So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge.
Samuel Pepys’ Diary Entry, September 2 1666. Describing the great fire of London.
IF we may substitute the Tower for Willowbrook bridge and pudding-lane for Sumner road, but retain the way the fire leaped across buildings and spread quickly, The fire of 26th of November 2009 will live long in the memories of the people of North Peckham as the Great fire has done in all Londoners. Thankfully no losses of life or serious injuries are thought to have occurred in Peckham. Initial investigations seem to suggest some gas cylinders had caught fire on a building site, the demolished former Camberwell college of arts building on Sumner road, the resulting explosions spreading fire to neighbouring residential buildings. I was awoken by a call from some friends, and made my way to the scene. Scatterings of people lined the canal path and under Willowbrook bridge, men and women in dressing gowns and slippers, hoodies young and old, women in colourful African cloths, some others camped outside the Glengall tavern clinging to the wooden benches bolted on the pavement outside the pub on the junction of bird in bush road. They all stood in shock, necks craning towards the inferno that would tease the firefights by subsiding then flaring up again for a series of curtain calls and last hurrahs. It seemed some residents of Peckham hill street had opened up their homes to some of the more vulnerable evacuees on this very cold early morning. Some others, children, elderly people stood watching and waiting even the usually lively pit bulls and their boys stood in quite contemplation. I mingled whilst seeking my friends, “I swear brav I thought I was dreaming” some young men shared stories. “it spread so quickly” others confirmed each others experience of it. Many talked of a lady running, desperately waking her neighbours screaming fire. All huddled together against a common danger they had all escaped from, I wondered, was this, the “blitz spirit” writ large, whipped out every time Londoners face hardship. If so quite appropriate in this circumstance as the last devastation of this type in this area of Peckham was when a V1 flying bomb “doodlebug” fell on Willowbrook road in 1944.
The great fire of London forced a rethink on how the city was to be rebuilt with particular attention to layout, with the most famous plans being Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s built and of course still standing and John Evelyn’s proposals of boulevards and grand squares, eventually rejected as the city nor the King could afford the compensation the property and business owners would require for not having their structure rebuilt. I hope it’s not too churlish to suggest a rethink about how Sumner road is further developed comes about because of this tragic incident. The two estates that adorn Sumner road have already seen a share of the regeneration budgets of the 1990s. This is quite a depressing revelation, that smacks of missed opportunities. The design quality of the buildings put up in that period is quite shockingly bad, I didn’t see the plans or conceptual images the completed building would have been like on the site that caught fire but I can guess, something in the region of honey coloured bricked PVC’d windowed shoe boxes. Lets hope something positive and forward thinking and of benefit to the community is done eventually to the near by boarded up and abandoned Sumner work shop which itself has been vulnerable to spontaneous combustion in the past. We need a St Paul’s for this part of Peckham, not necessarily a church but something of quality that residents of this section of Peckham can be proud of and can promote this still forgotten side of Peckham.