The History of Nunhead


The origin of the name Nunhead is uncertain. However, it may be connected with the nunnery of St. John the Baptist, Halliwell (Shoreditch), which acquired lands in Camberwell and Peckham in the 12th century, which later formed the manor of Camberwell Friern. The name is mentioned in a deed of 1583, in which Edgar Scott sold to Thomas and William Patching a fifth part of the manor of Camberwell Buckingham, including estates “lying at Nunn-head”. The name “free slots cleopatra” appears on John Rocque’s Topographical Map of the County of Surrey published in 1762.

Rocque’s 1762 map shows the area as still largely rural with the settlement at None Head no more than a small group of scattered houses on the northern and western sides of what today is Nunhead Green. During the next 80 years this situation only changed slowly. In 1842, Dewhirst’s map of the parish of Camberwell shows Nunhead as still a small hamlet surrounded by market gardens and open fields. However, it also shows the recently consecrated Nunhead Cemetery, which had been laid out on a 52 acre site on Nunhead Hill to the south of the Green in 1840, and it was this that marked the beginning of the area’s urbanisation.

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At this time, Nunhead was still far enough from the bustle of the Metropolis to afford a quiet retreat for the retired. Two establishments took advantage of this to erect almshouses. In 1834 the Girdlers’ Company built a range of seven houses in Albert (now Consort) Road for freemen of the Company or their wives, to commemorate Cuthbert Beeston, who had been Master of the Company in 1570; and in 1852 the Metropolitan Beer and Wine Trade Society erected a range, also of seven houses, on the north side of Nunhead Green (see below).

Alms Houses

The first edition of the 25” to 1 mile Ordnance Survey, surveyed in the late 1860s/early 1870s, shows the process of development under way. Linden Grove and Nunhead Grove, linking Nunhead Lane with the Cemetery, are partially lined with genteel detached and semidetached villas with spacious rear gardens, while other streets nearby are beginning to be built up with terraces of smaller houses. By the turn of the 20th century, this process is virtually complete, as can be seen on the 2nd edition of the 25” Ordnance Survey. This shows the area as predominantly residential but with a few industrial and institutional buildings interspersed among the rows of houses. Conspicuous, in addition to the two groups of almshouses, are street corner public houses, a Salvation Army Citadel, nonconformist places of worship and church halls, and, in Gordon Road, a laundry and a Red Pottery Works. By the First World War there had been added to these the Passmore Edwards Library (1896), and a Relief Station (opened 1901 by the Camberwell Board of Guardians).

An inevitable consequence of the growth of the suburbs was the loss of open space and during the second half of the 19th century a number of voluntary bodies grew up with the objective of lobbying municipal authorities to preserve suburban open space. In Camberwell the first successful initiative was in 1857, when the public subscribed £3,000 to preserve Camberwell Green. In 1868 the entire interest of the lord of the manor in Peckham Rye, Goose Green and Nunhead Green was bought by the Vestry for £1,000 on condition that they remained open to the public in perpetuity. These were laid out and opened under the authority of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1882. Through much of the 20th century the Green was an asphalt-covered playground but it was reinstated in the 1980s and improvements were made in 2001.

World War II bomb damage was limited with the result that The Nunhead area has to a large extent managed to preserve its 19th and early 20th century appearance.

Exert taken from the Nunhead Conservation Area appraisal; Southwark Council

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