The Time Lord. How One Man’s Love of London Made History for Him.
Peter Stone’s Instagram site ‘The history of London’ has a large, loyal following; a reflection on the way in which Londoners are switching on to the fact that a bit of knowledge about the past only adds to living in the present.
As lovers of all things London, we encounter again and again the various powerful ways in which a house’s story, or the history of its street and area, informs and inspires Londoners in their home-making choices. Peter sat down with Story of Home to talk about his love for this city’s history.
Peter Stone, historian and author
Back in 1975, Peter Stone was working at Virgin Records and looking to buy his first home in London, but couldn’t find anything he liked that was affordable in the dozens of London Estate Agents he went to. Several of his colleagues, including Richard Branson, lived on boats at the time, so Peter and his partner decided to buy a canal boat. It was one of the best home-buying decisions they ever made. They lived happily on the boat for a decade as a couple and then, after the birth of their daughter, as a family, moored at Battlebridge Basin, behind King’s Cross.
“If you’re curious, London is an amazing place”
David Bailey, fashion photographer
“This is where my love of London’s canals and rivers started,” Peter says. And following London’s waterways was one of two influences that led to him becoming an historian. The other was his mum.
“She had an extraordinary memory and at family gatherings she would tell us wonderful stories about London in her youth. She grew up in the East End, in Stepney. She was a fine storyteller and made London come alive. Her stories fired my imagination and gave me an unshakeable passion for London’s history. She’s 94 now, and still sharing tales of London past.”
Hackney Downs, looking east towards Canary Wharf
For a bespoke estate agent in London like us, for whom the stories that make a home unique are at the centre of the personalised service we offer, an historian like Peter, as equally committed to the present and future as inspired by the past, speaks our language.
History extends one’s understanding of a place, and that, in turn, only deepens the love. Chatting with Peter has left us looking upwards to take in the buildings we walk past, reading road name signs to decipher the clues they give as to the area’s history, and appreciating our role as the current inhabitants and shapers of this every-changing, always buzzing, capital city.
“Loving history is not the same as wanting to preserve the past”
“It’s very easy for people to talk negatively about contemporary London,’ Peter says, ‘but one of the things that history tells you is that London has always been in a state of change. There has always been more people arriving in London than being born here. It’s a city of incomers, in terms of its people, topography and buildings. It’s in constant flux. And remember, London was founded by Romans, not by Londoners.”
Loving history is not the same as wanting to preserve the past. That’s why Peter is excited by seeing the development of areas and new architecture being added to London’s housing.
Duncan Terrace, N1
“People changing and improving their homes is an age-old part of London life, and it’s a sign of people wanting to stay where they are, and I like that. There is no status quo in a city, and you’re part of change. That’s a good lesson from history, not to resist change or be apologetic about your part in it.”
After the canal boat, Peter and his wife made their home in Hammersmith, buying one of a row of turn of the 20th-century houses. Next door, there lived a couple in their eighties. The woman had been born in the house and she told Peter about the street, her memories of it being developed, of when there were no houses opposite, just open fields.
“She described how the local farmers at Shepherd’s Bush would drive their flocks of sheep down our street to the abattoir at Hammersmith. I loved that. It totally changed my sense of where and what our home was.
“I wasn’t an academic historian. After working in the music industry, I moved into international business and when I had associates coming to London for meetings, I would offer to show them around. I liked doing this but began to realise that I didn’t know as much as I’d like to know. So, I started to learn and research, and I wrote things down and, in time, was asked to write a book about the Port of London, and found myself a ‘historian.’”
Peter’s methodology is a simple one, that many Londoners will relate to: he walks. He walks everywhere and he looks, observing street names, building design, and making enquiries when he spots any clue that could be a portal into history.
“People making their home here have every right to change things, move things forward”
He and his family live in Stoke Newington now, near to the reservoirs that satisfy his love of being close to the water, and within sight of the climbing centre on Green Lanes which was built as the pumping station for London’s New River. In the early 1600s, London was running out of fresh water, so a canal was built that ran for 40 miles from springs in Hertfordshire to Sadler’s Wells, bringing fresh water in. It was called the New River, and still supplies 8% of our fresh water today. Families enjoying Clissold Park may not realise that the small stream near to Clissold House was once a part of New River.
Clisshold House, Clisshold Park, Stoke Newington, N16
A love of history courses through Peter, matched only by his passion for living in the city of his birth. “I watch people commuting into Canary Wharf, into those towering office buildings constructed on what had previously been a warehouse in the West India Docks where fruit arrived from the Canary Islands, and the simple fact that the name ‘Canary’ has survived, to hint at the layers of history there, tells you a lot about London and should remind people making their life and home here that they have every right to change things, move things forward, and enjoy one of the best cities in Europe to live.”
And it’s not all about the past, he reminds us, pointing out that there is a blue plaque on a house in Marnock Road, Brockley, showing the home of Amanda Grayson. She won’t be born until the year 2210. Amanda will not herself be well-known, but her son will be the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock from Star Trek.
It was this fact that led us to ask Peter who is his greatest hero in London’s history.
“Probably Joseph Bazalgette,” he said. “And to understand why, you need to know about a period in London’s history called ‘The Great Stink.’ As London developed, there was no system of sewers, everyone’s waste was running into the Thames. Industry grew up along the banks of the river and dumped everything into the water until it got to the point where the Thames was a black soup and a breeding ground for cholera. In an extremely hot summer in 1858, the stench from the river got so bad that Parliament had to close. That summer was known as ‘The Great Stink’ and finally prompted the government to do something. Joseph Bazalgette, a civil engineer, came up with the idea of a sewer system for London, which is the sewer system we have today. It involved creating embankments along the side of the river. Victoria Embankment, Chelsea Embankment, they were all created by Bazalgette, to have sewers underneath them. He is the man who saved London.”
River Thames and Butler’s Wharf
“London is an incredibly homely and hospitable city,” Peter says. “It’s not a resource or an object, it’s our home, the place where we choose to take bricks and mortar and create a safe haven, a base. When we lived on the boat, the canal was a real community and there was a thing called the Towpath telegraph, which referred to how news would spread along the canal. To give you an idea of how quickly it spread, the day that my wife went into labour it was early morning. We went into hospital in central London and while she was still giving birth, the owner of a boat out at Uxbridge came into the hospital with flowers and was surprised the baby hadn’t been born yet. I asked her how she even knew the baby was coming and she said word had spread along the canal from King’s Cross to Uxbridge. I loved that. It made me very happy and proud to be starting a family in London, and I still feel that way about this place.”
https://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/ Instagram – thehistoryoflondon