The Guardian

He was young, black. Short goatee. "Excuse me," he said, "do you know when the murder of Stephen Lawrence happened?" We were in a narrow room at the rear of a library in Southwark, south-east London. He couldn't find what he needed for his research.

"The local papers wouldn't necessarily cover the murder, because it was outside Southwark," I suggest.

"Oh." A beat, and then: "Where?"

"Eltham," I answered.

"Eltham, oh."

"You'll find what you need in a library that stocks national broadsheets."

"Maybe I'll stay here and look up the inquiry. That was local - wasn't it?"

The inquiry was staged minutes down the road at the Elephant & Castle, in the imposing Hannibal House above the shopping centre. The centre had been painted Schiaparelli pink at some point in the 1980s and was like a comical pantomime backdrop when juxtaposed with the riotous scenes that occurred outside. At the heart of the proceedings was a tragedy, the senseless murder of a teenager, and the subsequent attempts by his grieving parents to see the perpetrators of the crime brought to justice. This followed a police investigation that was overshadowed by allegations of incompetence and racism. The erstwhile suspects had officially become "witnesses" by the time of the inquiry, but unofficially, according to the media, would never be anything but murderers, and - even worse - "racist" murderers.

Daily, a crowd gathered at the Elephant & Castle for the duration of the inquiry. They arrived to take on a gang of racists. The atmosphere was of the kind that you might expect at public executions. Among the white faces were those to be found on "anti-Nazi" marches. These characters are usually vehemently opposed to capital punishment, prefer reform to incarceration and believe that social environment is likely to be the real culprit in a majority of crimes. However, at the Stephen Lawrence inquiry there was a complete about-turn. Suddenly they were expressing the knee-jerk opinions and rabid rhetoric of those they despised on the right. It was the kind of stance given an airing from the right after Winston Silcott was cleared of the murder of PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.

When the group of men left the building via a ramp leading from the shopping centre on to the street, it was as though a lynching might ensue. Eggs, flour and missiles were hurled from the crowd, amid a chorus of verbal abuse. It was the kind of behaviour identified with those groups of largely white working-class women who sometimes gather when a child murderer has been convicted. The same journalists who dismiss such activities as worthy of "the mob" failed to apply such disdain to the unruly crowd outside the Lawrence inquiry. The very newspapers that justifiably condemned the implicit racial stereotyping of Silcott were now applying the same approach to the suspects at the Lawrence inquiry.

Unlike Silcott, it was not their colour - or at least not just their colour - but their class that assisted in this stereotyping. The term widely used for them was "white trash". In the US, the term had previously been described by film director John Waters as the last racist phrase you can get away with. Yet it refers both to colour and to class. This became apparent when references to the illiteracy of the men (the spelling and grammar within their handwritten press release) and to their lack of education ("They didn't have an O-level between them") were cited as though further evidence of guilt. Much was made of the fact that their mothers were neither non-smokers nor natural blondes. It wasn't simply the suspects and their families who were on trial but the neighbourhoods in which the tragedy was played out. Some journalists even traced the story further, to the streets of Southwark, birthplace of some of the parents of the suspects.

The moral panic that ensued, around racism and white working-class youths, had echoes of the past - from the "hooliganism" of the 1890s, to the cosh boys and Teddy boys of the 1950s, and the "mugging" phenomenon first documented in the 1970s. What became apparent in the aftermath of the inquiry was that reports on racism had segued into a demonisation of the white working class.

Historically, the right harboured desires to keep the white working class below stairs. There, they could use the wrong knives and drop their aitches to their hearts' content, until trenches needed manning and flags waving in the name of patriotism. Now, middle-class progressives were keen to silence them, or bury them without an obituary. They were reputedly more obese than their equivalent throughout Europe. They loved Gucci; loathed the euro. More important, to their pallbearers in the press they were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial. They survived on the distant memory of winning one World Cup and two world wars, and were still tuning in to the ailing soap that is the House of Windsor. All they represent and hold dear was reportedly redundant in modern, multicultural Britain. It was dead. Over. Otiose.

For generations, both sides of my family lived in Southwark. Outside the City and Westminster, Southwark is the capital's most ancient borough, but historically it has soldiered on as the poor whore across the water, housing the smells, the produce, the noise, the prisons and leper hospitals that those two boroughs wouldn't harbour.

Kent Street (now know as Tabard Street), the road that connected Borough High Street to Old Kent Road, was made famous by Chaucer's pilgrims. Paths from Westminster, Blackfriars, Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southwark converged at the Elephant & Castle. Dickens referred to it as "that ganglion of roads from Kent and Surrey and of streets from the bridges of London centring in the far-famed Elephant". Even in the 1830s it was a working-class neighbourhood with a bad reputation. The main trade among the more respectable residents was brush-making, but the neighbourhood was dominated by prostitutes, thieves and pickpockets in the habit of knocking doorways between the houses they occupied to give them boltholes when the police arrived.

The wealthier ratepayers of Southwark and Walworth were reported to be so grievously "burdened with numerous and expensive poor" that local children were sent to the cotton and woollen mills of northern England. As an adult, Dickens returned regularly to wander the neighbourhood where his father had been incarcerated in a debtors' prison, the Marshalsea, on Borough High Street, and he fictionalised John Dickens's experience in the stories of William Dorrit and Mr Micawber.

The rear of Horsemonger Lane gaol occupied much of the road adjacent to Rockingham Street. The public execution of the Mannings - a married couple found guilty of murder - drew a crowd of 30,000 to 50,000 spectators. Days before, rooms had been rented by reporters chronicling the event. Well-off spectators arrived early, setting themselves up with seats at a guinea a time in the gardens opposite the entrance to the gaol. Dickens paid 10 guineas for the use of a nearby roof so as to have a perfect view of the crowd, rather than the macabre spectacle on the roof of the gaol. On this very patch in the 20th century there would be other mob scenes, from Teddy boys rioting to those that occurred outside the Lawrence inquiry.

Punishment for minors who fell foul of the law could be extreme, too. Henry Larter, my great-grandfather, then 13, was presented at the Sessions House in Southwark in 1881 accused of stealing sherbet from a shop at the Elephant & Castle. Earlier that century, a crime such as Henry's would have led to the scaffold, or at least to the "Parish Cage" - a local building where delinquents were incarcerated in chains. Henry, according to the London Metropolitan Archives in Farringdon, which give details of juveniles brought before the court, was placed on an industrial training ship, The Shaftesbury, that provided discipline for youths in need of "assistance".

When Henry returned to the southern shore, after serving his time, Southwark and Walworth were undergoing change. George Peabody, an American banker living in London, had donated £500,000 to "ameliorate the condition and provide for the poor and needy of London". The terracotta tenements erected in Peabody's name were revolutionary; they housed families in units, in blocks with communal sinks and lavatories, built around a courtyard to maximise air circulation. They became "model dwellings" at a time when the landscape was dominated by dilapidated and often rat-infested housing.

Newington Causeway, leading to the Elephant & Castle, was in decline by the 1890s, with the final exodus of the middle class. On the right, approaching the Elephant & Castle, a Turkish bath advertised itself: "Forget your prejudices". On the other side was Tarn's department store. The Rockingham Arms, one of the more elaborate local gin palaces, and the Alfred's Head stood on opposite corners.

Despite the docks, which helped Britain create an empire that had made the home country "the workshop of the world", 68% of Southwark was below the poverty line, and Bermondsey was cited as one of the worst slum areas in Britain. Men were employed in the tanneries, as carmen and draymen in the breweries, on the railway and the wharves, in factories and workshops. Many of the women worked in the jam, biscuit or gelatine factories. And, despite changes in the law, child labour persisted.

In the 1890s an editor of Pall Mall Magazine, Charles Morley, embarked on an expedition to the area to gauge the success of the board schools. His journey begins with the essay The Wild-Boys Of Walworth: "All roads lead to 'The Elephant' in this part of London; but after making polite inquiries for the famous landmark from a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer, and a young lady of five, who was picking a winkle out of a shell with a crooked hairpin, I still found myself groping in the wilderness, when I suddenly stumbled into the middle of a miserable street full of the wildest ruffians."

The wild-boys he discovers use "sulphurous words" and even the "Borough sparrow has a minatory tone about it". One child is spotted snatching the stock of the cat's-meat man and swallowing it. A mother bemoans her efforts at keeping her son in school: "I wish he were dead - God forgive me, sir, but I do. I've buried 10, and only this and another one's left, but I wish he were dead, I do. He's fast breaking our 'ome up he is. His father's lost two days work a-lookin' for him."

The pattern of urban working class in place by the 1890s continued throughout the first half of the following century, with its pub, popular songs, football, fish and chips, elaborate funerals, good neighbours and street markets. It was a culture created in isolation - generally England was manacled by the rituals and ceremonies of offices, guilds, clubs, institutes, colleges and regiments that were anathema to the working-class experience. Elements of this urban working-class culture would eventually move into mainstream popular culture of the 1950s.

Hooliganism, like consumption, appeared to be a plague peculiar to urban working-class areas. The very word "hooligan", which came into circulation via a music hall song, was said to have originated in Southwark - a derivative of "Houlihan", the name of a notoriously troublesome Irish family. A teenager from Southwark named Patrick Hooligan, a part-time bouncer in a pub, had made headlines for the brutal murder of a policeman. Overnight, the younger generation of the borough came under the scrutiny of newspaper scribes, with tales of drinking, vandalism and rowdyism. Football became cause for concern for the educators, the churchmen, just as today the white working class have been portrayed as couch potatoes with satellite dishes sprouting like fungi from the walls of their homes.

In 1902 a new Education Act gave working-class pupils the opportunity to be educated beyond elementary level. Boys were taught a "practical knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and a grounding in geography, history as may enable [them] to read a newspaper or give a vote". Girls were largely schooled in domestic duties, which would prove useful when they married. In teaching English, the dialect of working-class Londoners was ruled out. A national report on education argued that there was an element of loss when schoolchildren of Devonshire, Lincolnshire or Yorkshire were forced to forsake their native dialect for the King's English. "But with the pupil in the London elementary school this is not the case ... The cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption ... and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the empire." It wasn't until the 1930s that a native working-class Londoner, who had crossed the class divide to join the ranks of the teaching profession, wrote a case for the defence: "[Cockney] has been by far the most important of all nonstandard forms of English for its influence upon accepted speech ever since speech emerged."

In the summer of 1915, the War Office requested that borough councils take up the business of organising volunteer battalions. Trafalgar Street found itself in the national press for sending more of its men to war than any other street in the city. "They went without being fetched," proclaimed the Daily Herald. Elsewhere, it was reported that Southwark had been "depleted of its manhood to a far greater degree than the richer boroughs". In the midst of war came the news that some of the locals would not be returning: one of the Southwark battalions lost 400 of its men who had "distinguished themselves in Flanders by capturing and holding against many counterattacks some German trenches, which on previous occasions have been assaulted without success". The loss was the impetus for three days of anti-German riots in the area. A German butcher's on the Old Kent Road had its windows broken by a crowd reputed to be several thousand strong. Later they aimed pease pudding at a German greengrocer's nearby.

After the war there were promises of reconstruction and a land fit for heroes, but still in the 1920s more than 40,000 of the residents of Southwark were living in a condition of indefensible overcrowding. Those without homes included ex-servicemen, like the soldier living with his wife and four children in Walworth in a shack made from an old army ground sheet. By the end of the decade a redevelopment scheme that had taken almost 20 years was at last nearing completion.

The unemployed numbered 3 million by January 1933. Southwark and Bermondsey, like the sooty little towns of the north, were depressed areas in which unemployment was concentrated. Those arriving in the capital from the north on hunger marches were surprised to find not simply support and supplies en route to London, but many people in similar circumstances.

When Oswald Mosley's "blackshirts" - whose headquarters were in the Walworth Road - marched to the Elephant & Castle and into Bermondsey in 1937 singing the Horst Wessel Lied and the hymn of Mussolini's fascist party, they were confronted by communists singing the Red Flag. But all these voices were drowned by the collective renditions of Rule Britannia and Land Of Hope And Glory from the majority of those living nearby who had turned out on the streets. The march was diverted because the inhabitants had barricaded the streets with barrows and a water tank from a nearby factory. Eggs, door knobs, shoes, stones and oranges were tossed over the barricades at Oswald's army.

During the bombing campaign of the second world war, Southwark, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe suffered colossal damage. At one point, half a mile of dockland was ablaze. The Elephant & Castle was hit, destroying the building that once housed Tarn's but leaving the pubs and the Trocadero standing. In London, ironically, the destruction put visionaries in the most advantageous position since the plague and the Great Fire for reconstructing the capital. Southwark and Bermondsey were among the key areas listed as in need of urgent reconstruction.

Among the proposals mooted for the South Bank were a large assembly hall, a concert hall and theatre, offices, shops, a hotel or two, cafes; these were to be linked to the complete redevelopment of the area around the Elephant & Castle. A 1949 Picture Post cover story about the "cockney life" of Elephant & Castle reads like an elegy for something passing: "Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks. Its eyes have the blaze of street-stalls, eel-stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans. Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast-iron spines, and the marble pillars of pubs. Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide boy."

In 1961, the year I was born, the Berlin Wall went up and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Closer to home, an 80ft wide silver cube appeared on the roundabout at the Elephant & Castle. It's made up of 728 stainless-steel panels, and rises 20ft above pavement level. The natives never knew why it was there, merely what it became: an eyesore on a patch of land destined to be lumbered with more doomed monoliths than any postcode in London.

Southwark was still the city's Cinderella but generally postwar austerity was beginning to be eased out by a comparative affluence, particularly among the young working class. Consumerism, along with welfare provisions and full employment, had been responsible for a drop in trade union membership, cinema audiences and the crowds at football matches. In some quarters it was believed that the working class were forsaking a sense of community for a culture of materialism, individualism and competition - but that did not mean they became middle class. They still expected to go into the same jobs as those of the previous generation, marry someone local, and, in the poorer London areas like Southwark, live with parents or in-laws because of the perennial housing problem.

In the 1960s, shops, tenements, houses and streets would be removed crudely and rapidly, in the willy-nilly manner in which the older generation had teeth extracted. The Rockingham Arms and the Alfred's Head went. The Trocadero closed its doors after its final leading man, Laurence Harvey, disappeared beneath the credits of Running Man. The dance hall, with its Grecian pillars, came tumbling down.

Elephant & Castle had never been improved by an overall plan. For the past two centuries, reconstruction had been piecemeal. Now architects got to play Kubla Khan, or at least Fritz Lang, in creating a veritable Metropolis at the gateway to the south. There were tenders and competitions. The money was in place, and utopia was beginning to be realised. Along with the silver cube, there would be a shopping centre, with an office block above rivalling in height the 170ft glass and aluminium tower of the London College of Printing over the road, and the modernist block, Alexander Fleming House - described by someone in the trade as "Stalin's buildings as they should have been".

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre was supposed to set "the standards for the 1960s that will revolutionise shopping concepts throughout Britain". And so the revolution arrived, in the shape of a vast, largely empty shopping hangar that housed the Golden Egg restaurant, a Green Shield stamps centre, "June's Bingo", a passport-approved photo kiosk, moving staircases and the Charlie Chaplin pub.

The biggest misjudgment was the way the shopping centre was made accessible from the new tower blocks via an intricate web of underpasses. There were two miles of tunnel, ideal location for crime. The apparent failure of the venture did not dampen the ardour of the council, planners and architects. The future of the urban working class was in their hands. A scheme was conceived that involved the construction of a huge housing estate in Peckham, along with two similar ventures in Walworth and Camberwell. This ambitious triptych would be linked by walkways and ramps, ensuring that pedestrians would never have to touch the ground until they reached the Elephant & Castle, at which point they could disappear into the subways: "A massive complex of deck-access, multi-rise housing sprawling from Elephant & Castle to Peckham. The pedestrianised, high-density estate would have stretched for two miles." Ultimately, the development stopped short of this last utopian detail, but the creation of the three megalithic estates went ahead. Three years after the Peckham estate was completed, so the story goes, its American architect returned to the site and, after witnessing what had become of her vision, committed suicide.

By the mid-1960s Harold Wilson's Labour party was in government, the Beatles were in the charts and David Bailey's costly Box Of Pin-Ups, featuring portraits of the key players of the new classlessness - the Krays, Michael Caine - was on the shelves.

In The Street, as it was generally known, a row of houses that had escaped the developers, where my family had moved, the oral history of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants was relayed in monologues in which all of the hardships, trials and tribulations were transposed into comic stories. Our fathers and uncles stood on mats in front of coal fires, rattling loose change in their pockets, rocking on the balls of their feet, the way they did at weddings, funerals and anniversary parties, holding forth.

Towards the end of the decade, one phrase in particular began to fall from the lips of locals: Enoch was right. Those of us too young to understand what he was right about knew that here was someone else famous enough to have only one name: Pele, Lulu, Twinkle, Twiggy, Cliff, Elvis ... Enoch. The name came up as men pointed an accusatory finger at an invisible enemy; as women gathered in a neighbour's doorway on dark summer nights; as relatives debated over bars in pubs: Enoch was right.

In Walworth, somewhere between the bombs stopping and the bulldozers starting, "the coloureds" had become a talking point. The inhabitants had witnessed changes within their communities without consultation - streets, cinemas, shops and pubs had been eradicated; cubes and doomed shopping centres erected. They now felt powerless in the face of further change. Enoch Powell capitalised on the alienation of a group he believed was beginning to be disenfranchised: 4,000 dockers downed tools and 800 marched to Westminster in protest against the sacking of Powell by Conservative party leader Edward Heath in the wake of his most notorious speech about immigration.

In the wake of the Powell episode, race was a topic many were eager to avoid; "community" also seemed to become a dirty word to those champions of the proletariat who previously believed the word was inextricably linked to the British working class. The collectivism and the shared experience of working-class communities were now viewed in a different light. Many of the urban white working class saw themselves more as part of an ethnic group united by colour and culture than as a class united by their work. Those on the left, who argued that working-class culture had been threatened with extinction by US-style consumerism, were confronted with the fact that the white working class themselves believed the greatest threat was the arrival of black immigrants.

There had been little emigration from Southwark in the 1960s, beyond the few skilled workers who followed their jobs to new towns, or those uprooted to make way for new estates. However, in the 1980s, the younger generation of families who had been established locally since the 1890s and beyond broke the chain to form part of a mass exodus to the satellite suburbs of Greater London that spilled into Kent - Bexley, Eltham, Welling, Erith, Sidcup.

This development revived fears that the working class were forsaking community for individualism. Instead of living behind the same cobalt-coloured door as all their neighbours, they were choosing their own, and maybe adding a pane of glass with a rain-effect and a brass doorknob. The concern now appeared to be not that the owner-occupiers from the working class might become bourgeois, but that they might not. They were becoming something far worse, apparently - lower middle class. First, they had failed to keep to the Andy Capp image by succumbing to fridges and televisions, then it emerged that they were largely united on grounds of ethnicity, rather than class and labour. Now, the terms "Essex Man" and "Thatcher's children" became shorthand for those who had moved into the suburbs and made it into the lower middle class via new money, rather than into the middle class via education.

In the suburbs, where the white flight settled, the schools were rumoured to be better, the roads were wider, and the shadows cast by tower blocks were few and far between. Yet still only a small percentage of the children of the diaspora go on to higher education via college or university. Sport dominates. A number of those in their mid-teens have taken up golf - Tiger Woods on their bedroom walls, and golf clothes in their wardrobes that make them over into mini-me versions of their fathers. The girls, and the mothers, get the football bug on the days national matches are televised: English and proud.

The generation that moved here, now fortysomething and rising, are concerned that the violence, drugs and crime that had begun to characterise the area they escaped are getting a stranglehold. Beyond that, what unites them is a desire to protect themselves from further disruption.

Traditionally, the white working class would take to the street only for the end of a war or the beginning of a sale, with the exception of the death of a princess. Naturally there were other exceptional occasions: Jarrow marchers, the dockers responding to the Powell furore, and in the 1980s, in Southwark, there was rumour of revolt when the call went out for the muzzling of Staffordshire bull terriers. But more recently within the working class, there were those women taking to the streets against paedophiles. There were the taxi-drivers protesting during the petrol price debacle, and the Billingsgate porters' bid to reclaim the streets when they marched to oppose London's congestion charge. Those who champion democracy, direct action and single-issue pressure groups were suddenly referring to many of these protesters as "mobs", and even suggesting that the police be sent in to form a thin blue line. Then there was the more pressing concern of a growing support for the British National Party. In Slade Green a BNP member beat the Tory candidate to second place in a by-election. Behind this "protest" vote - as it has been described in the press - are working-class whites in poor areas who believe they have been neglected and ghettoised, their views ignored.

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre, which spent much of the 1990s the pink of a seaside rock, has now softened to the red of a gash.Erno Goldfinger's Alexander Fleming House is a testament to a certain gentrification. Its bank of offices has been converted to high-priced flats. It is now Metro Central. There's life here, but not as we knew it. A Wetherspoon's and a Nando's caters for the dominant student population from the London College of Printing and the South Bank University, which has expanded like a tiny empire. Another fixture, almost nudging the rear of the site that once housed the South London Music Hall, is the Ministry of Sound, which arrived in the early 1990s.

This section of south London is being described by planners and estate agents as "the lost quarter" of the capital. Someone has taken a look at London and realised that if you stand at Victoria you are the same distance from the West End as if you stood at the Elephant & Castle. Now that London is opening up, expanding across the Thames, this area is being recognised as a prime location. Once again the council, visionaries, planners, architects warm up in the wings. The Elephant & Castle is about to become the canvas for one of the biggest urban regeneration schemes ever to occur in Europe, and to the tune of £600m. Once again, Southwark, the Cinderella of the capital, is being told that she will go to the ball. But this time there might actually be some music to dance to.

The borough now has Tate Modern and Charles Saatchi's collection in the GLC's former home, County Hall. Shakespeare's Globe has been back in business for some time. Bankside was a hotspot during the Elizabethan period and it could become so again. "The ancient hospitality and freedom of the south are emerging once more," wrote Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography. "In the 21st century it will become one of the most vigorous and varied, not to say popular, centres of London life. So the South Bank has been able triumphantly to reassert its past."

A glossy brochure on display at the library promotes the borough in cosmopolitan terms. "The borough's proximity to the river Thames led to strong links across the world and by the 15th century Southwark had one of the largest immigrant populations. German, Dutch and Flemish craftspeople excluded by the City of London settled in Southwark ... immigrants from Ireland took up manual jobs ... the labour shortage was eased by workers and their families invited from the Caribbean and West Africa ... communities from China, Cyprus, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Croatia ... just under a third of our population is from an ethnic minority and over a hundred languages are spoken by our children."

"They don't mention us English," says Joe, one of the older residents browsing in the reference section. "You wouldn't think we'd ever existed, would ya?" Joe sees himself as part of a long-established tribe that dominated the urban working class within this area from the beginning of the 19th century and earlier. It has been airbrushed from the history of the area as reported in the brochure. But if the story of the urban white working class here and elsewhere is to be erased by multicultural rebranding, if the white working class are about to die and with no one to salute them, they could not have a better epitaph than the outcome of a recent survey.

This was a contemporary version of those studies carried out by social investigators in the 19th century. The British Social Attitudes survey was first introduced in the 1980s, and the latest confirms that in 20 years we have become a much more liberal country, and certainly on the issues of race and culture. Change and reform continue to be implemented by evolution rather than revolt and upheaval. The tolerant tradition abounds. Meanwhile, as the white working class grows smaller here, and with London at large expected by the end of the decade to be dominated by a non-white population - as is now the case in the borough of Newham - it will not be possible to brand them as the sole perpetrators of racism. Divisions will appear between other races and cultures in the capital, as surely as many will come together for those elusive common principles expected to define good citizenship.