Britain in Old Photographs - Forest Hill & Sydenham

John Coulter and John Seaman. Local History Publications. £11.99 plus postage £1.

This book is a very welcome addition to published material about the area. One hopes for yet more in this series, but there must be a limit to the number of photographs which have not yet reached the light of day. Yet every now and then as houses are cleared and attics converted into loft rooms further items of interest are discovered (some from other parts of the world) and passed on to authors of such books as these. A postcard with a local view from Auntie Nellie of, say, 1910, would at one time have been tossed aside as of no interest, but such is the current and growing interest in local history it is now preserved and, thanks to the efforts of people like John Coulter and John Seaman, reaches publication and thereby immortality. One should also thank the publishers for producing their results in a high quality form.

The volume presents its photographs in a way that allows and encourages what the Pevsner series calls perambulations, or a series of pleasant town walks. Sadly, the book begins and ends with photographs of the outstanding but now demolished St. George’s Church. One has to agree with the judgement of the authors that its demolition in 1999, and that of the nearby vicarage, was a tragedy. No doubt after over a century of use it needed some expensive work done on its foundations but it is nevertheless sad to lose a building of such architectural merit. One can only look at the cleared site and hope, albeit without very much confidence, for a worthy successor.

The photographs freeze in time a very different life-style to the one we now enjoy. It was said (by Napoleon?) that we are (or were) a nation of shopkeepers and the pictures bear this out. One in particular shows the shop of Mr W D Shephard, a newsagent. One poster shows a headline from the magazine John Bull ‘Sinister Conspiracy by Horatio Bottomley’, and further along the shop front ‘Miners’ Strike Ballot’ from the Daily Chronicle. This photograph was taken in 1926 and presumably the Strike Ballot refers to the collapse of the General Strike and the continuation of industrial action by the miners. Horatio Bottomley was of course a Member of Parliament who went to prison for fraud – perhaps times have not changed all that much! The Daily Herald, apparently unconcerned about the fate of the General Strike and Mr Bottomley’s wrongdoings, offers a winning double. This photograph, and others like it, is a mine of information about the times. The shop was destroyed in 1960. Had it been in the Upper Norwood Triangle it would have been seen, in today’s climate, as a pearl beyond price.

The crowning glory of Forest Hill is of course the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and these are given proper prominence. A picture of people listening to a brass band on a Sunday afternoon is very typical of the pleasures of the time. Now of course there is no railway to provide the background to a concert, but the park remains a pleasant spot. One can argue endlessly about the merits of various buildings in aesthetic or architectural terms, but something unusual will always help to give character to an area. The Swiss Cottage pub in Stanstead Road had a Swiss appearance with its ornate balcony and overhanging roof but was torn down in 1990 in favour of flats. Can anyone, one wonders, supply the missing letter on the balcony?

The railways also had their effect on a peaceful residential area like Forest Hill. In some ways it is a pity that the original names of stations lost their character. The ‘Dartmouth Arms’ became the rather obvious ‘Forest Hill’. The book depicts the imposing booking hall tower and large clock of Town Hall proportions but, again sadly, and although it survived a flying-bomb attack in 1944, it was torn down in the 1970’s. In today’s climate would we have fought to keep it?

Joining Forest Hill to Sydenham are (or in some cases were) imposing villas of distinctive and individual design. These are given generous space and description in the Sydenham part of the book together with interesting and well-researched comments on their occupants. Inevitably many houses have gone, but enough remain to show the character of the area in the heyday of the Crystal Palace. One occupant, Major Ross, a property developer-cum-tea merchant with an eye for the ladies, lived at 12 Sydenham Hill and was said to have moved to South Norwood to get away from the steam trains entering a tunnel at the bottom of his garden – probably with a blast from its whistle and a cloud of steam and smoke!

The imposing parades of shops in Sydenham Road must have been the main shopping centre for a wide area. The Grand Parade was appropriately styled, and the long row of shops with their sunblinds out – and not a car or traffic warden in sight – is sheer nostalgia!

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