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A Brief History of Streatham
For thousands of years the ebb and flow of people and events have woven the story of Streatham. Her long and varied history reaches back to the bleak and cold times of the Ice Ages when prehistoric people passed through, hunted and settled in our area. However, the true origins of Streatham begin with the arrivals of the Romans during the first century AD. It is to the skill and labours of the Roman military engineers, who surveyed and laid the road which now runs through Streatham, the A23, that Streatham owes her true origins.
Along this road history has moved. Roman merchants and soldiers, Saxon settlers, Viking marauders, Norman knights, medieval armies, royal retinues and ordinary people have made their way through Streatham, moulding and influencing her history. It is a long history, nearly a thousand years, of a community living in a Surrey parish, existing with almost unvarying sameness, until the arrival of suburban London. Unfortunately, we know little about these early times and many centuries have to pass before the name of Streatham first appears on the pages of history.
Streatham takes its name from the period of Saxon settlement that occurred in and around Streatham following the fall of Roman Britain. The name simply means the ‘settlement by the street’, which was the old Roman Road, now Streatham High Road. The first details of early Streatham come from the Domesday Survey of 1086, which tells us about the communities that formed the ancient parish of Streatham, which at the time numbered no more than a few hundred people. At the heart of this small farming community was a chapel mentioned in the Survey, later to be the parish church of St. Leonard.
For most of her history, Streatham was a quiet Surrey parish, made up of the villages of Tooting Bec, South Streatham, Streatham, Leigham and the hamlet of Balham. It was predominantly an agricultural community, which was also engaged in sheep and dairy farming, and a number of minor industries, such as tile and brick making, woodland management, market gardening and roadside services. For most of the Middle Ages Streatham was under the control of the monasteries, notably the great abbeys of Bec and Bermondsey. Following their dissolution during the 1530s, the lands of Streatham were sold off, heralding many changes to Streatham and her people.
One major effect was the appearance of local farms, which were to be a feature of the Streatham landscape until the late 18th century. By this time, many of the old farms were being swept aside, replaced by large country houses with their sweeping acres of parkland. Streatham was becoming gentrified. This was enhanced by the discovery of two local mineral wells, which established Streatham as a fashionable spa town during Georgian times, with people flocking from Surrey and London to enjoy the benefits of medicinal water. At the same time, wealthy and important people were beginning to appreciate the desirability of living at Streatham.
Then the railways arrived. These cut sharply across the landscape, dividing and separating the parish, bringing the beginnings of suburban Streatham, which began unfolding apace from the 1870s. With little hesitancy, Streatham moved from her traditional setting as a rural parish into a bustling London suburb in a matter of decades.
As these passed, the vistas of open countryside were swept aside. Roads and streets appeared criss-crossing farm and parkland. The country houses and farms were demolished. With the piecemeal freeing of land came various housing developments, characterised by their own particular architectural style. This endowed Streatham with a diverse townscape, expressive of Victorian and Edwardian commercial and domestic tastes.
Along the High Road, old roadside inns and cottage shops disappeared as the commercial development of the High Road took place, notably from 1880 to 1914, and later in the 1920s and 1930s, when further house building also took place giving Streatham that 1930s feel. With the building, during these years, of three cinemas, a dance hall, an ice rink and a theatre, Streatham gained the reputation of being the entertainment centre of South London.
With suburban growth came other changes. During 1855 Streatham was redefined for administrative purposes. This saw a partial separation of Tooting Bec and Balham from Streatham, with the creation of two new parishes, which, in 1918, became parliamentary seats, along with the new seat of Streatham. Another important change occurred in 1965, when Streatham was moved from the Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth to create an enlarged London Borough of Lambeth.
Many famous people have come and gone in Streatham’s history. It has always been a pleasing place to live. During the Middle Ages, it attracted City merchants, later Elizabethan courtiers, Georgian bankers and Victorian businessmen. Queen Elizabeth I was a visitor a number of times and two Dukes of Bedford where born in the Streatham manor house. In more recent times, has been the home of the pre-Raphaelite painter William Dyce and the composer Sir Arnold Bax. The inventor Hiram Maxim was another resident, along with Norman Hartnell the dressmaker, the writer Dennis Wheatley, the comedian Tommy Trinder and the politician Ken Livingstone. These are just a few of the famous names from the realms of art, music, politics, science and literature who have been part of our local history.
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