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’.

Many shades of green

Mick, Stephanie, Steve and John at the bar of the Camberwell Royal Naval Association Club


Robert Wainwright hears the stories of some of the people who live near the Green, the heart of Camberwell for more than a thousand years

It’s early on a Friday night and the regulars at the Camberwell Royal Naval Association Club are starting to arrive. The navy in Camberwell, two hours from the sea? Yep. Tucked away in Harvey Road is a discrete hall which houses this unlikely social club.

No-one can recall its origins other than it used to be on the top floor of the Camberwell Arms pub: “That was 40-odd years ago,” says Steve, who is one of the longest standing members. “Then we took over this building.”

Perhaps the answers lies in the Royal Naval School that was established in Camberwell in the mid-nineteenth century, but whatever the link, reminders are everywhere. Club walls are filled with naval photographs and memorabilia. There are no former serving seamen or women left among the 70-odd members. Instead, it has become one of the most important social hubs for, let’s say, the more mature residents living in the Camberwell Green area.

Steve is having a quiet beer with mate John and chatting with barmaid Eve when the CQ arrives. The only others in the bar are Stephanie and Mick. They have taken a table at the back. “The place will fill up later,” Stephanie, blinged-up in a yellow jacket and matching beads for the Friday evening, assures me. “Mick and I like to be out early. We’re usually home by 9pm, but others like to kick on.”

It says much about this part of Camberwell that the members generally live within a few streets of one another. Most live on one of the estates that dominate the landscape between the Green and Burgess Park.

“You’ll get no trouble in here,” promises John. “We all know each other and it feels very safe and an important part of the community.”

Outside can be a different story. Steve was a recent victim of street violence, mugged as he walked up to Camberwell Church Street: “It’s a reality of this neighbourhood,” he says, flicking through his camera phone to recall the date of the assault and show his bruises. “But then I guess Camberwell is no different to most places in London. It can happen anywhere, particularly now when things are so tough economically.”

The impact of Covid and now the recession is felt strongly around here. Many older residents felt isolated during the pandemic and it is taking time to venture out again. Likewise, the area still harbours the problems of inner-city inequality and issues such as drugs and poverty.

There has been an almost constant alteration to the neighbourhood over the past two decades as modern apartment buildings gradually replace post-war housing. Just outside the Naval club stands the biggest example of change – the future of the now defunct Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.

Perhaps this regeneration is the chance to harmonise the neighbourhood, particularly with its position next to the Camberwell Library which has proven a great success since it opened eight years ago. The notice boards are filled with opportunities for community engagement, from reading groups to sewing workshops, English classes for migrants, computer tuition, knitting, crochet, poetry and even puppetry.

“It’s a vibrant place,” says library manager Eugenia Atta. “People come in here not only to borrow books but to study and meet in groups, learning new skills such as the coding classes we are about to start.”

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Vinyl is the real deal


Cornelia Falknas visits local record shop Dash The Henge

“After having had a record store here for 22 years it would’ve been heartbreaking for them to turn it into a chicken shop,” says Tim Harper. He has been managing bands for several years and founded the label Dash the Henge three years ago, together with the booking agent Rebecca Prochnik, and the artist Nathan Saoudi from the band Fat White Family. Their objective was to support artists outside of the mainstream, who struggle to find a home even at other indie labels. Now he’s standing behind the counter of their own store on Camberwell New Road, while a vinyl is spinning, and people are flicking through their carefully curated selection of records.

Sub head Vinyl legacy

The location previously housed the store Rat Records before they closed in June 2022, and Tim says that it feels important to carry on the legacy.

“Even during the time, we were doing all the work, when we were just painting out front, I swear ten, fifteen people came up every single day and said, ‘is this still going to be a record shop?’ So, there was a real sort of excitement around that.”

At Dash the Henge they all are, or have been, South London residents, and Tim says that they’re big fans of Camberwell.

“It’s just a really good buzz around here, you’ve got a lot of pubs that are still affordable, that do live music and stuff like that which is kind of rare in London. Most places are stupidly expensive or inaccessible to the type of artists that we work with. And Camberwell has always had that buzz, it’s always had that vibe. So yeah, it just felt like the right area.”

Sub head Live music

He says that a big part of what they want to do at Dash the Henge is making it a safe space for the local community, where it is possible for everyone to come in and get involved. At the back of the store, they have built a small rise which serves as a stage area, and currently they’re hosting live music performances every Saturday afternoon. This benefits both the artist that gets to play in front of a new audience, and the store as it draws people in, not to mention the visitors who get to enjoy live music for free. In the future they plan on introducing spoken word and more community focused events.

Although the local community remains an important focus, it is apparent that their clientele is not limited to Camberwell residents.

“We’ve already noticed that Dash the Henge people are coming from north, west, and east to come and visit the shop,” Tim says. “We’re proud to put this little part of South London on the map again.”

He describes their target audience as “literally everyone”:

“There was always a very early goal for the record store, there should be something in here for every person that walks in. We don’t have a specific target audience at all. It’s a record store for everyone.”

Independent artists

That their opening would happen in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis was never something that made them hesitate. Tim expresses a strong belief in the fact that people within the art world in which Dash the Henge operates will always find a way to continue supporting each other. Although the cost of living remains a challenge, Tim says that the first months have been nothing but positive, and that sales are good.

“I think people do appreciate coming and buying a record from a small independent artist,” he says. As live performances were made impossible during lockdown, he thinks many people realized that smaller artists get “very, very, very little in returns from streaming” and that if you’re not buying the art, you’re not supporting the artist.

“People will often buy a record of an artist, they might not even have a record player, but they want that physical item, and they also want to support the artist,” Tim says. “And then you can go home and listen to it on Spotify, that’s fine, but you’ve actually invested financial support in that artist.”

How safe is our Camberwell?

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Art is budding in Camberwell


Tony Coleman rounds up the arts news

In 2014, the sculpture installation All the World is Now Richer by Sokari Douglas Camp CBE was displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. The artist is internationally renowned. She was born in Nigeria; studied in the USA and the UK, she is now based in Walworth. Her work is in museum collections throughout the world including the Smithsonian and the British Museum, she currently has a piece displayed in the V&A.

The installation comprises six more than life size maquettes, fabricated in sheet metal prior to casting into bronze. The figures depict a journey through slavery: one in ancestral robes, a plantation worker and a domestic serving woman. Then three figures representing the post-liberation era: a Sierra Leonian woman, a man in an executive suit and another in casual dress. Along with the figures are words depicting the resilience of the slavery victims and how their cultures spread and enriched the world (see

The pieces are proposed for a permanent display in Burgess Park, fully funded by dedicated art foundations. The author is working with the artist and the park management to identify a location that gives the figures their due prominence whilst at the same time maintaining the open views from the entrance that park users admire.

Artist selected for panels at Camberwell Station

Southwark Council was awarded funds from the London Mayor to regenerate Camberwell Station Road. This work is moving from the drawing board into reality. The sharp-eyed reader may have already seen the five arches at the north end of the road being refurbished for use. In the coming months there will be many more developments.

Camberwell Identity was asked by Southwark Council to identify and manage the process of selecting an artist to produce the design for panels that will be fitted to the boarded-up windows of the old Camberwell Station building. The Camberwell Society led this exercise working with Camberwell Arts. A local artist Diana Zrnic won the tender round from 30 other applicants. Her submission was based on the idea of the windows looking into a room where things are happening.

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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