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History of Peckham

  • council: Southwark
  • phone code: 020
  • postcode area: SE15
  • county: 020

Peckham was small at the time of the Domesday Book, it comprised about 240 acres, land for one plough, one villager and three smallholders. Valued at 30 shillings, Peckham was owned by King Henry I who gave it to his son Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who later married the heiress to Camberwell thus uniting the two properties under royal ownership. Hard as it is to believe today, King John probably hunted at Peckham. Legend has it that he was so pleased with his sport one day that he granted the right to hold an annual fair. The fair was a three week long event at its high point and had quite a boisterous reputation but was abolished in 1827.

Peckham grew in favour as a residential area and in the sixteenth century it became home to some quite well to do people. By the eighteenth century Peckham had developed into a more commercialised area, market gardening in particular being very important.

Peckham was well known as a market gardening area for many years. Melons, figs and grapes were all grown here, some ending up on the royal table. With the lack of refrigeration, food had to be grown close to its final market and Peckham was ideally situated to exploit the large London market on its doorstep.

Peckham was an important stopping point for cattle drovers taking their livestock to the London markets. Holding facilities existed so that the cattle could be safely secured overnight whilst the drovers relaxed in the local hostelries.

One of the notable local figures was Peter Collinson who lived in Peckham in the eighteenth century. Collinson was fascinated by the potential of electricity and passed his passion for the subject on to one of his friends, Benjamin Franklin.

Even in the nineteenth century Peckham was a "small, quiet, retired village surrounded by fields". Stage coaches travelled with an armed guard between Peckham and London to give protection from highwaymen. Partly due to the poor condition of the roads, a branch of the Grand Surrey Canal was built. The plan was to take it to Portsmouth but it got only as far as Peckham as money ran out. The Canal entered the Thames at Surrey Commercial Docks and originally carried soft wood on barges for construction. Some timber merchants are still located alongside its course.

The majority of the villagers were employed on the land though there was also a brickfield. The clay from this field was used to form bricks. Life was hard, poverty was all too often the reality for many.

Communications were improved when Thomas Tilling started an omnibus service from Peckham in 1851, fourteen years before Peckham Rye station was opened. Unlike most of his rivals he did not pick people up, insisting they came to pre-arranged stops. This helped his omnibuses to run on time earning them the nickname of "times buses". Twenty years after starting Tilling had nearly 400 horses; fifteen years later he had nearly 1,500. In 1888 he experimented by adding a pneumatic tyre designed by Dr John Dunlop to some of his carriages. His services expanded and ran until 1914 when the horses were needed in World War One.

In the nineteenth century schools were already common in Peckham, indeed the area was well known for them. In particular it had a fine reputation for girls' schools. One of the famous pupils who attended school in Peckham was Robert Browning who attended Rev Thomas Readyís school. If lucky the poorer children went to a school run by the British and Foreign Schools Society. This was started by Joseph Lancaster who was born in Southwark.

As with Dulwich there was no Anglican church until surprisingly recently. Until 1814 residents had to travel to Camberwell to worship. Peckham did have a free church called Hanover Chapel. The Chapel had royal connections as Princess, later Queen, Victoria was brought here by her father.

Peaceful life began to be disrupted in 1833 when a gas works opened on the Old Kent Road. Whilst it lit some local roads it was to be many years before most homes had gas. As the transport system improved more people were able to move out to the suburbs and Peckham began to grow. During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, the last of the market gardens and fields vanished under housing developments of varying quality.

To preserve some greenery Peckham Rye was bought in 1868 and maintained as common land. It was on Peckham Rye that an eight year old William Blake had his vision of a cloud of angels in an oak tree. So popular was the common that it became dangerously overcrowded on holidays and Homestall Farm was purchased for £51 000 and opened as Peckham Rye Park in 1894. With the sale of Homestall Farm went the tradition of farming in Peckham.

The early 19th Century saw the development of grand houses along Peckham Rye and in New Peckham for the middle classes. This period didn't last very long and by the middle to end of the century Peckham had become the place of the aspiring working classes to live. Improved transport and the 'Workman's Fare' meant that travelling to work from Peckham became easier.

Last century, Peckham became the focus for one of the most important health developments in the country Ė a health centre called the Pioneer. Initially in Queens Rd the Pioneer moved to purpose built premises in St Mary's. Set up by two Doctors, the Pioneer, sometimes called the Peckham Experiment, was set up as a healthy living centre, with a social focus and health care. The brand new Peckham Pulse echoes a lot of these ideas.

In recent years there has been dramatic change with new homes being constructed through the work of the Peckham Partnership. In addition the new Library, by internationally acclaimed architects Alsop and Stormer, and the Peckham Pulse provide increased facilities for the community.

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