Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Old Kent Road is mostly famous for being the cheapest property on the Monopoly Board, the only property in the game that lies South of the River. But Old Kent Road is much more than that, one of the oldest roads in Britain, dating back to Roman times and has witnessed momentous events throughout the course of British history. It’s currently (2018) the subject of great discussion and planning regarding regeneration: the London Borough of Southwark Consultation document can be found here.
The origins of Old Kent Road lie in the road built by the Romans which ran from Dover and Canterbury to St Albans called Watling Street. It kept this name after the Romans left and formed part of the route taken by medieval pilgrims from St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) to Canterbury Cathedral who took refreshment at St Thomas a Watering, later the site of St Thomas a Becket pub. It was the route taken by Henry V when he returned from the Battle of Agincourt, and the route taken by Charles II as he returned from exile to reclaim the throne. It was the road taken by traders for the import and export of goods to the continent and the road taken for bringing produce and livestock from Kent to the City of London commemorated by a pub named The Kentish Drovers.
The New Kent Road 1972 showing the cleared area where the Heygate Estate is to be built. From 'Knocking Down the Old Kent Road' Illustrated London News, 1 February 1972.
© Illustrated London News Group British Newspaper Archive
A sadly deteriorating mural over the former Kentish Drovers pub depicting livestock travelling along Old Kent Road to London from Kent
The road ran through mostly open countryside and market gardens until the end of the 17th century. The stretch of road between St George the Martyr on Borough High Street and the Lock Hospital, close to where the Bricklayers Arms roundabout is now, was named Kent Street and its continuation south east called Greenwich Road. There was a fork in the road, created by an old footpath from Greenwich Road west to Newington Butts, and a road was built that followed the course of this footpath in the 1750s. Originally it too was called Greenwich Road but by at least the 1830s it had been renamed New Kent Road while the stretch of road to the east was renamed Kent Road, to be renamed again by the 1840s to Old Kent Road to distinguish it from New Kent Road.
The turnpike outside the Green Man Tavern on Old Kent Road
Development began along Old Kent Road at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century with the building of houses for the upper classes at the Paragon, Surrey Square and Glengall Road but as the population of London increased building intensified and by the 1850s the road was lined with houses, many with shops built in the front gardens, for the working classes.
When the Surrey Canal was built in 1811, attracting industry to the area, a bridge was built to carry the road over the new canal. Bricklayers Arms Railway Station opened in 1844 as an alternative passenger terminus to London Bridge but when this proved a failure it became a large goods station with associated freight handling depots.
In 1862, a visitor to the Rosemary Branch in Peckham described his “trudge” along the Old Kent Road. “Under swinging golden hams, golden gridirons, swaying concertinas (marked at a very low figure), past bundles of rusty fire-irons, dirty rolls of carpets and corpulent dusty feather beds – past deserted looking horse troughs and suburban-looking inns, I took my pilgrim way to the not very blooming Rye of Peckham. Rows of brick boxes, called streets, half isolated cottages, clung to by affectionate but dusty vines – eventually a canal where boatmen smoked and had dreams of coming traffic – a sudden outburst of green fields that made me think I was looking at streets with green spectacles on – brought me to the trim, neat public house known by the pleasant aromatic name of “The Rosemary Branch”.
By the turn of the century, Old Kent Road had become one of the most overcrowded districts in London. It had also became famous for its pubs, places of entertainments and shopping which continued until the aftermath of the second world war.
In 1972, an article appeared in the Illustrated London News that reported
“The Old Kent Road today is drab and dilapidated. Many of the shops are closed, others cling on, in ultimate tattiness, till the bull-dozer comes. The road used to be a Victorian byword for life, with many “houses of entertainment” (prim Victorian language for pubs) and pawnbrokers.”
The area, especially around the Elephant and Castle end of New Kent Road, suffered considerable bomb damage during World War II and plans were made for the reconstruction of the area which went hand in hand with slum clearance and road improvements. These included the construction of the Heygate Estate and the creation of the Bricklayers Arms flyover and roundabout which totally changed the character of the area, demolishing the pub that gave its name to these improvements on the way. The planners were accused of not showing much imagination.
And now, once again, the area is to be regenerated and, although some kind of regeneration is necessary, it seems much of the character of the Old Kent Road is likely to be obliterated still further and replaced by more faceless early 21st century buildings. It has begun already.