Sitting on the edges of Southwark borough….
South of the river Thames….
In 1700 as a small rural hamlet without a church, Peckham came under the administration of St. Giles parish and had no connection to the metropolis of London. The British History Online website tells me that this changed by the 18th century when improved transport provided the relatively wealthy access to the countryside, as hitherto Peckham had been known, while still being near enough to commute to London. However, during the 19th century although some of the upper classes remained, Peckham became the home for a predominantly lower middle and skilled working class.
My journey starts at the bottom of Peckham Rye Lane….
If it were possible to be in love with a building, then I would have to say I am in love with Number one Peckham Rye Lane. Now less than a quarter of its original size it is a magnificent Victorian structure and looks down at Peckham as time passes it by. A huge clock tower, built in 1894 and modelled on the famous Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza San Marco in Venice is its centre piece. In an online article from Southwark News I learn the recent restoration work carried out on the clock was funded by British Heritage and that the entire area of Peckham Rye Lane is a conservation area. However, although I find bits and pieces out about my building online, for example it was originally a department store called Jones and Higgins and opened 1867, I need to know more so I do a detour to Southwark Archives at London bridge determined to find out its history.
And this is some of what I learn: Messrs. Edwin Jones and George Randell Higgins started their business venture in 1886 with £80 and one shopfront window. By 1894 when the clock tower was constructed by architects Henry Jarvis and Son, Jones and Higgins had expanded into a five-floor department store with fifteen shopfront windows and a staff of 500. It also had workshops and stables, the entrance of which was on Hanover Lane. Today Hanover Lane is home of the less glamorous Morrison’s and a large carpark. When searching through the archives I found the register of horses and was moved by the amount of these horses that had to be sold during 1917 to the War Office. For some reason, it was this tiny detail that brought Jones and Higgins alive for me and made them real. I could imagine stable boys stamping their feet to stay warm against a cold November morning, as they prepared these beautiful creatures and got them into the harnesses they would wear to pull the delivery vans and carts through 19th century South East London. When I stand in front of this unloved and depleted building now I close my eyes and imagine it in its heyday, a thick November mist swirling around gas lamps, the smell off horses and the shouting of cabbies as they jostle for position of the busy high way that was and is Peckham Rye Lane. As I am pulled from my reverie I am forced to contemplate the fate of those horses that Jones and Higgins gave up to the Great War, if indeed any of them came home and what of the stable boys that had tended to their needs, how many of them, if any, had returned? I contemplate the unimaginable suffering that both man and beast would have experienced during the horrors of that dreadful time.
I continue my walk….
Peckham Rye Lane…
The hustling bustling main thoroughfare of Peckham, where I see afro-Caribbean food shops sit comfortably next to halal meat markets and Irish butchers. Reggae music blasts out in competition with, and unperturbed by, the techno music from the shop next door, both fighting against the gospel music across the road, all filling my ears with a confusion of sound. This is s lane full of beauty parlours selling fake lashes and plastic nails, a place where I can buy a cheap wig in any colour or design that I want, and I see fat black women sitting on creaking chairs outside their shops calling me in their sing song voices as I pass by, offering to do my hair. They kiss their teeth when I decline and move on. I see a High Street full of shop fronts on the ground floors of 17th and 18th century buildings. I stand in a road built up of Georgian and Victorian banks, public buildings and pubs, unrecognised and forgotten, taken over by pound shops, charity shops and pawnbrokers.
This is a is a multi-cultural and heavily populated place to live, where, as in the 19th century, pockets of wealth sit uncomfortably next to vast areas of poverty. I notice young black males, strutting comfortably down the road in their Adidas and Nike styles, sporting tee shirts in any weather and showing hard earned muscles cultivated in Peckham’s Fusion gym. The latest influx of inhabitants, slim hipped white middle class young men, scuttle past them; the sheepish scowls on their faces make me smile. Seeing the infinite variety of race and culture leads me to reflect on the ever-changing demographic of Peckham over the years. These Anglo-Saxon bearded males and their trendy girlfriends, flocking to their pop-up venues being the most recent example.
My next stop is Peckham Rye train station and another monument to Victorian architecture. Now a Grade11 listed building the exterior of Peckham Rye train station hasn’t changed since it was designed by Charles Henry Driver in 1865. It is an impressive continental renaissance style building of three floors and has a central section consisting of five round headed windows and projecting wings on both sides. Several of the windows have cast iron balconettes.
But for me the jewel of this train station must be the recently discovered Victorian staircase. To hide it from view the lower windows of the west wing have been painted over. But to my joy there is a tiny space and I gaze wistfully at this opulent and spectacular piece of art, which indeed it is. I see cast iron leaves decorating the banisters, and foliage so clear and natural I envision it growing, as if by magic, swirling and cascading in a waterfall of historic beauty. Once again I feel the pull of the past capture my imagination on this journey up Peckham Rye Lane. What of those stable boys from Jones and Higgins, not 400 yards down the road? Could they not have trudged up these stairs, young conscripts going off to war? Tearful sweethearts and mothers waving them off, hearts full of patriotic pride.
Once again I continue my walk……
It is an indication of how little concern there was at the beginning of the 1st World War, and how it was at the time perceived to be a short war that my final building, Tower Cinema, was opened on 19th November 1914 by local actress Gladys Cooper. The building itself, designed by H. Courtenay Constantine, has long gone, replaced by yet another car park which has been overtaken by a large colony of feral cats who now call it home. All that is left of the Tower cinema is the Tower entrance and a tunnel that would have led into the foyer.
It is the Tower that fascinates me. The cinema was modernized in the October/November of 1955 but closed a year later in the December. Although the original tower itself has been shortened and what is left constitutes a forlorn and rejected piece of architecture, it is still beautiful to me, but seemingly out of place in its surroundings. I read online www.exploringsouthwark.co.uk to learn that in its heyday it would have had seating for 2,150, an electric lift and six private boxes. Did those tearful sweethearts flock though its palatial interior? Did they ascend the marble staircase to their seats in the stalls, where they would have watched the news reels of the day, eager for news of the loved ones they would have waved goodbye to at the station?
I finish my walk….
I go to my car and I drive home…..
Old and New London. pp.286-303 originally published by Cassell, Peters and Galpin. London 1878
Southwark Archives Library 211 Borough High Street. London SE1 1JA ref 1984/282