You never know what the day will bring. Just this morning I went past the newly stacked portacabins outside the soon to be demolished Heygate Estate and saw that the notices have gone up advertising the Charlie Chaplin Festival next month. Chaplin claimed that he was born in Walworth. It seems plausible, his parents were married here in St John’s Larcom Street, but no records of his birth being registered have ever been found. It’s no secret that Chaplin had a childhood that included periods of great hardship and poverty, and it is tempting to think of Walworth as an area that has always been a bit shabby, down-at-heel, a ducking and diving sort of place, yet there is more to the story.
In the eighteenth century Walworth was developing as a genteel suburb for the well off middle classes. Charles Babbage, father of the modern computer, was born in a comfortable house where the health centre now stands. Only a few examples of the houses that stretched down the Walworth Road remain. The most obvious is John Smith House, once home to the National Labour Party, now a hostel for visitors to London on a budget. Where Mcdonalds is was the site of the Cuming family home. Father and son, Richard and Henry Cuming were avid collectors. They make my own hoarding habits look minimalist. Not only do they seem never to have thrown anything away, even keeping paper bags that bread came in, they bought new collections and items to add to their own. Their interests were wide, and they had the cash to indulge their collecting passion.
When Henry died in 1902 the collection was bequeathed to the people of Walworth and funds were left to house it with a curator beside the library. To say the collection was eclectic is to put it mildly and it has been a tremendous resource for local people for over a century. In the 1930s it was advertised on the side of trams as The British Museum in Miniature. If you think that’s hyperbole, check out this link.
I had been planning to visit the current exhibition, Birds, Beasts and Beyond: The ceramic artistry of the Martin brothers in the Arts and Crafts period, this week.
However, at lunchtime when I came down the Walworth Road I was confronted by a shocking sight. Flames were leaping from the roof of the Old Town Hall, the building where the Cuming Museum has been housed for the last few years. There were eight fire engines. Hoses were trained on the roof. Smoke screened the road. The smell was acrid. I couldn’t bear to watch, but throughout the afternoon followed events on twitter. Some said that the library next door was on fire. I could see smoke drifting across the sky, but the tweets said the fire was under control, nobody was hurt. Good news, but what of the collection? I ventured out to find the road cordoned off from outside Mcdonalds. A heavy irony. I took a picture.
Earlier this evening, there was a tweet from the leader of the council suggesting that part or all of the Cuming collection could have been lost in the fire. Fortunately that has been revised with news that at least part of the collection is housed in the museum’s old premises. It’s a little comfort while we wait to see what the extent of the damage to building and collection will turn out to be. Coincidentally, the very first post I put up on this blog was a photo of a detail from the town hall.
For up to date news and developments go to SE1. They have been doing a fantastic job of keeping local people informed.