Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Peckham Rye Common is a much used and popular large open space, situated where Peckham, East Dulwich and Nunhead meet. It was common land in medieval times and remains as an open space where the public has right of access, recreation and enjoyment only through the foresight of the Camberwell Vestry in the mid 19th century who ensured its future.
By the middle of the 19th century, Peckham Rye had been used for recreation, fairs and sporting events for centuries. Peckham Rye station opened in 1865 and Peckham and East Dulwich became desirable places to live as it was now easier to commute into the centre of London. Already fields and market gardens had been built upon and, fearing the Rye would be similarly developed for houses to accommodate the new residents, the Camberwell Vestry arranged to purchase the land to prevent this happening. The Lord of the Manor, William Bowyer Smyth, claimed full ownership of the land forming Peckham Rye Common and that he was entitled to receive the full building value but the Vestry disputed this, saying there were common rights attached to the land. The purchase went ahead in 1868 and the Rye has now been enjoyed as a publicly owned open space for nearly 150 years.
Peckham Rye was a popular spot for public gatherings which attracted an audience from all over London. The range of subjects discussed was wide-ranging including religion, atheism, temperance and politics. The Metropolitan Board of Works, who took over the running of Peckham Rye Common in 1882, had initiated a bye-law that prohibited such meetings without written permission. The Peckham Rye Common Defence League was formed who made a deputation to the MBW in 1882, calling on them to rescind the by-law and that people might be allowed to meet on Peckham Rye without restriction. It was a right which had been established from “time immemorial”. Another deputation spoke in support of the bye-law, with the Rev. Mr Drew of St Antolin’s maintaining the gatherings on the Rye amounted to high treason. The political meetings attracted thousands who, the Reverend Drew maintained, were composed of “Communists, Fenians, Tichbornites and Republicans”. The Home Secretary at the time believed the meetings produced no evil and that the banning of them were an irritant. He believed they served a useful purpose in the letting off of steam. Ultimately, the Metropolitan Board of Works were forced to withdraw the bye-law.
A bandstand originally built in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden in Kensington was moved and erected on Peckham Rye in 1889, just north of where the café is today. It was one of two that had previously been at the RHS in Kensington, the other one was moved to Southwark Park. Performances at the Peckham Rye bandstand was said to have attracted many thousands “of all classes”. The bandstand must have made a splendid sight but sadly it was demolished as a result of damage caused during World War II.
The Rye attracted large numbers and, by the time the bandstand was in place, many houses had been built in the surrounding areas with a resulting huge growth in population. Concerns were raised about the crowded state of the Rye with the dangers from so many playing cricket and football on a confined space. Plans were made to extend the Rye which led to the opening of Peckham Rye Park in 1894.
Many swimming lidos were built on open spaces and parks in the inter-war years and Peckham Rye Lido was opened in 1923. It was built close to an old pond on the northern “triangle” part of the common. The pool was 180 feet long with a diving board, surrounded by wooden changing rooms and was free to swim in very early in the morning. In common with many London lidos, it fell into decline during the 1970s due to competition from the opening of new, modern indoor pools and to lack of funding.
The lido closed in 1987 and while Southwark Council hoped to find a buyer, it fell into dereliction. No buyer was forthcoming and the lido cleared in 1995. All that is now visible is the fountain, now in a very dilapidated state. The area is now turfed with trees but it’s thought the pool is still there underneath the landscaping. A campaign is now underway to excavate and rebuild the Lido that would reintroduce the centuries-old tradition of swimming on Peckham Rye.
During the second world war, Peckham Rye became home to Italian Prisoners of War who were brought over to the UK after Italy's surrender. They helped with agriculture in the country and with bomb clearance, road building and reconstruction in urban areas, and four huts were built on Peckham Rye in 1943 to accommodate some of them. The POWs wore fatigues with a circle on the back and were treated for the rest of the war as Trustees, allowed a certain amount of freedom such as being able to go to Rye Lane to shop. They grew vegetables, and kept pigs and poultry on Peckham Rye. Later the huts were used to accommodate German prisoners of war and after that refugees from Europe, in particular those from Poland. After the war the huts were used for storage of park and football equipment and one was used for a One O’Clock Club. The huts used for storage were demolished in 2009 and the one used by the One O’Clock Club a few years later.
Today Peckham Rye Common is used in much the same way as it was in the past – for football and other sports, for recreation, for exercise, for unwinding –and now boasts a café. On the northern section of the Rye grows a small monkey puzzle tree. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye written by Muriel Spark in 1960, the main character, Dougal Douglas, was said to be associated with the devil. He was able to transform his shape and at one time takes on the appearance of a monkey puzzle tree. Could it be that the monkey puzzle tree on Peckham Rye is the diabolical Dougal Douglas?