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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 06:38 GMT 07:38 UK
Streets of London: Lambeth Walk
By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online

The wartime history of Lambeth Walk - once a vibrant street in south London - completes a series on the stories of the city's streets.

A mural in the shopping precinct reminds locals of the street's heyday
A mural in the shopping precinct is a reminder of the street's heyday
For one of London's most famous addresses, Lambeth Walk gets few visitors these days.

When the song about delirious dancing Cockneys became a hit in the pre-war musical Me and My Girl, the street of the same name was in its heyday, lined with shops and market stalls.

But thanks to a process begun by World War II bombers and completed by urban planners, there are just a handful of shops left and the famous Lambeth Walk street market has all but died.

"I'm a bit ashamed that when any visitors come down to Lambeth Walk, they see that... it's terrible," said 76-year-old Bert Vincent, landlord of the Royal Oak pub.

In 1938, 159 shops lined the street and catered for every need, including 11 butchers, two eel and pie shops (one with a tank of live eels outside), a bird dealer and a tripe dresser.

Lambeth Walk

And the market, which was busiest on Saturdays when stalls with gas lamps stayed open late, also stretched right along the road, selling fruit and vegetables plus second-hand clothes and shoes.

Lil Brown, now 86, worked on a Saturday stall when she was 12 selling stockings, and also helped her aunt make toffee apples in her basement.

"We used to put the sticks in the apples for her," Mrs Brown told BBC News Online.

"Then she used to take them up to the stall in a great big bowl. Apart from the toffee apples, they used to sell sweets like coconut ice and treacle toffee. But that was when it was really a busy market - it was a well-known market."

The market kept running during World War II - although the street's location, less than a mile from the Houses of Parliament, meant the area suffered from stray bombs.

If an air raid siren sounded when the market was on, stall-holders would simply abandon their goods and head for the nearest shelter, Mrs Brown said.

Picture from London Borough of Lambeth
Lambeth Baths, at the end of the Walk, were destroyed in the war
"Well, there was no-one left to thieve them was there? They was all down the shelter. Who's worried about oysters and apples when they was dropping? They weren't dropping sweets, it was bombs."

Most shops escaped destruction, but one direct hit came when a landmine landed on Boots the chemist, remembers Mrs Brown, who was visiting her sister nearby at the time.

"When the warning went, we shot underneath the table and I got covered in soot because the landmine was only a matter of yards away. That was a bad experience," she said.

"In those days, we had fires and people didn't have their chimneys swept. So if you get a loud explosion near there, down come the soot. The windows came out and everything."

Another landmine hit a school just off the Walk, killing five people in the house of Mr Vincent's wife Connie, who was then aged 10.

Lambeth Walk Doorstep Green looking towards Lambeth Walk with Westminster in the background
Lambeth Walk is less than a mile from the Houses of Parliament
"Them people that got killed would have been down the shelter with us, but there had been a fire at the time and the lady that got killed, she was massive," Mrs Brown said.

The "massive" lady could not fit through the manhole cover leading to the shelter, and a fire three days earlier had blocked her only other access. So when the landmine hit, setting the school alight and causing a gas explosion, she and four others were still in the house.

The war marked the beginning of the end for the street as a commercial and social centre, according to George Wilkins, 72, who has run a photography shop there since 1965.

"It never was as good after the war because it had suffered quite a bit," he said.

When he opened his shop, there were still 99 others on the Walk - but then a series of redevelopments began which drove most of the shops out.

The Pelham Mission Hall, with its open-air pulpit, is one of the street's oldest buildings
The Pelham Mission Hall is one of the street's oldest buildings
Many Victorian buildings were pulled down and replaced with a 1970s precinct and flats. In the process, Mr Wilkins - now the street's longest-serving shopkeeper - had to move four times in 15 years because his premises kept getting demolished.

By 1980, 23 shops and just six regular market stalls were left. Today, half the "new" precinct has already been pulled down to make way for modern flats, and half the shops in the remaining units are permanently shuttered up.

The only remaining Victorian shop buildings on the street have been renovated and occupied - but by firms like architects that are not open to the public.

And locals, scarred by doomed developments and afraid the council simply wants to sell some of the most potentially lucrative land in London, are highly sceptical about any new plans.

Streets of London: Smithfield
04 May 04  |  London
Streets of London: Tower Street
10 May 04  |  London
Streets of London: Pottery Lane
17 May 04  |  London

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