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


Work and home

Suburbs are also a product of two important economic and social factors; the aspiration of those that can to separate their work environment from their domestic one and as a stage for displaying one’s position in the social pecking order.

In the 17th and 18th centuries most people’s work and home were physically close and often in the same premises. In the 18th century members of the commercial and professional middle classes enviously viewed the gentry or very wealthy members of their own class in newly built houses such as Danson at Welling or Wricklemarsh near Blackheath and increasingly aspired to live away from their place of work. Realising this was a gradual process; at first a move for the summer only, or the men spent some of the week in London with the rest of the family in the suburbs. Shorter working hours, better transport and available land made this increasingly possible and developments at Clapham, Camberwell, Dulwich, Sydenham and Blackheath all followed.

This started a cascade of aspiration through the labour market and as soon as any employment practices in any one sector became favourable then that group dislocated work and home.

During the 19th century, the south London labour market was split in three unequal ways. There was minority, but one that increased towards the end of the century, with permanent employment or self-employment; there were those dependent on casual work in the numerous factories wharves and docks and those who were casually self-employed. In the 19th century only the first of this group could participate in suburban development as only they had the practical opportunity (from their work’s point of view) and the financial and time resources to separate work and home. Classically they were the City based clerks who lived in newly built Victorian commuter developments such as Nunhead, Lewisham and Bromley.

In the 20th century, it was the turn of those employed at the skilled end of manufacturing. In the work context they were helped both by shorter hours, more general prosperity (London’s manufacturing industry was relatively unaffected by the depression) and a relocation of industry from central London to new Thames side sites down river. At the same time Bromley’s growth was encouraged by increasing opportunities for office based work.