Southwark’s historic villages: Peckham
Peckham appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a very small settlement of just four households – one villager and three smallholders. There was enough farming land to plough with a single team of eight oxen, as well as two acres of meadow. The Tenant-in-chief was the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was Lord or tenant-in-chief to over 30 places in Surrey at that time. Though Peckham was only small in 1086 its mention in the Doomsday book shows that it was a respected and established settlement.
Valued at 30 shillings, Peckham was owned by King Henry I who gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The Earl later married the heiress of Camberwell, uniting the two properties under royal ownership.
Hard as it is to believe today, but in the early 13th century King John was thought to have hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that having killed a stag he was so pleased with his sport that he granted the inhabitants of Peckham the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week-long event at its high point and included wild beasts and birds newly imported from around the world as well as stalls and curios. The Cuming family were known to visit the fair in the early 1800s and purchased items, such as small toys, which became part of the Cuming Museum collection. The fair developed quite a boisterous reputation and it was finally abolished in 1827.
Peckham grew in favour as a residential area and in the 16th century it became home to some quite wealthy people. Sir Thomas Gardyner owned Basing Manor, close to the corner of Peckham High Street and Rye Lane, and wrote of the extensive orchards and gardens nearby which he owned or had access to. With the lack of refrigeration, food had to be grown close to its final market and Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep. Exotic fruits such as melons, figs and grapes were all grown here, some ending up on the royal table. The success of the Peckham farmers is still remembered today in the naming of ‘Melon Road’ just off Peckham High Street.
Peckham was an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their livestock to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in local hostelries, such as the Kentish Drovers.
By the end of the 17th century Peckham was home to around 120 households (a population of 600-700). Although still officially a hamlet some documents from the time refer to ‘Peckham Town’. While this may have been to distinguish Peckham from Peckham Rye, the choice of town rather than village may reflect the increasingly urban character of the area. The population continued to grow over the 18th century and was recorded in 1792 as 340 households (1,700-2,000 people).
Partly due to the poor condition of the roads, a Peckham branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built. The plan was to take it to Portsmouth but it never went beyond Peckham due to lack of funds. The canal entered the Thames at Surrey Commercial Docks and originally carried soft wood on barges for construction. Some timber merchants are still located alongside its course.
Though the majority of Peckham’s residents were employed on the farm land there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard and poverty was all too often the reality for many.
The peaceful country life of Peckham continued to change. In 1833 the South Metropolitan Gas Works opened on the Old Kent Road, which meant some local roads were lit at night, but it was to be many years before most homes had gas.
In 1851, fourteen years before Peckham Rye station opened, communications and travel from Peckham were improved when Thomas Tilling started a horse drawn omnibus service. Unlike most of his rivals Tilling’s horse drawn carriages picked up passengers only from pre-arranged stops. This helped his services to run on time earning them the nickname of “times buses”.
Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses; another fifteen years later he had nearly 1,500. In 1888 he experimented with using pneumatic tyres designed by Dr John Dunlop on some of his carriages. His horse drawn services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed for the war effort.
As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. As the 19th century drew to a close the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments.
To preserve some greenery in the area Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 to be maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. The common proved so popular with residents and visitors that it became increasingly overcrowded on holidays and it was felt that an expansion was needed. Homestall Farm sat alongside the common and was purchased for £51,000 to be opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. And with the sale and closure of the farm the tradition of farming in Peckham drew to a close.
We will continue our look at Southwark’s historic villages in future posts. Next up: Historic Camberwell.