Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
“A nunnery on this site was suppressed during the Reformation. The Mother Superior received Henry VIII’s expulsion order and put up such stout resistance that she was murdered and her head exhibited on a pikestaff on The Green.
“Her resistance enabled the sisters to escape through an underground passage leading from this site to Meeting House Lane, Peckham.”
This is the most exciting and informative history of anything that’s happened in Nunhead you’ll find. It’s displayed on a placard on the front of The Old Nun’s Head pub on Nunhead Green. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for the Mother Superior, there is no evidence to back it up and is not necessarily true. When trying to trace the history and origins of the name of both the place Nunhead and the name of the tavern, one encounters a lot of historians scratching their heads. It may be because there was a nunnery on the site of the pub or it may be because the land was owned by the Nunnery of St John in Shoreditch who held other lands in the area.
What is clear is that there has been a tavern by the name of the Nun’s Head on the same site since probably the end of the 17th century making it the oldest pub in Nunhead. In the 18th century, when drinking tea had become a popular and fashionable pastime, it was well known for its tea gardens, skittle alley and dancing. Edward Walford, writing in 1878, described how the Nun’s Head “which had been an institution in the locality for above two hundred years, was an object of attraction, through its tea gardens, to worn-out citizens.”
The current pub was built in 1934 and it became known as the Old Nun’s Head in the early 20th century. Recently the exterior has had a facelift as it has become part of the Dulwich Outdoor Gallery. Three artists, Pure Evil, Agent Provocateur and Inkie, have each created a panel inspired by Catherine of Sienna by Carlo Dolci from the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection.