sharing our heritage from Bruce Castle Museum Archive
This project was exhibited at Bruce Castle Museum, and as part of their wonderful lockdown email series, they very kindly invited me to revisit this house. So, in the words of the Museum, come along “and travel back in time, peeling away the layers of history, researching, documenting, recording and sharing an extraordinary portrait of what might have seemed an everyday house, hidden away in Wood Green.”
“ ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’. This phrase sealed the fate of No.24 Truro Road, Wood Green. Officially uninhabited for almost a decade, the building was considered to be of no significance as described by planners in Haringey Council. A house with no history. It could be demolished.
I disagreed. The dilapidated building had been my neighbour for thirteen years. No longer a home, the property opened up as it decayed and shared a record of domestic life spanning the whole of the twentieth century.
The house was tucked away at the end of a long driveway on a large plot between two roads, completely obscured from prying eyes by a vast willow tree. Following a huge fire in the adjacent builders yard, the property was abandoned and sold to a developer. The garden became overgrown and wildlife increased. People began to use the house as a free material source, and tiles and pipes and floorboards began to disappear. The local children used it as their own playground, and the sound of shattering glass continued until there were no windows left to smash. Squatters came and tamed the garden (and the children) and they grew vegetables and raised pigs, and were in turn evicted *.
The garden rewilded. Rumours spread of it having changed hands again.
Climbing over my back wall, with a homemade pinhole camera wrapped in a black bin bag, I started exploring and recording the property. My process was one of trial and error, with many opportunities for things to go wrong. The camera was a hatbox, and the photographic paper I placed inside was old stock, which didn’t always react. My exposures could be up to an hour long, depending on the light conditions and the behaviour of the paper. I was using out of date paper as I wanted the images to look and feel as though they had been found in the house, and to capture the change of light as real time passed.
I picked at the many layers of wallpaper as the damp caused them to unpeel, and scavenged remnants of the house to include, reused, in layered kiln-formed glass.
The glass was recycled from the broken windows and greenhouse. Using textured plaster moulds, I formed layered and spaced glass memories. Some had an image transferred on, either a photograph or a detail from a census, and in the formed spaces I placed objects and scraps from the house.
Each individual piece was a fragment of history. Put together, splintered stories of this house and it occupants could be traced.
The blank spaces that appear in a fading memory are all too present in the history of this house, and correspond to the blank spaces within the glass pieces. These voids are waiting for recall, for the information to come to light that completes the story of this house with no history.
One day someone ripped out all the copper pipes and there was a fountain bursting up through the gaping living room floor. It became increasingly dangerous to flipflop around the house and after finding half the staircase smashed, I knew that I would soon have to leave the physical house alone.
Turning to the local archives of Bruce Castle Museum I began to construct a factual history alongside my imaginings.
Using the information I gathered, and a lot of hunches, I tracked down the family who last lived in the house. Attached to the front porch of the building had always been a homemade sign – The Swifts. This wasn’t the house name as I had expected, but the family name. They were surprised at my interest, and a little suspicious. However, they kindly allowed me to visit, and Mr Swift shared his memories. He talked not just about the house, but about his life, for the two were so entwined.
Leonard Swift was born in the house on 11th July 1911. It was his home for eighty-seven years.
Built in 1860, the house was possibly intended to be two cottages, for the end wall to the north had the staggered bricks and internal fireplace of a never completed project. It is possible this was because the Finsbury Freehold Land Society acquired additional land and the terrace of Sidney Road was built instead.
Originally known as Blenheim Cottage, it became home to a florist and gardener, who worked the large plot as a nursery. The produce from this garden continued to feed the family for many years and even earned them extra sugar rations during wartime for jam making and preserving.
The Swifts first came to the property in 1900 to rent the large outbuildings for their thriving business, Edward Swift & Sons, Microscope Objective Makers. As soon as the cottage was available, the family moved in. The four Swift sons – no longer the ‘terror of the neighbourhood’ as the young Len recounted in his stories, but busy making microscope objectives (these are the brass tubes with the lenses inside). They worked both the brass and the lenses, with Leonard’s father, Herbert, cold working the glass lenses to within a thousandth of an inch, tiring and precise work. Their cousins, James Swift & Sons of Tottenham Court Road, made the actual microscopes. In 1901 Captain Scott was supplied with Swift Microscopes for use on the Discovery.
During the First World War, the forty-foot shed was full of busy lathes constantly working, and many staff. Leonard always thought he would take over the family business, and spent all the time he could at Herbert’s side, learning. Sadly, by the mid-1920s, there was no demand.
The cottage had three rooms downstairs, and three rooms upstairs. The Swift family – Catherine, Herbert, Leonard and his brother – shared the property with lodgers, as the Objectives business became less profitable. The business ceased to be with the death of Herbert in 1932.
When war came again in 1939, Leonard joined the Air Force as a ground gunner and was posted overseas until August 1943, when he landed in Liverpool to begin a long and dodgy journey back to London. All the underground stations were crowded with sleeping families and everywhere was pitch black. As he finally reached Wood Green, the air raid siren was going, and he couldn’t get into the house as most of the rooms were let out and he didn’t have the right keys. He thought everyone must be down the underground shelter, so dumped his kit bags and went round to the police station on the corner of Nightingale Road and asked if he could sleep in a cell. At first they said no, but Leonard said “Why not? It’s got a bed hasn’t it?” So they gave him a cup of tea, and let him stay. In the morning he went home again, only to make the shocking discovery that his mother had been buried on the very day he landed in Liverpool.
After a month’s leave, Leonard was reposted to Hillingdon to work in the operations room. Here he met Margaret as they worked together, plotting the flight information. They were married in 1945 and settled down together at No.24. Leonard returned to work in Covent Garden.
The house had always been rented accommodation, with rent being about ‘thirty bob or something a quarter’. But in 1956 a couple of men turned up to look at the house, as it was being auctioned the very next day. Margaret found out where the auction was to be, and that they needed a 5% deposit. They didn’t have any money, but borrowed what they could from their neighbours.
Armed with £30, Leonard went off to Piccadilly for the auction. “We had decided we couldn’t go more than £500 for the house. There were all these people who wanted to buy it, plus there were families there who were in tears as their houses were being sold from under them and they couldn’t afford the money. So at the auction, I’m surrounded by all these big blokes bidding, £300… £400…£500… I thought what am I going to do? I haven’t got enough but we can’t lose our home. Then a bloke said £600 and I said ‘And five’ and he said ‘oh let him have it ‘.
Now it turned out that the deposit was 10%, not 5% as Leonard had thought, and he only had a matter of hours to find the other £30. Once again, friends rallied round to stop them losing their home, and his boss agreed to lend them the rest as a mortgage for two years, at two and a half percent.
Once the family owned the house, and had paid back the money, they added gas and electricity. The landlords had never wanted the expense of running power all the way from the road up the long drive, so it had been oil for lamps and coal for cooking and heat. In 1966 he was given a grant to add a bathroom block instead of the old outside brick toilet.
Over the years they made many improvements and alterations to the house. It was Leonard’s son who built the porch and added The Swifts sign.
If it were not for the fire, the Swifts might never have moved. Admittedly, the garden and the house were really becoming too much upkeep, but it was home. That night though, “I was asleep when I felt Margaret urgently trying to wake me, but when I sat up, Margaret was still fast asleep! I’ve always thought it must have been my mother, come back to warn us. The heat coming through the window was unbelievable.” After that, the Swifts decided to move, and left Truro Road for the last time on 28th July 1998.
I wish I’d gone up the long drive when the Swifts lived there. I sometimes saw a man and woman getting into their car at the distant end of their drive. I could never think of what to say – what reason could I have for going and opening their gate and letting myself into their secret garden? It was intriguing, a magical space that I wanted to know, whilst at the same time recognising that it was totally private, and that my nosiness would not be welcome.
My other neighbours didn’t share my obsession with No.24. They described the family as one that ‘kept to themselves’, but maybe they’d just seen so many people come and go in the last few years they had stopped getting to know their many neighbours. Once families would stay in the same house for generations, as had the Swifts. But as people moved away, houses turned into flats, and a new block was built along their west boundary.
My neighbours also agreed with the council verdict that the house had no history. The house doesn’t I suppose, it is rather the history of the family that lived there, and of how lives and expectations changed. Mr Swift remained nostalgic for the soft glow of the oil lamps over the bright light of the electricity he worked so hard to obtain. He grew up there and raised his own family with no bathroom, sharing the three bedroom house with others whenever necessary. He laughed a lot as he recounted tales of boyhood and fatherhood. No.24 Truro Road was a real home, with a loving family and good friends.
My partner and I used to wish we could buy No.24, and talk about what we would do if we could. We watched the final owners pull it down in 2006. The enchantment was broken, and we moved away too.
* This was the subject of a BBC Life of Grime programme. From a precarious position on top of my wall, I watched the council men try to evict the pigs and their guardians. It was one of the funniest things ever. Those travellers were the best neighbours.
The artwork and research I did on the house became my art degree show, which was exhibited at New Designers at the Business Design Centre Islington 2005 and Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery.
With many thanks to Bruce Castle Museum
“Travelling back in time to 2006, when we had an exhibition at Bruce Castle, curated by artist Annie Taylor and called No.24 Truro Road ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’. Annie as our special guest writer today guides us through this touching portrait of a derelict house in Wood Green, that she lived next-door to from the 1990s into the 2000s.” Bruce Castle Museum