A History of the Elephant & Castle (Part One)

A south London landmark… the Elephant and Castle statue

As well as being one of London’s major transport hubs, the Elephant and Castle (or, more simply, the ‘Elephantas locals like to call it) is one of the capital’s more peculiarly named areas.

A typical Elephant and Castle scene

Thanks to its post-war jumble of tower blocks, roaring traffic and gloomy pedestrian subways, Elephant and Castle has become rather unloved over the years… which, when you consider the area’s long and fascinating history, is a sentiment nothing short of travesty.

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Before the Elephant

Before acquiring its unique name, the land which would eventually become the Elephant and Castle was occupied by a village known as Newington which came under Walworth; a manor listed in the 1086 Domesday Book as being part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s portfolio.

Today, the name of the early settlement lives on in two roads- Newington Causeway and Newington Butts which lie either side of the present day junction.

Roads named after Newington (A-Z imaging)

Many historians believe that ‘Butts’ is a reference to archery butts; a strip of land dedicated to practising bow and arrow firing.

Medieval archery butts where weekly practice was compulsory

During the Medieval era, such exercise grounds existed all over the kingdom thanks to a law drawn up in 1252 which stated all Englishmen between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to own a bow and to practice their shooting skills every Sunday!

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The Elephant stomps in

The Elephant and Castle eponym evolved thanks to a tavern which established itself in the area (to this day, a pub by the same name operates on the junction’s northern roundabout).

The most recent incarnation of the Elephant & Castle pub

Although the image of an elephant partnered with a castle was fairly common at the time, what the pub’s owner was precisely referring to when they named their boozer remains a mystery.

Perhaps it was an allusion to a heraldic symbol? Or an early chess piece?

Elephant & Castle imagery on a chess piece and as a symbol of heraldry

Then again, the landlord may have been aligning the tavern with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers; the guild responsible for regulating the manufacture of weapons and cutlery who, for many years, incorporated ivory into the handles of their wares- hence their coat of arms bearing the Elephant and Castle icon:

Elephant and castle imagery on the sign for Cutlers Hall, Warwick Lane.

Or perhaps the unusual name was a reference to the time when Louis IX of France presented King Henry III with an elephant as a gift; the donated jumbo being gladly received and placed in the Royal Menagerie which, in those days, was housed in the Tower of London.

A mid 13th century sketch of King Henry’s elephant, drawn by a monk called Matthew Paris (Image: University of Cambridge)

Sadly, this celebrated pachyderm somehow managed to wangle its trunk into a large rake of wine… an indulgence which evidently killed the sorry beast after three years spent in the tower. At least it died happy…

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A very early reference to the district’s now famous name can be found in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, penned circa 1601.

In the play, Antonio informs Sebastian that a good place to lodge for the night is “in the south suburbs, at the Elephant.

William Shakespeare, one of the first writers to refer to the Elephant and Castle by its current name.

Although Twelfth Night is set nowhere near London (or even England), it is likely that Shakespeare slotted the name in as a cheeky local reference which most of the audience would have understood- the Bard’s Globe theatre being situated just under a mile away from the area.

It is also possible that the allusion may have been included as an early form of advertising for the tavern, especially as it was within staggering distance of sinful Southwark’s playhouses and debauchery

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The area begins to boom

In 1760, a blacksmith’s workshop in the village was enlarged and converted into a tavern which adopted the Elephant and Castle title.

The newly established premises gradually developed into an important coaching inn, with traffic and trade boosted by the opening of nearby Westminster Bridge (in 1751) and Blackfriars Bridge (in 1769).

With London’s road network expanding around these two new and vital river crossings, the Elephant and Castle quickly became an important hub in the capital’s burgeoning transport network.

Early traffic at the Elephant

In 1861 and encouraged by the Elephant’s growing prominence, the Reformed Baptist church decided to build their main place of worship in the area- the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle, 1861 (image: Grosvenor Prints)

As well as the growing importance of the Elephant and Castle, the Reformed Baptists also chose the location as it marks the approximate site where the ‘Southwark Martyrs’ (a group of Protestants executed during the reign of Mary I for their faith) were brutally burnt at the stake.

Religious dissenters about to be burned alive…

When it first opened, the Metropolitan Tabernacle had a congregation numbering over 5,000 people.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle’s original interior (image: Wikipedia)

Despite being destroyed by fire in 1898 and Nazi bombs in 1941, the main front portico survived and remains a prominent Elephant and Castle landmark. Rebuilt in 1957, the interior now hosts religious sermons which are broadcast on Sky Television every Saturday afternoon.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle today

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The role of Elephant and Castle as a major transport hub developed even further with the arrival of the railways (in 1863) and the Underground in 1904- with the Bakerloo line making the Elephant their southern terminal.

Elephant and Castle tube station, southern terminal for the Bakerloo Line

The Elephant also became a vital cog in London’s sprawling tram network.

Elephant and Castle bustling with trams in the 1920s (image: BBC)

Thanks to its multitude of transport links, Elephant and Castle grew into a major shopping and entertainment destination during the early 20th century, earning it the nickname; the ‘Piccadilly of South London.

Glamour at the Elephant

Two of the most popular destinations in the Elephant’s glitzy heyday were the large department store, William Tarn and Co, and the mighty Trocadero cinema.

The Trocadero at Elephant and Castle, 1931

Opened in 1930, the Trocadero (which stood on the present site of the modern Elephant and Castle pub), was a glorious picture-house, capable of seating 3,000 movie-goers.

It also boasted Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.

Inside the Trocadero; a true film palace (image: Cinema Museum)

In 1932, the Trocadero was joined by a second cinema; the Coronet; an art-deco 2,000 seater picture house which opened up on the opposite side of the road after being converted from the Victorian built, Theatre Royal.

The Theatre Royal (aka the Elephant Theatre), originally built in 1882 which later went onto become the Coronet cinema. (Photo: The Coronet website)

The theatre (known then as the ‘Elephant Theatre’) can be seen in the following 1920s clip, London at Night, filmed a few years before its conversion to a cinema:

Despite the glitz, the Elephant was still home to many of London’s impoverished, including a large number of down and outs, footage of whom was also included in London at Night:

Although the Elephant’s colossal Trocadero has long since vanished, the Coronet is still going strong, now employed as a venue for many varied events ranging from club nights to boxing.

The Coronet today (image: Google Streetview)

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A very famous resident

Despite being no longer able to provide an evening out at the pictures, Elephant and Castle is now home to The Cinema Museum which can be found on Dugard Way.

The Cinema Museum

Although discreet (at present, if you wish to visit, a tour must be booked), this museum maintains a vast collection of historical cinematic artefacts ranging from the 1890s to the present day; everything from usher’s uniforms and vintage cinema fittings, to publicity shots and rare celluloid reels.

The Cinema Museum is housed within a rather extraordinary building… it was once the administration block for Lambeth’s former Victorian Workhouse.

Wider view of the former Lambeth Workhouse

In the late 1890s, one of the many poor Londoners to spend time within this depressing institution was a young child called Charles Spencer Chaplin.

Charles Spencer Chaplin

A few years later, and under the more informal version of his name, this former young workhouse inmate would go onto become the world’s first movie superstar… Charlie Chaplin.

Charles Spencer Chaplin, 1889-1977 (photo: Wikipedia)

Charlie was very much a local lad, born less than half a mile away from the Elephant on East Street which, to this day, is still home to a popular market.

A quiet East Street today, the road which saw the birth of Charlie Chaplin in 1889. (Image: Google Street View)

Growing up in South London, Charlie’s childhood was defined by crushing poverty.

Women inside Lambeth Workhouse.

Along with a chronic lack of cash, his mother, Hannah Chaplin, also suffered from poor mental health; a condition which led to her spending time in the Bedlam Lunatic Asylum.

Hannah Chaplin; Charlie’s tormented mother

Today, you can still visit the hospital in which Charlie’s mother was incarcerated… it is now the Imperial War Museum, a short walk away from the heart of Elephant and Castle.

The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth- the former Bedlam mental asylum where Charlie Chaplin’s mother was interned (image: Wikipedia)

Charlie Chaplin’s childhood experiences of growing up in the area would later influence his famous film work which was characterized by a mixture of working-class humour and heart-breaking pathos, with those in authority often portrayed as bullying jobsworths.

This influence is well demonstrated in his 1921 masterpiece, The Kid.

In this feature length silent film, Charlie’s ‘Little Tramp’ has raised an abandoned child from infanthood, the pair very much becoming father and son.

However, when the authorities discover the pair living in hardship , they see fit to cart the child away…

Promotional photo for ‘The Kid’, 1921

Although filmed in Los Angeles, the following famous sequence contains profound and deeply moving echoes of Chaplin’s south London childhood, especially the desperation he would have experienced whilst being forcefully parted from his mother at the gates of Lambeth workhouse.

Please click here for part two...
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22 responses

  1. This was my favouite post ever. I loved it. Well done!

    1. Thank you so much, Rose. How are you plans to move to London coming along? You’ll be able to visit the Cinema Museum when you arrive ;-)

  2. I would like to arrive in London by autumn 2013. At the absolute latest, February 2014. Right now, my plans are moving along well. The immigration minister has not made any funny backhanded moves lately, and if things remain the way they are, I will be reunited with my beloved city soon. Cinema museum will be added to my list today :)

    1. Good luck, Rose. I’m sure the time will pass very quickly and you’ll be here before you know it :-)

  3. Brilliant as always Robert! That blasted Razor building is the first thing I spotted in the second image. Hands down the ugliest building in London IMHO, soon to be knocked off the top by the Walkie Talkie. Ah well, progress.

    1. Many thanks, Melissa :-) In part two I’ll be looking at the Elephant and Castle’s more recent architecture…

  4. [...] To read part one of this history, please click here [...]

  5. When I was a London tour guide, the story about how the area got the name Elephant and Castle was connected to Queen Eleanor of Castille, daughter of Henry II, but I’ve since found that there’s no connection at all. But there was a programme on telly a couple of years ago that did shed some light on it. It turns out that the symbol of the elephant and castle was used to symbolise the union of blacksmiths in England. This is how the tavern adopted the name of Elephant and Castle.

    1. Yes I always thought it was named after the Infanta de Castille.

  6. [...] For more about post-war Elephant and Castle check out my colleague’s View from the Mirror. [...]

  7. [...] For more about post-war Elephant and Castle check out my colleague’s View from the Mirror. [...]

  8. Reblogged this on clementsgeoff and commented:
    What history there is to be found in London if one looks for it.

  9. What a fascinating post. Thank-you!

  10. Hi! I have been wanting to know what the story behind Elephant and Castle’s name was for a while now, but this blog gave me so much more than I expected!
    I love this blog! Where do you get all this information? It does not come fron The Knowledge, does it? Otherwise I will be soon studying to become a cabbie… :)

    1. Thanks, Lucia that’s really kind of you.

      When you study the Knowledge, you do pick up quite a lot of info on London’s history! If you find it interesting, you just take it from there. Quite a few London cabbies go on to train as tour guides thanks to the love of history which they develop.

  11. Thanks for this site, I’m always trying to find out more about my neighbourhood, I find it fascinating. I’d love to get hold of an old map of the area.

    1. Thanks, David. If you google ‘old London maps’, you’ll find a selection of sites which have maps of London. Some are large enough to depict the Elephant and Castle area.

  12. Terence Tumber | Reply

    Hi, David, a very intresting site that has brought back quite a few memories.
    My father was the master builder on the shopping centre and tower, and I remember going on the roof (the view was fantastic) in the early sixties with him for a progress meeting, I was 6 or 7 and met the architect who was very tall, I now believe he was Goldfinger, he bought me an ice cream, later we went for lunch to a pie counter in a hole in the wall, which i found again in 1999, it was in Borough Market. Fiftry years have gone by and my dad has long since passed away.
    Best wishes to you
    Terry

    1. Hi Terry,

      Thanks for the lovely comment. I always enjoy hearing from people who have a close connection with the places I write about and see on a regular basis.

      I met someone recently whose father also worked with Goldfinger and subsequently met him in their young age. They said he was a lovely fellow and a true gentleman. Hearing that he bought you an ice cream enforces my belief that he was a soft-hearted chap deep down!

      You must be very proud of your father; he is one of those admirable people who’ve played their part in forging London.

      Thanks again.

      -Robert

  13. i loved it but i dont get how charlie chaplin grew up in east street market

    1. Hi Duke,

      Thanks for the comment. Charlie Chaplin was born on East Street which is still famous for its market today. You can see a blue plaque recording this association at the junction with Walworth Road.

      The main house associated with his childhood is on Cleaver Street, Kennington just south of the Elephant and Castle.

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