Selborne Park

Selborne Park 1920



The railway was a late arrival in Walthamstow, but when the time finally came in the 1860s to find the most suitable route between the planned Hoe Street Station and Chingford, the choice fell upon part of the common land near St Mary’s Church, the Berry Field. The Vestry – the parish committee that had organised most aspects of local government for many centuries – drove a hard bargain, negotiating not only a good purchase price but an undertaking to build the railway in a cutting which was to be planted with trees, and any excess land to be made available as a recreation area – as it still is.

Selborne Park children c1930After much consideration, the committee decided to buy the land that is now Selborne Park, carefully minuting that it was to belong to the people of Walthamstow to provide recreational space for all. Once the new Council came into being in the early 1870s, the Vestry agreed that a Council Officer should “interest himself” in the management of the park. As time went on the Council seem to have assumed that the land was theirs.

All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the park was the venue for many concerts, meetings and performances. There were roundabouts, a slide, a giant chess board, boules, a café and carefully tended planting.


Selborne Park tank day 1918

During the First World War one of the newly invented tanks came to visit as part of a fundraiser to persuade local people to contribute to the price of more tanks and guns. Bands played, minor scuffles were quelled and endless impromptu football games played. In later years there was a public art project.

It was not until the late 1970s, after the Victoria Line came to town, that the local authority took a chunk of the park space for a new bus garage. Then another chunk vanished to provide a shopping mall – the land was sold to the developers on a long lease. Only around a third of the original park remains, and it is a precious, and all-too-small green lung in a crowded area. Recently an attempt to cut down up to half the mature lime trees and sacrifice all but a handkerchief of green space to provide yet more shops met with fierce resistance from residents. For the moment, the trees, game playing children and summer sun bathers can remain.

John Francis Holcombe Read

J F H Read c1890

The young John started his career in the Ordnance Department like his grandfather, but at some stage he moved to the stock exchange, where he made his fortune as a broker.

Read 1871 census p1

By 1871 Read, by now married with eight children, had bought The Chestnuts in Hoe Street and was living there in some style, with a household including a governess and nurse as well as five other servants including a cook, parlour maid, two house maids and a coachman. By this time, as well as being wealthy and well connected in the City, he was also established in Walthamstow life, serving as a JP and as a trustee of numerous charities and on many local committees. He had also helped set up the Walthamstow Musical Society, and was devoting much of his time to music, as a conductor and a viola player and, increasingly, as a prolific composer.

In the 1880s Read joined forces with a local builder to create the Victoria Hall in Hoe Street, on the site now occupied by the Granada Cinema. The elaborate opening event featured Read himself as conductor, a long programme with performers including both local amateurs and professional singers brought in for the occasion as well as prayers led by the Rector.

Read Harold programme p1 (2)Over the next two decades Read wrote many pieces, often conducting his own work. His output included everything from cantatas to organ music to at least one school hymn. Music and charitable work were clearly his greatest loves, with the first often financing the second. We know that on two occasions, having cut down the amount of time he spent making money in the City, Read, found he needed to go back to work to generate more income to pay for all his commitments and to fund everything he wanted to do, including substantial donations to charity each year.

Poverty Children's breakfast fund concert 1899By the late 1880s many of Walthamstow’s grandees were leaving town, selling up their land for the housing development that was taking place with the coming of the railway. And at this time Read sold The Chestnuts and its extensive grounds to a railway company in the expectation the house would be demolished. In the event, the agreed route of the new railway line skirted the house, which was then sold on to the local authority, which in turn leased it out as a mental hospital – in the language of the time, a “female lunatic asylum”.

Unlike many of his prosperous neighbours, Read did not leave Walthamstow, moving instead to a smaller house. On his death in 1901, his obituary noted he had died a comparatively poor man – his last home had only eight bedrooms. Some of his children became stockbrokers in their turn – but his daughter Mary had become a professional singer and was to make her living as a performer until the 1930s.

Read’s is a name that deserves to be remembered: he believed passionately that music should be for everyone. And it was he who gave Walthamstow its grandest performance space, the Victoria Hall. Its successor, the Granada, is now to be restored and opened once again as a music, theatre and cinema venue.

The Bassano Family

Bassano family recorder

King Henry VIII was intent from his earliest days on bringing London into the premier league of world cities. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it had some way to go, battered as it was by decades of civil war. But the new young king was helped by the fortune left by his father, Henry VII. And one of the ways of building the country’s status was to make it an international centre for art, architecture, learning and music. So artists, scholars and musicians all over Europe found themselves in demand by the agents of the King of England.

Millefeuille tapestry with musicians courtesy of Heirloom tapestriesIn Venice, the Bassano family were settled as musicians to the Doge. Probably of Jewish descent and originally from Sicily, Jacomo Bassano had moved to Venice in the early years of the sixteenth century. By the 1520s his six sons were employed not only playing and composing music but making musical instruments. Evidently they were adaptable in terms of what they played and of what they made – both wind and stringed instruments. It took several years of negotiations before most of the family finally moved countries and Courts, and became musicians to Henry VIII. Several of them set up as instrument makers in London, buying property near All Hallows by the Tower, which became their parish church. But as they became richer, they invested in country property.

Bassano (workshop active 1530–1650, Venice and London) Tenor Recorder, ca. 1600 Boxwood; Length 625 mm, fipple 63 mm. Width of labium 16 mm The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Amati Gifts, 2010 (2010.205)

The Bassano brothers were employed to play both wind and stringed instruments at Court, and we know, too, that they produced and sold a wide variety of instruments. It is likely that the King, himself a competent player and composer, was among their customers. Some examples, bearing the family’s mark of three moths, survive and are playable today. A recorder recently turned up in a street market in New York.

By the 1550s one of the Bassano brothers, Anthony, had acquired houses and land holdings in Walthamstow. His will mentions “messuages, lands, tenements and heridaments” in both Walthamstow Toni and Salisbury manors; two major properties were listed as “Fannes”, in Marsh Street (later the High Street) and “Starlings”. After Anthony’s death his descendants kept the properties, and were evidently still living in the area in the 1650s. As well as their Walthamstow connections, however, the later generations kept their connections at Court, until the start of the Civil Wars, with the All Hallows area of London and with Italy, where one of the first generation of brothers had returned and where his descendants continued to thrive.

by Bassano, vintage print, 1902

by Bassano, vintage print, 1902

Anthony Bassano was a person of some status. His Walthamstow property was substantial, and would have needed both domestic and farm servants to run it. This was a time when most music was performed in private – so the servants in the Bassano household are likely to have heard at least some music that was otherwise only heard at Court. This, then, was a Walthamstow household with international connections.

In later centuries the name Bassano has continued to crop up in the arts in Britain: there was a Bassano photographer in the Victorian theatre world, and in recent years there have been Bassanos playing in at least two London orchestras.

Markhouse Common Allotments

Then the railways came, things changed and the commons were enclosed. The people got a bad deal – most of the common land was taken for development, and only few acres remained.

In 1851 the remaining land became allotments. This meant they became available for “spade husbandry”. The plots were intended to enable the local “respectable poor” to grow their own food. The point of the spade husbandry was to make sure no one brought in a plough and made a commercial enterprise of it. In those early days, allotments were often known as “potato grounds”, and the rules make it clear that the plot holders were generally expected to concentrate on that one crop. The point was that potatoes were cheap, easy to grow and, once harvested, would keep for months, helping to feed a family over the winter. No work was allowed on Sundays: as this was the only free time most working people got, it must have been difficult for plotholders to do the necessary work.

The allotment site used to reach as far as Queen’s Road. But in the 1980s Waltham Forest Council took a strip of land and built flats on it. Now the remaining allotments are hidden from view, but still enable local people to grow food – although there is now a wide variety of crops.

Queens Road Cemetery

Queen's Road Cemetery in 1905

For centuries Walthamstow’s dead were buried in the graveyard of the parish church of St Mary. There was easily enough space there to provide burial places for the needs of a small town.

In later years, with the arrival of Nonconformist churches and chapels in the eighteenth century, each had a burial ground for their own congregation. And as Walthamstow grew, three new Church of England churches were built, each with a graveyard of its own.

In 1870 the local authority agreed in principle to set up a new cemetery. The first thing they did was to appoint a committee, and this began to meet regularly to discuss the project.

After many meetings and some arguments, and after rejecting a number of suggestions as impractical, the committee finally agreed to buy eleven acres of land near Markhouse Common for £5,000. The owner, a Mr Innes, had asked unsuccessfully for an extra £500. The price included the timber, plus a right of way from Hoe Street to the site.

The committee now started to meet once a fortnight – there was a lot of organise. They decided the cemetery should be divided into two sections, one for members of the Church of England, the other for everyone else. Similarly, there were to be two chapels, one for Anglican (that is, Church of England) services, the other, for Nonconformists, that is, all other Christians except Roman Catholics (who had a church and graveyard in Shernhall Street).

By this time there had long been a Jewish community in the area, and they had had synagogues and burial grounds since the early eighteenth century – there were several in Hoxton and Hackney. The first mosque in England was to open in 1924, in Southfields. In the late nineteenth century there were a few people in Walthamstow who may have been Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs – but they do not seem to have settled here permanently.

So two chapels were going to be enough. The committee decided there should also be a caretaker’s house and various outhouses, and that the cemetery should be fenced all round, with impressive wide entrance gates and main pathway.

It was also agreed that the Coroner’s Court should meet at the cemetery whenever an inquest into an unexplained death was necessary. So a meeting room was added to the list of requirements. Six architects were invited to tender for the work, and A J Reed was awarded the contract – the cost was not to exceed £2,250.

The committee attended to every detail of the preparations, from advertising for and interviewing candidates to be caretaker (John Walter Amey got the job) to giving instructions for rounding up the cows that kept invading the site and eating the newly laid turf.

They prepared posters with the prices of different kinds of grave space, and placed advertisements in the local paper. Queen’s Road was laid out and surfaced with gravel. And finally, on 6th October 1872 the cemetery was ready, and official photograph was taken to mark the occasion.

At this time some funerals were very elaborate and expensive, involving many carriages drawn by black horses with black harness decorated with feathers, coffin bearers in black top hats swathed with veiling, and dozens of wreaths. For the funerals of people who had been well known locally, most of the neighbourhood would line the route of the procession. And there would generally be a reception after the burial, with special food and drink. Poorer people often put themselves into debt to pay for a “proper send-off” for a loved one.

And if funerals were elaborate, for those who could afford it, memorials were splendid. People wanted to show not only how much they loved their dead relative or friend, but also how important the family was, and what good taste they had. Most grave markers were in the shape of a cross, a pillar, or were a simple stone slab with an inscription. But In some Victorian cemeteries, for example Highgate, there are many memorials the size of small houses, with space for up to a dozen coffins.

At Queen’s Road there is only one such mausoleum, that of Harriet Hooker. Few people in the area could afford this kind of memorial. Indeed, only the moderately well off could afford any kind of stone for the grave of their loved one. However, it was not long before several monumental masons were in business in Queen’s Road.

Those who could do so, also paid to have the grave looked after. There were soon up to eleven people working at the cemetery. Most of them were gardeners – there were greenhouses on site, and families would pay a subscription to have a grave planted up with flowers each season.

Most graves, like that of Annie West were unmarked. The cheapest graves, especially those of the many children who died, had up to ten burials in them. And they were resold and reused after a set number of years.

When the cemetery was new, there were paths between the graves, and mature trees had been left in place. As time went on and space grew short, all but a few of the paths were used as grave plots, and many of the trees were felled.

Some of those who died in the two World Wars have their graves here, and many of these are marked with a special stone.

Now there is no more burial space left in the cemetery. And because there is a lot of gravel in the soil, many of the gravestones have subsided into the ground, meaning they now stand at odd angles. There are no longer any gardeners, and the chapels have not been used for services for many years.

But many people visit and tend graves. And this is a place that holds clues to the stories of thousands of people. Some of them are retold on this website.

The Chestnuts, Hoe Street

The Chestnuts exterior courtesy of Waltham Forest Guardian

The beautiful original staircase and plasterwork are also still in place, as are some of the fireplaces and other features of the 1740s, having survived more than 250 years of changes of owner and of use.

Like many other Walthamstow mansions, this one started out as a family home but changed hands quite frequently as its owners made and lost City fortunes.

The Chestnuts 19C drawing

One of the last families to live here were the Reads. John Francis Holcombe Read was a City entrepreneur by trade, but his real love was music. Read, who played the viola himself, devoted much of his money to bringing music to Walthamstow – he built the Victoria Hall, where many of his own compositions were performed. As Read devoted more time and money to music, his fortune was largely spent and he had to move to a smaller house.

The Chestnuts and its garden and grounds were sold to the Tottenham and Forest Gate Railway Company – the house narrowly escaped demolition as the final route for the railway line runs a few hundred yards to the west.

The Railway company did not need the house, and looked to sell it, but by the 1890s it was too big for any of the people who were coming to live in Walthamstow to buy as a home. So it was bought by the local authority, and became a mental hospital for women – it was known as the Chestnuts Branch of the Brentwood Lunatic Asylum.

In the 1930s, the Chestnuts became a commercial school for girls, where shorthand, typing and book keeping were taught. And later again, it became an evening school.

Now the house is temporary housing for students and others while the local authority decides how best to restore and use it on behalf of the local community to whom it belongs.

Lea Bridge Station

Lea Bridge Station 1940 (Courtesy Vestry House Museum

The station itself was at road level, on a bridge over the tracks, and passengers went down steps to get to the platforms
Before the coming of this station, the local coach company, Wraggs, had run a horse horse drawn coach service right into the City of London, and continued to do so for a few years after the railway opened.
As the trains became more accepted, and because the station was at some distance from the large houses spread around Hoe Street and Marsh Street (Later re-named the High Street) Wraggs changed their service, offering instead a horse coach to the station.
The station was used almost entirely by gentlemen travelling to City offices, and there were no cheaper early tickets for workmen for many years.
After only four years in service, in 1844, all the tracks were taken up on the line and re-laid to match the gauge (width ) that was becoming standard throughout London, and eventually the whole country
In 1870 It was temporarily connected to the new station at St James Street, and Shern Hall Street, (part of the Chingford Line,) in order to run trains on that line while some parts of it were still being built.
Because the land round the station was low-lying and still rather marshy, it never became heavily built up with houses, and a lot of the land round the station was developed as railway shunting yards, light industry and warehousing.

Lea Bridge Road

Bakers Arms c1910

When Lea Bridge Station was built in 1840, the road become even busier, with some of the first-ever railway commuters arriving from Walthamstow and Leyton each morning, some by stagecoach. At this time train fares were expensive, and only the well-off with good jobs could afford to travel in to London by train each day.

Next to the station, the Greyhound pub did good business serving beer and food to hungry travellers.

Further on, near the turning to Hoe Street, the Bakers’ Company bought a plot of land to build almshouses. These were built in 1857, were homes for retired bakers and their families who had become ill or fallen on hard times. The houses were well designed and built, but in the 1970s the local authority wanted to knock them down in order to widen the road. Luckily they were saved at the last minute and are now homes once more.

Bakers Arms c1910

Bakers Arms c1910


The Bakers’ Arms pub next door opened in 1868 and became famous, giving its name to the local area. It finally closed its doors in 2010, although the building still stands on the corner of Lea Bridge Road and Hoe Street.

By 1900 the area was built up, with a mixture of small shops, houses and Warner flats. It was evidently as busy as the rest of the area, with trams being added to the mix from 1905.

One local lady, now in her 80s, remembers being told about her own grandmother, who was left a young widow with three children. As she had very little money, and was frightened of having to go into the workhouse, she would go out picking wild watercress and then stand by the roadside at the Bakers’ Arms, selling watercress by the bunch to passers-by. She survived.

Markhouse Lane/ Markhouse Road

Markhouse Road

The Mark House stood on the site of what is now Markmanor Avenue, just to the west of St Saviour’s Church – there was a house there from at least the thirteenth century; it changed hands many times, belonging at one time to the nuns of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate.

The name comes from the word “maerc”, which means boundary – part of the manor was in the parish of Leyton, part in Walthamstow, and the house stood beside one of the boundary stones.

Until the 1850s there were only a few farm labourers’ cottages along the southern part of Markhouse Lane. But with the coming of Lea Bridge Station the area began to be developed – Union and Prospect Roads were built on land that had been part of the common.

Gate to Markhouse Common 1861

Gate to Markhouse Common 1861

As Walthamstow grew, more land to both sides of the lane was sold for the development, the lane became a road, and St Saviour’s Church was built so the new residents did not have to walk all the way to St Mary’s Church on the far side of Hoe Street.

The Lighthouse Church was built, and quickly became a local landmark, in the 1890s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Markhouse Road was lined with houses, shops and small factories, and had become a busy through road. It had also become one of the poorest streets in Walthamstow, with all the problems associated with poverty.

It is worth noting that there was never a village here.