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.

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.

 

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.