Streatham originated as a village on the Roman Road, Stane Street, leading south from the capital Londinium to Chichester. Its parish church, St Leonard’s, goes back to Saxon times, although only the medieval tower remains in the present church.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many large houses were built in the area as it was a rural location close to London. In the Georgian period, Streatham Park, a mansion to the west of the centre, was occupied by Henry Thrale, a wealthy Southwark brewer and his wife Hester Thrale (later Mrs Piozzi). Her salon attracted many of the leading literary and artistic characters of the day, most notably the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, and the dining room contained a set of their portraits by Joshua Reynolds which is now dispersed around the world's museums.
The village also possessed springs, known as Streatham Wells, that were celebrated for their health giving properties. Few of these large houses still remain, as the area was rapidly urbanised as London expanded.
One large house which survives is Park Hill, on the north side of Streatham Common, latterly the home of Sir Henry Tate, sugar refiner, benefactor of local libraries across south London, and founder of the Tate Gallery at Millbank.
Development accelerated after the opening of the railway station at Streatham Hill on the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway in 1856. There are now a mixture of buildings from all architectural eras of the past 200 years.
Between the First World War and Second World War Streatham developed as location for entertainment, with the Streatham Hill Theatre (now a bingo hall), three cinemas, the Locarno ballroom (now Caesar's nightclub) and Streatham Ice Rink all adding to its reputation as "the West End of South London". In the 1930s large numbers of apartment blocks were constructed along the High Road, which were attractive to various emigre communities arriving in London after fleeing Hitler's Germany.
Streatham once had the busiest shopping street in south London, but a combination factors led to a rapid decline in the 1980s. These included long term population movements out to Croydon, Kingston and Sutton; the growth of heavy traffic through the town on the A23 (main road from central London to Gatwick Airport and Brighton), and lack of redevelopment sites in the town centre. This culminated in 1990 with the closure of Pratts, a nineteenth century department store bought by the John Lewis Partnership. The subsequent retailing recovery has been very slow.
In September 2002, Streatham High Road was voted the "Worst Street in Britain" in a poll organised by the BBC Today programme and CABE. This largely reflected the dominance of through traffic in the High Road. On a positive note this was a catalyst for Lambeth Council and Transport for London's Steet Management to start co-operating. Investment and regeneration had begun before the poll, with local amenity group, The Streatham Society, leading a successful partnership bid for funding from central government for environmental improvements.
Contemporary Streatham is a place of contrasts, with middle class families occupying houses in leafy streets that sell for in excess of £500,000 while families of asylum seekers, predominantly from Somalia and other north and east African countries are crammed into bedsits above High Road shops.
Perhaps because of its good late night transport connections to the West End, and the availability of apartments as well as family houses, Streatham and nearby Brixton Hill have attracted entertainers to live in the area since the days of Music Hall. There is a plaque to comedian Tommy Trinder in Wellfield Road. Others with local connections include actors Roger Moore, and June Whitfield, and alternative comedians Eddie Izzard and Jeremy Hardy.