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A Brief History of Balham

(Courtesy John Rattray – Balham Society with update by Helen Redmond)

1.

Once upon a time...

Until around 200 years ago Balham was a hamlet of farms and a few country houses on the old Roman road of Stane Street, and was part of the parish of Streatham.  As travel to London became easier, the town began to grow around Balham Hill in the early 19th century. When the Pimlico and Crystal Palace Railway opened in 1856, with a station at Balham, the town centre gravitated southward to its present location near the station; over the rest of the 19th century the town grew swiftly into the street patterns that largely survive today save for isolated cases of redevelopment and World War II bomb damage.

As the population grew, a chapel was opened in 1808, paid for by members of the nearby Clapham Sect. The chapel was extended in 1824, and in 1855 became the parish church of St. Mary’s, after Balham had been made a parish in its own right. Other churches and places of worship opened in subsequent years.

Balham became a thriving shopping centre, including Holdrons department store. Despite undergoing many changes, the shopping centre remains a vital part of Balham’s life to this day, and improvements such as the recent pedestrianisation along Hildreth Street, the market street, are playing their part in boosting Balham’s vitality.

A History of Balham
A History of Balham
2.

Local history and buildings

The Heaver Estate, the finest work of local builder Alfred Heaver, was built in the grounds of the old Bedford Hill House, and became one of Balham’s first conservation areas. Hyde Farm, on which the Hyde Farm Estate was built, had been a prominent farm since the middle ages, and had been particularly known for its pigs.

Scandal came to Balham in 1876, when Charles Bravo was poisoned at the Priory, Bedford Hill. This case, which has never been solved, became a national sensation;  there have been numerous books about it, as well as two television programmes.

Development continued in the twentieth century, the most prominent art deco building of this period being Du Cane Court, built 1935- 37.  It was named after the Du Cane family, the last Lords of the Manor of Balham. The City and South London Line (now part of the Northern Line) came to Balham in 1926, when the line was extended from Clapham Common to Morden. All the stations along this extensionwere designed by the celebrated architect Charles Holden.

3.

World War II

On 14th October 1940, Balham High Road was hit by a bomb which fractured a water main. This resulted in flooding of the underground station, in which people were sheltering from the air raid, resulting in 68 deaths. There is a famous photograph of a the no.88 bus which had slid into the crater in the High Road. This tragedy was also referred to in the film Atonement (written by Ian McEwan). A memorial plaque was unveiled in the station on the sixtieth anniversary in 2000.

In 1961 Balham was the scene of an ecclesiastical scandal when the Revd Bryn Thomas, Vicar of the Church of the Ascension, Balham Hill, was unfrocked following conviction in a church court of adultery with a parishoner.

No doubt further chapters are yet to be written in Balham’s history.

A History of Balham - WW2 plaque

Many notable people who live or have lived in Balham, including:

  • Charles Haddon Spurgeon, preacher and evangelist
  • Dame Margaret Rutherford, actress
  • Arthur Ransome, author
  • Tommy Trinder, comedian and Chairman of Fulham Football Club
  • Jimmy Hill, footballer and major figure in the worlds of football and broadcasting
  • Tony Zemaitis, guitar builder
  • Ronnie Ross, jazz saxophonist and bandleader
  • Dame Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer
  • David and Alfreda Wall, ballet dancers
  • Nigel Havers, actor
  • Sarah Beeny, property developer, businesswoman and broadcaster
  • Nigel Finch, film producer
  • Jeff Beck, guitarist
  • Colin Welland, actor and scriptwriter
  • Paul Downton, cricketer
  • Lee Chapman, footballer
  • Leslie Ash*, actress
  • John Sullivan, scriptwriter of Only Fools and Horses and other TV comedies
  • James Naughtie, journalist, broadcaster and author
  • Ainsley Harriot, TV chef
  • Edward Stourton, broadcaster
  • Bryan Gould, politician and academic and author
  • Arthur Smith, comedian and author
  • *Leslie Ash’s grandfather, Ronald Ash, owned a builders’ merchant business in Old Devonshire Road
  • called Lewis’s, which is now part of Travis Perkins. He was a long-serving Member of Wandsworth
  • Borough Council and was Leader of the Council, 1968-71
  • Marcus Brigstocke, stand-up comedian and broadcaster
  • Ed Sheeran, Musician.
  • Balham: a Brief History by Graham Gower, available at Balham Library
  • A History Of Du Cane Court: Land, Architecture, People And Politics, by Gregory Vincent, available at
  • Du Cane Court, Balham High Road or in Balham Library.

In 1982 Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees directed a short film based on the famous sketch Balham – Gateway to the South, written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden and most famously performed by Peter Sellers. The Peter Sellers version was produced by George Martin, later producer for the Beatles.

Historical pictures of J. Sainsbury in Balham:

Historical Books of Balham:

A HISTORY OF DU CANE COURT: LAND, ARCHITECTURE, PEOPLE AND POLITICS

A book is now available on an imposing ‘art deco’ building in Balham, which was reckoned to be the largest block of privately owned flats under one roof in Europe at the time when it was built.

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