Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Dating back to at least the beginning of the 18th century, The Rosemary Branch was a hostelry with a reputation that extended throughout London. More than just a tavern, it had a sports ground where cricket, horse-racing, pigeon shooting, athletics and many more outdoor pursuits took place. There was also an Assembly Room attached where public meetings and musical entertainments took place which had by the end of the 19th century become a Victorian Music Hall. Located on the corner of what is now Southampton Row and Commercial Row, near where Peckham and Camberwell meet, nothing remains of this former renowned place of hospitality “an establishment that has no suburban rival” save two short roads, one named Rosemary Road and the other Branch Road.
The 1841 map above (click to enlarge) shows the location of the Rosemary Branch and Bowling Green, Archery and Shooting Ground. It shows early development to the west and south west which includes the Workhouse, the Royal Nautical School (later Camberwell House Asylum) and Camden House Chapel . To the north west there are open fields and market gardens that extended to both branches of the Grand Surrey Canal. The grounds were the venue of balloon ascents and a short-lived experimental railway called Hallette’s Atmospheric Railway.
The horse-racing events held at the Rosemary Branch were not to the same standard as those held at more well-known venues but nevertheless very popular popular. There is a record of one novelty event where a wager was made that a pony could trot 14 miles in an hour with a monkey as a jockey. The monkey was “booted, spurred and otherwise attired after the fashion of the jockeys at Epsom or Newmarket and rode the pony in the usual style with saddle and bridle … the colours he sported were red and white and in his right paw carried a handsome riding whip.” The pony trotted the distance in circuits with just over three minutes to spare and was said to be not at all distressed. The monkey ”rode in first rate style, came in with his whip in his mouth, and appeared quite conscious of his own merits as an equestrian, and not less delighted when his task was completed.”
An excursion to the Rosemary Branch to attend a cricket match held between a team of one-legged men playing against a team of one-armed men was published in 1862 in ‘All the Year Round’, a journal owned and edited by Charles Dickens. The writer clearly viewed his expedition as venturing into wild and unchartered territory as he described, at times disdainfully, his “trudge down the Old Kent Road”. His description of the participants in the cricket match is at times unacceptable by today’s standards but nevertheless he gives a good portrayal of both The Rosemary Branch and its surroundings. He described his walk “Under swinging golden hams, golden gridirons, swaying concertinas (marked at a very low figure), past bundles of rusty fire-irons, dirty rolls of carpets and corpulent dusty feather beds – past deserted looking horse troughs and suburban-looking inns, I took my pilgrim way to the not very blooming Rye of Peckham.
“Rows of brick boxes, called streets, half isolated cottages, clung to by affectionate but dusty vines – eventually a canal where boatmen smoked and had dreams of coming traffic – a sudden outburst of green fields that made me think I was looking at streets with green spectacles on – brought me to the trim, neat public house known by the pleasant aromatic name of “The Rosemary Branch”.
“A trim bar-woman, with perhaps rather too demonstrative a photograph brooch, stood in front or a row of glass barrels labelled respectively “Shrub,” “Bitters” and “Sampson”, the latter, I have no doubt, a very strong beverage indeed. Or did I fail to observe a portrait of the last winner of the Derby over the fireplace, and a little stuffed terrier pup above the glass door leading into the little parlour where a very comfortable dinner was smoking.
“I procured my ticket, and was shown through a deserted billiard-room, and down a back lane to the cricket-field. I delivered up the blue slip to a very fat man with a child’s voice who sat with an air of suffering at the entrance-wicket, and I was in the eccentric creatures’ innocent field of battle. …Two potboys, girdled with tucked-up aprons white as the froth of bitter beer, hurried past me as if to relieve the thirst of men wounded in war.” The cricket match was won by the team made up of one-armed men.
The Rosemary Branch Assembly Room evolved into a 430 seat music hall, one of the first to be attached to a pub. It was renovated in 1863 and renamed the People’s Palace of Varieties and renamed again Lovejoy’s Musical Hall in 1878 when Alexander Lovejoy took over its management. New health and safety legislation meant that the music hall had to be rebuilt to comply and a new building was completed nearby by 1890 and called the Peckham Theatre of Varieties. This was closed in the face of the grander and glitzier competition of the newly built Crown Theatre in Peckham High Street and became a public hall named the Cornwall Hall.
By the 1860s the area surrounding the Rosemary Branch had been heavily built upon with streets of small terraced houses and by the early 1870s, the Rosemary Branch cricket field was the only open space remaining but by 1875 it was covered by the Rosemary Branch Estate consisting of 250 small houses. The Rosemary Branch tavern survived and looking at the picture to the right seems to have been rebuilt around the 1890s. This was demolished in 1971 and a popular and historic south London landmark disappeared forever.