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HEARTS OF OUR HOMES: Historian Gillian Tindall and the buildings that mean the most to her

Taynton vicarage, explored by Gillian Tindall, inset

Published: 5 July, 2012

Our homes hold clues to the past within their walls and, with a little detective work, their fabric can illuminate past centuries.

This fact is at the heart of a new book by Kentish Town-based historian Gillian Tindall.

In Three Houses, Many Lives, Tindall has chosen three buildings she has had connections with in her lifetime as the canvas on which to paint a social history of Britain.

“I have always been interested in the idea that hidden within the heart of our homes lie clues to deciphering the past,” says Gillian.

“Our homes become disguised through the changing needs, fashions and lifestyles of the people who live there. I wanted to show this.”

The boarding school in Surrey where she was sent as a child features, as does a Cotswold vicarage which she frequently visited as she had relatives living there.

The final house is one she knows well from exploring London, Stapleton Hall in Crouch End.

“When people have asked me what the book is about and I say British houses, they assume it will be one like Blenheim or Marlborough,” she says. “But I chose buildings that are deliberately obscure. They are homes of which you will find examples of across England.”

There is a thread that runs from Gillian’s seminal work on the history of Kentish Town, The Fields Beneath, to her more recent book, The House By The Thames, which told the story of a building in Cheapside by the river.

The choice of buildings was partly made because they were structures she knew well, but also because of the different  different stories they had to tell.

They are set in three different types of Britain: the countryside, suburbia and the city.

The Gloucestershire Vicarage in the village of Taynton marks in stone the changing role of the Church in society. “It went from being a solid and respectable modest dwelling for a parson into a great big rambling Victorian mansion with a back stairs for servants,” says Gillian. “Later, it was seen as being a draughty old place. The changes mirror the economic rise and fall of the clergy in the UK.”

The school in Surrey also tells a story, of the rise and fall of the minor boarding school, once favoured by those in the Colonial Service, and then by the prosperous middle class who had pretensions to raise their children in the same way as the upper classes had done – and hoped a boarding school was the answer to social mobility.

It means the school had bits added to it as pupil numbers rose – and offers an example of how changes to buildings reveal changes to society.

Gillian chose Stapleton Hall as she had explored the Finsbury Park area many times as a young woman and had wondered what stories lurked inside the building.

“I’d gone past it so many times and noted its old beams,” she recalls. “I was told it was very old and when I decided to write the book, I wanted a place that had been in the countryside before being subsumed into London.”

Stapleton Hall is a fine example of a house which had seen the streets of London creep up on it.

Part of her studies has highlighted how slow the rate of change was for pre-Victorians.  

“People greatly overestimate the amount of physical change we have seen in most parts of the UK,” she says. “It is nothing compared to what our great-grandparents would have experienced.

“If you take Victoria’s succession to the throne as a baseline, and were living in Kentish Town or Hornsey, you were living in a rural area. Before you’d reached old age you would find yourself living in a city.  Nothing like that has been seen in our lifetime.”

It has had a profound and terrible effect, she adds, and cites the Charles Dickens book The Uncommon Traveller as an example of how Victorians recognised this.

“In the story, the character goes back to Rochester, where Dickens grew up,” says the author. “He says he left the town in a stagecoach and had not been back since. He returned by train and it has swallowed up the hay field he used to play in. That is the feeling you get in Hornsey – the Great Northern Railway came straight through it.”

The development that blighted the rolling pastures of Finsbury Park and Crouch End was prompted by the building of the railway, which cleaved its path through what had been farmland, and saw the dairy stockman who owned 226 acres in what is now Stapleton Hall Road sell them off.

This reminds Gillian of the post-war rebuilding of London, some of which was good, but much that was terrible.
“We are now much more careful about redevelopment than we were in the 1960s and 1970s,” she says. “The cavalier way in which whole neighbourhoods were demolished to be redeveloped, the way people were stuffed into flats without any questioning was extraordinary when considered in today’s terms. We now understand how people are attached to their areas. These days we discuss at length the installation of a dormer window.”

• Three Houses, Many Lives. By Gillian Tindall. Chatto & Windus £18.99


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