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.

Researching the First World War: Searching for someone outside the UK

By Patricia Dark, Archivist at the Southwark Local History Library and Archive

This is the fifth post in a series exploring ways to find out more about the part your family, school, workplace, or neighbourhood played in the First World War.

The First World War was the first truly global war, and you may be looking for someone who lived in the wider British Empire, one of the Allied countries, or in one of the Central Powers who fought on the opposite side of the war. Many of the important points discussed in the second part of this series – major types of heritage organisations, digitisation of primary sources, and the challenges of using historic records – are true for records relating to the experiences of people in the Empire, Allied nation, or the Central Powers. You will also usually need to know the same basic and specific information, like full name and date of birth, service number, date(s) and place(s) of service, as you would to find British military personnel or civilians.

However, there are some challenges unique to using foreign records. In order to use undigitised foreign records, you will need to travel abroad or hire a local researcher to consult them for you – this includes many Commonwealth countries, who took responsibility for service records on achieving independence. Language may also be a challenge, both in terms of accessing documents and finding a local researcher. Finally, not all countries hold military service records in a central archive. This means that you will need to know where the person you’re interested in enlisted – and may need to travel to the appropriate regional archive to do research.

British Empire Forces

Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force

When the First World War started in 1914, Britain administered a world-spanning empire (whose symbolic successor is the Commonwealth).  Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa were self-governing units known as Dominions: each Dominion had its own legislature and made local laws, but the UK controlled their international relations. India had a more complicated system that was, in practice, similar to Dominion status; for this reason, all six of these states entered the war in August 1914. Colonies in Africa, Asia, and the West Indies had more limited self-government, and their casualties were accounted with that of UK forces.

Since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has a Commonwealth-wide remit, you should be able to find troops from all over the empire in its database of war dead; however, it’s important to note that men from the colonies are included under “United Kingdom forces”, Newfoundlanders under “Canadian”, and all troops from the Indian subcontinent under “Indian”. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) also has a Commonwealth-wide remit, and you can find details of those who served with imperial forces on the Lives of the First World War website.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and South Africa also have their own war museums (not all founded in the immediate aftermath, however); similarly the website Soldiers of the First World War provides access to digitised service records for Canadian and Newfoundlander troops; Discovering Anzacs, the AIF Project, and New Zealand Anzacs in the Great War do the same for Australian and New Zealander service records. Indian Army records for the time are generally at the British Library, and are not available online. You can also find some Indian Army unit diaries at the National Archives’ Operation War Diary website. South African records are available through the South African National Defence Force Documentation Centre; records of the King’s African Rifles, a unit based in Kenya, are available at the National Archives.

Allied Forces

Records of “doughboys” – American military personnel of the First World War, who joined the war in 1917– are held by the American equivalent of TNA, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They were badly affected by a catastrophic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, MO, in 1973: many of the surviving records are available on Ancestry or Family Search. The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) is the equivalent of the CWGC, and its website allows you to search for burials in American military cemeteries. It’s important to note that, in contrast to British policy, American policy gave bereaved families the choice of whether or not to inter war dead in battlefield cemeteries. This means many American war dead are buried in their hometowns, and so don’t necessarily appear on the ABMC database. You may also find useful information on the website of the American National World War I Museum.

In France, the Ministère de la Defense (the Ministry of Defense) is in charge of service records, while the Ministère des Pensions (the Ministry of Pensions) is the official war graves agency. For poilus – French military personnel of the First World War – the Memoire des Hommes website provides access to digitised military and war graves records. Some of its background material and database fields are in English, but most of its results are in French and may require knowledge of that language to use.

Italy also fought on the side of the Allies in World War I. Service records there are held at regional centres, and most are not digitised; you can find more information on how to access them at Family Search. Russian records are particularly challenging to use: records are scattered, fragmentary, and generally not online. To make use of them, you will need to have good knowledge of Russian and read Cyrillic. One place to start is the World War I project of the Russian genealogical society Союз Возрождения Родословных Традиций (Union Revival Bloodlines Traditions, SVRT).

Central Powers forces

If you are searching for an ancestor who was in the military forces of the Central Powers, the situation is more complicated. At the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires broke into pieces; like British colonies, the military records of different newly-independent areas became the successor states’ responsibility. Many of these nations also hold military records on a regional, not national, basis; many of these records were lost in the bombings of the Second World War, and relatively few of them are online.

Ottoman service records are likely to be held by the archives of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (Republic of Turkey Ministry of National Defense). These records are likely to be very difficult to use unless you are familiar with Ottoman Turkish and its Arabic-based script.

Service records of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included modern Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, and parts of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, and Montenegro) are held regionally; the vast majority of them are handwritten in German. The Österreichisches Staatsarchiv (Austrian State Archives) leaflet on military genealogy (in English) contains an overview of resources available at the Kriegsarchiv Wien (Vienna War Archives), as well as contact details for regional archives. The Österreichisches Schwarzes Kreuz (Austrian Black Cross) is the equivalent of the CWGC: you can make a research request for information on an Austrian war grave. The Hungarian equivalent of the Kriegsarchiv Wien is the Hadtörténelmi Levéltár (Hungarian Military History Archives) in Budapest: its website is entirely in Hungarian.

Many German service records for the First World War did not survive the 1945 destruction of the Prussian military archive, in Potsdam, near Berlin; however, records for some semi-autonomous German forces (Bavaria, Saxony, and Baden-Württemberg) are held at regional archives. Ancestry provides online access to Bavarian service records, and the Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe (General state archive, Karlsruhe) provides digital copies of service records for Baden-Württemberg. You may also find useful information on the First World War centenary website of the Bundesarchiv (German federal archive), including their introduction to military genealogy leaflet (German language only). The website of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission), the German equivalent of the CWGC, allows you to search for a soldier buried in a German war cemetery.

This is the final post in a series exploring ways to research the First World War.

Historic Dulwich

Southwark’s historic villages: Dulwich

The London Borough of Southwark, as we know it today, forms a triangle stretching south from the River Thames for just over five miles. The oldest part of Southwark is the area just south of London Bridge known as the Borough. Until the late 18th and early 19th centuries the area south of the Borough was part of the county of Surrey, and was a rural landscape of meadows, farms, market gardens and small villages.

This is the first in a series of posts which will be looking at some of these historic villages.

The area we now know as Dulwich has a long history. We know there were inhabitants as far back as 50 BC to 100AD as Gallo Belgic pottery, donated to the Cuming Museum, was uncovered near Lordship Lane and Highwood.

It took some time for the area to develop its current name, and although there is no mention of Dulwich in the Domesday Book of 1086, there are earlier references to it as far back as 967AD. It was certainly re-settled by 1127 when the King gave the lands to the Priory of the Holy Saviour in Bermondsey (known as Bermondsey Abbey), who remained as the landlords until 1538.

At this time Dulwich was no more than a small hamlet bordering onto fields and, without a church of its own, inhabitants had to travel to Camberwell to worship. Bermondsey Abbey didn’t appear to interfere much in local affairs, beyond collecting its dues and maintaining order. Surviving court records give us a snapshot of life at the time: William Hosegard was accused of running off with the wife, and many possessions, of Richard Rolfe in 1335; and a jury found themselves on the wrong side of the law in 1407 when they were fined for taking dinner before returning a verdict. Petty crime was common, from drunkenness and minor assaults to the crime of milking other peoples’ cows (probably not something we see much of in Dulwich today!).

In 1538 Henry VIII seized control of Bermondsey Abbey and its assets – including Dulwich. The rights to the village were later sold to a London goldsmith by the name of Thomas Calton, for the sum of £609, 18 shilling and 2 pence. His family held the land for almost 70 years, until October 1605, when it was sold to a famous Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn, for a princely sum of £4,900.

Alleyn had a major impact on the way Dulwich was run for many years. Most famously he built a college to help educate 12 poor children and make provision for 12 elderly people. Dulwich College is now world famous, with scholars such as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.

Dulwich Village still retains much of its rural character due to the protection of the College. Alleyn gave the freehold of his lands and the Dulwich manorial rights to the College, who opposed the over development of the area.

In 1739 a spa was discovered which soon became popular with the visitors. Its site in Dulwich Grove later became Dr Glennie’s Academy, where Lord Byron was educated for two years. At this point Dulwich was still a small, rural development with few links to the outside world – as late as 1792 there was just one public road in Dulwich, which went to Sydenham. The public opening of the Picture Gallery, in 1817 helped to raise the profile of the area.

As with so much of South London, the main cause of sudden growth in the Dulwich area was the arrival of the railways. In 1854 the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham and a railway was constructed to help visitors get there. The railway meant people were able to live further from work and the green of Dulwich began to vanish under new houses.

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