Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The large imposing Victorian buildings that were once the workhouse for the parish of Camberwell can be seen from the train as you travel from Queen’s Road Peckham to Peckham Rye, just before the train passes the Bussey Building. Built in 1878, there was already one workhouse within the parish in Havil Street but with an ever increasing population requiring poor relief and more space on the Havil Street site required for infirmary accommodation, it became necessary to build a second workhouse to accommodate able bodied inmates. The site in Gordon Road had previously formed part of the grounds of a convent called Nazareth House but when the railway was built right next to the convent, the noise and dirt disturbed the nuns’ peace so they sold the land and the workhouse built. For a while, before the new workhouse was built, the Camberwell Poor Law Union housed some aged and infirm men in the convent building. A description of their activities can be found here.
The new workhouse comprised a three-storey central administration block flanked each side by four-storey dormitory wings and connected by elegant colonnades at first floor level. One block provided accommodation for men who were employed in stone breaking and wood-chipping and the other block housed women who carried out laundry work. Originally the workhouse accommodated 743 inmates. The casual wards of the workhouse, separate from the main dormitories, provided temporary accommodation for one or two nights to the homeless poor and vagrants. The workhouse became known, like its counterparts throughout the country, as the Spike. John Beasley credits the words as being first recorded in 1866, and goes on to quote Bart Kennedy writing in 1906: “The homeless men who go along the road call the casual ward the spike … It means that when you have come to the very end of things you are impaled.”
In 1930, the Gordon Road workhouse became the Camberwell Reception Centre run by the LCC and in 1948 its running was taken over by the National Assistance Board. It became a place where homeless single people, mainly men, were able to find a bed for the night. The homeless and destitute were unwilling to go to reception centres and many preferred to sleep rough on the streets so much did they detest the Spike, Camberwell Reception Centre in particular. One wing now accommodated the long term “residents” who, as long as they performed some kind of chore, could stay all day, and the other wing was now for casuals who had to queue up outside every day to get a bed, bath and food. A first hand account of being one of the Centre’s “guests" can be found here and an informative article regarding conditions at the Camberwell Reception Centre at the time of its closure can be found here.
In the 1980s, Reception Centres such as the one in Gordon Road were seen to be a relic of the old Poor Law system and unable to cater for the many medical problems, both physical and mental, that were encountered. Responsibility was passed to local government and voluntary organisations. Camberwell Reception Centre closed in 1985 and has been converted to provide housing association apartments.