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Southwark's historic villages

Robert Browning

Camberwell history

Camberwell was once one of the more important developments within the borough. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book as being owned by Haimo, half brother to King William 1. The development had land for ploughing and corn, 63 acres for cows, and woods that fed 60 pigs. Its importance is shown by the fact that it had a church, unlike Dulwich or Peckham.

St Giles Church still stands on the same site. It was rebuilt in stone in 1154 before burning down in 1841. The new church, finished in 1844, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and contains stained glass windows designed by John Ruskin.

Folklore has it that Camberwell was the site of a battle between the Iceni under Boadicea and the Romans, under Suetonius Paulinus, however this has never been proven.

By the eleventh century we find Camberwell described as "large and well inhabited".

From Haimo the manor descended to his son Robert Fitz Haimon. He died after a wound received at the 1107 Seige of Falaise leaving Mabel, his heir, as a ward of Henry 1. Henry, on the basis that neighbouring Peckham was held by his son, Robert of Caen, married the two to unite the properties under royal control, creating Robert the First Earl of Gloucester in the process. Later the lands became the property of the Duke Of Buckingham. Control rested with this family until 1525 when the then Duke was executed for "treasonable thoughts" and the manor was bought by John Scott for £7 p.a. rent.

1415 saw a day of high drama in Camberwell as the scene of the triumphant return of Henry V to London after the Battle of Agincourt. A year later it was the scene of a state visit by the Emperor of Germany.

Farming

Until about 1800 Camberwell was a farming village surrounded by woods and fields. The majority of its inhabitants were employed in farming. Mineral wells and springs abounded in the area until about 1850. One of the village wells was reputed to have healing properties and many invalids visited in the hope of a cure. It is perhaps significant that the local church is named in honour of St Giles, the Patron Saint of Cripples.

In 1748 the Camberwell Beauty butterfly was discovered. Sadly you will not find any flying in modern Camberwell though it remains common in parts of Europe.

The village was based around its High Street, now called Denmark Hill in honour of Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne, who had a residence there. The village contained a traditional village green, which still exists, and it was here that Camberwell Fair was held. The first record of a fair is in 1279.

Vermin

The rural nature of the area in this era is revealed by the rewards available to residents who killed vermin. The produce grown locally went for sale at markets such as Covent Garden and hence animals could cause a real problem by eating the produce. Rewards of 4d per dead hedgehog, 1s per dead polecat and 4d per dozen sparrows were available. Records suggest that once the dead sparrows had been thrown out they were often collected up and presented again as freshly killed!

Residents and travel

Like Dulwich, Camberwell contained a fair percentage of prosperous residents and some fine houses remain to this day. Whilst the majority are Victorian there are several fine Georgian houses in Camberwell -188 Camberwell Grove was the birthplace of the statesman Joseph Chamberlain in 1836.

The 19th Century saw a number of affluent people moving into the area as the construction of Westminster Bridge, (1750), Blackfriars Bridge, (1769), Vauxhall Bridge, (1816), and Southwark Bridge, (1819), all made it easier for them to commute to work in Central London.

Despite the population growth Camberwell was still an area of beauty. In 1842 Mendelssohn stayed with relatives at Camberwell and was inspired to write "Camberwell Green", now better know as "Spring Song". Robert Browning was born in Camberwell and lived there until the age of 28.

As with much of South London the coming of the trains led to a dramatic change in the landscape. The first trains arrived in 1862, and for the next 6 years a plethora of tracks were laid. The trains offered a new, cheap way to travel meaning more people could afford to live in the suburbs. In 1801 the population of Camberwell was 7,059, one hundred years later it was 259,425. During the building boom some slums were created and subsequently written about by Charles Booth in 1902. They have long since gone however. A sign of changing times was the demise of the traditional fair. With easy access to Camberwell it attracted too many undesirables and was abolished in 1855.

World War II

World war two hit Camberwell badly with 937 people killed and nearly all its buildings damaged. Modern Camberwell is a highly residential area with a shopping centre and a thriving community. As you stand on Camberwell Green today, amidst all the modern hustle and bustle, it seems impossible that the Green was once a traditional village green in a small farming village.

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