets have no orderly pattern and there was no system for what went in them, other than the constraint that they should fill two closely typed sheets of foolscap. So let me try to sort out what we do find in them and what was their contribution to Clapham history.

First and foremost come the biographies. Many of them relate to periods already covered to some extent by the previous Clapham historians. But for them the nineteenth century was a relatively untouched period, and as Eric wrote, ‘once the nineteenth century is reached, there seem to be almost endless possibilities for writing short biographical notes on local worthies.’ He only rarely strayed into the twentieth century; born in 1907, he had difficulty in regarding his own century as history. But he had a lasting interest in art, and there are notes about early twentieth century artists who worked in Clapham, such as Bainbridge Reynolds, the distinguished metal worker, or had some passing connection with Clapham, such as Eric Gill. There are also notes about earlier members of the Clapham Antiquarian Society, often obituaries, which I found useful in giving an account of them earlier in this talk.

A large selection was republished in 1987 as Clapham Saints and Sinners, and if I just read the chapter headings that will give an idea of their scope. The Saints of the Clapham Sect, their Families, their Friends and their Works; Clapham Families of Note; The Professions — that covered architecture, engineering, law, areas recognisably professions, but also found room for painting, sculpture and the less obvious professions of dance and the music hall. Then comes ‘Banking and Commerce’, and lastly ‘Puzzle Corner’, a chapter into which the editor put a selection of articles he wanted to reprint but could not make to fit anywhere else. Most of the articles are about individuals, but some of them are about families, and in the Occasional Sheets family histories can spread over several issues. All this tends to show that Eric Smith’s interest in people was very wide ranging and that people of the past, as now, do not fit into neat categories. The main limitation is that the people he wrote about necessarily had to leave a record behind them; so he wrote about the eminent, and there is more about saints than sinners, though, Clapham being what is was, far more about the eminent, worthy and rich — your own views will determine whether you class them as saints, or with the other lot.

Clapham Saints and Sinners was only a selection. Some of those omitted may have been insufficiently notable — who would remember John Bellamy, Housekeeper of the House of Commons, if the younger Pitt’s alleged last words had not been “I could eat one of Bellamy’s pork pies”? But I do regret the omission of Richard Thornton, a resident of West Side unconnected with the saintly Thorntons; very much a Clapham sinner, he was a high risk financier, described by Eric Smith as ‘a shrewd but irresponsible gambler’, whose exploits in obtaining hemp from the Baltic during the Napoleonic Wars gained him the nickname ‘Duke of Dantzic.’ He died worth nearly £3 millions.(7)

As with Eric Smith’s predecessors, topography figured largely. The Occasional Sheets have material on many Clapham buildings now lost to us, and several articles took a perambulation round an area. This was the approach which was to lead to the publication in 1968 of Clapham: an historical tour. Eric’s interest was generally not in architecture: buildings were important to him not for what they looked like but for who lived there, and he wrote many profiles of Clapham houses from this approach. But he was careful to record what he discovered of historic interiors, particularly of the now lost houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Buildings also figured in his writings due to his interest in art, and he had a depth of knowledge of depictions of Clapham past and where these were to be found. The Occasional Sheets are in my view a neglected source of information about what may be found in collections other than those familiar in Lambeth and Wandsworth.

The Occasional Sheets also have much information about sources and include extracts from unpublished or not easily accessed material — for example an uncompleted novel by Disraeli, the opening of which is set in Clapham. In the earlier sheets, the articles which published source documents or extracts from them were commonly by other people, including William Kent, also a keen London historian, though in later sheets, Eric Smith sometimes included long extracts from writings about Clapham or old newspaper reports which had come to his attention. Much of this was from the nineteenth century, thus adding to what earlier historians had already published. There were frequent extracts from Clapham newspapers and also from memoirs or correspondence, either unpublished or hard of access, for example the memoirs of Charles Pritchard, head of the mid-nineteenth century Clapham Grammar School. The quotations from unpublished manuscripts are particularly valuable, since many of the sources were in private hands, and I suspect that their present ownership would be hard to trace. He occasionally researched the older public records, but I think with less enthusiasm than his predecessors.

Given Eric’s range of knowledge of Clapham’s history, it is surprising to find relatively few accounts of events. Quite early in the series, there was an article on the Clapham volunteers under the title ‘Clapham versus Napoleon’, and there was also an interesting account of a row, very much a storm in the parochial teapot, over the appointment of a schoolmaster in 1700; but by the mid 1950s, the focus was on people. Information about events emerges in the main only from the biographical notes, or from the long extracts from newspapers and other accounts which he regularly printed.

The world outside Clapham was of interest to him, especially if there was some Clapham connection. In the War, he served in the signals, and had a series of agreeable postings to various cathedral cities. In Portsmouth for D-Day, he soon found himself on an overseas draft, in tropical kit and a revolver in his belt, intended for West Africa. “The War Office,” he said, “no doubt had the best of Claphamic intentions in giving me the opportunity of going to Sierra Leone in the footsteps of Zachary Macaulay, but I myself had no particular desire to do so, and I was pleased when I was left behind, handed in my revolver (which was very dangerous in my possession) and tropical gear and ultimately was sent in October 1944 to South Italy” — where his first step was write home for a Baedekers’ Guide. (8) Peacetime travels were usually nearer home. I think that 1963 saw the first Occasional Sheet to include an account of what he called holiday ramblings, with an account of various past Clapham worthies encountered in Norfolk. Another holiday produced an article starting ‘South Devon is not without its Clapham links, mainly sepulchral…’!

If I may inject a personal note here, I was probably not the only person to be given a Clapham task on my own holidays. Eric was very interested in the Spartali family, who had lived at the Shrubbery, the great mansion now behind St Barnabas Church, in particular Marie Spartali, later Marie Stilman. A great beauty, she was a talented pre-Raphaelite painter, and Eric owned an attractive self-portrait of her. The Spartalis retired to the Isle of Wight, where they died and were buried, and in 1983 Anna and I were commissioned to search out their grave. First, Eric directed us to the wrong church, in the small churchyard of which we found nothing. The right churchyard (for those who know the Island it was Godshill) is vast and partly overgrown. Happily we knew the then Vicar, who discovered from one of the oldest inhabitants what part of the churchyard was being used for burials at the material time; so, armed with the Vicar’s gardening tools, into the brambles we went. I am happy to say that we found the grave, cleared it and photographed it, taking a record of the inscriptions and reporting our findings to a meeting of the Antiquarians. All in the interests of Clapham history.

But this is turning into a ramble on my part, and it is time to pull together Eric Smith’s work. Michael Robbins called the Occasional Sheets chippings, but the finished pieces of furniture were few. I have mentioned Clapham: an Historical Tour, and Eric also co-authored a monograph on Joseph Powell and his drawings of Clapham; he also wrote short pamphlets on the history of Holy Trinity and St James’s Churches, both commissioned for anniversaries. A more substantial piece of research was his history of Macaulay School, the present name of the three centuries old parochial school. But perhaps his best known and most popular work is called just Clapham, first published by Lambeth Council in 1976, and republished with revisions by the Clapham Society in 1990 (we have just sold the last of our stock). The introduction begins ‘This is a picture book of Clapham’, and so it is. But that modest disclaimer must not blind us to the value of the lengthy text following each picture. Because the text is tied to pictures, it presents the history of Clapham in a form neither chronological nor topographical; but it does sum up the essence of Eric Smith’s knowledge and is a prime source for anyone wanting to get an overview of our history.

Eric Smith dominated the study of Clapham history for half a century, and this has very much affected the picture we now have. There were aspects he did not cover, and it is important to remind ourselves of them. In terms of time span, because he was interested in people about whom something was known, and not mere names, he rarely ventured anywhere before the late sixteenth century; and as I have already said, he recorded little about his own times. Economic and social history meant little to him; his predecessors left much information about the old village, its people and their lives, which could have been worked upon further, and many of the extracts he published from nineteenth century documents and papers are illuminating as social history; but these were not topics which engaged him, and he tended to record but not to analyse. Even his interest in people was circumscribed — most of us have limited interests, and few of us are like Samuel Pepys, curious about everything — and Eric was interested by people who had made some mark, usually in politics, military activities, business, art or literature. In the periods that he knew best, they were inevitably for the most part men, with women figuring mainly for art or writing. He preferred respectable achievers to the disreputable or downright villainous, thereby missing out on quite a large number of Clapham citizens.

Clapham History today

And so to the present — how do we approach Clapham history today?

I suppose the first thing to note is the enormous interest in local history: as Lysons wrote, ‘a taste for local history so generally prevails’. In part it comes from people wanting to know about their own families, but it is also a wish to learn about where they live — who was in the house before them, when was the street built, what came before it? But many people want to know about their area as a whole, and that is true whether they have lived here all their lives or whether they have moved in from remote parts of the earth, as in my case, the Cambridgeshire fens. Natives or incomers, it is our area, and we are curious about the people who were here before us.

The tools for researchers have been transformed. Our predecessors had to trudge round libraries and archives, find what they wanted from manuscript catalogues and then transcribe what they read. Parish records, street directories, census returns and local newspapers are now widely available on microfilm. But the real revolution has been the internet. Gradually, the national census returns are going on line. You can view Scottish birth, marriage and death registers on line, and it can only be a matter of time before England follows suit. The National Register of Archives is a very useful resource, and some libraries and archives have their catalogues on line, including the Surrey County archives at Woking. Picture collections are also being put on line — Lambeth Landmark is a great achievement for our own archives, and others are doing the same. In a few years I think it will become normal to be able to access on line the catalogue of any serious archive or library. These are tools not just for professional historians but also for people wanting to know about their family or their house. Few of us will have the time or energy of Julie Myerson and her family; but her book Home, in which she traces the story of everyone who has ever lived in her house in Lillieshall Road, shows what can be done.

Not that we will all want to dig so deep; for most people, local history will still come from secondary sources, and these are very much needed, especially for schools where local history is now part of the primary curriculum. We have lots of material from the past, and Gillian Clegg’s book Clapham Past takes us through it very well. But our interests are shifting. We still want to know about the famous, and we quite like to know about the infamous too. But we also want to know about ordinary people, just as when we visit a National Trust stately home we want to spend time not just in the grand saloons but also in the kitchens and servants’ quarters. The researchers of the 1920s have left us much of the ordinary life of Stuart and Georgian Clapham, and there is plenty to learn about life in Clapham in later periods from memoirs, letters and newspaper reports, much of it in Eric Smith’s writings. Some of it is easy enough to find if you know the right books and where they are, but some of it well hidden. I knew that Whitehead’s 1859 lecture was in print somewhere, and wanted to look at it for this lecture; but it took visits to three different libraries before I found it, and even then with considerable luck on my side. So you do have to work hard to dig up a full picture of Clapham past, and I cannot help thinking that more could be done to present to modern Clapham the way our predecessors lived.

I hope that does not seem ungrateful to our predecessors. We owe the existence of our historical record to them, from old Daniel Lysons, who went around badgering people for information, to the researchers of the early twentieth century, and to Eric Smith and all his chippings. But every age will want to look at its history afresh, and I hope and believe that we are no exception.


Battley, John (ed), Clapham Guide, many editions, 1935, revised and enlarged 1935, 1938, 1939 and 1948

Burgess, JH Michael, The Chronicles of Clapham (Clapham Common), 1929 – containing extracts from the notebooks of Thomas Parsons

Clapham and the Clapham Sect, 1927. Contributions by Dale, Revd TC, Rudolf, R de M, and Burgess, JH Michael

Clapham Antiquarian Society, Occasional Sheets, 1947 – 1992, republished on CD by the Clapham Society, 2005 (see our publications page)

Clegg, Gillian, Clapham Past, 1998

Dale, Revd TC, Our Clapham Forefathers, early 1920s

Grover, JW, Old Clapham, 1887

Lister, RJ, Clapham in the Eighteenth Century, 1930

Lysons, Revd Daniel, The Environs of London, 1792, republished with additions 1814

Manning, Owen, and Bray, William, The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, Vol 3, 1814

(Ostling, Geoffrey, ed.) – Smith, Eric EF, The Parish Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Clapham 1776-1976, 1976

Rudolf, R de M, Clapham before 1700, 1904

Smith, Eric EF, Clapham, first edition published by London Borough of Lambeth 1976, revised edition published by the Clapham Society 1990

Smith, Eric EF, Clapham – an Historical Tour, 1968, revised editions 1969, 1970, 1973 and 1975

Smith, Eric EF, Clapham Saints and Sinners, 1987 (see our publications page)

Smith, Eric EF and Howgego, JL, Joseph Powell and his drawings of Clapham, 1973

Smith, Eric EF, Macaulay School, 1987

Smith, Eric EF, 1829-1978 St James, Clapham Park, 1979

Whitehead, Revd Henry, The Oldest Inhabitant, 1859, republished in The Clapham Observer, 15 May 1925 and three following editions. Cuttings in Wandsworth Notes, at Wandsworth Local History Library, Lavender Hill

Wollaston, George Hyde, A Topographical and Historical Description of Clapham, Surrey (In Batten, D, A Key and Companion to the Plan of Clapham, 1827, reprinted 1841)

[1] Back  – that when he was quizzed about his literary attainments by someone very much his junior, he said “Boy, I have forgot more than ever you knew.” (That is of course a familiar saying, and it is not in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or in Bartlett – did it start with Blackwall, or was Lysons recycling what was already an old joke?)

[2] Back   See Clapham Antiquarian Society Occasional Sheet No 151, August 1960. David Singmaster has drawn my attention to the distinguished scientist William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1815), who was one of seven brothers, sons of a clergyman and astronomer. If George Hyde Wollaston was another of the brothers, he came from a scholarly family.

[3] Back   CAS Occasional Sheet No 229, February 1967

[4] Back   CAS Occasional Sheet No 260, October 1969

[5] Back   CAS Occasional Sheet No 189, October 1963

[6] Back   Nicholas Long has informed me that Burgess left Clapham abruptly, in circumstances suggesting some scandal, taking with him many of the Antiquarians’ records. Years later, Eric Smith resumed contact with him, but failed to recover anything. It must be assumed that Parsons’ notebooks are lost.

[7] Back   CAS Occasional Sheet No 136, May 1959

[8] Back   CAS Occasional Sheet No 474, November 1987