Pedlar's Acre: The Mysterious Bit Of South Bank Where The London Eye Now Stands

By M@
Pedlar's Acre: The Mysterious Bit Of South Bank Where The London Eye Now Stands

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A pedlar and his dog on a stained glass window in St Marys
The Pedlar of Lambeth. Image: Matt Brown

The land between Westminster Bridge and the London Eye was once known as Pedlar's Acre. Who was this eponymous pedlar? And can we bring the name back?

If you've been to the Garden Museum, then you'll recall that it's housed inside the ancient church of St Mary's, right up against Lambeth Palace. The building boasts some of the most accomplished stained glass windows in London, but the one that really catches the eye is this charming addition to the south wall.

It depicts a medieval pedlar and his dog walking beside the river. In the background can be seen two buildings. One is St Mary's, but the other is a 20th century edifice that would have left our pedlar awestruck. This is County Hall, the former home of London County Council (and later the GLC), now used to house ogres, fish and latex gore. Why is that there?

County Hall stands on land once owned by St Mary's. By tradition, it was bequeathed to the parish by a wandering salesman, or pedlar. It was thereafter known as Pedlar's Acre. We can see its use as a street name in the map below, running north from the Westminster Bridge approach road.  

The Greenwood Map of 1827 showing westminster bridge and pedlars acre
Greenwood map of 1828. Thanks to embankment, the land now reaches slightly further into the Thames

It's a curious name. The trade of pedlar — moving from place to place selling small items — was not a lucrative one. It would be a rare pedlar who accumulated enough wealth to own an acre of land, even in the then-waterlogged Lambeth Marsh. Who was he?

Peddling myths

The pedlar of Lambeth is a tricky customer to pin down. In most tellings of the story, he was a poor wanderer given shelter by the church. He later got rich and left his fortune (and land) to the parish. Some versions have the dog digging up gold in St Mary's churchyard, recalling the treasure of heaven from the biblical Matthew 13:44.

Other accounts connect the tale to the better attested legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham, in Suffolk. This pedlar was told in a dream to hang about on London Bridge until he received good news. On doing so, he learned the location of a treasure pot, which he subsequently dug up. Now rich, the grateful pedlar bequeathed his money to Swaffham church. This story may have been transposed to Lambeth at some point.

None of this is backed up by any reliable evidence. All we know is that St Mary's held the land from at least 1504, and that the first recorded use of the name Pedlar's Acre came in 1690. No document exists to show how the parish came to hold the land in the first place. Was it really bequeathed by a pedlar? Could it simply have been owned by a forgotten someone with a surname like Pedler? Or perhaps it was just a nickname for a piece of cheap, low-quality land, in contrast to the adjacent and more profitable Bishop's Acre. We may never know.

What of the window?

The legend is all but forgotten today, but its echoes linger. A Pedlar's Park can be found a little south of the Garden Museum, and a Pedlar's Acre play area serves the children of Kennington Lane.

The story is best remembered, though, in the stained glass window in St Mary's church. Its creation is tied directly into the legend. By tradition, the pedlar left his acre to the parish on condition that his portrait should always be maintained on a church window. And so it remains today.

A pedlar and his dog in a stained glass window
Illustration of the original window from 1827. Image: public domain

Well, sort of. The original window was taken down in 1884, to be replaced by a modern memorial window. The move caused outrage. A local lobby group took up the cause and persuaded the church to reinstall the historic window, albeit in a new position. Here the window remained until 1941 when a German bomb shattered the historic glass. The window we see today is a 1956 replacement, updated to include County Hall in the background.

It's quite possible — likely even — that the original window had nothing to do with Pedlar's Acre. One theory, which dates from at least the 1820s, is that the image is a rebus, or visual pun, on a church benefactor named Chapman (a man who sells chap books).

The Pedlar vacates

County Hall
County Hall. Image: Matt Brown

All traces of Pedlar's Acre were obliterated in the 19th century with the construction of large warehouses and Belvedere Road, which served them. The whole acre (and more) was then swallowed up by the monumental County Hall, constructed on the South Bank in the 1910s. The name has utterly vanished from the map.

Whatever its origins, I think Pedlar's Acre deserves a comeback. It's not quite on the same site, but the pedestrian route in front of County Hall would be relatively easy to rename. Today it is called Queen's Walk. Just for once, couldn't royalty bow down to peasantry, and give the pedlar back his acre?

Last Updated 29 February 2024