Streatham: A 19th century dormitory suburb

by Graham Gower

Astoria, Streatham High Road, Streatham, 1930

Civic Amenities

Not all the developments occurring in Streatham were of bricks and mortar. Between the Census taken in 1871 and that of 1901, the population of Streatham had risen from just over 12,000 to almost 71,000. As the population increased so did the pressures on the infrastructure of local life. There were to be demands for new and improved services and amenities. Social activity required new or additional facilities. These were among the problems being generated by a expanding community and which were to confront the authorities over the coming years of suburban development.

Immanuel Church School, Streatham South, 1972 


One pressing problem was education. Until the late 19th century the working masses had little or no chance of education. Education for this class often depended on parish or charitable schools. In Streatham, schooling had been a shared responsibility between the parish and private institutions.

Before the Education Act of 1870, which introduced Board Schools into areas of little or no educational provision, elementary schooling in Streatham was through the National Schools. These were basically religious schools aimed at educating the poor. In Streatham a number of these schools had been opened and by 1850s were offering a basic elementary education for local children.

One such example was St. Leonard's Parish School. This school began in 1813 in a room behind the White Lyon Inn, Streatham High Road. In 1856 the school moved to purpose-built premises in Mitcham Lane. Subsequently the school was enlarged in 1868, rebuilt in 1873 and saw farther additions in 1897 and 1903.

Following the introduction of the 1870 Act, the National Schools system declined, and Streatham saw the building of a number of new London Board Schools. Among these was Mitcham Lane School (Eardley Road School), built in 1894 and planned to take around 1,000 pupils. With the formation of the London County Council (L.C.C.) in 1889 additional school building took place, some on green field sites others as part of residential development. Built in the pronounced manner of L.C.C. school architecture and very much part of the built environment, these schools ave some identity to the surrounding communities.

The Roman Catholics, following the period of recusany, also achieved identity in education. Their first elementary school in Streatham opened in Polworth Road during 1896. Previously it was known as the "poor school", and following its opening was named St. Andrew's Primary. This was an event that further broadened the base of education in Streatham.

In the years leading to the First World War, Streatham could boast some forty educational establishments. These covered a range of tuition and vocational subjects. Other than church and council schools there were the private schools and academies. These establishments were aimed at the well off in local society, the middle and upper class elements, a point well shown in their advertisements for prospective pupils.

During the "boom" years of suburban growth in the 1880s, one school for girls offered “a superior education” and “special attention to backward and delicate children”. Another, Allandale School at Streatham Hill, received as pupils the “daughters of Officers, Merchants, Professional and other Gentlemen”; while Sussex House School claimed to be, “A High-Class School for the sons of Gentlemen”. A measure of how local education reflected social structure is seen in the diversity of education that was offered in Streatham. Furthermore, it highlighted the extremes of education available to local children.

Streatham Cricket Club, Angles Road, Streatham, 1902

Social and Sporting Clubs


In addition to the schools there were numerous institutions and organisations which, in many respects, were a reflection on social life in Streatham. These ranged from political associations to social groups, many with grand and pertinent titles. There were for example, the “Masonic Club of Instruction”; "Streatham Men's Conference”; the “Primrose League, Streatham Habitation”; the “Streatham Women's Social and Political Union (Votes for Women)” and the “Streatham Branch of the National League for Opposing Women Suffrage”.

In entertainment there were the “Streatham Unionist Dramatic Society”; the “Streatham Hill Choral Society”; and the “Comedy Club” which met in Streatham Town Hall. These and similar organisations imparted to Streatham an identity, and to the community a purpose, in the changing world of suburban life.

Further purpose and identity was found in sport and recreation. During the developing years of suburban Streatham numerous sporting groups and clubs were formed. These mirrored contemporary tastes and social attitudes. The choice was wide. There were cycle and motor clubs, rugby and cricket teams, netball and football leagues, as well as croquet and hockey matches, golf links, bowling greens and tennis courts.

Top Pond, Streatham Common, Streatham, c. 1905

The Commons

Many of these sporting clubs and organisations had their own grounds or premises, often temporary and occupying sites awaiting development.

However, many groups were reliant on public open spaces such as the commons of Streatham and Tooting Bec. Unfortunately this was to bring a conflict of use between the various users of the commons.

Such conflicts of interest occurred during the 1870s and 1880s, when the commons were being transformed from manorial wastes to areas of public use and recreation. To ensure their protection from development, encroachment or degradation, the open spaces of Streatham and Tooting Bec commons were obtained by the Metropolitan Board of Works. This was achieved under the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. Tooting Bec Common was obtained in 1868, with Streatham Green, and Streatham Common in 1884. Following their acquisition the Board of Works set about regulating and improving the commons for public use. The Board introduced by-laws, and undertook a policy of landscaping, regressing, tree planting and the laying out of footpaths. To ensure the proper use of the commons, the Board introduced Common Keepers.

With the increase in public use, the need to control certain recreational and sporting activities on the commons became paramount. The playing of golf soon became restricted to certain times during the day. Horse riding was another problem, mainly on Tooting Bec Common, with "equestrians" damaging the turf and being dangerous to other users. Further problems confronting the Board came with the phasing out of tenants' manorial rights on the commons. As late as the 1880s, some tenants were still placing cattle on the commons and putting out washing to dry; while others continued the tradition of rabbit and bird shooting. Local feeling towards the new regulations, which either stopped or restricted traditional activities, was expressed through the destruction of gates and fences and the setting fire to the furze on Tooting Bec Common.

Fortunately many of these problems were avoided on Streatham Common. In the scheme of transfer from the owners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1884, provisions were made for horse riding and some sporting activities. These included the playing of cricket, which was contrary to the Board's policy. This privilege stemmed from an established tradition, going back some generations, of local club games being played on the Common. Furthermore, under the expressed wishes of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, some of the Common was to be given over for the use of “orderly” public meetings, a consideration not often given to other commons.

Tooting Bec Lido


Although there was a pressing need to preserve open spaces for community use, a small part of Tooting Bec Common was surrendered for the building of the open air swimming pool. Under the Bath and Wash Houses Act, the newly-formed Wandsworth Borough Council decided on a policy of providing public baths whenever possible. Under this policy the council readily accepted a site on the common, offered to them by the London County Council, successors to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

“The Lido” on Tooting Bec Common was constructed in 1906 by Wandsworth Council and was part of their plan to relieve local unemployment. On completion it was handed over to the London County Council for running and maintenance. The policy of providing public baths further benefited Streatham with the opening of Streatham Baths in 1927. This recreational amenity represented the latest ideas in Swimming Pool design, filtration and chlorination.

Streatham Library


The need for organised sport and recreation was one of the demands created by a suburban environment. Other demands, fostered by Victorian virtues of self improvement and public duty, found ready expression through the promotion of civic pride and identity. One example can be seen in the building of Streatham Library, a building emphasised by its classical design. Following the adoption of the Streatham Free Public Library Act of 1889, funds were raised through the rates for a library building. With the additional generosity of Streatham philanthropist, the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, Streatham Tate Library was opened to an eager public in 1890.

Furthermore, the need to identify with the new “suburban” way of life found expression in the publishing of local newspapers. During the mid 1860s the South London Press, "A family local Newspaper and literary magazine" began its long history of publishing, and by the 1890s was in competition with a number of other local papers. These included the Streatham News and Tooting, Balham and Tulse Hill Observer, and the Balham and Tooting Gazette, first published in 1907.

An indication of the desire for news, and the conceptual importance of libraries as a public amenity, was shown with the opening of Balham Library. This was built on land given by Sir Henry Tate and accepted its first readers on 3rd June 1898. Among the facilities offered was a spacious reading room in which the public were offered some one hundred and fifty newspapers and periodicals to read.

Continued Church Expansion


Victorian values were not only being promoted through public libraries and civic pride; social conscience and religious zeal was also finding expression through church building. This was manifested in a number of new buildings, which showed the diversity of worship and belief found in the suburbs. Among these were new daughter churches of St. Leonard's. These were St. Peter’s, Leigham Court Road (1870); St. Anselm, Coventry Park (1882); St. Thomas’, Telford Park (1898) and St. James, West Streatham (1909). They reflected through their location, style and grandeur the wealth and status of their worshippers. These edifices were complemented by numerous chapels and mission halls, which sprung up, usually in the poorer, working class areas of Streatham.

One of the first churches to appear in the parish was the Streatham Hill Union Chapel, which opened in 1829 on Brixton Hill. This contained a mixed congregation of Anglican and Dissenters. After a time the Anglicans decided to leave the chapel, followed by the Baptists. This resulted in the foundation of Christ Church, Streatham Hill and the Salem Chapel in New Park Road, opened in 1842. The remaining members of the Union Chapel formed the Streatham Hill Congregational Church and a replacement church was built for them during the 1870s. This church became a dominant feature, and its position near to Holmewood Road, gave a point of focus to this part of the High Road.

Nonconformity made further strides in Streatham with the opening of a number of places for worship. The Plymouth Brethren met in their chapel at the top of Mitcham Lane, and in Wells Lane (Wellfield Road) a Mission Hall was opened in 1867. This was later attached to the Presbyterian Church in Pendennis Road, which opened for worship in 1877. The strong Baptist element in the local population was also well represented with the opening of Lewin Road Baptist Church in the late 1870s and two further churches: Mitcham Lane in 1903 and Hitherfield Road in 1907.

The need for a place of worship also extended to the Roman Catholics. For years Catholics in Streatham had the disadvantage of having to travel outside Streatham to attend Mass. This changed with the building the Church of the English Martyrs. Building commenced in 1892 on the corner of Mitcham Lane and Tooting Bec Gardens, on a site previously occupied by Russell House. The building was finally finished in 1896. Further developments occurred with the formation of the parish of St. Simon and St. Jude in 1906, based on the church built in Hillside Road, Streatham Hill.

A place of worship was also established for the Jewish community, who had contributed much to the development of modem Streatham. In 1929 The South London Liberal Jewish Synagogue was formed. During the early years the congregation met at a number of places within Streatham. Eventually a permanent home was found in Prentis Road, and in 1938 the South London Liberal Synagogue was opened.

The changing times also affected the old parish church of St. Leonard. This ancient structure had undergone a number of face-lifts before being enlarged and almost rebuilt, with the exception of the 14th century tower, between the years 1831 and 1880.

With the enlarging of the church there was some loss to the ancient graveyard, where generations of Streatham villagers had been buried. By the 1840s the graveyard was almost full with little or no space for new internments. In 1851 the churchyard was closed and internments were limited to previously allocated spaces. This finally ceased in 1971. To offset the loss of burial space the parish vestry of Streatham obtained a new site at Garratt Lane, Tooting, and in 1892 Streatham Cemetery was opened.



Church expansion was just one of the manifestations brought on by the pressures of population growth. Another was an increasing need for additional and improved policing. Previously, law enforcement had been the responsibility of the Constable of the Manor. Following the demise of the manorial system responsibility passed to the Parish Vestry. During these times felons were confined to the parish lock-up, or placed in the stocks which stood in the High Road.

The need for some sort of lock-up had occupied the parish authorities for some time. In the 1750s it was discussed whether a rough timber cage should be erected on Tooting Bec Common for the “confinement of loose and disorderly persons”. However it was not until 1828 that it was decided to build a “cage” on each side of the parish.

One was to be placed near Wheatsheaf Lane (Trinity Road) and the other by the village forge. This stood at the junction of the High Road with Mitcham Lane. The lock-up at the forge was a solid seven-foot square structure, which, after becoming redundant, was to remain a local novelty until its demolition in 1880.

With the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, effective policing on a regional basis was achieved. By the 1860s Streatham had become part of "W' division of the Metropolitan Police, with Clapham Police Station being the divisional headquarters.

Within a short time it was considered that Streatham should have its own headquarters and in 1865 Streatham Police Station was opened in the High Road. By the 1900s the station was considered too small for an enlarged local police force and for a busy and expanding suburb, During 1912 the old station was demolished and rebuilt as the present building to the design of the architect J. Butler.

Fire Service

Another service responding to the growth of metropolitan London was the fire service. Cover for Streatham was provided with the opening of a London County Council fire station in Mitcham Lane in December 1903, on the site previously occupied by Streatham Grammar School.

The new station also gave fire cover to parts of Streatham which had previously been dealt with by Balham Fire Station. This station had opened many years earlier in 1869, following the establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade three years previously. Prior to these advances the local fire services centred on the “parish engine”. This appliance, which cost £80 when delivered in 1813, was kept in the engine house near to the forge, and was serviced and manned by volunteers.

Public Transport


Among the many events which were to fix Streatham into the fabric of suburban London was the introduction of tram services. Prior to becoming part of the suburban transport network, residents relied on horse, bus or stagecoach operators for their journeys to and from Streatham. With the growth of metropolitan London, a number of regular stagecoach services were established, linking London with the surrounding population centres.

Places such as Streatham and Balham, lying along arterial roads, benefited from the link with London, and from commercial opportunities gained from coach proprietors scheduling stops in their villages. The direct stagecoach link with London found favour with city businessmen, and by the early 19th century the commuter element of local life was becoming a reality. The sight of the London “omnibus” stopping in the village had become a daily occurrence.

The introduction of the Streatham Omnibus, which ran from Streatham Hill to London every half hour between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every weekday, further confirmed the growing shift in the working pattern of local people. This had been slowly moving away from the traditional agrarian based work, which for generations had been the main occupation of Streatham people.

As economic and social patterns changed, more people found employment outside Streatham, mainly in commerce and manufacture in the City and the West End of London. This in turn introduced a “dormitory” element to suburban life, which had been given impetus with improved rail services, and with the electrification of the tramways, previously reliant on horsepower.

Following the 1869 Act of Parliament, which gave the go-ahead for companies to operate tramways, the Metropolitan Street Tramways Company opened lines to Clapham and Brixton. Unfortunately, Streatham, Balham and Tooting were deemed too far out for the operation of a profitable service. Furthermore, the barrier of Brixton Hill did not encourage the chances of a tram service to Streatham. Eventually, with the northern growth of Streatham and with improved technology, the service was extended from Brixton to Telford Avenue. In 1892 cable traction replaced horse traction for the difficult ascent of Brixton Hill, resulting in an improved service to Streatham Hill.

In some parts of South London tram route extensions were not always welcomed, mainly because the shopkeepers and traders feared loss of business. However, the desire of Streatham residents for a tram service was realised in 1904, when lines were extended from Telford Avenue to the Tate Library Streatham. This was undertaken by the London County Council who, on taking over the tram companies, embarked on a programme of electrification and extension of the network.

This gave local people cheap, quick and convenient access to central London and other suburban areas. Also the extension of routes produced a surge in local house building. The extension of the tram service to Norbury in 1909 stimulated residential and commercial building south of Streatham Common and into Norbury. Similar building occurred when the lines were extended to Tooting in 1910. This encouraged the construction and development of Southcroft Road, which was partly built on land reclaimed from the River Graveney. House building had started along this thoroughfare during 1906 and was to continued until 1936. Further building in this area eventually established Furzedown as a district of Streatham, along with Streatham Hill and later Streatham Vale.

Local Government

As London expanded, the pressures on local administration and the body politic became more pronounced. During the 1880s it was realised that the Metropolitan Board of Works was becoming unsuitable as an authority for London. Through an Act of Parliament the Board was abolished and replaced in 1889 by the London County Council, the predecessor to the Greater London Council. A further change occurred, again in response to the problems and needs arising from suburban growth, with the passing of the Local Government Act of 1899. This saw the creation of the Metropolitan Boroughs, and the forming of the London Borough of Wandsworth. This authority took over the administration of Streatham in 1900. Wandsworth continued as the borough authority until 1965 when the boundaries were changed and most of Streatham was placed under the London Borough of Lambeth.

In 1900 local councillors were elected for the first time in Streatham. The old Parish Vestry, after centuries of service to the community, passed quickly into history. Political changes had also taken place. In 1885 Streatham left the East Surrey parliamentary seat to become part of the newly formed Wandsworth constituency. Further reorganisation took place in 1918 when Streatham became a parliamentary seat in its own right. For the first time in her long history the ancient boundary of Streatham was to be redrawn, a precursor to many more such changes. These were to reflect the ebb and flow of political affairs and on more than one occasion to redefine the area of Streatham.