‘Silent Raid’: The story of the lost houses of Burgess Park

by Sally Hogarth, Artist

Sally Hogarth Artwork cropped ‘Silent Raid’ is a series of house sculptures commissioned to commemorate the people and places impacted by a WWI Zeppelin bomb that landed on Calmington Road, which once stood where Burgess Park is located today.

Reminiscent of the terrace houses that were destroyed in the raid and of varying shades found in traditional red bricks, each house represents one of the lives lost in the incident, with each house; large, medium or small representing each man, woman and child.

Like the bands of colour used in mapping bomb damage, the shade of each house darkens with increased proximity to the bomb site. Every house is etched with a quote from documents and reports on the incident, both past and present. The art deco font used is inspired by the lettering on the original commemorative plaque. A new plaque can be found in Chumleigh Gardens in the centre of the park.

Calmington Road 1977 p9968

The process involved meeting with The Friends of Burgess Park and investigating their thorough research archive, including recorded photographs, social commentaries and interviews with survivors and families involved in the incident. Meeting with local historians at the Southwark Local History Library and Archives, I learned about the extent of the bomb damage that the area suffered along with news reports and archives of the unfortunate event.

World War I Zeppelin Raid 1917 edit p17257

Damage to houses in Albany Road, 1917

After spending time in the park itself, I came to appreciate that the area where the park stands today had once been covered by buildings and houses which were destroyed by war. The absence of their existence and public awareness of this in the present day created a powerful feeling I wanted to convey in the work.

Another important issue I sought to address is the home face of war. The nature of this project is unusual in that it commemorates a war incident that happened on home soil rather than far away battlefields. In an age of a mounting refugee crisis, highlighting the living memory of the ground beneath our own feet facing bombs and destruction becomes a significant message.

A lot of the anecdotes and memories of the event had domestic contexts, from toys found amongst the debris, to fish and chips and piano playing. The contrast between these everyday, familiar and comforting images and the violence that disrupted them feels like a poignant crux of the incident.

This has been reflected in the project with the houses having an almost dolls-house feel. The scale of the houses, particularly the smallest, means that they have a certain vulnerability about them whilst the impressions on their surface that suggest windows and doors have a more sinister feel. The research included news reports that recall ‘windows hurled headlong’ and striking images of door frames standing empty without their doors.

Researching into Zeppelins and their bombs led me to find strangely colourful diagrams of the rings of their destruction. Also the records of WWI and WWII building damage in the Lambeth Archives used a gradient of colour to plot the severity of damage. This, paired with the difficulty of plotting the exact spot where the bomb landed, led me to the concept of creating a trail and colour code to the houses. The houses are scattered in a debris-like manner across the park darkening in colour with proximity to where Calmington Road once stood.

bomb map

Extract from the London County Council’s WWII bomb damage map series showing gradations in colour.

In all, I sought to ignite visitors’ interest to uncover the story of Calmington Road and the streets that once stood beneath their feet. I also aimed to create an experience for regular park visitors to discover a new house or inscription with each visit, creating a story that unfolds and is passed on between locals. The houses become a prop or a prompt for a story, to start a conversation that gets passed between park visitors and as such the story of this incident will be passed on to future generations.

Southwark’s Public Health Pioneers part 1: Bermondsey

by Archivist Patricia Dark

Since the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, public health has been a core function of local councils like Southwark. As Professor Kevin Fenton, Southwark’s Director of Health and Wellbeing, told the Spring 2017 edition of Southwark Life, this means that “…local councils have had responsibility for helping to improve the health and wellbeing of local people… not only through commissioning health services but also taking every opportunity to promote health through work with schools, housing, transport and many other areas.”

The basic idea behind this approach is to make sure that public health efforts reflect a local area’s specific concerns and priorities. A “one size fits all” solution doesn’t work for health – different communities have different levels of education, different cultural backgrounds, and even different patterns of disease. Public health awareness needs to be tailored to local cultural expectations, focus on the issues that are most likely to be harmful, and provided in language that everyone can understand. Very often, local authorities are best placed to adapt to local conditions, tailor messages to local cultures, and to serve local needs.

Two realisations underpin this shift toward joined-up, locally-based public health: first, that it’s simply cheaper and easier to keep people healthy than it is to make them healthy once they are sick, and second, health is more than not being sick. The preamble to the constitution of the World Health Organisation, which was ratified in 1946, defines health as “…a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Someone who has a chronic illness or disability who can continue doing the things they enjoy – who is able to have a full, fulfilling life – is likely to be happier, and mentally and emotionally healthier, than someone who cannot; conversely, someone who is not sick or infirm, but is unable to do the things they enjoy – for instance, because they lack transportation, high-quality housing, or easily accessible leisure facilities – is unlikely to be able to have a full, fulfilling life, and is therefore more likely to be in poor health.

So what does that have to do with heritage? As strange as it may sound, quite a lot! This new local focus also looks back: to the interwar period and some really pioneering work done in Southwark to improve the health of local communities. To understand how radical interwar public health in Southwark was, we need to look at what living conditions were like, and how they affected public health.

Historically, many areas of the modern borough of Southwark – including Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Walworth, Camberwell, and Peckham – had grossly overcrowded housing that was in poor condition. During the industrialisation of the Victorian era, swathes of existing housing stock was demolished to make way for factories or transport infrastructure, notably railways; if it was replaced (often it wasn’t), it was by cramming new houses into front or back gardens, or spaces that had previously been stables. Beyond that, a housing crash in the early 20th century ensured that new housing was in short supply. To raise money, both landlords and tenants divided and sub-divided what began as single-family homes, splitting them into flats, then single rooms.

Dixs Court and Sultan Street

Sultan Street and Dix’s Court in the 1930s

This meant that most of what’s now Southwark was vastly more crowded than even today. In 1901, for instance, the population density of the metropolitan borough of Bermondsey was 97.62 people per acre – in 2012, the population density of London as a whole was 4 and a half times less than that, at 21.39 people per acre. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, 15 million Britons – fully 39% of the country’s population – lived as families in less than 1 room. In the worst cases multiple families – had one room to eat, sleep, and live in. Entire streets were filled with rows of badly-ventilated, poorly-lit “back-to-back” houses off dead-end courts, with little space for children to play, adults to get air, or even to dry laundry. There was no privacy, and little peace.

Damp and dilapidation added to the problem. The most populated areas of Southwark are close to the river, in the Thames floodplain: until the creation of the Thames Barrier in the early 1980s, storms and tides caused regular Thames floods. Houses lacked damp-proofing, and in Bermondsey – most of which was below mean high tide level – foundations were constantly wet. This meant that many houses, most of which had lathe-and-plaster interiors, had enormous damp problems.

Damp problems were made worse by the general disrepair of housing stock. At the outbreak of the First World War, three-quarters of the country lived in privately rented housing, so, just like today, rogue and negligent landlords were a problem: in some cases, a landlord might not even know they owned a property. Lack of building supplies, skilled tradesmen, and capital on landlords’ parts – an unintended side-effect of rent controls – meant that even good landlords found it hard to keep properties in good nick.

Poor quality, overcrowded housing meant poor sanitation. Most working-class housing pre-dated running metropolitan water, and so lacked specified bathrooms or indoor toilets. Subdivision of single-family houses meant the kitchen became another all-purpose living space for a family, while other living spaces lacked plumbing of any kind. Alternatively, the kitchen could be shared by the entire house. In either case, finding the time, space, heat, water, and privacy to have a bath could be all but impossible. In some flats in Bermondsey, 5 families – up to 30 people – shared a single outdoor toilet, accessible only through the kitchen on the ground floor. In all these cases, keeping house, clothes, and people clean was a vicious uphill battle – which meant the families dwelling there were constantly exposed to a variety of germs and vermin.

Southwark’s working-class families faced other hurdles to staying healthy. The first was that a high proportion of jobs involved casual manual labour – for instance on the docks. Although dockers were highly skilled, they were usually hired for short periods – a single ship, a week, or even by the day. Wages weren’t high – and more importantly, they were unreliable, making it very difficult to budget or plan spending. Because of this, families often had to eat as cheaply as possible. Eating cheaply was usually monotonous, but also lacking in balanced nutrition; then as now, fresh fruit and vegetables were often prohibitively expensive. In the interwar period, cheap food could even be dangerous: cheap milk usually came from cows who hadn’t been tested for TB. Bovines often don’t show signs that they’re ill, and can silently carry TB, shedding the bacteria in their milk. A child drinking that milk could acquire the infection, often in the bone – which could cripple or even kill.

All of the problems with housing, sanitation, and nutrition we’ve discussed created a population whose general health and immune function wasn’t very good at the best of times: to put it simply, social conditions created a population who got sicker, quicker, for longer. Even more importantly, these conditions meant that the health of individuals and communities was on a knife-edge: any sort of hard times – a father out of work for a single family, a strike for a community – could and did create serious illness and suffering.

Different areas of the modern borough were healthier than others. Specifically, Camberwell as a whole was healthier than either area to the north – probably because of its relatively well-off, relatively spacious southern end – and possibly even healthier than London as a whole. However, it’s important to recognise that even relatively healthy Camberwell had death rates that are far higher than modern British ones andthat we would now associate with the developing world. Interwar Southwark was a deeply unhealthy place, that much is clear – and people at the time knew it.

Alfred and Joyce Salter

Dr Alfred Salter and his daughter, Joyce

And some pioneers decided to fight back. In Bermondsey, Alfred and Ada Brown Salter, respectively a prominent local physician and an equally prominent social worker and labour activist, lived in Storks Road – near where Bermondsey Tube station is now – with their daughter Joyce, born in 1902. Joyce was a ray of sunshine for all of Bermondsey – everyone knew her and was fond of her. But in 1910, when she was 8, Joyce caught scarlet fever for the third time. Nowadays, we call it a “Group A strep infection”, and it’s easily treated with antibiotics. But then there weren’t any – even sulfa drugs were nearly two and a half decades away. Joyce had all the love and good wishes her family and community could give: Ada and Alfred had to hang signs on their gate to update the borough, or else well-wishers would knock or ring at all hours. But that wasn’t enough, and she died in June 1910: people in Bermondsey said that their ray of sunshine was gone.

Joyce was Ada and Alfred Salter’s only child. When she died, they turned their grief into anger and their anger into action. They met with Evangeline Lowe, Ada’s best friend, and made a simple vow: the three of them would run for office at all levels of government – borough, county, and Westminster – and win. Then, together, they would do their best to, in the words of Bermondsey Labour’s 1922 manifesto, “…make Bermondsey a fit place to live in. We shall do everything we can to promote health, to lower the death rate, to save infant life, and to increase the well-being and comfort of the 120,000 people who have to live here, Bermondsey is our home and your home. We will strive to make it a worthy home for all of us”.

That meant new housing, demolishing the old, crumbling back-to-backs. New parks, like the one in St James’s churchyard, in Thurland Street, which opened in 1921: Arthur Carr, the chairman of Peek Frean’s, gave it a beautiful covered slide, the Joy Slide, that delighted local kids into the 1970s. New plants – trees planted along every verge, flowers in the parks grown in the council’s nursery in Fairby Grange, Kent, and flowers for everyone in Bermondsey with a window box to grow them in.

st-james-churchyard-1922-ada-salter-and-the-joy-slide

Ada Salter and other dignitaries pictured with the Joy Slide, 1922

Health care was another major plank in Bermondsey’s revolution. Fairby Grange was also a mother-and-baby and convalescent home: originally the Salters bought it for Alfred’s patients and conscientious objectors, but quickly donated it to the council. There was an aggressive anti-TB campaign, featuring mass X-ray screening in clinics or via a mobile service, and paid-for beds at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Bermondsey also launched an aggressive public health information campaign. Potential learning experiences were everywhere: a backlit slide-table while waiting at a clinic, leaflets into homes, even bookmarks with health slogan slipped into every book the library service issued! The public health service put floats into parades and made its own public information films. The 1925 Medical Officer of Health reports that the borough had started school exams in hygiene and home nursing – starting as early as possible to improve health.

In our next post we will look at the work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham

 

 

 

Southwark’s Blue Plaque nominees 2017: Sir James Black

Voting is open for this year’s Southwark Heritage Association Blue Plaques scheme. There are seven worthy nominees, of which only one will get a plaque this year. But who are they and why should they get your vote? To help you decide we’ll be featuring one nominee per week over the next 7 weeks of voting.

This week, read on to discover more about Sir james Black

The story of Sir James Black (1924 – 2010) is closely tied to Kings College Hospital on Denmark Hill. The hospital itself has a fascinating history, which began in 1840 on Portugal Street, close to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and King’s College London itself. The move to the present site came about in response to the increasing population in the suburbs of Camberwell, Peckham and Brixton towards the end of the 19th century. The new hospital opened in 1909, incorporating modern features such as electric clocks, an internal phone system (the second ever to be installed in the U.K.) and electrical power produced by its own diesel generators.

Kings college hospital on SW corner of Denmark hill and Bessemer Rd, P12805, 1980

Kings College Hospital, Denmark Hill, c.1980

In 1984 Sir James Black became Professor of Analytical Pharmacology at the Rayne Institute, part of King’s College Hospital Medical School. During that time he established his own research laboratory, the James Black Foundation and led a team of 25 scientists. In 1988 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work in drug development (along with two American scientists, Gertrude B. Elion and George H. Hitchings). His major breakthroughs included work on gastrin inhibitors which can prevent a number of stomach cancers, anti-ulcer drugs and most famously, propranolol, the first generation of a range of drugs known as beta blockers, which are now commonly used to treat angina and to protect the heart from future attacks. They have benefited millions of people around the world.

Black was well known for his modesty and desire for privacy. He described his feelings on learning that he had won the Nobel Prize like this: ‘It was like being kicked in the stomach; I was in an absolute funk. I went to the pub and contemplated my fate.’ But he should have been used to the limelight by this time. As well as the Nobel Prize, he had won the Wolf Prize for Medicine in 1982 and had been knighted for services to medical research in 1981. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Societ0,y and in 2000 was appointed to the Order of Merit.

In Summary: A great example of the hard work and innovation that goes on to this day at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell. Will you #VoteSirJamesBlack?

Voting ends on 15 September 2017. You can vote by emailing Southwark Heritage Association: admin@southwark.org.uk or the Southwark News: owen@southwarknews.co.uk. You can also vote in person at all Southwark libraries and at both the Mayflower, Rotherhithe Street and Half Moon, Herne Hill.

Historic Camberwell

Southwark’s historic villages: Camberwell

Camberwell’s landscape is divided into two distinct parts: an area of high ground to the south including Denmark Hill and a flat plain extending to Walworth to the north. The higher ground is thought to have been the first area of settlement in Camberwell as it provided a strategic point for a Roman encampment.

Denmark Hill

The view from Denmark Hill in the 18th century

By the 11th century Camberwell was one of the more important developments within the area we now know as the London Borough of Southwark. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book as being owned by Haimo, half-brother to William the Conqueror. It had land for ploughing and corn, 63 acres for cows, and woods that fed 60 pigs. Its importance is shown by the fact that it had a church, unlike the neighbouring hamlets of Dulwich and Peckham.

From Haimo the manor descended through his son Robert Fitz Haimon to Mabel, a ward of Henry I. Henry, on the basis that neighbouring Peckham was held by his son, Robert of Caen, married the two to consolidate royal influence in the area. In the process Robert was made the First Earl of Gloucester. Later the lands became the property of the Duke of Buckingham and control rested with that family until 1521, when the then Duke was executed for “treasonable thoughts.” After passing through various hands, it was purchased in 1583 by Sir Edmund Bowyer, whose descendants retained ownership of a considerable portion of the land until well into the 19th century.

Bowyer Manor House 1826

The Bowyer mansion, c.1800

Until about 1800 Camberwell was a farming village surrounded by woods and fields.  The village was based around its High Street, now called Denmark Hill in honour of Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne, who had a residence there. The village contained a traditional village green, which still exists, and it was here that Camberwell Fair was held. The earliest record of the fair is in 1279. It was abolished in 1855 as by this time it “attracted too many undesirables.”

The rural nature of the area in the 19th Century is revealed by the rewards available to residents who killed vermin. The produce grown locally went for sale at markets such as Covent Garden and hence animals could cause a real problem by eating the produce. Rewards of 4d per dead hedgehog, 1s per dead polecat and 4d per dozen sparrows were available. Records suggest that once the dead sparrows had been thrown out they were often collected up and presented again as freshly killed!

St Giles Cambwerwell 1750

St Giles’s Church, 1750

There were a number of mineral wells and springs in the area until about 1850. One of the village wells was reputed to have healing properties and from this legend comes a possible explanation for the name Camberwell. The old English word cam means “crooked,” so Camberwell may have meant “the well of the crooked,” suggesting that it was a place where people with physical injuries or impairments could seek a cure. It is perhaps significant that the local church is named in honour of St Giles, the patron saint of disabled people.

St Giles Church Camberwell plan 1842

Plan for the new St Giles’s church, 1842

St Giles’s church still stands on its original site. The first church is estimated to have been built in the 7th century AD.  It was rebuilt in stone in 1154, and underwent many alterations over the centuries before it was destroyed by fire in 1841. The new church, finished in 1844, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and contains stained glass windows designed by John Ruskin.

Camberwell Green 1700s

Camberwell Green c.1800

The 19th Century saw more affluent people moving into the area as the construction of Westminster Bridge (1750), Blackfriars Bridge (1769), Vauxhall Bridge (1816), and Southwark Bridge (1819), all made it easier for them to commute to work in Central London. Despite the population growth Camberwell was still an area of beauty. In 1842 the composer Felix Mendelssohn stayed with his wife’s relatives at Camberwell and was inspired to write “Camberwell Green”, now better known as “Spring Song”.

As with much of South London the coming of the trains led to a dramatic change in the landscape. The first trains arrived in 1862, and over the next six years a plethora of tracks were laid. The trains offered a new, cheap way to travel meaning more people could afford to live in the suburbs. In 1801 the population of Camberwell was 7,059, one hundred years later it was 259,425. During the building boom some slums were created and subsequently written about by philanthropist and social reformer Charles Booth in 1902.

Camberwell Town Hall 1939

Camberwell Town Hall with sand bags, 1939

The Second World War hit Camberwell badly with 937 people killed and nearly all its buildings damaged, many beyond repair. Today much of the Georgian and Victorian architecture has been replaced or supplemented by large 20th century developments such as the Denmark Hill Estate and Dawson’s Heights.

Modern Camberwell is a highly residential area with a shopping centre and a thriving community. As you stand on Camberwell Green today, amidst all the modern hustle and bustle, it seems impossible that it was once a traditional village green in a small farming village.

We will continue our look at Southwark’s historic villages in future posts. Next up: Historic Walworth.

Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part two)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

In part one we heard about the ‘uproar’ and ‘hubbub’ that greeted proposals to open publicly funded libraries in the parishes of Southwark. Read on to find out what happened next.

The first parish within what is now Southwark to pass the Public Library Acts was Bermondsey in October 1887. Many local authorities did the same that year to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Rotherhithe adopted the Acts soon after but Christchurch were the first to establish a rate-supported library, which opened in rented premises (on Charles Street, Blackfriars Road) in October 1889.

John_Passmore_Edwards_by_George_Frederic_Watts

John Passmore Edwards

Camberwell eventually adopted the provisions of the Public Library Acts in 1889 after Mr. George Livesey made a handsome offer to build a library should they do so. Newington adopted the Acts in 1890, followed by St Saviour’s in 1891, leaving St George the Martyr the only parish in the area that had not done so. The money thus raised by the rates, however, was nowhere near enough to build, furnish and stock new libraries so public donations of both money and books were essential.

One of the most generous philanthropists was John Passmore Edwards, a journalist and newspaper owner from Blackwater, near Redruth in Cornwall. In his short autobiography A Few Footprints, he writes:

As I had accumulated mainly by the labour of others, I thought, and think, it was only reasonable and just that others should share in the garnered result: and to act accordingly was a duty and a privilege – a duty as a citizen and a privilege as a man.

Between 1890 and his death in 1911, aged 88, Mr. Passmore Edwards was instrumental in the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, convalescent homes, schools, museums, art galleries and twenty-five public libraries: eight in Cornwall, one in Devon (Newton Abbot, his mother’s birthplace) and sixteen in London. In A Few Footprints, he states:

Public libraries are, in my opinion, entitled to public support because they are educative, recreative, and useful; because they bring the products of research and imagination, and the stored wisdom of ages and nations, within the easy reach of the poorest citizens […] All may not use them, but all may do so if they like; and as they are means of instructing and improving some, all are directly or indirectly benefited by them.

In July 1895, the Daily Chronicle published a letter that drew attention to St George the Martyr’s need for a public library but inability to pay for it, due to the poverty of the inhabitants, and asked for help. Mr. Passmore Edwards wrote a letter that was also published in the paper, offering to pay for the building if the parishioners would adopt the Acts to maintain it. A poll was taken and the Acts adopted by a majority of 1,814 in 1896. The foundation stone of what would become Borough Road Library was laid by Mr. Passmore Edwards on Thursday 2nd December 1897.Borough Road exterior

Camberwell particularly benefited from his munificence as he had lived there for some time. Dulwich (1897), Nunhead (1896) and Wells Way (1901, now in Burgess Park) were all Passmore Edwards libraries. The foundation stone for Nunhead Library was laid on Saturday April 11th 1896. At the ceremony, Camberwell Vestry extended its thanks to Mr. Passmore Edwards, saying “We are honoured and encouraged by the special favour you have extended to Camberwell, and we are glad to know that, as a young man, you resided in its historic grove.” Mr. Passmore Edwards, in reply, noted that it was “not his fault that he had to leave Camberwell Grove about a quarter of a century before, as the house in which he happened to live at the time had to be removed in obedience to the inexorable demands of a railway company armed with parliamentary power.”

When Dulwich Library was opened on Wednesday, 24th November 1897 by the Lord Chancellor – Mr. Passmore Edwards having contributed £5000 of the total cost of £5800 – the Times opined “Probably no portion of the metropolis is better served by public libraries than the parish of Camberwell”, remarkable progress in under a decade. The foundation stone of Nunhead bore the motto, “Good deeds live on when doers are no more” and this is certainly true in the case of John Passmore Edwards.Dulwich opening ceremony invitation 24 Nov 1897

When the various parishes were amalgamated into the Metropolitan Boroughs in 1900, Bermondsey boasted two permanent libraries, with a third to follow within two years; Camberwell four, with a fifth within two years and Southwark four.

In some ways, these libraries were quite similar to the service we provide today. Belying, even then, the cry that libraries are “just books”, a thriving programme of lectures and exhibitions was soon in full swing. There were books for lending, books for reference and a range of newspapers and periodicals. In other ways, they were quite different. The Southwark library by-laws of 1902 contain clauses that make interesting reading.

7.—A person who is resident in a house where a case of infectious disease exists, or has occurred, shall not within one month from the removal of the patient to hospital and the disinfection of the premises, or if the case be treated at home, within one month from the patient’s complete convalescence, use the Libraries in any way.

19.—Every person above the age of ten years resident, rated, employed , or attending any Educational Institution in the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark shall be permitted to borrow books for home reading […] the person desirous of becoming a borrower [must have] obtained a ratepayer to become a guarantor for him […] in lieu of such guarantee the applicant may deposit with the Librarian the sum of ten shillings…

Ten shillings would have been a huge amount of money to the poorer inhabitants of Southwark – in 1898 an ordinary labourer in England earned on average 16s. 9d. a year, rising to 17s. 5d. a year in 1902 – so, while the library was, in theory, open to all “ratepayers and inhabitants”, in practice, it is doubtful that poorer inhabitants would have been able to make use of the lending library.

Until after the First World War, most libraries operated a “closed-access” system, rather than today’s “open-access”. The bookshelves were not available for browsing. Instead you had to consult the catalogue and note the number assigned to your desired book before examining the indicator board at the counter. The indicator board in the Livesey Library, for example, was crowded with red and blue lights, one of each assigned to each book the library held. If the blue light was on, the book was available and an assistant would fetch it for you. If the red light was on, it was out on loan. At busy times, making your way through the crowd apparently required tact, strength or both!

Too many of the books thus borrowed, some thought, were fiction, which was a waste of time and money and lacked any educational value. This was a recurring criticism of public libraries. Mr. Passmore Edwards spoke in their defense at the opening of Borough Road Library and was quoted in the local press:

It was not true that public libraries were only used by fiction readers. As an instance, he said that from the Camberwell Central Library nearby, there were issued the year before more than 500,000 volumes and nearly 200,000 of them were books of general reading, including historic, scientific, artistic, biographical, religious, educational, and other works.

If any one of these 500,000 books were back late, they would have attracted fines – in Southwark in 1902, these were set at a penny for the first week and tuppence per week beyond that. Other contraventions, however, attracted far severer punishments. Stealing a book or three, as attempted in 1897 from the Livesey Library, resulted in a sentence of three years penal servitude for the thief while cutting a column from a daily paper, as a customer of Camberwell Central Library discovered in 1902, resulted in a fine of ten shillings or, if not paid, seven days in prison.

In many ways, we’ve come a long way. Some things, however, appear to be eternal. In reminiscences, Mr. William Hahn, Chief Librarian of Camberwell Libraries from 1938 to 1955, recounts how the red-headed Mr. Edward Foskett, the first Chief Librarian, would encounter “rude little boys rushing into the Central Library with a shout”, who would “call out ‘Yah! Ginger Foskett!’ if they caught sight of him, and rush out again”.

To find out more on this subject, drop in to Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Southwark Libraries: the beginning (part one)

By Emma Sweeney, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

For an institution so embedded in the fabric of our communities, so ingrained in the public consciousness, the free public library is a surprisingly recent innovation in this country.

The Public Libraries Act 1850, sometimes called the Ewart Act after its originator, William Ewart, allowed for local rates (taxes) to be increased by a halfpenny in the pound in order to pay for the provision of public libraries and museums—but the act had quite strict limitations. It only applied to boroughs with a population numbering over 10,000; the ratepayers of the parish had to vote, by a two-thirds majority, to adopt it; the money thus raised could only be spent on buildings and staff, not on stocking the libraries (for this they had to rely on public donations of books and money).

William Ewart

William Ewart

Further legislation was passed in 1855 and 1866 and the public library movement gained momentum, though not so much in London. The first public library in London established in accordance with this legislation opened on Great Smith Street, Westminster in early 1857, with a branch library in Trevor Square following soon after in June 1858. Yet, by December 1882, this was still the only instance in London in which the Acts had been adopted. This sorry state of affairs was lamented in an article in Trubner’s Literary Record (July 1866), reprinted in the Illustrated London Times (4 August 1866), which blamed a lack of local philanthropists willing to fund a library service:

London, which, of all other cities in the world, owes most of its position to the intelligence, education, and activity of its citizens, stands, to our thinking, degraded and disgraced for its apathy in this matter. Is there no public spirit among our bankers and merchants […] Is the accumulation of wealth alone the object of ambition to our citizens, and have they no desire to contribute aid towards the elevation and improvement of the masses?

While no London parish outside of Westminster adopted the Act in the first three decades after its passing, it was not simply ignored. The question was first raised in Camberwell in 1858. A newspaper article from 1932 quotes from a poster of the time proclaiming that a public library “would allay the prejudices of caste […] open to all comers; Rich and Poor would meet on an equality” and exhorted the population to resist “those small politicians, the niggardly do nothings […] lack-brains and know-nothings who miscall themselves your representatives who will try to divert you from your purpose of voting in favour of this gracious act!” Sadly, the required two-thirds majority did not agree with him.

Old Workhouse, Camberwell

Camberwell Workhouse

By 1866 the need for a two-thirds majority was abolished and replaced by a requirement for a simple majority. Still, this was not enough to pass the measure in Camberwell where, according to the South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times, a meeting of the parishioners in the dining hall of the Workhouse “decided almost unanimously that the proposition was inexpedient”. This meeting is very unlikely to have included any of the poorest inhabitants of Camberwell. In order to vote at this time you had to be a man, aged 21 or over and also living in housing valued over £10 a year, which excluded six out of seven adult men. Those in property of a lower value were unlikely to be ratepayers and were not eligible to vote.

The main argument against free public libraries was financial, with many opposed to the increase in taxation.  The South London Observer and Camberwell and Peckham Times referred to it in November 1879 as “laying another straw upon the back of that marvellously-patient animal, the Camberwell ratepayer”. Some detractors, such as Mr. Merry in Kensington and Mr. West in Islington, whose views were reported in the Times, claimed this would be wasted money as such libraries would be used by the middle class—“those who could well afford a guinea a year for books”—rather than the intended beneficiaries, the working classes. Locally, the South London Observer wrote in November 1879 that Mr. Wesson of Camberwell caused “uproar” when he claimed that “working men could have plenty of books of their own if they didn’t handle the pewter pot so freely”. He was supported by Mr. Lond on the grounds that “he ought not to have to pay for another man’s enjoyment”.Free Libraries Act poll sign, Camberwell

Arguments for free public libraries stayed much the same over thirty years, at least in Camberwell where, in 1879, ratepayers voted once again against the adoption of the Acts with a majority of 627 (1306 against, 679 for), the resolution being defeated in every ward. The South London Observer celebrated:

And as modesty has ever been a characteristic of the South London Observer, we really don’t see why we should not have a crow for once on our own account […] We write fearlessly, and we don’t scruple to denounce this detestable state of things as a condition of positive parochial apostacy [sic], for what ought to have been a blessing, and was at the outset a very creditable notion […] has grown at Camberwell into a grim and gaunt Frankenstein before which even Shelley would have cowered, and whose one idea is to snap and devour the monies of the residents and rule them with the iron rod.

At the meeting where the result was announced, the crowd bayed for Dr. Rogers, chief proponent of the adoption, to explain himself. Feelings at the meeting were clearly strong and the South London Observer had a detailed report:

At last amidst the heat and row and squeeze, the Scottish champion got on the platform, but only to be hissed and groaned at as with no little fortitude he repeatedly bowed his acknowlegments [sic] à la favorite [sic] of the footlights. In vain he essayed to obtain a hearing. In vain Mr. Lassam grew crimson and Mr. Hunt nearly burst a blood vessel in yelling their hopes that the meeting would listen to the rev. gentleman. In vain Mr. Fermor, no longer the chairman, chirped his convictions that the ratepayers would not refuse to hear the originator of this movement […] Uproar drowned his [Dr Rogers’] voice, but his pantomimic gestures were supposed to be indicative of a plea for silence, but in the midst of the hubbub the gas suddenly turned off, and the meeting came to a very brisk end indeed, the cheering being renewed outside.

It would be another eight years before any Southwark parish adopted the Acts. We will explore this further in part two.

Camberwell vestry cartoons p13210 and 11

A satirical depiction of a typical Camberwell vestry meeting

Sam King MBE (1926 – 2016)

Sam King (credit: Georgina Cook/South London Press)Sam King MBE was born in Jamaica in 1926.

After serving as an RAF aircraft engineer, during the Second World War and until 1947, King sailed to Britain on the Empire Windrush in June 1948.  Unlike most of those arriving (including many ex-servicemen), King decided to rejoin the RAF and served until 1952. During that time he and his brother, Wilton became the second Caribbean family to buy a house in Southwark.  Having endured racism when he first arrived looking for ‘digs’, he was again to receive the same treatment when he applied for his first mortgage in 1950.  He was turned down and told to ‘go back to the colony’.  Undeterred he went directly to the home-owner selling the property, who was so appalled by the treatment King received he personally gave him the mortgage.  Thus, King owned his first house in Sears Street, Camberwell.

As an ex-serviceman, King was able to find employment in the postal service, working his way up to Postal Executive for the South Eastern district.  King married Mavis Kirlew in 1954, at Emmanuel Church in Camberwell.  Later in life he become active in politics, joining the Labour Party in the 1970s, getting involved in the Race Committee in the 1980s and becoming a Southwark Councillor, serving Peckham’s Bellenden Ward, in 1982.

King was elected Mayor of Southwark in 1983 in recognition of his community work which included among other activities, his work within schools, helping to set up the first West Indian carnival and working as Circulation Manager for the first Black newspaper in the UK, the West Indian Gazette. As Southwark’s first Black mayor King received death threats from the National Front who objected to his position.  These threats became world news and King began to receive support from as far as South Africa.

Sam King was awarded an MBE from the Queen in 1998 for services to his community.

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