The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall

Past lives retrieved from the skip
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We want history to be about paupers and prostitutes, says Gillian Tindall, but she's every bit as concerned with ordinary people; their lives shine through this delightful biography of a London house.

By rights, number 49 Bankside shouldn't be there at all. This home has survived floods, fires, wars and developers since 1710, but it is the location that makes its existence all the more miraculous, for it faces St Paul's across the river Thames in an area long known for its poverty, and the poorest areas of any city are always those ripest for redevelopment. Had the Millennium Bridge been built for traffic rather than pedestrians, it would certainly have been erased.

Our capital is architecturally chaotic, where grand schemes for Venetian canals and baroque causeways have always fallen through, forcing us to settle for a maze of public and private buildings, sometimes beautiful, often inept or bogus, parts of which have been added, removed, rebuilt, transposed and generally mucked about with. This is a process perfectly understood by the author, whose previous book The Fields Beneath provided a marvellous benchmark of urban history, examining the process by which villages coalesced into the metropolis. Rather than simply trawling other volumes, Tindall's method is to take one small area as a core sample and excavate the past through diligent detective work in council offices and vestry records before taking to the streets to satisfy herself with visual proof. Her Kentish Town biography was published some 30 years ago (though endlessly reprinted), but the wait for a sequel has been well worth it.

Riverbanks are prime sites that provide European cities with a chance to display grandiose public buildings, but for a long time Bankside was barely regarded as part of the metropolis at all. Separated from its wealthy neighbours by the Thames, it was stocked with fishponds or "stews", then brothels, theatres and bear pits. Thus the South Bank avoided becoming part of London, remaining a low-life attraction for urbanites; a sort of Southend-on-Thames. Prior to the building of the house, the site was occupied by an inn, the Cardinal's Cap, but not even Tindall is able to trace its origin. The area around 49 Bankside connects with the Bishop of Winchester, to the point where the local prostitutes were known as "Winchester Geese". These women were not from London but Flanders, marginalised outsiders employed in the sex trade. They form part of a colourful parade passing by the house, comprising watermen and costermongers, publicans and performers, whose lives Tindall brings into focus with clarity and precision. The parallels with our modern world often dispel old myths; London did not merely comprise the wealthy and the desperate, but also a swathe of decent middle-class residents who fought to keep their homes cleaner than any others in Europe. Our hygene fetish dates to sooty crusts of coal-burning hearths; coal and the spread of industry gave us the means with which to furnish our homes, so "the dirt and the money had a common source". The proliferation of spas is less an indication of healthy waters than a reminder of how unhealthy London's other water supplies were.

For all the parallels, there are sharp disparities; one resident speaks of the demolition of eyesores allowing more light into the house, but she is probably referring to the destruction of the Globe theatre. Toilets were built directly over the river, and flowed straight into it, leather-tanning factories steeped hides in dogshit and evening strolls were partaken on bridges to ward off the ill humours of typhoid fever. The dingy urbanisation that brought disease and dirt was seen as desirable and gentrifying. Still, a strong sense of community emerges, of altruism and even the fundamental goodness of number 49's residents as they tried to improve their lives beside the river.

The house arose from the old inn's footprint, at a time when the shapes and sizes of properties seemed more controlled for aesthetic appeal than they are today, and its history was bound up with that of the Thames. Watermen feared the construction of bridges would destroy their trade, as it had in Paris; their fates eventually entwined with the arrival of coal, companies and prosperity, only to be killed by the arrival of steam-driven boats. The house has remained in private hands, passing from the poor to the prosperous, even housing a early film star in the 1930s. As with the site of the power station nearby, the plot acquired "a kind of generic programming that persists through time".

"You begin to feel the weight of all those spent, packed-away lives pressing in on you," says Tindall on the subject of research, and it's sad that so many were lost when centuries of historical artifacts ended up in a building skip, courtesy of the corporation trusted with their preservation. This graceful discursive restores forgotten lives, and unlocks a door to reveal London in its glorious breadth and entirety.