No one knows for sure how Elephant and Castle got its curious appellation. The favoured explanation traces the name back to a local coaching inn owned by a cutler, whose guild arms include an elephant with a castle on its back. In turn, this emblem may be a rebus for ‘la Infanta de Castilla', any of a number of Spanish princesses who married into the English royal family in Medieval times. But it's all a bit vague and uncertain.
What is certain is that this busy junction has a long and fascinating history. As the site prepares for its latest transformation - a major redevelopment bringing new homes, shops and green spaces to the area - we can look back with Time Travel Explorer at previous incarnations.
The earliest record of settlement comes from the 13th Century, when the area was known as Newington. It remained a small village for the next few hundred years. If we go back to the earliest map on Time Travel Exploere (1746) the area appears semi-rural, with enclosed fields to the west and cultivated land to the east. Many of the major roads we know today are already present. Note the prominent triangle of land between the road known as Newington Butts and what we now call the Walworth Road. This precursor to the modern roundabouts is thought to be the ‘butt' in Newington Butts, as the word often refers to a miscellaneous corner of land.
Elephant and Castle in 1746 (left), 1799 (middle) and today (right).
Many of the buildings around the junction are named in the 1746 map (although you'll need to use the app to zoom in). On the junction with Newington Butts we find St Mary's church and churchyard, much of which remains today as a park and play area. Further north, the most prominent buildings are the fishmongers' alms houses. These attractive buildings last
ed until Victorian times. At the northern tip of the junction, where today Newington Causeway begins, we find a turnpike toll gate, standing beside the wide open space of St George's Fields. All these details remain in the more sketchy 1799 map, with the addition that St George's Fields are beginning to build up with developments. This is the E&C of Michael Faraday, who was born in the area in 1791. A memorial to the great scientist can be found in the centre of the modern roundabout.
Jump forward to our next map, 1830, and we see a very different picture. The entire area is now covered with housing and commercial buildings, although the triangular ‘butt' can still be discerned. The name Elephant and Castle appears on the map for the first time. Our final stop, in 1862, is most notable for the rail line, which cuts through the eastern side of the map. The toll gate has now been removed, and there is no sign of the ancient ‘butt'.
Elephant and Castle in 1830 (left), 1862 (centre) and today (right).
Although the area was devastated during the Second World War, the road layout remains essentially the same today - with the exception of the infamous roundabout system. However, a Victorian resident who could see the housing stock at Elephant today would be dumbfounded. In place of the simple two-storey dwellings of his or her day, the area is now replete with distinctive - if often unattractive - housing blocks. The slab-like 1970s Heygate and Aylesbury estates to the east and south of the roundabout would be utterly alien. Few people will lament their loss when they are finally demolished in the coming months. North-east of the roundabout is the somewhat more attractive Metro Central Heights by Ernő Goldfinger - a set of white apartment buildings from the 1960s. Looming over all is the distinctive Strata tower, completed last year and resembling a giant electric razor.
The changes to Elephant and Castle have been monumental, but greater changes are on the way.