Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner
The SOLEs of Hackney
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the November 1995 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Hackney today is a densely‑populated inner London borough with all that implies, but it was not always so.
Eighteenth century Hackney was essentially a rural community. For example, in 1756 there were fewer than a thousand dwellings in what now comprises a substantial part of East London. Hackney Marshes, Hackney Downs and Millfields were Lammas land where the ordinary people of the manor had the right to graze their animals for the winter. There were market gardens and nurseries of great renown, and watercress beds irrigated by the Hackney Brook as it drained into the Lea. It became a popular home for wealthy merchants, who kept near a hundred gentlemen's coaches and commuted to their businesses in the City, and it had a reputation as a health spa where the rich and fashionable would “take the air". So great was the carriage traffic that it became necessary to employ armed patrols as protection against highwaymen.
On April 16th 1787, William Sole married Dinah Woodland in the ancient church of St John‑at‑Hackney, originally built as St Augustine’s in about 1290 but rededicated in 1660 to St John the Baptist. Theirs was one of the last weddings to take place in the old building as it was no longer considered adequate for the needs of a growing parish population, and in any case the fabric was in need of extensive repairs. A new, much larger church was built nearby between 1792 and 1797, after which most of the medieval building was demolished and the stone used to build a bridge enabling stage coaches to traverse Mare Street without having to splash through the Hackney Brook.
However, the Bell tower of the old church escaped destruction. Reverting to its former name, St Augustine's Tower is now Hackney's oldest building, appearing as a logo on the front page of each edition of the Hackney Gazette. Fans of the BBC soap Eastenders may have glimpsed a similar logo on the fictional Walford Gazette.
The new church was completed in time for the baptism of their fifth child and between 1788 and 1815, William and Dinah had thirteen surviving children. In the 1811 census, William is mentioned as “a labourer of Clapton, Hackney" and is similarly described in 1823 in the register of St John‑at‑Hackney. In 1815, the family was living in Church Street (now Mare Street), and by 1821, the Soles were to be found in Brooksby Walk, Homerton, a hamlet in the parish of Hackney. We know a little about their children, for example William Henry, baptised 1797, who between 1816 and 1861 was variously; labourer, bricklayer, colour maker, labourer again, and pavior. In contrast, James, baptised in 1802, was a gardener in 1822 and was still a gardener forty years later.
Another of William's sons was John, baptised in 1795, a labourer who married Elizabeth at St John‑at‑Hackney in 1815. John and Elizabeth had five sons including Henry, baptised in 1821 at St John‑at‑Hackney. Henry Sole was at different times described as a fishmonger, hawker, fish vendor and costermonger, and we can imagine him in the 1840s and 1 850s, perhaps meeting the carrier's cart from Billingsgate Market each morning, before hawking his perishable stock around the streets of Hackney. This is the nearest the Soles of Hackney came to a family business as two of Henry's brothers were also involved in selling fish.
By 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the migration of people from the countryside to the towns had resulted in an increase in the number of homes in Hackney to 9,818 a tenfold increase since the survey of 1756. By 1871, the figure had doubled again to 19,355.
By the middle of the present century, the area had changed out of all recognition. There was no longer a trace of watercress beds or market gardens apart from the odd street name, and the wealthy merchants had long since left for cleaner air, their houses turned into sweat shops for the rag trade. Even the humble artisans' dwellings had been swept away and replaced by blocks of council flats. In 1945, John Frederick Sole married Irene Toome in St John‑at‑Hackney, having returned safely after seeing action in the allied assault on Italy. John was just 22, an able seaman who gave his address as HMS Vernon, Portsmouth. In the spirit of the time, his father, also John Frederick, but known as “Sailor” Sole described himself as a "Stoker RN retired", a reference to his own service before and during the First World War John and Irene were to have three children and their youngest, Deborah, would be the last Sole to marry in the church in 1979.
In 1975, John Frederick, husband of Irene and the great‑great‑great‑grandson of William and Dinah, died suddenly, aged only 51. When the rector of St John‑at‑Hackney spoke at the funeral of his widow, Irene Sole in October 1993, it appeared to mark the end of an association between William Sole's descendants and the parish of Hackney which had lasted over two hundred years. The Soles of Hackney had come to regard themselves as Londoners, but they had never moved to London. London had moved to them. When in 1963, John "Sailor” Sole had died aged 70 in Hackney Hospital, the former Union Workhouse, he was literally just a few yards from Brooksby Walk, where his ancestors had lived one hundred and forty Years before.
For two centuries, the present St John‑at-Hackney, surrounded by its churchyard and gardens containing the village stocks and St Augustine's Tower, now in splendid isolation, has watched over the village of Hackney. In its shadow, the descendants of William Sole have quietly gone about their various occupations, seemingly content to sell their labour rather than learn a formal trade. The ones we know about were gardeners, labourers, store men and hawkers of fish. They stoked the boilers of First World War battleships, took part in the Sicilian Campaign of 1943 and endured the Blitz. It is likely that some descendants of William and Dinah still live in the parish of Hackney and without doubt there are hundreds of people all over the country who could trace their line back to William. After all, William had thirteen children that we know of, including seven sons and countless grandchildren of whom at least fifteen grandsons bore the Sole name. If they were all to join the Sole Society, we would have to hold our AGM in the Albert Hall.
We have seen the Surnames Dictionary definition of Sole as "dweller in a muddy place”. Anyone who knows Hackney Marshes or can imagine the Lea Valley before the river was canalised would have to concede that, in one respect at least, the Hackney of old seems to have the right qualifications to be the source of the Soles. But in fact, the earliest mention of Sole found in Hackney so far is in 1760, so it seemed likely that the Soles migrated to Hackney at some time in the eighteenth century.
So where did old William Sole come from?
Many Londoners living north of the Thames as William did, seem to have their origins in Essex, Hertfordshire, East Anglia and the East Midlands. When they began to move out of London again after the last war, they unconsciously looked to the same areas. South Londoners tend to have a similar affinity with Kent and Surrey. In the 1830s there were two Soles living by the Lea in Hackney and describing themselves as bargemen. We cannot yet say if they are related to our William but as we continued our quest‑ we had a hunch we could do worse than to follow the River Lea back to its source, as it winds the forty‑eight miles from Hackney through Hertfordshire to the Bedfordshire border.
William Sole maketh oath that about five years ago he being then a single man he became a hired servant by the year to Mr Dukes at Clapton in the Parish of St John-at-Hackney in the County of Middlesex and that he served him under the said living in the said parish for one year and upwards and never gained any other settlement and that he hath a wife named Dinah 1790
Alice Sole widow of William Sole, son of Thomas Sole, maketh oath that the said Thomas Sole rented a farm at Therfield in the County of Hertford at the yearly rent of £22 and occupied the same for a space of two years then next following and never after gained any settlement and this deponent further on her oath saith that the said William Sole never to her knowledge or belief gained any settlement in his own right nor did she gain any settlement after his decease and that she hath two children by her said late husband their lawful issue to whit Hannah aged 22 years and Alice aged 13 years. 21 January 1791
The clue to the mystery of William’s birthplace lay all along in the parish chest of St John‑at‑Hackney, leaping out of a microfilm viewer one afternoon at the Greater London Record Office. There in the Poor Law records were two different settlement examinations which were to point us in the right direction.
At last William Sole's origins were becoming clear. Reference to the Therfield parish registers and to the extensive charts held by the Sole Society proved that our William and his younger sisters Hannah and Alice were the children of William Sole of Therfield who married Alice South of Sandon in 1753. William senior was the son of Thomas Sole who married Hannah Flack in Layston in 1726, and Thomas was the son of John Sole of Buckland who married Sarah Hale of Therfield in 1692.
We shall never know for certain what made William Sole leave his home in Hertfordshire and settle in Hackney in 1785, but it was probably for the usual reasons, to find employment and hopefully a better quality of life. Nowadays, those same ambitions can work, in reverse, and at least one of William’s descendants has abandoned the city for a home on the Cambridgeshire border, just a few miles from Therfield.
Oh well, so much for being a Londoner!
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