London’s best districts – Clapham (part 1)

This is part one of a two-part article on one of London’s best places to live. The article covers the sights to see in Clapham, South West London. You’ll discover compelling facts about the area, its residents and renowned architecture. Plus, an awesome selection of pubs and cafes to visit!


Clapham is perhaps best known as the home of the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ – a term meant to represent an ordinary man, first coined in a legal case in 1903. Back then, Clapham was the archetypal commuter suburb.

In the 1960’s Nairn described Clapham as having the perfect recipe for a village, consisting of shops, an open space, houses, a natural centre and even a Georgian church. Today, unlike many villages, it also has a high population of Millennials and Generation Zs – keeping the place vibrant, stylish and thriving – and arguably, no longer an ‘ordinary’ suburb!

Origins and foundations

Frist mentioned in AD 880, Clapham had grown to a population of around one hundred people when it was recorded in King William’s survey (for taxation) of his newly conquered lands; the Domesday Survey of 1086. The name of Clapham is thought to be derived from homestead (ham) on the hill (clop). It was popular due to its elevation overlooking the Battersea marshes and became prominent during the Roman occupation (AD43-410), being situated on the military road from London to Chichester. Known as Stane Street it ran a southwest course between Clapham Common South Side and Abbeville Road.

Upon the Norman Conquest in 1066, many English landowners either fled the country or acquiesced to the transfer of their land to the Conqueror. From the outset the King owned all the land and gave large parts to his Lords, in exchange for their service. In turn, the Lord gave tenure of parcels of land to his subjects to farm, in this new French style of working, we call feudalism today. Feudal Clapham would persist until the Black Death (1346-53), when the scarcity of labour elevated the bargaining power of the working classes – and a new breed of independent yeoman farmer was born.

After the Norman invasion, Geoffrey de Mandeville became Lord of the Manor of Clapham. The manor passed through generations of families having French heritage, the Mandevilles’, Romeyns’, Gowers’ and Clerkes’. Bartholomew Clerke built the first Clapham Manor House in the early 1580’s (remembered by the street name Turret Grove when the manor was demolished in 1840). In 1616, Richard Atkins (a physician to King James I) purchased the manor. The population of Clapham remained small (a few hundred) – many working for, and all governed by, the Lord of the Manor. From the Atkins’ the manor passed to the Bowyers’. Today Lord Denham (Bertram Bowyer) is the Lord of the Manor of Clapham.

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 (that destroyed nearly all the City’s housing) Clapham was one of many villages around London to have an influx of new residents from the City. Clapham Old Town was particularly favoured, owing to its high ground and proximity to the City of London – that quickly re-started trading after the fire.

The Common was the ‘waste’ land belonging to the lords of the manor. In the nineteenth century, residents resisted its enclosure and in 1877 the Common was acquired by the pan-London Metropolitan Board of Works – and dedicated for use by the public.

Mount Pond, Clapham Common

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Clapham was ripe for the developers to move in and provide large houses suitable for merchants, politicians and professional men. The focus of the area shifted to around the Common and its spiritual nucleus; Holy Trinity Church, built in 1776.
Clapham became popular with the newly energised Evangelical Christians and was strongly associated with the slavery abolitionists, in particular, locals, William Wilberforce (Broomwood Road) and Zachary Macaulay (The Pavement).

In 1825 Thomas Cubitt developed 230 acres of Clapham Park hosting substantial mansions, of which very few survive today. The popularity of Clapham led to higher land prices, so new terraced developments replaced former mansions (e.g., Crescent Grove) alongside French (the mansions at the south of Cedars Road) and Dutch (at the southern end of The Chase) styles of architecture.

Following bomb damage, during World War II, mainly publicly funded developments answered the call for affordable housing, but over officious schemes in the 1960’s and 70’s bulldozed-away much heritage, like at Clapham Park.

By 1825, stagecoaches were the main method of commuting for the privileged. Ten years later, larger horse-drawn omnibuses connected Clapham and the City of London. Both modes were the preserve of the rich. Railways arrived in the 1860’s but were still costly forms of transport.

Further housing developments stimulated the need for transportation for middle-income commuters – answered by horse-drawn trams in the 1870’s. And the Tube lines arrived in 1900, finally enabling lower-income workers to commute between Clapham and central London.
Today, Clapham’s easy access to the West End and The City make it a very attractive (albeit pricey) residential area. It remains popular with young professionals’ and older residents in a fusion of cultures and styles – quite a village!

Venn Street and St Mary’s Church

Essential streets

Abbeville Road, recognised as the probable route of the Roman Road from London to Chichester. Developed during the 1890s. Today, it’s a popular shopping and eating-out area with a strongly local feel. The former Union of Post Office Workers is at the intersection with Crescent Lane.

Clapham Common North Side, the best-preserved road around the Common with many of the original mansions and terraces still in situ; the finest examples being 29 The Elms (former home of Sir Charles Barry), 58 Bryom House (former Manor House School, c1790) and the Georgian terrace at 13-21 (original home of the African Academy, a missionary school for the sons of native African chiefs).

Clapham High Street, the original commuter thoroughfare. From 1690, it reflected progress in public transportation systems, starting with stagecoaches and much later, horse-drawn omnibuses, the railways, horse-drawn trams, the Underground and electric trams. Each stage offering more capacity and swelling the population of Clapham. It was the destination for shoppers and the grandest cinema; The Majestic – now Inferno’s night-club).

Old Town, as the name suggests, was the medieval hub of old Clapham – centered on a hill overlooking (what were the former) Battersea Marshes. It was the location of Clapham Manor House (at the intersection with Turret Grove) and, via Rectory Grove leads to the former old parish church of St Paul’s. The former parish school still exists at the junction with North Street – established in 1648. The ‘Queen Anne’ (1702-1715) style terrace at 39-43 is one of the oldest remaining in Clapham, dating from the early 1700’s. Today, Old Town is well-known for its social life, fine dining and pubs.

The Pavement, the prime retail space of the 1800’s, connecting the transport terminuses in Old Town and Clapham Common Underground stations. Fine original shopfronts attest to the days of high-end shopping and personal service (Common, at 16 The Pavement, retains the original counters and cases from Henry Deane’s 1837 Chemist shop).

Venn Street, home to Clapham’s earliest cinema (the Electric Palace, 1910) and its current cinema (Clapham Picture house) is also popular for its Saturday market and evening party atmosphere. Named after the Rector of Clapham (from 1792) – and whose grandson created the Venn diagram.

Mews and carriage repairs in Cedar Road

Three famous residents

There have been many notable residents of Clapham. But here is a top three that have spent more extensive time in Clapham.

Samuel Pepys, moved to a house on Clapham Common North Side in 1700 and died there three years later. He is best remembered for his voluminous, revealing coded-diaries (covering the period 1600 to 1669) that described the affairs of the day, his own frank opinions of others and his sexual infidelities – that would get you locked up today! What is often forgotten is that after The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, he reached the highest levels of government administration at the Navy Board, a fact making the diaries all that more insightful and remarkable. The house in Clapham belonged to his former clerk and assistant William Hewer, with whom Pepys lived for his last three years.

William Wilberforce, the driving force of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Christians that successfully campaigned to drive parliament into passing a bill abolishing the slave trade (in 1807) and slavery altogether in British Dominions (in 1833). Born in Hull, the son of a wealthy merchant (and grandson of the mayor) he became an independent MP – but it was his conversion to an evangelical Christian that resulted in lifelong changes. Sadly, Wilberforce died only three days before the 1833 bill was passed. He lived in Broomwood Road at the intersection with Wroughton Road, where a plaque notes his abode.

Former home of Sir Charles Barry

Sir Charles Barry, shot to acclaim after winning the competition to rebuild the Houses of Parliament with a gothic design, favoured by the panel as proper English (as distinct from classical) architecture, befitting our heritage. Barry moved to The Elms at 29 Clapham Common North Side. The building stands today.

Other remarkable citizens

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a child prodigy schooled in Clapham, Whig statesman and eminent historian. Macaulay Road is named after him. He lived at 5 The Pavement.

Henry Cavendish, wealthy reclusive scientist (and nephew of the 3rd Duke of Devonshire), he proved that water was a compound. The Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge is named after him. Lived at Cavendish House (now gone), situated on the south side of Cavendish Road.
John Frances Bentley designed the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street, London. Lived at 43 Old Town in a fine Queen Anne style House, dating from the early 1700’s.

The Clapham Sect, a group of rich, male Christian evangelists who campaigned remarkably to reform social and moral standards and to abolish slavery in British Dominions (achieved in 1833). Led by William Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay and included Henry Venn, John Thornton, Granville Sharp and others. Meetings centered on Holy Trinity Church, Clapham.

Benjamin Franklin, a frequent visitor to Clapham (whilst the colonial agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly) to experiment with surface chemistry on the ponds of Clapham Common. One of the five who signed the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Lived in Craven Street, Westminster.

Thomas Cubitt, speculative developer and master builder, best known for his Belgravia development for the Duke of Westminster (the Grosvenor family). Responsible for the (largely gone) mansions of the Clapham Park estate. Built many of the houses in Clapham Manor Street, including The Bread and Roses pub. Lived in a self-built mansion (now gone) on Clarence Avenue.

John Doulton, founder of a ceramics business that grew (with his son) into Royal Doulton. Lived at 81 Clapham Common North Side.
William Edgar, department store magnate in partnership with George Swan. Lived at Eagle House, where you can see a part of the remaining south wing at the top of Narbonne Road.

Stanley Gibbons, world-renowned philatelist who employed a small staff at, and issued a catalogue of stamps for sale from, 45 (formerly 25) The Chase, where he lived briefly.

Edvard Greig, leading Norwegian romantic composer and conductor, who preferred to stay in Clapham when performing in London. Stayed at 47 Clapham Common North Side.

Graham Greene, a leading English novelist of the twentieth century. Wrote the ‘End of the Affair’, set in Clapham, whilst living at 14 Clapham Common North Side.

Marie Kendall, music hall star who spent nearly six decades touring the music halls of Britain, France and America – and topping the bill at the 1932 Royal Variety Performance. Retired to Clapham Common North Side for twenty-five years before her death at the age of 91 years old.

John Newton Mappin, founder of Mappin & Webb, the stylish West End department store. Lived in Clapham Park.

Natsume Soseki, considered one of the greatest writers in Japanese history. Characteristically, all his works were sombre works and his last novel, Grass on the Wayside written in 1915, was autobiographical. Lived at 61 The Chase.

Vivienne Westwood, the iconoclastic genius of fashion has lived in Clapham for much of her life and is active on local matters. Created DBE in 2006. Lives on Clapham Common North Side.

Bandstand, Clapham Common

Clapham Common

The beating heart and rich green lung of Clapham – its 220 acres provide rest, recreation and an open-air concert venue for the people of Clapham and south London. Thackeray eulogized ‘of all the pretty suburbs that still adorn our Metropolis there are few that exceed in charm Clapham Common’. And like many of London’s green spaces, it has served multiple purposes that are lost on us today – home to army training, allotments, American Indian ‘medicine shows’, prefab post-war housing – and anti-aircraft guns.

In feudal times, the workers of the manor had rights to graze animals and collect fruit and wood. Drained and laid-out in 1722, its raucous annual fair was banned in 1781. Bare-knuckle fighting, hopping matches and general (alcohol induced) excesses were not to the liking of residents around the common. Today, annual fairs are limited to three per year!

Clapham Common

The Duke of Cumberland’s army camped here in 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, to return later that year with convicted Jacobites, eight of whom met a nasty fate at the gallows in nearby Kennington.

The remaining four ponds on the common were purpose built (in the eighteenth century), not for their aesthetic beauty but to get at the underlying gravel for road building. Nevertheless, they have a special place in scientific history, being used by Benjamin Franklin for his experiments in surface chemistry.

In 1877, when the common was under threat of enclosure (for private use of, and development by, the Lord of the Manor), it was acquired by the London Metropolitan Board of Works and dedicated for use by the public, evermore. In 1809 the famous bandstand was erected. Refurbished in 2006 it is still London’s largest, hosting summer concerts, parents, buggies and toddlers.

Crescent Grove

Grand designs

Crescent Grove. Clapham Common South Side once hosted a series of grand mansions facing the common, but it has suffered under the knife of post-war development more than North Side. One startling exception is the hidden beauty of Crescent Grove, described by Pevsner as a ‘handsome crescent’. It is late Georgian, designed by Francis Child as a family investment and built in 1824. It requires little imagination to see the Hansom cabs (cab from cabriolet) plying in and out of the grove. The central gardens were once enclosed with railings but are now watched over by its proud and protective residents, who are responsible for its upkeep. Child kept most of the grove to members of his family, but he must have liked his crackers; number 26 was leased to the industrialist John Carr – founder of the water biscuit and Peak Frean & Co.

Grafton Square, nearer to Old Town is an early Victorian town square, quite unique in south London – being more familiar in fashionable Kensington at the time. This large garden square was completed in 1851, with central communal gardens for residents to perambulate. (Within twenty years, the green-finger bug had taken grip of the country and wealthy house purchasers would demand private gardens in the future).
In 1927 the gardens became a private tennis club, before being purchased by the local authority in 1953. Today, Lambeth Parks ensures the square, and its recreational facilities, are free for all to use.

The Orangery, an astonishing find in Clapham is this orangery (so called for its use as a winter store for valued plants and flowers) located, rather incongruously, in the heart of the 1950’s Notre Dame Estate. If any proof was needed of the original grandeur of the mansions of Clapham, here it is. The original house, built in 1740 by Robert Thornton, a wealthy merchant from Yorkshire, has gone – demolished in 1945. But the Orangery (dating 1793) survives. Along with its gardens and lake it was a favourite with Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III). In 1800, the Orangery was decked out to host Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) and his cabinet.

The Orangery

The Underground, Clapham is unique on the Underground network in having three stations to its name on the Northern Line – London’s first all-electric tube line. The line was extended to Clapham North and Clapham Common in 1900 and Clapham South was opened in 1926. Four men that contributed, more than most, to the success of the ‘Tube’ were Frank Pick (MD in the 1920’s and admired for his influence on design and operations), Charles Holden (who designed many of the stations in the 1920’s – including Clapham South), Harry Beck (who designed the present London Underground Tube map in 1931 – by applying the principles of wiring diagrams). And not forgetting, Sir Marc Brunel who in 1843 constructed the world’s first rail tunnel under a river; beneath the River Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping (still in use today).

Historical buildings

Deane & Co, established on The Pavement in 1837, the year Queen Victoria’s accession, it was one London’s oldest pharmacies until it ceased trading in 1986. Today, it is Common, a café. It retains the original furnishings, cabinets and drawers, which along with the Georgian building, are all Grade II listed.

Eagle House, Clapham’s largest mansion and grounds (according to the 1870 OS map of Clapham) it is all but gone, bar the perfectly visible south wing at the top of Narbonne Avenue. It was home to William Edgar (of the west-end department store Swan and Edgar).

Clapham Library, with money flooding-in to government coffers from international trade, abundant libraries sprung-up across London in the late nineteenth century. Clapham’s opened at the intersection of Old Town and Orlando Road, in 1889 sporting Flemish Renaissance decoration. In 2012, a lively campaign was mobilised by locals, successfully preventing its demolition. Sitting opposite Clapham’s main bus terminus – it’s now the appropriately named, Omnibus Theatre.

Majestic Cinema, opening in the High Street in 1914 it was Clapham’s grandest cinema, seating 3000 people and home to a resident symphony orchestra. Later in its life, it doubled up as a bingo-hall before closing in 1960 due to falling audiences. Today it’s Inferno’s nightclub.
The Old Court House, at 43 Netherford Road functioned both as a courthouse and a standard and testing office for Clapham from 1901. It resulted from the creation of the London County Council (the elected body responsible for running much of London’s public services from 1889). It’s now a Grade II listed private residence.

The Old Fire Station, is the building with two doorways opposite the Old Town pub. Since 1707, every parish was legally required to operate a fire station, to provide a service to houses without fire insurance. The standards varied, but at least the days of ‘no fire insurance plaque, no fire service’ had passed. By 1866, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was formed (by amalgamating the brigades operated by private insurance companies). This building was purpose-built for the MFB in 1869 and is a private residence today.

Clapham Parochial School, the building at the apex of North Street and Rectory Grove was the parish school, established in 1812. It had one large room. The school practised the Monitorial System (adopting the motto ‘he who teaches, learns’), whereby older pupils tutored younger pupils. ‘Excessive prize giving’ was used to both control and reward pupils – the system fell out of favour when it was realised that trained teachers were probably better! At the top of Macaulay Road still stands the annex to the original school in Old Town – now a private residence.

Royal Trinity Hospice, walking the sweep of buildings starting with Trinity Hospice at 30 Clapham Common North Side, along Church Terrace and running down to the library at Orlando Road, is one of Clapham’s most attractive and historic perambulations. The mansion was purchased by the Hoare banking family and, with donations following an appeal in The Times newspaper, opened in 1891 as a home for the terminally ill. It is the UK’s oldest hospice.

Temperance Billiard Hall, at 47 Clapham High Street is a reminder of the influence of the temperance movement at the turn of the century. An enterprising Lancashire company (The Temperance Billiard Hall Company) built numerous halls across London. Now an architectural practice, at least no alcohol is being sold on the premises, unlike its cousins in Clapham Junction and Fulham – the latter ironically named The Temperance.

Deep level shelter from WW II, Clapham South

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