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Website enquiry

From time to time, people around the world who’ve seen this website send us queries about some aspect of local history, often concerning ancestry, and we try to answer them as best we can. One of the more unusual requests came from Shepherd & Derom Galleries of New York earlier this year, asking if we could identify a painting they have, simply titled A View at Waltham Abbey. It didn’t take long for a number of WAHS voices to say “I know where that is” – but before we reveal the answer, see if you too can tell where it is…

Image reproduced by courtesy of
Shepherd & Derom Galleries

Well, it certainly is an unusual view of this town – it’s certainly not the picturesque church or market-place that most artists go for. Some might even not believe that this could be a Waltham Abbey scene – it looks more like an Italian mountain village! But it is of Waltham Abbey, and the secret of its location - which of course you knew anyway - is of course the small stream running along the western side of the Town Hall, looking north.

Shown in the painting is one of the two short branches of the Cornmill Stream, just after it branches into two near the Vicarage, where the old pin mill used to stand. Signs of where the mill’s two great water-wheels once turned, each supplied by its own separately sluiced channel, can still be seen there. But there is one building shown in the painting which has changed remarkably little today: beyond the end of the stream stands what was then annd still is now the Crown public house. Though it stands on the Romeland, its rear wall is quite recogniseable in this view, which means that it must then have been visible from the stream, presumably through the (now boarded up) gap between No.s 12 and 14 Highbridge Street.


Camp's Alley

Out of view in the painting, but visible in this modern photo of the same scene, runs the other branch of Cornmill Stream, flowing from right to left, with the first branch flowing towards us to rejoin it, the view of the Crown now obscured by a small building erected over the stream.

When the painting was executed, in the 1840s, the Town Hall had not yet been built, and what is shown instead, to the right of the painting, is a row of cottages backing onto the stream, that were then owned by local businessman John Camp. Camp’s Alley, as they were known, became run-down in the later 19th century and degenerated into a notorious slum area – ripe for being swept away and replaced by a gleaming new Town Hall in 1904.

No wonder – at the time when this scene was being painted, there was no public sewerage in this town, and every sort of waste was carried away by the various streams and channels in this area. Perfect for doing your laundry in, as the ladies in the painting evidently thought. And it looks such an idyllic scene as well! But it is all too easy to tar our ancestors’ ways with an overly sanitary modern brush; the streams have always flowed well, and must have made the centre of Waltham Abbey much healthier than many other such settlements of those days. Just make sure you live as far upstream as possible!

The Artist

The watercolour was painted by George Cattermole (1800-1868), who trained as a draughtsman and supplied engraved illustrations for many of the popular magazines and annuals of his time, as well as for several novels, including The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, written by his friend Charles Dickens. He also learnt watercolour painting and, in later life, oils, and his scenes of medieval chivalry and romance were very well received, especially in mainland Europe.

Despite being considered “defective in solidity of form and texture, and in realism or richness of colour” (Encyclopædia Britannica), his painting of the stream at Waltham Abbey shows a good ability for bringing out the atmospheric light in a scene (as we said before, this one could almost be of central Europe), and for discovering such a scene in the first place, one that no other artist has painted, so far as we know.

True, the structures are very sketchily rendered, in a way perhaps more suited to oil than to watercolour, but they do reveal a sensitivity towards abstract expression of form, and perhaps remind us of artwork of the 1950s painted with a palette knife rather than a brush. This class of painting was yet to be developed when the Encyclopædia Britannica published its opinion of the artist in 1911.

Research in New York

As to what brought Cattermole to Waltham Abbey in the first place, Leanne Zalewski, Research Associate at Shepherd & Derom Galleries, has uncovered some correspondence between him and a Thomas Chapman of Waltham Abbey, who was, according to some joint research by Leanne and WAHS, most likely the Thomas Chapman born circa 1780, farmer of the Abbey Farm, on the site of the present Abbey Gardens. There were some other Thomases in the family tree, which even back then was of old local lineage, but the farmer’s dates seem to fit best with the painting’s chronology.

It would seem that Thomas Chapman may have commissioned Cattermole to paint some local scenes for him, or perhaps was merely friends with him, and the artist painted a local scene on one of his visits to see his friend. But whether the actual raison d'être of this painting will ever become known is anyone’s guess!

Further enquiries about this watercolour may be directed to Shepherd & Derom Galleries at

Some Links:

Shepherd & Derom Galleries

George Cattermole (Encyclopædia Britannica)

For More Information please Contact WAHS





Copyright Waltham Abbey Historical Society, 2007.