Those of us who have read Eloise Akpan’s interesting articles in issues of the Review are well aware that she can write well, but few of us can have expected her to produce such a splendid book about Alderman William Stanley, founder of the Stanley Halls and the Technical Boys’ School in South Norwood. His philanthropy was only possible with the profits from his firm, which manufactured precision scientific instruments from 1853 until 1999.
Eloise has combined material from the late Hugh Byford with a great deal that she has found out by herself. She then turned it all in a racy and fascinating narrative about a local man. He richly deserved to have been knighted for all his philanthropic work, but presumably because he lived South of the River, was never noticed except in his local area. One of the nicest gestures of support for Stanley was from the locals of South Norwood, who paid for and erected that splendid clocktower, not as a memorial after his death, but to mark his golden wedding anniversary in 1907.
Not only is it a fascinating narrative of 86 pages, but Eloise has included illustrations on almost every page, photographic and drawn, and indeed some useful maps. For example, an excellent reproduction of an 1847 map (p. 38) has an accompanying drawing identifying the main places mentioned in the text. She tracked down, and went down to Dorset to interview, Stanley’s last surviving great-niece. She also rang up the Stanley works in New Eltham and asked if she could visit and take some pictures. They said, ‘You’re just in time: the receivers move in next week!’ By an incredible coincidence, she was thus able to see the last week of operation, nearly 150 years after the founding of the firm. Then, six months later, she was able to attend the auction where most of the historic effects were sold.
Strangely, Croydon Council did not bid at the auction, not even for the illuminated scroll commemorating their awarding him the Freedom of the Borough in 1907. But the Council did decide to support the book, as they did the Society’s book on Zola. Of course no book is perfect, and one might mention a couple of niggles, mostly caused by the understandable fault (which some of us share) of not being able to see the wood for the trees. Why, when the back cover mentions Stanley’s astonishing far-sightedness in foreseeing the future, does she bury a summary of his prophecies as item 9 in ‘Appendix 3: Publications‘? It surely deserves a chapter to itself! And why, when the blurb points out his astonishing far-sightedness, does she then quote someone writing in 1903, who had no idea of the future, dismissing Stanley’s prophecies as unlikely and undesirable? One would have liked at least a sentence of her own opinion on the matter! It also might have been nice for Norwood to be mentioned somewhere on the cover. But these are trivial drawbacks, and the book is very well produced, and very suitable as a gift for those who might have an interest in Stanley as a man, and his donation of the Stanley Halls and the Technical School as a lasting benefit to the local community.
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