History of Brixton

The name Brixton is thought to have derived from Brixistane, meaning the stone of Brixi, a Saxon lord. He is thought to have erected a boundary stone to mark the meeting place of the moot or hundred court, possibly at the top of Brixton Hill. The road at this point was known as Bristow or Brixton Causeway long before any settlement.

The area marks the rise of the land from the marshes of North Lambeth up to the hills of Norwood and Streatham. The River Effra flowed from its source in Norwood down through Herne Hill to Brixton, where it was crossed by low bridges carrying the Roman roads to the south coast (now Brixton and Clapham Roads). A network of medieval country lanes, such as Acre Lane, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton Water Lane and Lyham Road (formerly Back Lane) ran between the main roads.

Surprisingly, Brixton as a village or settlement did not exist until the end of the 18th century. Originally woodland, this had gradually depleted until the district was covered by farmland and market garden, well known for its game and strawberries.

Things began to change when new bridges were built across the Thames, making South London accessible to city dwellers wishing to escape the dirt and noise of London. The earliest built development took place along the Washway (now Brixton Road). The 1806 enclosures of the Manor of Lambeth ( belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury) set the stage for growth in the area. The opening of Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 was the catalyst and terraced houses and detached villas soon lined the main road. St Matthew’s Church, consecrated in 1824, indicating that there was a sizeable population by this time.

Large terraced and detached houses were built along the main highway. The Rush Common enclosure stipulations dictated that they were set back from the main road with generous front gardens that prolonged the semi-rural nature of the area. A windmill, still in existence, was erected in 1816 by John Ashby half way up Brixton Hill. Close by in 1819 the Surrey House of Correction, later Brixton Prison was established.

The relatively late arrival of the railway to Brixton in the 1870s sparked the usual building boom and changed the landscape of the area with bridges and viaducts. Most developers built two or three storey terraces aimed at the artisan market. The expanding population demanded shops and Brixton rapidly developed into a major shopping centre. Bon Marche on Brixton Road was the first purpose built departtment store in the country, opened in 1877. Electric Avenue was one of the first shopping arcades to have electric lighting. The famous market began in Atlantic Road but was moved to Station Road in the 1920s to ease traffic congestion.

At the end of the 19th century Brixton became home to theatre and music hall artistes. Dan Leno lived in Akerman Road, Fred Karno had his ‘Fun Factory’ off Coldharbour Lane, Charlie Chaplin lived in Ferndale Road at the turn of the century whilst part of the ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’ troupe. Slum clearance, bombing and the end of 99 year leases on larger houses changed Brixton. Postwar saw the settling of immigrant workers from the Caribbean which defined modern Brixton: famous for its vitality and tolerance as much as riots and crime.