An Interview with David Blackwell
By Dr Piotr Stolarski, Ealing Local History Assistant
This month’s post features an interview with Hanwell resident David Blackwell (see picture left), a frequent user of the Ealing Local History Centre at Central Library since the 1990s. David has a love for Hanwell past and present and describes himself as a freelance amateur historian, having consulted and amassed a great deal of information about Hanwell. Besides his passion for Hanwell’s history, David is active in the local community, and has been at the forefront of efforts to save historic buildings in the area. He has been compiling a chronicle of Hanwell from earliest times to the present day for a number of years, and has earned a reputation for being a knowledgeable person who has helped bring Hanwell’s history and heritage to the attention of residents and researchers alike.
Piotr: Thank you for coming in, Mr. Blackwell. Could you please tell me a bit about yourself?
David: I have lived in Hanwell all my life. I was born in 1947, so I’m 68 in September. Hanwell is a wonderful place.
Piotr: Where have you lived in Hanwell, then?
David: First of all, right opposite where I live now, in Cuckoo Lane. Then near the Uxbridge Road for a spell. Then we moved down to Church Road. My dad sold his dairy and established a nursery. Then I lived for a while in Perivale. I didn’t like it there. Eventually, mum and dad moved away, so I moved into digs… Later I was able to buy a flat on York Close, York Avenue [Hanwell]. I then married, Chris my eldest son came along, and we moved house.
Above: Cuckoo Lane Hanwell (c. 1963)
Piotr: When did you get married?
David: September 1978.
Piotr: So you’ve lived in Hanwell with your family since then. What about your work?
David: I have always been a gardener. I did a four year apprenticeship with Ealing, with the Parks Department. I worked for Ealing Council Parks Department as a whole, at Elthorne Park for eighteen years. I was also doing private work.
Above: Elthorne Park (c. 1910)
Piotr: When did you first get interested in history? And how important is history to your life?
David: Very important. How it started was strange. My wife’s aunt died and we had a chance of moving in at 18 Cuckoo Lane. Which we did. We had two houses: we had one, and my brother-in-law had the other. While we were moving, Chris showed me the history stuff he’d been doing.
Piotr: What year was this?
David: We moved in December 1996.
Piotr: So it was the mid-90s when you started getting interested in history?
David: He [Chris] did. I was working all the hours. I knew he was disappearing every Saturday, I wasn’t too bothered. I was more focused on getting the work and the money […] he was showing me stuff. He was mainly working with Terry at the Local History Library – maps, pictures, and history information. I’d always been interested in history generally, full-stop. And I always thought Hanwell was something special.
Piotr: What about Hanwell?
David: Well, I’ve always lived there. It’s a mixture of open spaces like Churchfields and the parks, and the other thing I didn’t understand at the time, is that Hanwell is a total mix of housing. In parts of Ealing houses are demolished, and they build modern stuff. I found out through my research, why Hanwell is still a village.
Above: Hanwell Broadway, late nineteenth century
Piotr: Why is that then?
David: Two things. The 1911 Town and Country Act, when there was zoning. Areas were zoned. Hanwell Urban District Council, in their wisdom, decided to zone areas. Because some bits, like Golden Manor, were going to be factories. And they decided, ‘no’ […] In the 1970s, Ealing Council was going to demolish all the area from what is now old Hanwell… and build something modern. For whatever reason, which I still don’t know, the Council decided not to. I suspect it was expense. They decided to leave Hanwell alone… and not to knock down whole areas, like they had elsewhere in the borough. So you’ve got a mix of all sorts of houses. Which is, I think, unique.
Above: Golden Manor, Hanwell (c. 1910)
Piotr: So you think there’s a special character to Hanwell. Can you talk a bit about your own local history interests?
David: I had realised, looking at Chris’s stuff, that this is what I wanted to do. Coming back to my work, back in 1996, I used to work 9 till 9 in the summer, but in the winter time, say November to March, was the me time when I could come up to Local History and delve in there. It was a kind of carrot and the stick: it kept me going in the Summer, knowing I had the winter to do my history. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, I had a vague idea, and I suddenly hit on the Hanwell Urban District Council Minute Books. I started on that, then I suddenly realised there was a Local Board before that. So I started with the Local Board, at that time writing in pencil on paper (which I still use) as a record. Then in 2002/2003, I got myself a laptop – I wish I’d done it years ago! That’s life.
Piotr: What specific subjects have you been interested in, with regard to Hanwell?
David: I think the church, the parish church [St. Mary’s, Hanwell]. They say it goes back to 975AD, but there was a lot of forgeries put out, to make things older. There was definitely something there from the twelfth century.
Piotr: Are you a church goer?
David: Yes: Hanwell Methodist and St. Mary's Church. All in Hanwell. The churches are the source of a lot of early history. No one else bothered to record it. Like the Hanwell Vestry stuff doesn’t start until 1718 [1780?]. But, some records have been lost. You’ve got instances in [Montagu] Sharpe’s history, [sources which] are not around anymore. But through my research I know that half of what he’s got at the back of his book is accurate, because I’ve found it. But the other stuff is missing […] there are missing books. Sharpe published his Bygone Hanwell in 1924; he must’ve been researching for his, like me. [The sources] must’ve been around when he was searching. But they’re gone now. So I’ve put his stuff that I can’t prove in italics [in my Bygone Hanwell [chronicle]]. But everything else, that I’ve found, I’ve put in.
Above: St Mary's Church, Hanwell
Piotr: Moving on, you did mention Sir Montagu Sharpe, the author of Bygone Hanwell. Could you please describe the purpose of your Hanwell chronicle project, why you’re doing it, and has there been a direct influence on you of Montagu Sharpe?
David: Definitely. When I first started researching, I was just writing out [from it] verbatim, as a resource [with which] I could work from home. When I saw what he had done, I liked the idea. I had to find a format that would [allow me] to find stuff. So I came up with the answer that it’s all one A4 size paper, the left hand column has the subject, the right hand column has the date, and whatever the information is, is through the middle. What annoys me, is that with books on local history, you have to read through a big chapter just to find information. When I do talks, I use my book as a resource, and I can easily find stuff. So I thought, if I can do it and find it easy, so can the public. Eventually I would like it in the public realm. I’m very suspicious – not suspicious, careful – with the internet, because anyone can then claim copyright. My sons unknown to me, last year, did an interim print out: it is over 800 pages so far, and there’s more to go in. It’s in four volumes… which I have been showing to people as I go around on exhibitions. And people have taken an interest, and a few have said ‘how much?’
Above: Inspiration, Sir Montagu Sharpe
Piotr: David, you’re active in the local community. What sort of causes have you been involved in? And how does it relate to your history interest?
David: I feel, being involved with Hanwell’s past, it’s interwoven. I’ve been very active, with others, namely with… the Victorian lights of Hanwell, especially in Churchfields. I remember, it was still in a 1950s/1960s timewarp, and it had a different feel about the place. So I went around taking pictures of the lighting, before they went. I also went around Ealing borough (Southall, Acton, etc.) taking pictures of their lighting, before they went – so that there’s a record of it. When the Wheelie Bins come, I’m taking pictures of certain houses to see the frontage – pre- and post- bins. Most people accept [the change] and there’s no record.
Piotr: Weren’t you interested in old railings and some of the old buildings in Hanwell? Such as the police station and other buildings which have been threatened as well.
David: Yeah. I’ve actually got at home, railings from Elthorne Park, King George’s Fields, and other places. I’ve had a job to convince the contractors that are doing the job that I’m a genuine person who wants to keep it [the railing], not profit for money. Especially King George’s Fields – there’s railings they took down there which go back to 1920.
Above: King George's Fields, Hanwell
Piotr: What about buildings then?
David: With the planning powers now it’s not so easy. As an example, Hanwell Police Station. The developers have accepted with us – I’m part of the Hanwell Steering Group (now the Hanwell Community Forum) – we fight for keeping the exterior of buildings. The developers actually took on board that fact, and there was no argument. The front is going to be retained. Also, Manor House School, we had an understanding with the developers that the front was going to totally stay, with a new wing set back a good metre or two… the problem is the 2008 [economic] crash came and that team got disbanded, and when the firm re-did that project, the porch and stairs were going to be retained. Eventually the doors were saved, but they pushed another flat unit in there. And so we’ve lost the canopy above. They knocked down the old stairs.
Piotr: How do you think the local community fits in with your local history interests?
David: When applications come in that we don’t like, I offer input on the buildings. It goes to the Council, the input of why we are against it. Admittedly it’s not always accepted, but we try. Most people will know, if they want history, to come to me.
Piotr: Indeed. Not only are you interested in researching history, you’ve done a few talks over the years. Do any of them stand out?
David: I did a few talks in the Green Room at [Ealing] Central [library]. Then when I started to get more involved with Hanwell people, I started doing talks at Hanwell library. Hanwell subjects for Hanwell people. Keep it local.
Piotr: Any specific subjects that you have enjoyed?
David: One talk was on Churchfields. That was the first one we did at Hanwell. It went down well. We also did one with Barry Morgan on Charlie Chaplin and the Hanwell Community Centre. Basically, Chris does all the I.T., all the pictures, and I do the talk.
Piotr: Weren’t you also involved in a West Ealing project recently?
David: Yes, it’s the West Ealing Planning Forum. We did [a project on] shops in that area, and have been asked to do another project this year. We’ve had an email to make contact now that we’ve got the [Hanwell] Carnival out of the way. This will be the second year. They have a sort of fun day in Dean Gardens, in September. And all the people come, and it’s surprising how many people came to the History tent last year.
Piotr: So, the West Ealing Planning Forum. What exactly is that?
David: It’s part of the Localism Act. The theory of it is that local residents have a say in what their local area looks like. That’s a simplified version.
Piotr: How do you consider yourself after all these years of activity? Is it more of a hobby, or are you more a local activist, or something else?
David: It’s more than a hobby. I think the word passion comes more to mind. I see myself as a freelance amateur historian… if people show an interest in history, I want them to know, so that they’d appreciate their local area more, especially the Hanwell area. There’s always people moving in. If they’ve never been here, they want to know its history. And they come to me at the events I do.
Piotr: And just to make it clear, what activities are you currently involved in?
David: I’ve been doing Hanwell Carnival since 2000…. in a tent. And this year, because Hanwell’s Heritage was the theme, we were sponsored by the Carnival Committee, given a tent, and a real revamp of the history on A1 sheets so that people could read it all. Last year it was a very good year because of good weather… it was over 400 [visitors to the tent]. I stopped counting on my little counter. But this year we had at least 460. We were in the brochure and by the bandstand, and part of the team. It really went well.
Above: Picture of Hanwell Carnival, (c. 1977)
Piotr: What about outside of Carnival?
David: I do one talk per year. It looks like it’s going to be at Central this year. I do a drop-in centre… at Hanwell Library. The first Saturday of every month. It used to be 11-1, 2-4pm. I did that for one month short of two years. Then I was asked to leave. I relocated to the Methodist church nearby, for a five month trial period… I want to expand into other subjects areas of Ealing.
Piotr: David, you’ve worked extensively with the Local History team over the years, presumably since the 90s. Could you please tell us a bit about how that works?
David: It works very, very, well. Because it’s the only source of the information held safely.
Piotr: Have Local History helped you to do your research?
Piotr: In what way?
David: When I was going through some badly written Vestry Books, someone who’s not here anymore, was very good as deciphering letters. She was better at it than me. That always helped.
Piotr: How do you rate the value of the Local History Centre for Hanwell and the wider borough?
David: It’s essential. And it should never shut. And one person cannot run it properly. It’s not fair on the public. It’s got to be at least two.
Above: Blackwell Dairy, Hanwell Broadway (c. 1910)
Piotr: Is the photograph of the Blackwell Dairy in the local history collection?
Piotr: It’s quite special isn’t it?
David: It is. It was where Barclays Bank was. We did have up to five shops, at one time, the dairy.
Piotr: Does the actual photo show your grandfather?
David: It’s my… The family moved from Princes Risborough in 1899 and set up the dairy. I don’t know how soon they went to that shop. In the early 1900s…
Piotr: Does the picture show the family or just workers?
David: Family. I think it was my great-grandfather.
Piotr: Does this personal link of your family through the ages make Hanwell more special for you?
David: It’s my roots. And it’s linked to how Hanwell was allowed to develop through the centuries, without removing too much of the past.
Piotr: Okay. We’ve talked about history in general, and buildings, what about people? Local people who are still alive or who have now died, or historical figures. Which figures have been most influential in Hanwell’s history?
David: I was asked this for the Carnival brochure, and it still stands: Walter Abbot. He was a storeman at the Cuckoo School in 1870. Abbots are mentioned in the 1780s – I’m presuming there’s a linkage. But you can’t assume anything. There was a John Abbot, and another who was a carpenter. Walter was the handyman at St. Mark’s school [….] He was a bit like the leader of the Council. He was in charge of the highways, a local bigwig. He married into money but was a very basic person. In the early 1900s he was a bit of a bully… there wasn’t much consultation. He guided Hanwell from being a village to what it is now. He was involved with the church, and this and that. There was nothing in Hanwell that he was not involved with.
Above: Hanwell Broadway (c. 1870)
Piotr: So, he was a bit like you, wasn’t he? You did once describe yourself as a troublemaker…
David: If I see Hanwell’s past is going to be lost… I try to save at least the exterior. It would be nice to save a whole building, but you’ve got to find a use for it. If we can save the front, like at the Police Station, with flats at the back, does it matter? As long as we keep it special.
Piotr: Do you think you ever tread on people’s toes in order to fulfil your mission?
David: I don’t tread on toes, but I work with people. There was someone local, who is now dead, who did what I do, but worked on her own. And she never really got far because the Council could pick you off, she was just one soul. She didn’t have back up from other people. I work with a team, I give my information to the Forum, and there’s better people who… I’m not an activist, I’m an informationist. I pass it on to people who can use it as an activist.
Piotr: Do you think that Hanwell has any significance to the history of Ealing?
David: It’s somewhere where people can escape to. A lot of these modern flats are so small, people need some open area to escape to. That’s why Churchfields is heaving in the summer time. It’s so busy. When people live so close… the nearest other place is Horsenden Hill. It’s an escape. Countryside in the town.
Piotr: People think of Brent River Park, the Viaduct, the Canals…
David: Hanwell in the 1980s and 1990s shopping was diabolical. There was over 30% empty shops. And basically everybody said “just go through Hanwell as fast as you can, there is nothing there”. Our biggest asset is our open spaces. We’ve more open spaces… than Northolt, but a lot of the borough is just built-up houses.
Piotr: The shops used to be quite bad. But not at the moment. Is there a community feel here at the moment?
David: They have a Hanwell Traders’ Association, and they work together. We have a fishmonger’s now, there, has come in. And it’s vibrant and they do have events, the traders. The Hootie is one.
Piotr: Is that a rock music festival?
Piotr: Okay. Now, what help has your son been in your research? Can you name other people that have helped you down the years?
David: Chris doesn’t help me with research… This is my enjoyment […] I don’t change anything, I write it down as I find it. I don’t put a slant on it. As it was recorded. I do that bit […] I do all the researching, he then plays around with it, with the maps and the I.T., the pictures. My youngest son, Phil, who is even better than him at that (he went to Uni for that sort of stuff)…. Phil is talking about doing a website now. I do what I’m best at and give it to them, and they always do a good job.
Piotr: What other people have you worked with?
David: When I started back in the 90s, there were people who had been doing this sort of thing before me. I’m just the next one along. Since the 1960s, at least three different other people have promoted Hanwell’s history. I knew them, because Hanwell being Hanwell you tend to know lots of people, which is useful [….] you can build on these relationships
Piotr: Are there any names you want to name?
David: Rolo Watts. Tim Leonard – he was the last one who did an exhibition in Hanwell. I never knew Fred Secombe, the Rector of St. Mary’s, but in the early 1970s, when Hanwell Festival started, he did an exhibition on historic items at St. Mary’s church. And the last exhibition was done in 1986 by Tim Leonard, now dead.
Piotr: And you’ve worked with a few women over the years, in doing displays and other related tasks. The famous piano player, I forget her name now…
David: Gillian Spragg. That was the Ealing Autumn Festival.
Piotr: You’ve worked with Gillian haven’t you?
David: Yes, three years’ now.
Piotr: And what does that involve?
David: Normally, the first year, she came to our Forum meeting. She was doing a project on Hanwell, and she didn’t know about the history… as we were walking home, I had more of a private chat with her and found out what she wanted. Delius [the composer] in Hanwell was the subject. He stayed in Hanwell for 18 weeks with a friend. We did a project on all the properties he would have seen, back in 1892 when he stayed.
Piotr: Could you explain the origin, current name, of your Hanwell Local History Society, and what it does?
David: I realised you’ve got to have a title these days to be taken seriously, especially if you’re talking to the Council. In 2000, the steering group, we did a timeline at Elthorne Park, and formed the Hanwell History Society. After that it lost its way. Eventually it sorted of faded. But me, Chris, and Barry Morgan, we continued, with a stall in Elthorne Park […] there’s no income… Chris and I [fund] the projects.
Above: London Motorcycle Museum, Ravenor Farm, Greenford
Piotr: A few final questions. What were you doing at the Motorcycle Museum, and how does it link to other interests?
David: Call it fate, I was in Local History at Chrismas 2001, researching Hanwell one Saturday [….] this man taps me on the shoulder and asks: “would you like to set up a history museum?” I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. He was looking for someone to be there, because the Council was getting at them for being there on their own.
Piotr: Are you still at the Greenford Motorcycle Museum?
David: I am. People won’t come there. I’ve been operating from there since the start of 2002, in 2006 I was having as much as 750 people though the door a year. I’m now down… 250 people two years ago, last year was 180 people.
Piotr: And what is it you do there, if it’s not Hanwell history?
David: It’s all items – British made items – domestic heritage. I recently changed the name from Greenford Heritage Centre to the Museum of British Domestic Artefacts…. It starts from the 1920s and 30s to the 1980s… it’s a Memory Lane.
Piotr: Final question, David. What ambition do you still want to achieve?
David: I have one… I’m part of the Hanwell Community Centre Consortium. The Council won’t look after it anymore, and we’re trying to see if the Council will let us run in. That place is where Charlie Chaplin was [formerly, the Cuckoo School], is heaving with heritage. I’ve done two sets of talks up there for schools… I would like that to be an educational resource for schools to use in the borough, using the heritage stuff I’ve got in my garage plus the history knowledge I’ve got.
Piotr: Thanks for your time, David.
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