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Lambeth in Victorian Times

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For most of the century Lambeth remained part of Surrey. Parish boundaries were then the only form of local organisation; Lambeth, or the area known as South Marsh, beyond the river bank was still mostly rural and remained so for several decades, low-lying, marshy in places but crowded with market gardens which helped to provide London with fresh vegetables. To the south also were St George's Fields, the scene of many rather riotous gatherings, including the famous Gordon Riots of 1780. Street markets sprang up here which have survived in various forms, and the theatres and music halls and other less desirable places of entertainment drew large crowds from London across the river.

The more northerly part of Lambeth was referred to as North Marsh. It was a hive of activity. There was now a continuous line of docks and wharves and stairs for the watermen, mostly of wooden construction, all the way from Deptford in the east to Lambeth Palace in the west. There were odd buildings like the old Shot Tower, coke ovens and ramshackle warehouses. The tenements that sprang up were often three-storey but they were not spacious town houses. They were packed with families, often more than one family on each floor, or even occupying only one room.

It was a dirty smoky place to live, though green fields were not far away. There was a forest of chimneys belching out dirty smoke, soot falling on clean washing hung out to dry, thick fogs Londoners called 'pea-soupers' when you could scarcely see your hand before your face. Indoors there was smoke, soot and ash from the fires used equally for warmth and for cooking, and thick tobacco smoke. The houses were frequently infested with cockroaches and the poorer people had lice or fleas because they lived packed close together in squalid conditions. The streets were crowded with people walking and carts jostling for space with no rules of road etiquette to follow and there were always pickpockets or a chance of being run over by a cart or carriage or kicked by a horse. And they drank. Every street had its ale houses, though to be fair the water was not fit to drink. But the scourge of London was gin from the 17th century onwards.

In places like Lambeth the inhabitants had to work very hard to maintain a decent standard of living, beginning work at about the age of ten and working perhaps twelve to sixteen hours a day.

It was also very noisy. All day long there was the constant rattling of carts over cobbles, the noise and the smell of horses, dogs, and even sheep, cattle and pigs, especially when they were being driven to market and the smell of rubbish rotting, not to mention in hot weather the smell of the river which was London's dustbin and sewer There were street-sellers everywhere, piemen with their loaded trays on their heads, men pushing barrows, flower-sellers, quack sellers of medicines or anything that could be sold or mended - all competing with each other with their traditional cries and songs. But there was also the rumble, the rattle and the roar of the machinery of the new age, for London was now as uch an industrial city as the capital of a growing empire.

In 1820 Waterloo Road, 70 ft wide, was driven straight through the marshy area from the river southwards, opening it up for further development. 


Churches of Southwark and Lambeth

Christchurch, Southwark (photo)

St Andrew, Coin St, Lambeth. St Andrew's was destroyed during the blitz and completely re-built in 1960.

St George the Martyr, Southwark, (photo and historical note) built 1735. It is commonly known as 'Little Dorrit's Church.' - see note below on The Old Curiosity Shop.

St John the Evangelist, Lambeth, (photo and details) is on Waterloo Road opposite the modern terminus.The site of this church on Waterloo Road caused all the local churches to be referred to as "the Waterloo churches". St John's was one of four London churches of that name built to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Begun in 1822, it was built in the Greek style with colonnaded portico,being completed and consecrated in 1824. In 1885 it was renovated and then altered internally in 1924. In 1940 it was bombed, most of the interior being destroyed. In 1950 it was largely re-modelled and was re-dedicated in 1951 as the Festival of Britain church. At last in 1998 it celebrated its restoration. It is designated as a Grade II listed building.

In 1851 less than 18 percent of the people of Lambeth were attending church on Sundays, far less than the national average.

St Saviour's, Lambeth, now in Southwark. A fine church, in 1905 it was renamed as the Cathedral Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie for the newly formed Anglican diocese of Southwark..There has been a church here for over a thousand years, with some of the surviving stonework being Norman.



The Old Vic, formerly the Coburg, had a chequered history in its early days. There was also the Surrey Theatre and Astley's Amphitheatre, whose founder performed horse-riding stunts in a ring and whose proprietor from 1871 was "Lord" George Sanger. William (Bill) Holland, who took over the Canterbury Arms, the "mother of music-hall" - the tickets were free because the bar was so profitable - later turned Covent Garden Opera House into a circus!


Old Father Thames, highway and sewer!

London River, The Thames Story, was an LWT television series. A book both entertaining and highly informative, was written by Gavin Weightman and published in 1990 by Guild Publishing. The book is based on the programs and details life along the river, every page having photographs, old prints or maps, mostly in full colour. Chapter 5, The Thames on Tap, tells the story of that most basic need and how it was met - or not, as was frequently the case.

It was many years before they had access to clean water; the river became fouler year by year as it was used virtually as both rubbish dump and sewer by the rapidly increasing numbers of people living by it and the various manufactories springing up and discharging their effluent straight into it. The water was not filtered or cleaned in any way, it swept back up river on most tides, and discharges into it were often right next to the places from which drinking water was drawn. The death rate for young children was particularly high from every kind of illness and disease. The first outbreak of Asiatic cholera was in 1832 and it is said to have killed 5,300 Londoners as it spread from Rotherhithe and Southwark, through Lambeth, to Marylebone and Hoxton.

A relevant website, the London Sampler, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, with information, statistics and map of various such outbreaks of deadly diseases, can be found at cholera or typhus.. Use your back arrow to return to this page.


Work - on and alongside the river

The tide on the River Thames reaches a considerable distance up river. It was navigable up-river as far as Cricklade for many centuries. Over the centuries the banks have risen higher and the river is far deeper now than in Roman times. At London Bridge the high water levels were less than 14 ft in 1791 but rose to nearly 16 ft by 1881. The embankments have risen higher to keep the floods out and there is still constant risk in spite of the building of the Thames flood barrier, begun in 1974.


The barge or lighter was used for moving goods, cargoes not passengers, which they conveyed from the docks to the wharves or from the shore to the ships. Although some distance down river from Lambeth, the goods still had to be brought up past London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Timber in particular came in through the Surrey docks famous for its 'deal porters', men who carried impossibly heavy loads of deal on their shoulders.

The lighter was quite large but had no sail, being steered by very long oars and was moved about only by the force of the tide. The lighterman had to know the tides intimately, especially the way the water bounces from bank to bank. It was essential to serve an 'apprenticeship.' The elite of the docks, they were employed by master-lightermen and were very proud of their skills and their knowledge of the river. They had their own jargon - rowing was called 'driving', the oars were 'sweeps'. Mayhew, in Mayhew's London, published in 1851, distinguishes between lighters and barges, claiming that the latter were larger and heavier and used mainly for carrying coal. He considered the lightermen rather superior to bargemen and other river workers, being mostly able to read and write, more often than not being proprietors, that is, running their own business, and being a "sober class of men." He adds, "A drunken lighterman, I was told, would hardly be trusted twice."

In the second half of the nineteenth century steamtugs were beginning to pull strings of barges. They were much more difficult to manoeuvre than the single barges, giving rise to Charles Dickens' complaint that they got in the way of pleasure steamers. As far as the barges went, even beyond Waterloo Bridge the mudlarks, often young children, scavenged coal spilled from the coal barges, especially where they were lying aground. A common sight all along the river bank they usually spent most of the day up to their waists in the mud feeling for odd scraps of coal or chips of wood which they could sell for a few pence.



An excellent description of the traditional work of a sawyer, copiously illustrated with photographs can be found in Don Steel's Discovering your Family History published by the BBC.

Wood, still no more than rougly hewn tree-trunks, came from all over the world, being in heavy demand for every kind of building as well as furniture. The nearest sawmill was directly behind the houses on the east side of Cornwall Road with an exit onto Commercial Road. There two sawyers would manouevre a huge log into place over a large pit using levers. The 'top sawyer', the more senior of the two would stand on the log itself, holding one end of the heavy double-handled saw while the 'bottom sawyer' stood in the pit below, wearing a hat with a brim to keep the sawdust out of his eyes. It was exhausting work and the pay was poor. There was no security - a man could be turned off at any time without notice - but this was a time of great expansion in trade.

For details of domestic service in London visit the London Sampler (see above) A tax was imposed on male servants in 1877 which inevitably made their cost greater and ensured that more women were employed in domestic service than men. By 1851 nine out of ten servants were women.


A debtor's prison, a hospital and a popular rebel

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens had been published in 1841 having appeared as a serial over the previous year. The central characters are a young girl called Nell and her aged father who have to wander the streets together. The book was well-established as a 'classic' but Ada may also have confused the story somewhat with that of Little Dorrit in the novel of that name. Little Dorrit, whose father was quite improvident, was born in the Marshalsea Debtor's Prison in Southwark and christened at St George's. There is even a representation of her - a fictional character of course - in a modern stained glass window in the church. The 'real' Marshalsea, opposite St George the Martyr's church, was actually closed in 1842 but a high wall still remains.

St Thomas's Hospital had been moved from its ancient home and rebuilt on its present site opposite the Houses of Parliament. Mrs Wardroper was still matron, and the Nightingale Training Schools for nurses and midwives, founded by Florence Nightingale, was still based there. (See Florence Nightingale by Cecil W.Smith))

Garibaldi had visited London to the acclaim of huge crowds in 1862, so this picture had probably been hanging there since the 1860s and as so often happens, everyone had ceased to notice it till now. Garibaldi was essentially a republican, a fiery character involved in many places, even as far away as South America, as a leader of rebellion. He was largely responsible for the unification of Italy which had till then been a set of small independent states constantly warring with each other through the centuries.


Sorting out the census...

1881 Census for 34 and 35 Commercial Road
A photocopy of the original document was consulted for the information here, not just the various printouts. One in particular was misleading, suggesting that the head of the household at no.34 was also the head at no.35.

The confusion probably arises from the fact that Henry George senior had only died in January and his will had not yet been proved. Relationships given apply to Henry junior who was of course the head of the household, as he was till he died in 1931

At no.34 was John Brown, head, his wife Elizabeth, and their two children, Rhoda and Abraham Elisha, the latter name being rendered Absalom in the printed version!

At no.35 were

relation to
head of house
status age occupation where born
William Cope grandfather widower 83 retired sawyer Southwark, London
Sophia mother widow 43 Coffee H Keeper Oxf. Beddington
Henry George son unm. 21 joiner Middlesex, London
Francis William P son unm. 16 do.
Ada Beatrice dau. unm. 13 do.
William Samuel son unm. 11 do.