Local History

A Brief History of Peckham

Carl Evans HMO Lettings   Carl Evans

Living just on the outskirts of Peckham and running an independent specialist HMO Letting Agency that lets HMOs in Peckham, I thought I’d investigate the history of the area. Once a sleepy, agricultural district, Peckham has steadily grown into one of the most diverse parts of London that has produced heroes, inspired the arts and is home to several places of interest.

Pecheham 500
In the Domesday Book, the first Norman charter of England written in the late 1080s, chroniclers mention Peckham as “Pecheham”. Pecheham is believed to be an Anglo-Saxon word; “peche” meaning hill, and “ham” meaning village (we get the word ‘hamlet’ from this). The fact that Peckham sits at the base of Telegraph hill supports this interpretation.

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, Peckham remained true to this name as it remained a very small hamlet, maintaining a tiny population of around 500 villagers until the late 17th century. During this time, Peckham hosted markets at which farmers would sell fresh produce, such as melons, figs and herbs to buyers from the City of London.

Inspiration for the Arts
Peckham, for centuries, has been an inspiration for the arts, stirring the imagination of musicians, painters, poets, writers and more.

The first, born in 1572, was the cleric, politician and poet John Donne, who is known as “the first poet in the world in some things”. He studied at Oxford and Cambridge University and is cited with the famous quote; ‘No man is an island. No one is self-sufficient; everyone relies on others.’ An admirer of the delights associated with Peckham being a peaceful and rural village, Donne visited Peckham regularly and it is thought that Donne penned many poems here. John Donne Primary School in east Peckham pays homage to the preeminent poet.

In the 18th Century one of most popular novels was The Vicar of Wakefield, which was thought to have been written in Peckham by local Irish resident playwright Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith, was once described by his closest friend Dr Samuel Johnson as a “curious odd pedantic fellow with some genius”. It is in fact thanks to Johnson that The Vicar of Wakefield ever saw the light of day:

One morning there was an urgent message from Oliver Goldsmith to Samuel Johnson soliciting his urgent help. The message proclaimed that he, Goldsmith, could not come to Johnson but Johnson must come to him – and quickly. Johnson quickly got dressed and rushed to Goldsmith and found him drunk, uncontrollably angry and in a bit of bother with his landlady. He owed money for rent and his landlady had arrested him with the aid of a bailiff. Samuel Johnson tried to calm the situation down and Goldsmith frantically explained to him that he didn’t have any money but did have a fully written completed novel – which he thought was rather good. The landlady unimpressed did not agree and did not want to accept the novel as rent payment.

In Samuel Johnson’s words; ‘I looked into it (the novel) and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return; and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill’. £60 in the 1700’s is approximately £6000 today. The Vicar of Wakefield became one of the most widely read publications in the Victorian era

Samuel Johnson The Vicar of Wakefield

Samuel Johnson first reading The Vicar of Wakefield

Today, Peckham is home to a primary school bearing Goldsmith’s name, located on Peckham Road, Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, which began its operations in 1990. The fact that Goldsmith now has a school bearing his name is a little ironic as Goldsmith is known to have hated studying and teaching in school.

During this time another dramatic occurrence happened in Peckham. A young boy walking through what is now Peckham Rye Park, claims to have had a vision of Ezekiel crouched under a tree. Ezekiel is the main character in the Book of Ezekiel featured in the Old Testament. A few years later, in the exact same spot, the same boy saw another vision. This time it was a glistening chorus of angels perched on an oak tree. This young boy was painter and poet William Blake.

Visions were a source of inspiration throughout William Blake’s life including when he lived in Peckham. These visions are thought to have inspired a lot of his art and writings. Famous paintings of Blake’s are The Ancient of Days, Satan, and Ezekiel’s Wheels (below) – most doubtlessly inspired by his walk through Peckham Rye Park. Blake also wrote several seminal works of poetry, many of which are thought to have been penned in Peckham such as The Songs of Innocence and Experience. While the original tree in Peckham Rye Park on which the Blake’s angels sat is not there today, the Blake Society planted an Oak Tree Sapling at the site in 2011 to commemorate Blake’s vision.

Ezekiel’s Wheels Peckham

Ezekiel’s Wheels

The Victorian era
As the English economy and population grew at near exponential rates in the 1800s, the rural character of Peckham began to alter, changing drastically by the end of the Victorian period. One of the most impressive structures built in Peckham at this time was Caroline Gardens.

Built in the 1820s by the Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution, Caroline Gardens was a retirement sanctuary for ‘victuallers’ or, people who were licensed to sell alcohol. Spanning six acres, it once housed 205 people in 176 separate units and includes a gorgeous, now part-ruined, Grade II Chapel.

Asylum Chapel Peckham

The now derelict Asylum Chapel

Another impressive Victorian project was Nunhead Cemetery. Established in1840 on the border of Peckham is the second largest cemetery in London covering 52 acres and having close to 300,000 people buried here. It is the home to a magnificent Neo-Gothic Anglican chapel yet one of the most striking features of the cemetery is that the majority of tomb markers are extravagant Victorian-style works of architecture, not necessarily small headstones.

The cemetery is the final resting spot for famous academics, authors, explorers, many young men who lost their lives in The Great War and WWII, a US Civil War veteran, and most notably to 9 scouts. These young boys, aged 11 to 14, from a scout troop in South London were on a summer camp in Kent when tragedy struck. Whilst sailing during a storm the boys were thrown out of their boat, lost, and the coastguard could not reach them in time. One of the victims was William Beckham aged 12 who is the great-great uncle of David Beckham.

First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, organized for a Destroyer to ship the bodies back to the capital. Public bereavement was to such an extent that almost one million people watched the funeral procession from Walworth to Nunhead Cemetery.

Nunhead Cemetery

Scouts memorial

Peckham Rye Park opened to the public in 1894, after being purchased by Parliament, which intended to make the beautiful green space open to the public. Before Peckham Rye was a park, a few families lived there. One such family was the Taylor family, who, in 1858 had Elizabeth Mary Taylor. Later, Elizabeth went on to marry George Cadbury, founder of the major chocolate brand which is enjoyed by the millions to this day.

The Heroes of Peckham
One of the most notable people ever born in Peckham is First World War Hero Jack ‘The Lad’ Harvey. He enlisted as a private in 1914 and fought in Ypres, the Battle of the Somme and in the Battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front.

During Battle of Passchendaele he and his regiment were held up and trapped by excessive machine gun fire. Running out of options Harvey sprinted forward alone for 50 meters towards the machine gun fire in the face of flying bullets. He sprang into the enemy trench, shot two Germans, bayoneted another and killed all three. He then destroyed the machine gun and proceeded along inside the enemy trench by himself. He kept going until he found a dugout packed with German soldiers, 37 soldiers in total. Rushing in with great daring and determination he made all 37 Germans put down their weapons and surrender.

This act of bravery saved his regiment and helped with the success of the overall mission. For his valor on the 8th March 1919 King George V awarded Jack ‘The Lad’ Harvey with the highest award of the British honours system, the Victoria Cross.

Two of the most famous individuals from Peckham are known all over the UK and beyond; fictional characters Derek and Rodney Trotter. From 1981-1991 Jon Sullivan’s popular BBC sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, featured such episodes as The Miracle of Peckham and Sleepless in Peckham. One of the seasons trailers was called It’s all kicking off in Peckham and almost every episode was based in Peckham.

In one episode Terrance Boyce, told a fictitious story about the Earl of Peckham, who resided in Peckham castle during the 15th Century. Peckham never had an Earl, nor did ever have a castle above its medieval farmyards. However, one particular plotline did have a prophetic effect on the real world. In the early 2000s, when consumers accused the bottled water company, Dasani, of filling bottles with common tap water and not from water from a natural spring as the Dasani label led many to believe, fans of Only Fools and Horses pleasantly remembered the episode when Del Boy peddled bottles of water filled from the tap in his kitchen, marketing the product to consumers as “Peckham Spring.”

In one episode Terrance Boyce, told a fictitious story about the Earl of Peckham, who resided in Peckham castle during the 15th Century. Peckham never had an Earl, nor did ever have a castle above its medieval farmyards. However, one particular plotline did have a prophetic effect on the real world. In the early 2000s, when consumers accused the bottled water company, Dasani, of filling bottles with common tap water and not from water from a natural spring as the Dasani label led many to believe, fans of Only Fools and Horses pleasantly remembered the episode when Del Boy peddled bottles of water filled from the tap in his kitchen, marketing the product to consumers as “Peckham Spring.”

Only Fools and Horses Peckham

Trotters Independent Trading Co Reliant parked in Peckham today

If you’re also interested in the history if Peckham and think I’ve missed anything, please let me know, you can contact me here. If you have a HMO in Peckham and you’d like to find out how we can help, feel free to browse our services or call us on 0208 895 6195.

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live on the border of Peckham and am the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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