1 September 2019

Family Trees - Retracing My East End Roots

Recently a couple of things have got me thinking about my family history. One of them is this remarkable photograph. It shows a German Luftwaffe Heinkel III bomber flying over London during the Blitz on 7th September 1940. It’s a striking image, and particularly so for me for several reasons.


Firstly, my current home is located just beneath the right wing tip of the bomber. That small grey rectangular area located at 2 o’clock from the black cross on the wing is Limehouse Basin. If you look to the top right corner of Limehouse Basin you can see (and so trace) a diagonal line heading northeast, up to the top edge of the photo – this is a canal, called the Limehouse Cut (the oldest of London's canals, dug in 1769), which connects the Basin to the River Lea at Bow Creek (just beyond the edge of this photograph). Heading directly south from that far end of Limehouse Cut is a road called Teviot Street, where my grandmother (née Garard) on my father’s side of the family lived at No. 6, close to the church of Saint Michael and All Angels. Having pored long over old Ordnance Survey maps of this area I think I’m fairly sure I can make out where this is when I enlarge this grainy old black and white photo.


The second notable thing which strikes me when contemplating this image is that my grandmother is probably down there somewhere at that very moment, sitting in an air raid shelter (one such shelter still exists on Fawe Street, not too far from where my grandmother lived). The photograph was apparently taken at 18:48 German time which would be 17:48, an hour earlier by London clocks. My grandmother might well have been on her way home from work at that time. It was the first of two heavy bombing raids that day, the second coming after dark guided by the lights from the fires of the first which continued to rage below and could be seen over ten miles away. According to Ulrich Steinhilper, one of the German fighter pilots escorting the raid, that first wave consisted of some 1,000 aircraft, stacked at 2,000 feet intervals (see here). The first bombing raid lasted about an hour and a half, the second under the cover of darkness lasted much longer, over 8 hours. It must have been an awful experience.

RAF 149 Squadron briefing, c.1939-1941

The third notable thing that strikes me is the date the photo was taken – 7th September 1940. It’s particularly poignant to me because my grandfather died exactly a year later on the night of 7th September 1941. He was just 23 years old. A volunteer reserve air gunner in a Wellington bomber (X9705, OJ-J) with a mixed crew of British and Canadian airmen (149 Squadron; Fortis Nocte – Strong by Night), shot down during an Allied bombing raid on the German capital, Berlin. 197 aircraft went out on the raid and 15 were lost, my grandfather’s being one of those 15. He and my grandmother had only been married a few months. 


I had a brief, truly heart-stopping moment when I first found the photograph above (see here), because the crashed Wellington IA bomber it pictures, being watched over by a Nazi officer from the German Luftwaffe, has the same OJ-J markings as my grandfather’s; but it turns out this photo was taken in April 1940 in Denmark (see here). The crew (which didn’t include my grandfather) survived this particular crash, but the aircraft obviously didn’t, and so presumably OJ-J was later reassigned to a newly built Wellington IC, which my grandfather later crewed. Records from 1941 seem to indicate that all of my grandfather’s crew were killed in the crash itself, but their bodies must have been recovered from the wreckage as they each have individual graves which are still carefully tended in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery near Kleve in Germany, not far from the Dutch border.

Stanley Chamberlain, my grandfather is seated on the far right

I’ve seen 149 Squadron, which operated out of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, referred to as the ‘East India’ Squadron, which I assume is a reference to the East India Docks in London. Several members of my family, including my grandmother, have visited my grandfather’s grave. I’ve yet to visit myself, but I hope to do so one day. Strange to think that when I do I shall be more than twice his age when he died.

Poplar Dock

It’s often the case that by the time we are old enough to want to know more about our grandparent’s lives they are sadly no longer around to ask. I have so many questions I’d like to ask them, but it’s often the case when people are alive that living memories are just that – a part of everyday life. No one thinks much of it. Snippets get told here and there, some things are remembered, passed on, some inadvertently become altered and so two or more family members later recall the facts differently; endless debates and speculations ensue. If only they’d taken the time to write something down, even just a few dates, addresses and facts. 

Teviot Street (centre)

My sister recalls that when she was studying for her degree, living in a block of flats not far from Teviot Street in Bromley-by-Bow, our grandmother had told my sister how she remembered walking down the Mile End Road, stepping over the hose pipes being used to extinguish the fires after those awful bombing raids during the Blitz. And I remember my other set of grandparents on my mother’s side of the family surprising us all one day with a sudden recollection. They were visiting me in my old flat when I lived in Stoke Newington, when my grandmother turned to my grandfather and said: “Your family lived round the corner from here, didn’t they?” – This was news to all of us, I’d lived there for several years and we’d had no idea that our family had a connection to Stoke Newington before. My grandfather remembered the names of two streets nearby. Later I looked them up on some old maps and compared them to my modern A-Z. One had long since disappeared under a new housing estate, but the other still existed just the same. It was a strange feeling to walk down that road, looking at the old Victorian terrace houses, trying to picture my forebears living there near enough a century before.

John Keats
This unexpected recollection prompted my Mum to get my grandfather to draw his family tree, listing all the names and dates he could remember. She then later used this as the basis from which to track down more family records at the National Archives, managing to trace one family line back to 1670! – Curiously enough, that line could also connect us to the family of the poet, John Keats … something which I’m really keen to look further into at some point when I get the time.

Six generations back from mine we have a William Keates who married Sophia Jennings in 1803 at St. Clement Danes Church on the Strand, which I happen to walk past everyday on my way to work. John Keats parents were Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings, married in 1794. Looking at various biographies of the poet, it is clear that John Keats’ family tree has proved very difficult to definitively trace, but it does seem apparent that the association between the Keats and Jennings families was a long one, with possible connections going back several generations. The two names so closely connected in both our family trees, and around the same time, could of course simply be a pure coincidence; but, if so, I think it would perhaps be more amazing that they aren’t connected than finding that they are! – Maybe we’ll never know for sure, but it’s certainly an interesting research project for the future.

Another family connection to St. Clement Danes on the Strand is that it's the RAF Church. My brother visited the Church a few years ago and found our grandfather's name written in the book of remembrance for the old 'East India' 149 Squadron.

I too have delved a little into the census records relating to my family, usually as a way of killing time at the National Archives whilst waiting for documents I’ve ordered as part of my PhD research to be delivered. In doing so I discovered that in 1911 my great grandparents (the Chamberlains) lived at 52 Morville Street in Bow, just a couple of streets away from the Registry Office where my wife and I got married. Curiously enough, just down the road from the Registry Office, which used to be known as Bromley Vestry Hall, there's a Charles Chamberlain listed on one of the First World War memorials inside Bow Church. My grandfather had an older brother called Charles, but the two can't be the same person as the birth dates recorded don't match. Our Charles would have been too young to have served in the First World War. There's a possibility though, I suppose, that we might still be related - maybe one day I'll find the records to work it all out one way or the other.*

Bromley Vestry Hall (on the left) & The Bow Bells Pub (centre).

All Saints Church, Poplar, c.1908.
My grandparents were married in 1941 at All Saints Church in Poplar, a short walk from Teviot Street. The crypt of the church was often used as an air raid shelter during the Blitz (see here). Towards the end of the War the church took a direct hit from a V2 rocket, hence the interior of the church today looks very different to how my grandparents would have known it.

Interior of All Saints Church, Poplar - looking towards the altar, 1941.

Interior of All Saints Church, Poplar - looking towards the organ, 1941.

Several years after the War ended my grandmother remarried and her second marriage took place at Bow Registry Office. It's amazing to think how – even though my immediate family had long since moved away from the area, and we’d long ago lost touch with all the different strands of the family descending from those great grandparents on the Chamberlain side – here we were, my wife and I, circling back through time to the same place, getting married in the same building as my grandmother. Family history unwittingly coming full circle. I'm sure my grandmother would have been pleased.

Bromley Vestry Hall, 1879.

Morville Street (upper middle-left), Bromley Vestry Hall (marked by red tab)

Sadly the streets where these two branches of my family lived – the Garards in Teviot Street, and the Chamberlains in Morville Street – have long since been bulldozed and built over anew. Our end of Teviot Street, as in the actual roadway itself, has entirely disappeared, but the church of Saint Michael and All Angels is still there – no longer a church, it’s since been converted into flats. But it is still possible to get a time-travelling glimpse inside this church and of the surrounding neighbourhood. A wonderful documentary, made in 1974, gives a window into the East End as my grandparents would probably have recognised it.

 Fly a Flag for Poplar (1974)

Fly a Flag for Poplar is billed as a “cinéma-vérité” style documentary, which a typically sneery reviewer writing about the film for Time Out rather drolly translates as “the cinema of boredom.” How anyone can watch this fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of a local community now and not see its historical value is beyond me. What a closed mind! – I think it’s fascinating. It made me feel rather proud, and certainly it helped me to feel a lot more closely connected to my East End roots. It’s mentioned in the film that the church of Saint Michael and All Angels was a focal meeting point for a grassroots, radical socialist movement that campaigned to improve the rights of the local working class and to fight the endemic poverty of this part of London (see here). I can’t help wondering how this history might have directly touched on the lives of my family living immediately next door to where it all happened on Teviot Street. It may all have been just hearsay by the time they lived there, but even still, as the film shows, it had a proud legacy that was long remembered locally. Surely they must have known about it, even if they weren't directly involved.

Teviot Street, 1916.

So much of our everyday lives and the locations where we live change and transform over time, often incrementally by immeasurably small degrees, such that we don’t realise things have altered or disappeared until long after they are gone. I don’t mean to mawkishly echo Rutger Hauer’s famous line in Bladerunner, about so many lives “lost in time, like tears in rain,” but it is rather melancholy to think how we, very ordinary folk, often know so little about the lives of our immediate forebears only a couple of generations before us, let alone those far farther back in time. Attempting to trace our ancestors through official records – census returns, birth, baptism, marriage, and death certificates – such documents only ever reveal a limited glimpse of their lives. It’s a great feeling to locate them, but in doing so it often prompts more questions; and these are often tantalisingly left hanging, unanswered. It can be hard sometimes to link things up coherently. It’s easy to make misconnections and only later realise we’ve been following a false trail.

When I first looked at the 1911 census I found several households named Chamberlain in the Poplar area, and very clearly they couldn’t all be related. I knew my great grandfather had worked for the Metropolitan Water Board (which coincidentally gave us another connection to Stoke Newington, as he ended his long career working on the reservoirs near Green Lanes). I’ve since found records of Chamberlains working on the canals around Bow and the River Lea a couple of generations earlier from 1809 to 1871. Some were even toll collectors at Limehouse Lock for a time (see here). Such affinities are tempting to speculate might well be connected, but until I find the records that definitively link births and marriages, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, nothing can be assumed.

Church of St. Michael & All Angels, with Teviot Street on the right, c.1909.

That’s why I think it is important that we should take more time to write something down about our own lives now, annotating the backs of photos, listing the places where we’ve made our homes, so that those who come after us can one day take a little walk down memory lane should they wish to. If (or when) we ever have kids of our own I think this is definitely something which I will do – it might not interest them so much, as they will be closer to it all through the present proximity of hearsay and reminiscence, but their kids – my grandkids, and the generations that follow – they might well find it a fascinating window into a world long gone which otherwise they might not even be able to begin to imagine for themselves. Maybe in several decades time my descendants might themselves go wandering the streets of Limehouse and Stoke Newington in search of places long since gone which were once so immediate and familiar to me, just as I have done in search of my grandparents and great grandparents. We’ve no idea what the future holds in store, but there’s no reason why we can’t try to preserve something of our pasts to pass on, as our history is the one thing that we truly have in common. Who we are and where we come from. It’s what connects us.

My grandparents, Stanley & Eleanor Chamberlain

One of the reasons so few old buildings remain standing in East London is the extent to which the bombing raids of the Blitz completely destroyed homes and businesses. The photo below is a close-up view of Saint Michael and All Angels Church taken from the air in 1946. If you scan across the wider image (see here) you’ll notice great swathes of housing which have been cleared away having been destroyed in the air raids, but if you zoom in on the houses still standing you’ll notice that many of the buildings which remain are derelict with their windows blown out. In truth they stand like empty islands lost amidst the wastes. Walking the streets today, looking at all the modern redevelopment in conjunction with examining old maps of the area from before the war, it’s hard not to be struck by two very stark facts: first, how densely packed the low-level Victorian housing tenements of the area were; and, secondly, how so many of these terraces succumbed to the intensity of high explosive and incendiary bombs dropped by Nazi planes intent on destroying the nearby London Docks. Rebuilding efforts began in connection with the Festival of Britain in 1951 (see here), but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the redevelopment and regeneration of the East End really got going. We hear a lot about that wartime spirit, especially the dogged pluck of those living in the East End taking the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s aggression, but this belies a very brutal reality which still reverberates even today. The Allies might have won the War, but the post-war recovery took a lot longer than most people usually credit.

Saint Michael & All Angels Church, on the corner of Saint Leonard's Road (left) & Teviot Street (right), 1946.

On the corner of Teviot Street and Saint Leonard's Road, in front of Saint Michael and All Angels Church, stands a memorial to commemorate local residents who served and fell in the First World War. On this memorial the name of Henry Bradley caught my eye. My grandmother's mother's maiden name was Bradley. So given the very close proximity of this memorial to where she used to live, I can't help wondering if there might be a family connection here?

WW1 Memorial, St. Leonard's Road, Poplar.

WW1 Memorial, St. Leonard's Road.
Looking up Henry Bradley's name on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records I found that he is buried in Dunkirk. He was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers, and the son of Charles and Margaret Bradley of Limehouse - hence, I imagine, why he is also commemorated on the memorial in the churchyard at Saint Anne's Church, Limehouse. He was married to Annie R. Bradley, and they lived at 20 Mauve Street, which was just around the corner from the memorial (again, Mauve Street has since been lost to redevelopment). He died on 2nd September 1917, aged 24. His CWGC record notes he was involved with "inland water transport", so perhaps there might be another vocational connection close to my forebears? ... It's definitely a lead to pursue when I next get a chance to do some proper research into this branch of the family tree at the National Archives.

The Memorial was unveiled by the Duke of York on 4th December 1920.

The former Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, viewed from what was formerly Teviot Street, 2019.

* * *

First World War Memorial in the churchyard of St. Anne's, Limehouse.
Henry Bradley's name inscribed on the War Memorial in St. Anne's Churchyard, Limehouse.

When I went in search of Henry Bradley on the War Memorial in the churchyard of Saint Anne's Church, Limehouse, I made an unexpected discovery. Most of the old gravestones have been moved to the outer edges of the churchyard where they now stand stacked against the perimeter wall and iron railings. I decided to take a closer look at these simply to see if I might find any other Bradleys named.

Old gravestones stacked around the edge of Limehouse Churchyard.

I walked from the back of the church round to the front, scanning the much weathered inscriptions, the majority of which were completely effaced by the passage of time and the erosion of the elements. But in the northwest corner of the churchyard, close to the old Town Hall and the bus stop on Commercial Road, I came across one of the few gravestones still standing (possibly?) in situ. Like the rest it was heavily weathered but as I looked I began to make out the letters of a very familiar name - Chamberlain.

The gravestone of John & Mary Chamberlain & their grandchildren, Edward & Elizabeth.

The closer I looked the more confident I became as to what I was reading: the following names emerged - John Chamberlain, his wife Mary Chamberlain, and their grandson, Edward, who died aged just eleven weeks, and their granddaughter, Elizabeth, died aged ten.

The entrance to St. Anne's Churchyard from Church Row (now Newell Street).

I think it could well be likely that this is the gravestone of the first of what I assume is at least three generations of Chamberlains who worked variously as toll collectors and lock keepers on the River Lea and at Bow and Limehouse Locks from 1802 to at least 1871 (see here). The gravestone suggests 1809 as the year of John Chamberlain's death, which would match with the death of the first of two John Chamberlains to work on the locks (died 22nd June 1809). I'm guessing his son was Edward, who also married a Mary, and had a son, also named John, who similarly worked on the locks like his father. Edward was a long serving employee on the river and canal, appointed in 1825 he retired in 1867 and lived out his last years (until he died in 1869) at No. 16 Church Row (now Newell Street) just a short walk away, in the shadow of Saint Anne's Church tower.

Map showing Limehouse Cut, St. Anne's Church & Church Row, 1799.

Henry Chamberlain's History of London, 1770 - St. Anne's Church, Limehouse (top right).


Holy Trinity Mile End WW1 Memorial Tablet.
* Since writing the above, I have had some very kind correspondence with Andrew Sargent and Elaine Palmer, who have researched and written about the war memorials now in Bow Church. The tablet which commemorates Charles Chamberlain originally came from Holy Trinity Mile End, on Morgan Street, not too far from Morville Street. However, Saint Stephen's North Bow on Tredegar Street was just around the corner from Morville Street - so if my Chamberlain line is connected to any church nearby, it would most likely be Saint Stephen's. The CWGC record for Charles Chamberlain, commemorated at Holy Trinity, indicates he originally hailed from Lancashire, whereas my great grandfather appears to have been born in Gateshead, County Durham - so any possible connections between the two don't seem immediately apparent. Tracing genealogies can be inherently convoluted. One needs to put in a lot of time and concerted effort, but certainly the few facts I have been able to ascertain so far have really fired my interest to find out more and see what I can definitively trace – what I have found so far in old records, maps and photographs, as well as on foot, simply walking the traces of these lost streets, has definitely given me a deeper, personal connection to the place which, for the last fifteen years or so, I have come to think of as my home – a place where my roots are far deeper than I first realised.

Site of the former Limehouse Lock with the old lock workers cottages still standing.


Update: Since posting the article above I have had a chance to spend a bit of time sifting back through the public records relating to my family with quite a bit of success.

It turns out the Bradleys and the Garards were quite well established families in the Bromley/Poplar area, but my great-great grandfather on the Bradley side originally hails from Chatham, Kent.

The Hockleys also seem to be well established, living on the Isle of Dogs - although great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother respectively hail from Great Dunmow and Writtle, Essex.

Much to my surprise I've had the most success tracing back the Chamberlain line. As I mentioned above my great grandfather was born in Gateshead, Durham - but this has turned out to be a bit of a red herring, as most of his siblings were born in Eastbourne, Sussex. His father (my great-great grandfather) and elder brother, however, were born in the village of West Bergholt on the Essex/Suffolk border, not far from Colchester. And this, very happily, is where I hit a seam of genealogical gold in terms of records - it appears this is the place where my line of Chamberlains really have their roots. I've managed to establish that my great-great-great grandparents were married in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, West Bergholt. There are a great number records for births, marriages and deaths for numerous Chamberlains relating to this village going back to at least 1760, but there are also records of that family name going back to 1597! - Trying to link up all these records though looks set to be quite a challenge, if indeed they do all link up; consequently I think it will take quite a bit more time and effort!

But, that said, it has been a fantastically rewarding task simply to have made a start and found all these names of my various forbears, linking many of them to addresses and in some cases to buildings and churches still standing. Amazing to think that for all these years my family has known very little about the Chamberlains that preceded us, and now here we are potentially back as far as the 1500s! ... Any connection to the Limehouse lock keepers hasn't immediately leapt out of these records. My great grandfather may well have been the first of our Chamberlains to move to the East End when he married my great grandmother (Hockley) at Christ Church, Isle of Dogs. The lock keepers could perhaps be cousins or more distantly related, I suppose - but as I've observed before, there were a lot of Chamberlains in the East End at that time, many of whom clearly hail from other more distant parts of the country. So the chances we're not connected to them after all seem fairly high.

As for Sapper Henry Bradley, again no immediate link leapt out - except that our Bradleys are all living at addresses very close to Mauve Street at exactly the same time he was living there with his wife, Annie. So if there is a link it maybe a collateral one, perhaps going back a generation or two - but it's not something I can yet be confident about; more archival sleuthing is needed. But all of this will have to wait a while ... Such genealogical dabbling is really a fun diversion or a busman's holiday from the research I really should be doing, namely my PhD! - I'm sure I'll return to my roots again, but all in good time ...

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1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the only good thing about the 'lockdown' is to submerge yourself in the the family tree. A lot of my 'roots' are in E.14 (Edmund/Garner/Hutton), & in & around Limehouse. (My aunt still lives in Teviot St. & is due ANOTHER demolition in a few years time (Teviot St. not my Aunt!!) - 50 years since the last demolition!!) When ever I walk around - every reference & memory is gone - oh well, we're getting older I suppose.......