SW17: Power to the people

If you were around in the late 1970s, then Tooting will always be associated with Citizen Smith and the eponymous hero who strode out of Tooting Broadway station at the start of this sitcom.  The show was written by John Sullivan, a local lad from Balham who went on to write Only Fools and Horses.  Citizen Smith starred Robert Lindsay as “Wolfie” Smith, who is the self-proclaimed leader of the revolutionary Tooting Popular Front (who are just a small bunch of his friends). Their goals are “Power to the People” and “Freedom for Tooting” but really Smith is a lazy disorganised unemployed dreamer.

A couple of fascinating facts about Citizen Smith: 1) the title of episode 2 of series 3 is “Only Fools and Horses”. Obviously this was too good a title to waste. In case you wonder where this comes from it is from a saying which originated in American Vaudeville: “why do only fools and horses work for a living?”. And 2) in the penultimate episode Sullivan finally revealed Smith’s first names: Walter Henry (think about that one)

We start our walk at Tooting’s main Post Office which is situated in a side street called Gatton Road which is just off the main road where Upper Tooting Road meets Tooting High Street. Take a left out of the Post Office and then a right at the High Street. Go a short way along to our first stop which is across the road on the left.

Stop 1: Defoe Chapel building

Although most of Tooting is late Victorian or Edwardian, there are some older buildings and this simple two storey yellow brick pedimented building next to Tooting Market  is one of them. It was built in 1776 for a Methodist congregation which had been founded some years before. It was known as the Defoe Chapel because there is supposed to be a connection to Daniel Defoe (best known today as the author of Robinson Crusoe)  but the evidence seems to be sketchy. British history online  says: “At the time of the Revolution Tooting is said to have been the residence of Daniel Defoe, according to tradition the first person to form the Nonconformists of this neighbourhood into a regular congregation.” (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43038 ) Anyhow Mammon seems to have taken over from God – the building is a shop now, which is kind of fitting given one of Defoe’s well known quotes is:

“Wherever God erects a house of prayer the Devil always builds a chapel there; And ‘t will be found, upon examination, the latter has the largest congregation.”


Just next door is our next stop.

Stop 2: Tooting and Broadway Markets

One of the features of Tooting which marks it out from other shopping areas is the existence of these two indoor markets.

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There are a few food stalls, including a fishmonger and a couple of butchers, but for the main part these markets are for household goods, fabrics, clothes and bags, that kind of thing.  But you can buy almost anything here – there is even a pet shop. Tooting Market is slightly older dating from 1930 and is a simple L shaped arcade. Broadway Market is slightly younger dating from 1936 but it somewhat larger with two entrances on Tooting High Street and one at the rear on Longmead Road.

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Together there must be well over 120 stalls and there seem to be very few empty units. I wonder if this would have survived in quite the same way if it had been an outdoor street market controlled by the borough council.

Now go right through Broadway Market and come out on Longmead Road, turning right. Go to the junction with the main road (Mitcham Road). (If the market is closed go instead down to Tooting Broadway and turn left into Mitcham road).  Ahead in Mitcham Road across from Longmead Road is our next stop.

Stop 3: Former Broadway Palace Cinema, Mitcham Road

Today you see a Specsavers and a 99p shop, but behind this dull looking 1950s facade was a 1912 cinema.


Originally called the Broadway Cinematograph Palace, it had a white stone facade with a curved arch over the entrance was topped by a large statue of Britannia. The name was changed to Broadway Palace Theatre around 1936. It was hit by a German rocket bomb in 1944 which destroyed the front of the building. It never re-opened as a cinema. After the war a new plain front was put on the building and it was converted to retail use.  But if you look behind this facade you can see a ridge of a roof and I can only surmise this is where the auditorium was.

Now turn left and walk along Mitcham Road. Across the road you cannot miss our next stop.

Stop 4: Gala Bingo Hall (Former Granada Cinema)

This is probably the best preserved 1930s cinema in the country – built as the Granada in 1931. It may look vaguely classical on the outside but inside is a baronial hall, a hall of mirrors and a massive auditorium, with sort of gothic features. It closed as a cinema in 1973 and after a few years of disuse finally found a use as a bingo hall. Although this means bright lights and a revamped stall areas , the circle is untouched and more to the point it is still here and being used unlike so many cinemas built in this era. It was given Grade II* listing in 1972 but this was upgraded to Grade I by English Heritage in 2000. There are some nice pictures on this wonderful site: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/9424

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Walk just a little further down Mitcham Road and our next stop is the library at the corner of Undine Street.

Stop 5: Tooting Library

This building was apparently built in two stages. The lower floor dates from 1902 and the upper floor from 1908. It is a handsome building of brick with (as Pevsner puts it) much terra cotta decoration.

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It has a copper galleon atop the weathervane, for no obvious reason. Do look up the side street (Undine Street) and there on the hill floating like another stately galleon is the church of All Saints which we shall eventually get to.

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Now retrace your steps, cross the road by the Bingo Hall and continue to the tube station which is a little further along on the left.

Stop 6: Tooting Broadway Station and “piazza”

This is one of Charles Holden’s lovely stations on the 1926 extension of the City and South London Railway from Clapham Common to Morden built by the Underground Electric Railway Company of London . These stations are very simple and functional but are brilliantly branded with the roundel which had been adopted by UERL. It is in the window but also at the tops of the columns which break up the windows. The roundel was later adopted as its logo by London Transport soon after it was formed in 1933.


The junction outside Tooting Broadway station was once called Tooting Corner but it seems to have got the name Broadway by the time the trams arrived around 1900. There is a wonderful old lamp standard (presumably once gas) with sign post and of course there is the statue of King Edward VII. Both of these were here before the station.

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The observant amongst you may realise that the layout here is not quite how it looks in the opening sequence of Citizen Smith. This is because at some point in the 1980s, Wandsworth Council moved the statue from the middle of Mitcham Road to a new “piazza” in front of the station.

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Now cross Tooting High Street and turn left. Go down the High Street away from the Broadway taking the third turning on the right (Coverton Road). Then take the first on the left (Effort Street) and go in the pedestrian gate to St George’s Hospital.

Stop 7: St George’s Hospital

Founded in 1733, St Georges is one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country. It moved from Hyde Park Corner to Tooting in the late 1970s to this site which had housed two other hospitals, the Grove Fever Hospital and the Fountain Hospital. As you come in the pedestrian gate turn to the right and you will see a little gateway with a bust on top. This was taken from Hyde Park Corner and re-erected here. The bust is of Dr John Hunter who was appointed as surgeon at St George’s in 1768. He was one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day and was an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine.

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Now do a U turn and walk down the right hand side of the internal road (this is the only side with a footpath).

You will come to the Grosvenor Wing, followed by the St James’ Wing and then the Atkinson Morley Wing. The first of these (like the nearby Lanesborough Wing) are reminders of the original site at Hyde Park Corner. The original building was on the site of Lanesborough House (hence the hotel there now is called the Lanesborough) and the building stood at the corner of Grosvenor Crescent on the edge of the Grosvenor Estate. St James and Atkinson Morley are closed hospitals (in Balham and Wimbledon respectively) whose activities were transferred to this site.

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Most of the buildings on this sprawling site are post 1970s. But as you leave the site into Blackshaw Road, there is a group of buildings on the left which must have been part of one of the old hospitals.


When you reach Blackshaw Road turn left. Go straight, crossing over Tooting High Street, and go into Longley Road. Sorry this is a bit of a trek but I thought we just had to include the next stop.

Stop 8a: 46 Longley Road

As you walk along Longley Road you get to a group of double fronted detached houses on the right.  At number 46, you will see a blue plaque stating “Sir Harry Lauder 1870 – 1950), Music Hall Artiste lived here 1903-1911”

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Lauder was a singer and comedian from Edinburgh who usually performed in full ‘Highland’ regalia—Kilt, Sporran, Tam o’ Shanter, and twisted walking stick and he used to tell stories and jokes involving the alleged parsimony of the Scots. This portrait of a scot did not exactly endear him to his fellow countrymen. He wrote most of his own songs. These included Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, I Love a Lassie and Keep Right on to the End of the Road. This last song was written following the death of his son in action in 1916. Strangely given its genesis, this song is used by Birmingham City Football Club as their club anthem.

Stop 8b: 72 Longley Road

But there used to be another blue plaque on this street, just a little further on at Number 72. This was for music hall comedian Harry Tate. However the building was demolished in the early 1990s and a new development of flats is on the site.  It does look like they made provision for the possibility of a blue plaque on at about where Number 72 would have been. Well maybe. Harry Tate was not his real name by the way. He was also a Scot, born Ronald MacDonald Hutchinson. He took the stage name Harry Tate when working for the sugar company, Henry Tate and Company. We of course heard a little about Henry Tate in SW16.

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Possibly fascinating fact: There is at least one other blue plaque in SW17 (they are a bit thin on the ground out here). Believe it or not it is for the writer Thomas Hardy who lived at 172 Trinity Road between 1878 and 1881. This house is just south of Wandsworth Common and so a little far to include on this walk.

Now almost opposite this new flat development is Charlmont Road. Go down this to the very end which takes you to Mitcham Road. At this corner is the Mitre pub (now rechristened “the Long Room” presumably because the main bar is one big long room). Opposite is a little pedestrianised area and on this at the corner of Church Lane is what we are going to look at next.

Stop 9: Tooting Parish Pump

Here at the corner of Church Lane and Mitcham Road is a monument which commemorates the location of the Tooting Parish Pump of 1823. There is an interesting plaque which explains that the pump was paid for by principal inhabitants of the parish and was in use until the end of the 19th century. It has a reference to two other local pumps which were privately owned and I guess they would have charged. This would have been the centre of the old village of Tooting and just close by is the parish church of St Nicolas. There has been a church here certainly since medieval times but this building only dates from 1833.

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And just a little way along Church Lane on the left is the old village school. The part you come to first dates from 1895, according to a foundation stone, which someone had badly overpainted! But then you come to an older bit which dates from 1828 (The stone is hard to read but it is just legible). Today this building is used by a muslim group.

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Keep walking up Church Lane and soon on the right you will see an entrance way with brick pillars. This was the entrance to St Benedict’s Hospital. Keep walking a little further on and turn right into St Benedict’s Close.

Stop 10: St Benedict’s Estate

This 1980s development is built on the site of St Benedict’s Hospital. The hospital building had started life as a Roman Catholic school in 1887. The upkeep proved too expensive and the school moved to Beulah Hill in 1895 when it became a home for older people. It was used as a military hospital in the First World War and into the early 1920s. The London County Council bought the site in 1930 and reequipped it as a hospital for long-stay patients. It reopened in 1931 as St Benedict’s Hospital, closing in the 1970s.

Laing Homes bought the site for housing development in the mid 1980s. The surviving remnants of the hospital buildings are the entrance gateway with its posts still which we saw on Church Lane, and the main hospital block’s portico and clock tower, which were positioned at each end of a walkway called Limetree Walk.

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Return to Church Lane, continue up the hill and turn left into Lessingham Avenue. 

Stop 11: Totterdown Estate

Lessingham Avenue is one of four parallel streets which form the major part of the Totterdown Estate. This is one of the first London County Council housing estates and is heavily influenced by the Garden City movement, having cottage like houses in a varied street scene and with Arts and Craft features – big gables, Tudor style chimneys, single and double storey bay windows and a range of door styles and porch designs.  1,229 houses were built in the period 1903 to 1911, but there are only four shops. These are where Lessingham Avenue crosses Franciscan Road. This is in stark contrast to the speculative builders who were developing the rest of Tooting at this time. They put a shop on almost every corner and of course almost none of them are still shops. Interestingly although the style of houses is Garden City like, the LCC did not follow the concept completely and make the place self sufficient. No places of work were built nearby and the residents had to rely on the electric trams which ran along Upper Tooting Road to get them to and from work. (It is easy to forget that the tube did not get here until 1926 by which time the whole area was developed. This is why the tube is still in tunnels this far out)

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When you reach those four shops turn right up Franciscan Road  and a short way along on the left is our final stop.

Stop 12: All Saints Church

All Saints Church  stands just off Franciscan road a little way along Brudenell Road. It was built in 1906 under a bequest from Lady Charles Brudenell-Bruce in memory of her late husband, the first Marquis of Ailesbury. She wanted it in a godless part of South london –  so Tooting was chosen! This church may look handsome outside but inside is quite a surprise.


The first vicar, Canon Stephens, acquired quite a few bits of Italian and Spanish church furnishings, including a copy of a Crucification painting – the original by Velazquez is in the Prado in Madrid. The installation of the choir stalls, ironwork and other furnishings (including said painting on the high altar) did not go down too well with the architect Temple Moore who felt it spoilt the design of his church. He walked off the job in protest and another architect had to finish the work. Sadly this church is rarely open, except for services. If you are lucky, you may find it open on a Saturday morning.


Just across the Brudenell Road from the church is a small development called Bruce Hall Mews. This was the site of the original church hall, which was called the Bruce Hall. It became unsafe and had to be demolished. A new church hall was built in the early 1980s tucked away round the south side of the church and directly linked to it. So all that is left to remind us of the old church hall is the name of this small street.


That brings us to the end of the SW17 walk. I have just realised I have walked through Tooting without mentioning what many people regard as synonymous with Tooting – the curry house. Sorry about that but it just did not seem to fit in! But suffice it to say there are lots of excellent and not so good indian restaurants all around this area.

For onward travel you can retrace your steps down hill along Franciscan Road to Tooting Broadway or else go along Brudenell Road and turn right at Upper Tooting Road for Tooting Bec station.