Coin Street’s history of changing power relations23 minute read

One of the foremost accomplishments born out of ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s was the acknowledgement that landscapes were complex phenomenon, and an understanding that to interpret them would require a consideration of how multifaceted components of the social, economic, political, and spatial order interact with the notion of ‘power’ (Cosgrove 1985) (Duncan 1985) (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987) (Domosh 1989). In this paper I will therefore take the notion of a ‘palimpsest’ and apply its meaning to Coin Street, which is situated on the South Bank of the River Thames, near to Waterloo. I will use the concept of the palimpsest and ‘palimpsestuous’ thinking to retrace the history of Coin Street and the power relations that operated within the area, which saw it change from a site of working-class primary and secondary labour, to a beacon of post-war regeneration, through to a period of community-led rebellion, and to its current position as a blend of cultural heritage and increasing flows of capital. Coin Street was chosen as a site to research as I believe that when its history is considered in conjunction with the surrounding area of the South Bank, the site acts as a microcosm of past, present, and future issues surrounding urban development and regeneration.

The History and Application of the Palimpsest

The notion of a palimpsest comes from manuscripts that underwent a process of layering and transformation as obsolete information was erased and replaced with new information (Dillon 2005). However, during this process the original manuscript writings could not be fully erased, leaving evidence of former imprints in existence below that of the modern interpretations. Crang (1996: 430) describes this phenomenon as “a landscape on which history inscribes itself as a process of addition, amendment, and perpetual alteration”. Whilst the notion of the palimpsest refers to the process by which history and information are layered, this is different to the term ‘palimpsestuous’, which refers to the structure that is formed as a result of the layering process (Dillon 2005). Understanding palimpsestuous thought is a vital tool for many academics interested in cultural and urban studies, particularly when applied in a spatial context, such as a city, as it allows us to understand our relationship to the space, through past experiences, or if we have no relationship to the space, understand how the space has been presented to us via the media.

Moreover, viewing a physical space through a palimpsestuous lens reinforces the concept of time and landscape as fluid and ever-changing process rather than a static one. Derrida’s (1994: xix) concept of structures or palimpsests as an example of “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present” suggests that the current iteration of text, or ‘the present’ are only constituted by previous incarnations, ‘the past’, and remain accessible to the future interpretations of scholars (Dillon 2005), which means that they are not permanent or stationary, but just current paradigms of knowledge and power. This deconstruction of the palimpsest is very useful because it allows us to see the landscape as the result of a wide range of social, economic, and political processes that can then be retraced and reconstructed through the traces of previous formations (Crang 1996) (Domosh 1989). Understanding the palimpsest as the result of previous histories can be very useful to critical scholars in order to reconstruct histories of oppression that previously marginalised groups suffered from. The use of reflexive, post-colonial techniques to expose the suppressed stories of marginalised groups such women, the LGBTQ+ community, people of colour, and the working class gives cultural geographers a valuable understanding of how current social, economic, and political process led to the current representation of the landscape, and what issues need to be addressed if the future trajectory is undesirable. However, critical feminist scholars such as Benstock (1986: 350) argue that the palimpsest is not merely a collection of layered stories, but rather that masculine and feminine texts are encoded and entwined within each other and due to the nature of their cultural production, female experiences are “both indivisible from male experience and different to it”.


The first methodological tool will be used to provide a visual record of Coin Street’s Palimpsest. This will be a comparison of local maps at distinct points in Coin Street’s history. The motivation behind this decision was to use images and maps to mirror the impact that realist-based photographic surveys are used as a “true record” (Hall 2009: 455). This can help to collect, record, and document information from the landscape that more localised and personal accounts of the site might not be able to fully capture (Sanders 2007). I believe this will be a useful research methodology, particularly in understanding how Coin Street developed in the latter part of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century because there is limited academic writing on the subject. Therefore using a comparison of maps may be able to help show how land-use changed and therefore the spatial transformation that may have occurred in this time. However, I am aware that the use of maps and photographs will not elicit much more than speculative analysis regarding the way Coin Street’s Palimpsest changed as the images represent a flat and incomplete account of the area. By viewing this methodology through a post-structuralist framework I am aware of the limitations of this method and will therefore not attempt to justify their inclusion as more than an aspect of potential representations, meanings, or symbols (Pink 2001).

More research that will be conducted into the history of Coin Street will be done as a result of a literature review. One of the key insights into Coin Street’s history is the political contestation of the site that began in the 1970s during the community-led regeneration of the South Bank. Such contestations led to the formation of the Coin Street Action Group and the Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) which helped shape the site through the will of the local community. The justification for using a literature review, particularly for this portion of Coin Street’s history, is due to the wide and varied academic literature that already exists on the subject such as the works of Brindley (2000) and Baeten (2009). However, in conducting this research it is important to consider the methodological issues that surround the use of such literature. Firstly, this method includes no primary data sources so the analysis and findings that will be conducted as a result of this data will be influenced by the narratives and bias that belong to the authors (Clarke 2004). Furthermore, much of the work surrounding this period exists in the form of contemporary and retrospective articles; thereby not providing a truly ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973) of the area as it may not capture the personal meanings or motivations of individuals that were present during this point in Coin Street’s history. In this sense, understanding the untold stories of Coin Street’s palimpsest is more difficult as without first-hand accounts of what previous generation experienced the information may either be speculative or suffer from the same power and bias towards the opinions of heterosexual, white, male, middle class academics that were likely representative of those linked to the suppression of marginalised group’s voices in Coin Street’s history (Thomas and Davies 2002) (Jones 2006) (Garg 2012).

As a literature review may only result in a ‘thin description’ of the site it is beneficial to conduct an ethnography of the area in order to elicit a more valid and accurate contextual understanding of the site current form, creating a ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973, Ryle 2009). Theorists such as Crang (2006) have previously suggested that research into spatial landscapes as palimpsest mirror much of Geertz’s work with the ‘thick description’ as there is a desire to look at the nuances and to make the less prominent strands of history to become more visible. Conducting an ethnography is a useful tool in order to try and reduce the gap between the researcher and the subjects and provide a greater context and understanding of the area (Cloke et al 2004). It also helps to tackle issues of positionality held by the researcher as they are not a member of the community surrounding Coin Street and therefore will not have an intimate understanding of the experiences faced by the local community, particularly the instances of local political activism, issues of dispossession within the housing stock, and the way in which the local community has, and is, changing. Therefore, conducting an ethnography of the local area may help the researcher immerse themselves in the local environment and better understand the area (Megoran 2006).

Figure 1 – Coin Street 1896
Figure 1 – Coin Street 1896

One of the limitations of a literature review pertaining to the topic of Coin Street as a palimpsest is the lack of academic research focusing on the current iteration of the area, particularly with a focus pointed towards the future trajectory of the space. In order to counter this issue, alongside conducting an ethnography I will also be conducting semi-structured interviews with local residents and members of the community to try and see if power relations have changed since the socially conscious, community-led regeneration of the late 1970s and early 1980s under the CSCB. As I am conducting semi-structured interviews, there will be key areas that questions will be pointed towards, but I feel a valuable insight can be gained by allowing participants to expand on topics that they feel are particularly relevant (Longhusrt 2016). When conducting any semi-structured interview it is important to recognise the impact the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee has on the data. It is misguided to think that the information attained by a semi-structured interview is objective or representative, rather it is a process of interpretation and translation between the respondent and the interviewee (Briggs 1986). Furthermore, as semi-structured interviews are personal accounts of experience, it is important to consider that respondents create meaning in their own interpretations (Gray 2003), which have been formed as a result of their own experience and biases. Much of the positive data associated with semi-structured interviews will therefore rest on how well the interviewer can accurately represent the respondent’s voice (Punch 2001). However, one issue that impacts the usefulness of semi-structured interviews is the way in which the respondent perceives the interviewer and their willingness to be open and honest as a result of that perception. According to Denscombe (2007: 184) as a result of the interviewer effect; “in particular the sex, the age, and the ethnic origin of the interviewer have a bearing on the amount of information people are willing to divulge and their honesty about what they reveal”. This is an issue that I have to consider alongside my own positionality when conducting this research because I am an outsider to the community and therefore respondents may be less willing to engage with the interview questions, and thereby impacting my ability to interpret and reflect their true feelings and thoughts.

A Working Class Wharf

Figure 2 – Coin Street 1936 – 1952
Figure 2 – Coin Street 1936 – 1952

The maps below (Southwark Council 2011) represent Coin Street in three distinct periods; 1896, the period between 1936 – 1952, and 2016. By using a visual record we can examine the types of land use associated with the area, look at the groups of people that would likely access the area, and see how a shift in production type has changed. First when examining the records from 1896 (Figure 1) and the period between 1936 – 1952 (Figure 2) we can see that a large portion of land use was as wharfs, docks, and timber yards. As a result of this we can ascertain that the large majority of employment would have likely been low paid, working class manual, labour; most likely working at the docks for many men and textile factories for female workers (Philips 2005) (Mare 2008). Furthermore the maps indicate that Coin Street itself would have likely been housing for workers and local residents. Similarly, Coin Street is still a site of housing in the 2016 map (Figure 3) of the area but we can clearly see that the surrounding land-use is one of galleries, concert halls, and government offices; a centre of cultural production in London.

Figure 3 – Coin Street 2016
Figure 3 – Coin Street 2016

However, what we are unable to gauge from these maps are the social interactions and relationships of local residents with the space and the dynamic power relations at play during the beginning of the 20th Century. The relationship between the largely working-class population and industry leaders or government powers would seem to have a very asymmetrical balance, with workers enduring poor conditions and low wages. However, this space was also a site of contestation and antagonism between the workers and their employees as many strikes and walk-outs took place in the local area in order to demand better wages for their labour (Ballhatchet 1991) (Topham 1996) (Mare 2008).

Furthermore, we are able to understand the space of Coin Street and the surrounding area as one that has been traditionally, fairly or not, associated with crime, dysfunction, and filth for much of its existence in the early 20th Century. These representations of the area are likely a reflection of the attitudes to both women and the working-class community at the time as both are portrayed in a negative light. Mare (2008) points to Booth’s (p50) account of a local headmaster’s description of the women of the South Bank and Bermondsey described their lives as including “squalid homes, dullness, disgust, drink”. Fictional accounts of the area also painted a negative portrayal of Coin Street as a dirty and unclean neighbourhood, for which many a protagonist could only escape by having their horizons broadened by escaping to the countryside (Southgate 2008).

Regeneration and Cultural Renaissance

1951 saw the opening of the Festival of Britain, a government sponsored event designed to promote post-war Britain’s achievements to the world in a similar way to what Stockholm had for architecture and design in 1930 (Street 2012) (Richardson 2015). This period represents a very important point in Coin Street’s palimpsest as it is part of the process of government-led, property-based, regeneration and a change from manufacturing production to cultural production that occurred as a result of declining dock importance (Newman and Smith 2000). This choice in urban planning also had an effect on the demography of Coin Street and the surrounding neighbourhoods as the promotion of high-culture and the festival’s own “radical middle class tone” (Street 2012: 86) (Newman and Smith 2000) sought to change the whole area of the South Bank into a wealthier space of cultural heritage and design.

The Contestation of Coin Street

Another important chapter in Coin Street’s history began in the early 1970s and came from the community contestation of plans to develop the area through “the commercial expansion of Central London, through the speculative development of offices and hotels” (Brindley, Rydin and Stoker 1996: 62). The antagonism between the Conservative-led Greater London Council (GLC) and the community came to a head when the GLC encouraged the regeneration of the area by building a number of offices on a mixed-use site around Coin Street, which led to a passionate and mobilised group of community activists campaigning to have their own plans for the area heard (Brindley 2000). This lead to a series of passionate inquiries, which culminated in both the private sector and community-based regeneration plans were granted planning permission in 1982. However, as the property developers found it increasingly difficult to gain permissions to develop the land, from the now Labour GLC who supported the community-based approach to planning, and this eventually led to the developers selling the land back to the GLC, who then sold it to the CSCB at a substantially reduced cost (Tuckett 1988). With the newly acquired 13 acres of Central London land the CSCB began the challenge of a full consultation with local residents before settling on the use of a primary housing cooperative scheme, Mulberry (Brindley, Rydin and Stoker 1996). The case study of the CSCB shows a substantive change in the power relations with regards to housing access and community engagement within urban regeneration but also shows how urban issues become political catalysts as much of the CSCB success was predicated on “a complex set of relationships between local activists, sympathetic professionals, and a radicalised local government agenda in opposition to Thatcherism” (Brindley 2000: 364).

Coin Street: What next?

Figure 4 – The OXO Tower: Perhaps the best visual resource to show the current flux that the CSCB find themselves in. A modern, sleek, luxury development, which is part of a housing cooperative, but increasingly faced with entwining the private sector in its developments.
Figure 4 – The OXO Tower: Perhaps the best visual resource to show the current flux that the CSCB find themselves in. A modern, sleek, luxury development, which is part of a housing cooperative, but increasingly faced with entwining the private sector in its developments.

Perhaps the most interesting and precarious portion of Coin Street’s palimpsest will be its current and future trajectory. Legislation brought in by the Major government changed the funding of regeneration budgets from centrally controlled allocations to competitions, which diluted the community voice in regeneration plans as they now had to work with business elites, the local authority, and voluntary sector groups, who were all competing for already reduced funds (Baeten 2009). This move away from community-based planning was also shown in Southwark Council’s shift from being a focused on community development to instead promote the cultural production of the area and increase the capital flows to the South Bank (Newman and Smith 2000). These changes further denote the way power relations are always shifting across landscapes such as Coin Street, as there is the potential that CSCB may have to abandon some of its original pledges such as fully engaging the local community in planning decisions and focusing solely on social housing exempt from ‘right to buy’ schemes (Brindley, Rydin and Stoker 1996) (Business Design 2007). However, the way in which the public spaces surrounding Coin Street are being maintained and managed may be indicative of some positive social changes as one aspect of increased emphasis on cultural production has been a greater number of voices, particularly form underrepresented groups, and an encouragement to discuss the way the space is used (Jones 2016), which ultimately should allow all members of the community to have some input into the future of the space and create a more open community.

Further to this understanding of how Coin Street and the surrounding area has been changed in its previous incarnations, in conjunction with an ethnography, I also conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with 8 participants who self-defined as either local residents now or in the past in order to ascertain what they thought the future of Coin Street was.

A common concern amongst residents was the lack of affordable housing in the area in conjunction with the emergence of multiple luxury unit accommodation being developed privately.

“It’s impossible, it’s just impossible to live here anymore unless you’re on a mega salary and can buy your own place or get one of those new posh flats. Normal people that have been members of the community for years are having to move further and further away to places like Peckham just to stay in London.”

This opinion was commonplace amongst respondents as many felt that Coin Street and the surrounding area was becoming increasingly unaffordable, due to the area quickly gentrifying as it was more commonly seen as an extension of Central London rather than a separate and diffused space.

When asked the extent to which the CSCB were still fulfilling their goals of transforming the South Bank through affording housing cooperatives, increased quality of life for local residents, and improving the South Bank, several respondents commented on the improved quality of amenities, particularly public spaces, but felt recent large scale changes acted more as statements than practical

“Homes are the key. There just aren’t enough of them. Stuff like the OXO Tower is great to look at and I’ve heard the flats in there are great but there just aren’t enough of 

“Back when it started, the Coin Street developments were great but nowadays they’re supporting stuff like the Garden Bridge. Why do we even need another bridge? That money could be going towards schools or hospitals.”

Finally, when I asked the respondents what they thought the future of Coin Street could become, many seemed disheartened by the current situation and worried that the area they called home could quickly erode.

I just hope that in 50 years this place isn’t just another Covent Garden, full of tourists and shops but no one really lives here.”

“You see it happening all over London at the moment, communities are being evicted because it’s just too expensive to stay, then all these people ‘looking for a good investment’ move in and there’s no life left.”  

Concluding thoughts

In this paper I have shown how Coin Street and the surrounding area of the South Bank has transformed multiple times over the last 150 or so years, creating a long history of shifting power relation, contestation, and antagonism between local people, the GLC, and businesses. Moreover, this paper has touched on the way that the production of goods has been tied to class struggle and housing insecurity in the area. The main shift in production from the early part of the 20th Century to Coin Street’s recent history has been the move from working-class manual labour employed in primary and secondary employment opportunities, to London’s cultural capital and with that a vast increase in interest from the middle-class. Whilst this displacement is a negative impact of urban regeneration and the gentrification that often follows, one positive impact as a result of the regeneration of the neighbourhood has been the increase in accessibility to public space for previously marginalised groups. This further shows the palimpsestuous nature of Coin Street as increasingly there is an opportunity for suppressed voices to be heard. However, perhaps this is not as simple as a layered process of change but the encoded and entwined model of information Benstock (1986) refers to as although marginalised voices are beginning to have access to the public, the history of the site suggests that this wouldn’t have happened without the power relations of the past. Furthermore, this paper has also shown the projected future for Coin Street’s palimpsest; changes to regeneration funding have forced the CSCB to work with private industry and increasingly omit community voices in order to achieve any regeneration projects. Consequently, becoming a part of the cycle of gentrification and displacement amongst local residents that it sought to stop in its inception.


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