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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Denmark Hill

Denmark Hill extends from Camberwell Green to Red Post Hill, a distance of just under one and a half miles, and from the fork in the road with Coldharbour Lane forms the boundary with the London Borough of Lambeth. It has a varied history that includes mansions and large Victorian houses for the well to do, music hall, cinemas, medical establishments, a council-built social housing estate and a connection to royalty.


Tradition has it that the road is named after Prince George of Denmark, Prince Consort to Queen Anne, who was said to have owned a shooting lodge located on the eastern side, opposite what is now Nando’s.  W H Blanch, who published a history of Camberwell in 1875, was doubtful that it had ever been owned by Prince George as according to the last tenant of the property there was nothing in the deeds or further research at the British Museum to support this though the house was said to be imposing and the original house “was sufficiently colossal to have served as an abode for a wealthy and distinguished personage in the days when Prince George lived.” From 1837 for the next 35 years the house was used as a school but then bought by Mr Churchwarden Strong, JP, who immediately demolished it and let out the site for building purposes.  At the time Mr Blanch was writing his history, 198 houses were in the process of being built and Daneville, Selborne and Allendale Roads laid out. These roads are now the site of low rise 1980s housing.

At the turn of the 19th/20th century, Denmark Hill could boast two prominent theatres at the northern end, the Metropole and the Palace of Varieties. The first to be built was the Metropole Theatre, built on the triangle formed with Coldharbour Lane. It opened in 1894 as a venue for opera and plays, including transfers of successful West End productions, but as the local population were more interested in variety than plays, it became a music hall after 10 years. In 1906, the theatre

MetropoleTheatre1904 (2)

was renamed The Camberwell Empire Theatre, and less than 20 years after opening, the theatre was doubling up as a cinema, combining both films and live performances.  In 1924, it became a full-time cinema named the Camberwell Empire and Picture Palace, and renamed again in 1930 to become the New Empire Cinema able to show films with sound. The cinema was purchased by the Odeon organisation in 1939 who promptly demolished the building to build a new cinema in the 1930s style and was once more renamed to become The Odeon.  It closed in 1975 and became Dickie Dirt’s, a store selling jeans. When that store failed, the building was left empty for a number of years until it was demolished in 1993.

PalaceSketchFront (2)

A few years after the Metropole Theatre was built, the Camberwell Palace of Varieties opened a little further north on the eastern side of Denmark Hill, on the corner of Orpheus Street.  Built as a music hall, the foundation stone was laid by popular entertainer Vesta Tilley. It opened in 1899 and had seating for over 2,000 and all the major music hall stars played there including Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, Harry Lauder and Harry Tate.

Like its rival The Camberwell Empire, it also soon began to show films and was taken over in 1932 by Associated British Cinemas who converted it into a full time cinema called the Palace Cinema.  A few years later, ABC built The Regal Cinema further north in Camberwell Road and sold The Palace which from now on had a very chequered history. It continued as a cinema for a few years, then returned as a variety theatre, then as a repertory theatre and finally ending its days as a venue for Girlie Shows until it closed in 1956 and demolished shortly after.

(Images courtesy of 

In addition to the two theatres that became full time cinemas, there were two other purpose built cinemas in Denmark Hill.  The Bijou Cinema behind what is the Post Office today opened in 1910 and the Golden Domes Cinema on the opposite side of the road where the Co-op now stands.  The Golden Domes Cinema opened in 1914 and changed its name to The Rex in 1952 and  then again to the Essoldo in 1956. The cinema closed in 1964 and the front façade and foyer demolished but the main building still survives as part of the Co-op supermarket.

Essoldo Cinema

Essoldo Cinema, 1964

(Southwark Heritage)

A little further south, there is a road leading east called De Crespigny Park leading east. It is named after a prominent land owning Camberwell family whose lands included Champion Hill, so- named after part of their family name. The family were refugees from France who settled in Camberwell in the early 18th century whenPhilip Champion de Crespigny purchased Champion Lodge, set within grounds of approximately 30  acres, in 1755.  This was on the block bordered today by Love Walk and Denmark Hill.  His son Claude Champion de Crespigny was created a baronet in 1805 and took an active part in local affairs, attending many meetings of Vestry committees and advancing money to the vestry at critical times. In 1804, the Prince of Wales, later George IV, honoured the de Crespigny’s with a visit to Champion Lodge to attend a Fete Champetre (an outdoor entertainment). The event was described as “brilliant” and an account of the day’s festivities can be read here.



Champion Lodge Lady Mary Sir Claude

Lady Mary Champion de Crespigny, Champion Lodge and Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny

Champion Lodge was demolished in 1841 and large Victorian houses built on the land.  Many of these houses still remain and form a part of the Institute of Psychiatry and Maudsley Hospital. The Champion de Crespigny family moved to Essex.  

Victorian Houses St Matthews church

St Matthew's Church

(Southwark Collections)

On the other side of Denmark Hill, where King’s College Hospital Dental School now stands, was St Matthews Church. The first church was built between 1792 and 1794, the result of several residents finding it “very difficult or impracticable to procure seats or accommodation to attend Divine Service in the Parish Church of Camberwell” i.e St Giles Church. They decided to build a chapel on land purchased on a 99 year lease from Claude Champion de Crespigny.  Money was raised by subscription and each subscriber benefitted from a pew for six persons.  Part of the remaining accommodation was reserved for use by the poor.

Over fifty years later, the chapel was unable to provide sufficient accommodation for the ever increasing population of Camberwell and the chapel and land was acquired by the Church Building Commission who demolished the existing church and built a new one. The new church was consecrated in 1848 but the spire and tower were not completed until 1858.  The church was destroyed in the second world war with the exception of the spire and tower which remained until about 1956 when the site was sold to Kings' College Hospital for the Dental School.

Kings College Hospital

King’s College Hospital itself on the other side of Bessemer Road was opened by George V and Queen Mary in 1913 but the origins of the hospital go back a lot further.  It was founded in 1840 as teaching school for medical students at King’s College London but soon became a major hospital attracting patients both from the local area and further afield.  It was located just by Lincoln’s Inn Fields in a former workhouse, but by the beginning of the 20th century, the hospital was out-dated and cramped, and the 244 beds were insufficient to meet the number of patients needing them. Updating the hospital was difficult and, situated on a narrow site hemmed in by other buildings, it was not possible to expand.


The decision was made to build a new hospital a little outside of London.  Already the poor of Camberwell and surrounding areas travelled to King’s College Hospital in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for treatment, the local population having reduced as the result of improvement schemes. A driving force behind the move and the building of the new hospital was W F D Smith, who became Chairman of the hospital in 1908. A member of the W H Smith firm of stationers and a former MP, he purchased and donated the 12 acres of land on Denmark Hill, a part of the Sanders Estate that had come onto the market. An appeal was made for funds and donations received including those from members of the royal family. The sum required was £300,000 and by 1906 half this amount had been raised. Fund raising events were held locally, for example the Mary Datchelor School held a bazaar that raised £450 to endow the Datchelor baby cot.


The foundation  stone was laid by Edward VII in 1909 and four years later the hospital was opened by his son George V. The new hospital was able to accommodate 600 in-patients and was able to provide treatment by the most up-to-date methods. “As an institution it will be able to claim that it is superior, so far as planning and construction on the most approved modern principles can make it, to any Metropolitan hospital, and to rank as one of the most beautiful of our voluntary institutions-in this country.”


A year after the hospital opened, World War I  broke out and the hospital, all but four wards and the Casualty Department, were requisitioned by the War Office for the treatment of wounded soldiers.  Known at that time as the Fourth London General Hospital, huts and tents were erected next door in Ruskin Park to cope with the high numbers of wounded soldiers and by 1917 there were 369 beds for officers and 169 for enlisted men.


After World War I, more departments were added to the hospital and in World War II became a clearing station for victims of air raids.  The hospital joined the National Health Service in 1948 and became known as the King’s College Hospital Group that included the Royal Eye Hospital, the Belgrave Hospital for Children, the Belgrave Recovery Home and the Baldwin Brown Recovery Home. In 1966, St Giles’ Hospital, Dulwich Hospital and St Francis Hospital became part of the group.  Since then, the hospital has expanded considerably, changing to meet the needs of a 21st century population which culminated in the opening of the Golden Jubilee Wing in 2003 and the building of a helipad on the roof of the Ruskin Wing.


As the community of South East London benefited by the building of King’s College Hospital on land that had previously been part of the Sanders Estate, so too did they benefit from the creation of Ruskin Park, created on land also once part of the Sanders Estate, though the creation of the public park was not without a struggle. Samuel Sanders, a wealthy timber merchant, purchased land on the west side of Denmark Hill in 1780 and granted leases to the wealthy, often businessmen and those working in the City, who built themselves large houses with impressive grounds.  However, in 1904 when the leases were falling in, Samuel Sanders’ descendent, also named Samuel, decided to develop the land with more densely built housing. This led to a campaign to stop the development, led by local resident Frank Trier who gained support from such bodies as the LCC, Camberwell Council, Lambeth Council and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. Despite contracts having already been signed for the redevelopment, the campaign was successful. Not only were 24 acres purchased by the campaign to create a park, these were acquired at the rate of £2,000 per acre when the going rate locally was £5,000. Money was forthcoming from Lambeth and Camberwell Councils and by private subscription, but by March 1905 there was a shortfall and an appeal launched to raise a further £6,500. (South London Chronicle 10 March 1905).


Six of the eight mansions fronting onto Denmark Hill were demolished, Including the largest, Dane House, which is where it is reputed Mendelson stayed and where he wrote ‘Spring Song.’  Dane House’s garden formed the heart of the public park, including the pond which still remains today. The kitchen garden was turned into a bowling green, and one of the remaining houses was used as a refreshment room and accommodation for the park keepers.  Another 12 acres was added to the park in 1910.  


Ruskin Park was opened on 2 February 1907 by Mr Evan Spicer, Chairman of the London County Council, who dedicated it “to the use and enjoyment of the public forever.”


Opposite King’s College Hospital stand Maudsley Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry, another medical institution that came about through the vision and generosity of a private individual. In February 1908, after a long and successful career both in practice and teaching, Dr Henry Maudsley at the age of 73, wrote to the London County Council offering £30,000 “for the establishment in London of a fitly equipped hospital for mental diseases.” This would be under the following

conditions: the hospital was to be for early and acute cases only; it was to have an outpatient department; it was to be equipped for 75 to 100 patients, 50 to 75 pauper patients, and the remainder paying patients; and it was to be in a central position, within three to four miles of Trafalgar Square.  Provision was to be made for research and teaching to be recognised by and affiliated to the University of London. The LCC was to have entire charge, control, maintenance and upkeep of the hospital except for appointing medical officers and in matters relating to education and research.


The hospital was not completed until 1915 and immediately requisitioned by the War Office for the treatment of casualties of World War I suffering neurological conditions including ‘shell shock’.  It was not until 1923 that the hospital opened to the general public along the lines envisaged by Dr Maudsley: sadly he did not live to see this as he died in 1918.

Fox on the Hill

Further up Denmark Hill, where the road forks into Champion Hill, stands the Fox on the Hill pub that opened at the end of the 1950s and now a JD Wetherspoons. The pub and triangular area in front of the pub, now a car park, is said to stand on a plague pit where victims of the Black Death are buried. In 1768, Denmark Hall was built on the site, a short-lived Assembly Room where dancing, music, cards and socialising took place. It never really took off and before too long was converted to a tea garden and housing.

Further down Denmark Hill, on the corner with Champion Park, there was another establishment in the 18th century named Little Denmark Halls which in time became known as The Fox Under the Hill, a successful and long-lived hostelry until bombed during World War II. The brewery purchased the Denmark Hill Triangle from the Dulwich Estate to build a replacement which finally opened in 1959 with a minor change to its name.


Travelling south from The Fox on the Hill to Sunray Avenue, the road today is lined with housing, to the west mainly detached interwar houses and to the east one of the earliest large council-built estates in the former borough of Camberwell borough. It was very different in the 1850s which Walter Besant describes in South London:

”The Road up the hill was somewhat gloomy on account of the trees: the houses with their gardens and lawns and carriage drives and smoothness and snugness, betokened in those years the institution of evening prayers.  I fear I may be misunderstood. At that time great was the power and the authority of seriousness.  To be serious was fashionable, if one may say so in City circles. Respectability was nearly always serious: it was decided into two classes; that which had morning prayers only, and that which had evening prayers as well.  With the young, the latter institution was unpopular – no one of the present younger generation can understand how unpopular it was: a house which had evening prayers made a deliberate profession of a seriousness which was something out of the common, which the young people disliked, as a rule; and it insisted on the sons getting home in time for prayers.  This profession of seriousness generally belonged to a large house, beautiful gardens, rich conservatories, a large income, and a carriage and pair. Denmark Hill used to appear to outward view as more especially a suburb belonging to the serious rich, who could afford a profession of more than common earnestness.”

Denmark Hill had indeed now become a “suburb belonging to the serious rich” – the bankers and the city merchants – that it had become known as ‘The Belgravia of South London.’  John James Ruskin, was a sherry and wine importer and bought 163 Denmark Hill in 1842. His son John Ruskin, one of Camberwell’s most famous residents, lived there until after the death of his mother in 1871.  He wrote the following about the house and garden:

“[The house] stood in command of seven acres of healthy ground (a patch of local gravel there overlying the London clay); half of it in meadow sloping to the sunrise, the rest prudently and pleasantly divided into an upper and lower kitchen garden; a fruitful bit of orchard, and chance inlets and outlets of wood walk, opening to the sunny path by the field, which was gladdened on its other side in springtime by flushes of almond and double peach blossom. Scarce all the hyacinths and heath of Brantwood redeem the loss of these to me, and when the summer winds have wrecked the wreaths of our wild roses, I am apt to think sorrowfully of the trailings and climbings of deep purple convolvulus which bloomed full every autumn morning round the trunks of the apple trees in the kitchen garden.”  

163 Denmark Hill

The breakfast room opened onto the lawn and had paintings by Turner on the walls, the dining and drawing-rooms were spacious enough for the Ruskin family’s grandest receptions that never had more than twelve to dinner. John Ruskin’s workroom was above the breakfast room and contained a large oblong table measuring 15 x 25 five feet.

A little further south was perhaps the grandest of mansions on Denmark Hill, that is Bessemer House. Henry Bessemer was a celebrated engineer and inventor whose most successful and famous invention was the ‘Bessemer Process’, a means to produce steel from raw pig iron cheaply and quickly.  It made him a very rich man.  When he retired in 1863 he bought the house on Denmark Hill, set in 40 acres of land, and renamed it Bessemer House.

Bessemer House

He hired Charles Berry, the Dulwich Estate architect, to extend the house and design new features including a model farm, a large and ornate conservatory and an observatory on the edge of the estate that backed onto Green Lane (now Greendale). He purchased the large house next door and renamed it Bessemer Grange which he presented to his daughter as a wedding gift. Bessemer lived on Denmark Hill until his death in 1898.


By the beginning of the 20th century, it had become difficult to sell or find tenants for these large houses and both Bessemer’s and Ruskin’s houses became hotels. Both, along with other houses on Denmark Hill, were demolished after the Second World War and the Denmark Hill Estate built which was then the largest housing estate built by the Camberwell Borough Council containing 682 homes.

Red Post (2)

We have now reached the end of Denmark Hill at Red Post Hill where  the road continues as Herne Hill.  On the corner, in the grounds of the Herne Hill United Church, is a replica of a red-coloured signpost which was located here from at least the middle of the 18th century until about 1840. The current red post was installed in 2010 in a collaborative venture by the Dulwich Society and the Herne Hill Society and funded by Southwark Council.