SW9: Starry, starry night

As I found out when I walked SW2, much of what I thought of as Brixton turned out to be in SW9 – though SW9 is Stockwell according to the Post Office. But although there is a Post Office at Stockwell, I decided to start at the SW9 Post Office in Brixton Town Centre. This is in Ferndale Road just off the main shopping street, Brixton Road.


As can seen above the Post Office is in a rather grand structure. It was actually built as an extension to our first stop (Bon Marché store) in 1905. It appears lovely from afar but when you are close at ground floor level it looks a bit sad. Across Ferndale Road is the main Bon Marché building.

Stop 1: Former Bon Marché and Quin & Axtens Department Stores

The Bon Marché building between the railway bridges and Ferndale Road lays claim to two firsts. It is apparently the first purpose built department store in Britain (dating as it does from 1877) and it is said to be the first steel framed building in the UK.


It was named after the famous left bank Parisian department store. The first owner was not a shop keeper and went bust but then by all accounts it was a great success. In 1926 Selfridges bought it up and it became one of the Selfridges Provincial Stores. In 1940 the John Lewis Partnership bought Selfridges Provincial Stores, including Bon Marché. The main Bon Marché building was substantially damaged by a bomb  in May 1941. The building reopened for restricted business the next day but it took a while to repair fully – the top floor remained unused for ten years.

In the mid 1970s, John Lewis made a commercial decision to cease trading in its smaller stores which it could not redevelop or expand and so Bon Marché closed in June 1975. It is now a mix of smaller shops and other commercial uses. The Brixton Road frontage still has a bit of the old department store look but the Ferndale Road elevation feels much more the part with the old style name signs.


It is clear that Brixton was a proper shopping destination once rather than just the market. It did not have just one Department store. It had at least three. Morley’s to the south is still there but the grand building just to the north of Bon Marché was a store called Quin & Axtens. They rebuilt their Brixton store in 1926 but it was destroyed by bombing in 1941 and never reopened. So we just have this grand facade to remind us that there was a department store here once.


You get a better view of the two former department stores if you cross the main road. but return to the same side as these stores and keep walking until you reach the corner with Stockwell Road. turn left here and ahead is our next stop.

Stop 2: Brixton Academy (former Astoria Cinema)

In the late 1920s there was a fashion imported from the States for what were called atmospheric cinemas and there is one here in Brixton. They had elaborate interiors especially around the proscenium arch where there would be a scene like a stage set, in Brixton this has been likened to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. And they had lights in the ceiling which imitated the stars. There were 5 Astoria cinemas in London – Old Kent Road, Finsbury Park, Streatham and Charing Cross Road. Finsbury Park (which survives as a church) was the best example of this style but Brixton dating from 1929 comes close. Streatham had a fire and was rebuilt as the Odeon with the interior lost. Old Kent Road and Charing Cross Road have been demolished, leaving just the Brixton one still in use as an entertainment venue.


Walk a little way alomg Stockwell Road and you will come to Stansfield Road on your left

Stop 3: Stansfield Road

We can stop briefly here to see at Number 40 the childhood home of starman, David Bowie, from when he was born in 1947 to the age of 6 when the family moved to Bromley. No blue plaque yet as he is still alive!


Return to the main road and keep walking along Stockwell Road. You will pass Stockwell Green (no green but this was the historic centre of Stockwell, just a few older houses and not much else now). Then you will pass the South London YMCA and eventually get to the Swan pub and Stockwell station. When you get to the Swan go straight ahead and cross Clapham Road.

Stop 4: Stockwell station (and the Swan)

In 1890 Stockwell was the terminus of the world’s first deep level underground railway – the City and South London. Of this station nothing obvious remains. The station was rebuilt in the 1920s when the tunnels were enlarged and line was extended  from Clapham Common to Morden. And it was rebuilt again in the late 1960s when the Victoria line arrived. A defining feature of the Victoria line was that each station was given a distinctive tile motif on the new platforms.

For a place so important on the tube there is not much on the surface at Stockwell. The most significant building is perhaps the bus garage which we have already seen in SW8. But one other prominent feature is the Swan pub, so it is perhaps not surprising that when London Transport was looking for something to symbolise Stockwell on the tiles on the new Victoria line platform they chose an image of a swan.  It is this blue and white flashy thing. Now I thought this was an electric flash to commemorate the fact this was on the first electric underground line. But no TfL’s website definitely says it is a swan. I suppose there is a sort of beaky thing there.


Back on the surface, I have to mention the memorial to Jean Charles de Menezes.


De Menezes was a Brazilian electrician living in London who was killed in error on a train in Stockwell station by plain clothes police officers the day after the failed 21 July 2005 bombings on London’s transport.  The initial small shrine created by mourners outside the station has since evolved into this permanent memorial mosaic. This sits to the left of the entrance to the ticket hall

Now cross Binfield Road which runs beside the station and then cross South Lambeth Road (which has the traffic going north) stopping before the next road which is the traffic going south. Ahead is our next stop.

Stop 5: Former Palladium/Ritz/Classic cinema

The white painted building standing a little back from Ladbrokes on the corner was originally opened as the Stockwell Palladium cinema in around 1915.


It was reconstructed and re-opened as the Ritz Cinema in September 1937.  It was renamed again in 1957 as the Classic Cinema. As would be expected with a cinema of this age it was quite small with all the seating on one level. It was never split and spent the 1970s as a cinema specialising is films which were X rated or had been refused a British Board of Film Censor’s certificate. It finally closed in 1981 and was for many years a snooker hall. It then became a restaurant but at the moment it looks decidedly closed.

Now follow the brick path which runs between the two roads and heads toward the clock tower.

Stop 6: Stockwell War Memorial

Unusually the Stockwell war memorial is in the form of a clock tower in the middle of the road. It dates from 1922 and has a rather touching relief of a woman part veiled. The memorial commemorates the 574 service men who had lived within half a mile of this location.

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Next to the clock tower is a deep level air raid shelter. Stockwell is one of eight deep-level air-raid shelter constructed by existing tube stations during the Second World War. Completed in September 1942 it was used by the Government until 1944. Then it became a public shelter for the rest of the war. There are two parallel tunnels sitting below the Northern line, each approximately six times the length of the current station platform.  The total capacity of the shelter was around 1,600 people.

Back in 1999, the exterior of the shelter was painted with a war memorial mural by artist Brian Barnes. The mural has just been renewed by the original artist along with other artists (both professional and amateur).


Just to the right of the clock tower is a statue entitled “Bronze woman”. Inspired by a poem of the same name by black woman Cécile Norbrega.  This statue dates from 2008 and is apparently the first public monument to an afro-carribean woman.


Now cross the road by the painted rotunda. Ahead of you is Stockwell Terrace dating from the 1840s when this was Stockwell Common rather than a traffic roundabout. Walk along Stockwell Terrace (it is the safest option anyway as there is no pavement by the road) and then turn left into Clapham Road.

Go to the traffic lights and cross over Clapham Road there. As you are walking up you will see ahead Strata – the 43 storey block of flats at Elephant – with the Shard sticking up behind it. What an odd alignment, shame my picture does not really do it justice.


Now go down Stockwell Park Road and on the left you will eventually get to Number 27 our next stop. Have faith. It is further than you think as there are 5 interlopers in this street between numbers 15 and 17. They were obviously built after the numbering was done.

Stop 7: Lilian Baylis

Lilian Baylis (1874 – 1937) was the manager of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres in London and her companies form the basis of some of the key English performing arts companies. The opera company became the English National Opera; the theatre company evolved into the National Theatre; and the ballet company eventually became the Royal Ballet.

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Random (and not verified) fact: Pete Townshend said that it was an old photograph of Lilian Baylis that inspired the song Pictures of Lily written in the 1960s.

Now retrace your steps to Clapham Road and at the lights turn right until you reach Printers Road. Ahead is our next stop. (again you will get the best view of the building if you cross the main road)

Stop 8: Printworks (Former Freemans of London) Building

This building has a sign on it which says “Printworks” but for around 70 years from 1936 this building was the home of Freemans – the mail order company.


The company was founded in 1905 in a terraced house based in Clapham. They specialized in selling clothing items and they distributed their catalogue each month throughout the United Kingdom.  The company used agency representatives in local areas with most goods being sold on credit. Women however were restricted by law as they could not negotiate credit arrangements and required a husband’s signature to purchase goods. The majority of agents were men.

By the 1930s Freemans had become the largest mail order company in the UK with over 30,000 agents and in 1936 they took over this former print works in Clapham Road.  Like much around here, the building was bombed in the war killing 23 members of staff and destroying all company records. Somehow they managed to carry on. No back up disks then, so you do wonder what they did.

After the business relocated to West Yorkshire in the early 2000s, the Freemans building and surrounding site was redeveloped in 2011 by Galliard Homes as housing and business units.

Now go down Printers Road (such an original name!). It does look quite a good quality development though. And there are these intriguing metal boxes in the street.


I think they are some kind of scandinavian waste disposal system. But I may be wrong!

At the end cross Liberty Street and you will see ahead of you a newly pedestrianised street. This used to be Isobel Street but is now Van Gogh Walk. Nicely done – and with Sunflowers too!

Stop 9 Van Gogh

The reason for the Van Gogh rebranding is that he lived nearby.

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At the end of Van Gogh Walk, turn right and just ahead on the other side of the Hackford Road is number 87, where Van Gogh briefly lived and which inspired the play Vincent in Brixton – a partly fictionalised account of his short time here.

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It looks a bit sad this building. And I guess there is very little of the house that has survived from Van Gogh’s time here. But it is an unexpected connection to find in deepest south London.

Now keep walking down Hackford Road to the end.

Stop 10: The Type Archive

To your right is 100 Hackford Road. Behind a security gate is the home of the Type Archive, formerly the Type Museum.


The Type Museum was a collection of artifacts relating to type founding and type composing systems. The museum was established in 1992 but faced financial problems in 2006 and had to close. It seems to have been rebranded as the Type Archive in 2011 and there are street signs pointing the way to the Type Archive from Stockwell which is a bit odd as the collection still does not appear to be open to the public. Maybe this is never going to get going again because it is not the right type of collection for the 21st century (Sorry, could not resist!).

Now retrace your steps back down Hackford Road and turn right into Hillyard Street. Go down Hillyard Street to end. Cross the main road (Brixton Road) at the conveniently located crossing and head into Normandy Road which is almost straight ahead.

Stop 11: Normandy Road

Now this is unusual to see in London. Terraced houses which have their front doors straight on to the street with not even a small strip of garden. Were it not for the fact these are built of yellow stock brick this terrace could easily be in an industrial town in the midlands or the north.


Just past this terrace is number 22 which sets back a bit. Here is a plaque to commemorate another innocent person shot by the police.


This was for Cherry Groce who was shot and paralysed in 1985. She spent the remaining 26 years of her life in a wheelchair. There had already been riots in Brixton in 1981 but this incident sparked the 1985 Brixton uprising

The plaque was erected by the Cherry Tree Trust which was set up in 2012 by her son in memory of his mother. The trust aims to support individuals and families whose lives have been disrupted through tragedy.

At the end of Normandy Road turn right into Cowley Road and then turn left at the end into Mostyn Road.

Stop 12: 56 Akerman Road

Immediately at the junction of Mostyn Road and Akerman Road is the house lived in by music hall comedian Dan Leno for three years 1898 – 1901.

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Dan Leno was the stage name of George Wild Galvin. He was a leading English music hall comedian and musical theatre actor in the late 19th Century. In addition to his music hall act he is best known as a pantomime dame. He was the dame in the annual pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from 1888 to 1903. But as so often happens with comedians he wanted to be taken seriously and be a shakespearean actor. But he was type cast by his funny roles and never did make the transition. Also he had a drink problem, as so many comedians seem to have.

Well the view today from Dan Leno’s house is very different from the one he would have seen as the area across the road is being completely redeveloped, as something called Oval Quarter. Presumably the old name of this area (which I think was Angel Town) was not the right image for this new world.


So this has been a bit of a starry walk, what with David Bowie’s childhood home and Dan Leno’s house too. Also we had Lillian Baylis who nurtured so many stars through her various companies. Plus we had the twinkling stars at the Astoria and of course there is the song associated with Vincent Van Gogh by Don McLean called Vincent which includes the phrase “Starry Starry Night” in case you were wondering. But we have seen a serious side with a WW1 war memorial and also two plaques to people shot by mistake by the police. And as with other walks in this part of London I am struck by how much was affected by bombing.

We are now at the end of our SW9 walk. If you retrace your steps back down Mostyn Road and keeping going on this road you will reach Brixton Road with numerous buses either up to Oval or down to Brixton.