As Southwark Council starts consulting on plans for the Old Kent Road, bringing huge change to the area and starting a new chapter in its famous story, it’s worthwhile looking into its past to see who has graced the historic route from its beginning to today.
The road started to take form in the Roman times as a military route, roughly following the route of the Roman’s Watling Street – a route used by soldiers to travel from the Roman ports of Richborough and Dover, and the city of Canterbury to the city of Londinium.
As time went on and the Empire crumbled, pilgrims started to travel along the Old Kent Road to the shrine of former Archbishop Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, often gathering at the Tabard, one of the famous inns of Borough High Street.
A usual first stop for the pilgrims was a stream, Saint Thomas-a-Watering, located by the modern Thomas a Becket pub.
Medieval royalty soon travelled the road, then known as Kinges Street, with the infamous Black Prince and King Henry V returning via the road from their victories in France, with deputations of leading citizens meeting them at the St Thomas-a-Watering.
Come 1660, King Charles II returned for his restoration by landing at Dover and making his way to London, with his cavalcade spreading over the green spaces on the west of the present day Old Kent Road. Famous rebels also entered London through this route.
In 1381 Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, marched his followers from Canterbury to London in opposition to a poll tax, and Jack Cade in 1451 leading his rebellion against King Henry VI.
Other rebels such as John Penry, a religious fanatic, was executed at St Thomas-a-Watering on the road in 1593. The location being popular with executions till around 1740.
Until 1750, the old London Bridge was the only crossing of the river in London, leading to travellers coming from Kent Road to the city via Kent Street, which is now known as Tabard Street, and the busy high street of Southwark.
In 1565, Kent Street was paved with hard stone as far as Stones End near the present flyover. An Act of 1765 saw the Commissioners for Paving, Cleansing and Lighting established for the streets of Southwark, and appointments of Watchmen.
In the 18th century main roads underwent massive improvement with new road building methods introduced by the Turnpike Trusts, an initiative to upkeep sections of roads. Each trust installed tollgates and collected money from road-users for maintenance.
By 1865 tollgates were abolished and the Kent Road was called the Old Kent Road to distinguish it from the New Kent Road.
In the late 18th and early 19th century came the golden-era of coaching. Better roads meant regular stage-coach services worked reasonably well and there operated a service between the city, the West End, and the villages of Peckham and Camberwell.
From 1784 coaches carrying mail were introduced, sometimes reaching speeds of eleven miles per hour, replacing traditional post boys on horseback.
During the Victorian era of the 19th century, the population of Southwark rapidly grew, replacing fields with streets and housing. The surge of people crowded Borough and the Elephant and Castle, leading to the start of traffic accidents. But despite the prosperity of the Victorian age, poverty affected many residents.
The Old Kent Road slowly stopped becoming the home of well-to-do people, but the shopping streets of working-class neighbourhoods.
The Old Kent Road saw the first horse-tram lines laid in 1871 for a service between Blackheath and Blackfriars Bridge, and in Walworth Road for a service to Camberwell Green.
Till 1913 the ‘ha’penny bumper’, a one-horse single-decker, travelled along from the Old Kent Road via Rotherhithe New Road to Raymouth Road, allowing public transport access to working people. It was during the Victorian era that the Old Kent Road gained the character for which it is fondly thought of today.
Knocked’em in the Old Kent Road was a music hall comedy song written by actor Albert Chevalier in 1891, which told the story of a family who lived in an alley near the Old Kent Road, and is still sang today. Pub-life was also forged in those times and in 1874 there were eighteen in under two miles.
In 1896 motor cars started to appear on the roads and in 1904 Tilling’s, a bus company, made the decision to switch from horses to motor buses.
In the same year, electric trams replaced horse-trams on the Old Kent Road, serving London until July 1952. The Old Kent Road still stands today as an important high street, providing thousands of homes for Southwark and creative spaces for artists.
Boasting a rich history of rebels, kings, pubs and Romans, it is cemented as a piece of London’s history.