The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Big Yes to landmark art piece on the Green


Tony Coleman reports on positive public consultation among residents

On two cold, wet and windy December Saturdays it was heart-warming to discover just how many people really like living in Camberwell, and just how much.

Most touching were those who had recently moved in .They were finding out about the joys of Camberwell with a sparkle in their eyes as if they had just discovered the key to life.

So it was not surprising to find deep enthusiasm for the idea of an iconic art piece to be installed on the Green. Something that would provide a landmark for all – a beacon to mark the centre of our community.

We met many local people to hear their views, thanks to SE5 Forum for using its stall. What we found was massive support. Yes, a few caveats and suggestions that have been noted but overall, 97 per cent of the 90 who responded were either in favour or strongly in favour; 3 per cent were neutral and no-one was against.

The next stage is to start identifying and talking to artists able to take on such an important project. Before launching a fundraising campaign, we need to know how much we have to raise.

Our initial estimate is £500,000 including the art piece itself and all the ancillaries such as the physical installation, lighting, finishes and a pot to go towards the first five years’ maintenance. We will only be approaching arts funding organisations to bring new money into Camberwell and avoid conflict with the much-needed social funding sources.

We have already consulted our local Councillors and they are all in favour. We will now also consult Camberwell Arts and other users of the Green such as Camberwell Fair to make sure that any installation does not restrict other activities.


Tony Coleman consulting on the Green

Camberwell’s dark mistress of sin

Her name suggested an innocence and beauty but Matilda “Tilly” Twiss was no angel, as Mark Webb discovers

Camberwell has had its fair share of notorious gangsters, men like the Charlie and Eddie Richardson who ran their violent kingdom from Addington Square, but among them was a woman crime boss who ruled Sydney’s underworld with an iron fist and a cruel razor.

Matilda Mary Twiss was born in Camberwell in 1900 to bricklayer Edward and his wife Alice. They lived in what is now Comber Grove where “Tilly” grew up to be street tough, belying her waif-like physique with a temper and a reputation for scrapping tiger-like with nails and boots if cornered. She dropped out of school to work in a book binding factory that produced bibles, but decided instead that she wanted a life of sin.

Aged just 12, Tilly fell prostitution and plied her trade on the streets of Soho and Covent Garden where she was arrested 84 times for a variety of offences including theft and assault. Hers might have remained a sad life of exploitation if not for the chance meeting with an Australian soldier named Jim Devine who was in London on leave.

They fell for one another and were married in 1917 at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knatchbull Road. A son named Freddie was born two years later but he would be left behind to be raised by his grandparents when, a few months later, Tilly followed her new husband to Australia.

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Former mayor Bill Skelly


Ian Wingfield remembers the Geordie painter who mingled with filmstars, fought for trade union rights and was always a good samaritan.

Former Mayor (1997-98) Bill Skelly who died in November at the age of 89 was a long-term Camberwell resident. He served on Southwark Council first for St Giles ward 1994-98 and then for Peckham ward 1998-2002.

Bill earned a great deal of respect cross-party on the Council. His soft, lyrical Geordie accent, wide grin and the twinkle in his eyes made it impossible not to fall enchanted by his tales. His natural charm and ability to chat to people from all sections of society were second to none. He was always smartly turned out, learning attention to appearance from his national service days in the army. A true gentleman he was, as it is called in modern parlance, a brand ambassador for the Borough.

He led an interesting life. First and always, he was a Geordie proud of his Gateshead roots, always unmistakable in his accent, even after spending most of his life in London.

An accomplished painter, artist and signwriter by trade, Bill was full of stories from his time working on film and TV production sets in 1960s and 1970s. He met the top stars of the day such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Sir Roger Moore and Sir Michael Caine.

A committed trade unionist, he nearly brought the construction of the National Theatre to a halt to prevent the Lump contract system of casualised labour prevalent in the industry at that time. He fought to get women and BAME workers recognised for apprenticeships at a time when this was not universally appreciated. Bill was an Executive member of the construction union UCATT and eventually became the Union’s President. One of the Union’s highest honours was the Skelly plate designed by Bill.

A good samaritan, he was always prepared to help, offer advice and care to others especially those with alcohol addiction. And worked patiently with Al-Anon to help many recovering addicts.

Bill was often seen listening to the band concerts at Ruskin Park on long summer Sunday afternoons. He will be greatly missed .He is survived by his partner Susie.

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.

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New Ruskin Tree Walk

The new Ruskin Tree Walk is now available. Go to the Ruskin Tree Walk page for downloads and the map.

The walk is in the form of a collection of essays by leading John Ruskin experts on aspects of his philosophies on nature, along with a map of the route through Ruskin Park. The essays include illustrations, some by local artists, others by Ruskin himself.

The image above depicts Ruskin Park’s Turkey Oak tree, by local artist David. J More.

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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