The Norwood Society

Victoria’s London

The South London suburbs as they appeared to a writer of a hundred years ago, are found in Percy Fitzgerald’s “London City Suburbs” Volume 2 in a kind of travelogue. This how he sees the Crystal Palace area:

“The various ascents from Dulwich onwards to ‘the Palace’ have special attraction. The roads are ‘grass lanes’ and in spite of innumerable villas, never seem to lose their sylvan character. The foliage of the laurels and shrubberies are luxuriant and the grass abounds; and with it all there is a certain sense of dreamy solitude – an air of contented happiness and tranquillity.

About the Palace itself there is a poetical tone; it is plain that it is the very life and soul of the district and inspires us all. In spite of its familiarity the visitor who is set down at the station always anticipates festivity as he gazes aloft at the enormous glittering glass pile. Still, if aught be said, there is a recipe for depression and despondency so certain as a few days diligent attendance at ‘The Palace’ while following its round of entertainments in strict fashion.

This district of Sydenham, Norwood, Forest Hill, Anerley, Gipsy Hill, Lordship Lane is about the fairest and most ‘winsome’ of all the suburban dependencies of London. Covered as it is with villas and terraces, it still maintains its sylvan aspect owing perhaps to its high situation and the luxuriance of its growths. We are so familiar with it that we are scarcely struck with its charm; but the stranger is always affected in this way.

From every point is seen the central attraction, the silvery, glittering palace, which according to our theory of every suburb having a ’note’ of its own, imparts a tone to the whole district and affects even the character and pursuits of the natives. Of a morning, at Anerley and other stations, are seen crowds of busy men hurrying up to town for the day’s work. For them the fine air is recuperative; their houses are built in substantial and sometimes elegant style and overgrown with luxuriant ivy, often suggesting the suburbs of Dorking. 

On the other side of the valley that lies at the foot of the Palace and passing by Beulah Hill, we find Streatham. On some fine balmy, sunshiny day there is a charming walk to this good old Common. Nothing more sylvan can be imagined than this country with its bouquets of trees. How welcome the Paragon (old-fashioned name!) with its irregular houses. Streatham will ever have a charm owing to the memories of Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, whose mansion or villa was swept away many years ago. The last generation was very ‘incurious’ abut such memorials; nowadays there is a revival of interest owing to a better knowledge, and with this better knowledge there is more reverence.”

Percy Fitzgerald described many of the suburbs which were in 1893 fairly rural, but he recognized that the villages on the fringe of London were undergoing many changes of which he said, ‘The process is prompt and speedy. One day the fair smiling face is found out and speedily covered with terraces and buildings, and from that moment it begins to stretch its hands to the Metropolis eager to join it.’

Betty Griffin

The Norwood Review Edition #125.