Down by the river
Set amongst the houseboat community on the Thames near Fulham, A.P.Herbert’s popular 1930 novel, The Water Gypsies, portrayed a collection of people at odds with society. The main characters still worked the river as bargees, having spent all their lives with their families on the water, but others had adopted life on water as an escape. Living on or close by rivers was long associated with poverty and bohemian marginality and this theme is taken up and demonstrated in Stefan Szczelkun’s delightful photographic pocket-book, Plotlands of Shepperton, just published.
Stefan grew up in Shepperton and in 1966 and studied architecture in Portsmouth. I suspect his interest in vernacular architecture over-rode a concern with standard architectural forms and theories. Given that he was also a musician who once toured with the wildly experimental Scratch Orchestra in the early 70s, it was not surprising to read that he describes the self-built riverside chalets as being ‘the architectural equivalent of improvised music.’ On that I’m not so sure. If the common factor was just improvisation then a comparison would be fair, but I think the improvisational skills used to build homes and create working settlements or communities, are different from the skills needed to go beyond high culture into the sphere of the artistic avant-garde.
On such matters I am always reminded of Raymond Williams’ distinction between customary and educated experience, and I think these are in play here. Nevertheless, there are genuine affinities. After all, one of the most erudite historians of vernacular architecture around the world, the late Paul Oliver, was also a notable advocate and chronicler of blues and gospel music. As to the Scratch Orchestra, I did hear erstwhile members of the orchestra play once in the early 1970s, accompanying a production of Bertolt Brecht’s rigidly doctrinaire play, The Measures Taken, at The Duke of Wellington pub on Balls Pond Road, with Cornelius Cardew noisily pummelling an electric keyboard for much of the time.
Plotlands of Shepperton adds a vivid and indispensable chapter to the history of housing in Britain, paying homage to people who exercised their right to live decently in the face of bureaucratic opposition. As Szczelkun explains, it became possible to acquire these riverside sites cheaply after the First World War for two reasons. Firstly, because many landed estates were broken up when their owners became unable to pay increased death duties and many of the male heirs to the estates had been killed in the trenches. Secondly, there was a glut of cheap farmland available during the recession during the inter-war depression. As a result, there was a small boom in self-building along the upper Thames, with chalets either constructed wholly on site, or bought as pre-fabricated flat packs delivered by barge from W.Gardam & Sons at Staines.
There was nothing standardised once the basic structure – consisting commonly of two adjacent rooms plus a verandah – was in place. Owners soon started adding decorative flourishes inside and out as an expression of their individuality. They also made a point of not only giving them poetic names – Idle Waters, Wild Thyme, The Haven – but invariably inscribed them on idiosyncratic name-boards. Thus folk art continued. This did not please the planners. Szczelkun cites a Planning Report of 1930 which contends that: ‘The bungalows, by the exercise of every possible eccentricity and mark of individuality, break up the line of the river. Each house has its gable, its weathervane, each plot its fence and railing, its flagstaff, its name-board and its crazy paving.’ In such decorative traditions the Shepperton plotlanders were adopting those of earlier barge and narrow-boat communities, famous for floral and picturesque motifs and fairground lettering. This was something A.P.Herbert picked up in his novel, noting that, ‘Not one inch of these Lilliputian homes was wasted for services, every inch was a decoration.’
Szczelkun has packed an awful lot into his small book, artfully designed as a continuous photographic panorama. Page follows page of colourful riverside dwellings, with fascinating footnotes running along the bottom. Here you can read of the history of the Shepperton plotlands enlivened with a dash of anarchist theory. It now sits on the bookshelf next to another delightful monograph, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, written by Carol Edwards and published in 2009, a present from Rachel Lichtenstein. I can’t better the affecting words of Matthew Fuller printed on the back cover of Plotlands of Shepperton: ‘This is a subtly joyous and thoughtful appreciative book; in many ways a celebration of a thousand quiet victories.’ I completely agree.
‘Plotlands of Shepperton’ is available £10 in the UK direct from Stefan Szczelkun: