Old Kent Road
Looking south along Old Kent Road from the Bricklayer's Arms
|Maintained by||Transport for London|
|Length||1.8 mi (2.9 km)|
|Location||Southwark, South East London|
|Nearest Transport for London station|
The Old Kent Road is a road in South East London, England, running through the London Borough of Southwark. It has been part of Watling Street, the historic Roman road from Dover to Wroxeter via London and is now part of the A2, a major road between London and Dover.
The road has been important since Roman times. It was a recognised route for pilgrims in the Middle Ages as documented in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales when it was known as Kent Street, and was used by soldiers returning from the Battle of Agincourt. In the 16th century, the road became notorious for St Thomas-a-Watering, a place for public hangings including religious dissenters and those guilty of treason. Development on the street had been mainly rural with frequent coaching inns up to the 19th century, when it acquired the name Old Kent Road. During this time, various industrial premises were established to serve the Surrey Canal, while the Metropolitan Gas Works was a major business on Old Kent Road. In the 20th century, much of this property was demolished for urban redevelopment, including the creation of Burgess Park. In the 21st century, the road has housed numerous retail parks and premises typical of out-of-town development, and many of the pubs along the road have been re-appropriated for other purposes.
The road is well known to Londoners by its association with the music hall song "Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road", describing typical working-class London life. It is the first and equal cheapest property on the London Monopoly board and the only one in South London.
Although the name appears as simply "Old Kent Road" on maps, it is usually referred to by Londoners as "the Old Kent Road". The road begins at the Bricklayers' Arms roundabout, where it meets the New Kent Road, Tower Bridge Road, and Great Dover Street. It runs southeast past Burgess Park, Christ Church, Peckham and the railway line from Peckham Rye to South Bermondsey. Just east of the railway bridge, the road crosses the boundary between the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham, where the road ahead becomes New Cross Road.
The road appears on a map to form a boundary between Walworth, and Peckham to the south and Bermondsey to the north although the ancient parish and vestry boundaries of these do not in fact coincide with it, the Bermondsey boundary running along Rolls Road.
Old Kent Road is one of the oldest roads in England and was part of the Roman Road from London to Dover via Canterbury, which acquired the name Watling Street during Saxon Britain. Pilgrims documented in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales travelled along this route from London and Southwark on their way to Canterbury. The prologue, which reads "And forth we ridden a litel more than pas; Unto the watering of Seint Thomas; And then our host began his hors arrest" refers to the stop along the road. In 1415, the road was a scene of celebrations for soldiers returning from the Battle of Agincourt towards the City of London. The Kentish Drovers public house, opening in 1840, commemorated the road as a historic thoroughfare for market traffic. The road was predominantly rural in nature until the 19th century, containing fields and windmills, with the occasional tavern. John Rocque's Map of London, published in 1746, shows numerous hedgerows along the course of the road. The name Old Kent Road came into use at this time; previously the whole of the road along with New Kent Road was known as Kent Street.
At the junction with what is now Shornecliff Road (previously Thomas Street) was the bridge crossing of St Thomas-a-Watering over the River Neckinger, which marked a boundary in the Archbishop of Canterbury's authority of the nearby manors in Southwark and Walworth. The point was regarded as the limit of the City of London's authority in 1550, having been ratified in several charters previously, and there is a boundary stone set into the wall of the old fire station indicating this. The nearby pub, the Thomas a Becket, at the corner of Albany Road, derives its name from this connection, and marked the first point of rest for pilgrims travelling to Canterbury. Henry V met several soldiers returning from Agincourt at this location in 1415.
St Thomas-a-Watering was a place of execution for criminals whose bodies were left in gibbets at this spot, the principal route from the southeast to the City of London. As an accomplice of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, Sir James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, was taken by a mob during the rebellion of Jack Cade at the Standard in Cheapside, then to St Thomas-a-Watering, where he was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in de la Pole's rebellion. A similar fate befell religious dissenters, both Catholic and Protestant. On 8 July 1539, Griffith Clerke, Vicar of Wandsworth was hanged and quarted here along with his chaplain and two others, for not acknowledging the royal supremacy of Henry III. The Welsh Protestant martyr John Penry was also executed here on 6 April 1593 and a small side street nearby, named after him, commemorates this. The Catholics John Jones and John Rigby were executed here in in 1598 and 1600 respectively. Charles II travelled along the road on his journey to reclaim the throne in May 1660, which was described as "a triumph of about 20,000 horse and foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with inexpressible joy".
Following from the sale of local monastic properties in the Reformation period, the Crown let out many long-leases which were acquired by local people. Most prominently was those held by the Rolls family along the route from Bricklayers Arms to New Cross Road, originally by John Rolls (1735–1801). With the urban expansion of the metropolis these holdings were in turn let out on building licences or shorter leases to others by the Rolls family at considerable profit to them, notably the desirable residential development in the area that is now Surrey Square and the Paragon which were designed by their Surveyor Michael Searles in 1788. By the late quarter of the 19th century, the Rolls Family started to support the local communities by letting or granting for free some of their lands for social purposes, including the Library at Wells Way and the Peabody Estate (Dover Flats) The last significant local remnant of their involvement is the large detached White House between the Peabody Estate buildings, built by Searles in the 1790s. The original railings and ironwork survive in the current development at No. 155. The house was later owned by Searles and then the management office of the Rolls family trust estates. The last of the male Llangatocks was the Hon Charles Stewart Rolls who was the pioneer motorist and aviator who formed the partnership with Henry Royce.
The opening of the Surrey Canal in 1811 changed the character of Old Kent Road from rural to industrial, as various tanneries and a soap processing plant were established along the road. Older properties that had been used by upper and middle classes were converted into the flats for the emerging working class population. By the time the Bricklayers Arms goods station opened in 1845, the road was entirely built up of high density housing. At the time, Old Kent Road had one of the highest population densities in Europe, with an average of 280 residents per acre. However, sections along the road still had success with commercial trade, with various market stalls and sellers, until the construction of the tramway in 1871. The Livesey Museum was designed by Sir George Livesey in 1890 as Camberwell Public Library No. 1. However, the southern section of the road did remain residential in nature through the 19th century. Nos. 864, 866 and 880–884 were constructed by John Lamb in 1815, and feature ammonite capitals, ornamental features resembling fossils, a feature also used in contemporary architecture in Brighton.
The Metropolitan Gas Works was based on Old Kent Road, and founded in 1833. It covered an area of more than 13 square metres (1.3×10−5 km2), including parts Southwark, Croydon, Newington, Lambeth and Streatham. Expansion of the gas works in 1868 required the demolition of Christ Church, Camberwell (built in 1838), which was rebuilt on its current site on the opposite side of the road. The gas works was principally managed by Livesey from 1840 until his death in 1908. There is a statue of him on the Livesey Museum for Children, near the site of the works.
During the 19th and 20th century, the industrial and working class makeup of Old Kent Road made it a haven for organised crime and violence. The notorious Richardson Gang operated in the area, and boxing clubs based around Old Kent Road became popular. Lennox Lewis' manager Frank Maloney grew up in the area and later recalled, "If you weren't into crime, people thought you were a pansy". Draining of the Surrey Canal in 1971 uncovered a number of cracked and blown safes that had been thrown in the water.
The London City Fire Brigade had its 'Thomas Street' fire station placed at the corner site. This was subsumed into the London Fire Brigade from its formation and in 1904 a new station was built on the road. This was in turn replaced by a station on the corner of nearby Coopers Road, which in turn was demolished for a comprehensive redevelopment in 2014, opening the following year.
Unlike many well known streets in London, Old Kent Road did not suffer significant bomb damage during World War II. In 1968, a flyover opened at the road's northern end, allowing direct access onto New Kent Road, which catered for the main flow of traffic. During the 1970s, run-down Victorian properties on and around Old Kent Road were demolished in order to make way for new housing estates. Burgess Park was created as part of the County of London Plan in 1943, which recommended new parkland in the area. Several new tower blocks were built on the road, though some earlier 19th century buildings, such as Nos. 360–386, survived.
As is common in Britain, pubs on Old Kent Road have been gradually closing since the 1980s. Art one point, there were 39 pubs on the road. The Dun Cow at No. 279 opened in 1856 and was well known for being a gin palace, later becoming a champagne bar and featuring DJs such as Steve Walsh and Robbie Vincent. The premises closed in 2004 to become a surgery. The World Turned Upside Down had been based on Old Kent Road since the 17th century, and may have been named after the discovery of Australia, Van Diemen's Land, or Tierra del Fuego in South America. The pub became a music venue in the 20th century, where Long John Baldrey gave his first live performance in 1958. It closed in 2009 and is now a branch of Domino's Pizza. The Duke of Kent was converted into a mosque in 1999, before moving to the former site of the Old Kent Road swimming baths in 2011.
Southwark Borough Council do not consider Old Kent Road to fit the characteristics of an urban town centre, and consequently large retail parks more in character of out-of-town schemes have allowed to be developed over earlier properties. These have included Asda, B & Q, Comet, Halfords, Magnet and PC World.
Old Kent Road is the first property square on the British Monopoly board, priced at £60 and forming the brown set along with the similarly working class Whitechapel Road. It is the only square on the board in South London and south of the Thames.
The road makes several appearances in literature. In Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, the titular character runs down the road trying to escape from London to Dover, though in the narrative the street is still partly rural in nature. After suffering an attack of amnesia, the main character of George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter, Dorothy Hare, finds herself alone on Old Kent Road. In 1985, the BBC arts series Arena included a documentary about the road.
In A Little Princess Shirley Temple sings a song titled "Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road" of which the chorus gives a good idea of the sort of language that was used in the area. The song was a popular Musical Hall hit written in 1891 by Albert Chevalier who was the lyricist and original performer; the music was written by his brother Charles Ingle. The street is mentioned multiple times in the Madness song "Calling Cards", a song about running an illegitimate business "in a sorting office in the Old Kent Road". It is featured in the chorus of the Levellers' song "Cardboard Box City", which criticises the slow action on helping the homeless in London, specifically old Kent Road being infrequently visited by the wealthy due to being south of the Thames.
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