Sweetbriar Dreams

So where shall we go on our journey today?


My original plan was to have two blogs with one specifically dealing with the huge task of the beginnings of writing a book on the details left behind by my Grandad.  Two blogs though?  Yes, maybe a little too much to handle!

To give you a snapshot, here is some information that I am dealing with.  I have papers, maps, books - it's scary and a magic wand would be useful but not as interesting.  Instead I have my notebook, an organiser, lots of plastic wallets and a camera along with an open mind.  My plan is to just reach into a box and pull out a couple of pieces of paper (not just pieces of paper - do you get it?) and then go on a historical journey and try to put into words a book he would be proud of.  

But first, would you like to see this wonderful man who taught me so much?  May I introduce you to Grandad Tom...
Notice that he always has a camera in his hand or nearby (now where did I get that from I wonder?), and always in a jacket, shirt and tie, no matter what the weather was.

To give you an insight into this man (who was also presented an MBE), I have typed the Eulogy said by one of his friends and colleagues, Bob Aspinall:

"From 1982 until I retired in 2004, I was the Librarian of the Port of London Authority and later the Museum of London’s Docklands Library and Archive.  One day in 1983 I was working in the PLA Library in offices at London Dock House, completely on my own, as all the other PLA staff in the building had been relocated down to Tilbury Docks.  There was a knock on the front door, (which was kept locked form the inside for security reasons) and I opened it to reveal a tall, distinguished looking gentleman, who said that his name was Tom.  He had been given my name and address by the Museum of London, and he wanted to know what information the PLA Library had on Blackwall and the East India Docks.  Although strictly speaking I only saw people by prior appointment, I was impressed straight away with Tom’s politeness and openness.  I ushered him into the Library, little knowing that we were to embark on a relationship that would last for the next 23 years.

I struck up an instant rapport with Tom that day and was soon telling him about the huge collection of records that I was responsible for, and that they were totally disorganised and I had just begun the massive task of sorting them out.  Tom immediately offered to help me in any way he could.  He sketched in his background of being born in Blackwall, living in the East End for many years, and knowing the docks and the river well.  I quickly realised that I had stumbled upon a goldmine of information about the local area, in the form of someone who was not only intelligent, articulate and absolutely genuine, but was offering his services free of charge!

From then onwards, Tom came into the Library twice a week, and with his help I started to sort out the huge collection of disorganised and undocumented records that I had inherited.  The first major job he tackled for me was to catalogue the PLA’s silver collection.  Dozens of items of silver were housed in gigantic safes in the library and also down in the bowels of the building, where they used as table decorations at meetings of the PLA Board.  In later years, Tom used to remind me how I pulled items of Georgian silver worth many thousands of pounds out of baize bags stored in various corners in the Library, like ‘pulling silver rabbits out of a top hat’ he said!  He later told me that he thought it was wonderful that I had entrusted him, virtually a complete stranger, with silver worth scores of thousands of pounds.

Tom was to follow the Library wherever it moved – to Cannon Workshops at West India Docks (1985-1988), then to Poplar Business Park at Poplar (1988-2002), and eventually to the Museum in Docklands at West India Quay opposite Canary Wharf (2002 onwards).  Over the years, Tom worked on most of our major collections – historic photographs and negatives: staff records: prints and engravings.  But by far the biggest job he undertook was cataloguing the vast collection of PLA property deeds.  Even Tom was aghast as my colleague Alex Werner (who is with us today, as are many other MoL staff who knew and loved Tom) and I showed him 160 large boxes into which had been stuffed at random the vellum and paper deeds that had been accumulated by the private dock companies and the PLA.

This was in 1985, and for the next ten years or so, Tom turned this shambolic pile into a completely organised and documented collection, unearthing in the process the oldest deed in our possession, dated from the 1640’s and bearing the seal of Oliver Cromwell.  Treasures particularly close to Tom’s heart that he found amongst the deeds were plans of his beloved Blackwall Yard and the East India Docks.  Tom reckoned that by the time he had finished cataloguing and boxing up the deeds, he had handled over 3 tons of paper!

Tom was the ideal volunteer – from day one he made it clear that he was there to work, not to pass another day’s retirement in as congenial a fashion as possible.  It was a relationship that benefited everybody concerned – we got the benefit of Tom’s diligence and expertise, and he got the opportunity to work with a vast collection of records about his favourite interests, the docks, the East End and the River Thames.  The debt that the Docklands Library and Archive owes to Tom can never be repaid.  Open virtually any box in the Library and you are almost certain to find Tom’s neat, clear handwriting.

On a personal basis, Tom rapidly became everyone’s favourite volunteer.  He was unfailingly polite, charming and helpful.  He had the happy knack of treating everybody as if they were the special ones, not him.  He was genuinely interested in what other people had to say – and in the 23 years I worked with him, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.  The amazing thing about Tom was that, although he knew so much, he was totally unassuming.  It took only a few minutes of being in Tom’s company to make you realise that you had been with a very special person.  Tom was truly a ‘gentle man’, and knowing him was a privilege.  He certainly enriched my life, as I am sure he did the lives of all of us present here today.  Yes, the world is a poorer place without Tom, but we are better and richer people for having known him."

My Grandad was also an Auxiliary Fire Service during World War II by night, and worked for the Ministry of Works by day.  Often sleeping from the East End to Central London on the tube and hoping that someone would wake him up!  His words are now held in the London Museum's Oral Archive on around nine CD's (an extract is here) and also his words on St Paul's Cathedral in The Blitz are able to be watched and listened to at the Museum of London's permanent exhibition.

We still don't know for definite why he received his MBE from the Queen in 1971, but do know it was for his work.  We have to wait a little longer to get the real reason.

So, there we have it, my Grandad, my inspiration, my motivation.  It's not just a piece of paper that I pull from those boxes, it's history, it's a man's research and knowledge all condensed onto each and every page.

What a journey I am going on!


  1. Oh Chel...thank you for posting the photo and eulogy. I feel like I know your grandpa. He must have been so wonderful. Love that he always work a jacket and tie and he looks like such a happy fella in his photo. I only had one grandpa (Willie Mae's husband), my mom's father. My dad's father passed away when he was a young boy. I loved my grandpa with all my heart and soul and have such wonderful, rich memories of him. He has been gone for several years now but the legend of his physical strength is still told around here. At least we have the memories...:) And it seems you have so much history to write his book....and I can't wait to follow along!

    Blessings, Vicky
    Life On Willie Mae Lane

  2. Your granddad sounds like a truly amazing man. Polite, helpful, hardworking and kind - the world needs more people like this. I think all who knew him were blessed.

  3. Have just come across this - and it's stunning. All the luck in the world with your project; he'd be proud of you.

  4. Wow. They were certainly blessed to have your grandfather's services. He was obviously a talented and intelligent man. Your task sounds both exciting and daunting all rolled into one. Perhaps planning your hours will work as well for you as it did for your grandfather.


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