Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Until the end of the 18th century, before Walworth became an overcrowded, densely populated part of London, it was a largely rural area with few houses and mainly comprised market gardens and meadows where the churchwardens paid a reward of 4d for every hedgehog caught. At the southernmost part of the parish of St Mary Newington lay Walworth Common that covered an area of 80 acres and where those with common rights were allowed to “pasture two kine and one Jade upon it and no more”, that is two cows and an old horse.
The Common was bordered to the south by a stream a little to the north of Albany Road and still remembered today by a short road called Boundary Lane. The stream ran all the way to Old Kent Road at the junction with Albany Road which became known as Thomas a Watering where pilgrims on their way to Canterbury refreshed themselves. Today the Thomas a Beckett pub marks the spot. Walworth Common did not extend this far and stopped short at what became Surrey Square. A cart track that later became known as Walworth Road ran from north to south and cut the Common in half. The area of the Common to the west became known as Lower Moor which over time evolved into Lorrimore (as in Lorrimore Square) and the area to the east remained Walworth Common. Crossing Walworth Common from east to west was another cart track which was later called Westmoreland Road.
As the population of central London grew and the City, Westminster and Southwark became overcrowded, the overspill population reached Walworth. Many of the new residents were very poor and looked to the Parish for relief which increased the amount of Poor Rate paid by the wealthier. So in 1770 a proposal was formulated to enclose Walworth Common and the proceeds go towards Poor Relief, thus alleviating the wealthier of their responsibilities. An Act of Parliament was needed to enclose common land and in their petition, the Parish stated they were “burdened with a numerous and expensive poor” , that it would be advantageous to the Parish if Walworth Common was enclosed and freed from common right and “the produce thereof appropriated for the benefit of the poor of the parish.”
By this time, the area of the Common had reduced due to squatters encroaching and building make-shift ramshackle homes. Lorrimore Common consisted of just under 20 acres while Walworth Common covered an area of between 44 and 48 acres. The land was owned by the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Canterbury but leased mainly by Lord of the Manor Henry Penton. The enclosure of Walworth Common became law with the Lord of the Manor retaining Lorrimore Common and the rights of Walworth Common were vested in 12 Trustees who would receive 9/10ths of any income to be put towards Poor Relief and the Rector of St Mary Newington receiving the remaining 1/10th as a tithe. The enclosed Common was let out on various building leases for periods that varied from 85 to 99 years but all leases would have expired by the year 1870.
But the population of Walworth, like the rest of London, was growing rapidly. In 1801 the population was 14,847 and 50 years later it had risen to 64,816. To maximise their income, the lessees of the former Walworth Common land built small insanitary housing that attracted the very poorest tenants and by 1808 complaints were made of the large number of small houses erected whose tenants paid no rates or taxes but made numerous demands for poor relief.
An Amendment to the Walworth Common Enclosure Act was passed in 1851 and plans were made for the rebuilding of the former Common area when the leases fell in. Joseph Burgess, the Vestry Clarke, wrote in 1859 that there was still a large part of the ground left uncovered but many of the houses were old and dilapidated and others were of “a very poor description.” He also regretted that the ”necessity for new buildings has completely destroyed the rural character of neighbourhood, not a single field or common being now left for the recreation of the inhabitants”. He was writing before even the small spaces of the East Street Recreation Ground (now Nursery Row Park) or Faraday Gardens had been laid out.
The old slums were demolished in 1870 and the building of a planned Walworth Common Estate commenced with wider straight right-angled streets and better quality housing though still the houses were very small. Long before the end of the century, no trace remained of Walworth Common.
The area once again declined and a slum clearance programme had commenced before the outbreak of the second world war, made more urgent afterwards by the damage caused by bombs to many houses. The area was again cleared and the Aylesbury Estate built in the 1960s and 1970s. Much has been written about the Aylesbury, generally viewed as a disaster, and once again the area is to be cleared and new housing erected.
Joseph Burgess (1859) Saint Mary, Newington, Surrey : the local act of Parliament relating to the management & relief of the poor; the Walworth Common inclosure amendment act
Edwin James Orford (ed) (1925) Book of Walworth