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Historian who created ‘Holy Grail’ encyclopaedia of Stoke Newington dies

PUBLISHED: 17:26 04 April 2016 | UPDATED: 09:43 07 April 2016

Derek spent 30 years creating his encyclopaedia

Derek spent 30 years creating his encyclopaedia

Archant

A historian who spent almost 40 years creating an incredible encyclopaedia – described as the “Holy Grail” of all things Stoke Newington – has died aged 80.

Derek's encyclopaedia was created over 30 years. Picture: Amir Dotan Derek's encyclopaedia was created over 30 years. Picture: Amir Dotan

Derek Baker began researching the area in his early 40s and continued until his sudden death last week at his Albion Road home.

He leaves behind his wife Catherine Penhearow-Baker, 87, two step-children, 10 step-grandchildren and a study-full of folders containing his remarkable work.

The retired electrician had lived in the area all of his life and claimed to have worked in every building. He could often be seen balancing tools on his bicycle – he never owned a car.

"I trawl through archives and have got a nice little shelf but he had a shrine"

Friend and historian Amir Dotan

Derek’s step-daughter Terese Lawton called him a “very humble and loving man who would do anything for anybody”.

“He was very content in his life, a happy guy,” she said. “He was like a father to me and my brother Bob. He dedicated his life to Stoke Newington.”

The family are now discussing what to do with the collection of local history Teresa said he “adored”.

Derek's encyclopaedia was all analogue, and he used these index cards. Picture: Amir Dotan Derek's encyclopaedia was all analogue, and he used these index cards. Picture: Amir Dotan

She has been speaking with Derek’s friend and fellow Stoke Newington historian Amir Dotan, who Derek had mentioned in passing.

Amir, who has lived in the area for 15 years, became interested in its history in 2013, and met Derek through a mutual friend last year.

“Someone recommended him as an authority on all things Stoke Newington,” he explained. “As soon as I walked into his study I was gobsmacked. It was the Holy Grail.

Derek's encyclopaedia was all analogue, and he used these index cards. Picture: Amir Dotan Derek's encyclopaedia was all analogue, and he used these index cards. Picture: Amir Dotan

“I trawl through archives and have got a nice little shelf but he had a shrine. Everything was analogue – it was quite clear to me I must do something.

“I assumed he would be very protective and wouldn’t want me to start taking things, so I would go over every few weeks on a Sunday for three hours and scan things and post them on Twitter. We would just chat.

“When I last spoke to him I had made an interesting connection with someone from Clissold Park and he was so excited.

Derek's collection of Stoke Newington related books. Picture: Amir Dotan Derek's collection of Stoke Newington related books. Picture: Amir Dotan

“I have spoken with his family about what to do with his encyclopaedia. Unless I built an extension I wouldn’t have room for it.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t just get filed in some basement at an archive. He was very precious about it, he had tweezers for taking things out.”

Amir, who joked he was the Luke Skywalker to Derek’s Yoda, said he was inspired by the passion Derek showed in his old age.

Derek's work. Picture: Amir Dotan Derek's work. Picture: Amir Dotan

“I think he was working until the end,” he continued. “It kept him stimulated, he was digging and investigating rather than sitting in front of the TV.

“He had the most extensive collection of maps, books and old documents, and he had his own filing system with hand-written index cards.

“A restaurant owner once contacted me to find out about the history of his store. I contacted Derek and within five minutes he had compiled a complete list back to 1845 of all the old businesses. You could see how excited he would get, he really enjoyed it.”

Through Amir’s social media presence (his @HistoryOfStokey account has 2,700 followers on Twitter), locals got to know about Derek’s work, which they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“I’ve published about 700 of his photos,” Amir added. “His work means a lot to so many.

“He didn’t have the benefit of the internet and reaching out to people, for him it was quite an isolating experience.

“When we met he said to me ‘it’s good to finally be able to talk to someone about all this’. There was 42 years between us but it was completely insignificant. There’s not many people you can just start talking to in that depth about it all. I’m going to really miss him.”

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