Our parish strides two districts in the London Borough of Wandsworth: Tooting Bec and Balham. Between the high ground to the south-east (Streatham as it is known nowadays) and elevations to the north-west (still common land) there was heath, meadow and woodland. The area was traversed by two streams, the Falcon brook (more or less crossing Balham High Road and following Upper Tooting Park) and the Hydeburn, along the bottom of Balham Hill. The Romans built ‘Stane Street’ – one of their famous roads – between London and Chichester. If you follow the High Road from Balham station, pass Tooting Bec and continue West along the A24 you’ll be marching in their footsteps. The names ‘Tooting’ and ‘Balham’ are Saxon names. ‘Tooting’ probably means ‘the place where the sons of Totas live’. Balham could mean the village (ham) by the hill (baelg). When the Normans arrived, William the Conqueror was able to parcel out the land among his nobles, just as he did elsewhere. It was lucky, really, that he allowed so much to the great Abbey of Bec, in Normandy, because the monks who came put the land under cultivation, gave employment to the locals and looked after them.
Years on, St Anselm’s church, with its fine statue of the great prelate looking benignly on the passers-by from its warm brick wall and its spacious interior, was built in 1933 to replace an older chapel, which – in turn – was constructed on the site of the first local fire-station that opened its doors in 1869. The area began to look like it does today as London expanded and people came to live along the roads that led from the capital. Balham and Tooting attracted people who, although working in the metropolis, wanted family homes where there was still countryside and the air was fresh. More roads, the railways and Underground followed. After centuries of invasion, a rich diversity of people are still making the journey here – Irish, Afro-Caribbeans, Maltese, Indians, Ghanaians, Burmese, Poles, Portuguese, Chinese, Colombians, Filipinos, Greeks…they are just some of the nationalities which were represented at St Anselm’s Multicultural Mass on 26 June 1999.
Stephen de la Bedoyere
The Romans take a rest
The Roman Legions, on their march to Winchester from London, would halt en route at ‘Bec (small river) for a comfort break. They would then proceed to The Wandle (Mitcham), where they would have a midday meal and water their animals.
In the afternoon, they would set out for Ewell (river source), where they would have the principal meal of the day. They would make camp there and the following day would continue their journey to Winchester.
It would appear that a good water supply was vital for the success of the journey and that ‘Bec’ was therefore a pivotal link in the chain.