Turner’s Retreat Street Study

OS Map 5ft to 1 mile, London, 1893-6 (https://maps.nls.uk)

Turner’s Retreat was a small courtyard of 13 houses in Bermondsey, London. The road first appears in the 1851 census. It is fair to say, that the houses weren’t in very good condition. A newspaper article in the Morning Chronicle, dated 15 September 1853, tells of two deaths from cholera in the road and gives a description of the conditions at No. 12.

The medical man who attended the unhappy victims describes the place above referred to as – we quote from the return – “a narrow, close, confined court, containing 13 houses, and only about 15 feet wide. There is not any back yard to two of the houses, No. 12 being one of them.” Of No. 12, he says it is, “in a very filthy condition; there is a very offensive smell from the cellar, which I have examined, and found to contain ordure and vegetable matter in a state of decomposition.”

Thirty years later, living conditions hadn’t improved. Turner’s Retreat was coloured dark blue or black on Charles Booth’s poverty map. Black was the lowest class; semi-criminal. Dark blue was used to show very poor; chronic want.


This description appears in the 1899 notebook.


The medical officer for Bermondsey, wrote a report in 1912, describing the conditions people were living in. This report eventually lead to the residents being re-housed and the courtyard being demolished later that year. The report was reproduced in several local newspapers, including the Daily Herald on 15 May 1912.

“Nos. 1 and 11 consist of two storeys, with one room on each floor and a basement intended to be used as a wash-house but just as often used as a lumber room. The yards are small and the paving mostly defective, the surrounding walls dirty and dilapidated. The wcs situated in the yards, and are all more or less dirty and dilapidated and the drains defective. The walls of the houses are built of brick, are very old, more or less dilapidated, and many of them are bulging and dangerous. The cellars, which are intended to be used as wash-houses, are very foul smelling and dirty, and being open front and back form a harbour for stray cats and a receptacle for all sorts of filth. The walls and floors are damp, and in one or two instances the walls fell in through dilapidation and have been repaired.

They are difficult of access, the approach being down a narrow, rickety and dangerous staircase. The ground floor rooms are all more or less dirty, and the staircases are unlit and not well ventilated, while the upper rooms are dirty and have no through ventilation. The woodwork throughout the whole of the houses is more or less old, dirty and dilapidated and many of the rooms are verminous. Nos. 12 and 13 are back-to-back houses anf consist of three storeys. No. 12 is much the worse of the two. The rooms are all dirty and dilapidated, and some of the rooms are verminous. The ventilation generally is bad, but an attempt to improve this has been made by placing a skylight over the first landing of the stairs. This is at present leaking and has broken panes. The attic is one of the dirtiest and most dilapidated rooms of this kind I have come across.

No. 13 is not quite so bad as the last, but is similar structurally. The tenants are very clean, and have succeeded in maintaining a superficial appearance of cleanliness, but the woodwork is very old and out of repair throughout. The front wall of the house is bulging, and has been tied near the junction of the two houses to prevent it falling. There are two wcs to these houses situated on the opposite side of the court, and owing to frequently broken locks and doors are generally accessible to and used by the public. They are old, dirty and dilapidated and the drains are defective. These salubrious dwellings are situated in a street romantically named ‘The Grange’ and a mere layman in regard to health has but to be there five minutes to see that the only way to reform the property is to absolutely erase it.”

The map below places Turner Retreat in modern Bermondsey.

ESRI World Topo Map (https://maps.nls.uk)

Why Turner’s Retreat As A Study?

My great grandparents lived in Turner’s Retreat from about 1899 to 1912. My grandmother was born in 1892, so she had spent most of her childhood living in these conditions. From my very comfortable 21st century viewpoint, I can’t begin to imagine how a family could live in those circumstances. My grandmother died before I was born, so I hope this study will be a way of finding out about her life.

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