Time Travel Explorer Blog

The Aylesbury Estate: Walworth in maps

by Peter Watts 9. March 2011 14:02


This is the Aylesbury Estate, a vast block of concrete that was plonked down in Walworth, near Elephant and Castle, between 1967 and 1977 as part of an extraordinary plan to revolutionise and regenerate working-class living in South London. The idea was that the Aylesbury, the largest estate in Europe, would link up with the Elmington Estate in Camberwell and the North Peckham Estate by overhead pedestrian walkways that meant Londoners could travel three miles across South London without touching the ground. Needless to say, this utopian dream never quite came off and the Aylesbury has come to be seen as emblematic of the worst kind of post-war planning. It is currently scheduled for a second round of 'regeneration', which will began with its demolition.

The building of the Aylesbury in Walworth was controversial even at the time. It took over a site of 285,000 square metres previously occupied by the sort of ramshackle Victorian terraces you can find all round inner London. Here is the site in 1830, when Walworth was well on the way to expansion. 

The site of the Aylesbury is just north of the main street along at the bottom, Albany Road. This looks like a fairly uncluttered area, but it was already much more heavily populated than much of the rest of South London - which is why the 1830 map reaches this far south. This population growth had occured in a relatively brief space of time. Here's the same site (or slightly to the north, anyway) in 1746, when it was all fields.

And here it is now. It's easy to see the appeal of high-rise housing when looking at maps, as it shows how you can cram a huge number of people into a relatively small footprint. The Aylesbury was big enough to contain 10,000 people. The population of Walworth had grown from 15,000 in 1801 to 122,000 in 1901, but by the 1970s had decreased to around 30,000 - so around a third of the area's residents were expected to live on the Aylesbury.

Burgess Park just to the south of the Aylesbury was a relatively late arrival to an area that was famously bereft of green spaces. It was partly reclaimed from housing in the 1970s, but the bulk is built over the old basin for the Grand Surrey Canal, which went from Bermondsey to Camberwell and was concreted over in the 1970s. There's a bridge in the middle of the park that once spanned the canal but now goes to nowhere.

In Michael Collins's excellent book, 'The Likes Of Us', about the working-class population of Southwark, the author wrote of how his family narrowly escaped being rehoused in the Aylesbury, having moved from the regeneration area shortly before construction began. The settled instead in one of Walworth's few remaining Victorian streets and observed the changes taking place around them: 'The Street began to represent both a haven and a time capsule harbouring the rituals, the routines, the culture that had been the lifeblood of the neighbourhood and the area at large for so long. As the walls came tumbling down all around, as rubble settled and dust rose, it was as though the time capsule itself was being buried underground. But the future would have to wait, whether it was housing estates as wide as their accompanying tower blocks were tall, or the influx of interlopers. Homes, heritage, homogeneity, the holy trinity of the neighbourhood and the wider community, were the territory that was now being protected, defended even.'