Time Travel Explorer Blog

The Aylesbury Estate: Walworth in maps

by Peter Watts 9. March 2011 14:02


This is the Aylesbury Estate, a vast block of concrete that was plonked down in Walworth, near Elephant and Castle, between 1967 and 1977 as part of an extraordinary plan to revolutionise and regenerate working-class living in South London. The idea was that the Aylesbury, the largest estate in Europe, would link up with the Elmington Estate in Camberwell and the North Peckham Estate by overhead pedestrian walkways that meant Londoners could travel three miles across South London without touching the ground. Needless to say, this utopian dream never quite came off and the Aylesbury has come to be seen as emblematic of the worst kind of post-war planning. It is currently scheduled for a second round of 'regeneration', which will began with its demolition.

The building of the Aylesbury in Walworth was controversial even at the time. It took over a site of 285,000 square metres previously occupied by the sort of ramshackle Victorian terraces you can find all round inner London. Here is the site in 1830, when Walworth was well on the way to expansion. 

The site of the Aylesbury is just north of the main street along at the bottom, Albany Road. This looks like a fairly uncluttered area, but it was already much more heavily populated than much of the rest of South London - which is why the 1830 map reaches this far south. This population growth had occured in a relatively brief space of time. Here's the same site (or slightly to the north, anyway) in 1746, when it was all fields.

And here it is now. It's easy to see the appeal of high-rise housing when looking at maps, as it shows how you can cram a huge number of people into a relatively small footprint. The Aylesbury was big enough to contain 10,000 people. The population of Walworth had grown from 15,000 in 1801 to 122,000 in 1901, but by the 1970s had decreased to around 30,000 - so around a third of the area's residents were expected to live on the Aylesbury.

Burgess Park just to the south of the Aylesbury was a relatively late arrival to an area that was famously bereft of green spaces. It was partly reclaimed from housing in the 1970s, but the bulk is built over the old basin for the Grand Surrey Canal, which went from Bermondsey to Camberwell and was concreted over in the 1970s. There's a bridge in the middle of the park that once spanned the canal but now goes to nowhere.

In Michael Collins's excellent book, 'The Likes Of Us', about the working-class population of Southwark, the author wrote of how his family narrowly escaped being rehoused in the Aylesbury, having moved from the regeneration area shortly before construction began. The settled instead in one of Walworth's few remaining Victorian streets and observed the changes taking place around them: 'The Street began to represent both a haven and a time capsule harbouring the rituals, the routines, the culture that had been the lifeblood of the neighbourhood and the area at large for so long. As the walls came tumbling down all around, as rubble settled and dust rose, it was as though the time capsule itself was being buried underground. But the future would have to wait, whether it was housing estates as wide as their accompanying tower blocks were tall, or the influx of interlopers. Homes, heritage, homogeneity, the holy trinity of the neighbourhood and the wider community, were the territory that was now being protected, defended even.'

Travelling Through Time: Elephant and Castle

by Matt Brown 6. January 2011 11:47

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.