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


Physical and moral purity

Until the 17th century suburbs had been more a place to dread than to covet. This was largely due to their overcrowded, insanitary and vicious nature. But from the 18th century new suburban developments became attractive because they offered respite from these very things. Clean air and water, freedom from the vice and squalor of the inner city (and cheaper rents) all attracted individuals and institutions alike. This was as evident in the 19th century as the late 20th. Much of late 18th century’s Camberwell’s development was due to its plentiful supply of clean water and the fresh air of its elevated slopes. Many of the philanthropic institutions that became established on St George’s Fields in Southwark in the late 18th century, such as the Bethlem Hospital and the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes, moved there to escape the vice of London (and then left the area when the infernal wen moved south to engulf them).

Equally, geographical disadvantage could limit development. St George’s Fields in Southwark – much of the area inside the great sweep of the Thames between the City and Westminster - remained largely undeveloped until the early 19th century as it was low lying undrained marsh. It was not until the City, as freeholder, arranged proper drainage in the early 19th century, that pasture and ancient strip fields gave way to bricks and mortar. Equally Blackheath, a high too-well drained gravel plateau offered few sources of fresh water (or those that existed were conducted to Greenwich Palace on the riverfront).