A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Kip Fenn
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21 - Murder on the Ellison Road, Aleister Crowley's youthful prank and, er, Cow Gum

Bishops Park Road leads into Woodmansterne Road, from where I turn right once into Sherwood Road and a second time into Glencairn Road. Walking under the bridge, I pass a pair of stand-alone garages, one with an old tin bath on top, and turn left into Ellison Road. These bay-fronted houses, semi-detached or in blocks of four, have recessed porches with spiky arches (each one has five sets of embedded tiles, protruding slightly from the face of the arch). Several properties have simple stained glass in the upper sashes of the windows. Some modern houses have been infilled at the back in Rama Close - very close to the railway track. The Neighbourhood Watch organisation is advertised on lamp-posts.

Lower Streatham Neighbourhood Watch and Residents Association, formed in September 2002, publishes its minutes on a website. These show that in the last couple of years there have been concerns about squatters, a possible crackhouse, occasional bag snatching and youths riding their bikes aggressively in groups on pavements. On the day of one meeting at which it was decided to write to the police in praise of recent efforts since the arrival of a new superintendent, it was discovered subsequently that there had been a murder in Ellison Road that very day. Street lighting, the state of the pavements and mobile phone masts also figure prominently on the organisation's agenda.

I continue northwest, crossing the 300 easting, passing by two brown-painted (i.e. red) squatting squirrels set upon the gateposts of number 55. I turn right into Kempshott Road which, apparently, according to the Neighbourhood Watch organisation, is home to a Ministry of Defence building. I zig-zag back northwest along Buckleigh Road, where the actor Roger Moore lived with his in-laws after marrying Lucy Woodward, the daughter of a Streatham cab driver, in 1946. Two years earlier, during the summer of 1944, one of many bombs that fell on Streatham, landed in gardens that backed onto each other from Buckleigh Road and Northanger Road. Today, it is the site of the Immanuel and St Andrew Church of England Primary School. It was built in the 1970s after some prefabs were demolished. Before then, the school was housed round the corner near the Immanuel and St Andrew Church on Streatham High Road, hemmed in by an old rubber factory site. Ex-pupils particularly remember the tiny size of the playground.

It may have been here that Aleister Crowley, the infamous charlatan and practitioner of 'sexual magic', went to school for a short time in 1890. He mentions a Streatham school in his autohagiography, and I can do no more than quote him. 'It was there that occurred the last important incident of this period. Being the star chemist of the school, I determined to distinguish myself on the fifth of November, 1891. I procured a ten-pound jar from the grocer's, put two pounds of gunpowder at the bottom and filled it up with various layers of different coloured 'fires'. These were all - except for the small ingredients of varied metallic salts - of the same composition: sugar and chlorate of potash. In order to make sure of success, I turned the whole household on to mixing these ingredients, with the result that they were mingled so intimately as to produce what was to all intents and purposes chlorate power! I pressed this down very powerfully, buried the jar in the playground, stuck a rocket into the top and lighted it at the critical moment. The rocket had been fixed too firmly to rise and the protecting wad of paper burnt through before I could step back. I neither saw nor heard anything. I felt as if a brush of some warm tarry and gritty substance had been passed across my face; and found myself standing on the brink of a hole in the ground of no mean size. I wondered how on earth it could have happened that my experiment had failed. I remember apologising for the failure and saying that I must go up to the house to wash my face. I discovered that I was being supported on the journey by my private tutor and my mother. Then I found myself in the headmaster's sanctum, receiving first aid. I remember nothing more for some time except the annoyance of being awakened to have my dressings changed. I slept for ninety-six hours with these semi-conscious intervals. My tutor had the sense to wire to Guy's Hospital for Dr. Golding Bird, whose intervention probably saved me from erysipelas and the loss of my sight. In the course of convalescence, over four thousand pieces of gravel and the like were removed from my face; and it was on Christmas Day that I was first allowed to use my eyes for a few minutes. The explosion had been devastating. The windows were smashed for a long way round; and the bottles in the chemist's shop on the railway bridge - a quarter of a mile and more away - rattled, though the passage of trains had no such effect. Strangely enough, I was the only person injured. Throughout I enjoyed the episode; I was the hero, I had made my mark!'

Industrial activity on the site began in the 1820s when a silk merchant named Stephen Wilson, who lived opposite near the southern corner of Streatham Common, built a silk mill. Here he developed looms that could produce intricate silks more efficiently than other manufacturers, most of which were based in the City of London. For a while he profited, and it was only when a change in the import laws allowed an influx of French silk that his operation lost its competitive edge. By the 1840s, the factory was in the hands of Thomas Forster who was using rubber to make fabrics waterproof. In the 1860s Forster joined forces with P. B. Cow (hence Cow Gum) to produce India rubbers. In the early 1890s, the factory was one of the biggest India rubber producers in the country (with 500 employees). After a century and a half, the factory closed down in the 1980s, and the site was sold to Sainsbury's which opened a new supermarket in 1989.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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