London – South of the Thames : Chapter VIII

This is a digitised copy of the book “London – South of the Thames” by Sir Walter Besant
Published in London by Adam & Charles Black (1912)

This is in its raw form. Sections will be improved manually on this blog as time goes on.

CHAPTER VIII
CAMBERWELL
In the Domesday Book this parish is called Cambrewelle, but subsequently the b was dropped, and from the eleventh century to the sixteenth century the name of the parish is quoted as Camwell, Cammerwell, or Camerwell. In the seventeenth century the b found its way back again, but it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that Camberwell, as it is now written, was officially or locally recognised. It was held by Hamo the Sheriff, who owned so much land to the south of London, and a church and sixty-three acres of meadow are noted ; also the wood furnished food for sixty swine. The origin of the name is not clear, but as the parish church has been dedicated from the Saxon times to St. Giles, the especial patron of cripples, and certain springs in the neighbourhood were said to possess salutary virtues for persons so distressed, and that the old British word Cam signifies crooked, Camberwell may simply mean “the well of the crooked.” Ancient wells have been discovered here, and in Lyson’s time a portion of the parish was called Milkwell.

The centre of the parish is the ” Green,” a well-kept garden of two and a half acres furnished with seats and shaded by many fine trees, forming a model open
space for the crowded population. Facing this are a few old houses of the parish, now disappearing in favour of shops, save on the eastern side, which is not
well adapted for trade. On this space was formerly held Camberwell Fair on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of August, but it was ultimately suppressed in 1855, when the
manorial rights to the ground were purchased by subscriptions and the Green made into a park and enclosed. The southern end of the Green has always been a
starting-point for omnibuses to the City, and in addition to these it is now an important stopping-place of the tramways between Greenwich, Westminster, and
Blackfriars. In 1796 the coach that left here for Charing Cross made two journeys in the day, and those running to Fleet Street were content with three, with a fare of one shilling outside and eighteen pence in, which has gradually been reduced, till now the same journey costs threepence and is performed in a few minutes. At the northern end of the Green stands the Grammar School, a modern building erected in 1871 on the site of the original schools, which date back to 1706. The School was originally built for 30 boys and girls, a number which has grown to 800.

Northwards from the Green, Camberwell Road is mainly shops with a few terraces of dwellings that are slowly being merged into trade.

In 1840 Tom Hood lived at 266 High Street, two doors from the corner of Medlar Street on the west side, prior to his removal to St. John’s Wood, where he died some few years later. Behind these houses are large builders’ yards, and other trades on every available site, and passing Emanuel Church, erected in 1841 and now in need of repair,

The Wyndham Road is reached. This was formerly Bowyer Lane, named after the family of that name who settled here in the reign of Henry VII. and whose mansion was pulled down in 1861 for the extension of the Chatham and Dover  Railway. Another of their houses stood on the site of the Greencoat School facing the Green. Immediately to the north of Wyndham Road, at the main road, stood Freemason’s Mill, a noted landmark and parish boundary, and in the old Bowyer Lane were the Flora Tea Gardens, at one time a famous south London resort, which reached its zenith in 1849.

This neighbourhood has always had a bad reputation, the murderer Greenacre having lived here in 1836, and to-day the streets off Crown Street are crowded with the vicious and poverty-stricken classes. Costers, hawkers,and labourers herd together in dirty streets which swarm with neglected children. Every available foot of space is used as stabling for ponies and donkeys and standing-room for barrows and small carts. Becket and Toulon Streets are a trifle better, but as far as Farmer’s Road the district is poor. The Schools and House of St. Mary and St. John, newly erected, stand in Wyndham Road, which improves to the west, but the houses and shops are still small and mean, and hardly suggest that in 1809 the parish was described as “a pleasant retreat for those citizens who have a taste for the country while their avocations call them daily to town.”

On both sides of Clarendon Road there is still much open ground used for building material yards now being cleared for permanent structures, and facing Camberwell Road is the Clarendon Nursery, one of the solitary survivors of the famous local trade, for less than forty years ago all this district was market gardens and nurseries. A large Board School stands in the Leipzig Road among fairly comfortable houses.

Medlar Street, formerly Orchard Row, named from Myatt’s Orchard which covered the ground, adjoins the Lambeth County Court, next to which is the Surrey Masonic Hall, used by the South London Institute of Music, and the sorting-office of the G.P.O. Opposite is the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Sacred Heart with Presbyterian Schools behind, and adjoining is the Camberwell Congregational Chapel, built in 1856. Camberwell New Road narrows considerably at this point, restricting the tramways to one line, with turnouts, and is bordered with trees now grown to a good size. The houses are large, standing well back from the road, with long gardens behind. In County Grove many new houses are being built, and in other directions vacant plots are being covered with small houses.

Flodden Road is lined with good houses and contains the head-quarters of the 1st Surrey Rifles with a drill hall and large parade ground attached. The Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, built in 1868, is in this road, and to the south lies Camberwell Park. This tract, originally a market garden and known as Myatt’s Fields, consists of fourteen acres laid out with lawns and flower-beds, and includes a band-stand and a large separate gymnasium and playground for boys and girls, all under the care of the London County Council. Having a crowded neighbourhood to the north and west, the park is an inestimable boon for the children. A small angle at the northeast
corner, which should be included in the park, is to let in twenty-foot frontages, which is far below the average frontage in this vicinity ; but efforts are being made to
purchase the ground and to add it to the open space. In Calais Road and also in Cormont Road is a wide strip of property that is now being covered with houses.
Those on the latter road are of a good grade to correspond with the neighbourhood, which to the south and west of the park is made up of wide, well-kept roads built up with modern dwellings.

At the corner of Knatchbull and Burton Roads is Longfield Hall, with the academv of the new Church alongside and the Free Library opposite. This consists of a cosy little red-brick building originally erected for a parochial hall in 1887, but turned into a library in 1S90, and contains reading rooms and reference library.

Facing Camberwell Park is the Church of St. James, of stone with aspire, erected in 1869, in advance of the neighbourhood, which is now, however, almost entirely covered with houses. The ground to the south of the church to Templar Street is vacant and used as a garden. East of Park Road the large open space from Harold Street to Denmark Road is the property of the railway company adjoining, which has let a portion of the southern end for light manufactures.

Under the Bridge, Denmark Street and Road and the short streets off them are of small houses tenanted by a mixed class with a sprinkling of poor among them, and some shops at the corners, and continuing down Warner Road leads back to New Road. On the north side next to the railway bridge are the stables of the Tramway Company, the Girls’ and Infants’ Schools of St. Matthew’s, Denmark Hill, erected in 1850, and nearest the Green the large Catholic Apostolic Church. Crossing the south side of the Green, Church Street is reached with its busy traffic and shops, and behind these is a group of small streets to the Waterloo Road, closely populated and clean, but with a very mixed class of residents, the fairly well-off being alongside the poor class.

The Public Baths are situated in a short street off the main road near the Green and are well patronised.

Vicarage Road and Terrace are the homes of the middle class, but the continuation of the latter—Belham Street—is very poor. St. Giles’s Vicarage stands in large grounds surrounded by a high wall facing the church on the Peckham Road with North Terrace composed of large houses to the east as far as the Parish buildings. Behind is Brunswick Square bordered with good houses with an open space to the north as far as Elmington Road. A Presbyterian Chapel and School stands in Benhill Road, and between here and Havil Street are many small streets of neat little houses. This street is named from the family of Havil, old residents who lived at the corner of what was then Workhouse Lane, and whose house was torn down to make way for the new Vestry Hall, built in 1873.

Across the street are also Parish offices, and from the corner north to Brunswick Street stretch the different buildings of the Camberwell Workhouse, which have been erected since its inception in 1731. In the block bounded by Havil and Southampton Streets behind the Vestry Hall the centre is all open ground, part of which is used as a nursery.

At the back of the old Camberwell House, formerly a private school and afterwards used by the Royal Naval School before its removal to New Cross, and now a private asylum with large grounds attached, there stands a large and ancient brewery, and facing Bushey Hill Road are the buildings of the Passmore Edwards South London Art Gallery and Technical Institute (the Lord Leighton Memorial), now in course of construction.

Camden Church, standing in a large grass-grown yard, adjoins, and dates from 1797, with Camden Terrace, 1766, to the corner of Southampton Street. This neighbourhood is all of the eighteenth century, and the view across the yard of Camden Church discloses the old-fashioned style of the buildings with their tiled roofs, long gardens, and decaying fruit trees. Southampton Street begins with good houses, but the north speedily alters, and poor shops and small houses are to be seen everywhere. At Peckham Grove, where the old Dowlas Common formerly existed, the road widens very much, and winding on to New Church Road is now being improved, rows of new houses taking the place of poorer cottages. Mechanics and clerks occupy most of the district, and many of the houses rent apartments.

In Sedgemoor Place stands the Aged Pilgrims’ Asylum, erected in 1837 for forty two aged pilgrims. It is a brick building with an embattled centre, flanked by two towers, surrounding a quadrangle with a lawn in the centre. Immediately behind is the Bethel Asylum, erected in 1838 for fourteen aged women by William Peacock, who also gave the ground for the Aged Pilgrim building with its entrance in Havil Street.

At the corner of Commercial Road is the ” Rosemary Branch ” on the site of a famous old house which stood in extensive grounds in the early part of the century and was noted for horse-racing, cricketing, and pigeon-shooting. Behind are the Assembly Rooms, now used as a cheap \’ariety Theatre.

Branch Buildings and the dirty district of Diamond Street, with Hornby Road, is a very poor neighbourhood, packed as closely as possible. In this angle stands the Church and School of St. Luke, which has a day nursery and home for girls in a large double house in Commercial Street.

To Sumner Road the neighbourhood is of a better order, although in spots it is occasionally dirty. In St. James’s Grove, the best street near here, stands a Baptist Chapel, and next to it a very large Board School with extensive playgrounds free to the neighbouring children.

In Granard Road is another large school which draws its scholars from the poor districts of Tilson and Gloucester Roads. Sumner Road is fairly well-to-do, with small shops and little by-streets full of clean new houses. In Davey Street is the new red-brick church of All Saints, North Peckham, with a Parochial Hall, Club, and Institute at the corner of St. George’s Road. The latter road runs west to Wells Street parallel with the Grand Surrey Canal, and contains a great many small tradesmen who have shops erected in the yards behind the houses. The people here are comparatively well off, whilst the streets to the south contain a shifting population of a decidedly poor type. At Trafalgar Bridge, Sumner Road narrows, and crossing the Canal becomes Trafalgar Road, which joins the Old Kent Road. On both sides of the Canal are large business premises, and along the banks are to be seen lime and cement yards, cooperage, colour-works, and coal-wharves.

From Trafalgar Road to the Old Kent Road the angle is closely covered with houses and factories and numerous stables.

One little relic of old Camberwell remains in Trafalgar Cottage (No. 75 in the road), a little one-story, weather-boarded, wooden cottage with pantiled roof standing in a garden full of flowers and shrubs, enclosed by broken palings.

This quaint survival of a more picturesque age stands under the shadow of a huge gas-meter factory surrounded by large houses. From the end of this road to the Canal Bridge both sides are lined with good houses standing well back from the street in gardens. The corners of the streets are, however, generally occupied by shops, and alterations are now being made to convert more houses to trade purposes. On the north side of the road stands Marlborough Congregational Chapel, erected in 1827. The front bears a tablet which commemorates the martyrdom at St. Thomas a Waterings, in the Old Kent Road, of John Penny, M.A., on May 29, 1593.

St. Thomas a Waterings was a favourite stopping-place with the pilgrims going to Canterbury, and also for travellers on the road to Dover. It was named after St. Thomas a Becket, and the small stream and watering-place was close to the second milestone from London Bridge. Maps as late as 1790 show the stream a little south of the Green Man public-house, which would place the spot near the Albany Road. Chaucer speaks of this place in the prologue to his Canterbury Tales, and Stow also mentions it when he tells how Penny was apprehended by the Vicar of Stebenheath (Stepney), committed to prison, and afterwards hanged here. Penny had circulated seditious pamphlets under the pseudonym of Ulartin Marre, Prelate, and for this was arraigned at the King’s Bench in Westminster, convicted of felony, and condemned to death.

The spot was a favourite place of execution for Surrey, and in 1540 Griffith Gierke, Vicar of Wandsworth, his chaplain, servant, and Friar Waire were all hanged and quartered, in all probability for denying the supremacy of the king. In 1553 one of the quarters of Sir Thomas Wyatt was exposed here after his execution for insurrection against Queen Mary. The last persons executed here were a father and son who had been convicted of murder, about 1740.

At the Canal Bridge shops line both sides of the approach, and the road over the Canal is very narrow for the great stream of traffic. On the north side of the Canal, which curves eastwards, are lime works, wood yards, and a huge pottery facing the South Metropolitan Gas-works. From the Canal to Rotherhithe New Road and east as far as Ilderton Road, is a new district only recently taken over from the market gardeners. It is served by two large Board Schools standing in the Credon and Ilderton Roads. The Parish Church of St. Bartholomew with Schools and Vicarage are in  Barkworth Road. The eastern portion of this angle is peopled by the better class of mechanics, clerks, and employees of the great goods yards adjoining, with tidy little houses and clean streets, but the western end, as in Verney Street, is crowded, dirty, and ill-kept.

Verney Street, as it
faces the Canal, is lined on the south side with factories of all descriptions and with the noises of the saw-mills, smoke from the pottery and gas-works, and the vapours from a soap-works and size-factory, is not a pleasant abode. The houses are all of a monotonous two-story pattern, and though so small a great number of them rent rooms furnished or unfurnished.

Rotherhithe New Road and Rolls Road bound the immense goods yards of the South-Eastern Railway, and are partly built up with cottages and in places with small factories. To the south of Rolls Road the population is crowded, and with the exception of Avondale Square, which is full of fairly well-to-do middle-class people, is composed of artisans, mechanics, and poorly-paid labourers. The St. James’s Road is a little better off in regard to houses and tenants, but Lovegrove and Mill Streets adjoining are dirty and contain miserably poor people.

In Marlborough Road is one of the old Board Schools, erected in 1872, and in Mawbey Road is another large new one with extensive playgrounds. In Avondale Square is the Church of St. Philip, its schools and vicarage surrounded by good old houses. Earl Road runs through a very poor neighbourhood of small houses, with muddy, narrow  streets,swarming with ragged children.

The Old Kent Road with its wide pavements and busy shops is at its best in this district, and passing St. Thomas’s Road, named after the watering-place, with a Fire Brigade Station at the corner, Albany Road is reached, containing the new Maze Pond Church, originally founded in 1692 in Bermondsey. Albany Road is a wide, wood-paved main thoroughfare from Camberwell Road to the Old Kent Road, which is daily being improved. There are Board Schools in Coburg and Scarsdale Roads.

Coburg Road, which runs north and south, contains St. Mark’s Church and is lined with good houses, but from its junction with Neate Street traverses a poverty-stricken
mass of small houses to the Canal. The western end of Neate Street is a little better as to its houses and population, and contains linoleum factories, woolworks, and many minor industries. From Longcroft Road north to Albany Road is comparatively new, but the people incline towards a precarious existence, and the houses are generally sublet.

In Conan Street is the large building of Messrs. Watkins, who have contracted with the British and Foreign Society for the binding of all Bibles issued by them for the last sixty years. Many large firms have stables and yards in this locality, and there are two depots and stables of White’s Mineral Water Company covering a vast area. Wells Street with a sharp gradient crosses the Canal on a narrow iron bridge erected in 1862, and on the south side is the Church of St. George, erected in 1824, when this neighbourhood was all fields, and it has since then been closely hemmed in with houses. The churchyard is laid out as a garden, and a mortuary and coroner’s court have just been erected at the back.

The banks of the Canal are kept busy with passing barges, and there are many yards for wood, lime and cement, colours, coal, and sauce and pickle factories. The
stacks of wood’in the timber-yards are immense, and whilst some are slowly built up by porters, others are rapidly piled up by steam cranes, working from the top. East of Wells Street, north of the Canal, most of the streets are narrow and dirty, and here as everywhere else in the poor districts low taverns abound. Four large new
blocks on the north side, named the “Albany ” after the road, are clean and well-built, and cover the ground to Boundary Lane. From Camberwell New Road south to New Church Road is almost all residential, consisting of good houses standing back in gardens, but these are rapidly changing and very shortly all will have been converted into shops by building on the gardens in front. The head of the navigation of the Surrey Canal is behind No. 107 in this road, surrounded by large coal-wharves, wood-yards, and an oil-wharf.

Turning into Addington Square the Trinity Court Hall, used for lectures and other similar purposes, is passed, and on the north of the Square are the Baths erected on the bank of the canal in 1825. The Square is the residence of respectable people, but Bath Place, immediately behind, is very poor. In all these small turnings bordering on the
Canal the people are near the hunger-line, though the houses are as a rule very clean. New Church Road is lined with small houses, and contains the new redbrick building of the Trinity College Mission, large mineral water works, and several smaller factories. Edmund Street and the turnings off both sides are small and dirty with a floating poor population.

St. George’s, Camberwell

With the Grand Surrey Canal in the foreground, as it appeared about 1824, when the church was built. and unhealthy houses have been taken down to make room for larger tenements.

Southampton Street has also had numbers of houses pulled down and new ones are going up rapidly. These are built with two doors to each, so that separate families can occupy the different floors.

In Parkhurst Street also new houses have appeared lately among the very old cottages with their big gardens and shade trees. All through these better streets the houses are used for small businesses, and in many cases temporary workshops are erected in the yards, which are generally capacious.

Cab-yards, laundries, stone-yards, wheelwrights and other small trades are also numerous, with many shops interspersed, the new ones large and roomy, the old ones small and unclean. Wells Street, Cottage Green, and the streets to the east as far as Peckham Grove contain many houses with the people in comfortable circumstances, and in Peckham Grove with its rows of fine trees they are much better off.

Round the Board School, facing the foot of Wells Street, Harriss and Amelia and other cross streets contain a very poor population in small cottages.

To the west of Acorn Street all the streets are of the poorer class, some very narrow and all comprised of small houses, generally of two stories. George’s Street is much wider, and here an attempt has been made to rehouse some of the poor in the larger buildings of Waterloo Square. A big Board School is also in this street, with a large jam factory, a brewery, and a hall of the Salvation Army. In Waterloo Street are national and free schools, and at the bend a very few old wooden cottages.

To the south extend a waste of small streets built as closely as possible, and from them come the children that overrun the adjacent Green.



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