Nunhead

Nunhead, Southwark/Lewisham

A formerly run-down but now steadily improving district with a handful of highlights, situated east of Peckham Rye

Hidden London: outside Nunhead station by Chris Barrett

A nun­nery is sup­posed to have stood here until it was dis­solved dur­ing the Ref­or­ma­tion. Accord­ing to leg­end, the moth­er supe­ri­or was behead­ed for oppos­ing the dis­so­lu­tion and her sev­ered head was mount­ed on a pikestaff and dis­played on the green. There’s almost zero evi­dence for any of this – even that the nun­nery ever exist­ed – although the Shored­itch nun­nery of St John the Bap­tist did own land here in the late 12th cen­tu­ry.

Nev­er­the­less, there has been a Nun’s Head inn on the green for hun­dreds of years and, how­ev­er it got its name, it could have been the ori­gin of the local­i­ty’s iden­ti­ty. The place was first men­tioned in writ­ing in 1583, when Edgar Scot sold Thomas and William Patch­ing cer­tain estates ‘lying at Nunn-Head’. It was first spelt as ‘Nun­head’ in 1680.

Nun­head was a mar­ket gar­den­ing ham­let when 58 acres were tak­en for All Saints’ ceme­tery in the late 1830s. The main entrance lodge was built on Lin­den Grove, where Charles Dick­ens lat­er set up an apart­ment for his mis­tress. The ceme­tery is now an attrac­tive wilder­ness, although parts have recent­ly been restored.

The Girdlers’ Com­pa­ny and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Beer and Wine Trade Soci­ety built almshous­es west and north of Nun­head Green in the 1830s and 1850s, respec­tive­ly. Both have sur­vived in good con­di­tion and the orig­i­nal ter­race of sev­en Girdlers’ almshous­es (Beeston’s Gift, 1834) is shown in the pho­to below. Sin­gle-storey ranges have been added to the north and south, con­sol­i­dat­ing all the company’s homes at this site since 1980.

Hidden London: Girdlers’ almshouses, Nunhead, by Chris Barrett

In the north of the dis­trict, St Mary Mag­da­lene church was con­se­crat­ed by the Bish­op of Win­ches­ter in 1841. It was destroyed by a bomb in 1940, rebuilt in 1962 and rebuilt again in 2010-11.

In 1854 the South­wark and Vaux­hall Water Com­pa­ny acquired a 14-acre site west of the ceme­tery and built two reser­voirs, which are now capa­ble of deliv­er­ing 43 mil­lion gal­lons a day.

The vestry of Cam­ber­well acquired Nun­head Green (orig­i­nal­ly Nun Green) from the lord of the manor in 1868 on the under­stand­ing that it would remain open to the pub­lic in per­pe­tu­ity.

Brock’s fire­works man­u­fac­to­ry oper­at­ed at Nun­head in the 1860s and 70s as “sole pyrotech­nist to the Crys­tal Palace Com­pa­ny” and con­tract­ed to make two mil­lion car­tridge tubes for the French army dur­ing the Fran­co-Pruss­ian war. Con­trary to the pub­’s claim on Face­book, the Pyrotechnist’s Arms isn’t built on the site of the fire­works fac­to­ry, which was actu­al­ly in the mid­dle of a field, near what is now the junc­tion of Barset and How­bury Roads.

Nun­head Junc­tion sta­tion (as it was orig­i­nal­ly called) opened in 1871 and St Antholin’s church was built on Nun­head Lane in 1878.

The dis­trict was built up in the 1870s and 1880s by a vari­ety of spec­u­la­tive builders, most­ly in a fair­ly hap­haz­ard fash­ion except for the more care­ful­ly planned Waver­ley Park estate (see the page on New­lands). This was the work of one of south London’s pre-emi­nent spec­u­la­tive builders, Edward Yates, but it was not a great suc­cess; 310 of its 742 hous­es stood emp­ty in 1907.

Nun­head library was built at 88 Gor­don Road with mon­ey donat­ed by the phil­an­thropist John Pass­more Edwards, who laid the foun­da­tion stone in April 1896. The Arts and Crafts style build­ing is shown in the pho­to below right.

Hidden London: Europa by Faith47 and Nunhead library, photos by Chris Barrett

St Thomas the Apos­tle RC church opened in 1905 at 81 Eveli­na Road. The unpre­pos­sess­ing build­ing is of the ‘Ellis box’ type – one of around two dozen such struc­tures erect­ed in the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry, most­ly in the Arch­dio­cese of South­wark. It was fund­ed by Frances Ellis, an heiress and con­vert to Catholi­cism. Oth­er sur­viv­ing Ellis box­es have been beau­ti­fied con­sid­er­ably more than this one.

Mem­bers of the Gan­dolfi fam­i­ly made pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment at two address­es in Nun­head from 1913 to 1981. The company’s hand-made wood­en cam­eras are said to be to the world of pho­tog­ra­phy what Stradi­var­ius vio­lins are to music.

The sta­tion was rebuilt on the oppo­site side of Gib­bon Road from its pre­de­ces­sor when the line was elec­tri­fied in 1925.

The Old Nun’s Head was rebuilt – in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent style from its pre­de­ces­sor – as the Nun­head Tav­ern in 1934. Across the green, the Man of Kent also dates from the 1930s. The Cam­paign for Real Ale says that its “inte­ri­or is list­ed as one of region­al impor­tance pri­mar­i­ly for its mod­est worka­day design. The pub under­went refur­bish­ment in 2014 which result­ed in the removal of some of the pan­elling which has adverse­ly affect­ed the inte­ri­or.”

Before and after the Sec­ond World War, the Lon­don Coun­ty Coun­cil built numer­ous blocks of flats in the area, notably on the Nun­head estate in the 1950s, although many ter­races of Vic­to­ri­an hous­es remain – most of them a lit­tle grander than the group in the pho­to below, on Gor­don Road.

Hidden London: 69-75 Gordon Road, Nunhead, by Chris Barrett

St Antholin’s church was restored after it had been gut­ted by fire­bombs dur­ing the Blitz and was renamed St Antony in 1958. In 1990 the parish was com­bined with that of St Silas. St Antony’s was declared redun­dant in 2001 and sold for about £1 mil­lion to a Pen­te­costal con­gre­ga­tion.

Also in the 1950s a new Sal­va­tion Army hall replaced the church’s 19th-cen­tu­ry ‘citadel’, which had been destroyed in the war.

Nun­head Green con­ser­va­tion area was des­ig­nat­ed in 2007 and includes the green itself, the build­ings sur­round­ing it, and some of the streets lead­ing away from it, includ­ing parts of Gor­don and Con­sort Roads to the north and Nun­head Grove and Lin­den Grove to the south.

The Nun­head Tav­ern was closed for sev­er­al years in the ear­ly 2000s and “came back from the dead” as the Old Nun’s Head in 2007. In 2014 the street artists Pure Evil, Inkie and APHQ cre­at­ed their ver­sions of Car­lo Dolci’s St Cather­ine of Siena (1665) for the pub’s exte­ri­or, as part of the Dul­wich Out­door Gallery project. The project’s oth­er piece in Nun­head is Faith47’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Gui­do Reni’s Europa and the Bull (c.1640) on a house at the cor­ner of Con­sort Road and Mon­tea­gle Way, shown next to the library pho­to above.

In 2016–18 two 1970s coun­cil build­ings on the west side of Nun­head Green were replaced by the Green com­mu­ni­ty cen­tre and a devel­op­ment of flats and hous­es called Nun­head Green.

Accord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus the largest eth­nic group in Nun­head is white British, fol­lowed by res­i­dents of black African and black Caribbean ori­gin or descent. Six­ty-one per cent of res­i­dents were born in the Unit­ed King­dom and the next most com­mon coun­tries of birth were Nige­ria and Jamaica. The ward’s pop­u­la­tion is split almost equal­ly between those liv­ing in flats and those occu­py­ing a whole house. The most com­mon field of employ­ment is human health and social work activ­i­ties.

The murderous Victorian burglar Charles Peace lived in a suburban villa on East Terrace, Evelina Road.

Postal districts: SE15, SE14 and SE4
Population: 13,620 (2011 census, Southwark’s Nunhead ward)
Station: Thameslink and Southeastern (zone 2)
Further reading: John D Beasley, Peckham & Nunhead Through Time, Amberley, 2009
The photographs on this page are by Chris Barrett and are used here with his kind permission.