New Church Road was originally laid out as an elegant approach road to St.George’s church – new at the time – but contained some poor housing by 1898. After the war, houses started to be cleared and prefabs were built in this area of the park. Back down New Church Road, outside the park, stands Evelina Mansions. With its decorative flourishes of brick and ironwork, it was built to provide decent accommodation for the urban working classes.
New Church Road was one of the last ‘ghost roads’ of Burgess Park – residual streets left stranded amidst green space as the park developed. Just tarmac and kerbs without traffic, buildings, or borders. Closed to traffic in 2003, it served as an echo of times when this area was densely built over, and bustling with homes and businesses. Over nearly 200 years, it saw a whole community come and go. Finally, it was removed in 2018 and barely a trace remains.
The road was originally built around 1826, chiefly to allow horse and carriage to drive from Walworth Road right up to the new St. George’s church, passing alongside the Grand Surrey Canal as it did so. The moneyed Georgian couple could arrive in all their finery, and in some comfort, for Sunday prayers.
Such a trip would pass the St.George’s National School, facing the canal on the north bank. The National Schools were established throughout England and Wales from 1811 onwards. They offered an elementary education to the children of the poor – one specifically in line with the teachings of the Church of England. Before about 1800, apart from the few charity schools, poorer children had little chance of any formal education.
Originally little more than a hall, it was rebuilt in 1840 – enlarged, relocated to the south side of the canal, and in handsome Elizabethan style – “the ground plan of which preserves the usual form of buildings referable to the era of the maiden Queen”. Or in plain English, the new school building was shaped like a letter E, for Elizabeth. It now served 450 boys and girls – with separate entrances, of course.
The school remained open until WWII, but sustained major bomb damage, ultimately relocating to its current location on Coleman Road, just south of the park.
At the other end of New Church Road, stands the elegant redbrick Evelina Mansions block, emblazoned with the badge of the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company. Founded in 1885 by Jewish philanthropists, the company originally aspired to improve housing and combat overcrowding amongst the poor of London’s East End, particularly among Jewish women. Later it expanded to other parts of London, such as here in Southwark. The block was erected in 1900, containing 96 one or two bed flats. The curious ‘Four Per Cent’ name is variously said to be the interest rate of return that an investor might aspire to on the properties, or the percentage Jewish population in the UK back in 1885.
What of regular housing? New Church Road was lined with 2 and 3 storey terraces. Though slightly grander than some of the smaller artisan dwellings elsewhere, they were no less subject to subdivision, bomb damage, and ultimately planning blight. From the 1950s onwards, as elsewhere across the area, plots of land were bought one by one, and cleared for inclusion into the new park.
Among the many street photos that exist of the area after World War 2, one stands out. It hints intriguingly at what might have been, had Burgess Park not been dreamt up. Dated 1952, it is captioned “unfit house rendered fit for habitation”. How different things might have looked today if the Abercrombie vision of gradual clearance and acquisition had never occurred!
(with thanks to Steve Matts)
Watch the Slaves video ‘Cheer Up London’ shot in New Church Rd in 2015 here!