On a rainy September Sunday afternoon, passers-by were struck by a gathering on the bridge over the River Ravensbourne between Ladywell Fields and University Hospital Lewisham (UHL).

Why did leading lights of the local community gather to honour a local hero who died in UHL in 2012 – and why did it take so long? Over to Mike Keogh, QWAG Vice Chair and Chair of Lewisham Biodiversity Partnership, who knew Ken and who made it all happen.

 

Meeting on the river

17 September 2023 would have been the 100th birthday of much-loved local historian and QWAG member, Ken White. That name may ring bells as many people have one of Ken’s heritage guides to the area – whether about pubs, water troughs, buildings, canals, or another aspect of local life such as our rivers.

The gathering saw leading lights from across Lewisham – with interests ranging from photography, local history and heritage to nature conservation and river restoration – to name the ‘Ken White Bridge’ with an unveiling of a plaque in Ken’s honour.

Who’ll stop the rain?

At 2pm the rain stopped for tributes, reminiscences, and the unveiling of a plaque on the bridge to a toast with locally-made fizz. Stories told about Ken touched on his profound and prolific contributions to the community and his lasting legacy. Who was this man who could stop the rain?

An early member of QWAG, and the oldest member ever at the time he died, Ken White’s incessant curiosity about the area’s ‘humble heritage’ saw him record local landmarks, features and assets.

Ken also self-published many hand written booklets on a multitude of topics. His much-loved and remarkably detailed guide to the River Quaggy is still regarded as the Go-To reference, and people often say it reminds them of Alfred Wainwright’s books on the Cumbrian Fells.

Ken gave QWAG permission to republish “The Quaggy River and Its’ (sic) Tributaries.” Now in its 4th edition with a foreword and pictures of him as a young and as an elderly man, copies are available from QWAG.

Teetotaller Ken also wrote a dozen detailed booklets on the history of Lewisham’s pubs past and present, many of them no longer exist.

Many of Ken’s other publications are in Lewisham Local History Society’s (LLHS) collection under the New Cross Learning Centre, whose Vice-Chair also spoke of his contribution.

Ken’s lasting legacy

Ken’s Quaggy booklets sell well but his strong legacy extends beyond his writings.

Thanks to Ken’s bequeathing 10% of his residual estate to Lewisham Council’s Nature Conservation Section, every year funds from the Ken White Legacy Awards are distributed to support small nature projects across the borough.

Funds have bought bird and bat boxes, an entrance sign at Garthorne Road Nature Reserve, hedges to support wildlife and store carbon, wildflower plugs for a Community Garden, and much more.

Although the original sums for the annual Awards ran out, Lewisham Council officers running the Fund decided to draw on their department’s small budget to continue the Fund. Attending the event, Lewisham’s Ecological Regeneration Manager testified to the Fund’s value for money and benefits for the community, adding that the simplicity of the application process – rare in the world of funding – was especially refreshing.

Humble heritage

Decades before Google Street View, Ken also recorded our ‘humble heritage’ as a keen photographer. Ken would even find gaps in railway land fences, including on Christmas Day, to take photos of the railways from a different perspective.

A colleague from South London Photographic Society (SLPS) spoke of Ken’s huge collection of photos and transparency slides of ordinary buildings in Lewisham that he knew would disappear one day, as many have.

Ken’s detailed cataloguing of the graves in nearby St Mary’s Church was spoken of by the church Warden, who offered to legally deposit as many of Ken’s different books as possible with the British Library, National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, Trinity College Dublin, and Cambridge and Oxford Universities – I gave him six Quaggy booklets on the spot!

Somewhere there is an actual typed book on the Croydon Canal which also needs depositing. Please let us know if you know where it is.

My own tribute to Ken

Ken had no next of kin, but I managed to secure his ashes, and cycled around Lewisham depositing little scoops of Ken along the way. Ken’s ashes are, for example, at the Roman Road – one of his archaeological digs – between the Brockley Jack and the Honor Oak Crematorium, where many attended his cremation.

The last remains went to Ken’s local allotment where his plot included rare old variety apple trees which would appreciate his ashes. I still have some of his jams (2004 vintage) and his garden in Fermor Road was itself a rare variety orchard. The treasure trove of a garden has been lost since being sold by St Christopher’s Hospice as the new owners covered the natural and diverse habitat with bland grass.

Raising a glass to Ken

It was time to toast Ken and his bridge. Corks popped and fizz was downed. This was not just any sparkling drink, but my vintage ‘Lewishampagne’ made from elderflowers growing in Ladywell Fields itself.

The fizz sparked one final tale of Ken taking his own brew to a SLPS event in a Methodist Hall which was not appreciated by the management.

Informal chats and networking began between those who knew Ken and those who only know of him. Everyone spoke of how they still gain from his approach, resources, and legacy – and see the benefits for others across the borough.

Ken had made it easy for us to gather and celebrate him – for a while. But time was up and as the gathering dispersed the heavens re-opened. That was fine as our rivers and wildlife needed more rain after prolonged dry weather and low flow.

Naming a bridge with no name

The bridge over the Ravensbourne between Ladywell Fields and the hospital was opened in February 2007, but had no name. Since Ken died in 2012 I always thought he could be remembered by naming the bridge after him, and I set out to find who owned it.

100 metres upstream toward Catford, the original William Carver Bridge had been funded by a surgeon in his bequest (his quiet garden is still by the tennis courts), but that bridge was lost when the new hospital wing was built.

Naming the new bridge after Ken made sense for at least three reasons – for his interest in rivers and bridges in general. Most of all, Ken’s last views from his hospital ward were of Ladywell Fields and up the river valley he knew so well to Hilly Fields.

I was the last ‘civvie’ to see Ken the evening before he died. I asked Ken if he was in pain, and he said he was not. Pamela and Lawrence of QWAG had also videoed Ken a few months before his Parkinsons disabled him at home.

I had also helped Ken with some domestic issues in his time-warp of a 1950s house where he had lived caring for his mum for years. Fixing curtain rails, replacing fuse wire in Bakelite fuse boxes, and doing other odd jobs led to me get to know some of Ken’s close and caring neighbours.

Testing the water

After two years of no-one owning up to owning the bridge I ‘tested the water’ by securing some laminated black and white posters with cable ties. Some of these disappeared but I met people who had read them and found them a positive addition.

I started to replace the originals with colourful versions which stayed up longer and were not vandalised.

More encouraging feedback from the public indicated that it was time for a more permanent plaque. I redesigned the plaque for Ken and initially proposed funding it via the Ken White Legacy Fund itself.

Members of the Lewisham Biodiversity Partnership voted for the project application, but QWAG decided to pay from its own funds to allow more sums from the Awards to go to other community groups’ nature-related projects.

The busy bridge sees many hospital visitors take loved ones out to benefit from the park’s greenery, fresh air, and to see and hear the river. It’s well known that patients’ recovery is aided by having more sight and contact with nature including rivers.

The next time you’re in Ladywell Fields or near the hospital, cross the river and pay respects to Ken White on his bridge – and stand by for more local luminaries joining Ken in being honoured with plaques on bridges over our local rivers

Make a splash without getting wet!