An interview with Jennifer Brown, author of Front Door to the Past

Jennifer Brown and her partner lived in South Tottenham in a fantastic house on Vartry Road for around 30 years, eventually moving to Barbican in 2014. During their time in Tottenham, Jennifer decided to write a book, Front Door to the Past, which covers the history of the house and the surrounding area. We were lucky enough to get an interview with Jennifer, and she told us about her experiences writing the book which covers over 500 years of history.

Jennifer Brown
Jennifer Brown

What gave you the original idea to research the house?

There were three triggers; the first was on finding, stuffed behind a door-frame, a crumpled page of a newspaper dated, spookily, exactly 90 years earlier, to the day. It had been abandoned by the house builders and it set me thinking about my house and who built and lived in it before us. Second was after a cursory enquiry to Haringey Council about the house; I am grateful to the curator at Libraries, Museum and Arts, who set me on course with a detailed letter about planning permissions given in the 1890s to George Candler, one of the people closely associated with its construction and of many other local houses. Finally, there was the intriguing throwaway quip from a neighbour who shouted, as she walked away, ‘don’t forget to check out the Shackleton connection!’. My detective instincts were in motion and there was no turning back.

This was around 15 years ago, before the current TV fad for such things, so I’m rather pleased to have been ahead of the trend.

What inspired you to turn your findings into a book?

Front Door to the Past is based on extensive social history research. It explores the history and ownership of the Victorian house that we bought in 1984 and of its surroundings in South Tottenham.

The research began as a short investigation but developed and evolved much further, with the obsession growing and leading into countless unforeseen places. Initially it was passing wonder as to who had been previous residents of our then home in Vartry Road. As the research took shape it became a history of a house, its occupants and those connected with its local area. It deals with the land on which the house sits, that surrounding it and the people who owned or were associated with it. The account covers a period primarily from the late 1500s to 2014, a key year being 1897, when the land ceased to be a space but a home.

The evolution from personal research to book was unintended but once I started to build structure into the research, to edit the content for quality and consistency and to make a story out of it, the book somewhat created itself.

What was the most fascinating fact you found out?

There were many! The modern part of the story begins in the late 19th century with the early lives and later arrival in London of brothers Samuel and George Candler, the former beginning a career as a solicitor and subsequently a law partner of Charles Dorman, the latter an estate agent and property manager. Their business as well as family lives are intertwined, and George becomes the builder and first resident of our house. It progresses through the lives of many people – family, locals, neighbours and the occasional famous person, as well as back through ownership of the land under and around the house to discover a treasure of mystery and surprise.

Then, delving further back, I explore the lives, deaths and transactions of earlier owners of the land and others connected to it. In consequence, we encounter a host of names such as Robert Walpole, Samuel Pepys, Oliver Cromwell, Ernest Shackleton, Alfred Hitchcock, Vera Lynn, Kathy Kirby, Bert Ambrose, merchants from the East India Company, bankers and traders from the Lethieullier and other families, together with monarchs, early American settlers and others on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

Maybe the fact that the voyages of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, may have in part been funded from the rents from our house and neighbouring ones, stands out. I did a couple of talks to local history groups on this story.

Did you uncover anything that you weren’t expecting?

I have learned about where I lived, not just my house but my neighbourhood and the history of both. Over the period, I had the pleasure of travelling all around the British Isles and to the USA, visiting various museums, archives, public and other record offices, churches, graveyards and more, tracing and speaking to many people. I have found modern-day family members of the historical characters in the book, all of whom have been friendly and helpful, and I have even managed to connect, across the Atlantic, family members who previously didn’t know that each other existed. This last outcome was especially satisfying when, last year, previously unknown relatives from the USA and Israel come together to visit us at our home.

How long did it take to put the book together?

The process of researching and writing the book has been a fascinating one and although it has taken up much of the past fifteen or more years, I have loved every moment of it. It has been a lengthy and undeniably tortuous experience, however ultimately satisfying and has stretched me, initially an artist and art teacher.

Front Door_cover

What can readers expect to find in the book?

Within every street and local area lie stories of people, buildings, places and events, as I discovered with our house. However, it is not the only one and I wrote in the preface, as every picture tells a story, every house tells a great number of them. My hope and encouragement for others is that, inspired by this work, if they find it informative and enjoyable to read, they will follow and that interest in it from readers will prompt them to search for their own stories about their homes and neighbourhoods, to learn about what has preceded us. In this regard, I can say that, for my research, the help of the kind and knowledgeable staff at and the resources of Bruce Castle Museum proved invaluable.

Did you notice any dramatic changes in Tottenham over the years you lived there?

Apart from the fact that some of the lovely Victorian buildings were demolished and replaced with housing developments, I’d have to say, not much.

We lived in South Tottenham, right on the border with Hackney so places like Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill and Finsbury Park were equally influential for us. As I wrote in my preface:

There is little more banal than a most ordinary, almost nondescript area of North London touching Stamford Hill at one extreme and Seven Sisters Road at another, within it Vartry Road, one of its calmer Victorian streets. Not part of the urban village life of Stoke Newington, nor the busy High Street flavours of Tottenham, Finsbury Park and Wood Green, nor the urban chic atmosphere that parts of Islington purport to have, nor the leafy suburbanism of Crouch End and Muswell Hill, yet the local area touches on and reflects all of them. Vartry Road and the area in many ways embody all that makes London a great city. The Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill, with their sombre clothes and purposeful look, the mix of Greek, Cypriot and Turkish migrants now firmly established, the smattering of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian Londoners in numerous forms, the more recently arrived Polish and other Eastern Europeans and the whole range of other working-class, arty, professional and media types all seem to combine relatively easily with each other.

What are you doing now that this project has finished?

There was a great deal of fascinating material that I had to take out in the editing process and in order to create a coherent story. However, that has prompted the research and book on which I am working now, about an important 17th century banker, goldsmith and jeweller. The good reviews that I have had of my first book have given me much more confidence for the next one.

Jennifer is keen to hear from more local people who can add to the story. You can contact her via her website: www.jenniferbrown.org.uk/contact

You can buy Front Door to the Past via Jennifer’s website or on Amazon: www.jenniferbrown.org.uk/front-door-to-the-past

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