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The Greatest Tooting Tour in History (so far...)

The Greatest Tooting Tour in History (so far...)

Geoff leads the crowd through Tooting!

Geoff Simmons of Summerstown182 gives us his view on The Greatest Tooting Tour In History, which he led during Tootopia...

The rather immodestly titled GREATEST TOOTING TOUR IN HISTORY, part of this year’s very successful Tootopia Festival had a lot of hype to live up to, but boy did it rise to the occasion. It always had the makings of a lively one, since that Lonely Planet story back in August, a lot of eyes have been cast on our little corner of south west London. Why is Tooting such a great place to live? What lies behind it? Many people are very curious and the GTTIH was an opportunity to explain how it had got to this point and to shine a light on some of the worthies who made it all happen. And that needed to mention some of the recent history - made by the children of migrants or those who weren’t even born here. That included the food, the markets, the Mauritians working in social care, the Filipinos at the hospital, the extraordinary community work of BATCA. The inspirational stories of Sadiq Khan and Naser Bokhari OBE, the first Muslim head teacher of a British secondary school – all as much a part of Tooting history as the Lido or pie and mash.

What a joy it was to see so many turn up on a most glorious autumnal afternoon, keen to soak up some knowledge. They could have spent their Sunday chilling to some cool sounds or nibbling on an artisinal avocado sandwich but they were as hungry for history as they were for a Pooja samosa or a glass of Victor’s liberated Pilango cider. I was so proud at the end when someone told me they lived in Bevill Allen Close but had always wondered who they might be. A man-of-the-people vicar naturally, and one who did many good things for those less fortunate than himself - a recurring theme perhaps that still resonates in this area today.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the numbers though – as 2pm approached, I pulled myself up onto Edward VII and gazed anxiously down Mitcham Lane. They just kept on coming. Someone did a head-count at the hospital and it was two hundred plus. My recently-acquired megaphone came in handy but how could I hold it and show my pictures? Step forward the brilliant Lisa who in a typical show of Tooting community-spirit, kept the visuals flowing for the next two and a half hours.  

The crowd gathers at Tooting Broadway Station

There were almost too many highlights to mention. Hanging on to the railings in front of The Trafalgar imagining Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma passing by on their way to Merton Place was a good start. Traffic slowed and buses hooted, curious drinkers put down their pints and cocked an ear. On Trevelyan Road we were all cast back to the dawn of the swinging sixties and the day Tooting was the centre of the pop universe. We gathered across the road from a house where The Beatles stayed before their Granada concert in 1963. Curious about what was going on, an elderly resident came out and told Sheila how she remembered Ringo dangling his legs from an upstairs window while George strummed his guitar on the pavement below. The Constitutional Club, Mary Millington and double gold Olympic hero Albert Hill are the oddest of bedfellows, but they all seemed as one on this glorious historical foray. As I explained, hopefully the GTTIH will act as a taster for more serious discourse on long winter nights at the likes of Tooting History Group.

After a sobering moment recalling the Nutwell Street V2 rocket of 1945, we passed through Bickley Street into Sainsbury’s car-park. Here for a few minutes, we were transported to the mid 18th century when it was once again the grounds of Salvador House. People swooned over possibly the oldest brickwork in Tooting. As we trooped through Salvador Passage to the strains of a Cuban jazz band at the Graveney and Meadow, I felt almost evangelical in my desire to spread the historical word. We could have dallied on Mitcham Road for hours; the cinemas, the library, Joseph Rank and his Central Methodist Hall, the good works of Reverend John Anderson and even better bargains of Mr H A Smith, Tooting’s very own Mr Selfridge (and founder of what is now Morleys Tooting). 

Then it was into Broadway Market where I didn’t have to say too much as it just speaks for itself. From here we emerged onto our very own desert island in the middle of the madness of Tooting High Street, a world of Daniel Defoe and Alexander Selkirk, where the only food is Harrington’s eel pie and mash. Outside the Lahore Kahari we marvelled that this location was once the HQ of William Mellhuish, the sombrero wearing undertaker to whom we should all be thankful for the placement of the Edward VII statue outside the tube station. The King famously had a passion for showgirls and if they’d been contemporaries, one of them might have been the tragic Ruth Ellis who once lived on Franciscan Road. We passed the shimmering minarets of the Al-Muzzamil Mosque, the oldest in Tooting and headed up Broadwater Road. This is ‘Lady Bountiful’ territory, though hard to envisage Miss Eliza Bell, the generous but extremely devout ‘old lady in the big house on the hill’ or imagine how she blocked the building of one of the first cinemas. Its also the location of one of the great Tooting manor houses and its ornamental fish ponds. 

We stopped at The Selkirk to give a mention to Chief Khama of the Bamangwato people in Botswana and wondered if it’s because of our Boer War ally that a nearby road got its name. We weren’t too far away from Streatham Cemetery so of course ‘Great Train Robber’ Charlie Wilson came up. Also there are ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the small number of almost 400 war graves there that commemorate women. Back on Garratt Lane I ended up on a wall not far from Mr Drouett’s Asylum. Here I spoke about boy soldier, Sidney Lewis, also one of Britain’s greatest comedy writers John Sullivan and The Tooting Popular Front. Was he aware that when Citizen Smith trooped out of the tube station he was just a few doors away from what was once the HQ of the Tooting Communist Party and the birth of British Trotskyism? I’d be a plonker to think otherwise.

A big thank you to all who stepped out with me on a most memorable afternoon that I hope can be repeated before very long. There is just so much to mention we could never do it all justice on one outing. Thanks and respect to local historians who have done all the hard work and given me my ammunition; Janet Smith, Rex Osborn, John Brown, Kevin Kelly, Marion and Graham Gower to name a few. Get yourself down to the Tooting History Group, The Streatham Society or the Wandsworth Historical Society to hear some of their wisdom. Mentions also to John and Sheila Hill for their knowledge and support, getting me prepared for the day, and Dipa Patel for unique foodie insights. Finally the indefatigable Loredana who gave me this fabulous platform and whose infectious enthusiasm swept everything and everybody involved in Tootopia along. There will very probably be a statue or a plaque commemorating her in Tooting one day.   

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