The name of Battersea (in medieval times Batricheseie, Batricesege or variants) probably refers to the gravel ‘island’ by the Thames on which the church, manor house, and principal arable field lay. In 1066 the manor of Battersea belonged to the crown, but soon after the conquest William the Conqueror gave it to Westminster Abbey. It became one of the principal manors supporting the monks at the Abbey.
With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540 the manor returned to crown ownership, and was eventually sold to the St John family. At the end of the eighteenth century it passed into the hands of the Spencer family. It remains the property of the present earl Spencer.
From the early seventeenth century to the early nineteenth Battersea was best known for market gardening supplying vegetables, fruit and flowers to the London markets, as well as plants to the colonies in America. The village nucleus itself (right) was by the river, close to the parish church, and there was a scattering of industry along the riverside.
The construction of railways in the Victorian period hastened the suburbanisation of London and the population of Battersea increased from 6,617 in 1841 to 168,907 in 1901, by which time it was a Metropolitan Borough. Much open land was taken up by four railway companies and the riverside windmills and wharves were replaced by new industries, such as Prices Candles, Morgan’s Crucible works, Garton’s Glucose factory, flour mills, breweries and the Nine Elms Gas Works. The decision to create Battersea Park happened just in time to save the whole of Thames-side Battersea from being engulfed by industrial building.
After 1870 streets of better quality suburban houses were built along Battersea Rise, and beyond, within reach of the commons. However, social conditions in the north of the parish were severely impoverished. For fifty years Battersea stayed relatively unchanged, until the bombing of the Second World War destroyed or damaged much of the property near the river. After the War a large part of this area was swept away in a vast municipal re-building plan. At the same time the riverside industries west of Albert Bridge began to close down or relocate, with housing filling the vacuum – mainly high rise apartment developments such as the Trade Tower on Plantation wharf (pictured) designed to appeal to young professionals.
The expansion of the Royal College of Art’s presence in Battersea has encouraged newer, media and fashion based industries to move into the area and with the redevelopment of the long derelict Battersea Power station and the wholesale reinvention of Nine Elms (where the new US embassy will be situated) property prices in Battersea have started to rival those across the river in Kensington and Chelsea.
There are still areas of considerable deprivation in estates like the Winstanley, Doddington and Patmore, and though there is an increasing demand for cheaper social housing, especially for families, there is little sign that this demand will be met. Transport links from Clapham Junction have been improved with the opening of the overground line to Surrey Quays, and the station and its surroundings are gradually being refurbished. Though there is much that still needs to be done, as a new chapter opens in Battersea’s history there are many signs that positive change is on the way.