Streatham: A 19th century dormitory suburb

by Graham Gower

Public Services

A View of Streatham from Leigham Court Road, Streatham, c. 1911

Population growth and local administration were problems that were beginning to confront the parishes in and around London. Such pressures promoted the passing of the Metropolis Local Management Act of 1855. Under this act the Metropolitan Board of Works came into being, and Streatham parish became embodied into the newly created Wandsworth District Board of Works.

It was now possible to address more fully the problems stemming from suburban growth. For example, issues such as building control, housing, the supply of water, gas and electricity, transport, education and public health; issues that could now be tackled more or less on a regional basis with improved resources and authority.

Streatham Hill Station, Streatham, c. 1910

Streatham Hill Station

The Shrubbery, Streatham High Road, Streatham, c. 1910

The Shrubbery
Streatham High Road

Leigham Court Estate Office, Streatham, c. 1910

Leigham Court
Estate Office

Streatham High Road, Streatham Hill, c. 1911

Streatham High Road

A View of Streatham from Leigham Court Road, Streatham, c. 1911

View of Streatham from
Leigham Court Road

WWI Air Raid Damage, Estreham Road, Streatham Vale, 1916

WWI Air Raid Damage
Estreham Road

Cottages, Hermitage Lane, South Streatham, 1917

Hermitage Lane

Aerial View of Streatham High Road, c. 1920

Aerial View of
Streatham High Rd

Streatham High Road, Streatham, c. 1925

Streatham High Road

Streatham Vale Estate, Streatham, c. 1925

Streatham Vale Estate

Curtis and Dumbrill Dairy, Streatham, 1926

Curtis and Dumbrill
Dairy 1926

Aerial View of Streatham, c. 1930

Aerial View of
Streatham c.1930

Astoria, Streatham High Road, Streatham, 1930

Streatham High Road

Streatham Hill Theatre, Streatham Hill, c. 1930

Streatham Hill Theatre

Locarno, Streatham Hill, c. 1930

Streatham Hill

The High, Streatham, 1937 and 1938

The High
Streatham, 1937 and 1938

Manor Court, Leigham Avenue, Streatham, 1938

Manor Court
Leigham Avenue

The embodiment of Streatham parish into the Wandsworth Union during 1855 marked the beginnings of modem Streatham, and signalled the second phase of its development as a London suburb.

Church Expansion


Among the initial events marking this phase of Streatham's development was a fundamental ecclesiastical change to the parish. Responding to the times and the spiritual needs of the populace a number of new churches with parishes were created.

The first of these new parishes was centred on Christ Church, Streatham Hill. This church, a building of exceptional style and merit, was erected in 1841 and endowed with a parish three years later. The building of Immanuel Church, South Streatham in 1855, soon followed this creation.

This seminal year also saw the creation of the churches and parishes of Holy Trinity, Upper Tooting and St. Mary, Balham. This latter parish was formed around the proprietary chapel built on the outskirts of Balham village in 1808.

With the formation of these two parishes at Balham and Upper Tooting a new identity was given to these areas. During the coming decades this was to encourage their eventual separation from Streatham and the creation of the suburban districts of Balham and Upper Tooting.

Although for administrative purposes these two districts were treated as part of Streatham, the nature of their subsequent growth and development differed from the rest of the parish. By the 1890s Balham and Tooting had established their own identity. This was finally confirmed following the Representation of the People Act of 1918, when the parliamentary seat of Balham and Tooting was created.

The Coming of the Railway


A further event that was to mark the 1850s as a turning point in Streatham's history was the arrival of the railways. The first line to reach Streatham was the West End and Crystal Palace Railway which opened two stations in the parish in 1856: one at Balham and the other at Streatham Hill. Although the opening of these stations did little at first to stimulate residential development, two further lines were built across the parish. The opening of Greyhound Lane Station, later renamed Streatham Common, in 1862 and Streatham Station in 1868 followed these.

Although welcomed by those who saw progress and profit from this new form of transport, some local concern was felt about the loss of land, especially the disfigurement caused to the countryside by the construction of embankments and cuttings. A further effect of the railway lines crossing the parish was the creation of artificial boundaries and sub-areas. These were to influence and mark out potential areas for future commercial and residential development.

One such example was the Balham to Croydon line. This cut across Tooting Bec Common and passed through the 18th century estate of Streatham Park. When this estate was developed for housing, the area west of the railway line saw a leisurely pace of building, centred on Ullathorne and Aldrington Roads, taking advantage of the environmental benefits of the adjoining Common. House building on the estate began in the 1870s with the erection of large spacious properties set in leafy gardens and tree-lined roads.

Development continued in this area well into the 1930s, with the laying out of Abbotsleigh Road. However, such was the spacious nature of the estate that it lent itself to piecemeal redevelopments at later dates, mainly as municipal housing. During the 1960s and 1970s, concentrations of terraced properties and a number of housing blocks were built as part of a social housing programme that did much to alter the original ambience of the area.

On the east side of the railway the pace of house building was quick, capitalising on the locality being close to the high road with its attendant facilities. Development began in the 1880s and was soon completed; resulting in large compact properties laid out in formalised street patterns and centred on Riggindale and Rydal Roads. Little space was left for future building and the area has maintained much of its original character and architectural integrity.

The railway also affected other parts of Streatham, notably where it had, to some extent, blighted the land with brick embankments, rail junctions and sidings. This encouraged house building of basic quality and style suitable for low-income workers and their families.

Nevertheless, Streatham had become part of a growing suburban rail network. In future years this was to bring the opportunity for large-scale commercial and residential development. This was facilitated by the availability of railway sidings at Streatham and Streatham Common stations, where building material could easily be offloaded and dispatched to the sites.

A further factor was the electrification from 1911 of the Victoria and Crystal Palace Line, when the service to Victoria was greatly improved. This made commuting to and from London much quicker. Furthermore the railways had introduced workmen's trains to London and on certain days offered cheap tickets. This did much to enhance the desirability of living in an outer suburb such as Streatham.

Public Health


During this period of rising population and large-scale house building, anxieties about public health started to be voiced, although this was a greater concern for the crowded, inner London areas than for a parish like Streatham. However, with the increase in Streatham's population and house building along with recent railway works across the area, natural and traditional drainage patterns had either been disturbed or displaced.

Sewage disposal, which had relied upon the drainage pattern, was becoming an increasing local problem. After a survey of the parish undertaken in 1854, the district medical officer concluded that the state of drainage and sewage disposal in Streatham had become prejudicial to public health. Such was the situation that it had contributed to outbreaks of fever and cholera. Cholera had already brought fear to Londoners with a severe outbreak occurring in 1848 - 1849, when thousands of people died.

The continuing drainage problem prompted the Wandsworth Board of Works to commission a survey of the parishes of Streatham and Tooting.

p>This occurred in 1866. In the report published the same year the commission recommended that substantial improvements and additions be made to the existing drainage system. This was achieved by the mid 1870s.

With the system being continually upgraded and enlarged, a modem sewage and drainage system was gradually put in place and was a necessary prerequisite to any large-scale residential or commercial developments in Streatham.

Such improvements, linked with the advances in medical knowledge and social conditions, saw a gradual progression towards better public health. In 1887 the local health officer could report that Streatham and Tooting had attained a high standard of public health. Furthermore, the officer could report that there had been a marked decline in infant mortality and a drop in the zymotic mortality rate, although there was a reported outbreak of smallpox in Barrow Road, Streatham Common.

Although the quality of public health fluctuated over the years the trend was towards better health for all. During 1895 the local medical officer for health was able to present another highly favourable report regarding public health in Streatham. This reflected the continuing well-being of the local community and indicated to some extent the absence of a substantial poorer class living in the parish.

The report also recorded the lowest death rate for ten years. Zymotic mortality was lower than for a number of years, and an infant mortality rate of nearly thirty per thousand was recorded, a rate lower than the previous year.

Waste Disposal


One of the contributions to the general improvement in public health was the organised removal of domestic refuse. Traditionally domestic refuse was either dumped at a convenient spot or placed in a rubbish pit, often dug in a backyard. With suburban growth the collection and disposal of refuse became a problem, and subsequently the responsibility of the local authority.

Rubbish collection in Streatham had been contracted out by the Wandsworth Board of Works, a system which continued until after the First World War. Collected refuse was sent by road and rail to dumps outside the borough, with large amounts being sent to the Dust Destructor at Tooting which, during the 1890s, supplied electricity for the lighting of local street lamps.

By the 1920s Wandsworth Council had adopted the "Pagefield" system, a semi-mechanised way of collecting and removing refuse. This was considered at the time to be a modern and efficient method. Refuse collected from the borough, which included Streatham, was shipped down the Thames to Mucking and used for landfill.

Water Supplies


Another improvement to the quality of life, again regarding public health, was the introduction of piped water. This first came to the parish during 1832, when at Streatham Hill the Lambeth Water Company built a large reservoir as part of their expansion into north Surrey. Following the rapid expansion of Streatham the demand for fresh water increased. This resulted in the building of a pumping station in Conyers Road, which began supplementing the existing water supply by 1888.

With an increase in consumer demands, the supplying and distribution of fresh healthy water across London created a number of problems. The authorities addressed these through a number of acts, notably the Metropolis Water Acts of 1852 and of 1871. A further need for change resulted in the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903, which took over the existing water companies and the supply to Streatham.

The amenity of fresh and healthy water had seen great strides since the building of the Pump House in Streatham High Road in 1783 and the selling of water by the local postman at three pails a penny during the mid 19th century.

Gas Supplies


Other amenities which were synonymous with suburban growth and which have become part and parcel of modem life, also appeared in Streatham during the mid-Victorian period. The supply of energy in the form of gas and electricity were important factors in Streatham's suburban development, as they were in the overall development of metropolitan London.

Gas first appeared south of the Thames just before the 1820s and during the following decades the supply gradually reached Streatham and the adjoining areas. By the 1870s three gas companies; the Phoenix, the Mitcham and the South Metropolitan, were supplying local homes and business in the parish. These companies, which all operated under the Metropolis Gas Act of 1860, also supplied lighting for hundreds of street lamps: a symbol to many of the modernity or, to some, the artificiality of suburban life.

Further advances were to see administrative and commercial changes in the supply of gas. By the 1900s the south western part of Streatham was receiving gas from the Wandsworth and District Gas Company, with the South Metropolitan Gas Company supplying the remaining areas.

Electricity Supplies


It was to be some time before the supremacy of gas was challenged by electric power and the latter became a consumer alternative. Although electricity had been available since the 1880s, mainly for industrial and commercial purposes, distribution to homes in the suburbs was slow. The supply to Streatham came through the County of London Electric Supply Company, later superseded, in 1945, by the London Electricity Board.

Like the supply of water and gas, electricity was subject to numerous acts, notably the 1882 Electric Lighting Act and the London Electricity Acts of 1908 and 1925. Although these acts had some effect on the expansion of electric power to the suburbs, their main aim was to regulate price, quality and supply for the benefit of the user.

Gas continued to compete against the new energy of electricity well into the 20th century. This was illustrated in 1913, when the showrooms of the South Metropolitan Gas Company in Streatham High Road confidently advertised the benefits of gas power for heating and lighting. This was further emphasised with a gas "show home" located a short distance away in Telford Avenue, Streatham Hill.

The use of electricity was soon to equal gas energy, and to stimulate aspects of suburban development. This was evident in transport services with the electrification of the railways and the tramways. Retailing also benefited with improved shop lighting and advertising displays.

The convenience of electricity also encouraged the opening of local cinemas and by 1914 a number were operating in Streatham. In the High Road there was the "Golden Domes Picture Theatre", and the "Streatham Empire Picture Palace", which could seat over a thousand people. Also, giving entertainment to the people of west Streatham was the Mitcham Lane "Picture Palace". This stood on the corner with Blegborough Road.

The wider use of electricity was encouraged through local newspapers. These carried advertisements proclaiming the "advancing tide" of electricity, emphasising that it was clean, cheap and healthy. Furthermore, there was the introduction of the "all-electric" house from the 1920s. However, for all the publicity, electricity was still not universally used and many homes in Streatham remained unconnected until the 1950s.

Postal Services


A further amenity, which was refined by "suburbia", was the postal service which, by 1914, was offering local residents and businesses seven deliveries and twelve collections a day. The opening of a new Postal Sorting Office in Prentis Road during 1905 facilitated this. Complementing the local postal services was the new telephone service. This was established, albeit on a small scale, following the opening of the Streatham telephone exchange in Mitcham Lane during 1892. Within a matter of a few years the popularity of the telephone saw the National Telephone Company opening a number of "call rooms" in Streatham. By the outbreak of World War 1 over twenty such rooms had become available for public use.

The London and Brush Provincial Electric Lighting Company

This company have now completed plans for laying down mains for supplying road-lamps and introducing the light into shops and dwelling-houses, the current being ready for use, it is hoped, at an early date. As regards this neighbourhood, the main wires are to he laid in Tooting-bec-road and Common, Streatham-lane, Streatham High-road, and Streatham and Brixton Hills, with as many branch routes as may be found necessary. The company's engineer and manager, Mr. A. J. Lawson, invites residents desiring to obtain a supply of current for lighting next winter to make early application to him at his office, 49, Queen Victoria street, E.C. For illuminating purposes the price will be 7d. per Board of Trade unit, or about one-fifth of a penny per lamp per hour, which is equivalent to gas at 3s. 4d. per thousand cubic feet. How this charge will compete with that of 2s. 3d. per thousand cubic feet made by the South Metropolitan Gas Company yet remains to he seen.

The Streatham News, 11 August 1894