Camberwell, Southwark

A socially mixed Victorian suburb situated west of Peckham

Camberwell College of Arts entrance

Cam­ber­well was first record­ed in Domes­day Book but its name is of uncer­tain ori­gin. The vil­lage was of some medieval sig­nif­i­cance and St Giles’ was the moth­er church of a parish that took in Dul­wich and Peck­ham. King John enjoyed hunt­ing here and, much lat­er, so did Charles I and Charles II.

In 1615 the vic­ar of St Giles’ estab­lished Wilson’s School, which has since decamped to South Bed­ding­ton. Dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry mar­ket gar­den­ing became very impor­tant to the vil­lage and the con­struc­tion of new roads and bridges brought the first com­muters as ear­ly as the 1780s. High-class ter­raced hous­es were built in the 1820s and 1830s, but by the mid-19th cen­tu­ry ter­races of much small­er dwellings were cov­er­ing much of the dis­trict.

The annu­al fair on Cam­ber­well Green was aban­doned in 1855 as Cam­ber­well became a ‘walk­ing sub­urb’, with clerks tramp­ing north to the City each morn­ing. Those who could afford it took the new horse-drawn omnibus­es and for a while the rich lived cheek by jowl with the poor.

The arrival of horse-drawn trams in the 1870s made Cam­ber­well even more acces­si­ble but less desir­able, and the old Geor­gian prop­er­ties were sub-divid­ed for mul­ti­ple occu­pan­cy by the work­ing class­es, grow­ing num­bers of whom began to work in small-scale local indus­tries and the build­ing trade. House­build­ing for the mid­dle class­es con­tin­ued in the south of Cam­ber­well into the 1880s.

The Free Library and Art Gallery moved from Bat­tersea to Cam­ber­well in 1887 and over the fol­low­ing decade the phil­an­thropist John Pass­more Edwards fund­ed new build­ings that became the South Lon­don Gallery and the Cam­ber­well School of Art (now Cam­ber­well Col­lege of Arts, part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts Lon­don).

In 1910 the Peabody estate at Cam­ber­well Green brought the first of many flats, cul­mi­nat­ing in sys­tem-built blocks in the 1960s and 1970s.

Along the main roads the ground floors of ter­raced hous­es have been con­vert­ed for retail or ser­vice use. Many old­er prop­er­ties have been restored in recent decades as Cam­ber­well has been redis­cov­ered by the mid­dle class­es. Part of south-east Cam­ber­well is now a con­ser­va­tion area.

Exten­sive regen­er­a­tion and/or gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has been going on in Cam­ber­well since 2015, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of the Cam­ber­well on the Green apart­ments (shown in the CGI below) in place of a for­mer job cen­tre. For a rel­a­tive­ly pos­i­tive take on these devel­op­ments, see this Homes & Prop­er­ty arti­cle. For a much more crit­i­cal assess­ment, site by site, see this 35% Cam­paign polemic.

Hidden London: Camberwell on the Green CGI

The Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) is a velvety chocolate-brown butterfly, rarely seen because it migrates each year from Scandinavia. The name comes from its first recorded sighting, on Coldharbour Lane in 1748. Camberwell Beauty is also the title of a VS Pritchett story and of the humorist Jenny Eclair’s debut novel.

A large marijuana cigarette is dubbed a ‘Camberwell carrot’ in Bruce Robinson’s cult film Withnail and I.

Postal district: SE5
Population: 40,835 (Brunswick Park, Camberwell Green and South Camberwell wards, 2011 census)
Further reading: Mary Boast, The Story of Camberwell, London Borough of Southwark, 2000
and HJ Dyos, Victorian Suburb, Leicester University Press, 1961 (definitive but hard to find)
Website: CamberwellOnline Blog (infrequent posts)
See also: Denmark Hill


* The picture of Camberwell College of Arts at the top of this page is modified from an original photograph, copyright shrinkin’violet, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.