Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The village of Camberwell came into being well over a thousand years ago, at some time unknown before the invasion by William the Conqueror. Camberwell Green, together with St Giles' Church, formed the heart of the village and was surrounded by farms and market gardens. The houses of the village centred around the village green and Camberwell Green Farm extended as far as Kennington with the farmhouse located on the western side of the Green.
Camberwell Green Farmhouse, 1819. From Southwark Art Collection.
One house at the south end with a pond in front of it was known as The Old House on the Green and originally dated back to the 17th century. Over the years, other large houses with long gardens and heavy stone porticos were built for the well to do. Facing the Green from the north was the Greencoat School, built in 1721 and rebuilt in the 1870s. By at least the 18th century, there were three inns around the Green. The Father Redcap and next door the Mother Redcap were on the north side. The latter has long gone but the former was rebuilt in the late 19th century but has recently closed and is now boarded up. Still remaining is The Tiger on the south west corner, also rebuilt in the late 19th century, and while it’s had other names over the years, is now once again The Tiger.
Camberwell Green’s main claim to fame, or notoriety, was the Fair, held annually from at least the middle of the 13th century. Originally it lasted three weeks, ending on 1st September, the Feast of St Giles. It was the occasion where labour was hired for the coming agricultural year ahead, goods were bought and sold, and merchants traded. Later the Fair became an event purely for recreation and amusement and only lasted for three days. It attracted merry-makers from all over London with special carriages and carts laid on from Covent Garden and Elephant and Castle.
Entertainments included a menagerie, a theatre and other performing artists. In the evening there was dancing to the music of bands to the light of hundreds of fairy lamps. There were food stalls along Camberwell Road selling all sorts of refreshments including oysters and gingerbread. In later years, the Crown and Anchor Tavern erected a tent from one end of the Green to another with an interior decorated with chandeliers, variegated lamps, flags and banners. The spirit and excitement of the Fair in 1806 was described in The Times:
“We recognised all our old friends, Gingell, Saunders and other celebrated priests of Thespis, with their comic companies; Pike, Cunningham and various others of the itinerant Magi whose necromantic performances and grand deceptions in the conjuring art have so long astonished the wondering world; the Irish Giant, the Polish Dwarf, the wonderful Ventriloquist, and the Child of Promise, were all present, contributing to gratify the voracious curiosity of John Bull and his family; while the wonders of the Lybian and other deserts, the lions, tygers, panthers, hyenas, serpents, kangaroos, orangutans, wolverines and beavers; the ostriches, cassowaries, pelicans, storks and horned owls, contributed their share to the general display …
“Apollo and the Muses also contributed their auspicious influence to the charms of the scene in music and poetry. Many new and delectable ditties about love and murder were chanted by warbling ballad singers, accompanied by blind fiddlers, harpers and hurdy-gurders.
“When night came on, all was a blaze of illumination, and a din of clamour, laughter and merriment; the theatres were all crowded, the ladies all delighted, the swains all happy; a few trival ebullitions of vivacity, vulgarly called boxing matches here and there adorned the roads to town.”
But the Fair was not popular with many of the local gentry. One local historian described it as an “abomination”, another that “for these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent.” The same year The Times reported on the gaiety of the Fair, they reported that the Surrey Magistrates had sought to prevent the Fair. They had though been forced to reach a compromise when one of the Lords of the Manor
Dr John Coakley Lettsom threatened to cut down every single tree and build cottages for labouring men over the former village green. He believed preventing the Fair would result in more “riot, mischief and ill blood” than would occur should the Fair proceed in the normal way.
Another attempt to suppress the Fair occurred in 1823 when a hearing was held at the Petty Sessions enquiring into the validity of the Fair and calling on evidence to be submitted to support the lawfulness of the Fair. It was said that King John, pleased with a day’s hunting in the locality, granted the right to hold an annual fair in Camberwell. It was also said that King Charles II, also after a day’s hunting granted the same right at the insistence of Nell Gwynne. While no evidence was produced to support either of these claims, other evidence was produced but no settlement of the question was reached. The Fair continued for many years, not least because the successive Lords of the Manor received large amounts of money annually from the rents they charged for the various stalls.
Camberwell Fair continued to be held until 1855 when a subscription was raised amongst the gentry of Camberwell to purchase the Green from the Lords of the Manor who were then Sir William Bowyer Smyth and Sir Thomas Dyer. The purchasers covenanted they would not “at any time or times erect or permit to be erected on any part of the said piece or parcel of land hereby demised any erection or building whatever except such lodge or keeper’s house.” A lease for 2,000 years at a peppercorn rent was purchased for £1,250 which was assigned to the Vestry of St Giles Covenant for the enclosure, ornamental planting and preservation of the Green for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Parish of Camberwell. It opened as a public park in April 1859 and had been laid out with gravelled walks, flower beds with iron railings erected around the perimeter.
As well as the perceived annoyance of Camberwell Fair, the Green had become little more than an unattractive waste ground for the rest of the year and was said to have “long ceased to possess a particle of greenness.” Just five years after it opened as a public park, The Times reported that it was “well planted and handsomely enclosed, and under the new administration can boast its gay flower parterres like the more ambitious park gardens, and has become an ornament instead of an eyesore to the neighbourhood.”
Despite the restriction on building, a group of YMCA huts was built on the Green for use by service personnel on leave during World War One, built from money raised by local public subscription. However instead of demolishing the huts, in 1927 Camberwell Borough Council leased it to the Ministry of Labour at a rent said to be £500 per annum to provide premises for a Labour Exchange. This gave rise to opposition from various bodies, not the least from the local MP and the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Association, who maintained that while the buildings had encroached upon open space during the war, undertakings had been given they would be demolished at the end of hostilities. The huts had been demolished by the end of the 1920s but soon Camberwell Borough Council were attempting once more to allow building upon the Green.
Those who live at the southern end of Southwark will have heard about the extension of the Bakerloo line from the Elephant and Castle to Camberwell. We have heard of the recent plans and some of us have heard over the years, probably erroneously, that this will not happen because of the problem of underground rivers. The idea of a Bakerloo extension is not new and was proposed in 1913 to run as far as Crystal Palace with stations at Camberwell Green, Champion Hill, East Dulwich, Lordship Lane and Sydenham Hill. This we know did not get built but an extension of the Bakerloo line was again proposed in 1931 to run as far as Camberwell Green. Originally it was proposed a station would be built opposite the Green on the southern side. Then, with the blessing of Camberwell Borough Council who were to receive £6,000 from the tube company to beautify St Giles’ Churchyard and to lay it out as a public garden, it was announced the new tube station would be built on the south west corner of Camberwell Green. The station would be cordoned off from the rest of the Green and take up about half an acre of land. This was met with outrage, not the least in the House of Lords who inserted a clause in the Bill, necessary to be passed in Parliament for the building of the extension, that the new station should not be built on Camberwell Green in addition to other legal protections the Green already had. The tube company agreed to revert to their original plan of building the station opposite the Green on the south side. But, of course, as we know the extension never got built.
At the beginning of the second world war, an air raid shelter was built under the northern end of Camberwell Green. It is marked today by a sad memorial to the Wright family. In September 1940, 21 year old Sidney Wright married his sweetheart Patricia and the wedding party were celebrating in the Father Redcap. When the air raid sirens sounded, the party made its way to the air raid shelter which took a direct hit from a German 500lb bomb. The entire Wright family were killed – Sidney, his new wife, his parents and his five sisters who ranged in age from 19 to 8, and four other unrelated people. A memorial was installed and unveiled on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy, dedicated to the people of Camberwell who died or suffered in the War. It lists the members of the Wright family and the other people who lost their lives that day and carries the inscription “May they, and all victims of War, rest in peace.”
Today, Camberwell Green has recently reopened after an extensive refurbishment. There are several very large and old trees, the playground has been renovated and there are new features that include a decorative wooden bench made as a Cool-Tan Arts project. The large old houses along the east side were demolished over a hundred years ago to give way to a Peabody Estate. On the other side of the Green a new Peabody Estate is being built, next door to more recently completed flats. A medical centre now stands where the Greencoat School once stood and a doctor's surgery is now using the bank premises built on the former site of the police station at the south west corner. Tucked away in the north east corner is the newly opened library.
In 2015, music organisation Wormfood received funding from Southwark Council to stage a community event on Camberwell Green and an Afro/Jazz/World/Reggae inspired Camberwell Fair was held. It received further funding from the Arts Council and received support from other community organisations who wanted to get on board. The resurrected Camberwell Fair was held again in 2016 but took place on the Camberwell side of Burgess Park to accommodate a larger audience. See the Camberwell Fair website for full information.