Cholera in Lambeth

I’ve spent much of this past winter’s lockdown doing walks from the excellent London’s Hidden Walks series of books. This walk covered Lambeth and Vauxhall. On our walk, we saw another couple with their Hidden Walks book.

One of the themes of these walks has been that, despite living in London all my life, there are many parts of London I’ve not been to. And even those I’m familiar with, my knowledge of their history is patchy.

South London is not a place I’ve spent much time in – like a typical North Londoner. I was surprised how close Vauxhall is to Central London.

I learnt that in 1848 cholera struck Lambeth and killed about 2,000 people on the waterfront, which was the industrial hub of London. Factories lined it, discharging pollutants into the air and the Thames. The waterfront inhabitants lived in miserable, filthy conditions. The lack of a water supply meant that people drank water from the Thames, dipping a pail to fetch it.

At the time, people thought that cholera was transmitted through the air in foul smells. It is, however, a water-borne disease. A Dr John Snow discovered this, partly by observing the waterfront population in Lambeth. He found there was a correlation between drinking dirty water and cholera.

Unrelated to the epidemic, London’s old burial grounds became overpopulated around the same time. There exists, near Westminster Bridge, the remnants of London Necropolis Station, which, every day, carried London’s dead and their friends and relatives to Surrey’s Brookwood Cemetery, once the largest cemetery in the world.

In many of the Hidden Walks, Dickens appears. He got around. There was, however, no sign of him in Lambeth. The poet and painter, William Blake, did spend about 10 years living here. His stay was punctuated by more than one robbery. Thieves regularly hid amongst the marshes there in the late 1790s.

Tintagel House contained the main police computer in the 1970s. Although good enough for the police then, it was less powerful than a modern smartphone. Unrelated to the computer, a long forgotten anarchist group, The Angry Brigade, bombed the building in 1971 and 25 other buildings during their heyday. Intentionally or not, they damaged buildings: only one person was injured during their three-year campaign.

One of the most delightful areas is Bonnington Square, which is where we finished as the winter night drew in. We got talking to someone doing some late gardening in a communal area. He told us about the community spirit. The area, once marked for demolition, was rescued by squatters, who eventually formed housing associations to manage many of the Victorian houses. The vegetarian café, closed during lockdown, is run by volunteers. The co-op also created the Pleasure Garden, which, unlike so many green spaces in affluent parts of London, is open to everyone.

For more information, see volume 2.

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