Tag Archives: nunhead

Pubs of SE15

I’ve been making only slow progress on this journal, but have nonetheless decided to introduce a new feature: a survey of the pubs within a postal district. The boundaries of London’s locales are notoriously difficult to pinpoint in all but a few neatly-defined areas (Mayfair, for example), therefore I’m going with the postcode instead. It will be a while before I bite off something huge like W1, but let’s start with somewhere close to home.

SE15 mainly covers Peckham, as well as Nunhead to its south. Peckham is neatly divided by Peckham High Street/Queens Road into a northern and southern area. Rye Lane, the main shopping thoroughfare running south from Peckham High Street, also serves to keep the two distinct southern areas apart, with the larger concentration of council estate housing on the eastern side, and a conservation area (the Holly Grove Conservation Area, sometimes referred to by estate agents using the name of its main street, Bellenden Road) to the west. Nunhead is to the south, on either side of the grand Victorian cemetery of that name.

Like many comparable conurbations in South-East London, Peckham and Nunhead were originally villages with only a small number of wealthy land-owners on large estates. Upon the coming of the railways in the 19th century, they started to grow as fully-fledged suburban areas, increasingly accommodating the urban poor leaving the centre of the city. As such, throughout the latter part of the 20th century, Peckham has been known for its high crime rate and poor provision of social housing, not helped by inadequate system-built post-war estates (particularly in North Peckham).

The dominant feature of the drinking landscape is the simple local pub, usually one or two rooms. Some of these are in Victorian buildings, betraying a grander past, while others make lesser claims for attention.

Glengall Tavern (North Peckham SE15)
Figure 16. Glengall Tavern (North Peckham SE15).

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The Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15)

I wanted to pick out some individual pubs from time to time, so this is my first post doing that.

Pubs are undeniably landmarks in both London and the UK generally. Bus routes may mark their termini by pubs: the 55 terminates at “Leyton (Bakers Arms)”, and the 14 at “Putney Heath (Green Man)”. You can probably guess, if you weren’t aware already, that the Nag’s Head junction (at Holloway and Seven Sisters Roads), or the Bricklayer’s Arms junction at the top of Old Kent Road (and the railway terminus which used to be sited there)1 were named after local public houses. There are even a number of areas of London which take their names from pubs: the Angel Islington is perhaps the most famous, and takes its name from a coaching inn which was sited there.2

The Old Nun's Head (Nunhead SE15)
Figure 12. The Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15).

It has been suggested that one such area named after a pub is Nunhead, in south-east London (just to the south of Peckham). The history isn’t clear on this point — there was a nunnery in the area which may have given rise to the name, though there is little evidence for the rather grisly story related on the sign outside the pub. Certainly, though, the Old Nun’s Head (Nunhead SE15, fig. 12) predates the development of this area by quite some time, possibly as far back as the 17th century.3

During the 18th century, the pub was known for games (it had a skittle alley), dancing and particularly for its tea gardens. These were a fashion of the era — tea had only been introduced to the country during the 17th century and had built up an immense popularity during the early parts of the 18th century to become effectively the national drink. The tea gardens were suburban relatives of the pleasure gardens (such as the famous one at Vauxhall), where high tea was served in the afternoon. To a certain extent, too, they were tainted with the same negative connotations, being the playgrounds of the frivolous leisured classes, encouraging licentious behaviour and gambling, and frequented by prostitutes. There is no indication in the sources that the tea gardens in Nunhead were anything less than respectable.4

The pub also illustrates another interesting facet of historical pub habits in that the proprietor during the middle of the 19th century was a woman, Sarah Dyer. Female landlords, even if in a minority, were certainly not unusual throughout the country, and women’s attendance at pubs was not insignificant (though higher in urban and suburban areas than in the countryside).

In any case, the original pub has long since been replaced. The present Tudor-style building dates from 1934, and was closed for several years at the start of the 21st century. It reopened in 2007 with an attractive wooden interior, a good selection of ales, and organic food and wine on the menu.

[1] This station was built by the Southeastern and London & Croydon train companies as a direct competitor to the traffic brought in by the London & Greenwich company to its London Bridge terminus (where it operated the first passenger train service into London). Bricklayers Arms was opened in 1844, but an agreement soon after with LGR meant that by the following year it was largely confined to goods cargo. It did not close until 1983.
[2] None of these pubs is still trading, though the building housing The Nag’s Head (Lower Holloway N7) still exists on the junction that bears its name.
[3] Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds.), The London Encyclopaedia (London: Macmillan, 1983).
[4] Ron Woollacott, A Historical Tour of Nunhead and Peckham Rye (London: Magdala Terrace, 1995).