From country to suburb: The why and the how of suburban development. A universal phenomenon with examples from south-east London.


State services

In the 18th and 19th centuries all suburban development was a private imitative and the state had a limited role in individuals’ lives. Consequently the provision of what we would see as basic amenities was sporadically provided by the private sector. It was not until the later part of the 19th century that he state took a role in regulating andprovisiding for its citizens.


Spurred by outbreaks of contagious disease in the mid-19thcentury, notably cholera and typhus, reformers in government made it their business to understand the causes of disease and to make, and win, the argument that it was the state’s role to prevent and treat. It became apparent that there was a link between contaminated water and disease. This understanding led to new sources of drinking water and the better disposal of sewage. From the1860s drinking water was taken upriver of London and sewage disposed down river. This reversed the historic arrangement where both extraction and disposal took place within the built up area.

A clean water supply and easy disposal of waste had always been a factor in stimulating new development. Camberwell’s wells, Greenwich’s conduits from Blackheath and the streams that contribute to the Ravensbourne and Cray - the area’s two main rivers – have all helped. But the requirement to provide clean piped water (by private but regulated companies) and sewers (laid by developers but then maintained by water boards) meant developers were not limited to areas of natural geographical advantage.

Facilities to treat ill health – doctors and hospitals – tended to follow rather than anticipate suburban development. The local Poor Law Board infirmary was for many the first universally available public hospital. Examples were Greenwich District Hospital, Lewisham Hospital or Dulwich Hospital. Along with ancient foundation hospitals such as Guy’s and St Thomas’ these became part of the National Health Service in 1948.

Doctors’ general practice surgeries were also a private affair until after World War II. While it was tempting to concentrate surgeries in more prosperous areas some doctors saw it as their vocation to specifically treat the sick poor, notable examples were Dr Harold Moody (who came to London from Jamaica), who established his surgery in Peckham in 19 and Dr Alfred Salter in Bermondsey in the 1910s.

Peckham also had its own unique health centre, the Pioneer Health Centre (also known as the Peckham Experiment), which was set up in 1926 by Dr Innes Pearce and Scott Williamson to both monitor, and by preventative means contribute to, the health of a typical section of the British public. They also provided the centre’s members with social and recreational facilities. To its members the centre’s presence was a major factor in generating loyalty to the area.

Not all areas had their health needs so fully catered for. On the London County Council’s Downham Estate in Lewisham the residents of the estates 6,000 homes had to wait y years after the completion of the estate for a doctor’s surgery to appear.


The massive growth in London’s population in the later 19th century overwhelmed the provision of education. Until that time schooling had been provided largely by the churches; education in the Anglican tradition was through schools run by the National School Society and in the non conformist tradition through schools run by the British and Foreign School Society. There were also a small number of private, endowed schools and ragged schools for the very poor. The state did not intervene in teh provisdision of education until 1870 when school boards wer weestablished. They were charged with providing noon demoninational schooling for alland set about an energetic programme ofo school building. Ther was one Board for inner London (its boundaries were the same as those of the Metropolitan Board of Worlks and separate boards in suburban and ruiral areas. Southwark and Bremondsey alone the London School Board's rcords was remarkable; in building 38 schools in only 13 years.