We are really thrilled to be able to share some stories by the very popular historian and writer, Andrew Simpson. Although based in Manchester, Andrew writes here about Edith Nesbit, mostly known for her children’s stories.
A little bit of Eltham in the stories of Edith Nesbit, writer, socialist and resident at Well Hall House
Now I have set myself the task of reading the stories of Edith Nesbit and looking for Eltham. She lived in Well Hall House from the late 19th century into the 20th and those in the know reckon they can spot the references.
I never read her books when I was growing up and have to confess that I only came to know of the Railway Children which is one of her most famous books when the film came out.
The old Woolwich Road, 1909
So to rectify this omission and to see if the descriptions of the house the children lived in and the countryside they played around matches the Eltham of the late 19th century I shall trawl her books. And before someone mutters, “he clearly needs to get out more,” I reckon it will fulfil a couple of goals.
First it will involve reading some children’s classics and it will allow me to wander the lanes of Well Hall, and the fields stretching north to the woods and south to the Palace sometime between the 1890s and the 1920s.
And in all of this I shall be aided by the wonderful pictures and descriptions of Eltham from R.R.C.Gregory’s history of Eltham, published in 1909 and still a must for anyone wanting to know the history of the area.*
I doubt that there will always be an exact match and not all of the books will contain any references but perhaps enough to add to what I already know about both her home and the area over a century ago. And she was far more than just a little old lady who wrote children’s books.
Well Hall House, date unknown
Her marriage appears to be what we might today describe as an open one and she adopted two children from her husband’s relationship with another woman who was employed as their house keeper.
She was one of the founder members of the Fabian Society, a member of the Social Democratic Federation and wrote and spoke regularly on socialism. Amongst her friends were H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, all of whom visited the house in Well Hall.
She was also a member of the local Labour Party and it was here she met Tommy Tucker an engineer on the Woolwich Ferry, who she married three years after the death of her husband Hubert.
All of which fits nicely as like Edith, Hubert and Tommy, I was also a member of the same local Labour Party.
Woolwich Labour Party was formed in 1903. At that time the Woolwich constituency took in Woolwich and Eltham, and even when it was split between Woolwich East and Woolwich West for the 1918 General Election the Labour Party took the decision to stay as one party. So when I joined in 1966 aged just 16 I was walking with Edith, Hubert and Tommy.
And one of her books has already begun to reveal old Eltham. This is the Red House published in 1902, and named I guess after the home of William Morris. But as the story unfolds it is clear that the house is Well Hall House.
It was demolished in 1928 after a fire, but the opening chapters recreate the property down to the ivy which covered part of the back, the gardens and the interior. Now there may be some images of the inside of the place, along with plans and descriptions but at present all I have is the Red House.
But that is an exciting start.
Pictures; The old Woolwich Road, circa 1909, from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers,http://gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk/bookpages/i001.htm
Well Hall House, from The Edith Nesbit Society,http://www.edithnesbit.co.uk/ and Edith Nesbit from Wikipedia Common
© Andrew Simpson
You can read this post on Andrew’s excellent blog:
Andrew has written several books on Chorlton-cum-Hardy and the manchester area: