SW2 – Over the hill and far away to … Streatham

Now here’s a funny thing. I always associated SW2 with Brixton but when I came to look at the area SW2 actually covered I discovered most of the places I thought of as Brixton (the tube station, the market, the police station, the former Bon Marche department store and the Academy) are all actually in SW9.

SW2 really only starts at the Ritzy cinema and Lambeth  Town Hall and then heads up Brixton Hill and actually includes a fair chunk of the northern part of Streatham. So we start not in the centre of Brixton but at the Post Office a couple of bus stops up Brixton Hill at nos 104 – 106.

Walking away from Brixton town we go south towards Streatham and soon turn right into Blenheim Gardens, passing the victorian red brick Post Office sorting office and a tatty looking pub called the Windmill which is apparently a thriving music venue, although you would not know from the outside. Continue to the end of the road and enter Windmill Gardens and head towards the Windmill.

Stop 1: Brixton Windmill

Yes, an actual windmill. Here in SW2 and the sails go round too, although sadly they cannot grind flour at the moment.

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This windmill was built in 1816. It was known as Ashby’s mill as they were the family who owned the mill for its entire working life. Wind power was used to mill flour until 1862 by which time the area had become too built up and apparently this meant the windmill could not operate efficiently. Milling was moved to Mitcham but this site continued to be used by the Ashbys for storage. When there were problems with the water wheel at Mitcham, the Brixton mill was put back into use with steam power in 1902. Later a gas engine was used. The mill continued to produce flour until the 1930s.

The Mill was listed as Grade II* in 1951  and was bought by the London County Council from the Ashby family trust in 1957. In the early 1960s, the council laid out the area as an open space but most of the buildings associated with the Mill were demolished.  It is now owned by Lambeth Council and supported by a group of local residents who formed the Friends of Brixton Windmill in 2003.

Although the sails can turn, the milling machinery does not work. The friends are now fundraising to get the mill grinding flour again. The friends do tours from time to time (no charge but voluntary donation willingly accepted), but if you want to visit the upper floors you should book in advance to guarantee a place on the tour. More info at http://www.brixtonwindmill.org/home

Retrace your steps to Brixton Hill and turn right. Continue along Brixton Hill until  Waterworks Road where you should turn right

Stop 2: Brixton Waterworks

Passing a closed down pub (George IV) which looks like it is soon to be a Tesco and ahead is another surprise. A waterworks established under an Act of Parliament of 1832. Originally built as a resevoir by the Lambeth Waterworks Company so that it could expand the area to which it supplied water beyond north Lambeth.

The Lambeth Waterworks Company sold off surplus land to the prison next door in 1836, when it wished to expand.  By the 1870s the reservoir had been covered, presumably to minimise contamination. The Lambeth Company became part of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903. By the second half of the 20th century the covered reservoirs with their brick vaulted roofs had grassed over and were used as a sports ground.

Thames Water still own the site so you can only get as far as the gates. But peeking through the gates you can see the windmill beyond the industrial buildings. I now realise this was was I was looking at from when I went up the windmill (see last photograph in this group)

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Apparently the London water ring main passes under this site at about 45 metres below ground. But this is not something you see from the gate.

Retrace you steps back to Brixton Hill and turn right continuing to Jebb Avenue.  You can go down Jebb Avenue a little way for our next stop

Stop 3: Brixton Prison

There has been a prison on this site since 1819. It was first known as Surrey House of Correction. The building was extended at various dates, and in 1852 the prison was sold to Sir William Tite, an architect, as an investment, who sold it on to the Government less than a year later at a profit said to be £4,550. The Surveyor General of Prisons at the time was one Colonel Jebb so hence the name of the street that runs into the prison.   The prison now serves a number of courts in South London and houses a mixture of remand and sentenced prisoners. This picture was as close as I thought I would go to the prison!

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One notable inmate in 1967 was a certain Mick Jagger, although he only stayed one night. Presumably he was let out on bail pending appeal. He had been sentence to three months for a drugs offence but this was later amended to a conditional discharge on appeal.

Go back to Brixton Hill and find a safe place to cross, but do try and look back towards Brixton, as you will see a good view of the City (but not in my photo!)

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Stop 4 : Rush Common

Now you may have noticed that the buildings on the eastern side of Brixton Hill are set back a long was from the road and in a number of places there is grass but in other places it is used for car parking. This is Rush Common, which it turns out is rather unique.

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This is not actually a Common in legal terms. According to Lambeth Council, it is not registered under the Commons legislation. Rather it is subject to the Rush Common Act 1806 – an Enclosure Act, which enclosed and divided certain common lands into private ownership to allow for their better use.  Section 17 of the Act sought to maintain the open character of Rush Common land by preventing building, which I guess is why almost all the buildings are set back so far off the road. Subsequent legislation amended the Act, providing powers to allow for the building of St Matthews Church and to provide enforcement powers, which now rest with Lambeth Council.

There are buildings or parts of buildings on parts of Rush Common Land but these were constructed before planning controls were introduced. But a large proportion of Rush Common Land is in Council ownership and used as public open space or housing land as part of residents amenity space. The remainder is in numerous private ownerships and made up of residential and commercial properties with distinctive deep frontages. There is no right of access onto the land that is in private ownership. More info on this unusual arrangement, including the planning controls which apply, is  on the Lambeth Council website:  http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/Services/HousingPlanning/Planning/RushCommonland.htm

Keep on walking down the east side of Brixton Hill until you reach this closed up looking building just before the junction with the South Circular Road

Stop 5:  Old Tram depot

The sign over the arch gives the game away. It says LCC trams. And yes this really was a tram shed and amazingly it is still used today by the Arriva bus company. Their sign is by the door.

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Trams were a key reason why this area developed in the first place. First of all the horse trams of the Metropolitan Street Tramways Company came in 1892. However as the horses would have found it difficult to get up Brixton Hill, a cable haulage system was introduced. Apparently much like the San Francisco cable cars, except the cable was only used for the hill and the rest of the route to Westminster Bridge was still drawn by horses. This was in fact the second cable car line in London, the first was opened in Highgate in 1884. The tramway on Brixton Hill was electrified in 1904 and this unique way of working disappeared.

There are some great pictures of the old trams on the Urban75 site: http://www.urban75.org/brixton/history/brixton-hill-tram.html

This particular building is of a later vintage by which time the trams here had been acquired by the London County Council. It was designed by the London County Council’s architect, G Topham Forest. This shed opened 1924 and had a modest capacity of 30 electric tramcars, operating in conjunction with the larger shed which is now where Brixton Bus garage is – more of which anon. For many years this was occupied by a motor dealer but in the nougties, it was apparently acquired by London Buses and so Arriva now use it in conjunction with their Brixton garage, so it has kind of gone full circle.

We now cross back over Brixton Hill and then the South Circular Road.

Stop 6: Crown and Sceptre pub

This Wetherspoon pub was built in the 1820s or 1830s. According to Weatherspoons, the queen’s dress-maker, Norman Hartnell, was born in Streatham, the son of the publican of the Crown & Sceptre. As the last two pubs (George IV by the Waterworks and the Telegraph – between the prison and the tram shed) we have passed have shut down, this was pretty much the first place for a short refreshment break. Looks better from the outside but there is a shady outdoor seating area.

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Cross over the main road which has now become Streatham Hill, and keeping walking towards Streatham. On your left is a private 1930s development of flats 

Stop 7: Pullman court

According to architectural historian Pevser, this development is a “display of the motifs of picturesque modern planning and design, with old trees as part of the composition” with a grouping three and seven storeyed blocks. The walls are of white plaster and there are metal railings and metal window frames.  Looks very nice from the outside but I am not sure about these kind of developments. Apparently most of the flats are on 126 year leases dating from 1976, so they have less than 90 years to run which I am told does not make for an attractive proposition for a mortgage. And then of course there are the service charges.

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Stop 8: Brixton Bus garage

This is one of the really big bus garages. It started life as noted above as a tram depot and in fact it provided the steam driven winding gear for the cable tramway of late victorian times. Nothing of that orginal building exists as the current garage dates from the early 1950s.  One little curoisity is that many buses terminate here but they never ever say they are going to Brixton Bus garage. They use the destination “Streatham Hill, Telford Avenue”. I guess this was to avoid confusion as Brixton Bus Garage is really in Streatham. But it could not be called Streatham garage because there used to be another garage on the south side of Streatham which was called Streatham Garage

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Past the bus garage, there are three palaces of entertainment on the west side of the road in quick succession all dating from the late 1920s and early 1930s.  

Stop 9: Former Streatham Hill Theatre

First is the Streatham Hill Theatre, designed by noted theatre architect G.W.R. Sprague together with architect W.H. Barton. It was Sprague’s last theatre and was one of the largest live theatres to be built in the suburbs of London with originally with around 3,000 seats over three levels.

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The theatre opened in November 1929. It was always independently operated, and was a popular live theatre with just some limited cinema use. The auditorium received a direct hit from a German V1 rocket bomb on 3rd July 1944. One person was killed and several were injured. However as the Streatham Hill Theatre had previously operated so successfully, clearly it was felt that it could again be successful as a live theatre. The building was restored back to its original glory, re-opening on 26th December 1950. But clearly the world was moving on. It finally closed as a theatre was in June 1962 and was converted into a Mecca Bingo Club later that year. It is still open but is now called the Riva Bingo club.

About 5 years ago a local artist Timothy Sutton saw some of the patrons standing outside having a cigarette as they have to do following the smoking ban. He painted their portraits which can be seen at  http://www.bingogirls.net/

Walk a little further down the road where you can see boarded up a bowling alley which was at one time a cinema. 

Stop 10: Former Gaumont Palace cinema

The Gaumont Palace cinema opened in March 1932. Gaumont was a national chain of cinemas which never really made it, ending up being bought by Odeon.

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This building has not had a happy life and was used as a cinema for only about 18 years in total. Like the Streatham Hill Theatre, it was also damaged by a German V1 rocket in July 1944. But it had to wait longer to be rebuilt only reopening until July 1955 by which time it was called just the Gaumont. It closed as a cinema in March 1961 and the interior was reconstructed as one of them new fangled bowling alleys, which opened in January 1962.

I guess it was not such a great loss to the stock of London cinemas because according Allen Eyles in his “Gaumont British Cinemas” book:  “the Auditorium was uninspired and had acoustic problems: an echo could be heard at the back of the circle from certain positions.” He goes on to suggest that this cinema was no match for the nearby Astoria (later Odeon) or Regal (later ABC) cinemas.

The bowling alley closed in early 2008 and the building has been unused since then. Apparently there are plans for redevelopment. Hopefully the facade will be saved.

And just a few more steps along another sad looking building, a closed down night club.

Stop 11: Former Locarno Ballroom

This is the former Locarno Ballroom, opened in 1929 by the band leader Billy Cotton. It was one of the first, if not the first, purpose built ballrooms in Britain. This formed a chain owned by Mecca. Many stars appeared here in the early days including Glenn Miller, Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. In the sixties bands such as  The Rolling Stones and The Small Faces were here. And before disco took hold this was the place to come to dance, and these ballrooms, the Locarno included, would feature in the original “Come Dancing” television series.

The Locarno has undergone many changes, becoming a disco and nightclub with numerous name changes from ‘The Cats Whiskers’ in 1969, ‘ The Studio’ in 1984, ‘The Ritzy’ in 1990 and finally ‘Caesars Night Club’ in 1995.  When the doors closed in 2010, an article in the Local Guardian advertised the auction of the chariot and horse that once adorned the entrance.

“For sale: one Roman chariot, four horses, featured in a Spice Girls video – price on application. Preferred buyer local to area”

Like its near neighbour the former Gaumont cinema, it is awaiting redevelopment. Planning permission has been given for a residential and shopping development.

So now we are practically at Streatham Hill station and still in SW2. In addition to the train there are numerous buses for your onward journey. Alternatively there are the delights of Streatham proper to “tempt”, but we must wait until we get to SW16 before we venture there. So the SW2 walk has been a very different character to the first walk in SW1. We started with the workaday world – a mill, a waterworks and a prison, moved through a little bit of transport ending up with three examples of how mass entertainment developed in the inter war years. Now on to SW3 which will certainly be different again.

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6 thoughts on “SW2 – Over the hill and far away to … Streatham

  1. You did not do Upper Tulse Hill, Tulse Hill, including High Trees Community Trust which is our old library and Tulse Hill Estate and Brockwell Park. , a lot of Sw2 is Tulse Hill and it does not get mention

    • Sorry but I never claim to go everywhere in a postcode. It just is not possible to include the whole postcode in a format of 10 – 12 stops on a walk.

  2. Insightful post, it is great to learn some new facts about the area I live in. I’m a resident of Pullman Court and it’s so nice to see you feature it here. We hosted many art deco/modernist enthusiasts this weekend at Open House, which was a real pleasure. In case any of your readers are curious, service charge is really reasonable and it’s a delight living in such a well designed, beautiful building. I am looking forward to reading more posts.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment. I have always loved Pullman Court and knew I had to include it in the SW2 walk. I had wondered about the service charges. I know it puts a lot off people off. Great you were able to share the building on Open House weekend.

  3. Another great post Stephen. Brixton garage also of course received the last ever scheduled Routemaster journey (heritage routes aside of course…), the 159 from Marble Arch on the 9th December 2009. I was lucky enough to be passing on my scooter (quite by accident!) just as it turned off the road and entered the garage.

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