Streatham, Lambeth

An extensive south London suburb stretching southwards from Brixton to Norbury

Christ Church, Streatham
Christ Church, Streatham*

Streatham was first veri­fi­ably recorded in Domesday Book – as Estreham, but this is likely to have been a tran­scrip­tion error as the name simply means ‘street ham’, a reference to a small settle­ment beside the Roman road. St Leonard’s church gained its own parish in 1291 and was rebuilt in the 14th century; it has since been almost totally rebuilt again.

The estate of Streatham was part of the manor of Tooting Bec in the Middle Ages, when more hamlets grew up at separate points along the road. After the Refor­ma­tion and as the woodland was cleared the district was broken up into several farms and some of the landowners began to sell these off in the 18th century. Given Streatham’s remote­ness from London, most of the houses built at this time served as country retreats and the most important of these was the Thrale family’s home at Streatham Park.

The first suburban dwellings appeared at the northern edge of the district in the 1830s, on Streatham Hill and soon after­wards in Roupell Park. The spiritual needs of the new residents were met by Christ Church, which was built in 1840–2 by James Wild, with interior deco­ra­tion by Owen Jones. This grade I‑listed church now finds itself located on a stretch of the South Circular Road.

Full subur­ban­i­sa­tion began after the opening of railway stations in the mid-19th century and the process reached a peak between 1880 and 1914, when the parish’s cottages, mansions and fields were erased by a series of estates. The High Road and Streatham Hill became a major shopping centre and, after the First World War, an enter­tain­ment zone too. The Astoria cinema (now Odeon) opened in 1930, followed in 1934 by Streatham baths and ice rink (now Streatham ice and leisure centre).

The muddy south-west corner known orig­i­nally as Lower Streatham was the last part of the district to be built up, whereupon it was renamed Streatham Vale.

By the mid-1930s Wandsworth council – which was then respon­sible for this area – had built blocks of flats at several locations across the district and municipal building accel­er­ated after the Second World War.

The amenities of Streatham Hill and High Road struggled to recover from the depres­sion of the 1980s, after which the John Lewis Part­ner­ship closed its depart­ment store here. In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted the High Road “Britain’s worst street … with its increas­ingly high level of violent crime.” Nowadays it’s perfectly pleasant most of the time, though not the superior shopping desti­na­tion it once was.

In the latter decades of the 20th century Streatham gained a multi-ethnic popu­la­tion; 37 per cent of residents are now of white British descent. The next largest minori­ties, each repre­senting 9 per cent of the total, are of Caribbean and African heritage.

Cynthia Payne, whose story was filmed as Personal Services, ran an unconventional brothel at her home in Ambleside Avenue, next door to the home of composer/conductor Carl Davies.

Former mayor of London Ken Livingstone was born in Shrubbery Road, while Streatham’s best-known contemporary daughter is the supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Postal district: SW16
Population: 58,055 (St Leonard’s, Streatham Hill, Streatham South and Streatham Wells wards, 2011 census)
Station: Southern and Thameslink (Streatham, zone 3)
Further reading: Janet and Michael Fitzgerald, The Making of Modern Streatham, History Press, 2009
Website: The Streatham Society
Local news: Streatham Guardian
* The picture of Christ Church, Streatham on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Bill Boaden, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.