Category Archives: Southwark History

Robert Browning’s (Possible) April Ode to New Cross

One of the slightly more surprising Lewisham literary links is to the Victorian poet, Robert Browning, who lived for a while in the borough in the 1840s.

On a trip to Northern Italy in 1845, probably just before he met Elizabeth Barrett, he wrote ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad.’  Browning ‘paints’ a picture of an almost idealised English pastoral idyll, but the rural England he had temporarily left behind was ‘Plowed Garlic Hill’, now known as Telegraph Hill, then an area of market gardening then owned by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers – with a home  just over a couple of hundred metres from New Cross Gate station.

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Perhaps the chaffinch on the ‘orchard bow’ was on what is now Erlanger Road and the elm tree on Pepys Road? Home Thoughts from Abroad was published later in 1845 as part of ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.’

Robert Browning was born around three miles further west along the A202 in on the Camberwell/Walworth borders in 1812 at the delightfully named Rainbow Cottage, on the still remaining Cottage Green off Southampton Way.  Any elements of arcadia will have disappeared within Browning’s own lifetime.  The cottage name lives on in a nearby street name – Rainbow Street.


Browning also spent sixteen years living 200 metres to the south east at Hanover Cottage on what is now the corner of Coleman Road and Southampton Way between 1824 to 1840 – it is now a dry cleaners, but marked with a blue plaque.


His father, also Robert, was a well paid employee of the Bank of England; he seems to have been largely disinherited by his father, a St Kitts slave owner, for his abolitionist views.  Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 5 years before the poet’s birth. His mother was a devout non-conformist and a talented musician.

robert_browning_2His education was largely home based, making use of his father’s large library; he started to write poetry at 12 and seems to have lived with, and have been financially supported by his family, until he was 34, this included funding the publication of his early poetry such as ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.’

The family moved to New Cross in 1841, five years before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrettt.  Their home in New Cross, ‘Telegraph Cottage’, was on the corner of what is now Musgrave Road and Jerningham Road which Browning described as looking like a ‘goose pie.’ In a great bit of deduction, the Transpontine blog identified a probable picture of Telegraph Cottage during the conversion of the former canal to the railway in 1839, a couple of years before the family moved there.

Browning’s stay in Lewisham only warrants a local maroon plaque, although its backdrop of one of the gates to Haberdasher Aske’s College in Jerningham Road is rather more impressive than its Southwark counterpart.


And finally, part of my interest in Robert Browning was a purported family link – my paternal great grandmother was apparently partial to claiming an unspecified linkage between the poet’s and, presumably, my great grandfather’s family trees.  Alas, dear reader, if I am allowed to mix my writers, the linkage seems to have been just wishful thinking, it is in name only – Robert Browning’s genealogy has been fairly well documented by going back to roots in Dorset; the claimed linkages for my own family would have been around 75 miles to the west in Devon with no obvious intersections between the two lines.


C S Forester & South London

CS Forester is one of a number of authors with a strong Lewisham connection, living in Sydenham for around 7 years in the 1930s.  One of the houses in Longton Avenue was where he started the Hornblower series before moving to the USA in 1939.

I was rather put off Forester, the ‘pen name’ of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, by being forced to ‘study’ one of the Hornblower novels at around 12 or 13. This ought to be a post about Horatio Hornblower and one of the military campaigns in the Peninsula War, or ‘The African Queen’ which he also wrote in Sydenham.  However, I have eschewed them, and, instead, I’ll go back to one of his earlier novels in a very different genre – the crime novel ‘Payment Deferred’ – which has a south London setting.


The starting point of ‘Payment Deferred’ is a relatively simple one – William Marble is a middle-aged bank clerk with two children and an extravagant wife, and as a result the household is living way beyond its means.  Being a crime novel, well there has to be a crime, and not surprisingly this is murder.

I won’t spoil the plot, but it is well constructed by Forester, with an excellent final twist and sting in the tail/tale to the novel. What makes it an absorbing novel is the way in which, Forester ‘documents’ the murderer’s inner torments, their obsessions and their knowledge of that they are just one mistake away from the gallows – something which dominates everything they do.


The setting of the fictional house of 53 Malcolm Road is probably an amalgamation of several locations. At the time of writing, Forester was living at 58 Underhill Road in East Dulwich, having grown up in the Peckham/Camberwell borders of Shenley Road.  Certainly the feel of the long walks up the long streets from Peckham Road appear in several passages, but the house in Malcom Road was much smaller – much more reminiscent of some of the streets of smaller houses on the Peckham and East Dulwich borders – my own mental image is of Nigel Road in Peckham..

Forester moved to 58 Underhill Road as a 16 year old, in 1915, and it was his home until 1929; English Heritage installed the blue plaque there in 1990. He moved onto Upper Sydenham in 1932 living in several homes close to Wells Park – only 7 Longton Avenue remains and this is where the first of the Hornblower novels were written.  The detached house is ‘locally listed’ – Lewisham’s listing text describing it as

Villa. Detached. Late C19. Red brick and plain clay tile with stucco dressings, two stories, three bays. Hipped roof with pyramidal element surmounting canted projecting bay to right. To left, flat arched, three light casements. Central canopied entrance surmounted by oriel that rises through eaves. Projecting bay has hung tiles. Primarily of historic interest, formerly being C.S. Forester’s house

Underhill Road (left) & Longton Avenue

Underhill Road (left) & Longton Avenue

Forester split up with his wife just before WW2 and emigrated to the United States, working for British Information Service on propaganda and continued with the Hornblower series up until his death in 1966 – the final novels being published posthumously.

Solarium Court – A Southwark Blue Plaque Candidate

Solarium Court, formerly part of the pioneering Bermondsey Health Centre, has been nominated for a Southwark blue plaque to recognise its contribution to local history particularly in relation to tuberculosis.  The ground-breaking work done there owes much to the vision of Ada and Alfred Salter.


Alfred Salter was born in Greenwich in 1873 and had trained as a doctor at Guys.  He had become involved in the Bermondsey Settlement in 1898 and met Ada there – she was from Raunds in Northamptonshire.  Soon after they set up a general practice in Jamaica Road and moved to Bermondsey.  They had a daughter Joyce, who died in 1910 from Scarlet Fever.

Both Alfred and Ada were Christian Socialists and pacifists, Ada became the first woman councillor in London in 1910.  She became mayor in 1922 when the Labour Party took control of Bermondsey Council and many of the Salter’s ideas on public health were able to be put into practice with the Labour majority.  Alfred became MP for Bermondsey West the same year, while defeated in 1924, he returned to Westminster 1929 – staying as a MP until 1945.

IMG_0914Statues of the Salters on Bermondsey Wall – restored in November 2014

One of the focuses of the public health work undertaken by Bermondsey Borough Council was in relation to tuberculosis.  In the year Labour came to power there were 413 new cases and 206 deaths.  One of the early methods they used was to reserve six places at a pioneering Sun Clinic in the Swiss Alps; of Bermondsey’s first six patients, five went on to make a full recovery.

The council sought to replicate the Swiss methods in Bermondsey and set up Britain’s the first municipal Light Treatment Centre in Grange Road in 1926 – new cases fell by 29% to 294 and deaths reduced by 15% by 1927.

Solarium 2

There is a fascinating video (a still from which is above) on the Light Treatment Centre, which is part of a wider one on some of the ground-breaking work of Bermondsey Borough Council – the section on the Light Treatment Centre is at around 3:37.

The service moved to a much bigger health centre which was completed in 1936, although slightly smaller than originally intended as the Ministry of Health and LCC refused to fund such a larger scheme.  In addition to the solarium, the services there included infant welfare and ante-natal clinics, rooms for radiotherapy and a foot clinic.  Part of the building remains a health centre although the rear and upper floors were converted into a housing association shared ownership scheme around 1990 – Solarium Court.


Southwark Heritage Association are currently holding a ballot to select a new blue plaque recipient for the borough, last year’s was awarded to F A Albyn and Son, funeral directors for 200 years.  All the 2015 nominees are worthy recipients (there is more on all the others in Southwark News (p21)) – but please vote here for Solarium Court (with its links the Salters and the pioneering health undertaken by Bermondsey Council.)  Voting ends on 15 September 2015.


Finding Out More

There is more on the centre on the excellent Municipal Dreams blog, along with the Council’s work on health education around the same period in a different piece on the same blog.

The YouTube video above is part of a trio of fascinating films from the Southwark Archives on the pre-NHS public health and housing work done by Bermondsey Council, Parts 1 and 2 are below and are well worth watching.

The Scottish Political Martyrs Memorial

With the Scottish Independence Referendum happening tomorrow, it is perhaps worth reflecting on a group of men who are commemorated at Nunhead Cemetery, not by gravestones but by a large memorial – the Scottish Political Martyrs.

It is a large granite obelisk is unlike anything else in the cemetery and acts as a memorial to five political radicals from the late 18th century – Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald who were all transported to Australia.

The backdrop to their protests was the French Revolution, which led to universal male suffrage in France in 1792, abolishing all property requirements as a prerequisite for allowing men to register and vote. It is not surprising that events on the other side of the English Channel inspired British radicals wanting similar rights and Societies for Political Reform were set up in many places in the country.

Muir was a Glasgow lawyer who had set up the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People with William Skirving, a Midlothian farmer, in July 1792, and seems to have been attempting to bring together the disparate groups across England and Scotland. The “new Tory” Government of Pitt the Younger was determined to stamp out these views, infiltrated the groups and arrested the leaders. In a series of trials with hand picked, unsympathetic juries Muir, Fyshe Palmer and Skirving were all sentenced to transportation, along with Margarot and Gerrard who were delegates from The London Corresponding Society.

Of the five, Muir escaped from Australia but was wounded on his tortuous trip back to Europe and died in France in 1799; Margarot returned to Britain but died in poverty; Fyshe Palmer died of dysentery on his return voyage; Skirving died in Australia of yellow fever; and Gerrard died of tuberculosis soon after his arrival in New South Wales.

They were not the only trials relating to campaigns for universal male suffrage – three of the other leading London Corresponding Society members – Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were tried, unsuccessfully for High Treason in 1794.

The memorial itself came out of the next significant organised demands for political reform – the Chartists – at a meeting at the Crown and Anchor in Clerkenwell in 1837 it was decided to commemorate the Scottish Martyrs with memorials in both Scotland and London, although it took until 1851 for the Nunhead memorial to be completed.

Cemetery Running

Today’s post thunder and lightening run took in two places I never tire of – Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery and it’s older counterpart at Nunhead.

The geraniums in one of the overgrown parts of Brockley and Ladywell caught my eye as I ran past as did the angel with broken wings and a slightly eroded face.

Nunhead has some rather more ostentatious memorials and is much more overgrown. It has one of my favourite views in London – a tree framed vista of St. Paul’s Cathedral which was very clear indeed today after the morning’s heavy rain.

After yesterday’s D Day anniversary commemorations, I paused by the low walled WW2 memorial, which is very different to the rest of the Nunhead, but a peaceful reminder of the sacrifices made.

As for the other running, the speed and tempo sessions this week were slightly easier than last week, but only just…

Finally, one thing I forgot to post last week which was slightly embarrassing, I was out-paced by a man pulling a tyre. In my limited defence, it was alongside the athletics track in Ladywell Fields where Kent AC’s top sprinters were doing a resistance session.

A Missing ‘Friend’

Last Saturday’s post described my run eastwards along the Thames, it was a really enjoyable, great to be alive, run. Well it was, apart from one point on Bermondsey Wall where a much loved friend was missing.

A statue of Alfred Salter used to be seated on a metal bench, waving at a statue of his daughter and gazing upstream towards Tower Bridge. It was my favourite piece of sculpture along the Thames, as much for what it represented as for its considerable artistic merit.

As I approached, I knew it had gone, I knew it had been stolen a couple of winters ago – presumably for its limited scrap value, but it still didn’t prepare me for the sadness I felt on seeing a small, slightly rusty, mark on the bench where the statue of the great man should have been sitting. I took a photo of what remains but can’t bring myself to post it, I’d rather remember how it used to be …

(From the Salter Statues Campaign Website)
Alfred Salter and his wife Ada were two of the heroes of early municipal socialism, the Salter Statues Campaign website sums up their legacy

“Alfred (and) Ada were legendary figures even in their own life-times, and their work for the community was internationally acclaimed. The doctor brought free, state-of-the-art medical facilities into the slums of Bermondsey. He created an ‘NHS before the NHS’. Ada helped thousands with her social clubs, especially for young working women, and later through her ‘Beautification Committee’ she covered the slums with gardens, trees, flowers, children’s playgrounds and open spaces for music and sports. Together they cleared away hovels and built model housing in accordance with garden-city ideals.”

There is a fundraising effort to replace the statue, which is still around £13K short of the £50K target, Southwark Council will match fund the money raised.

This will pay for the replacement of the statue of Alfred along with CCTV to protect it; but one good thing will come out of the theft – there will also be a statue of Ada. It will add to the tiny number of statues of women in London – there are just 14 in public open spaces

There is an on line fundraising page if you want to donate.