Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
In 1885, Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge decided to set up a mission in a poor part of London and chose the area around St George Camberwell. The incumbent vicar at that time had attended Trinity College as had the previous long standing vicar and the former vicarage on Wells Way bears the remains of the coat of arms of Trinity College. It includes the word 'Vera' from the full motto Virtus Vera Nobilitas which means Virtue is true nobility.
By the end of the 19th century, many such missions, or settlements, had been set up in poor, deprived areas where those from the
educated, more privileged classes lived and worked within the community to alleviate the suffering of the poor. (See also Browning Hall, Walworth) Work carried out by the mission included day schools, a hospital for the poor, Bible classes, Sunday schools, women’s guilds, clubs for working men, youths and girls providing sport, music, art and crafts, a girls’ centre, Church Lads’ Brigade, scout troop, choirs, a temperance society, even soup kitchens for the direct relief of poverty. After initially renting premises on Albany Road, new mission premises were built on New Church Road with funds raised from an appeal.
St George’s Church in Wells Way is an impressive building, surrounded today on three sides by the open space of Burgess Park. When the church was built in 1822, the 19th century London building boom was just beginning and within a short time, the church was enclosed by narrow streets of small, overcrowded houses and industrial buildings. The area that surrounded the church became one of the most overcrowded and deprived areas of London.
In 1820, the vestry of St Giles Church, Camberwell calculated that, with a growing population, the church of St Giles was too small and unable to accommodate 3,600 people who lived within the parish. The vestry then resolved that a further church able to hold 2,000 be built within the district. In 1818 the Church Building Act had provided for £1 million to be provided for the building of new churches, and the vestry of St Giles received £5000 from this fund towards the total building costs of £20,600 for the new church in Camberwell.
The land the church was built upon was donated by John Rolls whose grandson, the first Lord Llangattock, was to donate land adjacent to the church in 1901 to build the library, baths and wash-house.
The foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Winchester on 23 May 1822, St George’s Day, and the event was marked by a large procession of local dignatories, churchmen, boys and girls from Peckham, Dulwich, Camberwell Green Coat and National Schools marching four abreast, men carrying flags and a band. Messrs Sharpe and Day, contractors for the mason’s work at the new church carried the silver trowel to be used in the ceremony on a velvet cushion, and the bricklayers, the carpenter, the plumber and painter, the glazier and coppersmith also took part in the procession, not to forget the architect, Francis Bedford. The new church was consecrated in 1824 and the in the same year St George’s Camberwell National School was opened that could accommodate 250 pupils.
St George's Church and immediate area 1830
The church was built alongside the Grand Surrey Canal and the lime works were already in operation not far from the church alongside the canal. A map of 1830 shows some streets laid out to the west but to the east are fields and market gardens. These were soon built upon and became a network of streets with an equally rapid growth in population.
In 1839, the school building had become too small and work began on a larger school to accommodate at least 450 pupils. In the 1870s two further churches were built within St George’s district to meet the needs of an increasing population. One of these was St Luke’s built in Rosemary Road and destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in Pentridge Road in 1953. The second church was St Philip the Apostle, also destroyed in World War II but also rebuilt. It merged with the district of St Mark’s and a new church was built in 1963 in the newly built Avondale Square off the Old Kent Road.
Camberwell was heavily bombed during World War II. In the decades that followed large areas of bomb damaged houses and industrial premises, together with slum areas, were cleared to make way for large housing estates, the social impact of which has been severely questioned since their inception. Burgess Park was also created from the rebuilding of the area. While St George’s Church survived, it was declared structurally unsound in 1970 and the church moved into temporary accommodation at the school. The Church was purchased by the Celestial Church of Christ but suffered a devastating fire in 1980 which gutted the building, leaving only the external walls and tower standing. The building was sold again in the 1990s and converted into flats which are run as a housing co-operative. 50% of the flats are let to tenants nominated by Southwark Council and the other 50% from those on the CDS (The Co-operative Development Society) waiting list.
As part of the post-war rebuilding, Trinity College Chapel’s Mission in New Church Road was compulsorily purchased and, with the compensation money, the Mission joined together with the St George’s community to purchase some land next to St George’s School in Coleman Road. The Trinity College Centre and the new permanent Church of St George were built side by side and opened in 1983.