We asked our valuable volunteer Margaret about her experience volunteering on the project so far, why she was interested in the project and what she is working on currently.
1. What attracted you to the Layers of London project? I heard about the Layers of London project through my Local Residents’ Association. I was immediately taken by the idea of the project because it seemed to reflect my own way of thinking about historical research as a collaborative, joint undertaking. I could see that Layers of London would bring together the recollections and knowledge of a large number of people from very diverse backgrounds and that, working together, we could begin to construct a history of our city through the years. I was particularly attracted by the fact that the project aimed to reflect the experience, interests and life stories of ordinary people, who often are not given a voice in historical research.
From a personal point of view, I felt that I could make a contribution to the project because I have spent a great deal of time researching my own family history, which has been London-based from the early 19th century. I could see how my own family’s story was shaped by the way East London developed over the 19th and early 20th centuries and that my ancestors’ experience mirrored that of many other people – today and down through the years – who have been attracted to London by employment possibilities.
My family had come from Scotland, Ireland, Nottingham and Yarmouth – in some cases via Russia where they had gone to work as engineers under Catherine the Great’s modernisation drive. They saw the possibilities for employment offered by 19th century and early 20thcentury London and so they migrated South. For instance, some had engineering skills which they had used in the Nottingham mills and now looked to work in ship building in the London dockyards. An ancestor on another side of the family arrived in London to work as a ship’s caulker and another ancestor joined the Metropolitan police.
Two branches of my family settled in Poplar, where they worked in the London dockyards and on the sailing ships that left from the Port of London. When the dockyards were beginning to close in the second half of the 19th century, they opened businesses – a bookshop which supplied libraries to the great ocean-going liners of the late 19th and early 20th century as well as selling books and stationery items to the local community and a pawnbrokers, which catered to the needs of the increasingly impoverished Poplar community. I am not proud of the latter – but pawnshops are a part of Poplar’s history and illustrate the way-of-life at the time.
I wanted to share my family’s story as I could see how their history was just one of many layers of the vibrant and ever-changing life of London. It forms a layer of history which is now hidden and somewhat forgotten. The ship-building dockyards closed many years ago and the River Thames, which was once described as “a forest of masts”, is no longer lined with ships. The lives my family led there are part of Poplar’s history and I feel theirs are stories that should be told as they demonstrate how communities change – but also how many aspects of people’s lives, struggles and hopes stay the same. The population of London is constantly shifting and changing as it adapts to in-comers – whether, like my family, arriving from different parts of the UK or, like many new arrivals today, coming from further afield. It is good to remember that the people who lived in our city in earlier times came there with the same aspirations as people arriving now.
I am lucky that my family has passed down stories and preserved all sorts of photographs, letters, artefacts and ephemera which help to build up a picture of my ancestors’ lives. The project has given me a place where I can share this information about how people lived and worked in our city in days gone by. I have also pinned onto the map information which I have acquired by researching people and places not connected to my own family’s history, which I feel were also significant to London’s story. These pins are the result of my research for my Local History group and for my own various interests. I am pleased to be able to share the knowledge I have acquired. I hope that it will be of use to others who want to dig below the contemporary layer of our city’s history and that it will serve to help build up a multi-facetted view of how London developed and is still developing.
2. What was your first contribution to the website? My first contribution was to create a pin on the map of Poplar about the Seager bookshop in East India Dock Road. I included a short history of the bookshop and of my ancestors who founded and ran it and scans of photos and other documents which my family have preserved over the years. This led me to create associated pins about the London dockyards; the school my ancestors attended and its founder, the dockyard owner, George Green; the Methodist Poplar and Bow Mission and the social reformers, Revd William Lax and George Lansbury; the Isle of Dogs swing bridge; the bombing of a school in the first world war; a sinking accident on the River Thames in which some of my ancestors were drowned; Deptford and Sayes Court…… and much more! It is fascinating to see how one family’s history stretches out into so many different aspects of its community’s life.
3. What are you working on next? I am currently working on some more aspects of Croydon’s history for my Local History group and hope to be able to pin some more information about these shortly.
4. How has your volunteer experience been so far on the project? I have thoroughly enjoyed organising the information I already have and researching and writing up some new topics – and I feel very pleased to see the Layers of London project expanding. As I mentioned, the ethos of the project appeals to me because I believe that historical research should be a shared and collaborative venture and this project is a good example of this approach. I also feel that it gives an opportunity for the stories of ordinary people to be heard, instead of just the voices of the rich and famous. I have had excellent support and encouragement from Seif el Rashidi, who was very helpful in getting me started and explaining the process.