London: adjacent to England

I want to talk about the EU Referendum, London, and history. And I want to flag up my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop on 4th July.

History first: a slippery term. We use it to refer both to the historical process, the raw sequence of past events; and also to the study, interpretation, and teasing out of meanings from that process. Historical interpretation is always about a past which is addressed from the standpoint of the present. It always involves a dialogue between past and present and – at its best – a new understanding of the past in the light of the present, or vice versa, or both.

So let’s talk about past and present. Let’s talk about yesterday and today. Yesterday – 23rd June 2016 – was the day when we all voted in the EU Referendum. Today – 24th June 2016 – is the day when we learned that we had voted to leave. By any measurement, this is an historic moment, a dramatic moment. It is also, in my view, a catastrophic moment. The 17 million people who voted Leave have set us on a course which will blight and belittle this country for the rest of our lives.

As for the national and regional breakdown of the vote, as expected, Scotland and London were the two great strongholds of the vote to Remain. The Scottish case is, I think, well understood: a direct outcome of its national politics over the past 15 to 20 years, including the 2014 Referendum and the current domination of the SNP. But what about London?

I think the London vote, and the divide between London and the rest of England and Wales, is the latest manifestation of an historic truth which goes back to the Civil War: that London is not part of England; that London is its own place.

What characterises London, and has done since the seventeenth century, is its sheer size, its weight, by comparison with the rest of the country. In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, London was an average-sized European capital city. But by 1650 when Cromwell was in power, London’s population had grown five-fold. By 1700 it was the largest city in western Europe. By 1800 it was a city of a million people, an unprecedented urban phenomenon. No other capital city matched it either for size, or for the sheer weight of its economic, political and cultural dominance.

London’s population growth was based not on native Londoners having lots of children, but on sustained inward migration from the rest of Britain. The city’s death-rate was sky-high because it was over-crowded, filthy and disease-ridden – but immigrants continued to arrive on such a scale that, despite this mortality, it still grew.

And this had dramatic economic consequences, because each migrant from the countryside to London was one less agricultural worker, and one more urban consumer. London’s growth depopulated parts of the countryside, and gave farmers both an incentive and an opportunity to rationalise and reorganise agriculture on a capitalist basis in order to feed the city’s enormous appetite. Similarly with clothing: cloth trades were London’s biggest industry, again organised as a highly competitive sector, from petty-bourgeois artisans at the top end to deadly but profitable sweatshops at the bottom. And similarly with building: the absence of any city-wide administration meant that London’s suburbs simply sprawled outwards into the surrounding countryside, facilitated by the building-lease system which split risks and profits between landowners and builders. London drove the commercial logic that led to Britain’s emergence as the world’s first capitalist country.

London’s phenomenal growth was not a pleasant process. It involved enormous violence and misery. It was only in the nineteenth century that city-wide institutions started to appear to tackle dirt, disease, poverty and poor housing. I am not arguing that London was – or is – intrinsically nicer, or more sophisticated, or more advanced, than the rest of the country. What I am arguing is that London was – and is – utterly different from the rest of the country. It was – and is – a different place, in which politics and culture work in different ways. It was – and is – a city predicated on migration, in and out. It was not – and is not – England’s biggest city, but rather an extraordinary urban prodigy adjacent to England.

And I reckon London’s vote in the Referendum is the latest reflection of this difference. What we do with it, whether we can put it to work against the catastrophic consequences of Brexit, isn’t yet clear. But getting a grasp on London’s unique history should at least give us food for thought.

I’ll be tackling some of these issues in my talk at the Bookseller Crow Bookshop in Upper Norwood, at 7.30 pm on Monday 4th July. All welcome. For more go to


Penge Boundary #8: The Map

Just to round things off, this is my map of Penge hamlet as it may have appeared in the eighteenth century. In previous posts I’ve revealed tantalising bits and pieces of it, but here’s the whole thing.

My Penge map

I chose the eighteenth century as my reference point because (a) it’s when map-makers like John Rocque, and publishers like John Cary, started to produce detailed maps of South London, which gave me something to work with; and (b) it was Penge’s last moment as a rural hamlet, before it was hit by the nineteenth century capitalist hurricane of canal and enclosure and railway and Crystal Palace and housing that made it the place it is today.

The eighteenth century features are shown in black. Some contemporary features – roads, railways, Crystal Palace Park – are shown in red to help you get your bearings.

Penge boundary #7: Fox Hill and Vicar’s Oak

We are on the final leg of our perambulation of Penge hamlet, facing a daunting climb up Fox Hill, a pretty road distinguished by the fact that it has its very own picture hanging in the National Gallery.

Fox Hill

 Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, by Camille Pissarro, 1870:

Copyright National Gallery, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1870. Pissarro had worked in Paris in the 1860s with other pioneering impressionists, though he himself was not French but Danish. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, he found himself in an uncomfortable position and moved to England, settling in Norwood. For more on his time here, have a look at the excellent Norwood Society site:

Impressionism is sometimes discussed as if it were mainly about formal technique, but early impressionists like Pissarro were equally driven by subject matter. They favoured ordinary, demotic, unremarkable landscapes, places belonging to living people rather than classical gods and heroes, and they painted outside rather than in the studio. Pissarro’s South London pictures illustrate this perfectly: his quiet, wintry, slightly rickety rendering of Fox Hill, its three figures paused uncertainly in the snow; the suburban stateliness of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’ (Lawrie Park Avenue) (, all formal perspective and width and neatness and respectable gentlefolk; and ‘Lordship Lane Station’, in which a train gently makes its way along the long-gone line to Crystal Palace High Level. Pissarro’s vantage point for this work was the footbridge on Cox’s Walk in Dulwich Wood: a deforested bare hillside in his day, now gloriously wooded once more. See Michael Glover’s thoughts on the Lordship Lane painting here:

I think Glover gets it exactly right: the painting is rooted in “its own sense of its ordinariness”, but it took enormous care and skill to allow that “ordinariness” to express itself.

Back to the boundary. Near the top of Fox Hill, with Church Road in sight, the boundary veers right to follow Lansdowne Place. This seems a bit counter-intuitive: why not carry straight on? Perhaps the answer is that this apparently erratic course was the original path up the hill. Whatever the truth of the matter, to reassure us that we are going the right way, the junction is marked by a boundary post and a nice little plaque from Bromley Council.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #2

And just in case you’re still not convinced: further along Lansdowne Place, close to the junction with Church Road, Belvedere Road and Westow Street, there’s another post. This one is clearly marked ‘Battersea’ to remind us that for most of its history Penge was a ‘detached hamlet’ of that parish. It’s rather poignant to see it here, nestled up against the wall, unobtrusive, miles from Battersea proper, but defiantly re-asserting a connection first recorded in the Domesday Book.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #3

Belvedere Road and Westow Street date from the Victorian suburbanisation of the nineteenth century. But Church Road is much older, part of a road which ran for centuries along the ridge-top, comprised today of Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace Parade, Church Road, and Beulah Hill. At the end of Lansdowne Place the boundary joins this old road, heading north-east towards the roundabout at the top of Anerley Hill, the site of the Vicar’s Oak.

Vicar's Oak

In the early 1670s, soon after Cromwell’s remarkable republic was replaced by Charles Stuart’s vindictive and corrupt monarchy, John Aubrey was commissioned to produce a Perambulation of Surrey. When he visited Norwood he found:-

“an antient, remarkable Tree call’d the Vicar’s Oak, where four Parishes meet at a point. This Wood wholly consists of Oaks”.

Aubrey’s four parishes were Lambeth, Camberwell, Battersea (represented by Penge hamlet) and Croydon; their modern descendants, whose boundaries still meet at the Vicar’s Oak roundabout, are the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Bromley and Croydon.

Aubrey was one of the last visitors to see the Vicar’s Oak. It was cut down by some vandal, for reasons unknown, in 1678 or thereabouts. But the site continued to be known as Vicar’s Oak, and even in the nineteenth century some locals referred to the road not as Church Road but as ‘Vicar’s Oak Road’. For more on this, go to and

And now we have almost completed the circuit of Penge. From the Vicar’s Oak the boundary runs along Crystal Palace Parade; past the bus station; over the subway from the old High Level Station, now being renovated thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (; and on to Old Cople Lane where the perambulation began several posts ago.

If you want to start all over again, just go to

Alternatively, you’re very welcome to come to my Penge Festival talk about tracing the Penge boundary, on Tuesday 14th June, at 7.30 p.m. in the side-bar of the Crooked Billet, at the junction of Penge High Street and Penge Lane.

And on Sunday 19th June we won’t just be reading or talking about Penge’s ancient boundary, we’ll be walking it, tracing it through today’s streets. Join us if you can: 11 a.m. outside Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane.

For all Penge Festival events, go to