Until 1750 the only crossing point in England’s capital over the Thames was London Bridge, a factor vastly limiting development on the south side of the river. But in that year, after much wrangling, Westminster Bridge finally opened, followed by Blackfriars Bridge in 1769. The significance of these two new stone structures was immense as they paved the way for new residential areas in what was then Surrey. Brick-built terraces and detached villas quickly sprung up in rural Newington Butts, Kennington, Walworth and Camberwell.
While people had lived in Borough and the surrounding district since medieval times, houses by and large clung to plots close to Thames. It was only therefore in the second half of the 18th century that the south London people know today was truly born. Maps from the time show areas that were open fields before the bridges were built became greatly populated by well-to-do people enjoying a new, fashion way of life that combined the benefits of both town and country living.
Heading south along the main thorough-fares like the bustling Walworth Road you can see glimpses of these Georgian properties hidden behind tatty, modern shop hoardings. And St George’s Circus there is stone obelisk that marks the completion of a 1771 road junction linking the approaches to the two bridges to much older roads to Surrey and Kent. Writing in 1776 Walter Harrison described development of new areas:
“The spirit of building, which has been prevalent for some years past, appears to have equally affected this part with any other round the metropolis, for between Newington Butts and Camberwell several new streets have been formed, and a prodigious of buildings erected, and particularly between Newington and Walworth, the latter of which was but a few years ago a mere country village, but is now so lined with new houses on each of the road, that little more is wanting than the pavement to make it as handsome a street as many in London.”
Camberwell is today a place that evokes mixed opinions. On the one hand there’s the shabby post Second World War, Butterfly shopping centre, tatty takeaways and rowdy pubs, but then in the same area there’s the Saturday farmer’s market on Camberwell Green, friendly cafes and small art galleries which are well worth a visit. And then of course in addition to Victorian terraces, there are many surviving Georgian properties. Harrison describes Camberwell in the 18thcentury:
“This is a very pleasant village, situated about three miles from the metropolis. It is rather of straggling form, but there are many good buildings in it, inhabited by the gentry and citizens of London. The green is very spacious and pleasant, and is surrounded with good houses, among which is a handsome brick building on the north side, consisting of two houses, used as a charity school for the education of poor children belonging to the parish.”
One of the oldest developments in Camberwell is a terrace with narrow front gardens, built around 1777 as Queen’s Row, on Grove Lane. Harrison notes that it is of “considerable length, with a gentle ascent to the top, and from it is the most advantageous prospect of the village.” The street contains a surviving building from 1748 (now converted into an apartments) that bears the inscription ‘Camberwell Hall’. It was an entertainment venue that hosted fashionable balls and the adjacent tea gardens were enjoyed by day trippers from London. Dickens later visited and the hall remained popular until the 1860s.
Perhaps the most exclusive street today is Camberwell Grove (running parallel to Grove Lane), with well-preserved houses built by a number of different developers from around 1810. Mews set behind the grand properties had outhouses and were neglected for many years, but now they have been renovated and popular homes in their own right. The Grand Union pub was built as the Grove Tavern and Assembly rooms and was by the mid-1700s home to the Camberwell Club (with “snug dinners, stray balls, and quarterly feasts were the principal duties which the members called upon to perform; and right well did they acquaint themselves, if report be true).
While Belgravia and Mayfair was enjoyed by the aristocracy, this district was built for the upper-middle class families. According to the Quaker philanthropist Priscilla Wakefield, Camberwell was in 1809 a “pleasant retreat of those citizens who have a taste for the country whilst their avocations daily call them to town.” John Ruskin, who lived in neighbouring Denmark Hill until 1872, remembered earlier in the century houses on both sides of “grand” Camberwell Grove “with trim stone pathways up to them through small plots of well-worn grass.”
But the arrival of the railway in the 1841 completely changed the character of Camberwell, with the population soaring to 40,000 in that year (up from 7,000 in 1801). And by 1901 it increased even further to 250,000. With overcrowding and dwindling living conditions, the upper middle classes fled to other areas of London. By the 1920s and 1930s many of the vast Georgian properties on Camberwell Grove had been divided up into boarding houses.
Following World War Two (where Camberwell was of the worst parts of London to be hit by Blitz as it was on the flight path to the capital), the council building programme continued. This explains why 20th century high and low rise public developments can today be found nestled amongst historic terraces.
Gentrification from the 1970s has brought the middle classes back to Camberwell. But despite it becoming a bustling suburb again, it is still possible to find some peace and quiet in the lovely John Ruskin Park for example (established in 1907). And on the upper section of Grove Road, behind a locked gate you can still find part of the surviving grounds of John Coakley Lettsom. The Quaker doctor, who set up the first dispensary in London for the sick and needy, had a residence here from 1779 to 1810. Here it’s possible to take a lung full of fresh air and imagine you are in the countryside, just as the Georgians found themselves all those years ago.