Elephant & Castle’s re-generation enters new phase – But gentrification worries loom

Computer generated images showing residents enjoying bird’s eye views across London from a leafy roof garden set on top of a skyscraper is not unusual for marketing material in a city where architects and developers race to win over wealthy homebuyers with their glitzy projects.

Toblerone Towers – a nickname is derived from its triangular shape – is, after all, just the latest in a string of glitzy developments to be announced in recent years for the capital. Boasting a 350-seat auditorium for live performances, the skyscraper will also include 400 new homes, restaurants and shops. All pretty standard these days for modern London…..

What’s more perhaps eye-catching about Toblerone Towers – which has now been approved by planners – however, is its location. The West End and spots on the banks of the Thames have for long been popular with luxury housing developments, yet this is in Elephant and Castle, in southeast London, and some distance from the river.

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Elephant and Castle shopping centre

When I moved to London nearly seven years ago, this was regarded by many as an area to be avoided – only to be visited unless absolutely essential. One of the first places I came across was the gloomy Elephant and Castle shopping centre which was built on an area that had been heavily bombed and opened in 1965. It was one of the first US-style enclosed malls in Europe, but it is dim, flickering lights and empty shop units that greet visitors today.

But now it seems the tide is finally turning and regeneration in the Elephant and Castle area is starting to have an impact. The shopping centre is being demolished as part of a multi-million pound scheme which will include a new campus for the London College of Communication and one thousand flats. A new swimming pool recently opened. And aside from Toblerone Towers, other flashy residential towers – including Two Fifty One and One The Elephant – are being built.

Coaching inn origins

But where did the name Elephant and Castle come from? There has been much speculation about this over the years, but it is most likely to derive from that of a coaching inn in this area that was mentioned in 1765 in the Court Leet Book of the Manor of Walworth. Earlier, Shakespeare refers to the hostelry in his play Twelfth Night, with Antonio saying: “In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge.”

The inn site was previously occupied by a blacksmith and cutler, and it’s the latter which includes depictions of an elephant and a castle in the emblem of its trade livery company (the Worshipful Company of Cutlers) that provides clues as to why the area is called what it is today.

Long before the coaching era, however, Newington – as this then area rural area was called at the time – was passed through by many a traveller as it featured two main roads that were used from medieval times.

St Mary’s parish church (near where the post war Tabernacle is today across the road from the concrete shopping centre) was first recorded in 1222. It was re-built numerous times over the centuries – for example, the current building dates from 1958 and incorporates the remains of a tower from an earlier building (the rest of it was destroyed in 1940).

But it was the opening of Westminster Bridge in 1751 and Blackfriars Bridge in 1769, as well as other and other road improvements that really opened up south London. As I have written previously, before this building spree travellers were forced to cross London Bridge or pay the hefty fares charged by the watermen. The suburbs around Elephant and Castle therefore really started to take shape in the late Georgian and Victorian periods.

The area was given a significant boost with the arrival of national rail services in 1863. What is now called the Northern line – London’s first deep-level tube line – reached Elephant and Castle in 1890 and the Bakerloo line opened in 1906.

Elephant and Castle really entered its own in the early 20th century when it gained a reputation as an attractive shopping centre, gaining the informal title of “the Piccadilly of South London”. Big names included department store William Tarn and Co. Elephant and Castle was also known for its plush cinemas, which included the Trocadero – a neo-gothic building featuring the largest Wurlitzer organ ever imported into the country and seating for some 3,000 people.
Bombing and re-building.

Elephant and Castle was hit badly by Nazi air raids in 1941 and the “raging fires” that followed. It took some time for rebuilding to occur, but the designs were bold and very different from the buildings that used to stand in this area. The local road system was overhauled in 1960s. And even a new Elephant and Castle pub was built at the junction of New Kent Road and Newington Causeway in that era (this was almost turned into a Foxtons, much to the annoyance of locals who campaigned against the plans, and it has recently re-opened as a pub that it very much smarter than the one there before).

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Re-opened Elephant and Castle pub

One of the new post war developments was of course the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Willets Group 1963 sales brochure proclaimed it to be the “largest and most ambitious shopping venture ever to be embarked upon in London. In design planning and vision it represents an entirely new approach to retailing, setting standards for the sixties that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain.” The plan was for 120 shops on three levels, as well as an underground car park and a link to the Network Rail and Underground stations.

Re-development plans for Elephant and Castle of course included new housing. While some homes were built in the 1960s, one of the most famous came later – in 1974 – in the form of the Heygate Estate. The Brutalist construction, which was designed by Tim Tinker to house more than 3,000 people, was initially a sought after place to live. But the estate quickly gained a less than favourable reputation, with crime and poverty being the order of the day. And it has, in recent years, been announced that Heygate will be demolished and replaced with new houses – not that everyone is in favour of the scheme.

After a number of U-turns it is now hoped that the re-building of the Elephant & Castle centre will soon begin. But there is a concern amongst some that types of buildings now being planned for the Elephant and Castle area represent little more than gentrification. Toblerone Towers has no affordable housing for example (although some is apparently being planned nearby). Re-development of Elephant and Castle and the wider area is much needed, but it’s important that the long-term residents on low incomes aren’t forgotten in the vision of the future.

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