Church and Community in South London - St Saviour’s Denmark Park 1881-1905 by Richard Olney
reviewed by Brian Green

For those who are interested in seeking out the history of East Dulwich this book by Richard Olney will provide an invaluable resource. It traces the development of an odd corner of South London – not quite in East Dulwich, not quite in Peckham and not quite in Camberwell but isolated from them by dead ends and railway tracks.

Without the intrusion of the railways in the 1860’s the development of what was to be euphemistically named Denmark Park would have been considerably different and might have attracted a more affluent class of resident intent on having a neat garden around a detached house. As Richard Olney points out however, the odd shaped steepish fields, stuck as they were between two railway lines and offered on building leases by The British Land Company did not readily attract prospective wealthy home owners or upmarket developers. In the event they would answer a demand for low-cost housing from the rapidly growing lower middle-class, many employed as clerks in the increasing number of insurance offices and banks and commercial houses of the City. Denmark Park was largely built over by 1881.

Not only was Denmark Park isolated from long established surrounding areas but the souls of its new inhabitants were equally isolated from the neighbouring churches of St John’s, Goose Green, St Giles’ Camberwell and All Saints, Peckham.

Into this spiritual void appeared the tea-importer and philanthropist Francis Peek who had already provided money for the building of churches elsewhere (two for his sons-in-law) and also financed the building of St Clements, East Dulwich. It was Peek who offered to build a church on a small site in Copleston Road and a vicarage at Grove Hill Road. Olney recounts the ups and downs of the newly established parish, describing the tussles which took place between the Evangelical and Ritualist wings within St Saviour’s after the early death of its first vicar. It is difficult now to imagine how divided the Church was locally and nationally over the issue of Ritualism.

Richard Olney tells a fascinating story of the birth and growth of a suburb. This readable book is meticulously researched and the fruits of considerable labour. It is essential reading in the understanding of the way a community was formed over a short period of time.

Church and Community in South London : St Saviour’s Denmark Park 1881-1905 128 pages £11.95 is available from tye author 26 Danby Street, SE 15 4BU