Derek Baker was my friend. We shared a deep, some would say obsessive, interest in Stoke Newington’s history, which made the 42 year age difference between us completely invisible. I first met Derek in February 2015 after a mutual acquaintance, who knew of my fascination with Stoke Newington’s rich past, suggested I contact him.
It was great meeting a like-minded person as it’s not really possible to share with those around you your interest in a niche subject you are incredibly passionate about, so when we first met and began comparing notes I wasn’t surprised seeing Derek overjoyed as he said with a big smile: “It’s great to finally be able to talk to someone about all this!”, I most probably replied: “I know what you mean!”.
Having bought every Stoke Newington history book over the last three years I was quite proud of my collection which occupied a whole shelf. Derek had an entire room dedicated to his life’s work. It comprised of dozens of books, old street directories, framed maps and 30 thick red folders he has been compiling on various topics which made up what he referred to as his Stoke Newington encyclopaedia. As I entered his study for the first time I was utterly speechless and couldn’t begin to think where to start. Derek had a 37 year head start so I shouldn’t really have been surprised at all.
During the next twelve months we would meet every few weeks in his study, always on a Sunday at 2pm and I scanned for others to appreciate the photos he collected in his carefully labelled and meticulously organised red folders. I always looked forward with anticipation to our meetings and a chance to catch up with Derek, share new discoveries and see him get excited as I did about newly found old photos, documents and maps. We both knew that the hunt for artefacts and new fragments of information is never ending, and felt utterly exhilarated by stumbling upon anything new that answered a question or better yet, resulted in a new one for us to pursue.
Derek’s collection was amazing and simply incredible. It was a complete one-man archive, a true labour of love. It detailed every imaginable aspect of Stoke Newington’s long history; hundreds of old photos, his surveys of the streets, news cuttings, timelines of significant houses over the centuries, articles he wrote about notable figures and often their entire family history to name just a few items in his vast, ever expanding dynamic project.
Derek created a filing system and handwritten index cards to help him find his way quickly among the many artefacts he collected over a 40 year period. One time I asked him about the history of a particular shop and within minutes he compiled a detailed list going back to 1839. As soon as I put forward the question his eyes lit up and he began going through his index cards, pulling out old street directories, glancing at old maps and taking notes. He relished the opportunity to utilise his vast collection and flick through the folders he so carefully maintained for decades. It was quite a sight seeing him spring into action and noting down dates and names full of excitement.
Having spent his entire life in Stoke Newington, and working as an electrician from the age of 15 along its streets, Derek knew the area and its buildings intimately. His profound knowledge of his beloved neighbourhood’s history was a result of his tireless lifelong study and visits to many homes up until recently. Talking to Derek you felt he knew the story behind every brick in the area. The way he could travel back in time in his mind and describe grand manor houses and pleasure grounds, which stood where terraced houses, shops and restaurants stand today was mesmerising.
To me, Derek was very much a part of the history he loved studying with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy who just discovered his new favourite hobby. He was incredibly kind, generous with his time and knowledge and I shall miss our meetings and phone conversations very much. The people of Stoke Newington lost one of its most valuable assets and best kept secret.
Written on April 1st 2016, a few days after Derek passed away