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The Review - BOOKS

Of the original Terrace, only No 49 has survived

Gillian Tindall

Tindall proves Wren never lived at the house

One owner claimed Catherine of Aragon stayed there
The House that Wren never really lived in

Gillian Tindall’s brilliant eye for detail is what makes the history of 49 Bankside so fascinating, writes Jonathan Fryer

The House by the Thames
by Gillian Tindall
Chatto and Windus, £20

Taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along Bankside, on the southern bank of the Thames opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, one could easily miss the stuccoed façade of the Queen Anne house at Number 49, were it not for the blue plaque proclaiming that Sir Christopher Wren lodged there for a while, so he could view the progress being made on his architectural masterpiece.

The irony is, as Gillian Tindall conclusively demonstrates in the latest of her meticulous examinations of time and place under the microscope, The House by the Thames, Wren never did live there. Nor did Catherine of Aragon stay in the old inn that the house replaced, as one of 49 Bankside’s various owners once claimed, in the hope of boosting the property’s commercial potential.
So why devote a whole book to one London house, whose most famous genuine resident was the now virtually forgotten pre-War British film star Anna Lee? Or the even more forgotten eccentric sometime poet, waiter and war correspondent Guy Munthe, who used to career round town on an ancient motorbike, his pet parrot Augusta tightly gripping the handlebars?
The answer lies in the detail: the small, seemingly insignificant element or observation that Ms Tindall can scrutinize and elaborate on until a much more substantial tableau emerges.
After an early debut as a novelist, this Kentish Town writer has turned herself into the Miss Marple of English and French social history.
Painstakingly working through dusty archives, or interviewing people with some tangential connection to the subject at hand, she constantly astonishes with original revelations or analyses.
Her probings into part of Camden’s past still provide a useful guide to the borough’s residents in search of their neighbourhood’s background, while in her adopted second home, France, she is lauded for her unveiling of obscure but telling local histories.
Gillian Tindall obviously relishes the search and the joy of chance discoveries. One can sense her delight – spiced with a certain appealing self-mockery – when she declares at one stage in this book, “in the pursuit of 19th-century drawings, I chanced upon a set of flood prevention plans of 1881.” Those plans provided a detailed frontal view of a whole terrace of Queen Anne buildings on Bankside, of which only number 49 has survived.
That it did so was more by accident than design. At various stages in its long life, the house fell into dilapidation, became infested with rats, was split into tenements and, most humiliatingly before the regeneration of the South Bank, was occupied by squatters.
Ms Tindall does not dwell exclusively on the house itself, or even on earlier buildings located on the precise site. Rather she allows her curiosity to wander along and across the Thames, while particularly focusing on Southwark, over a period of several centuries.
Noting the bear pits and pleasure gardens that preceded the theatres of Shakespeare’s day, as well as the importance of the river trade and cargo unloading and the development of the power industry from coal to electricity, she produces a complex tapestry that nonetheless illuminates the past with a simple clarity.
When marshaled by her expert touch, apparently random facts suddenly display a logical progression or connection as one activity or family involvement seems to predestine what happens next.
As the author notes in a key passage in the book: “Thus do patches of London’s ground, which are nothing in themselves but gravel and clay and river mud, and the ground-down dust of brick and stone and bones, wood and wormwood and things thrown away, acquire through ancient incidental reasons a kind of generic programming that persists through time.”
It is odd, though, that such a prime site as Bankside should have remained so untouched by civic pride and pomposity until the conversion of the former power station into Tate Modern and the building of the Millennium Bridge. As Ms Tindall points out, in most continental capitals, the land would have been earmarked for a grand administrative building, a university or an opera house.
But it is an undeniable fact that, until recently, this part of the South Bank was not even thought of as London at all, but rather as an urban extension of Surrey.
Moreover, for a long time it was the place where things went on that would have been seen as unseemly in the City of London on the northern shore, with its plethora of churches and upright merchants and bankers.
Indeed, until Henry VIII (of all people!) closed the Bankside brothels down, this area of Southwark was as famous for its ‘Winchester Geese’ – prostitutes who lived metaphorically in the shadow of the London residence of the Bishop of Winchester – as it was for the bull and bear-bating.
Such salacious details pepper The House by the Thames, and as Gillian Tindall admits at one stage “everyone likes hearing about ancient vice”. But there is virtue as well as vice in this book; on occasion, even pathos.
Among the diverse cast of characters who lived at Number 49 over the years was a disabled girl who was essentially trapped in top-floor lodgings there, where she financed her survival by boiling sweets on a stove. Did death or poverty lead to her eventual departure?
Such tantalising questions have to remain unanswered. But in the case of a much later resident, the debonair Times leader-writer Peregrine Worsthorne, thanks to this book we know that his departure from 49 Bankside was prompted by catching a rare form of jaundice from the rats.

• The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Fryer is the author of a dozen non-fiction books, including studies of some of London’s more bohemian characters, including Oscar Wilde to Dylan Thomas.
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