William Thomas Partleton (1911-1975)

 

 

Part I

 

I'm going to start William's page by looking at his dad, Frederick Partleton. Frederick had been born in Lambeth in 1878, and grew up there. When he was 20, he married Charlotte Jewitt in the Thames-side church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. Frederick and Charlotte's address is Lambeth Walk:

Despite what you might hear about our Victorian ancestors, they liked to cut things fine and they didn't always behave as their Victorian mothers and fathers might have wished. Seven months after the wedding, Frederick and Charlotte's first child, Florence, was born on 12 December 1899.

In March of 1900, baby Florence Ellen Partleton was baptised...

"But what's this?", I hear you say - "did Charlotte have twins?"... who is baby Cecil Joseph Partleton, "Son of Frederick and Charlotte" ?

Well, we are family historians, and thanks to Terry Partleton, it just happens that we have Cecil's birth certificate:

Cecil had been born four years earlier, and he's not actually Frederick's or Charlotte's son. In fact he is the illegitimate child of Frederick's sister Marion.

But the family want him christened, and thus poor little 4-year-old Cecil is passed-off (in the House of God, no less!) as the son of Frederick and Charlotte, to conceal his illegitimacy - no doubt with his real mother looking on from the pews. This is both sweet and heartbreaking, and I'm sure God wouldn't mind the little white lie.

Lambeth is not marked in the map of London below, but - take my word for it - it's in the blue circle:

Frederick and Charlotte didn't remain in Lambeth very long. They're hard to find in the 1901 census. Either the enumerator or the modern transcriber have made a real hash of Frederick's entry, listing him as Parkins:

Surprisingly, the family have moved to Scotland - Dempster Street in Greenock near Glasgow - where Fred is reputed to have played for Rangers Football Club. Sadly I've not been able to uncover anything further on this potentially very interesting fact. But why else would they move to Greenock? Fred's actual occupation in the 1901 census was listed as 'french polisher'.

I can't let this unexpected location pass without establishing where Greenock is or what Dempster Street, Greenock looks like:

Left: Dempster St (2009).

Frederick and Charlotte had two sons whilst in Greenock, but by 1909 they are back in London, in the East End - West Ham / Canning Town - where our William was born two years later.

This is a new location to us, so we should have a gander at our 1921 map of London and figure out where we are. West Ham and Canning Town are circled in green, sliding off the edge of the map below at the east side:

Finally we get to the subject of this page - William. He was born just in time to be recorded in the 1911 census, and this is where we find him, aged 2 months, at his parents' home at 11 Malmesbury Terrace:

If you are a fan of the BBC flagship Soap Opera EastEnders, as [ok, I confess] I am, you may be interested to know that Malmesbury Terrace lies directly under the second 'B' in 'BBC' in the EastEnders opening titles:

Walford, the fictional borough in which EastEnders is set, should also lie under that 'B', since the fictional tube map at fictional Walford East station places it on the real Piccadilly Line, the next stop along from West Ham.

The East End is noted as London's poorest area, and certainly Canning Town, where William was born, was one of the most deprived parts of the city, as it still is, so let's have a quick look to see how the area started off:

As we can see in the above map, which is of 1786, the area east of Bow Creek, circled green - the future home of Canning Town and WIlliam Partleton - is just marshes.

In the 1800's it lay just outside the boundaries of metropolitan London, and was not included in city ordinances and regulations. This led to it being specifically targeted for low-quality speculative housing and polluting industry.

Here's what Charles Dickens had to say about Canning Town in a magazine article (1857) entitled Londoners Over the Border :

This set the precedent for decades to come. Some of this original housing stock was knocked down as slums by the local council in the late 1800's, only to be replaced with more cheap council housing which soon also became slums.

A vast acreage of this area was further demolished and rebuilt as post-WW2 slum-clearance - again rather unsuccessfully - we'll come to that later.

But let's get back to that census sheet of 1911:

Working-class families in Britain at this time had to live like sardines in a can. There are four rooms at this bijou residence, including the kitchen. By my calculation, that's probably two bedrooms for the nine people living in the house, which includes Charlotte's brothers William and Henry Jewitt who are lodging and no doubt bringing some useful income.

William's dad Frederick is no longer a footballer or a french polisher - he's now a 'brakesman', working on the trams for the London County Council (LCC) in the West Ham District. What's a brakesman? Good question. Let's have a look at some trams:

Horse-drawn trams in West Ham were phased out between 1905-1913. What we see above is the inaugurative journey (1905) of the West Ham Corporation electric tram to Stratford; the exciting new technology was a big deal with the local population as we can see from the crowds. This could easily be one of the very vehicles upon which Frederick worked, as indeed could be the one below, again on the Stratford route:

The trams seem to be two-man operations. I think the chap on the right is the 'brakesman', though I'm sure his duties were general, including ticketing, and not just operating the brake.

One of the West Ham Corporation trams, built in 1910, actually survives in the London Transport Museum:

Let's step into Frederick's shoes and descend the stairs...

Below are the controls, but I think they were worked by the 'motorman' rather than the ' brakesman'

Like I say, if any of our gentle readers understands properly how a tram was worked, I'd be very happy to get this right. Where's the steering wheel?

One final picture, a tram at Stratford in 1912 - surely a very familiar sight to William's dad:

OK, the family are about to move on to a new chapter in their life, so let's step into their shoes and have a quick look at the immediate area around Canning Town before they move away.

William's birthplace Malmesbury Terrace is a small road behind Canning Town Hall, at the very point of the green arrow in the map below. It's too small for the 1921 mapmaker to name, so I've added a modern inset:

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Canning Town Hall, behind which our William was born, is still there, as we can see from the modern photo below, taken from the viewpoint of the purple arrow in Barking Road.

Malmesbury Terrace is still there, but the 1911 houses are not. However, I know we all like to look at pictures, so here's a view of the street from the green arrow, as it looks in 2009; all modern housing:

And here's a nice modern aerial photo; we can see Malmesbury Terrace, circled green, the pretty loop of Bow Creek, and the Millennium Dome aka the O2 Centre on the opposite side of the Thames at top left:

Just around the corner is Canning Town Station - this picture was taken from the dark blue arrow in 1923:

The next picture is Emily Street, Canning Town, in 1925 - It's the road which turns to the right in the photo. Charles Booth was always complaining of a 'mess of paper in the streets' when compiling his famous Poverty Map of London in the 1890's. It's hard for us to imagine what he means when our only points of reference are modern streets, but I think we get a bit of a view of it in this picture:

Emily Street is the tiny road highlighted in yellow in the map below, and the photo above is seen from the viewpoint of the yellow arrow, at its junction with Jude Street:

Below we see Emily Street today! Surprisingly, this 50-yard splat of wasteland still retains its name as Emily Street...

Here's another view of old Canning Town; Bidder Street. Wooden buttresses shore up a teetering jerry-built house to prevent its collapse:

The photo above is seen from the orange arrow in the map below:

And below, we see Bidder Street today (2009)... an Industrial Estate, but still following the curve of the original road:

Before we leave Canning Town with our William, I'll just take a quick diversion to see what became of the slum housing. Victorian council efforts to sort out this problem in the East End often resulted in the old slums being replaced with new slums.

West Ham and Canning Town, due to their proximity to the London Docks, were seriously hit by bombing during WW2. Twenty-five percent of the houses were damaged or destroyed. This presented a clear opportunity to clear the slums and to rebuild. And the obvious solution was to build high-rise apartment blocks.

The local council for the area (which became Newham Council in 1965) engaged builders Taylor Woodrow to demolish slums along Butchers Road - pale blue arrow in the map below - and build nine tall blocks of flats to replace them.

Building work began in 1966. The method used to create the tower blocks was to hook together large prefabricated concrete panels on site.

One of the new buildings was named Ronan Point after the chairman of the council housing committee. Ronan Point was completed on 11 March 1968 and the council quickly moved new residents in. Most of the occupants were very happy to be rehoused from their old run-down Victorian houses and to move into the clean new modern apartments.

Just two months after the completion of the building, 56-year-old cake-decorator Mrs Ivy Hodge, who occupied a corner flat on the 18th floor of the 23-storey building, got up in the morning to make a cup of tea on her gas cooker. She struck a match which sparked off a small explosion, blowing out the vertical walls of her apartment, which is identified by the yellow arrow:

This removed the vertical support for the flats above. These collapsed, causing the progressive collapse of the whole south-east corner of the building like a house of cards.

Mercifully, only four people died, partly due to the fact the new building had not been fully populated yet. And amazingly, Ivy Hodge, who was blown across the room into a safe part of the flat by the blast, was not seriously injured. She even took her cooker with her to her new residence.

Such a catastrophic collapse caused by such a minor incident initiated changes to building regulations in the UK and in the USA with regard to resistance to explosion pressures. When Ronan Point and the other eight buildings were demolished in 1986, care was taken to examine how they had been constructed. Shockingly bad workmanship was revealed, caused by the construction crews' failure to understand the importance of the exact procedures to be followed when linking the prefabricated panels together. This was not, however, the root cause of the collapse.

We're going to leave Canning Town now, just as our William did. His family are hitching their wagon and heading west... but not very far west. They are relocating to Poplar, circled in yellow in the map below:

William's dad Frederick, it seems, is done with footballing, french-polishing and tram-driving. He has skills as a barber, though it's not clear where he got these. The family's new home is a hair salon in Poplar, and the family are to live over the shop. It is interesting to see the effect this decision is to have on the careers of Frederick's sons George, and of our William.

The hair salon is located on Upper North Street which we see outlined in green in the map below:

Sadly I couldn't find any old pictures of Upper North Street, but we will be able to have a little walk around the neighbourhood.

The first picture is Chrisp Street Market, just a few yards from Upper North Street, seen from the purple arrow, in early part of the 20th century:

Here are the premises of Mr C Knightsbridge, butcher, on Chrisp Street:

I can smell those carcasses from here, even 100 years later.

The next picture, seen from the blue arrow, is the Poplar Hippodrome which you can see marked as Hippo. in the map above:

It was built as a theatre in 1905 and converted to a cinema in 1925. In those days before TV, there's no doubt that as a teenager Bill must have been to see movies at the Hippodrome many, many times - which becomes relevant in his later life. Unfortunately, it was hit by a bomb in WW2 as we can see in the 1950's photo below, roofless:

The Hippodrome was knocked down in 1964 but it may have given WIlliam some inspiration for his future career.

If we want to envision William as a young East End kid, here is a street scene from Poplar... the year is 1912, the Poplar Hippodrome is advertised on the wall, and I swear I can hear their cockney accents through my computer monitor:

I reckon we are near the High Street. By coincidence, the shop behind the kids just happens to be a hair salon. No connection.

One last look at some places of interest of the Poplar which WIlliam knew, and then we will move on with William's story. Let's get the map out again:

For our first photo, we'll dive right back into history...

In 1696, widow Hester Hawes left, in her will, five almshouses to be used to shelter poor widows in the community. The dwellings (located in Bow Street in the yellow circle in the map) surrounded a small courtyard and consisted of just one room each. There was a water pump in the yard. Each widow was to be given half-a-crown a month.

By the 1850's the council were considering the demolition of the houses as slums, but they were still there when young William Partleton lived in the Poplar, as we see from this exquisite c1920 photograph:

The last widows were rehoused in 1937, but there was public pressure to preserve the houses as historic buildings. Hester's money was passed to the Parish of Poplar Benevolent Fund 'for the relief of the poor'. [I'm not sure of the legality of that!].

In 1953, Widow Hawes' Almshouses were finally knocked down. Pity - they'd be so interesting if they had been preserved.

Here's another view familiar to young William; Poplar High Street at its junction with Hale Street. A milk delivery, sans horse:

The year of the above photo is 1932, when our William was 21. It's seen from the viewpoint of the red arrow in the map below. Many East End streets looked something like this in the 1930's, so it's fair to assume that, for the purpose of our using our imagination, this is similar to what Upper North Street, where the Partletons had their hair salon, looked like.

You can see from the map above that Upper North Street crosses the Limehouse Cut, a man-made canal dug as a short-cut from the river Lea to the western reaches of the Thames. Below we see the Limehouse Cut from the bridge on Upper North Street, viewpoint of the yellow arrow:

And as we can see from Charles Booth's poverty map of the turn of the century, Upper North Street, outlined in green, is mostly 'Fairly Comfortable' or 'Mixed':

From a trade directory of 1921, circled in red below, we find the Partletons' hair salon at number 95:

As we can see from the listing above, we know that the salon is on the west side of Upper North Street, located between Suffolk Street and Northumberland Street at the point of the green arrow in the map below:

Nothing remains today of old Upper North Street. Not a brick.

If we look south today from the pale blue arrow in Upper North Street, here's what we see:

Of course, the mini-skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, which were built in the 1990's on the site of the old West India Docks, would be an unfamiliar sight to William Partleton growing up in Poplar in the 1920's.

But Bill's life is about to change enormously. Click here to continue with Part II and to find out what happens next.

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