Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Peckham - The Growth of a Victorian Suburb

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited the remnants of the Great North Wood, extending between Sydenham and Dulwich, can board a Number 33 bus from Crescent Wood Road, heading north towards Tower Bridge. The journey takes us through a largely residential area of London, passing the Horniman Museum on the left.

The Horniman Museum. Photo: I.M. Chengappa (licensed under CCA).


Founded at the end of the Nineteenth Century by Frederick Horniman, the heir to a fortune built on the import of tea, the museum has stunning natural history and ethnographic collections, including one of the UK's most extensive collections of musical instruments from around the World. After a journey of around half an hour, we alight at Peckham Rye Station.

Until the mid-Nineteenth Century, Peckham was "a small, quiet, retired village, surrounded by fields," traces of which can still be glimpsed on Peckham Rye Common, and in Peckham Rye Park. As a child in the mid-Eighteenth Century, William Blake would often walk here from his home in Soho, and began to experience the visions that would inform his later writing and art: on one occasion, he saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a bush; and, on another, an angel in a tree.

Peckham Rye Common. Photo: Kate Tierney (licensed under CCA).

Angels, by William Blake (image is in the Public Domain).

The River Peck, in Peckham Rye Park, one of many small rivers that run beneath London's streets, largely unnoticed by modern Londoners. Photo: Rob Kam (licensed under GNU).


Stagecoaches from the south coast and Kent passed through Peckham on their way to London, escorted by armed guards, as a precaution against highwaymen. Drovers from Kent also stopped here with their livestock, and, typically, sold them here to local graziers, who would fatten them up before selling them on to City butchers (only freemen of the City were permitted to drive livestock over London Bridge).

Mural on a Peckham public house, commemorating the lives of Kentish drovers. Photo: Oxyman (licensed under CCA).


Peckham was transformed in the mid-Nineteenth Century, first by the establishment by the entrepreneur, Thomas Tilling, of a horse-drawn omnibus service connecting it to London in 1851; and, in the decades that followed, by the coming of the railways (the London, Chatham, & Dover Railway in 1865, and the London, Brighton, & South Coast Railway in 1866). The railways opened the area up to property developers, and to the growing legions of clerical workers who made their homes in the suburbs, rather than in the increasingly crowded streets of The City and Westminster.

A Tilling Omnibus. Photo: KellyASands (licensed under CCA).


Whilst the senior clerks of City banks, insurance and legal firms made their homes on the main thoroughfares once used by stagecoaches and drovers, the side-streets and alleys within a stone's throw of them housed the poorer families on whose services their wealthier neighbours depended: blacksmiths, carpenters, joiners, decorators, railway and postal workers, bus conductors, brewers, and bakers.

Charles Booth's "Poverty Map" of Lambeth & Southwark, including Peckham: streets coded in yellow and red indicate the most prosperous households; those in purple and black the poorest ones. Image: London School of Economics Booth/E/1/11 (image is in the Public Domain). 


On the 10th October, 1899, the social researcher, Ernest Aves (a colleague of Charles Booth), accompanied PC Dolby on his beat, starting on Peckham High Street. Whilst he recorded "large garden fronts" on the wider streets, he found the narrower alleys, such as Stanton Street, "dull and depressing:" the policeman explained that the street had an "indifferent reputation," with "two or three wife-beaters living in it." There were even some streets where "the police do not patrol," and "Dolby had never been up;" streets in which burglars were known to live, and in which murders had taken place; yet there were other streets nearby, occupied mainly by "conductors and drivers," with lively beer-houses and taverns.

The worst accommodation in late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Century Peckham was very bad indeed, and, in the 1930s, residents of Nigel Street staged a rent strike in protest at the unsanitary conditions in which their landlord expected them to live. Oswald Mosley's blackshirts tried to hijack the protest, pointing out that the landlord in question was Jewish; but the residents chased them away, insisting that their objections were to his practices as a landlord, not his ethnicity or religion.

The Peckham rent strike, 1935 (image is in the Public Domain).


Returning to Peckham Rye Station, our visitor can board a southbound Number 78 bus, for the next stage of the journey.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


6 comments:

  1. Your posts are always so interesting! One little nugget of information fascinated me: I never realized William Blake had actual visions. I knew he's been described as "visionary", but I thought that was metaphorically because of the nature of his poetry. I didn't realize he actually saw angels and prophets.

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  2. Very interesting - thanks for sharing! Many of may ancestors lived in Southwark so it's cool to hear about the history of the area.

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  3. Great post - do you know which pub it is in the photo with the mural? I've never seen that!

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  4. Confusingly, it's not the current Kentish Drovers at 71-79 Peckham High Street, but the old Kentish Drovers & Halfway House (now the Saigon Bar & Restaurant) at 722 Old Kent Road!

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  5. Thanks for this interesting post. You might be interested in this one about churches in Peckham both past and present, and the wartime bombing - 'How Peckham Does God' on www.elephantdentistry.com

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  6. Great post! I always learn something new reading your blog. I didn't understand previously why drovers sold their livestock before reaching London (where certainly they would have gotten better prices), but now it makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing!

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