Long lost letters not only unearthed a tale of the building of an iconic Crescent, but also a family secret
03 June, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
Snow on Keystone Crescent
THE packet of letters had been stashed under the bed for decades, in a house that was still owned by the family whose ancestors had built it in the 1840s.
Penned by a builder, Robert James Stuckey, who was responsible for some of the treasured Victorian buildings in King’s Cross, they are letters to his grandchildren Algernon and Vida.
They form the basis of My Dear Little Grandchildren, a new social history of a special part of King’s Cross, by the builder’s great-great-grandchild, Bob Stuckey.
The letters were found at 2a Keystone Crescent, in the Thornhill area of King’s Cross.
Known originally as Caledonian Crescent, it is unique for having the smallest radius of any Crescent in Europe – and also having a matching inner and outer circle. This Victorian architectural gem was built by Robert.
Bob’s father, Derek, was born at 2a in 1916, and it was under the bed that saw his father both come into and leave this world that the letters were discovered.
Derek would spend much of his life living on the family’s Hertfordshire farm, but 2a remained a London base and the family owned property there. A member of the Carpenters Company, he had regular business in the City and the Crescent was a handy spot for him to rest overnight.
Derek requested that on his death his body be brought back to the house and lie once more in the room in which he was born, so friends and associates could pay their respects.
And it was in this room that Bob, a music teacher, uncovered a fascinating family story.
Years later, the family were clearing up the room as it was due to be let – on moving the bed, they discovered a cache of letters.
“Derek never mentioned them,” writes Bob. “Perhaps he forgot they were there.”
Bob still lives a few doors away from where Robert wrote them, knew the papers have been passed down the generations until they came into his possession, but he did not know the secret they held.
The handwriting, in a Victorian style, led Bob to commission a transcriber who had expertise in deciphering handwriting styles. As he slowly read through them, a family story with a deeply personal twist emerged, along with a fascinating insight of wider social mores during a seminal part of the growth of King’s Cross.
Robert was born in 1801, when George III was on the throne and the Napoleonic wars were waging. Robert would have celebrated the victory at Waterloo as a boy – and entered adulthood during the Regency period.
Living in King’s Cross, he would have watched the Regent’s Canal dug out.
The land around King’s Cross – then known as Battle Bridge – was owned by the Thornhill family, and they saw an opportunity to exploit the rapid demand for housing in London at the time, selling off parts of their land in individual swathes to builders and property developers.
One of the letters from Robert Stuckey
One such builder was Robert. The son of a bricklayer from Shoreditch, Robert raised the capital to buy a tract of land and on it he built 110 homes in and around the southern section of Caledonian Road – and its elegant side street tributary, Keystone Crescent.
Bob lives in Keystone Crescent, continuing the family connection to the street whose aesthetics mean it is often used as a location for film-makers.
“When I first moved to London in 1965 to study art, I lived round the corner on the Caledonian Road and I then lived at No 2 in the 1970s,” he recalls.
“I knew about my family’s connection to the area. I used to come as a small child to Keystone Crescent with my grandmother, Eva Smith, in her car from the West Country.
“She would drive up to collect the rent from tenants every third Saturday of the month.”
And his childhood home – Bob grew up on a farm just outside London – contained a number of paintings of ancestors, including Robert, and his death mask, which Bob painted for an art school study.
“I grew up knowing about these people, but I did not know how it all fitted together,” he added.
The letters revealed a hidden world behind the upright and respectable man captured in oils.
Robert’s thoughts range from information about his general health to being run down by a cart “left on the ground, but not run over, only a few bruises, thank God!”.
“The letters are of an everyday nature, sometimes referring to things we can only guess at, and with some expressions of intense feelings,” writes Bob.
Bob Stuckey. Photo: Clare Gordon
And then, the twist.
“They also reveal that Robert had a second family, who our branch never met,” says Bob.
“He had a reputation in the family of being somewhat liberal with his affections, but we did not know the story, nor the pressures, he faced due to the fact he had two families running concurrently at one stage,” says Bob.
Robert’s first marriage was to Hannah Bennewith. The couple had seven children. She died in 1857, two years after the birth of their last child, Horace, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
“She may have been aware she was sharing Robert’s affections with another woman,” writes Bob.
In 1864, Robert married a woman called Sarah Culver, though the letters reveal their relationship ran alongside that of his first marriage.
“Their relationship and childbearing overlapped with his first marriage, their first child being born in 1841,” says Bob.
“Sarah bore him seven children having the surname James.
“Robert seems to have used his middle name as a surname when it suited him.”
The letters of this gentleman house builder, a man whose father had begun his working life as a bricklayer and did well for himself, not only reveals a very personal story, but shines a light on a key driver behind the growth of patch of London. The houses were not slums but decent houses for workers.
“Robert had an impact on this neighbourhood,” he says. “He built homes for the working families who were building King’s Cross. Some where knocked together quickly, but they were decent sized and otherwise well built. They made good homes – we can presume Robert didn’t forget his working class roots. The Crescent was beautifully designed.”
• My Dear Little Grandchildren: The final letters from a Victorian builder of King’s Cross streets. Edited by Bob Stuckey, Impress, £15 inc p&p from bobstuckey.com/my-dear-little-grandchildren/