The Industrial Revolution created an increase in the middle classes who were both well off and politically powerful, but it also created a huge influx of job seekers to cities. London’s population grew six-fold in the century between 1800 and 1900; sanitation and housing could not keep up with the revolution’s progress. Many people worked in poorly paid, unstable labouring or factory jobs. As Charles Booth’s Survey of London showed, poor communities lived in the shadow of rich ones, untouched by the optimistic progress of the Victorian era. In the late 19th Century, reformers tried to improve conditions by breaking the segregation between rich and poor neighbourhoods – and more importantly, by giving a neighbourly hand up, not a condescending handout. This neighbourly help came from settlement houses – community centres – that relied on live-in volunteers to organise, provide services, and lead courses. These volunteers were usually privileged young people, who gained the opportunity to live and work in urban communities and broaden their horizons. Settlement volunteers and users alike shared their skills and knowledge to help improve the communities they shared.
A number of Southwark’s settlements were founded specifically to meet women’s needs. While poor women faced dire living conditions, many better-off Victorian women (expected to be decorative, obedient, and largely confined to their homes) found their skills and education going to waste. In 1887, a group of women, led by Mina Gollack of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded an organisation to help these young women of education and leisure use their ‘time and talents’ to help others – this ideal was so important that it gave the organisation its name.
Time and Talents London settlement moved to Bermondsey Street in 1899. It offered classes in arts, crafts, cooking, reading, and writing, a library and canteen, clubs for young people, and from 1913, a hostel even provided girls with a safe, supportive place to live. It remains a vital community centre for Rotherhithe today.
Other settlements sought to harness the time and talents of other groups of women. The Women’s University Settlement began in 1887 in Nelson Square: Octavia Hill was one of its founders, and Helen Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) was the first warden.
The Settlement gave female university students the opportunity to live independently as they provided educational and youth services to one of the poorest areas of London. It offered mother-and-baby clinics, youth clubs, and workshops providing employment opportunities for disabled people. After the Second World War, its work expanded to other areas of the community, which prompted its renaming to the Blackfriars Settlement in 1961. Blackfriars Settlement is still an important hub for the community and beyond, located in the heart of Blackfriars.
The Union of Girls’ Schools Settlement (better known later as the Peckham Settlement) was founded in 1896 and first operated from Calmington Road, Camberwell. By the early 20th century, the Union of Girls’ Schools for Social Service as it then became, had expanded to include hundreds of schools all over the country: this made the Peckham Settlement one of the biggest in London. Its wide base of support allowed it to provide funds to other organisations, and pioneer social welfare: the Settlement’s savings club was a model for the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1935, it opened London’s first nursery school, and a government sponsored job club – the first in a charity – in 1987. The settlement had royal approval, being supported by Princess Margaret until her death in 2002 and then the Countess of Wessex until 2012. Although the community centre closed in 2012, the Peckham Settlement continues to fund local charities and communities.
We have mentioned a few of Southwark’s historic settlements in this blog but we have a range of reading material on the history of many others. If you would like to visit Southwark Archives to view this material, please book an appointment by emailing email@example.com.
Alo-Wa was a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark, they formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living and working in Southwark at the time. They were based at the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street.
At Southwark Archives, we first came across the group through a selection of photographs from the Phil Polgaze collection. These photographs document a writer’s workshop specifically for black women, taking place during Black History Month in 1991, where some of the Alo-Wa group attended.
We have been able to speak to two members who were part of the group, Marion Desouza and Gillian Walters, to find out more about the group’s history and activity. The story of Alo-Wa begins with the Southwark Women’s Centre, 2-8 Peckham High Street. Women who formed the group were attending the centre, and were already acquainted with one another.
Alo-Wa formed through an invitation from Wendy Francis. Francis was employed by the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre in Peckham specifically to carry out oral histories. She had heard about the women’s centre, and went down to invite black women to form a new oral history group. The Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre was a community education project based in Southwark who worked with schools and adult groups to reflect on changes and issues in the borough. The centre was located 48, Willowbrook Road, Peckham.
The group started by meeting once a week on a Sunday, coming together at the Women’s Centre where they would share food, and look at the inspirational stories of women such as Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones and Nanny Maroon. When they began to turn to their own stories, they started to use a tape recorder to document their conversations. Marion said, “Wendy was good; she got us to tape everything. It was a good time in our lives.”
ALO-WA’s name comes from the Yoruba term for Our Story. The name of the group sets an expectation for a collective form of storytelling. The group’s main aim was for “self-appreciation and appreciation of others, self-understanding and understanding of others”[i]
During the sessions, they asked questions about one another’s families, and Gillian said it was much about understanding parent’s stories, in order to understand their own. Gillian remembered that a point of inspiration for her was how Lillian had taped her father before he died:
“Her father was of African heritage and came here when he was 19; that was also quite an interesting aspect. The majority of us had Caribbean parents. That was a tie in regards to looking at things to help us understand each other differently. Some of us were from different islands. Therefore, that also incorporated our understanding of people’s experiences and expectations.”
Some of the questions they asked were documented in a book they went on to publish called Our Story (1991).
The Alo-Wa group existed in a wider context of woman’s activity. The international women’s liberation movement of the 60s, which went on well into the 70s and 80s, brought direct attention to women’s histories, and women’s lives.
Marion Desouza was the Afro-Caribbean worker at Southwark Women’s Centre from 1990- 1992, where the Alo-Wa group met. At the Women’s Centre, Marion carried out various sessions to encourage women to get together and discuss women’s issues regarding sexuality, race, and offence. Marion told me it was a very inclusive space. There was also assistance to help women gain access to housing, benefits and pregnancy testing.
The Southwark Women’s Centre was the result of active work during the women’s movement. It was set up through the Southwark Women’s Actions Group linking up with the Southwark Women’s Equality Unit to find premises. A local housing association had four empty commercial units on Peckham High Street, and they said it could be used for the Women’s Centre. This created a very accessible space for women to drop in, whether that be on the way home for work, or, as it was a child friendly location, during the daytime. Alo-Wa’ s Gillian said that she would head there in-between work shifts and that Southwark Women’s Centre allowed her a place to rest, relax and be amongst other women to talk.
Alo-Wa produced Our Story in 1991. They had a book launch, attended by Harriet Harman and the South London Press and, it took place during Black History Month 1991. To produce the book, Wendy Francis ran writing skills workshops for the women, and worked with them as an editor during the project.
During the project, the group applied for external funding which they received and put towards the cost of producing a book to document the group’s activity, and tell stories through writing. In both conversations with Marion and Gillian, they stressed to me that the oral aspect of the project, the live moment of the storytelling and the interactions and relationships that grew within the group, was though the real work and activity:
“We came from a place of being able to verbally say these things, and now you are asking us to write them down and put them in a book. When we spoke to Wendy afterwards, this is about us maturing as people and we stepped into an area that we had some understanding of, Lilian had a small understanding. The rest of us possibly had none. It was about putting it down on paper, in a way that can be visualised by other people. When you tell a story, when you tell a good story the person is having a visual experience of when they read the words. We had never done that, we always used our voices.”
The women went to Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, where they were shown how to use computer software to work out the layout and graphics for a book. After this, they discovered that Southwark had its own printers, and this is where they did the printing for the book. They were shown around behind the scenes and learnt about the paper, grades and ink, and able to see the printing process in action.
During the conversations with Marion and Gillian, they both stressed that the relationships have been long lasting, and that a few of them have managed to stay in touch across the years. This seems like a testament to the group’s activities. Gillian said:
“It would be interesting for all of us to be coming together again. However, would it be that people would wish to be in the format together again, and what would we be discussing? The thing about it is, life goes on. The truth of it is, it was a fantastic experience.”
During the few years in which the group was active, they also worked with the well-known social historian Anna Davin, were interviewed for a BBC radio show by, Nerys Hughes, a copy of which we are still trying to track down. They worked closely with Jackie Holder, from the Willowbrook Urban Studies Centre and alongside others Brenda Ellis, the LGBT worker at the Women’s Centre, Nashmin Sukasad, and Madhu Patel – both at Southwark Women’s Centre. They also worked with Peckham Black Women’s Centre located at 69 Bellenden Road.
At Southwark Archives, we are in the process of digitising a booklet containing texts the group used to inform their autobiographical writing, which may have influenced the writing in Our Story.
Southwark Archives are facilitating a creative writing session on Tuesday 5 October 2021 as part of the Poets in the Archives series, taking inspiration from Our Story.
In 2014 whilst working in Southwark Archives, an ex-colleague Steve, came to me with a card from the card index and asked me if I knew anything about the details on it. On the card was the title of a film – My Little Grey Home in the West by John Goldschmidt, a student of the National Film and Television School. The card stated that the council’s social services had purchased a copy of the film and it was shown at a Welfare Committee meeting on 13th January 1970. The film was about Newington Lodge Public Assistance Institution for the homeless, a portrait of some of its residents. The film was released in 1968, one year before its demolition. I will return to this…
From orphanage to infirmary to workhouse to homeless institution to lodge
Throughout its history, Newington Lodge changed its name and its use several times. Although from 1852 it was the Workhouse for St Mary Newington parish, run by the Governors and Guardians of the Poor, the building started life in 1850 as a children’s home and school. The need for workhouse accommodation however, was becoming desperate and the children resident there were moved to a District school in Anerley. The new workhouse which replaced the overcrowded one on Walworth Road opposite the present day Westmoreland Road, was designed by Henry Jarvis (the same architect who designed Newington Vestry) and constructed on the other end of Westmoreland Road, near to Thurlow Street. It occupied the area of what is now Latimer Block (opposite the Hour Glass pub) on the Aylesbury Estate. The area was called Walworth Villa Estate and was part of Walworth Common.
Men and women were housed in opposite parts of the workhouse. The infirmary was located roughly in the middle and there was accommodation for around 500.
Being sick, having a mental illness, being too old to care for yourself or unemployed and without the financial means to help yourself left you little choice in finding shelter, food or care in 19th Century London. A spell at the Workhouse was the last or only choice, particularly if you were single and unmarried with children. However, the 1834 Poor Law Act which was brought in to overhaul the poor relief system introduced a more robust administrative system in England and Wales. Local parishes formed Unions and within these were an elected body of Guardians, each with the responsibility of the care of the poor across their individual parish.
The new act contributed towards a change in attitudes toward the poor and their predicaments were seen as self-inflicted. The Workhouse would be seen more as a deterrent and a place to work in order to earn food and shelter. The new act meant that it was now unlawful for any poor able-bodied unemployed man or woman to claim poor relief (though outdoor relief remained for widows, children and the sick).
Conditions at workhouses up and down the country are well documented and St Mary Newington Workhouse was no different. Sharing bathing water and towels, skin infections, poor quality diet, back-breaking work, high mortality rates and poor sanitary conditions are just some of the experiences reported. There was an open sewer, part of the Earl Sluice, situated by the shed of the workhouse which also happened to be the place that the very sick were sent for fresh air and separation from other inmates. It was not difficult to see why people felt that they were in a prison, their crime being poverty.
Moreover, being given the term ‘inmate’ which was the general description given to residents at workhouses and asylums and carried out into the 20th Century, undoubtedly contributed to a general stigma and prejudice that existed toward the poor. So much so that it was not uncommon for people to record alternative addresses for babies born in one.
The discovery of “unclaimed” bodies at St Mary Newington Workhouse being sold to the Anatomy School of Guy’s Hospital by the Workhouse master, Alfred Feist and his collaborator and undertaker, Robert Hogg, showed the dispensability with which those in power could treat the poor. However, this discovery proved to be a major scandal for the Southwark Board of Guardians, particularly as it was revealed that the relatives of those who had pauper funerals were defrauded. The coffins were filled with stones or the bodies of their relatives substituted with the bodies of other inmates (The St James’s Chronicle, 21 January 1858). Adding insult to injury, during their trial at the Central Criminal Court in 1858, Hogg escaped prosecution owing to a deal between his solicitor and the Poor Law inspector, while Feist, although found guilty of collusion, was freed on a point of law which basically said the relatives did not originally specify that they didn’t want their deceased relatives dissected. Careful what you do not wish for.
During the 1860s and 1870s a number of extensions took place at Newington Workhouse to accommodate the increasing number of poor, sick and homeless people. For example in around 1866 a 2-storey female ‘vagrant’ ward was added.
In 1869 St Mary Newington and St George the Martyr Parishes joined St Saviour’s Union. So the administration of St George’s, Mint Street, Christchurch, Marlborough Street and Newington Workhouses came under one Board of Guardians. (It’s worth pointing out that St Mary Newington Guardians remained the owners of the buildings used for poor relief in their parish, which meant that St Saviour’s Union paid St Mary’s rent, which they in turn could use to improve the Walworth Common Estate). A new female infirmary with laundry and bakery was built along Thurlow Street.
By 1877 it became necessary to convert Newington Workhouse into an Infirmary for the large number of sick in the St Saviour’s Union area. Outbreaks of smallpox still blighted the Infirmary and overcrowding soon became not just a health issue but a nuisance to the local residents, who endured the sight of daily removals of dead bodies from the Infirmary. The Infirmary now had in excess of 1000 inmates. Meanwhile, a new, larger infirmary was built on Champion Hill in 1887 and the sick poor were soon moved there from Newington Infirmary. The mother of screen legend, Charlie Chaplin, stayed there in 1896. A seven year old Charlie and his brother stayed in the Newington Workhouse along with some 1300 inmates.
Children’s activities in the workhouse varied; girls mainly did household work and learned the duties of being a housemaid which would see them fit for work outside of the Workhouse. Boys were educated and given religious instruction and taught skills like blacksmithing.
Apart from another change in name in 1899 to Newington Institution, possibly as a result of the formation of the metropolitan boroughs, the building’s purpose was unchanged. It was still run as a workhouse, though now under the administration of the new Southwark Board of Guardians as the day to day administration of the former vestries was transferred to the Metropolitan Boroughs of London. Further alterations and additions were made in the turn of the 20th Century. One of them being the married couple’s quarters and a few years later it would be possible for older couples to make their own meals!
However, overcrowding and understaffing continued to be a major problem for the workhouse. The treatment of inmates was still archaic and often cruel.
Newington Institution survived World War I largely unscathed, though it did its bit like many large establishments in helping the war effort by providing accommodation for the sick and injured and recycling food by-products for munitions.
By 1929 with the introduction of the Local Government Act, Workhouses were replaced by Public Institutions and the Board of Guardians replaced by the London County Council (LCC) and a new Public Assistance Committee. The new committee assumed responsibility for the workhouses of Gordon Road, Christchurch and Newington. One of the major changes during the 1930s was to no longer admit the mentally ill. They were sent to asylums. Single men, women and the elderly infirm were still admitted. Other aesthetic changes were made, including the inclusion of radios, flowers, a reduction in the number of beds, lockers for residents, bed side chairs, table cloths and so on. Crucially, from around 1937 residents were allowed leave for the day.
Newington Public Institution suffered extensive bomb damage during the Blitz in 1941 but it carried on housing residents and provided accommodation for families made homeless as a result of bomb damage to their homes. Like elsewhere food rationing was a fact of life. By 1947 the over 60s had free movement and whilst bomb damage repairs were being undertaken, there was a reduction in beds which accommodated the elderly, infirm, healthy and a small unit for expectant mothers. From 1948, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act, the Institution became temporary accommodation for homeless people and families.
Changes and conversions continued apace in the 1950s, mainly to try and remove reminders of the workhouse days, though it was impossible to do that for the exterior of the building, which remained imposing and drab. It was renamed Newington Lodge, replacing ‘Institution,’ a term reminiscent of workhouse days. Televisions and new upholstery were introduced and further extensions and modifications were made for elderly couples.
For all the praise Newington Lodge received for these positive changes, the conditions in which its homeless families were purported to be living was becoming an ever increasing issue in the late 1950s and 1960s, gaining the attention of television broadcasters and the press much to the increasing irritation of the LCC, who felt that it was an intrusion into the lives of the elderly and homeless.
“Up to three families are crammed into one room at Newington Lodge, and the rooms contain up to thirteen beds. Edna shares two toilets with sixty-four other people….
…the doctor told Edna that there was dysentery “in the walls” and warned her to keep her children as clean as she could” (Families Without A Home, by Jeremy Sandford , The Observer, 17th September 1961).
In 1966 the new London Borough of Southwark were more amenable and gave permission for the BBC to film in the old hostel block of the Lodge. This surely added to the perception of an archaic institution, still stuck in the past, when scenes from the film were used in the controversial docu-drama Cathy Come Home, a film about homelessness.
By the mid 1960s, the number of elderly, infirm and homeless families accommodated was down to around 15. Even though the old area of Walworth Common, including Newington Lodge was now earmarked for redevelopment for the building of the new Aylesbury Estate housing area, amenities carried on being provided for the mainly elderly residents.
Some images of the former Newington Lodge, c.1969 from Southwark Archives
Back to that Index card
The last warden of Newington Lodge was Mr R Morley and it was under his management that approval for a film about the residents at the Lodge was made in 1968 by John Goldschmidt. My Little Grey Home in the West would be exhibited at the National Film Theatre and Royal College of Arts the same year to critical acclaim. By the following year the number of residents at Newington Lodge was around 272. They were transferred to various sites including the new Livesey old people’s home and by 17June the last residents were moved out, leaving the former workhouse empty after 117 years. On 31July 1969, Councillor Mrs L N Brown, Mayor of Southwark removed the first brick from Newington Lodge, beginning its demolition.
Sadly, the copy of the film purchased by the social services department in 1969 could not be traced, but knowing how important it was to have a copy for the borough, particularly given the year it was made, shortly before its demolition, I decided to contact Mr John Goldschmidt directly and the rest is history (sorry) as they say.
I put the British Film Institute in touch with John who, as a true professional, had safely stored both the original negative and soundtrack. Arrangements were made thereafter to digitise the film with the BFI and a DVD copy was donated to Southwark Archives. We thank both John and the BFI and of course, my ex-colleague Steve who showed me the index card with the title of the film on it.
The film is available to view within the archive for privatenresearch purposes and it is hoped that one day it will be available on BFI player.
Much of the research for this blog comes from A History of Newington Lodge 1849 – 1969 written in 1970 by Mr B G Morley of Southwark Council’s welfare department. We owe a debt of gratitude for the research he undertook.
Living in the Shadows, Southwark News, 7 July 2005
Southwark Civic News, No.9 October 1969
Grim Realities – a Model Workhouse, by James Greenwood (copy of essay, Pamphlets collection ref. 362.51)
It counts everyone, and everyone counts in it – that’s the point of the census. For Southwark’s current communities, an accurate census means accurate population data, which means funding for vital services like schools, transport, and doctors’ surgeries. But for people in the future, the census is a treasure trove of information on individuals, families, households, and communities – one that lets family historians re-trace family connections through the ages and helps explain how the neighbourhood populations of London’s most historic borough have changed through nearly two centuries’ of time.
Every 10 years since 1801, the census has asked questions about the population of England and Wales and compiled information about the make-up of local neighbourhoods; data on individuals survives from 1841 onward. The personal information shared at every census is kept confidential for 100 years. After that, it’s open for the public to explore, and to learn about the life and times of their ancestors and those who lived in their communities in the past.
The census return is a list: of all the buildings in a given street, including unoccupied ones, and all the households within a given building. Separate returns exist for large institutions, like workhouses, hospitals, schools, and prisons. Each household’s return includes the people present there the night the census was taken; these may include visiting friends, lodgers, and even patients in hospital wards and prisoners in jail cells! The information collected about individuals varies with each census, but usually includes their name, birthplace, age on census night, occupation, and how they relate to others household members.
This information can be incredibly valuable for people interested in family, local, and social history. Tracing a person through the census shows them growing up; tracing an address shows how neighbourhoods change through the years. But it also provides unique insights. Answers to census questions on health, birthplace, and immigration shine a light on the diversity of Southwark’s residents – a diversity that often doesn’t show in other record collections. Questions about employment show how common child labour was in the past, and a host of occupations, from brushmaking to toshing, that no longer exist.
On a street or neighbourhood level, census information shows changes in environment and land usage, but questions about housing also show how values and norms have changed; over time, what counts as “overcrowded” or “sub-standard” residences vary a lot. Sometimes what you find is totally unexpected, like the 5 year old homeworker Roger Little of Dulwich – as the return explains, Roger was an Airedale Terrier, and his work was being the Little family’s watchdog.
But more than that, the census gives the future a snapshot of the past that includes everyone. The voices – and the silences – in the census send a message about who we are, where we live, and what we value. It can provide vital evidence of the problems we thought were important and how we sought to fix them. But it does something even more important: it ties all our individual stories together into the story of a place and a time. That gives people – now and in the future – a hook to hang their own stories on, an opportunity to belong somewhere and somewhen.
Taking part in the 2021 census is your chance to help future generations discover their past. By completing your census questionnaire on 21 March 2021 you leave your mark on history. And maybe that’s something your friends, family, and colleagues hadn’t thought about. So we hope you’ll encourage them to do their bit too.
We recently had a request at Southwark Archives for images showing the inside of Jones and Higgins department store in Peckham. Most available photographs show the exterior of the store with its iconic clock tower on the corner of Rye Lane and Peckham High Street. Diving into our Jones and Higgins archive collection though, we found these pictures from inside the store, and they were too good to not share for History Begins At Home under the theme of Trading Spaces.
The images show a variety of departments from about 1910 as well as in the 1960s-70s. Do you remember shopping at Jones and Higgins or other similar department stores of the past? Share your memories on Twitter.
While exploring the history of Anti-Racism in Southwark (see our recent post for details), we came across a rich history of marching and protests. Documents and photographs held at Southwark Archives show local people and organisations rising up over the decades to fight for equality and human rights.
Campaigns against racism in the 1960s were established in the borough through the petitioning of Southwark and Bermondsey Trades Councils and Southwark Rotary Club, who led the call to launch what became the Southwark Council for Community Relations. Other early organisations include the West Indian League, set up in 1964 following the suicide of a young West Indian nurse at Lewisham hospital. The League aimed to combat loneliness for West Indians in London, and fight racial discrimination.
In the 1970s the Southwark Campaign Against Racialism and Fascism was set up and took to the streets of Walworth and elsewhere to stand up to the resurgent National Front. Socialist organisations and local branches of the Labour Party also took a prominent part in marching. In 1983 the Southwark Black Consortium was founded to represent the community voice at the new Southwark Race Equality Committee. Later, as Southwark Black Communities Consortium, the organisation ran large protest marches against racism in Peckham and Bermondsey. The Southwark Anti-Apartheid Group took the lead in marching against apartheid in South Africa, something reflected also by the council who declared ‘war on apartheid’ in 1984 and ran yearly Anti-Apartheid programming until the early 1990s.
The following is a selection of images found so far, please get in touch with us if you’d like to contribute further images or information.
This Black History Month at Southwark Archives we have been delving into our collections to try and discover more about the history of anti-racism at the council and in the community. Over the decades countless individuals have fought for equal rights, the removal of the colour bar, and against racism in its many forms, and there are many milestones along the continuing journey.
Pioneering community-led initiatives included: the work of Dr Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930s, among whose many achievements was the lifting of the colour bar in the armed forces; the West Indian League started in 1964 by George Croasdaile, who campaigned for racial equality and supported young people for over 30 years; and the Southwark Inter-Racial Council that became Southwark Council For Community Relations in 1966 and oversaw black and minority ethnic communities’ liaison with the borough over the following four decades.
The 1970s saw a rise in activity from the National Front and organisations rose up to protest against them including the Anti-Nazi League, Southwark Campaign Against Racialism and Fascism, and Southwark Black Communities Consortium, supported by Southwark Trades Council and the local Labour parties. In 1978, Southwark residents and organisations marched to the ‘Rock Against Racism’ rally and protests at Brockwell Park, the UK’s largest anti-racism rally. Through the 1980s and 1990s the community organised local marches and rallies to combat racism across the borough, in Peckham, Walworth and Bermondsey.
In 1983 Southwark Council established a Race Equality Committee and Unit, which provided funding and support for a range of community initiatives, as well as embedding anti-racist practices across the council and leading the way in addressing racist hate crimes. In 1994, Southwark Council won the Commission for Racial Equality’s first Local Authority Race Award for its work prosecuting the perpetrators of racial harassment on housing estates.
The shocking killing of George Floyd this year and the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world have shown that racism is still widespread and there is still much to do. The ongoing Southwark Stands Together programme gives detail on the council’s current work in this area and how “as a borough we knew that now, more than ever, we had to listen, react and together develop solutions”. The latest progress report for the programme can be read online here.
We hope to turn what we find into an online study resource in the coming months, but in the meantime we present here a selection of some key items from the archives that begin telling this story. If you would like to be involved in the project, please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click through the slideshow below to see a selection of posters and flyers from 1930s to 2000s about anti-racism in Southwark:
Dr. Cecil Belfield Clarke was born in Barbados in 1894 and on winning an island scholarship came to London in 1914 to study medicine. In 1918 he graduated from Cambridge University, became a qualified surgeon and then set up his medical practice at 112 Newington Causeway, Southwark. He worked as a doctor, serving the local community for over 40 years and London for over 50. During that time he served as a doctor and medical professional in Africa, the Caribbean and throughout the UK.
Clarke was one of the founder members of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) which began in 1931. The organisation was set up to achieve a number of objectives with a focus on racial equality and civil rights for Black people in Great Britain. Clarke was an active member but was also associated with other Pan-African causes, including as the first chairman of the House Committee of Aggrey House, a hostel for students from Africa and the Caribbean. Clarke was diplomatic and this enabled him to be an effective communicator between the politically left and right of the Pan-African movements of the 1930s and 40s, so much so that he was a mediator during the planning for the Conference on the African Peoples, Democracy, and World Peace held in London in July 1939.
Clarke hosted many LCP events at his home and was a good friend of author and American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom he continued correspondence right up to the 1960s, supporting many of his civil rights causes. Many of Dr Clarke’s letters to Du Bois can be read at the Special Collections and University Archives, at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst. The letters reveal the great affection and respect Clarke had for Du Bois and the importance of continuing the civil rights message. In one such letter dated 4th July 1929, Dr Clarke encloses his annual subscription to The Crisis magazine which he felt was his “duty” as “one of the few coloured Drs practising in London”. He kept the magazine in his doctor’s surgery waiting room and it proved to be a popular read. The Crisis is the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) co-founded by W.E.B Du Bois and is still operating.
What may be little known about Dr Clarke is that he formulated the early mathematical dosage for paediatric medicine known as ‘Clark’s rule’. He was the first black District Medical Officer for London in 1936 and the Belfield Clark Prize, which first began in 1952 at St Catharine’s College, Oxford is still awarded to students in Biological Natural Sciences Tripos examinations.
Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
The Keys magazine (Southwark Local History Library and Archive).
Matera, M., Black London: the Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the 20th Century, 1st ed., University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015.
Southwark Archives documents a particularly fascinating set of connections between the borough (or parts of the modern borough) and its twin towns. Town twinning intends to foster inter-cultural understanding, boost business, trade, and tourism, and – in many cases – foster understanding and reconciliation in the aftermath of war. In previous decades, when international travel was expensive and much more difficult to arrange than today, twinning provided an easy and cost-effective way for Southwark locals to experience other countries.
Southwark’s international connections start early with the shipwreck of the East India Company ship Antelope, captained by Rotherhithe local Henry Wilson,in July 1783. Antelope wrecked on Ulong Island in the modern nation of Palau; locals assisted the crew in building a new ship, a process that took three months. When Wilson set sail for home, the High Chief, Ibedul, asked Wilson to take his eldest son, Lee Boo, back to London to acquaint him with European life. The “Black Prince”, living in Rotherhithe with the Wilson family, quickly became well-known for his intelligence, charm, and poise. However, he died of smallpox in in late December 1784, just six months after arriving in London, and was buried in the Wilson family tomb in St Mary’s churchyard. The nation of Palau has never forgotten their prince – athletes competing in the 2012 Olympics made a point of stopping at his gravesite.
Probably the earliest governmental connection came in 1906; as part of the entente cordiale with France, a delegation from the French towns of Dunkirk and Malo-les-Bains visited the metropolitan borough of Bermondsey: a programme and menu from this visit are in the archive’s collections.
After the First World War, the British League of Help tried to support the civilian populations living in the war zone by encouraging British communities to “adopt” Belgian and French counterparts located where local units saw particularly fierce action. For Cambrin, a village in the Pas-de-Calais, 18 miles southwest of Lille, their adoptee was the metropolitan borough of Southwark, whose local TA unit (the 24th battalion of the London Regiment) saw a significant number of casualties saw a significant number of casualties there. Council minutes from 1922 note that Southwark was poor and not able “…to do much financially, but it appears to us that it is not so much the amount or the value of the gift or gifts that matters, but rather the spirit in which they are offered. The real point of an adoption is that sympathy is expressed for France…”; the borough’s sympathy saw £67 (6,000 francs) and seeds worth another £200 donated to help. Southwark’s mayor and town clerk delivered the gift in March 1923. During their stay, they visited a number of battlefields and war cemeteries; the mayor’s report appears in the council minutes in full – which suggests that the trip was made, in part, for all the widows and orphans who couldn’t go themselves.
Just before the Second World War, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia formally cemented links with its namesake: the metropolitan borough of Camberwell. A former resident of south London gave the Australian Camberwell its name in 1857 after noticing that his new pub was at the junction of 6 roads. During and after the Second World War, the Australians sent their cockney cousins 40,000 food parcels, which helped mitigate the effects of ever-tightening rationing (the town of Geelong West did the same for Bermondsey). To say thank you, in 1950 the Londoners gave the Australians the freedom of the British borough – as well as the bell from the blitz-destroyed Scarsdale Road school in Peckham, which was installed in Camberwell Central School in Victoria.
During the Second World War, Bermondsey – whose Labour council was radically progressive – made symbolic links with other embattled communities. In October 1941, local Boy Scouts and Girl Guides sent a message of solidarity to the youth of the Soviet Union – the archive has a copy. In June 1943, on the first anniversary of the total destruction of the Czechoslovak village of Lidice and massacre of its residents by the Nazis, Bermondsey held a memorial service on the site of the blitzed town hall in Spa Road; it featured a speech by Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister in Exile, and a performance by a choir of Czechoslovak servicemen.
After the Second World War, twinning became a way to facilitate cultural exchange and international travel. Camberwell twinned with Sceaux (pronounced “So”, as contemporary newspapers were keen to point out), a wealthy suburb about 6 miles south of the centre of Paris, in 1954. By the late 1950s, Camberwell Council sponsored an annual “French Week” of cultural events (like film screenings, concerts, exhibitions), civic receptions for French visitors, and special offers in stores. The 1957 French Week, as a brochure in the archive notes, even had a free wine tasting in Dulwich baths and the Scarlet Pimpernel – a man who attended the week’s events and who paid a cash prize to the first person to present him with the brochure using the correct wording. That year, a local newspaper piece also notes that the French ambassador was so engrossed by the paintings in the South London Gallery’s exhibition that he forgot to officially open it! By the 1960s, Camberwell and Sceaux were trading library books, dahlias, and choirs; the choir trip to Camberwell for Whitsun 1963 was marred by the charter plane being unable to land at Heathrow. For modern residents, perhaps the most lasting mark of this twinning is the name of the Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell, whose name dates to 1957.
In 1957, the metropolitan borough of Southwark forged an official link with another Parisian suburb, Courbevoie, about 5 miles northwest of the centre of Paris. Like Southwark, Courbevoie started life as a waypoint on a major road into the capital – in its case, the road from Paris to Normandy, whose curve gave the area its name. Unlike Southwark, Courbevoie was a centre for business – La Defense, the Parisian equivalent of Canary Wharf, is in the south of the area. Like Camberwell’s link with Sceaux, the Southwark-Courbevoie link involved cultural exchanges of young people, musicians, and sportspeople. After 1965, the London Borough of Southwark kept up the link.
Camberwell took on another twin in 1960 – Deventer, a Dutch town of about 100,000 people in Overijssel province, near Arnhem – in fact, Deventer’s town centre stood in for Arnhem’s during filming of the classic war movie A Bridge Too Far. The London Borough of Southwark took on this twinning in 1965. As well as exchanging library books, the Deventer link included exchanges of young people from 1960 onward, housewives from 1968 on, and artists, choirs, and sports teams. There was even an older people’s exchange programme – Dutch OAPs spent a week or two at Southwark’s welfare home at Bexhill-on-Sea, while their British counterparts stayed in retirement homes or the homes of local families.
Beginning in the 1970s, the London Borough of Southwark considered forging its own twinning link; it decided on Langenhagen, a town of about 50,000 about 7 miles north of Hannover in the German state of Niedersachsen. Langenhagen is the site of Hannover’s airport, and also saw the arrest of Ulrike Meinhof (in 1972) and the first mass production of CDs (in 1982). It’s also a major centre for horse racing and shooting sports – Brenneke, a major manufacturer of ammunition, is based there. The archives holds two photo albums documenting visits to Langenhangen: many of them show Langenhagen’s Schützenverein, or shooting club, and its annual Schützenfest – a fair that includes shooting contests (nearby Hannover’s Schützenfest is the largest in Germany).
Perhaps the most unusual twinning came in 1984, during the miners’ strike. At the time, Southwark council was controlled by Labour, who decided to twin the borough with three mining villages in Kent: Snowdon, Bettshanger, and Aylesham. This allowed the council to help provide material support to miners’ families by facilitating fundraising and collection of food donations; it also gave residents of the inner city a means to understand rural life better.