The whole family moved to Catford when my Great Aunt was born. She was called Mabel after her mother, but was known as Girlie. Girlie wrote a huge memoir ‘My Lucky Life’ leaving behind detailed historical writing and beautiful descriptions of her families’ life and adventures. The 1911 census records them all living in Sportsbank Street. My grandfather John was 4, his father Sydney 33 was a ‘Commercial Clerk, his mother was 30 and Girlie was 1 year old. She left the house when she was 5 or 6. So her vivid memories of life there are incredible. Girlie writes:
Sid (Sydney) found this nice little Victorian villa at Catford in a terrace only ten shillings a week with a tiny front garden and a fairly decent back garden. He could hardly wait to get going on it, never having had a garden before. He laid it out most fancifully with a winding gravel path with narrow grass borders, flower beds and little lawns and two summer houses.
The parlour had a rather bright green carpet with large cabbage roses on it, an upright piano and a horse-hair sofa, two rather hard arm chairs, all with very decorative antimacassars. On a large plant stand was a big aspidistra, and a huge black marble clock stood on the rather small mantle piece with two large bronze horses one each end. A white bear rug in front of the fire.
Our house was lit by gas and the roads had gas lamps and I loved to peep out of the window at dusk and watch the lamplighter walk up the road from lamp to lamp with his long wand and pull the little pilot chain and slowly the golden glow bloomed with a kind of halo in the gloom. On a Sunday afternoon we used to listen for the bell of the Muffin Man who came round carrying the muffins in a deep tray on his head and calling out ‘Muffino’ while he rang his hand bell. We toasted them in front of the fire with a long iron toasting fork which hung on the wall beside the fire place and mother piled on thick butter and set a big dish on the hearth for them to keep hot, until all the butter-dripping, finger-licking muffins were done. On Wednesdays the organ grinder played in our road, he a was a little Italian humpback with a perpetual smile and a small monkey on his shoulder. The organ was not very big, and supported by a single leg, and the monkey was dressed in a little suit and always looked rather sad. The children gathered to listen and the monkey held out a little cup for the pennies.
At that time Catford was almost out in the country and our favourite haunt within walking distance was the ‘Seven fields’. I suppose it was part of a farm but to a little girl it was a haven of buttercups and daisies, hawthorn hedges and real cows grazing in one field. As I remember we walked along Ladyship Lane to get there. There were lots of cow parsley on the verges and we called them Lords and Ladies and I quite thought that was the origin of the name of the lane. We were allowed to collect sticks and make a fire and boil the kettle for tea.”
The areas known as ‘Seven Fields’ was part of a rural estate owned by the Earl of Northbrook and the Rt. Hon Henry William Forster and contained two farms. The people of Lewisham visited it for weekend outings. This became the Downham Estate a huge housing estate built after the first world war designed to include gardens and space for working families.
Sportsbank Street is named for the cycle track that was built by The Catford Cycling Club. The club was founded in 1886, and in 1894 they built their own cycle racing track south of Brownhill Road. It had a magnificent pagoda like grandstand for watching the races. The popularity of the club and the use of the track waned. And in the early 1900’s the track was sold to property developers. By the 1950’s the majority of the track had been built over. But the pagoda remained at the end of Sportsbank Street until the 1960’s. So Sydney and his family must have moved into the house just after it had been built. Exactly as they had done in Caithness Road in Mitcham, they were the ‘workers’ that the houses were built for. They did not stay long though, as Sydney went to France when war was declared, and when bombs started to fall on London, Mabel took the children out of London to the countryside.