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In the course of studying for an MA in Imperialism and Culture, I have been examining how enthusiastic working class Britons were about the Empire in the period 1870-1914.

Emma Jolly, in the article Naming for Empire

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. Save Camden Local Studies and Archives

    On 19 May 2011, Dan Carrier reported in the Camden New Journal (link to online article) that Camden Local Studies and Archives (Camden LS Homepage) is under threat of closure following the publication of the results of the Council’s library consultation.

    The article stated: “as the results of a library consultation are number-crunched and the Town Hall considers how to cut about 25 per cent of the service’s budget, the archives look likely to be merged with Islington’s or closed.”

    John Richardson, Chairman of the Camden History Society (http://www.camdenhistorysociety.org/) argues the consultation suggested that respondents “were in favour of spending less on local studies, not closing it.”

    It is not likely that Camden can merge its archives with that of Islington as Islington’s Local History Centre (Local History Centre) does not have the space to retain the vast resources that Camden LS currently holds (believed to be 180,000 items). Recent rumours suggest the archive could move to London Metropolitan Archives (http://search.lma.gov.uk/opac_lma/index.htm) However, critics of this move, such as the Camden History Society, point out that staff at LMA do not have the Camden-specific knowledge and experience that current researchers find so useful.

    As Dan Carrier wrote, the collection includes muskets from “the Napoleonic wars to maps of every drain in the borough”. With the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth in a few months time, it is important to note that three Dickens unpublished letters are also held in Camden LS. Many of these items are uncatalogued. In London, the only archive larger than Camden’s is that of Westminster City Archives (http://www.westminster.gov.uk/services/libraries/archives/).

    It is ironic that councillors are looking to closing the Archives as part of a cost-cutting exercise. On numerous occasions, the Archives have, in fact, helped Camden Council to save money. Former chief archivist Malcolm Holmes told the New Journal of one example whereby using some of the old maps in the collection enabled the Council to save “around £150,000 in 1970s money”.

    It is also odd that Camden’s Council should choose to close the archive whilst in nearby Hackney a new state-of-the-art Archives is currently being built (http://www.hackney.gov.uk/ca-archives.htm) The borough of Hackney is just as badly affected by the cuts, and it is unclear why  investments in local history can be made by its Council but not by Camden’s.

    Camden Local Studies and Archives helps a wide variety of people – many of whom live outside the borough and were not party to the consultation. Those who currently use the Archives include: social, economic & house historians, genealogists, economists, journalists, teachers, schoolchildren, students, council employees, lawyers, builders, and authors. For family historians, its collections of parish rate books (dating from 1726),  local newspapers, electoral registers, theatre programmes, the registers of Highgate Cemetery and the photographs of local interest are invaluable. It also holds the unique Heal Collection on St Pancras and the Kate Greenaway Collection.

    Those who have voiced concern about the impending closure, include best-selling author of The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall, as well as Camden New Journal readers from London and beyond. In a letter to the newspaper, Camden resident, Lester May, wrote that, “Camden Council seems set on closing the local studies library and archives service in order to save around £135,000 . . . Thus one of the best resources of its kind in London, perhaps in the country, will be lost and this at a time when more people are interested in their family and local history than ever before. . . The loss of the local studies collection and archive would be permanent. There is sufficient in the council’s reserve of £95.8million for consideration to be given to funding the local studies library and archive service such that it is retained as a local service within the borough, ideally where it is currently located in Holborn.”

    John Richardson states that the Camden History Society “is particularly concerned . . . [about] its closure and its contents [being] shipped elsewhere . . . Camden are taking £135,000 out of the Local Studies budget, in effect making it impossible to function.” He argues further that this not what the consultation response indicated.

    The collections cover the area of the present London Borough of Camden. This includes the history of Hampstead, Holborn, St Pancras, Camden Town, Somers Town, Kentish Town, parts of Highgate, and the parishes of Hampstead, St Andrew Holborn above Bars, including the Liberty of Saffron Hill, St George the Martyr Queen Square, St Giles in the Fields, St George Bloomsbury, and St Pancras. The earliest parish records date from 1618.

    Update 7 June 2011

    Yesterday, on Monday 6 June, I attended a Camden Council scrutiny meeting of the library report. The Town Hall was packed with library and archives supporters. Gillian Tindall, author of The Fields Beneath, spoke as part of the deputation on behalf of the Camden History Society. She said that if Camden Local Studies is closed, it will be “a great loss for future generations” and “would be a black stain” on Camden Council’s record. Holborn Library Users Group was also represented (the Archives are housed in Holborn Library’s building). The group’s deputation argued that the loss of the Archives to Camden would be irreplaceable, and condemned the report’s suggestion that Local Studies provision be outsourced. The speaker further said that no library buildings in whole or in part should be sold without full public consultation. This was greeted with cheers and clapping from the gallery.

    Tudor Allen, Senior Archivist at Camden Local Studies & Archives, told the Councillors present that he would like to publicize the value of the material they hold. He reminded those present that the collection is invaluable.

    One councillor announced that she had to contact the Archives that very day about the oldest Market in Camden for a press release. This only goes to show how essential Camden Local Studies is to the smooth running of the entire council.

    Fiona Dean, the Council’s Assistant Director of Culture, said that they had spoken with the British Library, local university libraries, LMA & Islington about housing the records. However, they were agreed that keeping the archives within Camden is preferred option. Near the end of the meeting, Councillor Tulip Siddiq, the cabinet member for Culture, stated that the Archives will stay in Theobalds Road until suitable accommodation is found for them within the borough of Camden.

    The decision on Camden’s libraries & archives will be announced at Town Hall on this Wednesday, 8 June. Supporters of the Archives are urged to telephone their councillors before next Wednesday to ask them to vote for Option D.

    A full list of Camden’s councillors can be found on the Camden Council website.

  2. The Obituary of Miss Lily Knight: 29 May 1952

    lily-knight-1940

    Lily Florence Knight 1893-1952, seen here in 1940, around the time war forced her departure from the Palladium.

    A number of twitter users expressed interest when I tweeted recently about finding an obituary for my great grandmother, Lily Knight, in The Stage Archive (https://archive.thestage.co.uk).

    Although my great grandmother was not on the stage, our family knew that she had always worked in the theatre world. Her daughter, my grandmother, grew up around the theatre, and Lily’s grandchildren were treated to notable performances at the London Palladium. The tradition continued when my cousins and I were taken for our annual trip to West End theatres during summer holiday visits to Grandma in London.

    Lily adored her work: she became privy to all manner of backstage secrets and met the toast of the London stage. Her life in the theatre covered the music hall period from Marie Lloyd through the years of variety and the emergence of cinema, into the dance craze, the light comedies of Noel Coward, Repertory theatre, and the dominance of classical actors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness.

    The discovery of the obituary filled the gaps in my knowledge of Lily’s career, pinpointing the exact theatres in which she worked and identifying some of her colleagues and employers.

    Lily Florence Knight began life in 1893, in a laundry in Stoke Newington. By the time of the 1911 census, Lily was working as a clerk in the establishment of a ‘Musical Agent’. Although Lily was just 17 years old, she had used all the intelligence, charm and looks at her disposal to make a career for herself away from the laundry in which most of the female members of her family worked. Her ambition was spurred by the contrast between the laundry she called home and the glamour of the early twentieth century stage.

    The obituary revealed that Lily had begun her career even earlier than 1911, when she ‘in her early teens’, working in the office of a ‘William Henshall’ – the aforementioned musical agent. Around this time, Lily married Sydney Spencer and gave birth to two children. In order to keep working Lily retained her maiden name and was always known professionally as ‘Miss’. According to the obituary, Henshall gave up the agency in the 1920s and it was then that Lily began working as a secretary at the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington. During the twenties, the Alexandra housed pantomimes, films (it had been an early cinema for a short period) and circus performances. More details about this theatre can be found at the Music Hall and Theatre History Website: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/AlexandraTheatreStokeNewington.htm Some of its posters and programmes 1897-1935 are held at Hackney Archives (currently being moved to a new location) http://www.hackney.gov.uk/ca-archives.htm

    A few years later, possibly after the closure of the Alexandra in 1935, Lily transferred to the London Palladium – then one of the most celebrated theatres in the world, and in the heart of the West End. The Palladium was celebrated for its variety acts, and from 1935-39 saw a number of performances from the group later known as The Crazy Gang, which featured the composers Flanagan and Allen, as well as Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold. Here Lily worked as a secretary for the managers George Rhodes Parry and (later) Charles Hutchinson. Other acts of the 1930s who played the Palladium were the comedian Jack Benny, singer Paul Robeson, the musicians, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, the actress Ethel Barrymore, the dancer and singer Josephine Baker, and the singer and entertainer Fats Waller (http://www.reallyuseful.com/theatres/london-palladium/history-1 ). It was during this period that Lily befriended the man in charge of bookings and, from 1945, the Managing Director of the Palladium, Val Parnell.

    Valentine Parnell (1892-1972), had begun his career as an office-boy, and later became a famous theatrical impresario and television producer. Val had been born in Hackney, and married firstly Dorothy O’Connell in 1913. In 1911 he was living with his ventriloquist father at 7 Wiltshire Road, Brixton. A biography and photographs of Val Parnell, can be seen at http://www.teletronic.co.uk/val_parnell.htm

    When war intervened, leading to the temporary closure of the Palladium in 1940, Lily took a position at the BBC. A few years later, in September 1943, she moved to the head office of the theatre owners, Moss Empires, working for Charles Henry, the head of the Press department and the chief of production. From 1946, Moss Empires owned the London Palladium, enabling Lily to keep in touch with old friends. More detail on how Moss Empires was run by a small staff at Cranbourne Mansions in Leicester Square can be read at http://glasgow-empire.webs.com/howmossempiresworked.htm

    Jack Sullivan, who had had been away serving in war, returned to Moss Empires and separated the Press department, taking Lily as his secretary. After he moved on, she continued to work for his successor John Carlsen.

    However, this happy period was soon to end. In 1952, Lily was struck down by cancerof theoesophagus. The obituary stated that, ‘After a short illness, during most of which she felt it her duty to carry on until it was impossible for her to continue. She was admitted to the Wanstead Hospital, where, after an operation, she died last Friday, May 23.’ Although it was known she was ill, she had been expected to return home after the operation. Lily’s death in hospital at the age of only 58 was a huge shock to her husband, children and grandchildren. And, as the obituary shows, Lily was to be deeply mourned by her beloved theatre world:

    Her great knowledge of the business and unfailing helpful attitude to the many inquirers day to day were invaluable, and her loss is grievously felt. . . . Val Parnell said: ‘I knew Lily Knight personally for a great number of years. She was a most likeable person, and we shall all miss her very much indeed.’

    The Stage, May 29, 1952, p4

     Further Reading: Christopher Woodward, The London Palladium: The Story of the Theatre and Its Stars (Jeremy Mills Publishing, 2009)

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Member of The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in ArchivesGraduate of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies CanterburyMember of the Society of Genealogists