Travel Guide to Southwark

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Peckham
Peckham was a very small development at the time of the Domesday Book, 2 acres of meadow valued at just 30 shillings.

King Henry I owned Peckham and gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who later married the heiress to Camberwell thus uniting the two properties under royal ownership. Hard as it is to believe today, King John hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that he was so pleased with his sport one day that he granted the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week long event at its high point and had quite a reputation but was abolished in 1827.

Peckham grew in favour as a residential area in the Sixteenth Century with it becoming home to some quite well to do people. This fashionable status may have been connected to the fact that King Charles II was a regular visitor. Charles used to frequent the theatre situated on Peckham High Street, a theatre that Nell Gwynne frequently performed at. It is possible that he first saw her during a performance in Peckham. By the Eighteenth Century Peckham had developed into a more commercialised area, market gardening in particular being very important.

Peckham was well known as a market gardening area for many years. Melons, figs and grapes all used to be grown in Peckham, many ending up on the royal table. With the lack of refrigeration food had to be grown close to its final market so Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep. Peckham was also an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their cattle to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in the local hostelries. The area was also famous for its botanical links. One of the most famous local figures was Peter Collinson who lived in Peckham in the Eighteenth Century. Collinson was fascinated by the potential of electricity and passed his passion for the subject on to one of his friends, Benjamin Franklin.

Even last century Peckham was a "small, quiet, retired village surrounded by fields". Stage coaches used to get an armed guard to travel between Peckham and London due to the risk from highwaymen. Due to the poor condition of the roads a branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built ,to link Peckham and the Thames, in 1826.The majority of the villagers would have been employed on the land though there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard for many, poverty was all too often the reality for many.

Communications were improved when Thomas Tilling started an omnibus service from Peckham in 1851. Unlike most of his rivals he did not pick people up, insisting they came to pre-arranged stops. This helped his omnibuses to run on time earning them the nickname of "times buses" . Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses, fifteen years later he had nearly 1 500. In 1888 he experimented by adding a pneumatic tyre designed by Dr John Dunlop to some of his carriages. His services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed in World War One.

In the nineteenth century schools were common in Peckham, indeed the area was well known for them. In particular it had a fine reputation for girls schools. Amongst the famous pupils who attended Peckham schools was Robert Browning who attended Rev Thomas Ready’s school. If lucky the poorer children went to a school run by the British and Foreign Schools Society. It was here that Joseph Lancaster invented his monitorial system of teaching. As with Dulwich there was no Anglican church until surprisingly recently. Until 1814 the resident would have had to travel to Camberwell to worship. Peckham did have a Hanovarian Chapel though. The Chapel had royal connections as Princess, later Queen, Victoria was brought here by her father.

Peaceful life began to be disrupted in 1833 when a gas works opened on the Old Kent Road. Whilst it lit some local roads it was to be many years before most homes had gas. As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. During the last thirty years of the century the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments of varying quality. To preserve some greenery Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 and maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. So popular was the common that it became dangerously overcrowded on holidays so Homestall Farm was purchased for £51,000 and opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. With Homestall Farm went the tradition of farming in Peckham.

The population boom, and transport revolution, of the Nineteenth Century saw a succession of small villages becoming swallowed up onto the outskirts of London. Peckham today is unrecognisable from just two hundred years ago. With the advantage of hindsight we can say that not all the changes in Peckham have been for the better. Today Peckham is undergoing major change. An ambitious project has begun to demolish several housing estates and to rebuild them, whilst civic facilities are also being improved allowing Peckham to face the new millennium with a new found confidence.
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