Lewisham High Street: a sprawling urban jungle

Despite Lewisham’s less than favourable recent reputation as a conveyor belt of betting shops and fast foot outlets along with the largest police station in Europe, Lewisham was once known as ‘the Elysium of South East London.’

Founded by the Jutes in the 6th Century it was once known for housing wealthy merchants and tradesman, who settled there because of its proximity to London and ‘the beauty of the surrounding country’.

Its transformation into a sprawling urban jungle was aided by the construction of the railways in the 19th century, which made Lewisham a potential home for the middle classes. In 1821, Lewisham’s population was 8,185. By 1881, this had swelled to 53,065, due to the improved transport connections.

From 1880 to 1900, the increased population change became apparent on Lewisham High Street, with many large houses on the road, like Rosenthal, Mapels, Cliff Villas, Lewisham House and the Limes being destroyed to make way for shops. The growth of shops into department stores became a dominant trend on the high street, with the appearance of leading businesses like Chiesman’s, Stroud, Collingwood and Dubov.

An old mansion on the High Street near Ladywell Road was demolished in 1893, becoming the site of a coroner’s court, mortuary and police and fire stations. By the 1900s, Lewisham High Street was one of South London’s liveliest roads and it was known for a number of its horse dealers.

One of the most iconic buildings on the high street is the Jubilee Clock Tower, Lewisham’s tribute to Queen Victoria.

World War Two had a massive impact on Lewisham, killing 1000 civilians and destroying 3600 houses. Only 370 houses in Lewisham escaped damage completely. On July 28 1944 a V1 rocket landed 100 yards south of the Clock Tower on Lewisham High Street, killing 56 people, injuring 99 people, and demolishing a 500-foot frontage in the High Street. This led to the loss of a generation of traders, but by 1947, the market had recovered, operating with 55 licensed stalls.

Today the thriving market sells cheap fruit and vegetables.

By Nalini Sivathasan and Katie Gibbons

Leave a Reply