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The Making of a London Suburb: Capital Comes To Penge

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Capitalism, and resistance to it, has shaped the environment in which we live. Martin Spence has written a new book The Making of a London Suburb: Capital Comes To Penge. It examines how the system transformed London, and the suburb of Penge, into the
Issue 2097
19th century London squalor
19th century London squalor

‘Around 1550, England was a medium-ranking European state and London an average-sized European capital city of about 75,000 people.

By 1800, England was the world’s first capitalist nation and London was the largest city in Christendom, and maybe the world, with a population of a million. The emergence of English capitalism and the growth of London are inseparably linked.

For three centuries, London sucked in a steady stream of migrants from the rest of the country. It was a lethal place to come to. Overcrowding, poverty, disease and violence meant that most Londoners’ lives were shorter and nastier than those in the countryside. And yet it grew.

This growth was related to rural change in a cycle of transformation that fed upon itself. The emergence of commercial farming, including enclosure of common land, pushed the rural poor towards towns and cities – especially London.

Once there, people who had been agricultural producers became urban consumers. This gave a further incentive to commercial farmers to increase productivity and focus on cash-crops for the London market.

The result was a teeming metropolis with a constantly renewed surplus of labour that was squeezed together in a relatively concentrated space alongside a vast consumer market.

For those with money to invest, there were countless opportunities for speculation and profit, as the compressed urban space offered a similarly compressed turnover time.

Within this process of growth, the suburbs were crucial. Inner suburbs acted as zones of unlicensed production, where manufacturers and merchants set up in business beyond the control of the City’s guilds and corporations.


London was the country’s greatest manufacturing centre, dwarfing Manchester or Birmingham by the sheer volume of output from its industries, such as clothing, food and drink, and the shipyards.

Outer suburbs meanwhile offered refuge from the stink and dangers of the city, initially for the aristocracy and gentry, and then increasingly for the growing middle class.

And as this trend took hold, it called into existence a commercial housing market which, in its own chaotic way, became yet another driver of urban growth.

My study tries to show how this overall process affected a single small suburb in south east London. Penge is a place on the map like anywhere else, and, like every other place, it has a story to tell.

I don’t accept that only some locations, such as castles or stately homes, have “historical interest”. We make our history in all the places where we live and work.


Penge was small rural hamlet in the 18th century with a population of around 50. There was a modest manor house and a cluster of cottages around the green.

It was too small to have its own church. Most people scraped by working on local farms, and using the common for grazing livestock and gathering fuel.

Capital made its impact on this with four big projects. The land itself was commodified by the enclosing of Penge Common. The Croydon Canal gave timber, the primary local resource.

The London to Croydon railway made it possible to develop the newly commodified land as a residential suburb. And the Crystal Palace – which combined the functions of museum, concert hall, exhibition centre and sports stadium – acted as a massive economic motor from the 1850s onwards.

I researched the minutes of the Battersea Vestry (parish council).The records deal with regular parish business – collecting and distributing the Poor Rate, maintaining the roads, admonishing local tearaways for not attending church, and so on.

But they also provide a blow by blow account of the vestry’s long battle against the enclosure of Penge Common. This was driven by parochial rivalry rather than class conflict, but it’s a fascinating story.

We are still living in the urban landscape created by 19th century capital – the street map today is basically the same as it was in 1870.

But things could be different.

In significant ways, the built environment that we know reflects the demands and priorities of capital, and a genuinely socialist city might be fundamentally different. But cities are wonderfully tricksy, devious, contradictory places.

They may be designed or intended to serve the needs of capital. But the sheer human density and energy of urban life constantly challenges those intentions and opens up new possibilities.

So I think the potential for creating socialist cities, or at least socialist city life, is always there, always hovering.’

The Making of a London Suburb by Martin Spence (£10.95) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.

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