In an area of London where so many buildings have been flattened and replaced by new homes, Reverdy Road and Alma Grove come as pleasant surprises.
Just a few minutes walk from busy Old Kent Road, you find these parallel streets of well-looked after Victorian two-storey, terraced houses on tree-lined streets. The smart sash windows on the upper levels and the plaster mouldings above the ones on the ground floor look slightly out of character given the dominance of PVC and box-shaped homes in this part of South East London.How then have these houses survived the test of time when so much of the built environment in other parts of Southwark has changed beyond recognition?
The fascinating BBC history series, The Secret History of Our Streets, centred on Reverdy Road for one of its episodes, but as a new resident of South East London, I wanted to explore this conservation area for myself.
While some important 20th century factors help explain the survival of this neighbourhood, you need to go back to 1868 when the landowner James West began to issue long leases to understand how this area developed. The leaseholders paid for the construction of the properties, while West collected ground rent and the properties returned to them after 70 years.
This was a time when skilled and semi-skilled workers were flooding into the area to work in food processing factories (the 1891 census shows workers in custard, biscuit and chutney plants, as well as watchmen, telegraphists, clerks, living in Reverdy Road). It built on the impact that the railways had made on South East London from the 1830s (the passenger terminus in Bermondsey, built in 1836, was the forerunner to London Bridge).
Reverdy Road and the neighbouring streets of Alma Road and Balaclava Road were developed with homes for workers. Typically two families would have been crammed into each of the two-storey homes – one occupying each floor. They shared a cooker on the landing, has an outside tap, as well as an outside convenience.
The homes were by no means luxury, but they were above many homes in Bermondsey. Charles Booth, the social reformer and publisher of the influential colour-coded poverty maps, noted in 1900 that there were “good gardens at the back”, said the houses were “seldom empty and hard to get” and were built on “fairly broad and clean streets.”
For Booth, Southwark Park Road provided “natural divisions” with the “fairly comfortable” who are found south of it and the poor to the north of it:
“The comfortable are railway men and commercial salesmen and travellers who come into their work from the South Bermondsey Station. The poor are leather workers, glue makers, and jam and sweet makers who inhabit round the spa road.”
One of the biggest influencers in the area surrounding Reverdy Road was the Anglican church. St Anne’s – which survives to this day in nearby Thornburn Square surrounding by 1960s blocks of flats – was completed in 1879 after several decades of fundraising.The wife of the Rev. J. F. Benson Walsh was particularly outspoken when she was interviewed by Booth in 1900. “Her opinions must, like her facts, be taken cum grano (with a grain of salt)”. She complained that her husband was “getting not the slightest recognition for what he has done” for his work apparently single-handedly looking after the parish. And as for the local people, even though there being less alcohol problems than elsewhere she said they drank too much, especially in the course of “those terrible Bank Holidays.” Her biggest criticism was of the ladies of the parish, saying it was “very difficult to say” what they actually did.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Labour party dominated the local scene and they set out to build a “New Bermondsey” where “the drab sordiness of Old Bermondsey will have gone forever, and the district will be illuminated with touches of colour and beauty never known before.”
Had the borough council’s full plans been fulfilled, a Garden Suburb, like that built at Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City, would have been created with modern light and airy homes, surrounded by expansive green spaces.
Alfred Salter – a doctor turned Labour MP – spoke in the 1920s of “steadily buying up the whole of the house property” so that “when a house comes on the market it is purchased by the municipality” and “reconditioned or rebuilt, and, as the greater part of our area is practically one huge slum, we intend for the next 15 or 20 years steadily and systematically to purchase the whole of the house property and rebuild the borough from end to end.”
In the end, central government put a halt to the borough council’s rebuilding programme. Residents were, for example, given free plants and compost, to help encourage gardening. And 10,000 trees – many of which survive to this day – were to be planted along the likes of Reverdy Road and its surrounding streets. New parks and public spaces were also created.
And thanks to Donald Connan, chief medical officer from 1927 for 30 years, during the 1920s “Bermondsey led the country in public health matters,” according to the British Medical Journal. “Posters, propaganda vans, and health exhibitions brought the elements of hygiene of the multitudes.” Films – with titles such as Where There’s Soap, There’s Life – were shown in venues such as new libraries and public baths and were very much ahead of their time, given they pre-dated what the NHS would go on to achieve.
Influential doctors lived and practised at Church Cottage at the end of Reverdy Road, not least Salter who took over the surgery by 1920. He worked tirelessly visiting local families, as well as prostitutes who operated in the neighbourhood and advised on health issues.
The Blitz of the Second World War had a devastating impact on many areas of London, including Bermondsey. For Reverdy Road, six houses were destroyed in the first two months of the campaign.
In the aftermath, Geoffrey Fisher, the then Archbishop of Canterbury promised in a 1947 speech: “The new Bermondsey that will arise from the ashes of the old may be a place of homes as well as houses, of neighbours as well as door numbers, a place of civic pride and common service.”
While the re-building plan saw new blocks of flats built in Thornburn Square in place of the fine Victorian homes, the properties in Reverdy Road – still entirely in the hands of West estate – survived the bulldozer.
But in 1960 the Wests quietly put their entire housing stock of 787 homes and other properties up for auction. The local council quietly paid £375,000 for the lot and invested in modernising the houses. It was the best thing that could have happened to Reverdy Road.
Residents were later given the option to buy – for up to a 70% discount – their homes thanks to the 1979 Housing Act. Indeed, today a third of houses are apparently occupied by people who exercised that right. And the share (also around a third) that are local authority owned is falling, as they are selling them off. Gentrification is transforming this corner of Bermondsey.