Central Hall: 43 Peckham High Road



Central Hall, this picture taken June 2017, is now branded a ‘Solutions Centre’ by Crusaders Ministeries International. This fine Victorian building is the centrepiece of a once magnificent terrace, but today it is sadly dilapidated; its chequered history consonant with a trajectory of decline and neglect.

Founded by Leicestershire-born Robert James Lees, and designed by architect Robert Whellock, this impressive, galleried hall, capable of accommodating one thousand people, opened on 11 November 1894 as the headquarters of a socio/religious mission known as The People’s League, formed a year earlier. From the League’s ‘Central Hall’, Lees and his followers pursued what John Beasley has described as essentially practical, undenominational objectives, supporting local people in need, and providing popular concerts.

Lees’ life story and reputed psychic powers have been chronicled extensively online by Stephen Butt, who records him as living in 67 Ondine Road, East Dulwich in 1892. The same timeline shows that in 1895 he moved to Cornwall (evidently due to ill health) and that this marked the closure of the League. So the span of his much-vaunted enterprise was quite brief. Subsequently, the hall was used by Baptists, and then, from 1908, by Rev G Ernest Thorn, as the ‘Church of the Strangers’. Butt also reveals that from 1910 the New Bioscope Trading Company ran a permanent cinema at the hall, apparently alongside Thorn’s ministry, until 1932 when the hall was converted into a refreshment depot by Express Dairies. I can add that until then the South East London Recorded Music Society also held concerts there.

Sold on in 1935, the activities of the hall changed direction, notably in the post-war years as a venue for rock and roll bands. One of its incarnations was as Maverick, probably based on a popular television series of the 1950s, remembered by one Peckham resident as having been opened by Diana Dors.

Another well-known Peckhamite, Barry Jenkins, remembers it as the Bouncing Ball Club, and recalls ‘The Animals’ and ‘Screaming Lord Sutch’ performing and the memorable bouncer Arthur Jerome! Bob Marley and the Wallers are said to have played there in May 1973.

Later, the hall became a night club. Writing in 1985, John Beasley knew it as ‘Kisses Nightspot’, and after that it became infamous as ‘Chicago’. In July 2000, the area around the club was dubbed by some locals as ‘the front line’, with allegations of drug dealing. Shots were fired, causing several injuries. Things are more peaceful now, and the Peckham Townscape Heritage Initiative’s concern is simply to help to restore buildings such as this to their former glory. (Photograph from 1935 sale, South London History Library and Archive)

©Derek Kinrade, July 2017

Peckham Over Time: This is the first of a series of sketches on the history of specific buildings in Peckham researched and written by Derek Kinrade, a long term Peckham resident, passionate local historian and honorary member of the Peckham Society. Derek is also a member of the Peckham Heritage Regeneration Partnership.