Vauxhall, the Oval and Kennington

Kennington & Vauxhall:- History

This is a story of two conpeting influences. On the one hand, the area is very close to Westminster - the seat of government - and the City of London - the economic capital of the country. It has therefore been the home of princes, archbishops, bankers, Members of Parliament and many other "great and good". But the River Thames - although a great transport artery and link to the wider world - cuts the area off from both Westminster and the City. As Americans would say, the area is "the wrong side of the tracks". But let's begin at the beginning ...

Dinosaur food can still be found in Vauxhall Park and Fentiman Road. Follow this link to the world as it was 270 million years ago.

Compared to dinosaur food, the river Thames is a recent creation. But the development and history of the Vauxhall/Kennington area has been profoundly influenced by its situation just south of the river at the point at which the river first becomes fordable. Indeed, Vauxhall is the site of the oldest known (750-400 BC) London Bridge.

The next oldest transport link is marked by Kennington Park Road and Clapham Road. This long stretch of road is characteristically long and straight because it follows the old Roman Stane Street. This ran down from the Roman London Bridge (a short distance downstream from the present one) to Chichester via the gap in the North Downs at Box Hill near Dorking.

Another Roman road branched off opposite Kennington Road and went down through what is now Kennington Park and down the Brixton Road. It carried on through the North Downs near Caterham to Hassocks, just north of the South Downs.

The next major developments were on the other side of the river where a great abbey - called Westminster to distinguish it from St Paul's which lay to the east - was founded in the early 700s. It became a royal church and the whole area began to develop into one of the main centres of London Life, with the construction of Westminster Hall beginning in 1097. It was natural, therefore, for powerful people to frequent both sides of the river, and the first mention of Lambeth - the area opposite to Westminster - dates from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle of 1042 when King Harthacanut - son of the more famous King Cnut (Canute) - was described as dying there "as he stood drinking". (Harthacanut was succeeded by Edward the Confessor.) Powerful people in due course began to acquire land just south of the river, which was easily accessible by boat or horse ferry (hence "Horseferry Road" leading to what is now Lambeth Bridge). In particular, the Archbishops of Canterbury acquired Lambeth Palace (pictured left) just the other side of the horse ferry, in the late 1100s.

Many years later, Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder Plot conspirators found Lambeth to be conveniently close to Westminster when they needed somewhere to store their 20 barrels of gunpowder in the days leading up to the 5th of November 1605. They then transported the gunpowder over to the Houses of Parliament by boat.

More recently, Lambeth's closeness to Westminster caused it to be in the news in April 2002 when it hosted a large part of the mile-long queue of those wishing to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother - see the photo on the left.

And then the Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee Pageant passed under Vauxhall Bridge on 3 June 2012 - see photo on the right.

Further up the river, in South Lambeth, the young widowed daughter of the Fitzgerold family, Margaret de Redvers, had a house in what is now Vauxhall. She married a mercenary soldier Falkes di Breauté who was hired to do some of the dirtier military deeds of King John (1166-1216). (Breauté is a small town north east of Le Havre in France.) Falkes thus acquired Margaret's London house whose site gradually came to be known as Fawkes Hall. This became corrupted over the years to Foxhall and then Vauxhall.

In return for his dirty deeds, Falkes was granted the manor of Luton by King John. He was also given the right to bear his own coat of arms and chose the mythical griffin as his heraldic emblem. The griffin thus became associated with both Vauxhall and Luton in the early 13th century.

A little further from the river, Edward III gave the manor of Kennington to his oldest son Edward "the Black Prince" in 1337, and the prince then built a large royal palace between what is now Cardigan Street and Sancroft Street. Parliament met in the palace in 1340 and 1342, and Geoffrey Chaucer, the inventor of the printing press, was employed at Kennington as Clerk of Works in 1389. He was paid 2 shillings (now 10p) a day. The palace was often used by royalty, including King Richard II and Catherine of Aragon, later wife of Henry VIII, who demolished the palace in 1531 so that he could use the the building material for his new palace in Whitehall. However, much of Kennington continued to be owned by monarch's elder sons (the Princes of Wales and Dukes of Cornwall) to the present day.

Historian Ian Mortimer describes London in the 1300s as follows: 'It is not just the largest city in England, but also the richest, the most vibrant, the most poluted, the smelliest, the most powerful, the most colourful, the most violent and the most diverse'. And most of those epithets still apply today.

London's development gathered pace in the 1600s - as so did Vauxhall's. The separate cities of Westminster and London both expanded and met at Temple Bar - although the City of London was devastated by the "Great Fire" of 1666. Meanwhile, south of the river, Southwark and then Lambeth became entertainment centres, including Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Southwark's stews (bath-houses/brothels) had existed for centuries, for prostitutes were not tolerated in the City of London (apart from in the brothels of Cock Lane). Men therefore resorted to the Southwark stews, with little or no shame, as mediaeval marriage vows required only the fidelity of wives. Men could do as they pleased. Most of the stews were rented from the Bishop of Winchester and many of the Bishop's 'Geese' are buried in Cross Bones on Redcross Way, just behind Borough Tube Station.

In parallel, Lambeth's theatre, circus and music hall became increasingly well established over the years. The first and most prominent development was the opening of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1661, which went on to reach the height of their popularity in the early 1800s, with 20,000 visiting on one night in 1826.

The area then became the home of the world's first modern circus. Cavalry officer Sergeant Major Philip Astley performed equestrian stunts in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens before setting up a riding school near Westminster Bridge. He found that dramatic stunts could be mounted using the centripetal force created by a horse cantering round inside a ring - and that the ideal diameter of the ring was - and still is - 13 metres. He initially used the stunts to publicise his riding school but they became so popular that the circus was established as an attraction in itself in 1772, and was then copied around the world. The circus was situated just south of Westminster Bridge, on land now occupied by St Thomas' Hospital.

But probably best Kennington's best known theatrical product is Charlie Chaplin who grew up in the area and launched his career at what is now the Coronet Cinema at the Elephant and Castle. Another famous comedian, Max Wall, was born in Glenshaw Mansions on the corner of Brixton Road and Mowll Street. More recently, actor Pierce Brosnan started acting at the Oval House Theatre, whilst the 2005 revival of the BBC's "Doctor Who" (featuring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper) was filmed on the Brandon estate, just east of Kennington Park:- The photo on the left shows the Tardis on the estate at night.

The area's liberal and theatre traditions live on together in the "Liberal & Radical" club in Kennington Road, which still houses a music hall, and in the White Bear Theatre Club on Kennington Road.

The 1600s also saw Vauxhall becoming the home of a number of industrial premises, including

  • boatbuilding, which led 200 years later to the creation of Vauxhall Motors,
  • potteries - including the company that became Royal Doulton,
  • Buckingham's Vauxhall Glass and other glassworks, and
  • Price's Patent Candles,
  • not to mention:
    • a gasworks (which subsequently moved to Nine Elms and then to near Battersea Park Station, where a gasholder remains today)
    • a brewery,
    • a distillery, and
    • a soap works.

The Nine Elms area eventually became even more solidly industrialised, and included the gasworks mentioned above (where there was a huge explosion in 1865); cement manufacturing (still there today); a large waterworks (which - because of pollution in the nearby Thames - had to have its water pumped in from West London); the famous Battersea Power Station; and huge railway manufacturing and repair facilities, sidings etc., including the original terminus of the railway that now runs through to Waterloo. There was also a good deal of working class housing in the area, and the voters of Battersea in 1892 elected John Burns to represent them in Parliament, one of the first three Independent Labour Party MPs, an early step along the road to the eclipse of the then powerful Liberal party.

The picture to the left - of a modern day brick kiln in Afghanistan - graphically shows how much smoke was developed by primative industries glass and pottery industries:- which was one of the reasons why they were banished to Vauxhall, the other side of the river and a good distance from the old City of London.

And Vauxhall represented only one element of the industrialisation of what is now South-West London. There is an interesting walk (The Wandle Trail) along the River Wandle which features the course of the Surrey Iron Railway (which has a good claim to be the first (horse-drawn) public railway in the World) and which passes the site of William Morris' factory in Colliers Wood. The river itself was heavily industrialised ("Britain's hardest working river") and used to have over 90 mills along its banks. These days, however, it flows though Morden Hall Park, one of the loveliest parks in London.

Two famous collectors also moved into the area in the 1600s. The Tradescants lived in a house and 3 acres beside the South Lambeth Road - and Elias Ashmole (founder of Oxford's Ashmolean museum) moved in next door. Follow this link for the full story.

The River, Bridges and Suburban Development

Another reason for the growth of manufacturing industries in Vauxhall was of course its access to the River Thames, the M2 motorway of its time. But the river was used by many others, including the fishmongers, the mercers and the clothworkers whose livery companies built a bargehouse in Vauxhall, next to John Baker's glasshouse. The picture on the left, with Vauxhall Bridge in the background, was taken during the excavation of the glassworks before the construction of what is now the MI6 building.

One souvenir of Vauxhall's nautical past is the old ship's cannon which now acts as a bollard at the corner of Vauxhall Walk and Black Prince Road:- see photo on left.

Then river was of course a barrier as well as a fluid highway. Indeed, there were no bridges across the Thames between London Bridge and Kingston (where the river is no longer tidal) until Fulham/Putney Bridge was completed in 1729. But Kennington began to develop as a major suburb after Westminster Bridge was the next Thames bridge to be completed in 1750. (It was replaced in 1862.) There was then a period during which Lambeth (the area by the river) aspired to become a middle class suburb, and attracted some prominent residents. In the longer term, however, (and unlike north of the river) middle class residential development south/east of the river took place well away from the river because the riverside area was blighted by polluting industries (see above) and, from 1848, by the railway to Waterloo.

One prominent local family were the Dollonds who were originally microscope and telescope manufacturers, and then opticians. Their business - originally opened in Kennington in 1750 - merged with Aitchison & Co in 1927 to form Dollond & Aitchison, until recently a well-known high street chain of opticians, and now part of Boots Opticians.

Captain Bligh (1754-1817) was another notable local resident. He survived a 5,800km vogage in an open boat following the "Mutiny on the Bounty", came to live at what is now 100 Lambeth Road in 1794, and is buried in St Mary's churchyard.

Beautiful West Square, in 1796, became the site of an important optical telegraph station on the route between the Admiralty and the port of Deal.

One other famous local resident was the illustrator Arthur Rackham who was born (the 4th of 12 children) in 1867 in a house on the South Lambeth Road. His father was a senior clerk of the High Court and the family later moved to nearby Albert Square. Arthur went on to illustrate more than 60 books, including Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows -see below.

Famous artist Vincent Van Gogh lodged at 87 Hackford Road between 1873 and 1874 while working for an art dealer in London.

Vauxhall Bridge was completed in 1816 when it was initially but only briefly called Regent Bridge. This encouraged development further south - but still away from the river. The original bridge was replaced in 1906 when it became the first London bridge to carry electric trams. These were based at what is now the Walworth Bus Garage which takes up much of the triangle of land on the north side of the Camberwell New Road, just beyond the railway and west of the Camberwell Road. It was large enough to house 135 bogie cars.

Lambeth Bridge, between Westminster and Vauxhall bridges, was completed in 1862 - and then replaced, slightly upstream, in 1932. The pineapples at each end of Lambeth Bridge commemorate the Tradescants who were the first people to grow pineapples in England.

A flavour of the hectic pace of development in the late 1800s was provided by the first vicar of St John the Divine, a church created to bring the Christian Gospel to the poor of South London:

Industrial premises near the river were surrounded by very poor quality housing ("slums") which were eventually cleared in four waves. First, there was pioneering work by the Peabody Trust towards the end of the 1890s. Then the Duchy of Cornwall developed its model housing on its Kennington estates in the early 1900s, followed by developments by the London County Council in the 1930s and other council developments in the 1950s to 1970s.

The Thames has of course always itself been a major transport link, as well as an obstacle. It used to flow much more slowly than now because the many-arched London Bridge bridge acted as a very effective tidal barrier until it was demolished in the early 1830s. Indeed, the flow of the river was so impeded that the water upstream of the bridge could be up to 2 metres higher than downstream. It was therefore possible for boatmen to offer speedy and effective ferry services in rowing boats. And the sluggish river sometimes froze so much during the winter that 'ice fairs' could be held on it.

Another reason for the faster tidal currents and greater tidal range, as well as the demolition of the old London Bridge, is that the river is now much narrower following much building work, including the construction of the embankments. But the underlying river current remains very slow. It takes three weeks for a floating object to travel from Teddington to Southend. The river has in the past been very polluted, and was at its worst in the big stink of 1858, and again when it was biologically dead around 1910. But it is now relatively clean and is now the largest nursery for North Sea fish.

Follow this link to learn the history of local railways, including the Northern and Victoria Lines.

Kennington Common - now Kennington Park - originally extended as far south as South Island Place, between the Brixton and Clapham Roads. It was the rallying point of the Chartists on 10 April 1848. The Chartists' main demands were votes for all men, annual general elections, secret ballots and so on. Half a million were expected to meet on Kennington Common and then march on Westminster to present a petition signed by 6 million. It was thought that London might then join a series of revolutions which had shaken mainland Europe. In the event, the Government put on a great, if discreet, show of force, including enrolling 170,000 special constables. One historian reports that "London was armed to the teeth". Only 15,000 chartists dared to assemble and the event passed off peacefully. Interestingly, however, the event was the first large scale event to be recorded by means of the new daguerrotype photography:

Click here to read amore detailed history of Kennington Park and the Chartists.

The common also attracted preachers (including John Wesley, the founder of Methodism) and crowds of 20,000 or 30,000 sometimes gathered to hear them. Click here to read a more detailed history of the park.

And Kennington Park was the destination for the world's first motorised double-decker bus. It ran from Victoria to Kennington in 1899 ... and of course it was red.

St Mark's Church, opposite the Oval tube station, was one of the Waterloo churches and finished in 1824. A Parliamentary Act of 1818 provided money to build new churches in the slums "lest a godless people might also be a revolutionary people". The churches were also to be the nation's token of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the victory at Waterloo, hence their collective name. The monies were in fact mainly spent in the middle-class suburbs and did little to alleviate the acute distress and harsh repression which manifested themselves in such demonstrations as "Peterloo". Indeed, St Marks was certainly not in the slums. The area was semi-rural and its congregation was originally very well off so that the church was supported by "pew rents".

The St Marks' site was previously occupied by the Surrey county gallows. The Surrey gallows were famously used in 1746 to hang, and then behead and embowel, a number of those who had joined "Bonnie Prince Charlie" in the 1745 Stuart uprising. (The last public hanging in the UK was in 1868.)

The Penelope Club, the first ladies-only chess club, was founded in Kennington in 1947.

Vauxhall Park was opened in 1890, thanks mainly to the efforts of Octavia Hill (left), who went on to co-found the National Trust. She intended that it would "... form one of those all too few central gardens to which the very young and the very old, the over-worked in brief intervals of work, the convalescent, and the quite poor may find near to their own houses the rest, the air, the outside peace they so often need." The grand opening, below, was by Albert, Prince of Wales.

The Oval was originally a cabbage garden and was opened as a cricket ground in 1846. It was also the place where the first FA Cup Final was played in 1872 - in front of a 2000 strong crowd.

Many prominent local residents are buried in West Norwood Cemetery, about 4 miles south of Kennington but well worth a visit, especially on one of the open days. Originally laid out in 1836 as the South Metropolitan Cemetery. This was the second of the 8 large cemeteries established around London during that period. It is on a beautiful hillside site and contains some very impressive monuments. The Friends of the cemetery have established their own web site.

Henry Percy Adams and Charles Holden designed the Belgrave Hospital for Children, Clapham Road in phases between 1899 and 1926. The hospital is built on a quasi-cruciform plan, with separate ward wings linked by connecting corridors and bridges, thus ensuring the isolation of any wing during an outbreak of infectious disease. This image shows patients in the Artificial Sunlight Treatment Room. Artificial sunlight was used for the promotion and maintenance of good health. The patients in this photograph are wearing goggles to protect their eyes from the ultra violet light.

Imperial Court, near Kennington Cross, is one of the most prominent buildings in Kennington. It was built in 1836 to house the Licensed Victuallers School and from 1921 to 1992 it was the headquarters of the NAAFI (The Navy, Army and Air Forces Institute). Along with the armed services themselves, NAAFI had to grow quickly at the start of World War II. At its largest there were 10,000 outlets including 800 ships' canteens and 900 mobile shops. Imperial Court is now an apartment block, but the NAAFI badge can still be seen at the top of the building.

The Vauxhall/Kennington area suffered serious bombing during the Second World War mainly because it is near important railways and bridges over the Thames. It also got caught up in the 2005 London suicide bombing campaign.

One result of the bomb damage was the creation of a large number of post-war high-rise "Council Estates":- local authority-built social housing. Many survive in good shape to this day, but some have deteriorated very badly, including the Aylesbury Estate to the east of the Walworth Road.

Another result was post-war film-makers could shoot the comedy Passport to Pimlico at the bombsite at the corner of Lambeth Road and Hercules Road - see left-hand photo above. The story involves a group of local residents finding that they are in truth Burgundians, declaring independence, being besieged by the government, and being sustained by food thrown to them by friends and neighbours, including those passing along the nearby [Waterloo to Vauxhall] railway line - see the right hand photo above.

Sainsbury's Nine Elms was the first Sainsbury's supermarket to be built in London. It was opened by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in February 1982.

Planes are today again prominent over Vauxhall, which is about 24km (15 miles) from Heathrow, on the approach flight path. Planes therefore pass over at about 1200 metres (4000 feet). Heathrow has a total of 1300 movements a day - i.e. 650 landings, but only about one third of them, on average, pass over Vauxhall. In good weather, and at peak times, there are only 50 seconds between each plane. The first arrivals in the morning can be as early as around 0430 (from the Far East) and the latest in the evening can be as late as 2300 (from Europe). But both times vary with the incidence of Summer Time, and the winds en route.

Helicopters, too, can frequently be heard flying along the river to Battersea Heliport. Tragically, one of them hit the jib of a crane being used to construct St George - Vauxhall Tower during the rush hour one morning in January 2013. The top of the crane and the top of the building were obscured by cloud at the time; see photo on right taken a few weeks later. The aircraft hit the jib of the crane only 11m below its 219m high tip, well above the top of the 185m high tower. The pilot and a pedestrian were killed when the aircraft crashed in the Wandsworth Road - see photos above and below - but it could have been much much worse ...

Further reading and information ...

... is listed here.