Walworth, Southwark

A historically crowded and socially disadvantaged district situated east of Newington

Liverpool Grove, Walworth, looking towards the church of St Peter

The remains of a mam­moth have been found under the streets of Wal­worth and there is evi­dence of human occu­pa­tion since the Stone Age. Wal­worth – ‘the enclosed set­tle­ment of the Britons’ – grew up between what became Ken­ning­ton Park Road and the Old Kent Road, two of the ancient roads fan­ning out from Lon­don Bridge to the south coast. Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral was a large landown­er from the late Sax­on era onwards.

Wal­worth was long a rur­al area pro­duc­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles in abun­dance; one local nurs­ery­man had a list of 320 vari­eties of goose­ber­ries. In the mid-17th cen­tu­ry there were only a few hous­es along what is today Wal­worth Road but grow­ing num­bers of trades­men set up shop here as traf­fic from Lon­don increased.

Wal­worth Com­mon was one of London’s most pop­u­lar crick­et grounds in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry. After it had been eject­ed from its pitch at Wal­worth in 1844 the Mont­pe­lier Crick­et Club leased 10 acres of mar­ket gar­dens in Ken­ning­ton, cre­at­ing the ground now known as the Oval.

One of the grand­est sur­viv­ing exam­ples of Walworth’s ear­ly devel­op­ment is Sur­rey Square, built in the 1790s by the archi­tect Michael Sear­les, who also built the Paragon in Black­heath. The math­e­mati­cian and astronomer Charles Bab­bage – inven­tor of a fore­run­ner of the com­put­er – was born in Cros­by Row (now Lar­com Street) in 1791.

Shown in the pho­to­graph above,* St Peter’s church in Liv­er­pool Grove was built to a design by Sir John Soane in 1825 to serve the rapid­ly grow­ing com­mu­ni­ty; over the course of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Walworth’s pop­u­la­tion increased eight­fold, reach­ing 122,200 in 1901.

Great areas of Wal­worth were rebuilt after the Sec­ond World War, notably in the form of the mas­sive Hey­gate and Ayles­bury estates, which were planned in the 1960s and com­plet­ed in the 1970s.

Walworth - Heygate estate, c.2004, looking derelict
Now being replaced by “afford­able, bright new homes”, this was how the Hey­gate estate looked when peo­ple were still liv­ing there

The Labour Party’s head­quar­ters were in Wal­worth from 1981 to 1997, when it moved to Mill­bank. Its Wal­worth Road build­ing was renamed John Smith House, after the party’s for­mer leader. The build­ing has recent­ly been con­vert­ed to a styl­ish hos­tel.

Tony Blair vis­it­ed the Ayles­bury estate soon after Labour’s 1997 elec­tion vic­to­ry but a vote by res­i­dents brought a halt to its regen­er­a­tion. More recent­ly the gov­ern­ment with­drew fund­ing for a pri­vate finance ini­tia­tive project. Some new homes have been built but the coun­cil is seek­ing a long-term devel­op­ment part­ner to help it take the estate’s reha­bil­i­ta­tion for­ward in a less piece­meal way. The Hey­gate estate is present­ly being rede­vel­oped as part of the regen­er­a­tion of the Ele­phant and Cas­tle, due for com­ple­tion in 2025.

The Cum­ing Muse­um, locat­ed in the old town hall build­ing at 151 Wal­worth Road, was found­ed on the per­son­al col­lec­tion of Richard Cum­ing and his son Hen­ry, and has been sup­ple­ment­ed by relics unearthed dur­ing exca­va­tions in the South­wark area. The build­ing was very bad­ly dam­aged by a fire in March 2013, prob­a­bly caused by roofers using a blow torch. Many exhibits were lost but the coun­cil plans to reopen the muse­um – and to cre­ate an enhanced library and a new flex­i­ble space that can be used for com­mu­ni­ty events, exhi­bi­tions and per­for­mances. How­ev­er, this will take at least until 2019, assum­ing the scheme can pro­ceed as hoped. In the mean­time, all the muse­um’s staff have been made redun­dant.

The largest eth­nic groups in the area are of white British and black African ori­gin. For­mer­ly not­ed for its robust work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ty, Wal­worth (like New­ing­ton) is los­ing its iden­ti­ty as new­com­ers regard it sim­ply as part of ‘the Ele­phant and Cas­tle area’.

The comic actor and film director Charlie Chaplin was born in East Street in 1889, the son of music hall entertainers.

Postal district: SE17
Population: 24,396 (East Walworth and Faraday wards, 2011 census, showing a slight decline on 2001, probably because residents had been ‘decanted’ from several blocks of flats prior to redevelopment)
Further reading: Darren Lock and Mark Baxter, Walworth History Tour, Amberley, 2014
* The picture of Liverpool Grove at the top of this article is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Peter Trimming, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse of that image is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.