Elephant and Castle

Elephant and Castle, Southwark

A busy road junction and its rapidly changing vicinity, situated in (and better known than) Newington, and often simply called ‘the Elephant’

The Metropolitan Tabernacle at dawn, late December

In 1641 John Flax­man set up a blacksmith’s forge on an island site here to take advan­tage of the pass­ing horse-drawn traf­fic. Around 1760 the smithy was con­vert­ed to a tav­ern that dis­played a sign of an ele­phant and cas­tle. There is almost cer­tain­ly no truth in the wide­ly held belief that the name is a cor­rup­tion of Infan­ta de Castil­la (‘Princess of Castile’). The more like­ly con­nec­tion is with the old heraldic sym­bol of an ele­phant with a castel­lat­ed tow­er on its back, which was espe­cial­ly used by the Cut­lers’ Com­pa­ny to indi­cate to the use of ivory in knife han­dles. The tav­ern became a coach­ing halt and thus gave its name to the junc­tion.

This was already a dense­ly built-up area by the time Charles Spur­geon estab­lished the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Taber­na­cle in 1861. Shown at dawn in the pho­to­graph above, the taber­na­cle has twice been rebuilt but its orig­i­nal por­ti­co sur­vives.

The main­line rail­way sta­tion opened in 1863. In the Vic­to­ri­an era the sta­tion was nick­named ‘the Ani­mal’. The City and South Lon­don Rail­way arrived near­by in 1890 and the Bak­er Street and Water­loo Rail­way added a con­nec­tion in 1906.

Elephant and Castle (2006) *
Ele­phant and Cas­tle (2006) *

Before the junc­tion was over­whelmed by motor traf­fic, this was a local­i­ty where peo­ple came to socialise, shop and be enter­tained. In 1913 Désiré Pas­quet observed in Lon­dres et les Ouvri­ers de Lon­dres that “South London’s cen­tral edi­fice is a pub­lic house – the Ele­phant and Cas­tle.”

Fol­low­ing its dev­as­ta­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the area was clum­si­ly rede­vel­oped from the late 1950s with offices, aca­d­e­m­ic build­ings, hous­ing estates and the Ele­phant and Cas­tle shop­ping cen­tre – a pio­neer in its time but noto­ri­ous­ly dis­mal in its lat­ter days and not improved by its gar­ish plas­tic cladding. With pri­or­i­ty giv­en to road traf­fic, pedes­tri­ans were forced into a net­work of sub­ways.

Notable for its three wind tur­bines, the Stra­ta sky­scraper was com­plet­ed in 2010 and is the tallest of sev­er­al res­i­den­tial units to have appeared near­by over the past decade. Else­where in the area – and stretch­ing into Wal­worth – a £1.5 bil­lion regen­er­a­tion pro­gramme had been mak­ing ele­phan­tine progress – but has accel­er­at­ed recent­ly.

The most sig­nif­i­cant new devel­op­ments are Oakmayne’s Two Fifty One, Lend Lease Cor­po­ra­tion’s Ele­phant Park and Delancey’s town cen­tre rede­vel­op­ment, which pro­pos­es to “replace the exist­ing, poor qual­i­ty shop­ping cen­tre with a new town cen­tre which will future-proof Ele­phant and Cas­tle for the long term and pro­vide numer­ous ben­e­fits for both the local and bor­ough-wide econ­o­my”. In addi­tion, South­wark coun­cil has opened the Cas­tle leisure cen­tre at St Gabriel Walk, while the Art­works Ele­phant is a tem­po­rary ‘art, work and eat hub’ in repur­posed ship­ping con­tain­ers on Ele­phant Road.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is set in Illyria but some have taken this to be an idealised England, citing as evidence Antonio and Sebastian’s decision to lodge “in the south suburbs, at the Elephant.”

A shiny electrical substation in the centre of the Elephant and Castle roundabout doubles as a memorial to physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, who was born near here.

Postal districts: SE1 and SE17
Stations: Southern, Thameslink, Bakerloo line terminus, Northern line (zones 1 and 2)
Further reading: Stephen Humphrey, Elephant & Castle: A History, Amberley, 2013
Twitter: Elephant & Castle
Bing bird’s view: Elephant and Castle


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* The picture of the Elephant and Castle statue on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Laszlo Ilyes, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.
† “‘Third-class Animal’ is, or was, quite understood by the railway booking-clerks of the district.” J Redding Ware, Passing English of the Victoria Era (1908)