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


A showcase of success?

Those aspiring to or achieving suburban status are often held up as being the most thrusting upwardly socially mobile. This is unfair - upward social mobility and its demonstration is a fundamental human characteristic; all that differentiated the group of new suburban dwellers is that they were able to demonstrate their new status in such an emphatic way. Separating work and home life was an important element in this, first for the commercial and professional elite, then the middle classes, then the salaried and then wage earners. It enabled men at least to live a double life, most clearly demonstrated by Dickens’ Mr Wemkmick in Great Expectations. “Walworth is one place and this office is another…They must not be confounded together. My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken in this office.” Wemmick, who worked in the City, did not have to travel far in his process of transformation.

Aspiring to live away from work also became refined into an aspiration to live in the right area and a complex series of causes and effect came into play as areas came and went from favour and fashion. In general this process looked like and onion, with each new area on the outside gaining supremacy over those immediately inside it. The Booth notebooks of 1897-8 that informed the revision to Life and Labour of the People in London of 1899-1903 provide a very useful source. Of the north Southwark area they say: “the rich have already left, the fairly comfortable are leaving and the poor and very poor remain and will remain until they are evicted”. This change was as a response to the increasing industrialisation of this area, which pushed up residential rents, caused a deterioration of the general environment, but which relied on a pool of casual labour. There was a different process in action in Nunhead and Telegraph Hill where “the tendency appears…to be markedly in the direction of greater uniformity…the servant class tending to move out and the poorer classes…tending to be driven out”. Lewisham by contrast was on the slide; from a starting point of being comfortable with little poverty: “It is a middle class district into which wedges of the better class working people are gradually forcing their way. The tendency of the district is downward socially…The poorer classes who cannot pay the rents are being driven further afield”.

Not all Victorian commentators thought that life in a new suburb was necessarily desirable. Their reactions to suburbanisation were every bit as strong and divided as ours. Mrs Panton strongly advised a house a little way out of London “to sleep in fresh air, to have a game of tennis in summer, or a friendly evening of music, chess or games in the winter” while Walter Besant found that suburbs “ had all the exclusiveness and class feeling of London without the advantages of a country town.”