23 September 2008
By Laura Daley
THE PLACE where Burgess Park now stands used to be a thriving canal, which was the centre of industrial, as well as social activity.
Building for The Grand Surrey Canal started in 1801- it extended three miles southward and joined the Greenland Dock to Camberwell Road, with a further branch to Peckham, built in 1826. It was used to move market produce from the suburbs and served Surrey Commercial Docks- it was intended to continue into Epsom but lacked funds so building was stopped in 1811. The canal connected Camberwell and Peckham - which were villages - and their produce to suppliers.
The canal transformed the area because barges bought in material which could be used in industry so the area was covered with streets, houses and industrial buildings. With the working class and industry houses moving in, the middle class moved out and the population increased.
Revenue came from recreational activities such as pleasure boats and tolls. A Mr Mann was charged 45 guineas for a passenger and parcels boat. Bathing was a popular sport but in 1812 it was announced that a 'gross and insufferable nuisance was being committed by bathing and duck hunting'. However, in 1826, the Council kindly said 'they didn't want to interfere with the use of the canal for bathing'. The photographs show boys fishing happily in the canal and in fact, it had a fishing license but this was stopped when the canal became too polluted to keep fish.
Not all the memories connecting children with the canal are happy- several actually fell in! A teacher, Frederick E.Nichols recalls 'children constantly falling in' and there is a story of one child rescuing another which led to him receiving an award from Southwark Council. Not only did local kids go fishing and fall in- they also swam in the canals and rode the empty barges! A friendly face called Bobby used to patrol the area to make sure that no one was in any danger but the children knew when he came so learnt how to avoid him!
Of course, the main use of the canal was industry and in 1816, E.R.Burtt and Sons were burning lime along the canals. Burtt said it was known as a 'whitening pit' because all 'the men who worked there all came out with white hair and eyebrows'. In 1925 household waste like ash went from the Council Depot to Sittingbourne in Kent and came back as bricks- which were used to build more houses. Other businesses include leather, salt works, and an ice ware house!
The surrounding industrial buildings suffered a lot of damage in WWII, during the Blitz and The Canal declined further until it close in March, 1971 when it was drained and filled in. One member of the community said that 'once it stopped being a canal, it was horrible'. There were several reasons why the Council decided to cover the canal - it was dirty and polluted so expensive to maintain, it was dangerous and the Surrey Docks had closed so it wasn't needed for industry anymore. A sports centre was also planned for Surrey Quays which could occupy kids who could no longer play by the canal.
It is now a green area and the route the canal followed is a footpath and cycle route. The idea for Burgess Park came from the 1943 Abercrombie Plan for open spaces in London - it was meant to be a 'green lung' of London. The plan would shape the planning of the area for twenty years. It was named Burgess Park in 1973 (after Councillor Jessie Burgess - Camberwell's first female Mayor). The boundaries of the park remain subject to dispute and the park is regularly subject to proposals to build housing, schools or transport links.
Although the canal is not there anymore, the memory lives on with remaining remnants of the period such as the lime kiln, library, baths, washhouses and the Chumleigh Gardens Almshouses- some bridges which crossed the canal still exist on the grass. Not many people know that the area behind the almshouses used to be a Ginger beer factory.
But now all that remains of the canal itself is a patch of grass...
Thanks to Southwark Council's History Library and 'The Story of Burgess Park'.
1. At 04:21 PM on 26 Aug 2011, aaron hughes wrote:
I was born right next to the canal in rochdale house sumner estate 1968. I remember it well with fondness and enjoyed playing around it. I thought it was drained in 1974 though as i remember it.
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