1921 census

Still not too late, just, to wish everyone a Happy New Year and to welcome you all, plus new readers, to my first blog of 2022.

January has begun with some cracking finds for me from the Thames Foreshore, including a particularly special one, a dream find, if you will, that I’ll be writing about at some future point. You can be sure of that!

But this blog is a slight deviation from my usual mudlarking round-ups and if you read on you’ll understand why.

January has seen the 1921 census for England and Wales released online (if you’re waiting for Scotland’s 1921 census records, these have been delayed) – a timely opportunity to investigate the past especially as there will be, unfortunately, no 1931 census records for England and Wales. This is because during the night of Saturday 19 December 1942, an extensive fire broke out at an Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex and destroyed all the census records. The Scottish ones were thankfully unaffected as they were safely stored in Edinburgh at the time, but an absolute catastrophe for anyone trying to trace their English/Welsh ancestry and family tree.

And there was no 1941 census either because the world was at war.

Limehouse Marina also known as Limehouse Basin

But the 1921 census for England and Wales threw up fascinating new information about my husband’s family and I really wanted to write about some of the things we discovered, especially as this links in with one of my favourite areas for mudlarking, which I haven’t written about before; Limehouse. There is also something incredibly compelling about exploring one’s past and I think the last two years of the pandemic has made us keener than ever to look for things that root and reassure us, even if what we discover isn’t necessarily what we want to hear. Nonetheless this can open a door to a greater understanding of past times when our ancestors were facing difficult challenges of their own, much as we are now.

Mr A studying an information board at Limehouse Marina

So, one January Sunday afternoon as the 1921 census was released, Mr A spent many hours engrossed in discovering new details about his great-grandfather George who, it was revealed, was living on Narrow Street, Limehouse, as a retired seaman. Intriguingly the sea features frequently in this side of the family and many of the men on my husband’s father’s line have a long established association with the docks, ships, seafaring and careers in the navy. It was known that at least one branch of the family had had some association with living and working in Poplar, at the docks, not far from Limehouse, but Limehouse itself had never been mentioned in the family history.

Limehouse Basin, photographer unknown, photo likely to have been taken in the 1920s/1930s

For those unfamiliar with this area, Limehouse is a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, within shouting distance of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs.

As a seaman, great-grandfather George would have known Limehouse Basin well. It’s now more commonly referred to as Limehouse Marina, with its pretty, jewel-coloured narrow boats and barges jostling for place. The area is clean, sparkling and trendy, benefiting from recent redevelopment and modernisation. Lung busting, toxic, smoke-filled air is no more, the factories, lime kilns and industrial furnaces a thing of the past.

The vintage black and white photograph above gives an indication of the Basin when George was living in Limehouse and he would have been familiar with it, especially as it’s a short walk from here to Narrow Street where he lived. The basin was then deep enough to accommodate large vessels competing for space with literally hundreds of boats and barges bringing in goods from far afield. In fact, so packed and busy was Limehouse Basin in George’s day, you could walk across it stepping from one barge to the other.

Great grandfather George’s house (the white one) is still there in Narrow Street

The house where George lived is, amazingly, still there so of course we went to see it. Set on Narrow Street it’s the tall, thin white one nestling comfortably between J & R Wilson and Co of Limehouse Wharf on the right and the vibrant blue corner building on the left. The blue building had once been a pub called The Old King’s Head, more than likely to have been George’s local rather than The Grapes, further along Narrow Street. The pub was eventually sold and became a banana merchants before being sold again. It is now in private ownership.

Vintage photo, possibly 1930s, showing B. A. Lambert, banana merchant, next door to the white house where George lived

We managed to find an old black and white photo from the 1930s, we think, showing the house on the corner next to the white house where George lived. The photo shows the building in use as a banana merchants owned by B. A. Lambert. Narrow Street has since been modernised extensively but it’s astonishing to think this part of it remains structurally unchanged and would still be largely recognisable to anyone from the early to mid 1900s walking down it today.

Narrow Street from a different angle showing Limehouse Wharf
Mr A standing outside the White House where his great-grandfather George lived in 1921

Behind Narrow Street, in Three Colt Street, George would have been aware of Limehouse Pottery. The name Limehouse comes from the lime oasts or kilns which were established here in the 14th century. Originally used to produce lime for building mortar, pottery manufacture quickly followed. The original Limehouse Pottery, on the site of today’s Limekiln Wharf, was established in the 1740s as England’s first soft paste porcelain factory.

Limekiln Wharf, site of the original Limehouse Pottery

Many of the Limehouse wharves and buildings were destroyed during the terrible bombing raids of the Blitz in 1940/1941 but some core buildings remain which give a hint of the history and heritage of this special area. I particularly loved Sailmakers House, beautifully restored and decorated with original windows, pulley and hoist still visible. The sailmakers and ropemakers on Narrow Street would have been familiar sights to George.

Sailmakers House, Narrow Street, Limehouse
Dunbar Wharf, Narrow Street, Limehouse

There’s so much that my husband has yet to find out about the life George lived while resident in Narrow Street. For example, we’re currently looking into whether he rented or owned his house outright, and we think his house was once a shop (the black and white photo shows signage displayed on the front.) We know that at the time of the census he was living with one of his widowed daughters. The 1921 census took place just a few years after the end of the first world war so that may explain why she was widowed. The first world war had had a devastating effect on communities, wiping out entire generations of men, destroying families and leaving a legacy of untold grief and economic hardship. Whether a war widow or not, George’s daughter would have struggled financially so moving in with her father would have been the only option for her. There is still a great deal we need to discover.

While we were in Limehouse I couldn’t resist a quick spot of mudlarking to end our visit here. It was a gloomy, overcast day weather-wise, with an ominous threat of rain as we stepped down onto the Thames Foreshore. We couldn’t help wondering what George would have made of the steel and glass skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the near distance, the tops of the tall buildings shrouded that day in mist and fog.

The Limehouse Foreshore showing an armada of swans and Canary Wharf in the background

While Mr A wandered about taking photos I walked off to some familiar areas to see if I could find any interesting finds and struck lucky when I quickly spotted a lead bale seal, which would have been attached to a sack bringing in goods to the wharves above the foreshore on the embankment. I also found some pretty tin-glazed pottery, possibly once used by a resident of late 17th century or 18th century Limehouse.

Lead bale seal with an unidentified crest found on by me on the Limehouse Foreshore.
Fragment of late 17th/early 18th century Delft style tin-glazed pottery, blue on white, showing a floral design

George would have experienced the bustle and noise of the many wharves and businesses at Limehouse while he was living here and, although inevitably there’s been a lot of new building and development in the area over the last few decades, in places it’s still just as recognisable as in the days when great-grandfather George called this place home.

We look forward to finding out more about him.

4 thoughts on “1921 census

  1. Thank you for sharing a little about husband’s great-grandfather. That is a really experience to be able to view his former residence and walk on the streets he did.
    You found a couple of great finds along the shoreline there.
    Following your blog from Texas

    Liked by 1 person

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