I went to see Something Very Extraordinary – The Whitten Timber Story at the Peckham Platform in August 2014. This was an archival exhibition exploring the history of a local timber merchant, which included rare images of the Grand Surrey Canal, the subject of my final MA project.
The black-and-white photographs of the canal were very evocative of a different time and way of life, showing men manually unloading timber from sailing ships to barges, little boys catching sticklebacks by the canal (with no adults in sight), canal sides stacked high with timber, old industrial brick buildings and so on. The few remaining landmarks help to place the pictures in context – the old department store in the beginning of Rye Lane, and one of the last remaining working timber yards along the canal, Whitten Timber, which is a family business over 100 years old. The most striking contrast is the number of buildings and their density – where now it’s possible to see the department store from the canal head, the view was once obscured by buildings, and only the top was visible. It also becomes clear that Burgess Park was not a park then, but full of industry and houses.
The photographs were mostly from an era when the canal was already in decline, and some of them show that. In the early days of the Grand Surrey and Croydon Canals, they were also used for leisure boating, having watering holes and bathing places by their sides. But the pictures show no provision for any other but working uses of the canal – apart from the towpath, the sides were not especially paved or landscaped, but paths were formed where people were using the (sometimes very narrow and weedy) sides for walking and children for playing. One picture makes the dangers for children clear – a diver is searching for a body while a crowd looks on from the bridge. Another shows the canal in what is now Burgess Park after it was drained, showing all the things that were dumped in the canal: mostly old-fashioned prams, bits of timber and other waste.
The exhibition also included paintings of the canal by grandfather Whitten, and a fly-through of the canal route as it is now, using a drone. They also used the stacked wood from Whitten Timber cleverly as a way to make tables for a model of the canal and for a children’s art workshop, where they could build their own model of a bridge or a barge.
Seeing the model and the old photographs really made the canal history feel more real and helps in visualising what the canal might look like nowadays, should it be re-built.
Having just read Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, the exhibition made me think how the canal was clearly a masculine space, for men’s work and boys’ play. Women and girls don’t feature in the photographs, there is one of a mother pushing a pram but even then, a few streets away from the canal. One gets a feeling that women (mothers) were happy for the canal to be filled, since for them it represented only danger to their children and maybe to themselves, whereas for men it had other, more positive meanings. The new canal should aim to have a balance of masculine and feminine space, which means not getting rid of all the remains of industry alongside it, tolerating the football fans at Millwall and building in more active sports to prevent it from going too far in the feminine direction – although it should all be safe for children and women.