diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 17, 2024

Hidden Overground Histories
“There are so many fascinating, and often forgotten, stories from our city that should be told and remembered. Naming the lines will not only help educate visitors about our amazing city and its incredible history but will also make it easier for people who live, work or visit London to navigate the city.” (Sadiq Khan)
Having heard so much about the six new Overground names, I've made six site visits to dig deeper into their historical backgrounds and why they were chosen.

Mildmay line
The name celebrates Mildmay, a small but crucial charitable NHS hospital serving the NHS in Tower Hamlets, with a long history of helping Londoners in need. The first purpose-built Mildmay Hospital opened in Shoreditch in 1892. In 1982 Mildmay was closed owing to its small size and a lack of funding. After a six-year battle, it reopened as Europe's first hospital for people with HIV- and AIDS-related illnesses. It was visited by Princess Diana a total of 17 times.

This is the Mildmay Hospital today. It's not the same building Princess Di shook hands in, it's the purpose-built specialist HIV hospital which replaced it in 2014. But it is adjacent to the original site and it does carry out the same excellent work providing care and rehabilitation for patients with complex needs. You'll find it behind Shoreditch Church up a short street lined by modern flats, nowhere you'd normally walk past but ever accessible. The newbuilds look like they helped provide useful funding and incorporate one flank of the old building so that some of the resonant history remains. Another remnant is the hospital clock which has been embedded into a tall brick façade above a small welcoming reception area. Outside offers no clues as to the specialisms within, only a regular NHS sign and a foundation stone with a verse from the gospels. The hospital have loved the attention they've received this week with the announcement of the line names, but they'd far rather receive your kind donations, perhaps the purchase of a blue t-shirt or even an offer to volunteer. Needs must, and the Mildmay has long met greet need.
Mildmay opened in the 1860s as an informal help centre organised by the Reverend William Pennefather and his wife Catherine at St Jude and St Paul's church in Islington.

This is Mildmay Grove North in Islington, with a train on the upcoming Mildmay line passing below. The shop on the corner is Mildmay Local, the main road crossing the adjacent bridge is Mildmay Park and close by is the excessively-fortified Mildmay Library. This whole area used to belong to Mildmay House, a Jacobean manor facing Newington Green, and was sold off for housing by Lady Mildmay in the 1860s shortly after the railway first carved through. There was even a station here called Mildmay Park, precisely where I took my photo, but that closed in 1934. As for the church mentioned in TfL's blurb - St Jude and St Paul's - that's here too but isn't where the Pennefathers founded their Mildmay Medical Mission because they saw far deeper need in the Old Nichol slums in Shoreditch and founded it there. So yes, the Mildmay line will indeed pass through an area with a longstanding and definitive Mildmay identity but it won't stop here and it isn't where the hospital is, never has been.

The Overground line which does pass the Mildmay Hospital - ridiculously close as it turns out - is the line that's going to be branded Windrush instead. Windrush was always going to be chosen as an Overground name, and obviously the only possible option was the line spreading out across south London. Annoyingly it's also the only line passing the Mildmay Hospital, and in a quirk of geography it also passes straight through the Mildmay Park cutting in Islington, so could easily have been called Mildmay too. What we've therefore ended up with, regrettably, is a line named Mildmay which merely passes through the area the Mildmay hospital is named after, well over a mile from the actual hospital, which isn't the story TfL's diversity crew were trying to tell at all. Sometimes there just aren't enough minorities to go round.

Weaver line
The area around Liverpool Street, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and Hackney is known for the textile trade. It has been shaped by different migrant communities at different points in history. It kicked off with the Huguenots in the 17th century, who established a flourishing silk trade and were joined the next century by Irish weavers searching for work after the collapse of the Irish linen trade.

This is Fournier Street in Spitalfields, one of the quintessential Huguenot streets, still lined by terraces which would once have been occupied by 18th century silk merchants. Here the weaving of dyed silk would have taken place in attics with extra-large windows to maximise daylight, whereas poorer weavers often lived in single rooms in tenements and slept under their looms. As later migrants made the area their own - sequentially Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi - these old buildings decayed and would almost certainly have been demolished were it not for the campaigning ardour of conservationists like Dan Cruickshank and the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust. Instead a wealth of evocative architecture survives, not to mention some ridiculously desirable properties, as the multitudes who throng Spitalfields every weekend now know well. The nearest Overground station however is Shoreditch High Street, which yet again is on the Windrush line, with the Weaver name gifted to the second closest instead.
At the end of the 19th century and during the Second World War, Jewish families were fleeing antisemitism from eastern Europe. Their move to the area revitalised the garment industry, and they maintained the famous market at Petticoat Lane. By the 1960s, Bangladeshi immigration increased due to the area's low-cost housing and work opportunities in the textile and garment industry. Bringing their own culture to the East End, Brick Lane became a cultural melting pot and popular centre for fashion and food.

This is Weavers Fields in Bethnal Green. It's some way from Spitalfields but the silk-weaving trade was long a major employer hereabouts and also spread as far as Whitechapel and Mile End New Town. A grid of weavers' cottages grew up here in the early 19th century, in amongst the market gardens, and it too eventually became a neighbourhood of dense slums. Heavy wartime bombing conveniently destroyed 2000 houses and damaged 20000 more, the transformative solution in the Abercrombie Plan being to raze the area and create an area of public open space instead. The end result was Weavers Fields, Bethnal Green's largest park, which has since acquired various sculptural artefacts to commemorate its industrial past. These days kids play ball on the grass, hooded youth smoke dubious rollups on sparse benches and Overground trains (on what will be soon be the Weaver line) cross the viaduct with a regular flash of orange.

Suffragette line
A key member of the movement was Annie Huggett. She lived, campaigned and died in Barking at the age of 103, making her the longest surviving suffragette. Huggett was a pioneer who fought for votes when she was just a teenager. She even held tea for the Pankhursts, a family of leading suffragettes, at her home on King Edward's Road.

This is Annie Huggett's memorial bench in Greatfields Park in Barking. She's the suffragette TfL have chosen to highlight in their potted history, indeed the entire peg the pivot from Goblin to Suffragette relies upon. She also lived a very long life, nigh all of it within a short walk of this park, taking a fierce interest in campaigning issues throughout. So firm were her republican beliefs that on her 100th birthday her family chose to hide the card sent by the Queen, with missives from Barking Town FC and Labour leader John Smith taking pride of place on her mantelpiece instead. From her memorial bench you can admire the view across the park towards Greatfields Road where she lived in the same council house for 72 years, although not in the house with a blue plaque (which, oddly, is for a Victoria Cross recipient called Job Drain). It must have been quite a step up from the terraced house on King Edward's Road, just around the corner, where the Pankhursts came for tea and a chat on multiple occasions.
She organised meetings from the former George Inn in Barking Broadway – then the Three Lamps – a spot favoured by trade unionists and suffragettes. Her work helped empower women to have a significant impact on society, in the past, present and continuing into the future.

These are the Three Lamps, which if you're reading this at TfL Towers wasn't a pub, it was a three-headed lamppost positioned in the middle of the road outside the George Inn. It has a long history of protest, initially attracting gas worker trade unionists, then striking jute workers, all of this preceding Annie's birth. By the time she was 18 she was attending rallies at the Electric Theatre on Ripple Road and also organising suffrage meetings inside the George, although you'll not find that pub today because it was swept away by massive postwar restructuring (along with the entire southern half of the Broadway which is now mostly grass). The Three Lamps were duly moved to an off-road focal point in front of the abbey, and have since been decorated with a ring of mosaic panels by artist Tamara Froud. Each celebrates a different kind of protest, old and new, all of which Annie would have appreciated but I suspect her favourite would have been the pair of women campaigning for equal voting rights.

» I haven't been to Wembley for the Lioness line because you know what the stadium looks like.
» I haven't been to Brixton for the Windrush line because the diaspora has long dispersed.
» I haven't been to Romford for the Liberty line because the Liberty Shopping Centre is not a lawless medieval hunting ground.

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