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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

02 June 2015

The White Lady of Camberwell and other London characters

MOST PEOPLE SIT on the port side of the top deck of a bus when they have the choice. That way you have a better view of the shop fronts and of pedestrians as they pass along the pavements below.

Sometime around the end of the 1990s I was on a number 45 (probably) from Blackfriars heading south down Camberwell Road. Something outside caught my attention; in fact, impossible not to notice. It was a woman dressed entirely in white, with a white face and white hair.

As she and the bus drew level I could see from the set of her features that she was a black woman who had applied some kind of heavy make-up all over her face. Her white hair looked matted as if a chalky paste had been painstakingly worked into it. Everyone on the port side of the top deck was looking at her. This was my only sighting of the White Lady of Camberwell.

The other day I came across a photograph of her on a Facebook local history group, but I’ve no idea where they got it from.

The White Lady of Camberwell


She’s hasn’t been seen for some years now. According to some posts on the East Dulwich Forum, her name was Alison, she had a gentle manner, spoke in a polite, child-like voice, and had been traumatised by some kind of serious assault. There’s a recording on the Survey of a preacher at Elephant and Castle who was known locally as the ‘Lady in White’ but they’re not the same person.

Memory plays tricks, especially when distinctive people and events are concerned, but it does seem that very visible eccentrics like the White Lady of Camberwell are becoming rarer in London. Here are some of the others I remember seeing about town.

THE TRAFFIC LIGHT TIMER

I saw him once during my late teens standing on King Street, Hammersmith in the small hours. He was a short man in late middle age, dressed in the shabbily respectable fashion which even then was a relic from earlier times. He held a clipboard in one hand and a pocket watch or stop watch in the other as he looked intently at a set of traffic lights. As the lights went through their colour changes he wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to the clipboard.

A few years ago there was a discussion about him on the Robert Elms Show on BBC Radio London. He’d been seen all over London. No-one knew his name but it was claimed that the Traffic Light Timer was a former civil servant who’d suffered a nervous breakdown.

WEST LONDON’S TRAMP WITH A CART

I first saw him shortly after I’d left school and got a job in an off licence in Turnham Green, west London. He was a tall, well-built black man, very raggedly dressed, who was walking slowly down the road. He pulled a small flat-bed cart behind him, like the sort used by railway porters. The cart was piled high with junk and a line of cars was being held up by him. Some beeped their horns but he paid them no attention.

The pop artist Peter Blake, who lived in Chiswick for a while, recalled the Tramp with a Cart in the course of TV interview, perhaps on Arena or something like that. Blake said the tramp would sometimes square up and adopt a boxing stance to those drivers who got out of their cars to berate him. The last time I saw him was in the back garden of a semi-derelict house near the Hogarth Roundabout. The fence had been smashed down so you could see him sitting in the garden beside a small bonfire he’d built. He seemed relaxed as he roasted something long and slick-looking on an improvised spit.

THE JOKE-TELLING BEGGAR OF CAMDEN

He was an old Irish beggar, short and slight of stature, who made money by accosting people in the Camden Town area and telling them jokes before asking for money. Night-times must have more lucrative for him as he worked the queues at venues like the Underworld and the Dublin Castle. I managed to record him in Camden during 2010 but I haven’t seen or heard of him since.

THE SHIRTLESS ITALIAN MAN

This is someone I’ve never come across but was told about recently by my friend Nick Hamilton. The Shirtless Italian Man has been seen in many different places around London for several years. He walks around briskly in a pair of Bermuda shorts, almost always bare-chested with no shirt or other top on. In the coldest weather he may wear a t-shirt but that’s it. He often carries a bulging shopping bag in each hand and has curly hair arranged in something like a mullet.

Public interest in such people is widespread and often sympathetic. Which London characters do you remember?

ADDITION: Thanks to @frozenreeds on Twitter, who found out the origins of the photograph of the White Lady of Camberwell above. It appeared on the Walworth Saint Peter blog in this post from 2014 and was taken by Lorraine Atkinson.

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