The name "Elephant and Castle" is derived from a coaching inn. The earliest surviving record of this name relating to the area appears in the Court Leet Book of the Manor of Walworth, which met at "Elephant and Castle, Newington" on 21 March 1765. Previously the site was occupied by a blacksmith and cutler – the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers features an elephant with a castle (possibly meant to be a howdah) on its back, which in turn was used because of the use of elephant ivory in handles.
Shakespeare mentions the Elephant Lodgings in "Twelfth Night". In Act 3 Scene 3 Antonio says "In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge." Although the play is set in Illyria in the Balkans, Shakespeare often used local London references. The theatres were all in Southwark, so Shakespeare's line may represent an advertisement for a local hostelry. "The Elephant" is a common present-day nickname for the Elephant and Castle.
'Newington' is one of the most common place names in England (see Newington Green and Stoke Newington in north London), and from 1750 the area became more important and the informal name, from the pub at this junction, was adopted. Compare 'Angel' at Islington, or Bricklayers Arms, a short distance along New Kent Road.
The inn site was rebuilt in 1816 and again in 1898, and the present Elephant & Castle pub, at the junction of New Kent Road and Newington Causeway, was part of the 1960s comprehensive redevelopment.
An incorrect folk etymology states that "Elephant and Castle" is a corruption of "La Infanta de Castilla" - allegedly a reference to a series of Spanish princesses such as Eleanor of Castile and María, the daughter of Philip III of Spain. However, Eleanor of Castile was not an infanta (the term only appeared in English about 1600). María has a strong British connection because she was once controversially engaged to Charles I, but she had no connection with Castile. "Infanta de Castilla" therefore seems to be a conflation of two Iberian royals separated by 300 years.
Known previously as Newington (Newington Butts and Newington Causeway are two of the principal roads of the area), in the medieval period it was part of rural Surrey, in the manor of Walworth. This is listed in the Domesday Book as belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury; the income from its rents and tithes supplied the monks at Christ Church Canterbury with their clothing, and a 'church' is mentioned. The parish was called St Mary, Newington, which church occupied the southwest side of today's southern roundabout, near the Tabernacle, and was first recorded by name in 1222.
In May 1557, William Morant, Stephen Gratwick and a man named King, known as the Southwark Martyrs, were burnt at the stake in St George's Field on the site of the present Tabernacle during the Marian Persecutions.
St Mary's Church was rebuilt in 1720 and completely replaced in 1790, to a design of Francis Hurlbatt. Within another hundred years this too was to be demolished, with its replacement on Kennington Park Road ready in 1876. It was destroyed by bombing in 1940 during the Second World War. The remains of the tower and an arch were incorporated into its replacement of 1958. The open space is still known as St Mary's Churchyard, and the narrow pedestrian walk at its south end is Churchyard Row.
There is record of a 'hospital' before the Reformation. In 1601 the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers erected St Peter's Hospital, i.e. almshouses, on the site of the present London College of Communication. This expanded and survived until 1850, when it was removed to Wandsworth. The Drapers' livery company created Walters' Almshouses on a site now at the southern junction island in 1640, giving the tower block opposite the name Draper House. The almshouses were relocated to Brandon Street in the 1960s as part of the major redevelopment.
The area became increasingly important after the building of Westminster Bridge in 1751 and the improvements to London Bridge in the same period. These required 'by-pass' roads across the south side approaches to each other and also to the main routes to the south and southeast coasts. These road improvements - Great Dover Street, Westminster Bridge, New Kent Road, St George's Road and Borough Road - connect to the older Kennington and Old Kent Roads to facilitate this traffic. In 1769 the new Blackfriars Bridge was connected to this system at what is now St George's Circus and Blackfriars Road (originally Great Surrey Road) and to the Elephant junction with the new London Road. As a result of these improvements, the area became a built-up part of the metropolis during the late Georgian and Victorian periods.
The railway arrived here in 1863 and the first deep-level tube line, now part of the Northern line's City Branch, in 1890. The Bakerloo line terminus was created in 1906. Both the middle-class and working-class populations increased, the first settling on the major roads, the latter on the streets behind these. However, the area declined socially at the Walworth side.
In the 19th century the nationally famed Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon built the Metropolitan Tabernacle here. The building, designed by William Wilmer Pocock, was finished in 1861 and dedicated on 18 March. It was bombed in the blitz but the portico and basement survived and in 1957 the Tabernacle was rebuilt to a new but much smaller design accommodating surviving original features.
During the late 19th century there was a cemetery in the vicinity, but it was built over during London's rapid expansion. A few gravestones remain in St. Mary's Churchyard.
The area became the location for a thriving shopping area, known as "the Piccadilly (Circus) of South London", with its own department store (William Tarn and Co) and many smaller outlets. Also featured were a shoe factory, a branch of Burton and a renowned hatter.
In 1930, the Trocadero, a monumental neo-gothic picture house seating over 3000 and fitted with the largest Wurlitzer organ imported to the United Kingdom, was built at the northern corner of the New Kent Road (a plaque commemorating the building was unveiled in 2008 by Denis Norden, who had worked there in his youth). This was replaced in 1966 by a smaller cinema (the Odeon, known for a time after closure as an Odeon in 1982 as The Coronet, not to be confused with the Coronet below) which was demolished in 1988.
In 1932, another cinema opened across the street, The Coronet. It is now mostly used as a night-club and concert venue. At the time it seated over 2000 people, and was an art-deco conversion of the Elephant and Castle theatre, opened in 1879 on the site of the short-lived Theatre Royal (built in 1872 and burnt down six years later). It was reconstructed in 1882 and again in 1902.
One monument to cinema still remains just off the Elephant, the Cinema Museum is a volunteer-run museum with screenings of classic cinema and a vast collection of cinema memorabilia. It is located in the old workhouse where Charlie Chaplin spent time as a child.
The Elephant was the centre of the target zone for the German air raids on London on 10 May 1941 and suffered "raging fires".
The major development of the 1960s consisted of post-war reconstruction to a larger Metropolitan plan, much of it replacing properties destroyed by bombing in World War II. Alexander Fleming House (1959), originally a group of government office blocks and now Metro Central Heights residential complex, is a prime example of the work of the Hungarian modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger.
The shopping centre, designed by Boissevain & Osmond for the Willets Group, was opened in March 1965. It was the first covered shopping mall in Europe, with 120 shops on three levels and a two-storey underground car-park. In the sales brochure (1963), Willets claimed it to be the "largest and most ambitious shopping venture ever to be embarked upon in London. In design planning and vision it represents an entirely new approach to retailing, setting standards for the sixties that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain." When it opened, budget restrictions meant that the proportions and finishes of the building had had to be scaled down and only 29 out of a possible 120 shops were trading.
The Elephant is the location of the London College of Communication, formerly the London College of Printing, an internationally renowned dedicated college, part of University of the Arts London. The present structure was constructed during the redevelopment of the area in the early 1960s.
In 1974 the Brutalist Heygate Estate, designed by Tim Tinker, was completed. It was home to more than 3,000 people. The estate was once a popular place to live, the flats being thought light and spacious, but the estate later developed a reputation for crime, poverty and dilapidation.
The Elephant was to have been served by the Cross-River Tram, which was cancelled in 2008 due to budgetary constraints.
In 2010, the southern roundabout was converted to traffic light operation, with the creation of new cycle lanes and pedestrian crossings. This included the removal of the pedestrian subways, described as "unpopular and imtimidating" by a local councillor.
However, in 2014 the Elephant & Castle junction was still "Britain’s highest cycle casualty roundabout", prompting a TfL proposal to remove the northern roundabout as part of £4bn package of road improvements targeting cycle safety.
In recent times the area has had a reputation for successful ethnic diversity and centrality. The area's proximity to major areas of employment, including Westminster, the West End and the City, has meant that a certain amount of gentrification has taken place
The area is now subject to a master-planned redevelopment budgeted at £1.5 billion. A Development Framework was approved by Southwark Council in 2004. It covers 170 acres (688,000 m²) and envisages restoring the Elephant to the role of major urban hub for inner South London that it occupied before World War II.
A substantial amount of post-World War II social housing that is deemed to have failed will be demolished, including the Heygate Estate, replaced with developments consisting of a mix of social and private-sector housing. This portion of the site is being developed by Lend Lease. There have also been moves to protect the last of the architecturally important tenement blocks nearby through the creation of a conservation area covering the Pullens buildings.
As of 2014, numerous tall residential buildings have been approved or are under construction, in addition to the 148m Strata SE1 tower completed in 2010. These include One The Elephant (124m), the built-for-rent Highpoint (previously called 360 London) (134m) and "Two Fifty One" (on the site of Eileen House) (134m) and "Elephant 1" (a complex of three high-rise buildings on a "podium", formerly known as Oakmayne Plaza and later Tribeca Square). Southwark Council is also building a new leisure centre due to open in 2015, to replace the previous Castle centre, which closed in 2012.
In 2015, after several u-turns from the previous owner, the new owners of the shopping centre, Delancey, announced that the building would be demolished and published redevelopment plans to be completed by the early 2020s. The scheme includes a new home for the nearby London College of Communication on the current site of the Coronet Theatre, a cinema (originally planned for the "Elephant 1" development), retail units and housing.
London's growing Latin American population, which has largely resided at the Elephant since the 1980s, are also taking part in the regeneration project. Plans are being made to build new shops and homes to transform it into a "Latin American corridor".
In the middle of the northern junction island is the Michael Faraday Memorial, a large stainless steel box built in honour of Michael Faraday, who was born nearby. It contains an electrical substation for the Northern line of the London Underground.
Famous former residents include Charlie Chaplin and Michael Caine, who were born and grew up locally.
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell lives on the Rockingham Estate, where the Council installed a blue plaque in his name in 2010.
The rock band The Maccabbees has its studio nearby, while its 4th album, Marks to Prove It, released on 31 July 2015, pays tribute to the area.
Allegedly, electronic musician Aphex Twin lived in a house on a roundabout early in his career.
A popular restaurant in New York City also takes its name from the road junction. This restaurant was honored with a Village Award in 2002 from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Elephant & Castle is served by London Buses routes 1, 12, 35, 40, 45, 53, 63, 68, 100, 133, 136, 148, 155, 168, 171, 172, 176, 188, 196, 333, 343, 344, 360, 363, 415, 453, 468, C10, P5, N1, N35, N63, N68, N89, N133, N155, N171 and N343.
London Underground Bakerloo and Northern lines serve the area from Elephant & Castle Station.
Southeastern and Thameslink services towards Ashford International, Bedford, Dover Priory, London Blackfriars, Luton, Sevenoaks, St Albans City, St Pancras International, Sutton, West Hampstead and Wimbledon serve the area.