Saturday, December 12th 2015
After a breakfast of vinegary eggs Benedict in a cafe near king’s Cross (which shall rename nameless as we shall never go there again), we caught a bus for a long ride that took us south of the river. It was a cold and somewhat grey day, not really propitious for prolonged expeditions, but if you wait for ideal weather in the UK, you are likely to wait a long time.
We eventually clambered off the bus at Streatham Hill Station. From here we would follow the main road, Streatham High Road, as far as Tooting Bec Road, and if you wish, you can trace our route on this Google Map. There are three train stations with Streatham in their names, this one, Streatham Common Station and plain Streatham Station. Streatham Hill opened in 1852 and the dates of the other two are left as an exercise for the reader
So where and what is Streatham? (‘Streatham’ is pronounced as though it rhymes with ‘let ‘em’.) These days, the name applies to a wide area, most of which falls within the London Borough of Lambeth, but the name goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. However, the settlement to which the name was applied came into being much earlier, in the Roman period, in fact.
It is generally agreed that the name means ‘the village on the street’, the street in question being a major Roman road connecting London with Portslade (now part of Brighton and Hove) on the south coast, where it is thought that there was a Roman sea port. The road was therefore very important and well used – and still is today. It seems that the ‘village on the street’ was at a convenient spot where travellers from Londinium could pause for rest and refreshment.
We wandered slowly along Streatham High Road, often stopping off in shops to rummage around and warm up again. This is a busy and well stocked shopping area and we picked up a few things for Christmas as we went. What follows are a few photos of some of the things we saw.
On a main thoroughfare such as this, you expect to see a lot of pubs and in Streatham this expectation is not disappointed. This handsome example, called the Horse and Groom, was probably built in the early 1850s and its size suggests it may have provided rooms for travellers breaking their journey.
I believe that Streatham was quite an ‘up-market’ district in the inter-war years, as witness the number of rather fine Art Deco buildings and shop fronts. Leigham Hall is an apartment block that was built in 1932 and is still in use. The name Leigham appears in at least two street names (and a third one that was renamed) but I have no idea who or what it commemorates.
It was intrigued by the decorations on the doors. Leigham Hall has two entrances, each with a pair of doors. One door is missing its animal but the three others still have theirs. I think it is a stylized ibex but do not know why that animal was chosen. It is rather charming, though.
The street is called Streatham High Road, no doubt owing to its role as an important route for inter-city traffic, but it is also the local equivalent of the High Street, the place where the local inhabitants do their regular shopping. High streets often bear witness to the area’s history and the changes that have occurred through time. This street is no exception and numerous vestiges from the past remain, such as this handsome Art Deco shop front. It belonged Sharman’s dress and draper’s shop and was built in 1929. The shop’s styling and size indicate that it was a large and successful business and there seem to have been similar shops of the same name in other locations. I don’t know when this one closed down but the premises is today inhabited by another successful, multi-branch business, W.H. Smith.
The White Lion is of the same vintage as the Horse and Groom (early 1850s) but is built in a completely different style. It also has an extra feature.
At one end is an archway that would once have led to the yard. The space has now been given over to other uses though the name over the door – Stables Community Centre – alludes to its original use.
At the end point of today’s peregrination, we found the Catholic Church of the English Martyrs. This French Gothic style church was built in 1892-4, architect A.E. Purdie, though it has an extension in the same style added in 1962 (by T. Sibthorpe). We took a look inside and it would have been worth a few photos but as there were a number of people praying and a gentleman in an ecclesiastical collar keeping an eye on us, we felt it discreet to refrain. Another day, perhaps. The church is Grade II* listed.
Not too far away is another church, the parish church of St Leonard (Church of England). This church too is listed and has been awarded a Grade II (without the star). When was it built? That might be a little difficult to answer. English Heritage dates it thus: ‘c1350 and later including work by J T Parkinson in 1831, William Dyce in 1863, and (following a major fire) the Douglas Feast Partnership in 1975-7’.
There are some buildings that are immediately recognizable for what they are (or were), even if they are no longer being used for their original purpose and no longer bear their founder’s name. The prime examples of that are old stores built by Burton’s, the gents’ outfitters. This one, now a pub, is a nice example of their Art Deco style, built in 1932. A pleasant feature is the elephant head decorations.
Off the High Road runs a street called Prentis Road where we discovered two buildings of note. The first was this delightful Edwardian postal sorting office. Designed in red brick by Jasper Wager, it opened in about 1906. With so many Royal Mail buildings being sold off and ‘repurposed’, it is always a pleasure to find one (and especially such a pretty one) still fulfilling its original role.
Just opposite the sorting office in the same street is another building of character. Since 1938 it has been the South London Liberal Synagogue but before that it had a different purpose. Designed by Sidney Smith, it opened in 1909 for the use of the Streatham College for Girls with the name of Lady Tate Hall. The Lady Tate in question was the second wife of the sugar magnate, Henry Tate, mentioned below. The school itself, originally called Streatham High School for Girls, was accommodated in a house at 254 Streatham High Road, demolished when the school finally closed in 1933. The Prentis Road building, left purposeless, was converted into a synagogue in 1938.
Almost opposite Prentis Road is a street with the picturesque name of Shrubbery Road. Among its residents is the Whole Meal Cafe which serves only vegetarian and vegan dishes. As it’s always a pleasure to find such an establishment, we went there for lunch.
Above, I mentioned Lady Tate and her husband Henry Tate, the sugar producer. Originally from Lancashire, Tate moved to Streatham in 1881 and his second wife was born locally. Tate made many donations to the community and it may have been his wife who suggested his gift to Streatham.
The Tate Free Library was presented to the inhabitants of Streatham in 1890. Designed by Sidney Smith, it is a large and imposing building of stone. Smith was also the architect of the Tate Gallery in London and of the Brixton Tate Library. The Streatham Tate Library reopened in March 2014 after a £1.4m refurbishment.
The interior of the library has been modernized, of course, and boasts, among other furnishings, automatic machines for borrowing and returning books. I did notice this stained glass window, though, reminding us of the original foundation.
Unusually for a public library, this one possesses a fine, large clock with two faces, making it visible for a considerable distance in either direction along the High Road. The clock was not part of the original design of the library but was added in 1912. It was funded by public subscription as a memorial to King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria and monarch for the first decade of the 20th century. The front edge of the clock bears Edward’s royal cipher and the inscription
That is, the years of the King’s reign, 1901-1910, and ‘R[ex] I[mperator]’, indicating his standing as King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India1.
This is just a glimpse of one small part of Streatham and by no means a complete portrait of even that fragment. Streatham is a lively area and one that has seen and continues to see, many changes in economic fortune and demographic shifts. Perhaps we will find our way back for further exploratory visits.
1The somewhat controversial imperial title was assumed first by Queen Victoria in 1876 (accompanied by the notation of ‘Ind. Imp’ on the coinage) and was inherited by the next four monarchs, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. When India was granted its independence in 1948, during the reign of the latter king, the imperial title ceased to exist.