How Frederick Wirth’s hobby became an incredible archive of Stokey’s past
PUBLISHED: 17:04 23 April 2019
Frederick Wirth left a huge photo archive when he died 40 years ago – much of it depicting a very different Stoke Newington from the one we know today. His son John tells Emma Bartholomew what he found when he delved into his fascinating family history
John Wirth became interested in his family history a couple of years ago as the 40th anniversary of his father's death approached.
Since then, he's managed to trace his fascinating family tree back to the 1850s – when his great grandfather emigrated from Germany to Stoke Newington and set up a bakery.
And thanks to his research trawling through Victorian maps and going on site visits, John, 48, now realises the impressive stash of pictures taken by his father, an avid amateur photographer, were also taken in Stoke Newington.
Now he delivers talks for the Green Lanes N16 association on his discoveries.
“It might sound morbid but I was aware there's only my mum left in my immediate family and she's getting older,” said John.
“I've always been interested in history, and was aware there was a family link to Stoke Newington.”
He's now uncovered just how strong those links are, with eight of his relatives buried in Abney Park cemetery. His great uncle Valentin had a bakery in Boleyn Road, and his grandfather Johann Philipp had another near Angel.
“There was a big German community here and I've never really known why, but at that time there were a lot of bakers who moved over from Germany,” explained John.
“They had long since been naturalised when the First World War broke out but a cousin who had just moved over from Germany was detained in Alexandra Palace as an enemy alien.”
John's father Frederick was born in Lewisham but when his mother died they moved back to Stoke Newington to be near the family.
“My dad didn't think that he'd marry because after he was born his mother developed thyroid problems and a goitre which was poisoning her, and they thought it was mental health and put her in a sanatorium.
“She died when he was six and they told him she was mad, and he must never have children himself. In those days any physical condition was put down to women being mentally unstable and inferior.”
When his own father had to fight in the First World War, Frederick was left with a carer in Aden Grove. “He didn't speak about it. He was always devastated by his mum passing away and he carried a photo of her until he died,” said John.
He attributes Frederick's expensive hobby to the fact he didn't think he'd ever children. “That's one of the reasons he didn't particularly save,” said John. “He liked to give money to friends in need or hardship and he spent his money on photography and travelling. Photography certainly was expensive.”
He started taking pictures in the 1920s, when he was about 18.
“I've got one of his old Victorian cameras, and I suspect it was a present to keep him occupied when his parents weren't around,” said John.
Feeling he had “nothing to lose”, he fought in the Second World War, only to meet John's mother who – the daughter of one of his compatriots.
“He was in his 60s but she liked him because he was an educated, intelligent man,” said John.
“He was 40 years older than my mum and the press turned up at their wedding because they thought it was so scandalous.
“He'd been a family friend since she was a little girl and she fell in love and didn't think it would be reciprocal but it was and he hadn't said anything. They waited a few years to get the approval of her parents. They both wished they'd been a more similar age.”
They decided Yorkshire wasn't the best place to start a family, and moved to Haringey with a view to setting up in Stoke Newington, where Frederick still held office at the Green Lanes Methodist Church. But when the church was torched by vandals they were advised to move further out, so they moved to Colchester where John was brought up.
“The church was found to have dry rot and was being dismantled, and not long after the Borough of Stoke Newington was absorbed by the Borough of Hackney it was vandalised,” said John.
“They were advised the area was a lot rougher and there was a lot more crime, and the community spirit had gone.”
His father's photos are thought to be the only ones that remain of the old Victorian Wesleyan church opposite Petherton Road.
John was just eight when his father died, but Frederick's legacy is his vast photo collection.
“Eventually I'll leave it to the Hackney Archives so it's of interest to someone else rather than just getting lost,” said John.
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