With its bridge, its palace, and of course its Walk, Lambeth has been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London seat since the twelfth century.
Originally Lambehitha (Lamb Hythe), meaning a landing place for lambs, Lambeth had a large manor by the river way back in Anglo-Saxon times. England’s last Danish king Hardicanute (Harthacnut) – son of the wave-defying King Canute (which we aren’t going to spell the rude way) – died suddenly at a wedding banquet at the manor in 1041 after properly pigging out on food and wine, as befits a merry medieval monarch. It’s been suggested that his saintly successor, Edward the Confessor, could have had him bumped off, but there’s no evidence for that.
The Archbishop of Canterbury bought part of the manor of Lambeth in 1190, and his successor bought the rest seven years later. Eventually, in 1262, the Pope gave his blessing to have Lambeth Palace built to replace it, and the palace has been the archbishops’ London pied à terre ever since.
The actual parish of Lambeth, long and thin, stretched well south of North Lambeth, and even of South Lambeth, reaching all the way down to West Norwood (or Lower Norwood, as it was then known). That in turn was the western area of what was once the Great North Wood, bits which still survive (and there’s a pub named after it). At the turn of the twentieth century, the parish, previously part of Surrey, became the Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth, and part of the new County of London.
In 1862 the railway arrived at Brixton, and from a rural neighbourhood with lanes and a windmill (still standing, and indeed working), Brixton suddenly turned into a fashionable suburb and shopping hub, complete with a large market, and began to take over as the borough’s main centre of gravity. Its famous Electric Avenue was one of the first streets in London to have electric lights.
After World War Two, Jamaicans from the Windrush Generation started moving in to Brixton, which gradually became the acknowledged centre of London’s Jamaican and also wider Black community, housing its cultural archives for example, but also attracting racist attacks. “Operation Swamp” and the shooting of Cherry Groce led to riots against the police in 1981 and 1985. The Scarman report into the 1981 riots blamed disproportionate and arbitrary use of stop and search against young Black men. That was in 1981. The area has been gentrified since then of course, but some things never seem to change.
Lambeth Bridge was built in 1862 to replace the horse ferry that previously operated there. The street leading to it on the other side of the river is still called Horseferry Road to this day. As for Lambeth Walk, that was one of Lambeth’s main thoroughfares going way back (its southern continuation, give or take the odd dog-leg, being Vauxhall Walk). Up until the Second World War, it had a thriving street market. The famous Lambeth Walk song and dance came from the 1937 stage musical (and 1939 film) Me and My Girl, but arguably have older roots. And for all the changes which have taken place since then, something of that “do what you darn well pleasy” old-school Cockney attitude is still there in Lambeth today – and quite right too.
In 1965, Lambeth nicked Clapham and Streatham from Wandsworth to form today’s London Borough of Lambeth, but of all the old metropolitan boroughs, Lambeth is the one whose borders changed the least when Greater London was created in that 1965 reorganization.