Peckham War Horse Project
I have been fascinated by history ever since dressing up as a Victorian on a school trip once. Actually, I became obsessed with time travel. I was convinced it was possible, if only I could find a way to walk through the thin veil that separates ‘now’ from ‘then’. In 2015 I found a way to do it. A friend (the author Sarah Waters) sent me a postcard with the message, “Isn’t this your street?” written on the back. It was a photograph of Lyndhurst Way taken in 1915, filled with soldiers and horses.
During the First World War, training camps were established all over the country to train soldiers heading for the front. At the time, a brewery stood in what we now know as the Print Village (where Gosnells Mead Brewery is now) and during WWI this was requisitioned for use by the 1st Surrey Rifles, one of the first volunteer forces to be formed. It housed more than 100 horses, and in the Spring of 1915 some of these horses caught an infectious disease. The stables had to be sterilized, and while this was done the soldiers moved their animals into nearby Lyndhurst Road (now Lyndhurst Way). Chancing upon this impressive scene, enterprising local photographer Frederick Alfred Finch of Rye Lane took a captivating photograph and sold it as a popular postcard.
It’s a fascinating picture - strange and compelling - and it began to haunt me; I dreamed about horses in the street and would wake to hear the scrape and clop of hooves outside. It struck me that the centenary of the photograph would be a wonderful opportunity to brush aside that veil and make my dreams a reality; I decided to recreate the photograph.
Under the auspices of the Peckham Society, I worked with schools, community groups and local residents for almost a year before staging the re-enactment of the photograph. I took 37 primary school pupils through their First World War Special Edition Arts Awards. I held workshops and talks, planning meetings and interviews, and I worked with the police, the council and the security forces to make sure the public would be safe.
At 11am on Monday 11th May 2015 local traffic was halted. Though the reenactment was a well-kept secret due to security concerns, a large crowd had gathered to observe the proceedings, and press photographers from The Times, Guardian and Independent vied for the best view. Children from St. Mary Magdalene Primary School - dressed in Edwardian clothing - took up their poses, echoing the children in the original scene. Officers and soldiers from the Household Cavalry lead their horses into the street, and stood where their counterparts had stood 100 years before. Residents dressed as soldiers, artists and working men and women stood in front of their houses. As the street fell silent, 14-year-old Sidney Moon of Nunhead picked up his trumpet and played the last post, the two officers standing to attention in the centre of the road. Then Joey, the National Theatre’s life-sized horse puppet from War Horse arrived, and the real horses spooked, whinnying and shifting to get a better look at him. They soon settled down as their handlers soothed them, and photographer Vipul Sangoi got his shot.
On the strength of that project I started a Community Interest Company with co-Directors Eleanor Street and Rebecca Cole-Coker. Illuminated Arts develops community-centred arts and heritage projects that change people’s perspective, improves their sense of self, enhances their wellbeing and generates a sense of belonging and pride that benefits the whole community. We have organised a number of projects including:
‘Hairlooms’ – celebrating the traditions, symbolism, cultural significance, customs and beliefs attached to the heritage of African hair. With Me’lange hair salon.
‘Hairlooms Extensions’ – working with Southwark primary school pupils to celebrate natural African hair, change perceptions and focus on pride.
‘Peckham Style’ – promoting Peckham’s unique contribution to fashion and style, working with Peckham-based fashion designers and promoting local businesses. Featuring Samson Saboye.
Our latest project is an 18th century opera/musical set in London in 1772, starring local actress and singer Chisara Agor as Sally and highlighting real-life historical characters such as Julius Soubise and Ignatius Sancho. The story is about women’s financial independence and autonomy and women’s freedom – economic and otherwise – and is written by myself and composed by Idris Rahman and Robin Hopcraft (Soothsayers). It shines a light on hidden history, and is part of our wider campaign to reclaim lost stories through research, retelling and reinvention. Following a grant from Southwark Black History Month in October 2019 we took the project to schools, performing songs from the play as well as providing a brilliant talk on 18th century Black History by Taufiq Bakiranze and Adjani Salmon of The Lit Race (https://twitter.com/thelitrace). On 16th October 2019 a signed evening performance was given at Prince of Peckham with BSL translation superstar Jacqui Beckford and singers Chisara Agor, Lincoln James and Axel Kengne. The play will be moving into production soon so look out for performance dates and venues.
Melissa Jo Smith