South London Memories: The beauty of Camberwell

Camberwell has had more influence than its size would imply. Last week, we looked at the origin of its name, as Network Rail unveiled a mural depicting its original well.But residents of the area have shifted more books and more minds than a town of its size could expect. TOBY PORTER looks at the cultural history of a very influential place – now home to the country’s Prime Minister.

The country’s population are now fully appreciating the benefits of the welfare state, created from 1945-51 by Clement Atlee’s Labour government.

But the National Health Service, one of the chief achievements of that era, was created by politicians inspired by the Victorian art critic and watercolourist John Ruskin, whose work paved the way for Christian Socialists of the late Victorian era.

John Ruskin

Atlee cited Ruskin as a profound influence, as did Liberal economist Willam Beveridge, whose report Social Insurance and Allied Services, was the first step in creating the welfare state.

Ruskin was a crucial advocate for JMW Turner at a time when probably Britain’s most famous painter was not popular. And Ruskin also championed the Pre-Raphaelites, who reshaped the culture of that era.

Ruskin lived at 163 Denmark Hill from 1847, but moved out in 1872 as the railways spoiled his view.

Ruskin designed part of a stained-glass window in the area’s parish church, St Giles. Ruskin Park is named after him, and there is also a John Ruskin Street.

His childhood was spent from 1823 at 28 Herne Hill – demolished around 1912. He had few friends of his own age, but his formative years were not, apparently, the friendless and toyless experience he later claimed it was in his autobiography, Praeterita. He did have, though, one of the most notorious failed marriages of the pre-tabloid press era.

Another famous writer who lived in the area was the poet Robert Browning, who was born in nearby Walworth, and lived there until he was 28.

Children’s author Enid Mary Blyton was born at 354 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, on August 11, 1897. She has been among the world’s best-sellers since the 1930s, selling more than 600 million copies.

Enid Blyton, children’s writer 1897-1968

Blyton’s books have been translated into 90 languages. She wrote about education, natural history, fantasy, mystery, and biblical narratives but is best remembered today for her Noddy, Famous Five and Secret Seven series.

Muriel Spark, the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lived, between 1955 and 1965, in a bedsit at 13 Baldwin Crescent, Camberwell, near Myatt’s Field Park.

Her less accomplished novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye, is set amid the chaos caused by a Scottish migrant in the working class people who lived there.

A group now known as the YBAs (the Young British Artists) began in Camberwell – in the Millard building of Goldsmiths’ College in Cormont Road, which goes around Myatt’s Field Park.

A former training college for women teachers, the Millard was the home of Goldsmiths Fine Art and Textiles department until 1988 – it became flats, St Gabriel’s Manor, in 1996.

The biggest name of the 20 or so high profile artists was Damien Hirst, a graduate from the class of 1989.

The sculptor Anish Kapoor, who created the £19million Orbit sculpture which towers over the Olympic Park in east London, has a studio there.

Sculptor, Anish Kapoor

Comedian Jenny Eclair has lived in the area for decades – it features in her 2001 novel Camberwell Beauty, named after a species of butterfly.

The Camberwell beauty is rarely found in the UK – it is so named because two examples were first identified in Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell in 1748.

A large mosaic of the Camberwell beauty used to adorn the Samuel Jones paper factory in Southampton Way.

The paper factory has since been demolished but the mosaic was removed and reinstalled on the side of Lynn Boxing Club in Wells Way – England’s oldest club, which was where two big names Obed Mbwakongo and his brother Chris, began their careers.

Anish Kapoor – Orbit

Two brothers from Camberwell are playwright Martin McDonagh – who wrote and directed the multi-award-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and his brother, writer/director John Michael McDonagh – whose most famous movie The Guard, stars Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and Mark Strong.

One of the big trade union heavyweights of the 1970s, Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, lived on the Ruskin House Park Estate.

One of Jones’s idols, Karl Marx initially settled with his family in Camberwell when they moved to London in 1849.

Others include the former editor of The Guardian Peter Preston, the paper’s columnist Zoe Williams and BBC war correspondent Jeremy Bowen.

Shamanistic singer Florence Welch of the rock band Florence + the Machine also lives in the area as do actresses Lorraine Chase and Jenny Agutter – who made her name in The Railway Children and stars in Call the Midwife.

Sir Henry Bessemer, inventor of the process to make steel had an estate in Denmark Hill.

Politician Joseph Chamberlain, who started off as a reforming Liberal but crossed the house as he opposed Gladstone’s attempt to give the Irish home rule, was born in Camberwell.

His son Neville would become Prime Minister – though he became best known for the failed policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler.


Erin O’Connor, supermodel, who reportedly has a £12million fortune and is famous for advertising campaigns for Marks & Spencer and Toni & Guy, also lives in Camberwell.

Her presence there emerged in a court case in 2011 when her PA, admitted two counts of fraud, including stealing £10,251, over three years.

A similar tabloid flurry greeted the revelation last June that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then just a candidate for the job, was having loud rows with his partner Carrie Symonds at their home in Brunswick Park, near St Giles Church.

After he won that contest, the couple moved into another three-bedroom £1.3million house nearby.

For such an influential area, Camberwell has a poor history with big venues. Its last cinema, the Regal, which later became the ABC Camberwell, opened in 1940.

With only one screen but 2,470 seats, the cinema was one of the largest suburban cinemas in London and continued to operate until 1973, but then became a bingo hall.

The building, which retains its art deco style and is Grade II listed, was sold to a church in February 2010.

Main Pic: The Camberwell Beauty mural on the side of Lynn AC Boxing Club




Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.

So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.

Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *