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The Warp

Battersea Night (2)

The Dogs’ Home, the Power Station, the Pleasure Gardens. These were the things that Battersea was known for to outsiders, but they were not really part of the Battersea we knew. A little borough, hugged in the bend of the river, it was largely unknown. It had none of the dramatic qualities that made the East End famous, although the times it had been through were as hard. Here were no doss-houses, no Salvation Army kip-houses, no large congregations of lonely men. There were precious few large institutions of any sort - homes for the aged, prisons, hotels, lunatic asylums. It was the home of gentle people, backyard owners. The Northern part of it voted almost solidly Labour. Once they returned a Communist.

One of the less typical places, down the road from us, was Old Battersea House, a pleasant manor designed by Wren standing almost engulfed by council houses and factories. The panelled walls of the many rooms were crammed with preRaphaelite pictures of such everyday subjects as the Vision of Ezekiel and Wisdom Strangling Ignorance. The owner was the authoress, Mrs A F M Stirling, 98 when I met her, one of the last of the pre-Raphaelite generation still to be with us.

She received me in one of the remoter rooms of the manor, wearing a purple velvet dress over which was cast a violet stole, from the depths of her magenta sofa. She read from one of her many books a description of Battersea in the old days:

‘Battersea was then a straggling village, remote from London but picturesquely situated on the wooded banks of the Thames. Fine cedars of Lebanon grew there in stately majesty, their dark boughs hiding or revealing the vista of lovely country fringing the shining water. But there were grim spaces, too, in the vicinity. Marshy lands, inimicable to health, stretching away beyond the church. Low lying localities invaded by the Thames at high tide. And not far away a place of ill repute, Battersea Fields. A desolate waste of 300 acres, a haunt of vagabonds and ruffians who congregated there for boisterous orgies and cruel sports.

‘The whole traffic of London passed this house in those days,’ she told me. ‘The St Johns who used to live here had their own private ferry through the pretty village of Chelsea, and they used to come across in that and land here.

‘This house then had a beautiful garden of 6½ acres. And Lady St John was a great gardener so she made the place perfectly beautiful, and of course the lawns stretched right down to the river. The only objection was that at high tides the river came up into the garden. And there were real cedars of Lebanon even when we came here. There were still a few survivors of the old original cedar of Lebanon which grew in that garden.’

Old Battersea House was the last of that old country village of Battersea, with its lavender fields and manors. Looking from its casemented windows almost point-blank at the walls of towering council dwellings, I was reminded of the violence, the harsh explosion, of the Industrial Revolution. The new inventions which in the course of the 19th century brought the multitudes milling in from the starving countryside to the factories. It was then that the lavender fields spawned with row after row of shoddily-built houses - the mean streets that still comprise most of Battersea. Outsiders who got stranded or lost here tended to find it dirty or ugly. Battersea people, however, had great loyalty.

‘I must come to Battersea. All my friends are here,’ one of our neighbours told me, and another said, ‘I was married in the old church, St Mary’s, down by the river, and that has a lot of history attached to it, and it’s got a wonderful house on the side called Battersea House, which a lady lives there in the name of Mrs Stirling. She’s got a passage from her house underneath, right to the church, so that those days when years ago they never used to have to go on the top; they could walk under the river to go to church. There are some very nice people down Battersea, but also however there are some very, what’s come in since the war, are very like a distant sort of a class of people. They just don’t want to make friends. But except for the newest class, I can go back to where I used to live and I could spend the whole day saying "Hello".’


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