Brixton: a short history
The London district of Brixton lies to the south of the River Thames, near the district of Dulwich and has a unique history, stretching back a thousand years..
The earliest surviving traces of human activity in the area are the lines of two Roman roads, Clapham Road (A3) and Brixton Rd (A23), with the A3 being the more important, linking the City of London with the port of Chichester.
In the 11th century the area was known as Brixistane which means 'the stone of Brihtsige'. These stones were used as a meeting point for communities.
Tenpenny's Farm, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, c1750
Over the years this became shortened to Brixton. Up until the Industrial Revolution and the coming of the railways, Brixton remained undeveloped and mainly agricultural.
The first speculative development started after the construction of the Vauxhall Bridge in 1816, with 'ribbon' development occurring around Acre Lane (the oldest buildings in Brixton include St Matthews Church, 1812, 46 Acre Lane 1808 and the Trinity Almshouses, Acre Lane, 1824).
Coldharbour Lane cottage (date unknown)
The small settlement underwent a huge transformation between the 1860s and 1890s, as railways and trams linked Brixton with the centre of London. In 1880, Electric Avenue was so named after it became the first street in the area to be lit by electricity (Eddy Grant sang about it nearly 100 years later).
Large, expensive houses were constructed along the main trunk routes into Brixton, attracting the middle classes.
At the turn of the century the area underwent a great social upheaval as the middle classes moved out to be replaced by a huge working class population.
» Map of Brixton area, 1870
» Booth's Map of Brixton area, 1898-99
Many of the big houses were converted into flats or boarding houses which proved very popular with theatre people working in the West End theatres, marking the start of Brixton's close association with the arts.
By 1925, Brixton had the largest and best shopping centre in south London with department stores, a thriving market, cinemas, pubs and a theatre attracting thousands to the area.
Post war decline
The area was bombed substantially during WW2, leading to a severe housing crisis, exacerbated by the decline in privately rented accommodation that had begun after the introduction of rent controls during the First World War.
Knackered privately rented houses were often sold to cash-strapped occupiers, while some houses on the end of their leases were left to quietly fall about as landlords tried to squeeze the last few bob out of the property.
With many houses in appalling disrepair, slum clearances followed with Council housing filling the gaps, leading to a demographic shift in the area.
In the 1940s and 1950s many of the immigrants who came to Britain from the West Indies settled in Brixton and have continued to contribute to its electric, eclectic, multi-cultural feel ever since. (See the BBC's Windrush feature).
It has been rumoured that Brixton was chosen as a destination for immigrants as many of the first wave were initially housed in temporary lodgings in a large underground bunker at Stockwell.
Of course it hasn't all been plain sailing: Brixton has suffered two major riots in recent history and remains bedeviled with drug problems. Some feel that the recent long overdue investment has proved a bit of a double edged sword, with the slew of swanky bars and restaurants threatening the very essence of Brixton.
We tend not to agree: it'll take a lot more than a few sushi bars to kill off the colourful, exciting and unique character of Brixton.
For more info, check out the horribly designed, but well-researched Brixton Heritage Trails website and the even clunkier (and painfully creaky) Flash 'enhanced' multimedia nightmare that is the Archive and Museum of Black Heritage.
The Lambeth Archives at 52 Knatchbull Road, SE5 (tel: 020 7926 6076) offers a huge range of archive local material, with old maps, parish records, photos and a cuttings and ephemera collection.
Between 1910-1938, a greyhound racing track operated in Brixton Rd, on the current site of St Helen's school (opposite the Max Roach Park).
When the Brixton Astoria opened (now known as the Brixton Academy) it was billed as 'Brixton's Wonder Picture Theatre'.
The Fridge nightclub was built in 1914 and originally called the Palladium Cinema.
Between 1910-15, at least 9 cinemas opened in the Brixton area. Some of the cinemas were situated in railway arches and were later closed on safety grounds. The Ritzy is the sole survivor.
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