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Saturday, 11 April 2020

An Old Crayford Family, the Stevens

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Our past is another country; everything was different then. There is no way back.

Mine was a local childhood, the borders of my country drawn by my mother and determined by bus routes which offered access to her brothers and sisters. A few times, we caught the train up to Charing Cross and so into London. Occasionally we crossed into other territory enabled by my father’s car conveying us to rare weeks by the seaside, as far away as Bournemouth and Weymouth. And once my father even took me abroad, on the MV Royal Daffodil which offered foot passenger day trips from Folkestone to Boulogne and for which only a one day passport - no photograph, hand back on return - was required. It was 1958, I was eleven and I came back clutching a French toy car in my pocket, afraid that it would be seized by Customs as contraband. It was my only experience of foreign travel until I went off on my own at seventeen.

My mother’s territory was known as North West Kent but even then it was disappearing under South East London which steadily encroached. The ambiguity was marked by the buses: we had both the red buses of London Transport and the green buses of London Country. They sufficed for our whole territory.

My mother was the youngest of seven siblings and I was by far the youngest of their small number of offspring: they managed just six between them, the others already grown and moving away when I was still very small. My mother was born a Stevens and the Stevenses, my mother said, were an old Crayford family though only her brother Goff and his wife Lena lived in a house which was Crayford, Kent when you addressed your Christmas cards to 42 Green Walk. We visited by the 480 green bus. For a year (1961 - 62) my mother and I lodged there because we were otherwise homeless.

My uncle Godfrey Stevens worked shifts (including nights) in the nearby Dartford paper mill where he was now a gatekeeper, light duties for men who were too old for the demands of the factory floor. He walked to work. His wife Lena was a nurse in a Dartford mental hospital, Stone House - once the City of London Lunatic Asylum - and went to work on the 480 bus.

My mother’s father Thomas Redsell Stevens had been born in Crayford in 1861 and started out in life by running away from home, falsifying his age to make himself sixteen and thus eligible to join the  Royal Navy in 1875 and remaining a sailor until 1887. He died in 1925 so I never knew him except from my mother's stories. After the Navy, he worked for the Crayford munitions firm of Vickers - but as a gun tester, out on the firing range at Sutton at Hone. He lost an arm in an accident there.

My grandfather's own father Charles Stevens was born in Crayford in 1826 and became a carpenter. Crayford had (and still has) a very old Anglican parish church, St Paulinus; it was restored in the 1860s and my mother used to say that this grandfather of hers (who died before she was born) did the carvings. But I was never curious enough to go and look and nor was my mother, even though she also knew that there were Stevenses buried in the churchyard including her oldest brother Tom (Thomas Turner Stevens). He is shown here in his 1919 wedding photograph, his father on the left in the photo, his mother sitting in front of her husband, my mother sitting in bottom left corner aged 12:

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But St Paulinus wasn’t our church. In Dartford, there had been the East Hill Methodist church directly opposite where we lived. My mother found it both convenient and congenial and I attended with her and sometimes went independently to Sunday school. In Crayford, St Paulinus sat at the very top of the High Street; the Methodist church was only half way up and we avoided the hill climb and attended there.

I joined the 4th Crayford Methodist Scout group which met in the church hall; I remained a scout until my sixteenth birthday in 1963 at which point I decided I did not want to move up to the Senior Scouts. I enjoyed camping and exploring but I wasn’t hardy and I couldn’t swim.

There were Methodist Girl Guides who met on a different night. But at some point probably in 1962 someone had the idea (a Swinging Sixties effect?) to bring Scouts and Guides together for a disco. I went and showed off my ability to do the Twist which I had seen on TV. My recollection is that my display was performed without a partner. But afterwards I got my first teenage kiss off a girl guide and maybe she got hers off me - I forget who took the initiative and I forget her name. But the kiss took place as we exited the hall into the rather dark alleyway which ran down the right side of the church and provided separate access to the hall - the church itself was accessed by a main door directly onto the high street.

I went online to check that bit of geography and was pleased to discover from the very first image Google displayed that I had got it right: there was Crayford Methodist church - a modern, detached red brick building of simple symmetrical design facing west onto Crayford High Street, side entrances on either side.

But then Google went on to display lots of other images which I did not recognise. I was puzzled; why only one image? Why all these irrelevant ones? I checked the neighbouring images. Crayford Methodist church is now Crayford mosque: detached, side entrances but glassed in, rendered and painted white with three green and gold domes atop and extended at the back to accommodate five hundred worshippers.

The white rendering is recent; a little more research told me that until a few years ago, the mosque made do with the original red brick and the original side entrances over which hung black and yellow signs in road sign style BROTHERS ONLY and SISTERS ONLY. Google had close-ups. I can’t see them repeated on the new exterior and there may be a reason for that. In 2014, five members of Britain First, four men, one woman and led by Paul Golding, entered the mosque without asking or taking off their shoes, and confronted the elderly man who happened to be doing the caretaking at that time and demanded that the signs be taken down within a week or else they would be removed by direct action. They are sexist, said Golding, and in this country we have equality.

It sounds spurious. We have always had  Christian schools for Boys Only and Girls Only and still do. And on Victorian school buildings built for both boys and girls one can still see the carved signs BOYS ENTRANCE and GIRLS ENTRANCE. As for the mosque, my guess is that the old signs were replaced by more discreet interior ones when the church façade was made over. My other guess is that the mosque has not yet experimented with a disco.

Paul Golding and Britain First had been quite successful in and around Crayford; he had even been elected a local councillor. Part of me wants to say that they are just the misguided voices of  a disappearing First Nation of which I am technically a part. My grandparents Thomas Redsell Stevens and his wife Eliza Turner put into the world seven children  but those seven children could only manage to produce six between them not the forty nine which would have matched their parents' industry. And though all but one of the seven remained within bus rides of each other, none of their children remained within the original territory. 

The mosque basically tells me who took the empty seats.  The Stevenses illustrate the truth that there was a point when my bit of the First Nation simply did not produce enough children. The First World War played a part, so did the Spanish Flu of 1918, and perhaps the Depression of the 1930s. But similar and sometimes worse things had happened in the past without deterring reproduction. So it looks like a cultural change; people had had enough of having large families which exhausted them and children who they often could not feed properly.

When is a first nation actually a First Nation? Usually, there is some group which was there before those who claim to have got there first. It’s a repetitive story which simply shows that we punctuate history to suit our cause. The Stevenses may have been an old Crayford family, as my mother put it, but actually not that old at all. My grandfather Thomas and great grandfather Charles were both born there and that takes the Crayford Stevenses back to 1826. But go back another generation and I find that my great great grandfather Henry Stevens was not born in Crayford but in Beddington, Surrey in 1798. Charles was the first of five children of Henry’s second marriage which took place in 1825 in Newington, Surrey to Elizabeth Smith born Wallington, Surrey in 1804. But this first child was baptised in Crayford because Henry has arrived to work there as a printer. This is clarified in the archive material  as copper plate printer in 1828 and in 1841 as waistcoat printer. 

From the last especially, I conclude that Henry Stevens worked in the Swaisland calico and silk printing factory, a major local employer with large premises located down by the riverside in the centre of Crayford.  Abundant water was indispensable to processes which produced a wide range of printed cottons, some of them beautiful: Swaisland’s pattern books have been conserved in museums and the Royal College of Art and so we know what the products looked like even if few actually survive.

Henry Stevens died in 1847 just three months’ before his son Charles, the carpenter’s, marriage. It’s possible that his early death was connected to the stress he must have been feeling that year. Faced with a downturn in trade, Swaisland sought to cut wages by half. A strike was called, and strike breakers called in from the north of England; the strike lasted until the end of the year. There was Chartist agitation in Crayford to add to the conflict, though whether Henry Stevens was more for the management or for more for the men by this point in his life I do not know. After his father’s death one of his sons gives his father’s occupation for purposes of the marriage register as manager in cotton printing factory. But he may have been bigging up his father’s occupation a bit - it sometimes happens on marriage certificates when bride or groom wants to impress the other side’s family.

Still, Henry Stevens was a skilled artisan doing interesting work in an interesting factory and it was the work which attracted him from Surrey. Nowadays, those place names previously evoked - Beddington, Newington, Wallington - are pretty meaningless. Those country villages are now buried under London’s southern sprawl. It makes more sense to think Croydon than to think Surrey. But when Henry Stevens moved what we would think of as the short distance from Surrey to Kent, he was making a big move. He and his wife were migrants drawn by the prospect of a job secure enough to turn the Stevenses into an old Crayford family.

It was their son Charles who consolidated the family’s position by marrying a local girl, Emma Redsell, on Christmas Day 1847 in the church of St Paulinus. She gave birth to my grandfather Thomas Redsell Stevens and so is one of my great grandmothers. Emma was born in 1826 the daughter of a Crayford cowkeeper - a man who kept a cow or cows and sold their milk, what we might be more likely now to call a dairyman.

Maybe the Redsells were also an old Crayford family. Time to find out….    

I have written a memoir of my 1947-1965 childhood, I Have Done This in Secret (degree zero 2018) available online (as a hardback only) at Amazon and Waterstones.

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