121: A Street in South London, 1875

Tracing people in nineteenth century Britain is a task that can involve numerous directories, voting registrations, the census, street maps and rate books. When the victims are American or female they do not appear on electoral registers, but can be found on passenger lists of ships and even in arrivals or departures listings in port city newspapers. Although many biographers seldom detail where travellers lived, Andrew Ward in his Dark Midnight when I Rise. The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (New York: 2000) did note where this African American choral group were living in the 1870s.

In May 1873 the eleven singers were to perform at the central London home of the Duke of Argyll who was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria. The duke’s mother in law arrived at that house. The royal approval ‘opened nearly every door in her kingdom’ (page 215). The singers went back ‘to their temporary lodgings in Upper Norwood’ (p 214).  This was ‘in a house on St. Aubin’s Road in Upper Norwood, where they were “often stared at and followed by idle boys and girls on the streets”’ (p 208). This outer suburb of London was very close to the glass entertainment centre known as the Crystal Palace, and my first thought was that the Fisks were employed there, but Ward states that they performed there in July 1873, at the National Temperance League’s annual fete. The Fisks toured to Scotland and Ireland and in May 1874 they sailed back to America (leaving two behind, to study in Britain) [see page 093 of this site]. In May 1875 a new troupe sailed for England. Ward writes ‘The singers moved into their old lodgings in Upper Norwood, opposite the Crystal Palace’ (p 289) and they toured with evangelist Dwight Moody which brought ‘mountains of letters’ to their Upper Norwood lodgings (p 292). They travelled all over, to Glasgow and Inverness, Swansea and Chelmsford, reaching Dublin in November and Newcastle at the beginning of 1876. They went to Germany and Switzerland. In late 1876 Thomas Rutling ‘was too sick to continue and retired for a while to the Jubilees’ London lodgings in Upper Norwood’ (p 326).

Choir member Ella Sheppard’s diary has survived, and Andrew Ward advised that in the summer of 1875 she wrote that they were living in Esdaile House, Upper Norwood which had nice grounds where they could play croquet, and a ‘lovely view from the windows of London & the countryside’ with the Crystal Palace ‘just in front of us’ with the railway station between.

Esdaile House has not been traced, but St Aubin’s Road still exists. The 1869 street directory reveals that there were 32 houses in St Aubyn’s Road (the usual spelling: both appear on street signs), 16 on each side of the street which is a turning off Church Road. 18 of these houses were listed as ‘lodging-house’ (mainly the lower numbers). The usual numbering pattern was not followed, so one side had 1 to 16 and the other 17 to 32. The 1878 street directory notes that 25 and 26 were ‘furnished apartments’. One side of this street has been rebuilt. The other confirms what old photographs had revealed: the houses were in one row, and had entry from the street up some steps. The basement had access from the pavement. There are no gardens. Above the entry level are two more floors. If there are gardens at the rear they must be tiny. None of the surviving houses has a name (in stone, over the door, on the glass transom etc) and there are no names in the street directories. The houses are now one-bedroom flats.

The Crystal Palace entertainment centre had been built on the ridge on Penge Common, and its site (it burnt down in 1936) can be seen from central London as television masts stand on this ridge today. The Palace was 564 metres long and 39 metres high and had been re-erected from Hyde Park in 1852-1854. The road along the ridge became Church Road. There still are some fine villas and solid houses, and the Queen’s Hotel of 1854, and given the district’s position high above London fogs and pollution, it had some substantial properties. In the 1860s two railway stations were open, and operated through trains to central London. One station is still active; the other, known as Crystal Palace High Level Station, lost a major reason to exist when the great glass hall was destroyed by fire in 1936. Much of the station now has houses although the foot tunnels under Crystal Palace Parade are still there. The description given by Ellen Sheppard would apply to Farquhar Road and one might assume that the croquet lawn was part of the grounds of Esdaile House.

Research into this small area of south London is not easy as it is split between three London boroughs.

It does seem safe to conclude that the Fisks initially were in one or more of the lodging houses in St Aubins Road, and that during their second time in England they found accommodation in the house with a croquet lawn. Whose house and on what financial terms remains unknown. One might presume that because of the attractions at the Crystal Palace, there were properties that could be rented on short and longer terms, or where travelling entertainers might safely leave their trunks.

Take a look at these pages on this site: 085 – 093 – 098 and 120. The main building at Crystal Palace is to be seen on page 098.


My thanks to Andrew Ward.

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