Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Now lying almost within Burgess Park, the laying out and building of Addington Square commenced in the early 19th century when the site was mostly surrounded by market gardens and open spaces. The Grand Surrey Canal had reached Camberwell in 1810, the same year the first two houses were completed, and Nathaniel Simmonds, who was the engineer for the canal, was one of the Square’s first residents. The Square was probably named after Henry Addington, the British Prime Minister from 1801 to 1804.
Unlike many London squares, Addington Square was not built to a uniform design but built piecemeal with houses built to differing designs and sizes. The Square was not completed until 1855 with rows of houses to the west, south and east that centred around a private garden. On the north side of the square was an open air swimming pool, one of the first in London. It was built in 1825 by Mr John Day and measured 70ft x 50ft. WH Blanch reports that, at the time he was writing his History of Camberwell (1872), the proprietor was Mr J Sparrow. The baths were home to the Cygnus Swimming Club, one of the principal swimming clubs in London with membership at 10s per annum.
By the second half of the 19th century, Camberwell had become more built up and in parts was a maze of narrow streets with small terraced houses and factories, the latter partly attracted by the proximity to the canal for transporting materials and finished goods. By the end of the century, the garden at the centre of Addington Square had become overgrown and neglected, and in 1897 there were plans to build on it. This was fought by local campaigners and the previously private garden was laid out to become a much-needed public open space. The Metropolitan Parks and Gardens Association donated six benches.
Indoor public swimming baths had opened off Camberwell Church Street in 1892 and in Walworth in 1898. The swimming pool at Addington Square, by now old and dilapidated, fell out of favour and was demolished by Camberwell Council in 1901 to make way for a council depot.
Nearly forty years later, Camberwell Borough Council received a grant of £1,000 to turn the council depot into a King George’s Playing Field. It became one of 471 open spaces that were opened throughout the country as a memorial to King George V. When he died in 1936, a committee was set up by the Lord Mayor of London to agree the best way to commemorate the late King and it was decided the memorial would be two-fold: there would be a statue in Central London (this was unveiled in 1947 opposite the houses of Parliament) and a scheme of some sort that would benefit the whole country. In meeting these criteria, it was decided to establish throughout the country playing fields for the use and enjoyment of the people, for the playing of outdoor games and sports. In particular, in a time of increasing urbanisation, there was an emphasis on providing space where young people could exercise in the open air. It’s hard to imagine now with the expanse of Burgess Park close by but when the King George’s Field opened in 1939, the public park in the middle of Addington Square was the only open space close by. Plaques were mounted at the entrances to the earliest King George’s Fields throughout the country which still remain today at the entrance in Addington Square.
Lion and Unicorn Plaques, symbols of the King George's Playing Field Association, on brick piers in Addington Square at the entrance to the former King George's Field.
King George’s Field was incorporated into Burgess Park during the park's creation after the second world war. Addington Square itself had slowly declined since its construction and, post second world war, had become very run down. The houses were mainly now occupied by more than one family and often several families. There were plans to demolish the Square and also integrate this cleared land into Burgess Park. The Camberwell Society mounted a fierce campaign against the destruction proposed by the GLC and Southwark Council – and won.
Addington Square is a peaceful and pleasant place to live, overlooking a very pretty and well-maintained park and on the edge of the now well established and popular Burgess Park. The café and changing rooms are situated on the spot where the swimming baths used to be, with tennis courts to either side which were originally built when the site became King George’s Fields. Addington Square has been designated a conservation area.