Seven Sisters

There are so many, many places to see in London, the list is endless. I will mention just one for now and then share more in the future. This one I came across a while ago and it is actually an area of London called Seven Sisters, a bustling neighbourhood to the south of Tottenham. It is easily reached by the Victoria Line. But the enigmatic name comes from history and is a tale of ancient shrines, fecund families and most of all, trees. If you head a few paces north-east of the tube station today, you’ll find an unremarkable strip of park known as Page Green. This narrowest of open spaces is enjoyed more as a verdant cut-through than a place to linger. Keep your eyes open though and you will spot this circle of hornbeam trees towards the centre.

A ring of trees which was planted in 1996 by a remarkable delegation.

The first evidence for a circle of trees comes from 1619, as an unnamed arboreal ring can be seen on a land map to the western end of Page Green. About a decade later, local vicar and historian William Bedwell mentions an ancient walnut tree surrounded by a tuft of elms. These uncertain origins have led to any number of myths about the leafy landmark. One story posits a pre-Roman druidic connection, as the Celts often held groves as sacred sites and this one is just next to the ancient Ermine Street. In his book London Lore, folklorist Steve Roud points out the flaw in this tale as walnut trees were introduced by the Romans after the Celtic period. Page Green sounds a bit like Pagan Green, which may also have helped the myth along. Other legends connect the seven elms with seven sisters, sometimes daughters, of Robert the Bruce, who owned land in the area in the early 14th century. Again, sadly evidence is lacking. Others think the trees are an arboreal memorial to a protestant martyr, or a farewell planting by seven sisters about to scatter to the four winds. Myth became documented history from the 18th century as the walnut vanished at some point, leaving the circle of elms and these were first recorded as the Seven Sisters in 1732.

Pictured in 1830, when they are described as standing against the five-mile stone from Shoreditch Church.

They must have formed a well-known landmark at the time, for the new thoroughfare connecting Tottenham to Camden Town in 1840 was named Seven Sisters Road. Their fame was cemented in 1872 when Seven Sisters train station was opened nearby, followed by a tube stop in 1968. In fact the mighty plants have changed several times over the centuries. In 1852, the originals were in a really sad and sorry state so new trees were planted by the seven daughters of a Mr J McRae. These elms lasted just 20 years, when a newspaper described ‘six venerable and withered trunks’, so it is possible that the stumps of the originals were still hanging around. A new circle was planted on 2 March 1886 when local siblings called Rosa, Alice, Amy, Edith, Julia, Georgina and Matilda Hibbert, who were at that time the only family in Tottenham to contain seven sisters and no brothers, did the honours and over the years, the sisters returned to view their handiwork. Matilda’s was the only one that wouldn’t take. According to a later interview, the sister pointed to her withered tree and said, “I’m the doomed one”. Alas, her premonition came true. Mathilda passed away in 1900. Her six siblings lived on, regrouping at the elms each year. Five trees had died by 1928 when three of the surviving Hibberts were recommissioned to ‘make good the deficiency’. The six sisters continued their reunion until at least 1937, bringing along their original commemorative brooches and spades used in 1886. One of these spades can still be seen at the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham. Further plantings took place in 1955, courtesy of sisters named Basten. Perhaps because elms had proven too fragile for the ground, this iteration opted for Italian poplar, and the trees were planted in two clumps rather than a ring. The most recent ceremony drew on the digging skills of five local families, all blessed with seven sisters. This time hornbeams were chosen and the still-standing ring was installed at the centre of Page Green in 1996. These can still be viewed today, although there is no obvious plaque or information board recalling the centuries-old tradition. The only acknowledgment can be found on the nearby tube platforms, where the trees are commemorated in the tiling pattern in the form of a design by Hans Unger, installed when the tube station was built in 1969. Incidentally, these trees weren’t the only Seven Sisters to grace the town as from the 18th century another famous circle could be found in Kew Gardens, but sadly these trees began to die from fungal infection in the late 19th century and the final member was lopped away in 1916.

Seven Sisters is actually a sub-district of Tottenham, North London. It was formerly within the municipal borough of Tottenham but which on 1 April 1965 was subsumed into the new London borough of Haringey. It is located at the eastern end of Seven Sisters Road, which itself runs from Tottenham High Road to join the main A1 in Holloway. It is within the South Tottenham postal district.

‘The Seven Sisters of Tottenham’ by John Greenwood (1790).

The Dorset map of 1619 shows the area known today as Seven Sisters named as Page Greene. However, by 1805 the first series Ordnance Survey map was showing the area as Seven Sisters. The name is derived from seven elm trees which were planted in a circle, with a walnut tree at their centre on an area of common land known as Page Green. The clump was known as the Seven Sisters by 1732. In his early-seventeenth-century work, ‘The Briefe Description of the Towne of Tottenham Highcrosse’, local vicar and historian William Bedwell singled out the walnut tree for particular mention. He wrote of it as “a local arboreal wonder” which ‘flourished without growing bigger’. He described it as popularly associated with the burning of an unknown Protestant. There is also speculation that the tree was ancient, possibly going back as far as Roman times, perhaps standing in a sacred grove or pagan place of worship. The location of the seven trees can be tracked through a series of maps from 1619 onwards. From 1619 they are shown in a position which today corresponds with the western tip of Page Green at the junction of Broad Lane and the High Road. With urbanisation radically changing the area, the ‘Seven Sisters’ had been replanted by 1876, still on Page Green, but further to the east. Contemporary maps show them remaining in this new location until 1955.

Map of Tottenham, 1619.

So the current ring of hornbeam trees on Page Green Common was planted in 1997 in a ceremony led by five families of seven sister, in fact the Seven Sisters is on the route of Ermine Street, the Roman road connecting London to York. In my research I have found references to the ‘Domesday Book’ the Middle English spelling of ‘Doomsday Book’, a manuscript record of the ‘Great Survey’ of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of William I, popularly known as William the Conqueror. The Domesday has long been associated with the Latin phrase ‘Domus Dei’, meaning “House of God”. The manuscript is also known by the Latin name ‘Liber de Wintonia’, meaning ‘Book of Winchester’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in 1085 the king sent his agents to survey every shire in England, to list his holdings and calculate the dues owed to him. At the time of the Domesday Book, the area was within the Manor of Tottenham held by Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria, the last of the great Anglo-Saxon Earls. In the medieval period a settlement grew up at Page Green and the woodland was increasingly cleared for agriculture. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Seven Sisters Road was constructed and the area saw the construction of a number of large houses, including Suffield Lodge, Seven Sisters House and Grove Place. But these fine buildings soon fell victim to the spread of Victorian London and by the third quarter of the century the area had been almost completely built over.

Seven Sisters Market.

Today, Seven Sisters is a multi-cultural area strongly influenced by its location on key road and underground rail routes. Immediately above the tube station is an early-Edwardian department store building, formerly occupied by Wards Furnishing Stores, which traded until 1972. Part of the building, known locally as Wards Corner became an indoor market with a strong Latin American flavour, known as ‘Latin Village’ or ‘Pueblito Paisa’. The site had been under threat of demolition since 2004 and there were plans to redevelop it in 2018, but this action was resisted, and cancelled in August 2021. Part of Seven Sisters is known as The Clyde Circus Conservation Area and this stretches between the busy local shops of West Green Road and Philip Lane. Most of the residential streets between are in the Conservation Area, but not the more modern Lawrence Road and Elizabeth Place. Residents of the conservation area were brought together by the Clyde Area Residents Association (CARA), which holds an annual street party. Its sister group, the Fountain Area Residents Association (FARA), covers residents to the south of West Green Road, namely those in Kirkton Road, Roslyn Road, Seaford Road, Elmar Road, Turner Avenue, Brunel Walk, Avenue Road and Braemar Road. Recent successful projects organised by FARA members include the creation of a community garden at the site of a dated pedestrian ramp. Another community project is the Avenue Orchard and the local community utilised wasteland behind a concrete wall on Avenue Road for planting apple trees, they also held a workshop with local artists to source ideas for how to improve the look and feel of the wall and area around the Avenue Orchard. In 2004 the old Wards Corner building above the tube station was earmarked for development when Haringey Council published a development brief. In August 2007 Haringey Council entered into a Development Agreement with developer Grainger and their plan was to demolish the existing buildings on the site and replace them with a new, mixed-use development of retail and residential units. Except this was met with local opposition and the Wards Corner Coalition (WCC) campaigned for the existing buildings and Latin American market to be retained and improved. The WCC mounted a legal challenge against the plans and, in June 2010, the Court of Appeal quashed the planning permission. In 2012, Grainger submitted revised plans for the site. Haringey Council granted planning permission for the revised plans on 12 July 2012, but after protests the plan was definitively cancelled in August 2021. In addition to the Wards Corner plans, further projects for regeneration in Seven Sisters are planned. Haringey Council’s ‘Plan for Tottenham’ sets out the council’s long-term vision for the area. Plans to regenerate Lawrence Road were put out for consultation and are now partly implemented. Also Transport for London has completed a major project to improve a busy one-way system, the Tottenham Hale Gyratory, that used to pass Seven Sisters station, converting it to a slower, pedestrian-friendly, two-way road. But as I have previously said, the ring of seven sisters is still standing at the centre of Page Green, despite there being no plaque or information board recalling the centuries-old tradition at that site.

This week…
Our world is full of old sayings and I am keeping a note of some for a future blog post. This one caught my eye, it is one said by the grandmother of a a good friend and it is “Shrouds have no pockets”, a proverbial saying found in The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It is probably from around the mid 19th century and means that worldly wealth cannot be kept and used after death.

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