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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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St Peter's, Walworth

The church of St Peter in Liverpool Grove was awarded a Grade I listing in 1950, the highest listing ranking, which denotes a building of exceptional interest. Approaching its 200th aniversary, the church today incorporates an active community centre in the crypt and a very attractive garden, both continuing the church's work within the community that begun in the 19th century.

St Peter's front St Peter's Map 1894 St Peter's Map 1830 Gravestones St Peters

At the beginning of the 19th century, the population of Newington grew sharply, from just over 14,000 in 1800 to over 44,000 twenty years later.  The parish church of St Mary’s was only able to accommodate 1,000 people and there was  no room “for servants or for the poor except in the aisles and behind the pews and galleries.”  The growth in population within the parish was echoed throughout the country, urban areas in particular, as people moved from the countryside in search of work.  

The lack of accommodation within Church of England places of worship was partly blamed for the growth in the non-conformist movements including Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists and Baptists.  There was a fear of the spread of dissenting churches especially in the poorer areas like South London where support for these movements was strong.

 

Campaigning groups were formed to pressurise Parliament to grant money for the building of new churches, some campaigners saying that new churches should be built as a “national thank offering” to God for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.  In 1818 the Church Building Act was passed which granted the sum of £1 million towards the building of new churches. Grants of £8,960 and £9,354 were awarded to build the new churches of Holy Trinity Newington and St Peter’s Walworth respectively within the parish of St Mary Newington.

 

The lease of a house, gardens and orchard to the east of Walworth Road was purchased for £2,197 and the freehold interest, owned by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, was presented to the new church.  After a false start when plans were submitted for a church built in the gothic style but not approved by the Church Commissioners, Sir John Soane was invited to design the church.  The Archbishop of Canterbury laid the foundation stone in June 1823 and nearly two years later consecrated the new church in February 1825.  

 

Map showing St Peter's Church in 1830, still surrounded by fields

Map showing St Peter's Church in 1894, surrounded by a network of small streets

At the time the church was built there were still a lot of open spaces in the surrounding area.  By the end of the century, it had become one of the most densely populated parts of London with a population of 122,200 in 1901.  There was appalling overcrowding and it was not uncommon for 20 people to be living in one small house.  There was abject poverty and living conditions were squalid and unhealthy.  The churches and the chapels within the area were active in doing what they could to help the poor.  

 

Rev. John Horsley became the rector at St Peter’s in 1894 and, from his actions, it’s clear to he believed the church was better put to use for the living than the dead.  He cleared the crypt of coffins and established a soup kitchen where free lunches were given to children.  There had been no burials in the graveyard since 1853 and he set about clearing the graveyard to establish a recreation space in an area where there was none (Faraday Gardens had not yet been created).  

The gravestones were arranged around the perimeter and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association created a new garden with grass and seats that was paid for by the Goldsmiths Company.  An added attraction for visitors to the garden was a menagerie that the Revd. Horsley had established in the rectory garden.  There were guinea pigs who helped keep the rectory lawn trim, and a pair of owls, Jacobin pigeons and cockatoos kept in cages.  But the main attraction were three monkeys who roamed free on long chains in whose honour the park became known as the Monkey Park, a name that still endures.

 

The church suffered a terrible tragedy during World War II when on 29th October 1940 it was hit by two bombs.  Hundreds of people had taken shelter in the church’s crypt and over 70 lost their lives, including babies and whole families.  There is a memorial within the church that records the victims’ names, ages and addresses and each year a service of commemoration is held in their honour.  

 

The church was restored after the war and rededicated in 1953.  By the beginning of the 21st century, the crypt had become dilapidated and under-used.  The incumbent rector, Giles Goddard, set about turning the space into a thriving community centre, and after energetically and successfully raising the necessary funds, the refurbished space, named InSpire, was opened in 2003.  Adult activities include IT and parenting classes, a women’s art group, support for local food growing groups,  and a youth programme includes arts programmes and help with training and finding jobs.   It boasts the best cafeteria environment in the area with 30 seats inside and an additional 16 seats outside in the refurbished garden, a lovely place to have a cup of coffee in the summer.

 

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