31 May - 15 June 2014

Walthamstow

Thanks to Roger Huddle for this wonderful summary of the creative and cultural history of Walthamstow.


Welcome to Walthamstow....


Image courtesy Vestry House Archive
Welcome to the town of Walthamstow
, one part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest, but until 1965 a town in South East Essex. Its county cricket grounds were at Chelmsford, Ilford and Leyton. Its football team was Walthamstow Avenue, its ground tucked away off Green Pond Lane, where you could stand on a Saturday afternoon amongst discarded Percy Dalton peanut shells and watch your team lose again, and be berated by the man watching from the row behind for swearing in front of his wife.

Walthamstow town lies between the marshlands of the Lea Valley and the Hornbeam, Oak, Ash and Beech of Epping Forest (a twenty minute walk at most, from any part of the town: well, maybe a short train ride from St James' or bus from Blackhorse Road). For most of its history Walthamstow was a collection of numerous villages and hamlets: Chapel End, Higham Hill, Clay Street, Whipps Cross, Wood Street, Marsh Street, Hale End, North End and, the highest village with its Twelfth century church of St Mary's: Church End. They huddled together on hillsides to the north east of London, overlooking both the growing city and dwindling Forest. It is said that on a clear day you could see to South Mimms in Hertfordshire. John Keats, while living up in Highgate, would walk on Sunday mornings down into the Lea Valley and up to lunch with his sister off Marsh Street (now the High Street). You could probably watch his progress from the corner of Aubrey and Milton Roads.

Walthamstow was settled a long time ago. There is a rumour that Boudicca, who had camped with her army between Walthamstow and Epping at Copped Hill, passed across the Lea on her way to meet the Romans. If it had been built, maybe her warriors would have rested at the Cook's Ferry Inn. In a large Tudor mansion on Copped Hill the premier of A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in 1599 for a private wedding: a magnificent Georgian mansion, known as Copped Hall, replaced the Tudor buildings, and was first imagined by a Walthamstow lawyer and built by local artisans, is now being lovingly restored by a later generation of building workers. You can see it from the M25.

Remains of a Roman bath were found in Vallentin Road when the Victorian drains were laid.
There is reference to the villages of Walthamstow as 'a place of welcome' or 'Wilcumestou' in the eleventh century. And it is well named, even up until the present. Although it's never wise to be too sentimental about a town on the edge of a city.

There were active branches of the Chartists both here and in Woodford during the 1830s led by a radical artisan wood engraver : William James Linton. The last common lands were enclosed in 1851, and then the railway came to change our home town for ever. It rapidly became a working class suburb with commuters into the city and its own industries, mainly furniture and engineering. Part garden enriched haven and part wild (east) town, Walthamstow became the place we know and love today.

In 1834 the great designer, poet, writer and socialist William Morris was born in Elm House, a typical Nineteenth century town house standing alone in 3 acres of wooded land, along Clay Street, now Forest Road. The William Morris Gallery opened in 1951, given over to his work and others from the Arts & Crafts movement, is in Lloyd Park. His socialist influence imbued the early labour movement and signs of his presence pepper the town. The idea and realisation of the gallery was dreamed up by three unsung modernist artists: Frank Brangwyn, Arthur Mackmurdo and Walter Spradbery. A major part of the Gallery was a gift by Brangwyn, who had served part of his apprenticeship with Morris & Co.

Walter Spradbery, known best for his wonderful posters for London Transport advertising excursions to Epping Forest in the 1920s and 1930s, was born here, and lived close by all his life. He studied at Walthamstow School of Art, and for fifty years taught art at the Educational Settlement in Greenleaf Road helping to empower generations of local working people. And for 65 years he was the dynamic centre of the Essex Arts Club, which had developed out of a sketch club set up by tutors and students at Walthamstow School of Art in 1899.

Peter Blake taught for a time at Walthamstow School of Art, teaching Ian Dury to paint, but not to sing, this probably came from the public bar at the Bell, a favourite watering place for many art students and would be four-piece rock bands over the years. In the mid 1980s a group of ex-students of Peter Blake, calling themselves 'At the Connaught', tried hard to establish an art centre in the old Town Hall, which became Connaught Hospital, in Orford Road but failed. Council take note: we are still demanding our arts centre.

So welcome to Walthamstow.Sometimes you can feel that you are on the edge of the rural and in the middle of the urban: a strange mix that can get you hooked and you find yourself staying, maybe making art like so many before, maybe following the E17 Art Trail.

Roger Huddle June 2010

 
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