Camberwell Beauty




So entwined are fizzy-drink making and Camberwell, that when this part of south London was heavily bombed in the Second World War, there are accounts of R. Whites lemonade being used to put out incendiary bomb fires, when water wasn’t so easy to get hold of. R. Whites began in 1845, as a one horse, one cart operation with Robert and Mary White walking the streets selling ginger beer in stone bottles from a barrow. Growing largely as a result of the low cost of sugar, the business prospered as a rapidly expanding population swelled the area providing a workforce and plenty of customers. In 1890 R. White’s sold 46.8 million bottles of soft drinks, over 410,000 gallons of soft drinks in casks and over 31,000 gallons of cordials. William Copeman worked at one of their factories and in 1897, the year that his eldest son was born, an advertisement claimed that the company was ‘the largest manufacturer of soft drinks in the world’. Over the next 100 years they built more local factories and depots, two on Albany Road, two on Neate Street, Harling Street, New Church Road, and the last at Glengall Road in the 1990s. The time William Copeman worked there would have been a period of great expansion, ginger beer was still the main seller but Jubilee Tangerine (in honour of Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne), Jubilee Lemonade, Champagne Cider, and Seltzer Water were all popular.

William Copeman had ten children, the oldest of whom, William Albert joined the 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment and was killed on 5th March 1916. He probably came to live in Summerstown when he was about seven or eight years old and attended Smallwood Road School where his name is listed in the booklet ‘Old Smalls, who have died for their Country’. His name is one of 20,693 commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Loos-en-Gohelle. Whether it was just the grey misty day we were there but my abiding impression of this place is of the particularly bleak almost lunar landscape, overlooked in a rather sinister way by the ‘crassier’ slag heaps. Kipling was here for the opening in 1930, his son John was one of those lost until 2015. Here with William Copeman are his Summerstown mates, James Crozier and Percy Randall.



William’s grandfather William came from Shropham, a small village in Norfolk. His grandmother Thirza hailed from Prittlewell near Southend. His father, also William was born in 1864 in Rochford, Essex. In 1881 the Copemans were at Camden Grove, Camberwell and both William Senior and his 17 year old son were firewood dealers. Ten years later they were living at 25 Dragon Road and William was now a bricklayer’s labourer. William junior married Rose Lafount at St John’s Church, Newington on 30th March 1896. He was 32 and a ‘mineral water maker’ and she worked as a barmaid. Their first child, William Albert Copeman was baptised on 27th January 1897 at St George’s Church in Camberwell. The family were still at 25 Dragon Road. Curiously on the opposite page of the register I noticed a familiar name – ten days earlier Sidney Seager, later of Thurso Street was also baptised here. Three of Sidney’s brothers are on our Summerstown memorial. The mention of mineral water points to William’s father almost certainly being employed at one of the R. White lemonade and ginger beer factories where hundreds of local people would have worked at this time.


The 1901 census shows William living with his grandparents, William and Thirza Copeman, at 51 Dragon Road, Camberwell. Eleanor, one of William’s Aunts was a neck-tie maker. The road is still there though in name only, very close to Burgess Park, famous for its butterfly association. The Camberwell Beauty is named after its first ever reported sighting in Britain in 1748 near Camberwell. The park was created as part of a massive rebuilding and slum clearance after the Second World War by which time the Copemans had long moved on. It is named after Jessie Burgess, Camberwell’s first female mayor.

St George’s Church dating from 1824 is also still there, though now converted into housing. It was one of many ‘Waterloo Churches’ built to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s 1815 victory over Napoleon. In 1885, Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge decided to set up a mission in a poor part of London and chose the area around St George’s Camberwell as the vicar at that time and his long-standing predecessor were alumni. Camberwell was heavily bombed during the Second World War and in the following decades large areas of bomb damaged houses and industrial premises, together with slum areas, were cleared to make way for large housing estates. While St George’s Church survived all this, it was declared structurally unsound in 1970 and moved into temporary accommodation. A devastating fire followed in 1980 gutting the building, leaving only the external walls and tower standing. The building was sold again in the 1990s and converted into flats.

For whatever reason the lure of lemonade and mineral water could not hold the Copemans forever and by 1911 they were at 10 Bertal Road, Tooting. 14 year old William junior, now working as a shop boy, lived with his family in five rooms in one of the most pleasant smaller roads in the Fairlight area, connecting Blacksaw and Pevensey Road. The Copeman’s third youngest child Esther was born in Camberwell in 1907 and the second youngest Dorothy in Tooting in 1908. There were now ten children, aged between 14 and ten months. William Senior now worked as a carman and builder. The key to their relocation much surely have been space and the size of this expanding family.

The 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment were raised in Kingston and sailed to France on 3nd June 1915 landing at Boulogne. We can’t be sure if William was involved but hey had a bad time at the Battle of Loos. He was killed on 5th March 1916. The 7th Battalion were at Bethune at the start of the month, resting at their billets in the Tobacco Factory. They were just north of the Hulluch Road and there was not much activity on the front. On the 4th they were moved to Sailly Labourse to relieve the Royal Sussex Regiment who were coming under attack on the Hohenzollern front and had taken heavy casualties. On the 5th the East Surreys went into the front line. There is no mention in the diary of any casualties on the date given as William’s death, but a rather ominous reference described that ‘the battalion has been reminded that there is plenty of life still left in the Bosch, all the crates sap and trenches being heavily bombarded.’ On the same trip that we went to Loos, we also visited the Le Touret Memorial and a beautiful butterfly found its way into many of my photographs. I had wondered why but now we’ve worked out the Camberwell connection, I can see what was going on.

The Friends of Burgess Park have a brilliant heritage blog called The Bridge to Nowhere exploring the history and unusual development of Burgess Park in Southwark.


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