Finding History in Hackney

While on leave in London, June 1918, my WWI soldier, Martin Devlin, visits the home of his sweetheart, Cynthia Gibson. For some reason – probably because I knew the town was close to London – Cynthia lives in Hackney. My edit on page 149 of Blind Regret says “describe her parents and their house”. As I contemplated the cryptic note, the thought of finding pictures of Hackney in a WWI world came to mind. What were the odds?

Many searches later, I found Hackney – A Second Look which is a series of before (generally 1890 to early 1900s) and after photos (1970s) of Hackney. The book was published by Centreprise Trust Ltd. in 1975. A wonderful find which, after roughly three hours of effort, resulted in two double-spaced pages.

We’ve all heard terms like “a hackneyed phrase” which no doubt derive from the definition of ‘hackney’ as a horse suitable for ordinary riding or one that works for hire. But, according to the Hackney town council site, “the actual name ‘Hackney’ was first recorded in 1198 AD and is probably derived from an island or a raised place in a marsh (an ‘ey’) in the vicinity of the River Lea, together with the name of a Dane called Haca or Hacon, who owned it”. Much better than the horse explanation.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

As Martin stepped off the tram next to Cock Tavern, a man wearing a bowler hat opened the front door spilling conversation and smells of tobacco onto the street. Beyond the tavern, a bustling parade signalled late afternoon with women, bearing baskets and shopping bags, hurrying home and men, dressed in smart suits or the rough clothes of labourers, entering their favourite pubs. In contrast to London proper, Hackney felt more like a small town, a place where one would greet friends at local shops and stop for a chat, a place where most walked wherever they needed to go and where families had lived for generations.

To Martin’s left, faded awnings fully extended against the setting sun provided a canopy of shade. A few doors away, a woman swept the sidewalk and he wondered whether her brisk strokes were designed to chase away the day’s frustrations. He turned right. Cynthia’s directions were to walk north along Mare Street and left on Lower Clapton Road and left again on Northwold to number sixteen.

Since he was early, Martin resisted his normal stride, pausing from time to time to inspect his surroundings. Occupying most of one block, the Town Hall offered evidence of earlier prosperity, as did a few Victorian homes with their wide windows and decorative cornices, and the wrought-iron lampposts that curled like a bishop’s staff.

“Are you lost, soldier?” a man asked in a quavering voice.

“No, but thank you for asking.”

“It’s a pretty street, isn’t it?” Martin nodded. “Used to be much prettier when I was a boy. That was a time, it was. Ladies in their fancy dresses and horse drawn carriages. Came here in the summer, they did. Droves of them. Got lots of work then, I did, running messages, delivering groceries. Known as Swifty in those days.” The man laughed. “Can’t call me that now.”

“Were you born here?”

Swifty nodded. “Family’s been here for generations. Aye, they have. But when the railway came, it all changed. Gentry didn’t come any more. Sweat shops took over. See those houses?” He pointed to an intersecting street lined with terraced housing. “Used to be fine homes all along Pemberton. Fine homes. Hackney was a destination then.”

The old man’s eyes clouded over as if still mystified over the change that had occurred then he cleared his throat and spit on the sidewalk.

Martin removed his cap. “I better be on my way now. Thank you for telling me.”

“Swifty. That’s what they called me.” The man’s cackle echoed as Martin continued walking north.

Northwold Road looked similar to Pemberton, narrow doors topped by arched windows marking identical family homes strung together into one large building. Martin passed a middle-aged man wheeling a wagon full of discarded metal and a young woman bending over a baby carriage to tuck a blanket around her whimpering child. On the far side of the street, lime trees sprinkled shade on a scruffy bit of park and in the distance he caught sight of Cynthia waving.

Not particularly productive, but an interesting bit of research.

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