The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

A perambulation around the parish of Camberwell


Provoked by the proposals of the Boundary Commission, Shekhar Das looks back at the borders, local and parliamentary, that defined us

Our feeling of belonging to our community is strengthened if all of us can give the same answer to two questions: “Who is your Member of Parliament?” and, “What is your local authority?” For most of Camberwell’s long history, we could.

Camberwell was a village in the County of Surrey. Her MPs, from the inception of the House of Commons till the great reform of 1832, were the two Knights returned by county. But they were remote. The government that mattered was local. This was the Parish of St Giles Camberwell. It included the Liberty of Peckham and the Hamlet of Dulwich. As Blanch writes in his history, the vestry of this parish was its parliament, the beadle, the overseers, the clerks and churchwardens, its officers. What it did, was felt. It was the acts of this vestry that knitted the inhabitants of Camberwell, by including the anonymous and vagrant poor, into a community.

Thus, in 1539 the sovereign ordered parishes to record “everie weddying, christening, and burying…for ever”. Camberwell duly did. It was not easy, for many poor people did not have proper names. In 1601 Elizabeth ordered that rates should be paid to support of the poor. The Overseer was responsible for collecting the tax and distributing it. There was always the need to distinguish between the poor who could work and those who could not. The latter received weekly relief and were known as pensioners. They were required to wear a badge. Most were widows who could not pay their rent.

For the vagrants and beggars who could work, there was a house. The Old Workhouse, circa 1731, stood on the Green. Some years later the vestry decided it was too small. A new building was erected in Havil Street in 1818. Inevitably, it was called by some “the Havil Street Hotel”. After the amendment to the Poor Law in 1834, a Board of Guardians was established to look after the poor. It constructed two more workhouses, one in Gordon Road, another in Constance Road, East Dulwich.

Over time the vestry provided all the familiar services of local government such as the removal of household waste; the internment of the dead; policing and the bringing of felons to justice; the maintenance of the roads; the regulation of business; the care of the sick and insane; lighting up the dark – the list goes on.

The territorial imperative

Once every three years the boundary of parish was perambulated by the churchwardens, the overseers and other officers, with, perhaps, raucous children following. After the perambulation in 1834 a map was drawn that marked the parish boundaries. The second, corrected, edition, drawn in 1837 by William Poole, clerk to the Board of Guardians, is shown on this page with the kind permission of Southwark Archives, with special thanks to Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer, for discerning the inscriptions that would otherwise be illegible.

The east-west orientation of the map makes it both charming and confusing, but you can turn it a quarter counter-clockwise, and it will look familiar. In the north the parish stretches along the Old Kent Road and Albany Road till Walworth Road; then turns southwards near Grosvenor Street, then bulges out to take in what is now Myatt’s Fields and the far end of Coldharbour Lane; then goes south along Denmark Hill and Herne Hill till Red Post Hill, where it turns in, and then goes to the southern-most point, which was called Vicars Oak. This is where is where Camberwell met three other parishes, Lambeth, Battersea and Streatham, and where the perambulators stopped to sing hymns and pray for the welfare of their parishioners. Then the boundary stretches to Honor Oak and Forest Hill and moves north towards Rotherhithe. This boundary, precisely defined after Ordinance Survey, was retained well after the demise of the parish as the border of Camberwell.

Poole’s map also shows the division of the parish into the parochial districts of Camberwell, Peckham, Dulwich and St George. The last of these was new: St George’s church in Well’s Way was erected in 1824. If you ignore this, you can get some idea of the territory attributed to the three villages of the parish: Dulwich in green, Peckham in purple (faded to blue), and Camberwell, which stretched all way from Albany Road in the north to Forest Hill in the south, in pink.

In the 1840s the big problem was the sewers. They were open and they stank. Our vestry was in the vanguard of metropolitan parishes petitioning parliament to deal with this problem. The result was the Metropolitan Board of Works on which Camberwell had one seat. The Great Stink of 1858 was the last of its kind.

The Metropolitan Board of Works was the embryo of London government. In 1889 it was replaced by London County Council, and Camberwell was removed from the County of Surrey to become one of its boroughs. In 1900 the long history of the parish came to an end, when local government passed to the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell.

The apotheosis of Camberwell

It is a wonder that a settlement valued at £12 at the time of Edward the Confessor (Peckham was 30 shillings), should, a thousand years later, give its name and be the seat of power of a large metropolitan borough in the first city of the Empire. The new councillors moved into the Vestry Hall in Havil Street; dissatisfied, then they pulled it down and built themselves Camberwell Town Hall, which stands today. They acquired a coat of arms on which they inscribed the motto, All’s Well.

Look at the map of Camberwell produced by the boundary commission of 1917, ignoring the thicker lines within. The outside boundary is of the Parliamentary Borough; it is identical to that of the Metropolitan Borough; it is more or less the same as the boundary of the parish drawn by Poole. Unlike Poole’s map, the territory of Camberwell is not distinguished. There are wards such as Ruskin and St Mary’s, but no Camberwell. It is all Camberwell.

Unsurprisingly, when in 1965 the Borough of Camberwell was abolished and absorbed by the London Borough of Southwark (except West ward, which was placed in Lambeth), Camberwell vanished as a political entity. Henceforth it would be just a place with an antique history and a sentimental legacy.

Would it survive as a parliamentary constituency? In the reform of 1832, the parish of Camberwell, except the hamlet of Dulwich, was included in the constituency of Lambeth. Dulwich was put into the Eastern Division of the County of Surrey. The Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885 created parliamentary boroughs, which in Camberwell’s case had much the same boundary as that of the old parish. The parliamentary borough of Camberwell was divided into three single-member constituencies: the Dulwich Division, the Peckham Division and Camberwell North. In the Act of 1918, this was increased to four. The divisions are shown on our second map.

In the 1950 general election, Camberwell had two constituencies: Camberwell Dulwich and Camberwell Peckham. The 1974 general election was fought after boundary changes that reflected the creation of 32 London boroughs. Camberwell had long disappeared. Southwark was given three constituencies: Bermondsey, Dulwich and Peckham. There was no constituency with the name “Camberwell”.

It did not appear in the next round either, in 1983, when reference to boroughs also disappeared. Thus, the three constituencies in Southwark were Dulwich, Peckham and Southwark & Bermondsey. But following the changes introduced in 1995, “Camberwell” reappeared in the constituency of Camberwell & Peckham, made up of eight wards of the London Borough of Southwark. It survived the 2007 round with minor changes. This is current position.

An outrageous proposal

It is not too bad. It contains much of the traditional territory of the parish of Camberwell. But, alas, all is not well. The Boundary Commission for 2023 is proposing to tear it up. It has drawn a line through the heart of Camberwell, placing the Green and everything to its west in a constituency called “Vauxhall and Camberwell”, and everything to its east in “Peckham”.

This is an outrage. Why link Camberwell to Vauxhall, with which it has no affinity? Why call the constituency that contains St Giles’ Church, the fluttering heart of Camberwell, “Peckham”? Ever since the first Henry gave both domains to his bastard Robert, Camberwell and Peckham have been sisters. But Camberwell is the prima of the donnas. The air of Camberwell has always been superior to bog of Peckham.

Camberwell should not be torn apart. By doing so, the Commission violates a sentiment nurtured for a thousand years. To plead precedence is to resort to the age-worn refuge of the scoundrel. But perhaps, ignorance, not vice, is at fault. The Commissioners have no idea of what we are or how we feel. One thinks of the colonial civil servant, gazing through the fog of a malarial fever at a list of population figures, and drawing lines on a map of Africa.

The Commission has received over 800 objections to its proposals. Soon they will be published. Then there will then be another round. What we want is some recognition of the historic boundaries of Camberwell: perhaps a constituency that stretches along the entire northern border of the old parish and then goes south till the requisite number of electors is reached (between 69,724 and 77,062). And we want this constituency to be called “Camberwell”.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival