SE5 is Camberwell. This was once quite an entertainment centre. Not now. Today it is a major focus for buses, but it has been unserved by rail transport for a hundred years despite there being a line almost through its centre.
We start our walk at the Post Office at 25 Denmark Hill. Turn left and head towards the junction. Our first stop is the large building at the corner with the Nandos on the ground floor.
Stop 1: site of Metropole/Empire Theatre/Odeon Cinema
This large corner site was a place of entertainment for many years. First there was the Metropole Theatre which opened in October 1894. In 1906 it was renamed Camberwell Empire Theatre. Films were being shown from 1914 and from 1918 it became a mixed use live theatre and cinema known as the Camberwell Theatre and Picture House. From 1924 it was a full time cinema known as the Camberwell Empire and Picture Palace.
Odeon bought the theatre in May 1937. It closed in August 1937 and was quickly demolished for a new Odeon Theatre to be built on an expanded site. The Odeon opened in March 1939.
A key difference from its predecessor was the location of the entrance. The entrance to the original theatre was at the corner of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane, whereas the new Odeon was designed with a matching entrance on each road, with a square fin tower clad in light yellow tiles and carrying the name “Odeon”.
The cinema was never split up and was closed in July 1975. After six years of disuse, in 1981 it became a pile ’em high sell ’em cheap jeans warehouse called Dickie Dirts. That lasted a couple of years and then the building was disused again, finally being demolished in spring 1993, There is now a block of flats for homeless young people here.
Now retrace your steps to the corner of Orpheus Street (right back by the Post Office)
Stop 2: site of the Palace Theatre
At this corner was a theatre called the Camberwell Palace which opened in 1899. Films formed part of the variety bill in the early 1900’s but in September 1932, it was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC). It became a full time cinema, known as the Palace Cinema. When ABC opened their new Regal Cinema (which we shall see shortly) in 1940, and they disposed of the Palace Cinema to an independent operator.
After a few years, it re-opened under new management in April 1943 as a live variety theatre, and went back to its original name, Camberwell Palace Theatre. The Palace Theatre then went over to staging ‘girlie’ shows. No doubt this was Camberwell’s answer to the famous Windmill theatre in Soho. One of the ways round the law at the time was that the “girls” could only be naked if they were still, as in a work of art in a gallery. Unfortunately one of the girls here, the delightfully named Peaches Page (aged 19) broke the law by moving whilst in the nude. A mouse had come on stage while she posed. She was sacked and the Palace Theatre was closed soon after in April 1956. No long after it was demolished and replaced by this dull looking building. This was until recently HSBC bank.
Much more info on this and the Metropole/Empire on the wonderful Arthur Lloyd site.
(Interestingly the usually great Cinema Treasures site, has a slightly different story, talking about the theatre called the Oriental being built here in 1896 and then replaced. Arthur Lloyd says that this never actually happened. Also Cinema Treasures gives the address as 23 – 31 Denmark Hill but says the site of the theatre was where the Post Office is now. That is number 25 Denmark Hill whereas the HSBC bank branch was 23 Denmark Hill. However the picture on the Cinema Treasures site looks like the old theatre was on the left hand corner of the side street (the HSBC side) rather than the right hand (Post Office) corner. So I think the evidence suggests Arthur Lloyd is right.)
Now immediately over the road was another place of entertainment.
Stop 3: a former cinema (28 – 32 Denmark Hill)
The building which now houses a Co-Op supermarket started out in 1913 or 1914 as the Golden Domes Picture Theatre, The building originally had a very decorative exterior with large domes on each side. Right through to the late 1930s it operated on a policy of mixing movies with variety performances.
The cinema was refurbished and renamed Rex Cinema in January 1952. It was taken over by the Essoldo chain in August 1954 becoming the Essoldo Cinema in January 1956.
The cinema closed in August 1964 and the building was converted into a supermarket. The ornate facade was removed, but you can still see the roof of what must have been the auditorium from the street
Our next stop is back on the same side as the Post Office where you will find a little shopping precinct.
Stop 4: Butterfly Walk
Camberwell has a somewhat underwhelming pedestrian shopping area, called Butterfly Walk.
And there is even a butterfly on one of the buildings facing Denmark Hill.
I puzzled over this as I could find nothing on the web about the age of the shopping centre or why it is called Butterfly Walk. But then I discovered that there is a butterfly known in Britain as the Camberwell Beauty, first spotted in Coldharbour Lane in 1748. This butterfly can be found in both Europe and North America and elsewhere it is known as “Mourning Cloak”. the butterfly has mainly dark wings but they are edged with bright yellow and some blue. The pattern has been likened to a girl in mourning who defiantly lets a glimpse of a brightness show below her mourning dress.
Now head to the main road junction and take a left.
Stop 5: Two Bus Garages
Curiously Camberwell has two bus garages almost opposite each other. As we walk along the road, the one on the left is called Camberwell Garage and is run by Go-Ahead London.
This was built as a bus garage and although finished in 1914 it was actually only used from 1919. It is one of the largest bus garages in London and extends a long way down the side road and across to the next street.
And the one on the right is called Walworth Garage.
This garage is run by Abellio, a wholly owned subsidiary of Netherlands state-controlled rail operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS). It uses the NS logo.
The site started as Camberwell Tram Depot in 1891. Then in 1950, it became a bus garage. As there was already a Camberwell Bus Garage, it changed its name to Walworth Bus Garage, even though it is actually in Camberwell..
Just before the railway bridge and opposite to the entrance to Walworth Garage, you will see a street on the left called Camberwell Station Road. Go down here.
Stop 6: site of Camberwell station
And soon you will see a street called Station Terrace.
But the thing is that there has not been a passenger station here for a hundred years.
There was one here, opened in October 1862 by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway as part of the company’s new route into the City of London. In May 1863 it became known as Camberwell New Road but in October 1908 reverted to the name Camberwell.
As with many other lesser used London stations, it was closed to passenger traffic during the First World War. It never reopened. Camberwell was well served by electric tram services which gave direct access to more places that the railway could, so like many of these inner suburban stations the traffic had been in decline anyway..
The trams had gone by the early 1950s but Camberwell remained unconnected by rail. There had been plans in the 1930s to extend the Bakerloo line here from Elephant and Castle starting but after the Second World War, there was no money for this kind of project.
The idea was revived in around 2006 and since then Transport for London has consulted on various ideas about extending the Bakerloo line to Lewisham and possibly beyond. However the most recent consultation (February 2017) makes clear the preferred route is along Old Kent Road missing out Camberwell completely. However Camberwell may still get reconnected to the rail network as there is now talk of reinstating the station here so it would be served by Thameslink trains.
There is precious little left of the old station which closed in April 1916. At track level there is the ghost of an island platform and at street level there is a much altered building which I guess would have been the entrance and ticket hall.
It has lost its upper floor and the main structure has been used as a car repair facility. But you can just about imagine it as a station.
By the way if you look on the other side of the road you can see a large bus park which is part of the huge Camberwell Bus Garage.
Now retrace your steps back to Camberwell Green where you should turn left, continuing with the Green on your right. Our next stop is just beyond the end of the green on the left.
Stop 7: Former ABC cinema
Now we have an old cinema building which is still standing largely intact.
This was the Regal Cinema. It had been started just before the start of the Second World War and it was finished off finally opening in June 1940. It had been developed by an independent company but was sold to Associated British Cinemas prior to completion.
Within weeks of opening, in September 1940, the Regal was closed by bomb damage but it quickly reopened the next month. It was renamed ABC in December 1961 and finally closed in October 1973.
It was converted into a Bingo Hall and operated under various names including Jasmine and Gala until February 2010, when it suddenly closed. The building was sold to a church which is what it is today.
Return to Camberwell Green and our next stop is around the first part of the green you get to.
Stop 8: Camberwell Green memorials
There are a number of memorials here. First there is a bench round a tree, dedicated to Corporal Sidney Bates VC.
He was a local lad who was killed in France and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Gallantry.
Then there is a path to the left with a couple of Second World War memorials.
Immediately to your right is one dedicated simply “For those who lost their lives in the Second World War”.
But further on is a more site specific one, and one with a very poignant story.
Although the plaque starts off “In memory of the people of Camberwell who died or suffered in War” it then goes on to record a specific incident from 17 September 1940. There was a direct hit on a bomb shelter here and it killed 13 members of the same family who had just been celebrating a wedding.
Here is a link to the story in the Guardian from 2007
And then to the left of this is a chunky wooden bench.
This has a little plaque which says “The CoolTan Arts bench. A safe place to sit, rest and a gift to our local community. Dedicated to Debbie and everyone with experience of mental distress.”
CoolTan Arts is an arts in mental health charity run by and for adults with experience of mental health conditions. According to its website, CoolTan Arts has existed since 1991 and became a charity in 1997. It took its name from the disused CoolTan sun lotion factory where the founders of CoolTan squatted. Today it is based in railway arched near to here in Walworth Road.
I do wonder about siting a bench referencing mental distress so close to three war memorials. Which came first, I wonder?
Now go to the end of the Green and turn left. Our next stop is in Wilson Road a side turning on the right just beyond the church.
Stop 9: Camberwell School of Art, Wilson Road (Formerly Wilson’s School)
Camberwell is home to a well known art school, now part of the University of the Arts London. The Camberwell School is on two sites. The main location which opened in 1898 is a little further along the main road along with the South London Gallery which opened in 1891. The old Town Hall of Camberwell Borough Council dating from 1934 is also along here. Architectural guru Pevsner describes that building as “singularly undistinguished”
By the way Camberwell Borough Council’s motto was “All’s Well” as in “All’s well that ends well” or maybe “All’s well that Cambers well”.
It is a bit too far to go to see these buildings but we can content ourselves with the other Art School building in Wilson Road.
This building was originally Wilson’s Grammar School. There is a plaque you can just see through the railings which says “Grammar School founded by Edward Wilson, Vicar of Camberwell 1615 Rebuilt 1882.”
And this is echoed on the street by this stone.
Wilson’s School still exists and has claim to be one of the oldest state schools. It moved to a new development called Roundshaw on the site of Croydon Airport in 1975. One famous old boy of Wilson’s School was actor Michael Caine
Now retrace your steps along the main road and turn left into Camberwell Grove.
Stop 10: Camberwell Grove
This is a lovely, rather unexpected street. Pevsner describes Camberwell Grove as “well preserved late Georgian terraces and semi detached houses connected by one storey entrance bays”.
The street began as a private avenue behind the mansion of the Cock family and was built up after the house was sold in 1776 and demolished. What is unusual is the development focuses on a single avenue. There are no squares or crescents.
The first part you get to is the oldest with some houses dating from the 1770s and 1780s
Further up on the right is a little chapel – the Grove Chapel which dates from 1819 and is still going.
Grove Chapel is an independent church which has no formal links with any particular denomination or church grouping,
Sadly not all Camberwell Grove is Georgian. A little way along you come to some newer (less attractive) buildings and it opens out. (Note the picture below was taken looking back from the way we have just come)
And look to your left and you can see a four track railway line in deep cutting. You cannot see this on the right as the line goes into a tunnel.
Then a bit further on to your right you will see a house at the end of a terrace with a large white plaque.
This records that Joseph Chamberlain (1836 – 1914) lived here.
Joseph Chamberlain was a major politician first in local Government and then nationally. We came across him in Highbury, N5, where there is also another (non blue) plaque to him. He moved to N5 in 1845, but he was born in Camberwell, so I guess this was the place (or one of the places) where he lived as a small child.
Now take the side just a little before this house, Stories Road
There is a nice little sign on the left at the start of the street proclaiming the extent of Mr Stories’ property.
Continue along Stories Road and take a right at the end. Follow this road along. On the left you will see the beginning of the site which is our next stop.
Stop 11: William Booth Training College
But before we get to the main entrance, have a look at the artwork as the road bends
This is called “Run”. It dates from 2009 and is by Leigh Dyer. There is a wolf in one bed and a number of sheep in the other bed. The piece at once blends in but is visible, so I think it works really well on this site as the main road bends.
Now follow the main road round and you will get to the main entrance of the Salvation Army training college.
The Salvation Army’s William Booth Memorial Training College was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and was completed in 1932; Gilbert Scott’s other monumental South London buildings are Battersea Power Station and Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern). The simplicity here is partly the result of repeated budget cuts during its construction. Apparently much more detailing, including carved Gothic style stonework surrounding the windows, was originally planned.
Even so it is very impressive.
In front there are statues of General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army and his wife Catherine. They apparently did not die but were “promoted to glory”.
Our final stop is just over the road from the College.
Stop 12: Denmark Hill Station
Denmark Hill Station was opened by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1865. Today the entrance is an uninspiring box behind the original somewhat grander station building.
But the old footbridge is still in use and as a result of refurbishment, the station does now have lift access to all platforms.
There is also some nice multi coloured brickwork at platform level.
The original station building just to the left of the new entrance is in the Italianate style and sits above the tracks which are in a deep cutting. The building suffered a fire in 1980 and after restoration, a public house took over the main building. It was initially called the Phoenix and Firkin to commemorate the fire, then it became O’Neills and but it is now just the Phoenix.
Sad this is not still the station entrance but at least it is a good use for the building.
We are close to King’s College Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital and you can easily pop over and see them from this point. But I am not planning to. So that brings us to the end of our SE5 walk.
Camberwell was clearly once quite a centre of entertainment with theatres and cinemas but today there are none left. The shops are pretty standard inner city fare and it is busy without too much character. Still there were one or two unexpected things along the way: the memorials on Camberwell Green; Camberwell Grove is lovely and the Salvation Army College was somewhat of a surprise.
We are now at Denmark Hill station which has trains into Victoria and Kent plus it is on the southern arc of London Overground from Clapham Junction to New Cross Gate and beyond. Or maybe pop into the Phoenix for a quick drink!