Camberwell was a rural village until the late C18th, and Camberwell Fair was held in August on Camberwell Green for the Feast of St Giles, patron saint of Camberwell, from 1279 until 1855 when it was suppressed as a nuisance to the local residents. In 1856 four local dignitaries purchased exclusive rights for holding the fair on the Green from the Lords of the Manor on a 1,000 year lease with an annual rent of one peppercorn. They sold it to Camberwell Vestry in September 1857 and the Green re-opened as a public open space in 1859. The Green was previously dominated by elm trees and had a pond in the south.
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Following the demise of Camberwell Fair, W H Blanch in 'Ye Parish of Camberwell' of 1875 commented that 'this concentrated essence of vice, folly, and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents'. By 1855 it was a 3-day event with boisterous entertainments but early on the fair had lasted 3 weeks during which produce was sold. In 1842 the Green was the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's 'Spring Song' when the composer was staying at Denmark Hill, and the original title of the piece was 'Camberwell Green'. Efforts to suppress the fair had begun in the 1820s but it was not until 1856 that four local dignitaries raised funds to purchase exclusive rights for holding fair on the Green from the Lords of the Manor. As a result the Green and rights to the fair were conveyed to four local men on a 1,000 year lease for £1,250 plus an annual rent of one peppercorn, who then sold it to Camberwell Vestry in September 1857 and the Green re-opened as a public open space in 1859.
The Vestry forbade building on the Green aside from the Lodge/Keeper's house and it was stipulated by covenant that the Green was to remain 'as an ornamental pleasure ground for public benefit of the inhabitants of the parish of Camberwell'. However, in World War I a YMCA hut was built on the Green for use by the army, later demolished in the 1920s and in WWII air raid shelters where excavated in the north, on the site of the current playground. The building restriction was reinforced by law in 1931.
The Green was previously dominated by elm trees and had a pond in the south; trees on the Green now include London plane, gingko, catalpa, weeping ash, false acacia and is surrounded by modern cast iron railings set between the original cast iron piers. A new children's playground was opened in 1998.
Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); John Beasley, 'Southwark Remembered' (Tempus Publishing, 2001); LB Southwark site history board; Southwark Listed Buildings data