Streatham: two thousand years of history

Streatham is a neighbourhood in south-west London, mostly in the London Borough of Lambeth. It is centred 5 miles south of Charing Cross. The London Plan identified this area as one of 35 major centres in Greater London.

Streatham means “the hamlet on the street.” The street in question, the London to Brighton Way. It was the Roman road from the capital Londinium to the south coast near Portslade. Today within Brighton and Hove.

After the departure of the Romans, the main road through Streatham continued to be an important trackway. It later became the highway road from London to Brighton, the modern A23. This road (and its traffic) have shaped Streatham’s development.

Streatham’s first parish church, St Leonard’s, was founded in Saxon times. But an early Tudor tower is the only surviving structure pre-dating 1831 when the church was rebuilt. The medieval parish covered a larger area including Balham and Tooting Bec.

The village remained unchanged until the 18th century. In the 18th century the village’s natural springs, known as Streatham Wells, were first praised for their healthy properties. The reputation of the spa and upgraded roads drew wealthy City of London merchants and others to build their country homes in Streatham.

In spite of London’s expansion around the village, a limited number of developments took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most notably on Wellfield Road and Sunnyhill Road. These roads are today considered an essential part of what remains of the historic Streatham Village.

Wellfield Road, which had earlier been known as Leigham Lane, was renamed to reflect its role as the main route from the village centre to one of the good locations. On the south side of Streatham Common is another mineral well, in an area that now is part of The Rookery.

In 1730s, Streatham Park, a Georgian country mansion, was built by the brewer Ralph Thrale. He bought the land from the Lord of the Manor – the fourth Duke of Bedford. Streatham Park later passed to Ralph’s son Henry Thrale. Henry with his wife Hester entertained many of the leading literary and artistic characters of the day. 12 portraits of Henry’s guests, painted by his friend Joshua Reynolds, were in the dining room. Fanny Burney labelled These pictures as the Streatham Worthies.

Streatham Park was later leased to Prime Minister Lord Shelburne. It was the venue for early negotiations with France that led to the Peace Treaty of 1783. Streatham Park was demolished in 1863.

One large house that survives is Park Hill, on the north side of Streatham Common. It was built in the early 19th century for the Leaf family. It was the home of Sir Henry Tate. Sugar refiner, benefactor of local libraries across south London, including Streatham Library. Also the founder of the Tate Gallery at Milbank.

Development accelerated after the opening of Streatham Hill railway station. The other two railway stations followed within fifteen years. Some developments, such as Telford Park to the west of Streatham Hill had facilities like tennis clubs. Roupell Park, in the area near Christchurch Road promoted by the Roupell family. Other streets adopted more conventional suburban layouts. Three more parish churches were built to serve the growing area. Immanuel and St Andrew’s (1854), St Peter’s (1870) and St Margaret the Queen’s (1889). There is now a mixture of buildings from all architectural eras of the past 200 years.

After the First World War Streatham developed as a location for entertainment,. Streatham Hill Theatre (then became a bingo hall), three cinemas, the Locarno ballroom (Caesar’s nightclub, which closed in 2010) and Streatham Ice Rink. All adding to its reputation as “the West End of South London”.

With the advent of electric tram services it also grew as a shopping centre serving a wide area to the south. In the 1930s large numbers of blocks of flats were built along the High Road. These speculative developments were not successful. They were only filled when émigré under the domination of Hitler’s Germany arrived. In 1932 the parish church of the Holy Redeemer in Streatham Vale, build to commemorate William Wilberforce.

In the 1950s Streatham had the longest and busiest shopping street in south London. Streatham became the site of the UK’s first supermarke. Express Dairies Premier Supermarkets opened its first 2,500 square feet (230 m2) store in 1951.

Waitrose opened its first supermarket in Streatham in 1955, but it closed down in 1963.

Yet, a combination of factors led to a gradual decline through the 1970s and a more rapid decline in the 1980s. These included long-term population movements out to Croydon, Kingston and Sutton. The growth of heavy traffic on the A23 (main road from central London to Gatwick Airport and Brighton). And a lack of redevelopment sites in the town centre. This culminated in 1990 when the closure of Pratts. It had grown from a Victorian draper’s shop to a department store operated since the 1940s by the John Lewis Partnership. It coincided with the opening of a giant Sainsbury’s supermarket half a mile south of the town centre. It replaced an existing, smaller Sainsbury’s store opposite Streatham Hill railway station.

In August 2011, Streatham was selected as one of the areas to enjoy Round 1 of the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund, gaining £300,000. Later, Streatham was awarded a further £1.6 million, matched by another £1 million by Lambeth. The money from this fund was spent on improving streets and public spaces in Streatham. This includes the smartening up of shop fronts through painting and cleaning, replacing shutters and signage as well as helping to reveal facilities behind the high street such as The Stables Community Centre. Streatham Library has also undergone a £1.2 million refurbishment. The Tudor Hall behind the library was brought back into public use as The Mark Bennett Centre providing performance space. . Also new lighting to highlight some of Streatham’s more attractive buildings and monuments.

In September 2002, Streatham High Road was voted the “Worst Street in Britain” in a poll organized by the BBC Today programme and CABE. This mainly reflected the dominance of continuous traffic along High Road.

Plans for investment and regeneration had begun before the poll. Local amenity group the Streatham Society leading a successful partnership bid for funding from central government for environmental improvements. Work started in winter 2003-04 with the refurbishment of Streatham Green. Then repaving and relighting of the High Road between St Leonard’s Church and the Odeon. In 2005 Streatham Green won the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association ‘London Spade’ award. Best public open space scheme in the capital.

Streatham Festival started in 2002. It has grown to a festival with over 50 events held in order of locations. From bars to churches and parks to youth centres, attracting over 3,000 people.

After several years of delay and controversy over phasing, construction started in the autumn of 2011 on the Streatham Hub. A major redevelopment next to Streatham railway station. The project was a joint development by Lambeth Council and Tesco.

The Streatham Hub project involved the demolition of Streatham Ice Arena, Streatham Leisure Centre and the former Streatham Bus Garage. Also their replacement with a new leisure centre and a Tesco store with 250 flats above it. The leisure centre has an ice rink on the upper floors with a sports hall, gym and swimming pool on the levels below. Streatham Leisure Centre closed in November 2009 due to health and safety concerns when part of the pool hall ceiling collapsed. Streatham Ice Arena closed on 18 December 2011, after eighty years of operation in February 2011.

In November 2013, the new Streatham Ice and Leisure Centre opened to the public. The leisure centre houses a 60 m x 30 m indoor ice rink with 1,000 rink-side seats. Also a six-lane 25 m swimming pool, 13 m teaching pool, four-court sports hall and a gym with 100 stations.

The jazz venue Hideaway continues Streatham’s long entertainment tradition. It features live performances of jazz, funk, swing and soul music as well as stand-up comedy nights. It won the Jazz Venue/Promoter of the Year category in the 2011 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.