I've spent the past few weeks exploring London from my sofa. Usually, I'd be doing this by bicycle and on foot, though even without lockdown restrictions the cold and wet would make that quite an unpleasant pursuit. Instead, I've 'attended' some surprisingly engrossing online lectures.
First up were two presentations on modernist architecture in inter-war London, covering the 1920s and 1930s. Although much of this was familiar to me from my own wanderings during lockdown 1.0, it was still a joy to be reminded of the sheer array of architecture in my adopted home, a product of the palimpsest nature of the capital.
Another online event explored London's Roman provenance, with 'The London Ambler' looking at the 'linear history' of what was once known as Watling Street South, the historic Roman route to Dover (and thereafter Continent). This stretched from Borough in the city centre to Dartford in Kent, via New Cross, Deptford and Blackheath. It's now better, and more boringly, known as the A2.
Most interesting to me was the section of that route called the 'Old Kent Road' (OKR), not least because it lies just a few minutes down the road from my flat, a boundary of sorts between 'North Peckham', where I reside, and the slightly more fashionable Bermondsey to the north.
The OKR itself is deeply unfashionable, which is curious given its proximity to Zone 1. At either end, Borough is Shard territory while New Cross gentrified long ago, but the OKR remains pretty shabby, the sort of thoroughfare used to get from A to B and nothing more. Few linger, let alone want to live there. Personally, I find the area fascinating.
Wot Cher! Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road
, a music hall number from the late 19th century, tells the story of a family who live in an alleyway near the OKR, which was then one of the poorest parts of London. They're visited by a toff, who informs them that 'rich uncle Tom of Camberwell' has 'popp'd off' (died), leaving them a small fortune. 'Wot cher!' cry their neighbours, a cockney contraction of 'what cheer'.
The OKR remains one of the poorer parts of London. The North Peckham Estate, not far from me, is a byword for inner-city poverty. Doubtless conscious of this, Southwark Council is currently consulting on a revised Old Kent Road Area Action Plan – City Hall loves action plans – which includes two new 'town centres', 20,000 new homes, two new tube stations, new parks and green spaces, and so on.
Some of this work is ongoing; from Burgess Park you can see not only the gleaming Shard but embryonic apartment blocks in that recognisable early 21st-century style, all glass, brick and balconies. So much new housing is rather contingent upon improved public transport, though the future of the Bakerloo Line extension is in doubt. Even pre-COVID, its two new stations were scheduled to open in 2029, and it seems unlikely that will be achieved on time, if at all.
Anyway, I and others hope the redevelopment doesn't sweep away what remains of the area's architectural heritage. Not only is there some extraordinarily atmospheric housing and infrastructure left over from the long filled-in Surrey Canal, but on the OKR itself is my favourite, the former North Peckham Civic Centre, once considered a corner-stone of south-east London's post-war municipal development. The building itself – now rented by the Everlasting Arms Ministry Pentecostal church – is unremarkable, but what leaps out to anyone passing by is the most extraordinary tiled mural by Adam Kossowski, covering 1,000 square feet and two lower-level façades of the building.
Kossowski arrived in the UK in 1943, a refugee from Soviet labour camps, and quickly became renowned for his work on Catholic churches. The frieze, which depicts local historic scenes including pearly kings and queens, was designed in 1964 and completed in 1965. Mercifully, the tiles are Grade II-listed, which is fortunate as the building they're attached to is about to fall victim to the action plan. Kossowski's work is apparently destined for the new Museum of London at West Smithfield.
I spent a few hours on Sunday digging further into the history of the OKR area, specifically the micro history of my own building. This year is census year (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, if not in Scotland), which reminded me that previous census returns are searchable online. I located the 1901 records easily enough, at which point my building – a terraced Victorian town house – was little more than a decade old.
At the turn of the previous century, the borough of Camberwell straddled London and Surrey, a reminder that the city's boundaries have slowly intruded into the surrounding countryside. The names of my predecessors mean little but their occupations speak to the avowedly working-class status of the area, then as now. Emma Marson, a widow, was a 'monthly nurse', her daughter Florence a 'juvenile's milliner', and her brother Horace a 'telegraph messenger'. Another daughter, Lenorah, was also a milliner, while her husband William was a gas fitter.
That made five inhabitants in the household, only one more than there is today, though there are now three flats rather than a single four-storey house as there would have been at the dawn of the 20th century. Also online is something called the '1939 register', which I can only assume was a by-product of the Second World War. By then, three separate families appear to have shared the building.
Two of those look to have been Irish, for Peckham at that time had a large Irish population. The Fitzgeralds included a printer, cycle messenger and a box maker; the Emmetts a bricklayer, someone engaged in 'unpaid domestic duties' and their two children. By the close of the 1930s, the number of people sharing four floors had almost doubled.
Further changes are afoot. The London School of Economics has earmarked some old industrial buildings across the street for standard mixed-use student accommodation, housing and other amenities. A chimney and triangular gable ends will be retained, and parts of my street smartened up. This had approval pre-COVID, but who knows when that aspect of the Old Kent Road Action Plan will become a reality.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian