The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell



Pavements are for pedestrians

Martin Huckerby calls for obstacle free streets

While Camberwell's shopping streets get busier, businesses are also increasingly occupying the pavements with goods, tables and placards – which can create an obstacle course for pedestrians.

Recent years have raised the numbers of people on the streets in central Camberwell – new developments bring in more residents, the pandemic meant more working from home, while multi-occupation remains high and larger families among the newer arrivals add to the numbers.

The local shops and services benefit, but the narrower streets around the Green area have become increasingly crowded. Each new trader opening up now appears to think it's their right to erect an extension to their shop or cafe front. Any new food shop or takeaway turns itself into a mini cafe with an outside table, or two.

The benefits of the recent, expensive reconfiguring of the pavements, bus stops etc, can be lost when the space created is filled with new barriers to passage.Thus the re-arrangement of bus stops at the start of Denmark Hill allowed more room for waiting passengers, but the crowds around bus stop Q gain little advantage if the pharmacy there puts out two advertising boards – people can have to squeeze past.

The encroachments grow, as traders, understandably trying to attract customers, have realised how much they can get away with - even if they don't put out tables or piles of goods, they install pavement advertising signs. Some now even put out three boards, or use two in a line, doubling the space blocked.

People may like the open-air market vibe, but little thought is given to parents with pushchairs or prams (or just several children to manage), or the needs of the elderly, let alone those with disabilities or on mobility scooters, trying to get through crowds.

Many enjoy the 'continental' approach of cafes and bars with outside tables, but these should surely be confined to stretches with wide pavements. These make sense on a wider parade like the one running up to Love Walk, but on the narrower stretch before that, a cafe, with a table outside, can block half the pavement with its menu boards.

The south side pavement of Camberwell New Road, near the busy bus stop, was already cluttered with official street furniture. Then a new little cafe there started putting out small tables, joined by a neighbouring shop – all adding to crowding along there. One cafe across the road even had a barbeque on the street, though now it just seems to use a large signboard.

A new shop opened nearby, at the corner on Denmark Hill – and straightaway started piling goods on the pavement, blocking a third of the walkway.

Further up Denmark Hill, near the Daneville Road junction, another household goods shop sometimes blocks half the pavement.

Pushing back against this trend could be hard – businesses might argue they've been allowed to put out produce and impedimenta for years without much obvious regulation.

But could Southwark Council circularise businesses on Camberwell's central streets, reminding them of the problems they may cause, and urging them to desist?

Such issues are found elsewhere too, in places like Walworth Road and Peckham.

If persuasion proved ineffective, could Southwark implement the licensing for such activity, or set a limit to the proportion of pavement any business can treat as its private space?

The council last year adopted an equal pavements pledge, aiming to ensure full access for all, and especially disabled people. An initial emphasis was on the repair of uneven pavements, but the general need to remove obstacles was recognised. Hopefully that can translate into action to restrain over-enthusiastic businesses.

I appreciate a more serious issue is the growing hazard on pavements due to cyclists and users of e-scooters and other powered machines, riding there illegally, often pretty fast.

This is not just a local issue, and clearly requires concerted action by government, and police enforcement.

Ruskin: Does he belong to Camberwell or Herne Hill?

Jon Newman and Laurence Marsh claim John Ruskin for Herne Hill

Rosemary Hill's piece in the last issue of the Quarterly summarising local history writing about Camberwell kindly referenced our recently published book, Sunset Over Herne Hill, John Ruskin and South London. However, in doing so Ms Hill also perpetuated a long-standing error in suggesting that Ruskin was an inhabitant of Camberwell.

Ruskin and his parents lived in two houses in Herne Hill between 1823 and 1872. The house of his childhood and young manhood, no 28 Herne Hill, which he continued to use as his London pied a terre after moving to the Lake District in the 1870s, has always been in the parish and borough of Lambeth.

The confusion arises because the second family home, originally no 163 Denmark Hill, to which the family moved in 1843 and which stood on what is now Blanchedown in the Denmark Hill Estate, is indeed now in the borough of Southwark. However, it only became so after boundary changes in 1900 when the triangle of land between Denmark Hill and to the west and south of Champion Hill - and within which Ruskin's house and grounds stood - was transferred from Lambeth parish into the new Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell and the borough boundary was tidied along the line of Denmark Hill and Herne Hill. This change took place a year before Ruskin's death and over a quarter of a century after he had left South London.

For all his time there, and despite the undoubted significance of Camberwell in his life, John Ruskin was a Lambeth ratepayer and an inhabitant of Herne Hill, not of Camberwell.

The Cracks That Let the Light In

The Cracks that Let the Light In Jessica Moxham pub Hachette £9.99


Camberwell resident Jessica Moxham tells of her experience of raising her disabled son and writing a book about it

My eldest son, Ben, is 13. He loves gameshows and history podcasts, hates dogs, and is disabled. My memoir, The Cracks That Let the Light In, is about the first decade of being his mother and what I have learned.

From the moment Ben was born things didn’t go to plan. He was very unwell, and couldn’t feed. We were told he would be disabled and the early months and years were a crash course in learning how to look after him. I not only had to learn to be a parent, but also a nurse, physio, occupational therapist and speech and language therapist. We became proficient in tube-feeding and medical language and got very little sleep. It was all a huge shock and nothing like what I had imagined of becoming a mother.

The hardest part was that Ben was miserable a lot of the time and we couldn’t make things better for him. All of the people around me had babies who fed and slept, started to hold their heads up and learn to sit. Ben couldn’t do any of those things. But I thought he was the most beautiful baby in the world and we worked out how to make him laugh. As he got older he chuckled at jokes, loved books, and squealed with joy when we swung him high.

I knew almost nothing about disability before Ben was born, so his life has been a rapid education for me. Because Ben can’t talk people assume he can’t understand, but he does. People think he doesn’t go to school and can’t read, but he does, and he can. Ben can’t use his fingers to point but he uses his eyes instead to look at what he wants, and now he can look at symbols to answer 'yes’ or ‘no’ to questions, or to control an eye-gaze computer.

As I learnt more about disability activism it chimed with what I was experiencing – that the problems we face are generally not down to Ben’s body, but the way people treat him and us. It took months of stressful negotiations for Ben to get a place at a school that suited him. It took hours of phone calls and emails to get the benefits and support from social services that he is entitled to. He often can’t be involved in things because his wheelchair can’t get into them. It is also inevitable that his and our lives are disrupted by the 150 appointments that he has each year.

I wrote my book because I don’t often read accounts about disability and parenting which are honest about the challenges but also celebrate the joy. Ben needs lots of help from carers, but he is not a passive recipient of support. He has strong views about what he wants to talk about, where he wants to go, and what he wants to watch. He laughs easily, has beautiful relationships with his brother and sister, and wants to listen to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Our family is made unusual by Ben’s disability, and that sometimes makes things complicated, but in other ways the issues are the same ones that all parents are negotiating. Ben isn’t always our most tricky child!

The feedback from readers of the book has been a mixture of people gaining an insight into a family like ours (Emma Barnett of Radio 4 Woman’s Hour said it ‘Totally opened my eyes. So much love in these pages.’). Parents of disabled children tell me they feel seen by reading about a family like theirs.

People often apologise to me when they find out my son is disabled. My book is an attempt to demonstrate why this is so off the mark. Being Ben’s mother has changed the way I think about everything, but it’s a story of love and frequent fun. His disability isn’t bad or sad, it just is and I’m lucky to be his mother.

The serial bigamist of Crofton Road


Mark Warby reveals that the real offender behind the famous libel case made a habit of it

Harold Newstead of Camberwell was a bigamist. In 1937 he went through a marriage ceremony with Doris Skelley, aged 19, when he was already married. He was found out and prosecuted. On 29 March 1938, at the Old Bailey, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. Newstead was 30 years old.

These were the essential facts of the case as related in a Daily Express feature the following day, under the headline “Why do people commit bigamy?”. The paper also reported Newstead’s rueful comment: “I kept them both till the police interfered.” All diligent students of libel law know this.

What they also know is what the paper did not publish. Harold Newstead, the 30-year-old bigamist, was not the only Harold Newstead of Camberwell. There was a second man of the same name, who was not a bigamist. He was 26, but looked older. He lived in Gubyon Avenue, Herne Hill, but he helped his father in a hairdressing business in Camberwell Road.

Harold the second was the plaintiff in a famous libel action which went to trial before Mr Justice Hawke and a jury and later went to the Court of Appeal. Harold retained A T Denning KC, later Lord Denning, to argue his case: that Harold the second had been libelled because his customers had quite reasonably thought that he was the Camberwell man referred to by the Daily Express.

Of course, the editor had not intended to refer to Harold the second. But the law was (and is) that the writer’s intention does not matter. What matters is whether “reasonable people acquainted with the plaintiff” would understand the article to refer to him.

Harold’s claim was only plausible because the newspaper, writing up the Old Bailey hearing, had removed some key details about the defendant that had been dutifully recorded in other reports: his occupation as a barman and his address at 90 Crofton Road. If those details had been put in, a case based on mistaken identity would surely have failed. And in any event the article would have been a fair and accurate report of the court proceedings, immune from suit in the absence of malice.

At the libel trial in March 1939 the jury were asked whether a reasonable person would have thought Harold the second was the convicted bigamist. They could not make up their minds. They did answer all the other questions they were asked and would have awarded damages of a farthing, but the Judge said an answer to the first question was crucial. There would have to be a retrial.

The newspaper’s appeal against that decision was heard by the Court of Appeal in November 1939 – during the “phoney war” period of WWII. The appeal was dismissed. The Court reaffirmed the rule that all depends on what the hypothetical reasonable reader would make of the words. The Master of the Rolls said, “If there is a risk of coincidence it ought … to be borne not by the innocent party to whom the words are held to refer, but by the party who puts them into circulation.” Here, a jury could have found that the reader would identify Harold the second as the subject of the article.

Whether any jury got the chance to make that decision I have been unable to find out. The parties may well have settled their differences rather than fight it all out again, in wartime. But contemporary reports of the bigamy case do add some remarkable details to the story.

The severity of the sentence is explained by the fact that Newstead was a repeat offender. This was his second conviction for bigamy. And his marriage ceremony with Doris was his fourth.

The first lawful marriage was in 1927, when Newstead was just 18. According to his defence Counsel, the woman was “considerably his senior” and he lived with her for just a week before realising he had “made a mistake”, and they separated. He did not trouble to get a divorce before going through another marriage ceremony in 1928, aged just over 20. For this bigamy offence he was sentenced at Leeds to two months’ imprisonment. His first wife divorced him. The decree absolute was granted in 1931.

In December 1932 Newstead married again, at Chelsea Register Office. Newstead was settled in his job at the pub. The couple had two children. But on 12 April 1937 Newstead ‘married’ Doris Skelley at Westminster Register Office. He used a false name. He and Doris lived together and had a child. But Newstead did not leave his legal wife. They continued to share a home.

This could not last, and the truth came out within a year. For Doris, it came as a terrible blow. Prosecuting Counsel told the sentencing Judge that she had been left “absolutely destitute with a child five months old”. So she must have been pregnant when they ‘married’. The prosecutor said that Newstead appeared to have “the completest contempt for the marriage laws of this country”. The Judge described Newstead’s behaviour as “wicked”. But his legal wife wanted him back.

On the scent of a discovery

On the Scent Paola Totaro, Robert Wainwright Elliot & Thompson paperback £10.99


Local writer Paola Totaro lost her sense of smell as a result of Covid and wrote a book about it

When I was a child growing up in Sydney in the 1970s, kids’ literature was predominantly British. The English countryside became the province of my imagination with the creatures of Wind in the Willows at the epicentre. This month, as I eagerly await the paperback edition of On the Scent, my book about the sense of smell, I was reminded of the profoundly moving moment when Mole, journeying with Ratty, sniffs the wind, and catches a whiff of his long-lost home.

“It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal … his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.”

Proust and his madeleines, frankly, had nothing on Kenneth Grahame. Little did I know that half a century later, in my neighbour’s garden in Camberwell, I would join Mole in spontaneous sobs when my Covid-ravaged nose perceived the scent of Spring jasmine after eight long months of smelling nothing. The elation and sheer joy I felt in that instant when a hint of olfaction returned will remain locked in my memory forever as will the sense of relief that I might be one of the lucky ones who actually recover their fifth sense.

My nose was taken out on March 27, 2020. It was sudden. Smell disappeared in an instant as if a light had been turned off. When I realised I couldn’t even smell bleach, it felt as if my world had upended, and I was dropping in a faulty elevator. The UK had just gone into lockdown, but this was not a recognised Covid symptom. When I rang the GP, they brushed it aside as coincidence. I had been reporting on Covid in Italy for Australian newspapers, however, and had begun to hear anecdotal reports of sudden onset smell loss from Italian patients and their doctors. Intrigued, I googled smell loss – its medical name is anosmia – and would find out later that hundreds and thousands of others were doing the same.

So began a two-year journey in which I scoured the scientific and medical world to try to learn more about a sense I had never really thought about, but now missed like a severed limb. The quest for answers took me into the laboratories of some of the world’s top neuroscientists (often by Zoom as the world remained closed) and the surgeries of Ear Nose and Throat specialists. I spoke to people who had lost their sense of smell due to brain injury and picked the brains of philosophers who explained the mysteries of our perception of smell and flavour.

I charted my own, strange and stop-start recovery and spent a week in Dresden in Germany alongside young olfactory scientists and physicians learning about the physiology of smell. One afternoon, in an anatomy lab, I held a human brain in my hands and examined the olfactory system in a severed human skull. I learned about parosmia, the medical name for the terrible distortions of smell and taste that can afflict some people as their nasal membranes recover in the wake of the virus.

The result of my journey is On the Scent, a book which I hope will spark a renewed interest smell, often called the Cinderella of the senses because historically it has attracted less attention than sight or hearing. Most importantly, I’d like the specialist scientists and physicians whose voices are documented to be heard more widely. Their message is a powerful one that warns us that smell is a sentinel of health and can signal onset of some serious neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s well before any symptoms appear.

Smell should be part of our everyday health checks and GPs need to take it more seriously.

Re-reading little Mole’s thoughts about the caressing appeals from his nose, those soft touches that are wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging him toward his home, reminded me that I had really only valued my sense of smell when I lost it. And that’s a lesson I will never forget.

Enjoy a stretch of elegance on the road to Vauxhall


Rosemary Hill traces the history of Clarendon Terrace

Camberwell New Road was ‘new’ in 1818 when it was laid out to take advantage of the equally new bridge at Vauxhall. It was built up in phases between 1820-1830, a typical piece of Georgian ribbon development, running down from the river to the Green at Camberwell. Today it is a motley collection of the good the bad and the ugly, with some of the older parts listed by English Heritage as of historical interest. These include numbers 227-253 (odd numbers on the east side) a terrace which runs between Wyndham Road and Councillor Street and has come to be known as Clarendon Terrace, after the Clarendon Arms pub on the corner.

The terrace started life as a row of 14 houses which stopped short of Wyndham Road. As early as 1796 a plan of the area shows this strip divided into lots for sale. The pub, despite giving its name to the terrace, came later and is not included in the listing. The spot where it now stands was then part of the famous Camberwell nurseries, first leased by Thomas Davey in the 1790s. When the houses were built, at some point in the early nineteenth century, they would have had a charmingly rural outlook over ‘the lost gardens of Wyndham Road’, whose history was fully traced for the first time by Jonathan Gregson, the Mary Boast Prize winner who published some of his research in the Camberwell Quarterly five years ago (CQ 191).

Regency Camberwell was an area of striking contrasts and while the nurseries throve and the smart new houses went up on the main road, the area north of Wyndham Road, only yards away, was described in 1818 as standing out in an ‘otherwise well-to-do district’ as a ‘moral cesspool’, famous for its ‘ignorance and misery’. As Mr Gregson explains, the nurseries throve in spite of it all through changes of ownership and threats from railway development until 1843. It was probably at some point over the next twenty years, when an attempt to create a Vauxhall-style pleasure garden flourished briefly before failing in 1863, that the pub was built on the end of the terrace next to the now widened Wyndham Road.

William Blanch’s History of the Parish of Camberwell of 1875 records it among the hostelries in whose names ‘statesmanship is worthily represented’. It is not clear which of the many political Lord Clarendons it honours. The third earl (1757-1838) is a possibility although his career was lacklustre and he was remembered as ‘a mere courtier, famous for telling interminable stories’. His son the fourth earl, George Villiers (1800-1870) is more likely. Foreign Secretary on and off for periods between 1852-1870, including the whole of the Crimean War, he would have been a household name when the pub was built.

It was also, probably, around the same time that the houses in the terrace lost their front gardens and became shops. By the mid-Victorian period shopping was becoming something more like the modern consumer experience for a burgeoning middle class. The concept of the ‘shopping parade’ was increasingly popular and with it the need to express architectural unity in the shop fronts. In Clarendon Terrace this is achieved with a neo-Classical framework which marks out the individual shop fronts on the ground floor by pilasters on the party walls supporting ornamental bracket stops. An entablature fascia runs across the top. These rare Victorian survivals, which include some (possibly later but still nineteenth century) doors and glazing, are what make the terrace important enough to merit its Grade II listing. In the rich mix of the New Road they are easily overlooked, but like so much of Camberwell they have an interesting story to tell.

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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