Tale of two halves

Is there really a north vs south London divide in the 21st century? We investigate historic differences, psychological attachments and an evolving property market.

17  May, 2023

Until very recently black cab drivers famously wouldn’t cross south of the river for fear of not getting a fare back into the centre of London – a northern bias that was either amusing or frustrating depending on where you lived, and which reinforced a centuries-old divide between either side of the Thames.

The Romans kicked off the Capital’s division when they based their settlement Londinium, where the City of London is now, in the 5th century, followed by the Anglo Saxons who established Lundenwic two centuries later, near Charing Cross.

As the city developed, most of the politically important and wealthy buildings – Westminster, Parliament, and the Strand – went up on the north side of the river and the upper classes moved into smart residences being built in Kensington and Chelsea, City of London and Westminster. “Between the medieval and Tudor period, south London was like a Wild West,” London historian and author Jerry White explains. “Southbank was where activities that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the city grew up, such as theatres and brothels.” In the mid-18th century, when more bridges were built, travel between the two sides became easier, and larger houses went up in the south. But roads weren’t developed as quickly due to its marshy, waterlogged ground, which restricted the capacity for development, making building difficult and expensive.

“The south also harboured many debtors and the less law-abiding around two prisons, and it wasn’t until after the 19th century that even more bridges and resultant housing developments brought suburbs such as Peckham and Camberwell,” says White. Building standards began to match those in north London districts like Camden and north Islington; however, the south was still viewed as a ‘dormitory’ area and was held back by its lack of transport links. Prejudice lingered well into the 20th century, with south London still lacking the cache of the north, reinforced by the fact entertainment was focused in the West End and Soho, and the business centre in the city.

But as south London has been developed – first with County Hall, followed by the Shard, London Eye and Tate Modern, making it a destination for work and play as well as somewhere to live – the gap between north and south has been bridged. “The current equalisation has been centuries in the making,” says White. And as neighbourhoods have evolved, races and cultures have blended, and communities have become more fluid, meaning that the historical geographic hangover has worn off.

All in the mind

What remains are psychological differences – many north Londoners view their patch of the Capital as culturally richer than in south London and, to a certain extent, they have a point.

Research in the past has revealed that while 80% of southerners have crossed the Thames to visit cultural attractions north of the river, only 42% of north Londoners had travelled south to do the same thing.

But many historians lay the blame for Londoners’ north/south biases on the historic lack of bridges connecting the two halves, a problem that endured until the mid-Victorian times during which bridge building ramped up in earnest.

Before this, it was time-consuming to get across the handful of bridges, and expensive too as all of them charged tolls. This underscored the economic differences between the two and subdued cultural and societal links – which inevitably led to a ‘them and us’ mindset that, it is argued, endures today. Or does it?

Tale of two halves - Kinleigh, Folkard & Hayward

The north has held its value and appeared more expensive, but the irony now is that prices are pretty even and the popularity of those places in the south has increased prices, meaning there’s less of a difference between the two areas.

Heading south

“In contrast to much of north London where there seems to be pockets of similar demographics and culture, in areas like Peckham, Crystal Palace or Borough, you have a healthy diverse mix of cultures, race, age and demographic, which is what London is all about,” asserts Julian Peak, KFH sales director for south east London. He reports there has been a visible ‘southern drift’ over the last 20 years, with Londoners growing up and renting in north, west and central London, but going on to buy south of the river. And for buy-to-let investors, areas such as Catford, South Norwood and Thornton Heath, with their improving infrastructure, are now where people want to rent, representing great value for money and good rental yields.

“The cultural diversity of much of south London is one of the main pulls for Londoners to set up home,” says Peak. Robert McLaughlin, Julian Peak’s counterpart for north London, agrees: “Previously, young people in Islington and Shoreditch wanted a bigger place in Muswell Hill, but over the last five to ten years those people are looking in the south east where they’ve seen more value for money,” he explains.

“The north has held its value and appeared more expensive, but the irony now is that prices are pretty even and the popularity of those places in the south has increased prices, meaning there’s less of a difference between the two areas.” Riverside family destinations such as Battersea and Fulham now have a similar appeal. Fulham’s proximity to Chelsea and Kensington, and the fact it’s within easy access to central London and the City, makes it a perennial draw, according to KFH’s Fulham office sales director Alastair Kidner.

“Last year was incredible,” Kidner says, “with the level of transactions and people that decided to make the move, while this year we have seen a shortage of family homes coming to the market with still a very large demand.” Meanwhile, across the river, the Battersea office reports that the feedback it often gets is that the area is a great suburb to live in and almost doesn’t feel like your typical ‘London’. 

“It seems to offer buyers everything we longed for in the pandemic: the green spaces of Battersea Park, Clapham Common and Wandsworth Common, and the endless bars, restaurants, cafés and independent shops on Northcote Road and St John’s Hill,” says Battersea office sales director, Rita Glover. “The market in Battersea is absolutely phenomenal at the moment and even busier than last year.”

Tale of two halves - Kinleigh, Folkard & Hayward

There are a good number of transport links within the area and Crystal Palace Park offers beautiful scenic greenery.

Go figure

While north London has been more expensive historically, Battersea’s popularity means that here, a two-bedroom flat with outside space costs £850,000-£950,000 compared with its Fulham equivalent of £650,000- £750,000, while a four-bedroom house costs £1.5m-£1.75m compared to £1.35m.

Crystal Palace and Muswell Hill make another interesting comparison – both hugely popular with young professionals and families looking for high Ofsted rated schools, meaning the offices are equally busy. Crystal Palace harbours outstanding primary schools, excellent transport links, Crystal Palace Park, an array of coffee shops and restaurants and boutique stores, reports Crystal Palace office lettings director Jesse Damon.

“There are a good number of transport links within the area and Crystal Palace Park offers beautiful scenic greenery,” he says. “We are noticing a lack of properties on the current rental market, therefore it’s moving quicker than usual. “Strong demand from tenants and low supply of properties are resulting in a high number of landlords achieving over asking price offers, from best and final situations.”  

In Crystal Palace, a two-bedroom flat costs £1,500 pcm and a four-bedroom house is £2,500 pcm on average, while north of the river in Muswell Hill, it’s £1,600 pcm and £3,500 pcm respectively. Families flock to the largely Edwardian properties and enjoy the outdoor spaces such as at Alexandra Palace, and love the Broadway’s plethora of independent shops. Stephanie Antoniou, lettings director at the Muswell Hill office, adds: “We’re very busy now with tenants wanting to live in such a busy, vibrant area. Lots of our renters go on to buy here.”

Tale of two halves - Kinleigh, Folkard & Hayward

Residents are culturally spoilt, with theatres and museums, superior transport links and the new Elizabeth Line.

The last word

Robert McLaughlin adds that the north is historically older and arguably architecturally it is more interesting, with areas that are significantly better developed, surrounded by spectacular parklands.

“Residents are culturally spoilt, with theatres and museums, superior transport links and the new Elizabeth Line. For a lot of people there’s still a clear distinction and they want to remain part of the history and established parts of north London.”

However, Peak points out that property markets on either side of the river have higher or lower price ranges for reasons other than the cultural, geographic and transport reasons mentioned above.

For example, he points out that apartments with river views on the north side can be 20% higher not just because of the postcode, but because they offer a south-facing aspect – proving choice of home in London can be led as much by head as heart, whichever side of the Thames you end up living in.

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