South London – Harry Williams

indexDefinitely of another time, the introduction contains a key opinion: ‘There is, in fact, something basically wrong about South London’ (2). Williams is not alone in this (sad and of course, fundamentally wrong) feeling, a thread to tease out of all this research is where this comes from, why it arises, what is ‘right’ if south of the river is so ‘wrong’? How right and wrong are defined, and by whom? Williams doesn’t really hold back on his own feelings, you can tell.

What this book does, then, in view of suburban South London’s failings, is try to rescue the historical gold from the dross. It’s a really fascinating mix of immediately-post-war politics that yearn back quite conservatively to the Elizabethan Golden Age while at the same time celebrating the move to create social housing, the NHS, and unexpectedly insisting that the anachronism of Tower Bridge be torn down and something more splendid and functional put into its place. Some interesting quotes that are quite provocative about how some thought about class, history, the formation of the city:

London, for all its importance, was not an urban community. It was still largely rural, with a great community of ideas and interests between its people and the squires and yeomen of the countryside. In this healthy understanding, free from the sterile urbanization of the last century and a half, there was no room for class hatred, and very little for class distinction. The love of family life was the strong central motive of town dweller and countryman alike, and the Englishman’s home was already a castle to be defended passionately against any form of attack.’ (29)

We have nothing to-day to compare with the terrible slums of the eighteenth century, but it is certain that that century had no such purposelessness, such widespread frustration rooted in the emptiness and pointlessness of metropolitan life as it exists now. The fine edge of the keen poetic instinct of the Gold Age was blunted already in the eighteenth century, but it is a process of deterioration that the increase in creature comforts and security combined with the scrapping of all standards of values and culture has continued, rather than abated, in the twentieth. The industrial Revolution began a decay of community and family life which the Victorian age – for all its emphasis on the family as a scared entity—could only gloss over. (38)

The new industrial towns were built upon one principle only—the less the overhead expenses, the greater the profit. Housing was dealt with by crowding the greatest number of helots into the smallest possible space—a principle adopted, as we shall see, in the development of South London—and every available inch was covered with factories, warehouses ad habitations with barely sufficient room between them for (40) human beings to walk. There were no profits in good proportions, good architecture, recreational space for workers – no dividends in beauty. And so the property sprang up, mothered by the jerry-builder and fathered by the slum landlord, and the wealthy capitalists are paying for their lack of vision today ….

The story of South London, therefore, is the story of the rape of a lovely river and its attendant countryside, all brought about by the acceptance of a theory of life—the theory of laisser-faire (41).

There is a brilliant quote on the great London fire of 1666 by Sir Ralph Esher: ‘Ever and anon distant houses fell in with a sort of gigantic shuffling noise, very terrible. I saw a steeple give way, like a some ghastly idol, its long white head toppling, and going sideways as if it were drunk’ (88). More of his decided opinions on modern development: ‘All things considered, Southwark is a national reproach and a complete breach of faith to the citizens of this country’ (119).

He sees the suburban development as the spinning of a web in which South London residents are trapped as flies:

‘In each of the ten boroughs, with the possible exception of Southwark, we have seen that the strangled centre is the least attractive part. As the congested heart of the web is left behind, so there is a tendency to allow a little more space, to permit a loosening of the constriction, a softening of the utilitarian huddle of pure functionalism which falls into decay with the passing of the years’ (231).

The lot of the denizens of the South Bank, for example, is one which scarcely bears investigation, but it is not publicized. The failure do not talk about their failure, which is one of the reasons why the flies continue yearly, daily, hourly to enmesh themselves in the unyielding web (314).

He seems to be for a more agrarian ideal, open space, single and semi-detached houses. But as I say, the politics of it are interesting, so while so much rings as conservative, he still writes critically:

Many of the commons of South London have suffered from the land hunger of wealthy gentry. Kennington Park is a queer survival, for development in this area was swift, and the spirit of the time was ready to sanction any rape of open spaces in the name of material prosperity (356)

This is a book championing open space, and also one chock full of quaint histories of the ten boroughs south of the river to be returned to in looking at specific areas. A few examples though: The Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution – a home for licensed victuallers ‘fallen upon evil times’ on six acres off the old Kent Road, or the three old shops moored off of Woolwich holding convicts used to work on the docs or the prehistoric mound on Clapham Common. Some of this is taken fairly directly from Walter Besant’s history of South London I’m afraid. And there’s that streak of moralism running through his vision of what should define the development of South London: ‘There are two things that can stop such menacing retrogression. The first is love and understanding of home based upon the delights and responsibilities of parenthood, and the second is love and understanding of nature’ (403).


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