History of Nunhead

Nunhead began its life as a tiny hamlet – just a few houses – centred on a pub. The story of its development into a bustling, densely-packed residential area shows many of the hallmarks of Victorian suburb-making: location, transport, and a relentless push outward to pastures new and green.

Perhaps the earliest mention of the area is in a March 1583 deed selling part of the manor of Camberwell, including estates at “Nunn-head”; it appears as “Nun-head” in 1690, and “None-head” on Rocque’s 1745 map. “Nun’s Head” is quite an unusual name for a pub: it often signals that the area was a messuage, or a dwelling-house and all the domestic land (like gardens or orchards) around it. Such a small plot of land would be an extremely common gift for a pious mediaeval person to give to a convent of nuns. In Nunhead’s case, it may imply a connection with the Augustinian priory of St. John the Baptist, Holywell, which received rents from various tenants in the parish of Camberwell.

Up until the early part of the 19th century, Nunhead was a typical rural hamlet: a cluster of cottages, surrounded by meadows, market gardens, and fields. Most of the dwellings were immediately adjacent to the tavern, although a few larger houses were scattered over the main road leading to Peckham Rye.

This began to change in the 1830s. London’s population was exploding – from 1 million in 1800 to 2.3 million in 1850 – and overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor sanitation ensured that the number of bodies needing burial in London’s haphazard system of parish-based burial grounds exploded as well. Parliament tried to solve the problem in 1832, when it passed a bill encouraging the creation of private cemeteries at the edge of the contemporary city. Eventually seven – the “Magnificent Seven” – were created between 1839 and 1841.

In 1839, William Warlters and Richard Edmonds sold their land at Nunhead Hill (about 130 acres), to the London Cemetery Company; 52 acres was used to build Nunhead Cemetery, the least famous of the “Magnificent Seven”. The company sold the remaining land for Henry Ewbank of Denmark Hill, presumably for development purposes. New roads accompanied the new burial ground, and these roads quickly boasted large detached villas – congruent with the gentlemen and well-to-do tradesmen who could afford Nunhead Cemetery’s burial fees.

Transport provided a major impetus for growth in 1865, when the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway opened a station on the Crystal Palace-Peckham Rye branch line at Nunhead: intended to carry merry-makers to the entertainments of the Palace, it also improved access to the centre of London. A large field between the embankment and Nunhead Green was the site of Brock’s fireworks factory – the namesake of the modern Pyrotechnist’s Arms pub. By the late 1870s and early 1880s, housing was booming. Edward Yates’s Waverley Park estate, where building began in Ivydale Road in 1884, is an excellent example. In fact, by 1890, Nunhead’s population of 10,000: 50 times larger than 50 years earlier!

However, with the boom in housing and population came a decline – by 1900 most of the gentry had moved further still out of London, and the spacious earlier properties were heavily sub-divided. The area was heavily bombed in World War II, further depleting the housing stock. The 1960s and 1970s saw wholesale clearance of terraced housing, and its replacement with large council estates.