South London Memories: Testament to longevity of tenements

There are few tenements still standing in South London — the Pullen’s Estate in Walworth is one of them.

It has a classic design, which was why it was used to represent London in multi-Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech, set around the Second World War.

Charlie Chaplin lived there months before he set sail to earn his fortune in the movie industry in the USA. And enduring Streatham supermodel Naomi Campbell lived there, too.

Also resident was Frank Bowling, the first black artist to be elected to the Royal Academy in its history. The buildings were saved by squatters in the 1980s.

The tenements and three yards, occupied by small businesses, are among some of the last surviving in London.

They were once a private estate of 684 flats in 12 blocks, owned by the builders, the Pullen’s family, until taken over by Southwark council in the late 1970s.

They had been built over 30 years from 1870 by James Pullen and Son of 73 Penton Place – without planning permission.

The estate originally had 650 flats, surrounding four separate yards of workplaces – of which 360 flats and three yards remain.

The yards are unusual – originally, each ground or first-floor workshop opened into one of the two flats situated behind it.

Formed in Amelia Street, Crampton Street, Iliffe Street, Penton Place and Peacock Street, the tenements and the workshops are protected by Conservation Area status.

We don’t know precisely what businesses were carried on in the very early days, but by the 1970s there were industrial clogmakers for London Fire Brigade; stationers; makers of ships’ fans; manufacturers of X-ray machinery; hatmakers; brushmakers; bookbinders; printers as well as furniture makers and restorers.

Two brothers, the Lilleycrops, ran Turners’ Office Furniture, which was furniture restorer to the Inns of Court.

The first block of 16 flats was built in Penton Place without the required consent of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

But Pullen managed to persuade local officials that his work was good, and continued building until 1901 – 10 years more than he had been granted permission for.

When the philanthropist Charles Booth was surveying London for his poverty map in 1899, he encountered Mr Pullen at work. Booth said: “Old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending.”

Booth said demand for the well-built flats was high – they were “occupied before the paper is
dry on the walls” – often by police officers from Whitehall and Lambeth.

The rent was eight shillings for three rooms, kitchen and scullery, plus six pence a week charged for cleaning the stairs and gas. Each had to make a deposit of 24 shillings – effectively barring any
poor tenants.

Behind the blocks, around four yards, were 106 workshops and shops at the entrance.

A young Charlie Chaplin lived in one of the Pullens Buildings for nine months in 1907.

Some of the buildings were damaged during German bombing in the Second World War.

A V1 rocket hit Manor Place by the railway on June 27, 1944 at 10.45pm.

Six houses were blown up in Crampton Street and four in Manor Place.

It also damaged a public wash house and stores in Manor Place, a railway bridge, two arches, and 300 houses and buildings in Manor Place and the surrounding streets.

In the 1970s, the council planned to demolish the buildings.

But it was stopped in the 1980s by squatters under the umbrella of the Pullens Squatter Organisation who, with the full support of residents, campaigned and fought successfully to save them.

Their campaign of direct action and solidarity eventually climaxed in barricades which stopped police and bailiffs entering the buildings. Infoshop – an anarchist bookshop and volunteer-run, 100 per cent unfunded, DIY social centre – is the last remnant of that protest.

New businesses began to move in during the 1980s – silversmiths, fine artists, bookbinders, ceramicists and furniture designer-makers.

Many of the remaining 351 flats in the buildings are owned by the council, which spent millions on refurbishment in 2009.

Naomi Campbell lived in Iliffe Street in the 1990s.

Just under 50 per cent of the flats are now in private hands as leaseholds.

Prices have soared, boosted by the regeneration of Elephant and Castle – and Victorian design being back in fashion.

In 2007 a Pullens flat in Iliffe Street sold for £305,000. In 2014 in Iliffe Street a property sold for £365,000. In 2015, another on Iliffe Street went for £435,000.

The historic and architectural importance of the buildings has been recognised by their use in several high-profile films, including The King’s Speech.

These days there are still firms like Rob Dixson, ceremonial swordmaker to the Lord Mayor of London; RimmingtonVian, glassware and ceramics designer/decorators supplying various royal palaces, stately homes and the National Gallery Collection among others; and Kevin O’Brien, former artist in residence at the National Gallery during his time in Peacock Yard.

Currently, there is a studio for artist Frank Bowling.

There are also lute makers, potters, jewellers, silversmiths, paper conservators, designers, graphic artists, web designers, furniture designers, architects, furniture makers, video and film-makers, photographers, writers and publishers, musical instrument makers and theatre and film costume makers.

Sales of Roger Batchelor’s book The Pullen’s Story, 1879-the Present Day go to the New Life Africa International School, Nakuru, Kenya.

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