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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The Albert Institution

The stone carving on no. 6 Chancel Street.  The shield depicting the Bridge House mark to the left is a reminder that when The Albert Institution was built much of Southwark came under the jurisdiction of the City of London.  The shield depicting three deer to the right is the symbol of the Parish of Christ Church.

Albert Institution Albert Institution 1859 Albert Institution 2 Albert Institution No. 4

In a quiet side street off the north end of Blackfriars Road stands a large building with two entrances, the rear of the building pressed up close to the railway line carrying trains into Blackfriars Station.  Above one of the windows on the first floor is an oblong carved plaque with two shields and almost hidden amongst carved foliage are the letters A and I above the date 1887.  Over the entrance on the right hand side there is an inscription that says BATHS in large letters with the word WASH HOUSE beneath it in smaller letters.  The clues are almost cryptic, there is nothing now to explain this was a building erected in 1887 to house the  Albert Institution to replace the Institutions’ first building in nearby Gravel Lane.


The Albert Institution was named after Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, who was the Institution’s Patron.  It had its origins through the hard work and vision of Revd. Joseph Brown, the minister at Christ Church on Blackfriars Road.  His parish, which had been described as a “dark spot” was poor and densely populated, and living conditions were both over-crowded and often insanitary.  Revd. Brown set about raising money to build facilities where the poor were able to wash both themselves and their clothes in an age when having a bath was a rare event for most people and washing clothes a struggle.  Revd.  Brown also wanted to provide a school-room in addition to the parochial schools in Green Walk (now Hopton Street), and somewhere to provide low cost accommodation, to a few at least.  


A school had stood on the site in Gravel Lane since 1850 but its foundations had collapsed in autumn 1858 and had to be taken down.  Things had not been easy at the school on a scale we couldn’t imagine today.  As Revd. Brown wrote to his parishioners:  


“Great have been the difficulties, and such perhaps as you could hardly conceive; for instance – pelting the infant school mistress with mud – beating the ragged school master with a dead dog – throwing dogs into the school – breaking the windows – driving a donkey in – and on one Sunday, during the morning and evening service at Gravel Lane, I counted eighty different times in which a great noise was made for the purpose of disturbing our devotions.” (The Globe, 19 February 1859).

A 50 year lease was acquired and the foundation stone laid by Lord Shaftesbury in February 1859. The opening ceremony for the completed building was performed by the Lord Mayor of London six months later. The Morning Advertiser described the facilities in the completed building in their issue of 25 August 1859:

“On the ground floor, which is approached by a good flight of steps, and a pleasant porch with two entrance doors, are the rooms of the matron and superintendent with a large room to be used as a reading room for the neighbourhood.  On the basement are two living rooms in front and a large room at the back, which has been divided into a waiting room, baths, laundry for twenty washerwomen and drying closet.  On the first floor are two more living rooms which are intended, like the others, for persons who can pay a small sum per week; and in the rear is the school room, 36 feet by 34 feet which will

hold 200 children in exercise and 300 when seated; this will also be used for divine service.  Included in the height of the school room are two more living rooms at the front.  The top floor is entirely occupied by a dormitory, as a refuge for those young men, who from the present circumstances of the locality, are frequently unable to obtain a bed in a desirable society at 2s. per week.  This is fitted up with iron bedsteads and excellent bedding, separated from each other by partitions, made of white dimity curtains.”


The reading room did not prove successful and instead accommodation was provided for the elderly.


Despite the lease of 50 years, the first Albert Institution lasted only 13 years as the property was compulsorily purchased by the South Eastern Railway Company in 1872 to build the short curved track linking the line from London Bridge into the track going into Blackfriars Station. The next few years were very uncertain for the Institution, moving first to St Jude’s School, then to 146 Blackfriars Road and then lastly to Collingwood Street before the Albert Institution closed as a suitable site could not be found as, although the area was poverty stricken, investors saw it as a good place to buy property so land prices were high.  After Revd. Brown died, Trustees were appointed and the money raised from the compulsory purchase placed in Chancery. Renewed discussions took place amongst the Trustees in 1883 and as a result, the present site in Chancel Street (then called Roberts  Street) was acquired from the Edward Edwards Charity, who owned almshouses close by, on a lease that would expire in 1972.


The new Institution, which incorporated a working man’s club, opened in 1887 and provided the same facilities as the previous building.  In 1889, Christ Church Public Library opened in the Albert Institution, the first such public library in Southwark, but moved to their own freehold premises in 1898 in Blackfriars Road.  Raising money for the upkeep of the new Institution was not easy and, perhaps as a result of losing rent for the public library, became a cause of anxiety to the Trustees.  The Charity Commissioners approved a new scheme that allowed for the letting of the building for educational, philanthropic or other public purposes but these lettings were not to interfere with the use of the building by poor people.  


When the lease expired in 1972, the building returned to the Edward Edwards Charity.  No. 6 Chancel Street is now occupied by offices for the Philharmonia Orchestra and No. 4 Chancel Street is occupied Southwark Young People’s Floating Support Service.