For a few decades now, I've known that the Harringay Park Estate, on which the Ladder was built, was sold off piecemeal to anyone who wanted in on the late Victorian building boom. Whereas today people buy-to-let, in those days people would buy-to-build, and then perhaps let or sell.
To the East of Green Lanes most of the land was built up by just a few developers. On the Ladder, plots were sold in twos, sixes, tens and twelves and occasionally as many as 20.1 Thanks to my own research and to that undertaken by Alan Aris in the 1990s, I've got a pretty good idea of how the Ladder was built up. But I've never really had the story of one of the developers. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them?
Thanks to the present-day developer of a house near to my own on Hewitt Road, I noticed something which led serendipitously to my uncovering the outline of the tale of one Victorian Ladder developer.
Like many Ladder houses, this nearby double-fronted house had a name plaque added to each of the bays above the ground floor window. Since I've lived here, like the majority of similar plaques on the Ladder, they've always been just plain white. But, as you can see from the picture above, once the paint was stripped off, the builder could make out some text that had been filled with plaster. A little work revealed the words Stoke House. It meant nothing at first, but I felt fairly certain that its meaning only awaited discovery.
I thought I'd spend a few minutes on the internet to see if I could track it down. First I found the original occupant of the house, then I managed to link him to the house name. Then digging around in various archives, I was able to uncover the surprising tale of one of the builders of the Harringay Ladder.
As was the case with other Harringay builders whose stories I've uncovered, this is a tale of a young man who arrived in London with ne'er a penny and ended up doing very nicely thank you!
Our Ladder builder, Charles Peek was born in 1862 near Dartmouth in Devon. His father, William, was a builder. By 1881, aged 19, Charles had moved up to London with his older brother, Thomas. They boarded in a house in Warlock Road, Paddington. Both described themselves as plasterers, a trade they no doubt learned at their father's knee.
By 1884, Charles had married Mary/May (the records offer both alternatives) and she had given birth to their daughter Ethel. Five years later in 1891 they had moved to Harringay and were living at 10 Highfield Villas (also known as Ethel Villa) in Falkland Road. (The house subsequently became plain old 10 Falkland Road before being flattened by a doodlebug in WWII and being replaced by Fairland Park).
At this time Charles was still describing himself as a plasterer. His eyes were clearly on a more influential future however. In that same year, aged 29, he became a freemason.
By 1894 Charles was listed in the City Directory as a builder living at 10 Falkland Road. Though strangely in the following year he was listed as a plasterer, then living at 95 Sydney Road, However, that was the same year that he started on the Hewitt Road house. So it looks like his building career was taking off at this point.
He named the Hewitt house Stoke House, after his home village of Stoke Fleming, just outside Dartmouth. This seems like quite a personal name. So, it seems like he might have built it for himself. Records show him as resident there for the first few years after it was finished.
I assume that business was doing well at this time, well enough at least for Peek to start a civic career that was to last for the rest of his life. It started in 1895 when he successfully ran for election to the Hornsey School Board.
His association with the Ladder ended soon after this point. By 1898 he had moved out to Palmers Green and was listed in the City Directory at Palmerston House in Palmerston Road.
It is his trajectory after this point that surprises. Apparently, so rapid was his success as a builder, that three years later, in 1901, Peek aged 39 felt able to describe himself in the census as a Retired Builder.
At the start of the Twentieth Century, the Peeks moved to Park Villa on Green Lanes close to the Triangle in the centre of Palmers Green. They stayed there until 1910. Towards the end of that period, May grew increasingly ill and sadly died in 1909, aged just 50. She survived long enough, however, to see their daughter married in 1908 (and one assumes to benefit from the lifestyle that enabled Charles to describe his occupation in the marriage register as Gentleman).
Through this period Charles' civic career began to blossom. He swapped the Hornsey School Board for the New Southgate one, serving both on it and the Education Authority that replaced it. From 1901 to 1909 he was elected as the member for Southgate on the Edmonton Board of Guardians.2 From 1904 to 1909 he was Southgate's councillor on the Middlesex County Council.
Following his wife's death, Charles moved back home. He took up residence in a house called Deer Park in his home village of Stoke Fleming.
At this point he became a full-time worthy and the notches on his civic belt moved up a pace. On 20th October 1910, his new life was launched when he was given the Freedom of the City of London. The following year, he became Mayor of Dartmouth until1914. He was Mayor again from 1919 - 1921, in which year he retired. He then sat on Devon County Council from 1921 - 1925 and also became a Justice of the Peace.
Peek remarried in October 1913. He and his new wife, Lily Maude moved in to York House on the Dartmouth river front. By the early Twenties, Charles' health had begun to fail. On December 11 1926, aged 66, he died whilst on a visit to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. His estate was worth an amount equivalent today to millions of pounds.3 Lilly lived on until January 1967.
Such is the tale of one of the builders of the Harringay Ladder. Not bad for a country boy who arrived on London with not two pennies to rub together. I wonder how many of the Ladder builders did so well?
All the above is sourced from original research, mainly using primary documentation.
Here's another article about one of the Davis family from 1891.
The interest is as much in the general insight it gives into the building up of the Ladder as it is in giving any picture of John Davis. (Though the family's coverage in newspapers is begining to suggest that they might have been a feisty bunch!):
THE RIGHT OF PUBLIC WAY
Before Mr. Slade, North London Police-court, Monday, Mr. John Davis, builder, Abbotsford-house, Wightman’s-road (sic), Hornsey, was summoned for assaulting John Cronin, of St. John’s-terrace, Hackney-road; and the latter was summoned for assaulting Mr. Davis, The affair took place at Wightman-road, which is a new road recently taken over, and which Mr. Griffiths is contracted in making up. Mr. C. V. Young was solicitor for Cronin, and Mr. Griffith Jones (instructed by Mr. Wedlake) defended.
The complainant (Cronin) said he was a foreman in the employ of Mr. Griffiths, contractor and stonemason of Kingsland. His employer was the contractor making up Wightman-road, Holloway (sic). There was also a clerk the works employed the Hornsey Board. On the 8th May, a coal van with two tons and a pair horses, drove up the barrier, which was placed across the road. The driver of the van asked witness if he would allow the coals through? Witness said could not allow it because it would injure the road. At the moment, the steam-roller was going over it to make a smooth surface; but there were only three inches of flints then down, and each heavy waggon would have considerably interfered with the levels. There were three other inches flints to go on; and rolled before the required thickness would be obtained. This work was protected with poles and trestles, and the driver said. “If you don’t let me through, I shall pull these down.” Suiting the action to the word, the man pulled the barrier down, and it fell on witness’s legs. Then witness hit the man. The man took his over, and the road was so interfered with that it took three hours’ more rolling get the road right. Prior to this, witness had allowed other carts go through, but not such heavy ones as this.
Cross-examined—Received his instructions from Mr. William Griffiths and from the representatives the Hornsey Local Board. These instructions were to make up the road. The van went over 200 or 300 feet of roadway, and it took two hours make this smooth after the defendant's van had gone over. The defendant was a builder, engaged in excavations in the neighbourhood, and needed the coals for burning ballast for foundations. Did not think he said he did not know and did not care which way the coals went; what he did say was that the van could be taken round the Green lanes. Was not excited this occasion. The driver could have gone round the Green-lanes, and come into Wightman-road by the other end. There was a little struggle between witness and the carman, but this witness did to avoid getting the rail his toes. It was true that witness hit the carman in the mouth, but this was after having the rail thrown upon him.
The Magistrate thought it more a matter for a civil action than anything else. The injuries sustained were in the struggle over the barrier.
Mr. Young said the work would never be finished if such heavy waggons were allowed to go over; and the contractors were under certain penalties if the work was not done well and in time.
The Magistrate suggested that the case be withdrawn. The foreman to Mr. Griffiths was hurt through the struggle over the barrier, and the blow that the carman hit him was by way retaliation. The foreman was acting under the instructions of his employer, and the defendant was acting, as he thought, within his rights in going over the road.
Mr. Young said it was only a little obstinacy. The defendant might have got his coals with a very little extra work, if he had been so minded.
The summonses were withdrawn.
Islington Gazette - Thursday 21 May 1891
Although not one of the Ladder builders I have been researching Charles Rook who built a large number of houses on the Alexandra Park Estate. seems like a similar story of 'economic mobility'.
Son of a Bedfordshire hawker he came to London in the early 1880s as a plasterer. By the end of the 1890s he is described as a builder. Unfortunately he died aged 49 years but left his wife an estate of over £20,000
That's interesting, Ruth. What's led you to that?
He built the house I live in. So many years ago I decided to find out who had lived in the house and then wanted to find out about the builder.
Initially I could find very little info on the internet about Charles Rook ( he is not so well documented as other Muswell Hill builders/developers such as Edmondson and Collins). I then visited Bruce Castle, London Metropolitan Archives, HHS and British Library to find out more.
A quick whizz round the internet suggests that Rook is at least documented, even an article on him by HHS. I envy you! What nuggets did you discover on him?
Where do I begin!
Self promotion ... Rook builds and lives at Charleville in Cecil Road, which still is still an imposing semi-detached double fronted house. His likeness is carved into the decorative plasterwork above the bay window of the house as well as above the door and a frieze under the second floor window shows his hand clasped with his wife's hand.
Charles Rook the tea totaller .... He is reported to have stood before a local licensing bench to support Frank Snell's application to sell beer off-license. Charles declares that he 'has built more houses than anyone else in North London'
His death is reported as a building accident in Islington but his death certificate atates he dies of [at that time] a socially unacceptable disease.
Within days of Charles' death his eldest son emigrated to Australia closely followed by the four other surviving sons. None of the family appears to have carried on the family business.
I am hoping to write an article about him.
Following additional information from Dick Harris, and incorporating the other info from Joe, I have revised the map of the Davis Brothers developments on the Ladder. Those shown in red are the ones for which we have some kind of documentary evidence. The one in blue are houses suspected of being Davis developments.
Joe also has evidence suggesting that the Davises built the first dozen houses on the south side of Warham to the east of the Passage. This means that we have a builder who built at least 100 houses in the central parts of the Ladder.
So whilst it is still true that the Ladder was developed piecemeal by small developers, this opens the possibility that it might not have been quite as haphazard as has been thought.
I've just had confirmation that Davis also built 139 Wightman. So, we can extend that red boundary south along Wightman to at least as far as Warham. There's a change in house style after number 125. Could that have been the limit of his properties on Wightman?
What a story, Hugh! And all from the discovery of what was under that plaque!
Whilst looking for something completely different, I came across the following piece about John Davis from London North Mercury and Crouch End Observer August 14,1903. So thought I'd add it here to supplement the info above.
The parts about Davis run from 3 paras up in the first column to the end of the second para in the second column. One of the things we learn is that he was another builder who sought to go into local politics.
I've left the off-topic parts for passing interest.
What a splendid find. As you know, my house was built by John Davis and the 1891 and 1901 census forms show him in residence. However, in 1911, Charles Tuckwood was in residence and among my deeds is an Indenture of Mortgage dated 16th May 1903 between Charles John Henry Tuckwood of 201 Wightman Road, Stroud Green, commercial traveller and Emily Louise Garraway of 82 Oakfield Road, Stroud Green, widow in respect of a loan of £400 to Tuckwood secured on the property of 201 Wightman Road (known as Abbotsford). It would seem from this that John Davis had sold the place at least three months before the article above. Presumably the article would have mentioned it if Davis had died (he would have been only 49) so he must have moved somewhere else. If this is true, it is odd that the journalist didn't mention it.
If John Davis were alive and building houses today, we would call him a property developer. Perhaps he was just standing to split someone else's vote and got a nice puff piece written about himself in the paper by a friendly journalist to boot.