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The history man

When it comes to Olde Greenwich, you will be hard pressed to find anyone as knowledgeable as Anthony Cross. Glyn Brown catches up with the Greenwich Historical Society president to talk Nelson, the Navy and shopping in the 19th-century

Anthony Cross is deeply passionate about two things – Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson and Greenwich. The two, he says, are inextricably linked, and frankly what he doesn’t know about them can be written on the back of a very small postage stamp. We’re speaking in a tiny room high above the Warwick Leadlay Gallery, just off Greenwich Market. It’s filled with an ocean of Nelsoniana, including prints, engravings, books and artefacts. We could be in the 18th century ­– it’s easy to imagine Nelson walking, deep in thought, across the creaking wooden floor.


Cross, a good-looking man with a grey buzz-cut, is considerably taller than his hero. He has a yearning, I later find, to chat while smoking his pipe outside, which makes him look suitably sea-doggish. For now, we’re discussing the gallery’s latest ‘old’ poster, a new presentation of a vintage theme which proudly declares: ‘Greenwich – an emporium of shrimps, a reservoir of beer!’


“It’s from the late 1870s, a book called The Sea: Its Stirring Story of Adventure by Frederick Whymper. And he quotes the phrase which best describes Greenwich.” Sounds like Brighton, I say. And would the shrimps be shipped in? They wouldn’t get them from the Thames, surely? “I don’t know. They got their whitebait from it. And as for the phrase – well, that’s Greenwich, certainly. It’s London’s seaside – it was then and, to an extent, it still is.”


And if Greenwich means the sea, that explains why, to Cross, Nelson and this place are synonymous. “It goes back to when Nelson died at Trafalgar in October 1805. His body is brought home, and is landed at Greenwich on Christmas Eve. In January 1806, he lies in state for three days in the Painted Hall, and tens of thousands come to pay their respects.”


Having read up on this, I realise that what Nelson received was sheer adulation and hero-worship. Handsome, brave and talented, he was the rock star or David Beckham of his day. Cross smiles. “Absolutely.”

History comes to life
Cross wasn’t born in Greenwich, but in Stratford, Warwickshire – “about as far from the sea as you can get in this country”. He studied history at York university, and there met a girl, Sarah, who was from Blackheath.


“She introduced me to Greenwich,” he says. “I first came here, I suppose, in about 1978, so I’d be 23. It was a summer evening, and we had a pint in the Coach and Horses in the market. And I sat there and soaked up an atmosphere which seemed tangible.” He’s almost misty-eyed. “I loved history, was quite sensitive to it, and I knew this was a special place. What I say these days is you have to be careful where you put your foot in Greenwich, because you’ll tread on history.”


After graduating, Cross followed Sarah (who he would one day marry) to London. “And in The Mercury I saw a little box advertisement. It read ‘artistically talented young man’ – because you could say that in those days – ‘wanted for work in gallery’. I thought, ‘that’ll pay the rent, and one day I’ll get a proper job’.” He smirks. “Which day I’m still fending off.”


The ad, of course, was posted by Warwick Leadlay himself. “The next week, I’m standing with a broom in my hand, sweeping Warwick’s gallery.” He grins. “And I was completely happy.” For several reasons. Cross loved the antique maps and drawings on the walls – “a visualisation of history”. He enjoyed the practical craftsmanship of picture framing in the workshop. And Leadlay turned out to be an excellent employer. “He was benevolent and understanding. He took me on as a callow youth, taught me the business – and eventually presented it to me [on Leadlay’s retirement, Cross became director].”


Cross knew about Nelson, and that he was “part of the fabric of Greenwich – Nelson Road, the Trafalgar, the Hardy, the naval establishment” – but his abiding interest began when Leadlay brought back a portfolio of memorabilia from the States. Cross produced a catalogue in the form of an illustrated biography, then another. “I realised that I had been sucked in. The man was a hero, but a flawed one – a very British thing to be. Outspoken, vain, volatile, but a great leader and thinker. He inspired others, and he broke the rules. I admire that.”

Glittering Greenwich
The fascination for Greenwich took longer, but bit deep. “Gradually, I began to realise how fascinating local history could be. In Greenwich, there’s a royal connection – but far more precious is the history of the everyday.”


Cross’s authority developed to the point that he is now President of the Greenwich Historical Society. “It’s a community of real enthusiasts. We put together seven talks a year, in spring and autumn, and my task is to orchestrate those talks so that they’re edifying but also entertaining.”


Cross also gives an annual president’s address, and in the course of research for this, he came across something marvellous – a scrapbook of billheads and trade cards of Greenwich in the 19th century. There are tons of them.


‘Because Greenwich in about 1840 would have been the Bluewater of its day. Much of it was newly built. It had wide streets, lovely tall buildings with glass windows, it was beautifully gas-lit. Most of all, in a city full of grimy, maybe disreputable markets and shops, it was regulated. The Royal Navy’s still here so there’s a book of rules for what you sell and how you sell it – as it says above the market, ‘a false balance is an abomination to the Lord’. So you trade fairly.


“And the range was immense. As well as the market and the ritzy shopkeepers, traders and bankers on Nelson Road, you had similar shops in Stockwell Street, and leading round from that, from St Alfege Church to the new railway station, was London Street. “There’s barely evidence of that road now, but in 1840 it was lined with shops and pubs.” 


He takes down the scrapbook and turns the pages, showing me the small, delicately-illustrated cards. There were makers of boots and fine shoes. Stylish shops selling dresses and gowns. Milliners and glovemakers, butchers and bakers, the printer Henry Richardson – whose shop stood where Pizza Express is now – a bustling little town in one road, now quite gone, but the cards bring them back in your mind to busy, noisy life.


Cross and I shake hands and I step outside, and have to shake my head to get it into the 21st century. Under my feet, the history seems more real than ever – and even more cherishable.


Greenwich Historical Society
Founded as the Greenwich Antiquarian Society in 1905, the society meets to explore, share and delight in the history of this area. A series of illustrated talks takes place in spring and autumn, with occasional guided walks and visits in summer.


Meetings are held at 7.30pm on the fourth Wednesday of the following months: January, February, March and April; September, October and November. 


The location is Blackheath High School, Vanbrugh Park. Non-members are welcome; a donation of £3 each meeting is invited.
For more information, visit www.ghsoc.co.uk.

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