Southwark’s Public Health Pioneers part 2: The Peckham Experiment

In part 1 of this post Southwark’s Archivist, Patricia Dark discussed the state of the borough’s health in the interwar period and introduced the work of Bermondsey’s public health pioneers. In part 2 we’ll discover what was going on at that time in the south of the borough.

Peckham had its own Pioneer – the Pioneer Health Centre, better known as the Peckham Experiment. It was the brainchild of two doctors, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearce. Both were essentially academic physicians, and the Experiment grew out of their work on thyroid disease in the early part of the 20th century. For Williamson, “health” was something that existed separate from and in opposition to illness – understanding what it was and how to maximise it was simply impossible only studying pathology. Pearce’s work in an infant welfare centre in Stepney convinced her that any study of health – and any grassroots effort to improve health – had to be informed by, and grounded in, the family.

The initial phase of the Experiment began in 1926, in a house in Queen’s Road, Peckham: Pearce and Williamson worked with a group of birth control campaigners to measure whether access to health information would usefully empower people to improve their and their families’ health. It was a private members’ club, where – uniquely – the basic unit of membership was the family, not the individual. Members had access to medical workups, pre and postnatal care, and other specialist clinics, as well as a children’s nursery, space to socialize, and advice and help with other problems.

This initial phase ended in 1930, as it became clear that health information wasn’t enough to make people healthy – they had to have access to healthy, health-promoting environments. While the experiment could not reach into individual homes, it could influence members’ free time. Fundraising and design for a place where members could meet their physical, social, and mental health needs began, and the new centre opened in 1936.

The new centre operated on the same lines as the old – a private members’ club, whose basic unit of membership was the family; “family” including the partners of adult children, as Pearce and Williamson viewed premarital counselling as a crucial part of the process of creating a new family. The fee was a shilling a week per family and an annual health overhaul for each family member.

The health overhaul was crucial, both to collect data for the experiment and to inform and empower users. Centre staff took a detailed medical history, physical examination, and a full set of laboratory tests, before a one-on-one consultation; a member of medical staff explained the results and provided information on any appropriate diagnoses and potential treatments. However, although the Pioneer offered referrals, it didn’t treat members; autonomy of the individual over their own life was both a paramount value of the staff and a cornerstone of the experimental design. Someone who did not want to seek treatment for a problem – or who had a problem for which there was no current treatment – would receive information and support to help live with it.

The health centre’s building was built between 1933 and 1935 by Sir Evan Owan Williams, the engineer famed for Manchester’s Daily Express building. It was built using modern structural techniques which allowed a maximal amount of open space; for the most part, the centre was open-plan. This allowed families to separate and engage in different activities, while (for instance) parents could still monitor their children without hovering – it also allowed staff to unobtrusively observe members. As the experiment progressed, however, the open-plan design helped create a community – one where adults supervised, guided, and admonished any child, and children could interact and learn from a much wider and more varied group of adults than their own nuclear families.

PC00739

The new centre in St Mary’s Road

The heart of the building was a swimming pool with a glazed roof. The centre’s café was to the side of the pool, separated from it by a wall with lots of windows. This gave mothers a place to chat – and provide informal support to each other – while keeping an eye on their children. There was also a gymnasium with a variety of apparatus: these were the two most appealing places for children in the building, but on opening they were allowed to use neither unsupervised – and their resulting frustration caused havoc in the newly-opened building. One member of staff, Lucy Crocker, discovered the solution – to allow children unsupervised use of these treasured places, provided they obtained signed permission from a staff member who was familiar with their abilities. This gave the researchers a chance to view them in their natural environment, as it were – they found that, not only did older children tend to watch out for younger ones, but more surprisingly, most children quickly found their own level of skill, and instinctively acted so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

While sports and physical activities were a key part of the centre’s offering, it also offered space for reading and study, including a library, and space for a variety of classes and cultural opportunities. Crucially, staff did not plan and organise classes – that was the sole responsibility of members. However, staff would find space, tools, and materials for any group of members who wanted to learn, teach, or practice a skill, run an event, or hold a class. The one iron-clad rule was that nobody could claim space in the building for their private or group use without getting consent from other members.

To us, the Pioneer Health Centre seems like a bigger brother to a leisure centre: members could join exercise classes, or competitive leagues in sports and games like badminton, darts, and snooker. But the reality was that for many member families, the centre became an extension of their own homes: a place to hold parties, entertain friends, and even find a spouse! Knowledge and skills were passed between families and generations: fathers often used woodworking classes and clubs to make Christmas presents or hone DIY skills, and there were a variety of sewing circles to help new mothers clothe their babies as cost-effectively as possible – sharing child-rearing advice in the process.

The Centre’s heyday was the decade before the Second World War. Concerned at member families’ lack of access to high-quality nourishing food, the centre bought a farm in Bromley. Its small dairy herd, poultry farm, and arable fields provided organic milk, eggs, and produce at affordable prices: Williamson and Pearce were founder-members of the Soil Association. The farm also provided a place for members to work in the open, and space for camping. The centre also ran a school that attempted to apply the egalitarian, autonomous philosophy of the centre into practice in the realm of education.

However, the outbreak of war – and especially the beginning of the Blitz toward the end of 1940 – brought the centre’s life to a screeching halt. The farm was requisitioned by the RAF, and the centre was closed, as the very glass-heavy construction was both dangerous during an air-raid and difficult to black out. Although it reopened at the end of the war in 1945, it closed again, permanently, in 1950. Partly, this was due to financial problems – Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the building was in dire need of repair and equipment, leaving little money to run activities or recruit staff. Changes in the local population also didn’t help: Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the resulting displacement meant that many long-standing, active member families no longer lived in the area, while the population that now did was less able to spare the money for dues.

After the creation of the NHS in 1948, the centre petitioned unsuccessfully for central government funding. From Whitehall’s point of view, the centre was not free at point of service, and did not have an “open door” policy. On the centre’s side, the NHS was concerned only with the treatment of disease, not the cultivation of health, and the autonomous nature of the centre did not mesh well with the top-down bureaucracy of the NHS. Some members felt that the government felt threatened by a group of people who could organize and run such a large undertaking – especially one geared to personal autonomy and self-help – without the need for leadership.

However, the centre did have an impact. In part, that impact was shown by one shocking statistic: the annual health overhauls showed that only 10% of the membership were genuinely healthy. 30% of members had at least one illness, while the health of another 60% was impaired to some degree by symptoms of illness – often symptoms they didn’t realise they had.

This suggests that it is possible to function – even function well – in daily life when not completely healthy (or even unhealthy). However, the atmosphere of the centre – one where each individual’s right to make decisions about their own life was paramount, and where those choices were respected and validated – may well have helped people remain active and involved in their communities. Moreover, the sheer depth and breadth of activities available, and the support members had from staff and other members to access them, ensured that as many members as possible could stay active and involved – and therefore healthy. These are lessons that modern public health officials may do well to remember.

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: Eric Allandale Dubuisson

Voting has opened 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 Eric Allandale Dubuisson.

Eric Allendale was born in 1936 in Dominica. He came to Britain in 1954 and settled in Hammersmith, west London, where he took up the post of council surveyor and played the trumpet in the borough brass band. When a jazz splinter group formed outside of the main band Eric discovered that the role of trumpet player had already been filled. He decided to take up the trombone instead and this was to become his signature instrument, leading him on the path to success with his own band, the New Orleans Knights.

After many prolific years in London’s traditional jazz scene Eric moved into the world of soul music with the Foundations, a Motown-inspired group who had top ten hits with “Baby Now That I’ve Found You” and “Build Me Up Buttercup.” The group were renowned for their diverse mix of musicians from different backgrounds, (West Indian, British and Sri Lankan) and musical traditions. Eric wrote a number of songs for the group and for other artists. The first of his songs to be recorded was We Are Happy People”, the B-side to the Foundations third single, “Any Old Time (You’re Lonely and Sad)”.

Peckham Rye 1981

Pecham Rye in 1981

After the Foundations split up in 1970 Eric spent time in Zambia and Kenya, playing in an African jazz band, teaching music and learning new skills. When he returned to London during the 1970s he ran a shop at number 38 Peckham Rye with his partner Olive. This three storey Victorian terraced building is still standing and is now a furniture shop. At other times he also lived in Hollydale Road, Peckham Hill Street and St Mary’s Road.

In summary:

A talented and ambitious musician who travelled the world but called Peckham home. Will you #VoteEricAllendale?

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.

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

Historic Peckham

Southwark’s historic villages: Peckham

Peckham appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a very small settlement of just four households – one villager and three smallholders. There was enough farming land to plough with a single team of eight oxen, as well as two acres of meadow. The Tenant-in-chief was the Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who was Lord or tenant-in-chief to over 30 places in Surrey at that time. Though Peckham was only small in 1086 its mention in the Doomsday book shows that it was a respected and established settlement.

Valued at 30 shillings, Peckham was owned by King Henry I who gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The Earl later married the heiress of Camberwell, uniting the two properties under royal ownership.

Hard as it is to believe today, but in the early 13th century King John was thought to have hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that having killed a stag he was so pleased with his sport that he granted the inhabitants of Peckham the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week-long event at its high point and included wild beasts and birds newly imported from around the world as well as stalls and curios. The Cuming family were known to visit the fair in the early 1800s and purchased items, such as small toys, which became part of the Cuming Museum collection. The fair developed quite a boisterous reputation and it was finally abolished in 1827.

 

Peckham grew in favour as a residential area and in the 16th century it became home to some quite wealthy people. Sir Thomas Gardyner owned Basing Manor, close to the corner of Peckham High Street and Rye Lane, and wrote of the extensive orchards and gardens nearby which he owned or had access to. With the lack of refrigeration, food had to be grown close to its final market and Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep. Exotic fruits such as melons, figs and grapes were all grown here, some ending up on the royal table. The success of the Peckham farmers is still remembered today in the naming of ‘Melon Road’ just off Peckham High Street.

Painting of Basing Manor (GA01722)

Peckham was an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their livestock to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in local hostelries, such as the Kentish Drovers.

By the end of the 17th century Peckham was home to around 120 households (a population of 600-700). Although still officially a hamlet some documents from the time refer to ‘Peckham Town’. While this may have been to distinguish Peckham from Peckham Rye, the choice of town rather than village may reflect the increasingly urban character of the area. The population continued to grow over the 18th century and was recorded in 1792 as 340 households (1,700-2,000 people).

Partly due to the poor condition of the roads, a Peckham branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built. The plan was to take it to Portsmouth but it never went beyond Peckham due to lack of funds. The canal entered the Thames at Surrey Commercial Docks and originally carried soft wood on barges for construction. Some timber merchants are still located alongside its course.

Grand Surrey Canal Basin – Peckham Branch (PC00155)

Though the majority of Peckham’s residents were employed on the farm land there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard and poverty was all too often the reality for many.

The peaceful country life of Peckham continued to change. In 1833 the South Metropolitan Gas Works opened on the Old Kent Road, which meant some local roads were lit at night, but it was to be many years before most homes had gas.

In 1851, fourteen years before Peckham Rye station opened, communications and travel from Peckham were improved when Thomas Tilling started a horse drawn omnibus service. Unlike most of his rivals Tilling’s horse drawn carriages picked up passengers only from pre-arranged stops. This helped his services to run on time earning them the nickname of “times buses”.

Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses; another fifteen years later he had nearly 1,500. In 1888 he experimented with using pneumatic tyres designed by Dr John Dunlop on some of his carriages. His horse drawn services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed for the war effort.

Thomas Tilling Bus Company (P09166)

As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. As the 19th century drew to a close the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments.

To preserve some greenery in the area Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 to be maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. The common proved so popular with residents and visitors that it became increasingly overcrowded on holidays and it was felt that an expansion was needed. Homestall Farm sat alongside the common and was purchased for £51,000 to be opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. And with the sale and closure of the farm the tradition of farming in Peckham drew to a close.

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