The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Felix was here


Shekhar Das delves into Mendelssohn’s sojourn in Denmark Hill where he composed his famous song

Two years after the composer’s death, his close friend Jules Benedict delivered a lecture to the Camberwell Literary Institution. He said: “It is perhaps not generally known, that Mendelssohn spent some of his happiest hours in this very neighbourhood. At his fifth visit to London he was accompanied by his wife, who had never before seen England, and they resided at the house of one of her relations, Mrs. Benecke, on Denmark-hill. Here Mendelssohn led a quiet, almost secluded life; receiving few visitors, and only going to town when called thither by his professional duties …” The year was 1842.

It was here, on a day when his hosts went on an excursion to Windsor and Mendelssohn stayed behind, he composed a Lieder ohne Worte or a song without words. Although Benedict does not identify it as such, this was probably the composition called Camberwell Green. It was later renamed Spring Song.

The Beneckes were one of the many wealthy German families who had moved to Camberwell, attracted by its clean air, rural setting and good road link to the City of London. Charles Booth says in his Survey that their sons were ‘more English than the English in dress and games’. Even so, services at the Lutheran Church they built in Windsor Walk in 1855 were in German. Felix Mendelsohn himself came from an illustrious Jewish family – his grandfather was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn – but his father had converted to Christianity along with all but one of his siblings.

The Beneckes’ house in which Felix stayed in 1842 was situated in what is now Ruskin Park, across the road from the Fox on the Hill. Fortunately, we have a map that was drawn in that same year by J Dewhurst with all the buildings marked. It shows just how rural Camberwell was. From the Beneckes’ house, Felix might well have been able to see the greenery of Camberwell Green. And had St Giles’ Church not burnt down in the previous year, he would have had a view of its tower. Between the road Denmark Hill and Grove Lane, it was all fields, pastures and gardens. East of Camberwell Grove it was country till Lyndhurst Square in Peckham.

Only to the north of Camberwell Green does this rural landscape turn urban. This was what inspired Mendelssohn to compose what Benedict described as a ‘sparkling and delicious melody’.

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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