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Where I live… Tooting, Broadway

A series of boots-on-the-ground blogs from the hometowns of our research team

Tooting Broadway is of uncertain origin, but the area was most likely first settled after the end of Britain as a Roman colony in 407 CE. The departing superpower left a power vacuum into which Anglo-Saxon invaders from Northern Europe first pillaged and then settled. The name may mean ‘the people of the lookout place’.

London comprises what is referred to as ‘the City’; that central part originally constructed by the Romans and now housing the financial district and beyond that, a motley collection of villages and towns that, over the centuries, have been gradually absorbed into London. As do many others, Tooting retains the feel of a small town. Perhaps its most famous landmark is the ornate lamp at the main crossroads that proudly assert the independence of Tooting and the presence of London as a distant entity.

Five minutes walking distance from the street lamp, we opened our front door. As per the guidelines of the ‘Where I Live……..’ series, participants must open their front door, walk for thirty minutes and guide you, dear reader, around our local neighborhood. The door once opened admitted a gusty blast of January wind and we turned to face rightwards. This is what we can see, Fountain Road, Tooting Broadway, London, UK.

Maps until the late 1860s show the existence of both a fountain and the Fountain Public House (a bar for those in the US) at the extreme end of the above photo. Where once travelers could sit and sip and enjoy the pleasures of gently gushing water, the road today is a busy residential area and commercial thoroughfare.

A momentary diversion from our geographical tourism.

Whether you choose to blame the poor photo-journalist skills of the author or else the overly cautious accounts department at CCI I refusing to pay for a photographer….please don’t blame seismic geology. There was no earthquake or similar geological drama in Tooting Broadway on the 5th of January 2023 when we undertook this walk of our local neighborhood.

To be clear, the houses are not leaning, subsiding, or shortly due to collapse. The wonk comes only from the limited photography skills of your host and his research assistant.

Tooting Broadway was largely constructed in the very late nineteenth century (the final years of Queen Victoria when Sherlock Holmes still resided at 221B Baker Street). The area was connected to the London tram system in 1903, and the Tooting Broadway Underground (Metro) station was opened in 1926. Good transport raised land prices and stimulated a property-building boom. These neat rows of Tooting housing were duly built. The growing population stimulated in turn the growth of large retail outlets and the construction of the Granada cinema in 1931 (now a bingo hall), which was famed for its cathedral-like interior and was claimed to be the most magnificent cinema in London.

Turning our gaze leftwards, we exited our house and walked the six-minute length of Fountain Road. Facing us here is the quiet repose of Lambeth Cemetery.

Trains, trams, and the underground created affordable mobility for ordinary working people. People moved out of the cramped, unsanitary slums for purpose-built estates outside central London. Mass transport permitted mass commuting. Those neat rows of terraced housing were the product of London’s late nineteenth century transport revolution. These were family houses for the more privileged of London’s workers, the clerks, foremen, and local government employees, those with steady jobs. The social composition of Tooting Broadway residents could be observed as we wandered around Lambeth Cemetery. The Cemetery houses large memorials to the military dead of World War I (1914-1918) and WWII (1939-1945) as well as to those local residents killed in air raids. The residents of Tooting Broadway who died in conflict were ordinary soldiers – Privates, Lance Corporals, Able Seamen or Gunners – there were few of the middle class, University-educated, professionals who staffed the ranks of officers.

Fountain Road housed the quietly industrious, and few rose socially and economically through education into the professions. When locals transcended their humble origins, it was more often through sports and entertainment. A charming feature of London are the plaques attached to houses to commemorate a famous prior resident or a significant happening on the spot. Fountain Road boasts two.

On the left is a plaque for Edward Foster, born in 1886 to a laborer father. Edward spent his life collecting rubbish (trash for those on the other side of the Atlantic) for the local council. In April 1917, at Villers-Plouich, Nord, France, Edward stormed and captured a German machine gun emplacement. For this feat of daring, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for military valor. After victory in 1918, Edward returned to work for the local council, being promoted to Inspector in recognition of his service and died, still a resident of Fountain Road in 1946. On the right is a plaque to Louisa Marshall, born in Tooting in 1885. Louisa started work as a domestic servant but took to the London stage in her teens. In 1906 Louisa met saxophonist Adolph Crawford and formed a musical double act that performed across Europe. After the death of Adolph in 1929, Louisa (now known as Sadie Crawford) sailed for New York as a globally renowned pioneer of jazz. She spent the rest of her life in Washington, D.C and is buried at Mount Olivet cemetery.

Fountain Road was built during the heyday of Imperial Britain. In 1898 as brick was being applied to mortar and Fountain Road took shape, London was awash with news of the ‘heroic’ exploits of Horatio Kitchener. Kitchener was commander in chief of the British Egyptian army. In 1896 Kitchener began the re-conquest of Sudan, which culminated in the Battle of Omdurman and the re-occupation of Khartoum in 1898. Kitchener became the first governor of Sudan and a national hero. Echoing this imperial context, just off Fountain Road is Khartoum Road. Building has always reflected imperial-ruling propaganda, from the pyramids of ancient Egypt down to this humble corner of Tooting Broadway.

Tooting shared with nineteenth century London traditions of urban squalor. When Fountain Road was still a country lane running through fields, nearby was the privately operated school for pauper children. Though very profitable to proprietor Peter Drouet, the asylum had appalling sanitation, which contributed to the deaths of 118 children in 1849 from an outbreak of cholera. The tragedy and national scandal that followed prompted local government efforts to improve the Tooting sewage system. The momentum of government investment in public amenities continued. Just off Fountain Road is Smallwood School, built in 1898 and expanded in 1908. Such improvements in education set off a new dynamic whereby the inhabitants of Tooting Broadway could better join middle-class professions.

A local resurgence of scarlet fever in 1893 led to the purchase of ten acres and the rapid (nine weeks) construction of the 400-bed Fountain Hospital. In 1911 the hospital was turned into a mental health asylum and then, in the 1960s knocked down to build St George’s Hospital. From certain vantage points, one can see the squat mass of St George’s Hospital towering over Fountain Road like a grubby guardian angel. Sitting at my desk and gazing from the window, I watch Fountain Road turn into a busy thoroughfare throughout the day as doctors, nurses, administrators, and medical students walk to work. The Accident and Emergency department entrance is on the other side of the hospital. Still, I can hear the sirens of ambulances taking patients, though thankfully much less often today than during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The terraced houses embody the homogeneity of nineteenth century Fountain Road but now contain an ever more diverse local community – especially in terms of ethnicity and incomes.

According to the 2011 National Population Census, less than half (116 from 241) of its residents are classified as ‘White’ (compared to 90.4% nationally), the eclectic mix includes 25 ‘Pakistani’, 22 ‘Black African’, 27 ‘Black Caribbean’ 1 ‘Chinese’, 13 ‘Other Asian’ and 21 ‘Mixed Ethnicity’. The 2011 Census also shows that the share of social housing (41% of household spaces) – housing owned by the local government and rented to those in need – is double the national average (18%). At the same time, a quarter of the streets households are headed by those from the UK’s highest social grade (‘AB’ in official terminology – including ‘higher and intermediate managerial, administrative or professional persons’.

Fountain Road had its origins in the construction of two and three-bedroom family houses; the housing then was densely populated but decent. The influx (or creation through local education) of professional people onto Fountain Road is reflected in the gradual gentrification of the street. Over the last few years, there has been a gathering pace of houses building an extra story. Once the council has given planning permission for one, there can no longer be question that other such developments will alter the fundamental appearance of an area. Even as housing space is increasing, family size is shrinking. According to the 2011 National Census, 48 of the 74 dwellings on Fountain Road had at most three inhabitants. Rising prosperity and changes in family composition has led to a gradual decline in the population density of Fountain Road.

A continuing drag on the appearance of the street are the large number of properties offered for short-term let – I presume to medical students and doctors and nurses working short-term contracts at St George’s Hospital – such houses have the ambience of general neglect, and dull paintwork common to short term tenanting.

Well, I confess, dear reader! I was allotted thirty minutes to complete the tour of my local neighborhood and collect the photos and inspiration for this blog. The tour took quite a lot longer in practice. Lambeth Cemetery is a large one, and we wandered a good while in order to locate all the war memorials. Also, my research assistant is of more limited stride than I and she required several breaks from research to reflect on our urban sociological history (and to jump into some gloomy January puddles).

So what did we discover?

CCI are interested in lots of big ideas about urbanization, density, agglomeration externalities, the symbiosis between real estate development, transport, and public services, poverty and urban regeneration, and migration (among many others). We found them all using our methodological microscope on Fountain Road. In this small case study that took an hour to complete but took us across a span of several centuries, we found a fascinating story of historical urbanization, world war, and the birth of the Jazz Age.

I don’t think anything was as much fun as those puddles though…….

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