A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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27 - From Judaism's 'Three Ms' to a place for penitent prostitutes (but not Payne!)

As the High Road is veering northeast, I turn left into Prentis Road built up at the turn of the century as part of the Mortimer Estate. Here I find the public entrance of a Post Office sorting office. It boasts an elaborate bas-relief crest, more reminiscent of a magistrate's court, taking up most of a large pediment, and also an ugly modern brick wall hiding half the old building.

Opposite, on the south side of the road, the South London Liberal Synagogue, built in brown and red brick with white stone trimmings, opened its doors for the first time in 1929. Liberal Judaism, which is less than a century old, arose and developed as a consequence of efforts by the 'Three Ms'. Lily Montagu is credited with founding the organisation, and especially with the publication, in January 1899, of an article in the Jewish Quarterly Review, expressing the need to retain the allegiance of Jews who were drifting away from Judaism. In 1909, the bible scholar Dr. Claude Montefiore wrote an important pamphlet 'The Jewish Religious Union ­ its principles and its future'; and, the same year, a manifesto for a new congregation - to be called 'The Liberal Jewish Synagogue' - was published. And then a young American, Israel Mattuck (the third M), was headhunted to become the first Liberal rabbi in the UK. According to the organisation itself, Liberal Judaism today has thirty congregations, a strong body of rabbis, an established institution for both rabbinic and lay educational training, a thriving youth movement, and a professional administration. Although the pendulum has swung back towards more traditionalism in observance, it says, this is combined with 'a radical approach, a liberal theology and a willingness to confront the social and ethical problems of the 21st century, just as its founders did in the early 20th century'.

Walking along Prentis Road, past the Synagogue, the spires of St Leonard's and English Martyrs stand out in the background. I turn right into Ockley road. One side is taken up by a deep extension of the sorting office and a car park that serves the food store built on the site of Pratt's department store, and the other side hosts a series of good-looking houses of various designs, one strikingly Art Nouveau, and one with frighteningly red woodwork, security grills, and overgrown leylandii. Crossing Becmead Avenue which, like Ockley Road, was laid out in the first decade of the 20th century, I need to turn right, into Woodbourne Avenue (once called Ena Road after Princess Ena of Battenburg), and left into Streatham High Road again. The road is a dual carriageway here, with a thin central reservation. A huge Kwikfit garage stands opposite, but north of that is one of the large mansion blocks of The High, an estate built between the wars, with a street level shop parade.

From here, I take a very slight diversion south along the High Road to visit and use the Tate Library, housed in a stately 1890 building, constructed with funds raised from a public subscription and Sir Henry Tate (who also bestowed the Tate Central Library in Brixton). Unfortunately for me, the local history section in this spacious library is no larger than that in some of the other much smaller ones I've already visited along the 300 easting (including the temporary chair-less one-room library in Beddington). Pendennis Road runs into Streatham High Road by the Tate Library. According to Graham Gower, the Pendennis Estate was built during the late 1920s on the grounds of the Streatham Cricket Club where W. G. Grace used to play. The houses were advertised as having labour-saving devices and being just one minute away from train and tram services - and from Streatham Library! It's also worth noting that the great British composer Sir Arnold Bax was born in Pendennis Road in 1883.

Having retraced my steps I turn left into Norfolk House Road (thus leaving the Streatham High Road and the A23 for the last time) and proceed along Moorcroft Road, Mt Ephraim Lane, Mt Ephraim Road and de Montfort Road. Then I turn right into Drewstead Road, with its large elegant three-storey Victorian semi-detached houses, which runs on the south side of the Balham-Streatham Hill railway line. The Streatham Society provides some interesting details about these streets, their houses and who has lived in them. For example, 81 Drewstead Road is the last remaining part of the Magdalene Hospital erected in 1869 as a home for penitent prostitutes. In the 1930s, it became an approved school for female offenders. It closed in the late 1960s and most of the building was then bulldozed to make way for housing. In modern times, of course, Streatham prostitutes appear to have been more famous than penitent: not far away, on Ambleside Avenue (in the morning shadow of the two Streatham spires), Cynthia Payne ran her high class, but illegal, brothel for many years. Payne, incidentally, now works as an after-dinner speaker and cam-chat hostess.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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