South London Holmes: Lee

The man with the twisted lip

Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

Two Sherlock Holmes stories involve Lee in Kentish south-east London. In one it is a significant location, while in the other it serves to signify a certain social type. Neither presents Lee in a flattering light, offering it to us as a place where suburban middle-class respectability becomes either deceitful or pompous.

When he wrote the first Lee story Doyle had only just moved to London and he probably knew very little about the place. But there were plenty of guides and gazetteers, including Edward Walford’s Old & New London published in the late 1870s. According to him, Lee was:

“ … a favourite place of residence for City merchants and men of business … ”.

This had been the case since the 1860s, when the South Eastern Railway arrived and built Lee Station, with a direct connection to the new terminus at Cannon Street. According to Walford this sparked a building frenzy:

“ … every available plot of ground has been covered with terraces of detached and semi-detached villas and genteel cottages for their accommodation; and such names as Belmont Park, Manor Park, Dacre Park, Grove Park, &c., in which the more respectable class of houses are built, imparts a somewhat pretentious air to the locality”.

Lee map #2 (2)

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

The Man with the Twisted Lip

This genteel suburb, favoured by City gents, was a key location in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Doyle wrote it in the summer of 1891, as he was settling in to his new home in Tennison Road, South Norwood, and sent it off to the Strand Magazine, which promptly commissioned six more tales and raised his fee from £35 to £50 per story. It’s no wonder that the Strand was impressed, because this is one of the most complex yarns in the Holmes canon, narratively sly and morally troubling.

The central figure is Neville St. Clair, who lives with his wife and children at The Cedars, Lee: “a large villa which stood within its own grounds”. He appears to be a wealthy and successful businessman and he commutes to the City daily by train. But one day his wife, on a private errand of her own, catches sight of him in Upper Swandam Lane: “ … a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge”.

Lee map #1

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Topographically this is not far from the offices and counting-houses where St. Clair might be expected to conduct his business. But socially it is a world away, a haunt of thieves and opium addicts, dangerously cosmopolitan to a visitor from prim Lee, inhabited as it is by “sallow Malays” and “rascally lascars”.

Believing that her husband must have been abducted, Mrs. St. Clair – “by rare good fortune” – runs into a troop of policemen who happen to be patrolling the neighbourhood. They break into the room where her husband had been, but he has disappeared. Instead, they find a “crippled wretch of hideous aspect”, Hugh Boone, a professional beggar well-known in the City. St. Clair’s abrupt disappearance looks like foul play, and Boone is arrested on suspicion of his murder.

At this point Mrs. St. Clair brings in Holmes to solve the mystery. Holmes in turn brings in Watson after bumping into him in an opium den in Upper Swandam Lane, where Holmes is masquerading as an addict, and Watson is on a mission of mercy. (Since this story is set during the period of Watson’s marriage, Doyle requires a bit of narrative licence to get them back together, and a chance meeting in an opium den serves as well as any other).

The mystery is therefore set up for us around a pattern of binary oppositions stemming from two opposed worlds: Lee (safe, domestic, wholesome, British, middle-class) is set against Upper Swandam Lane (dangerous, feral, filthy, foreign, lumpen); St. Clair (upright businessman) is set against Boone (disfigured beggar); and the respectable, legitimate business of the City is set against the criminal business of begging and murder.

But all these binaries are misdirections. As the story unfolds we discover that there are not two worlds, but only one. Boone is neither St. Clair’s abductor nor his murderer – Boone is St. Clair. He arrives every day by train in the guise of St. Clair, changes in Upper Swandam Lane into the guise of Boone, and makes his way to his regular pitch on Threadneedle Street to start his day’s begging, because it is begging that has made him rich. Once his ruse has been exposed, St. Clair reveals that he was previously a newspaper reporter, and in the course of researching a story on begging he decided to act the part himself for a day – and was astonished to find how much money he took: “You can imagine how hard it was to settle down to arduous work at £2 a week when I could earn as much in a day by smearing my face with a little paint, laying my cap on the ground, and sitting still.”

Lee and Upper Swandam Lane belong to the same world, for the prosperity of the former requires the presence of the latter. Upright St. Clair and disreputable Boone are one and the same. And the respectable business of the City joins hands with the demeaning business of begging in their common pursuit of money.

This is a moral tale of sorts, but it is peddling two distinct and contradictory moral codes. Firstly, by setting up St. Clair as a respectable City businessman, and then revealing that his business is to beg in the guise of Boone, it punctures the City’s pretensions and exposes its money-grubbing for what it is. Boone’s pitch on Threadneedle Street – the very heart of the City, the home of the Bank of England – is no accident. And by extension, the story also exposes Lee and all the other prim suburbs whose prosperity springs from this money-grubbing.

But alongside this is another, nastier moral, highlighted by the fantastic figure of a wealthy beggar. The story suggests that begging is a rational career choice leading to a villa in the suburbs; that far from being the last resort of the desperate it is a cynical scam; that the appearance of poverty is just an act; and, in effect, that poverty itself is voluntary. Plenty of affluent folk entertained these vile, self-serving fantasies in Doyle’s day, just as plenty do today. But it is depressing to find Doyle himself promoting them.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

Lee plays a different role in the 1908 story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. It is never visited, only referred to, but the references are essential in establishing the nature of a key character.

The story opens with Mr. John Scott Eccles, of Popham House, Lee, bursting in upon Holmes and Watson to beg their help in making sense of his extraordinary experiences of the previous night. Hard on his heels comes Inspector Gregson of the Yard, in search of the same Mr. Eccles, who is the prime suspect in a case of murder.

This is of one Doyle’s exotic conspiracies, a dark tale of Latin American brutality and revenge, secret messages and assassinations, with a bit of voodoo thrown in for good measure. Eccles’s role in all of this can be summed up quite simply; he is a useful idiot.

Eccles is the epitome of the dull, middle-aged English bourgeois: “From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree.”

And yet we learn that this dull and unprepossessing character has been befriended by Aloysius Garcia, a lively and attractive young man, who actively seeks out Eccles’s company, and invites him to stay at his house near Esher. Once there, however, Eccles finds Garcia unfriendly and uncommunicative. He retires to bed, disgruntled, only to be woken in the night by Garcia who tells him, for no good reason, that the time is one o’clock. Eccles goes back to sleep, and awakes to find himself alone in the house, Garcia and servants having disappeared. Furious at having apparently been the butt of some practical joke, Eccles hastens to Holmes in search of an explanation, where he is met by Inspector Gregson who tells him that Garcia’s body has been found and that he, Eccles, is suspected of his murder.

You have, of course, worked out why Eccles was invited to Esher; he was invited to give Garcia an alibi. His function was to witness to Garcia’s presence in the house at one o’clock in the morning. And for that purpose his dull and unimaginative conservatism was a positive asset. As Holmes puts it: “I see no charm in the man. He is not particularly intelligent … Has he any one outstanding quality? I say that he has. He is the very type of conventional British respectability, and the very man as a witness to impress another Briton”.

It turns out that Garcia’s intention, having established his alibi with Eccles, is to assassinate the fugitive former dictator of his home country, who is living incognito close by. But the plan goes wrong, and Garcia himself is killed instead.

There are not many figures of fun in the Holmes stories, but John Scott Eccles, “gray-whiskered and solemnly respectable” with “heavy features and pompous manner”, is one of them. A pillar of convention, charmless, unintelligent, monumentally respectable, and a resident of Lee: the perfect candidate to serve as a useful idiot in the subtle designs of cleverer folk.


Taking the two stories together, it has to be said that Doyle is not kind to Lee. In each tale he uses it to signal an unattractive variant of middle-class respectability: in the first case, bogus respectability; and in the second, dull respectability. To paint Lee in such colours is arguably unfair, but it serves no purpose to complain. They are, after all, just stories.

South London Holmes: Guilty Norwood

In a previous post I argued that in the Sherlock Holmes stories not just people, but also places, can be guilty: that there are places where crime lives and belongs, places proper to wrong-doing, where it is engendered and cultivated and brought to fruition. On that understanding, and on the basis of its two significant appearances in the Holmes canon, Norwood is an emphatically guilty place.

Where is Norwood?

Norwood takes its name and its bearing from Croydon, referring to the wooded hills and valleys to the north of the town. Historically it had no precise boundary, because it never corresponded to a parish or manor. It was an indeterminate tract of land spilling incontinently into five parishes: Battersea’s outpost at Penge, Croydon, Streatham, Lambeth and Camberwell.

Map - Cary 1786 London (2)

From John Cary’s map of London, 1786 

By the late nineteenth century, as the whole area became thoroughly suburban, Norwood’s earlier absence of definition was replaced by a riot of competing identities and place-names. The metropolitan borough of Lambeth, and the London County Council, both had electoral districts called ‘Norwood’, as if laying claim to the whole territory; while both Croydon County Borough and Penge Urban District contained wards called ‘Upper Norwood’ which disputed that claim. In addition, there were the tricky questions of South Norwood’s relationship with Selhurst, and of Lower Norwood’s re-branding as West Norwood.

Our primary interest, of course, is not in Norwood but in Sherlock Holmes – although even that distinction becomes blurred when we realise that Norwood is where Sherlock Holmes’s creator lived.

Conan Doyle plaque

From 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle lived at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood. Here he wrote most of the first two batches of short stories which established Holmes as a popular fictional figure. These were initially published in The Strand Magazine, and then in two collections, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It is not too much to say that Holmes’s personality, his little tricks and foibles, and his sardonic/affectionate friendship with Watson, were honed and refined right here in modest, suburban South Norwood.

However, neither of the two stories which are set in Norwood were written while Doyle actually lived in the place. The Sign of Four was written in 1890 when he still lived in Portsmouth. And he wrote The Norwood Builder in 1903, after leaving Norwood for a new house in the Surrey countryside at Haslemere. Did he positively avoid Norwood settings while he himself was a Norwood resident? Impossible to say. We cannot analyse stories that he never wrote – so let’s turn instead to two stories that he did.

The Norwood tales 

The Sign of Four was Doyle’s second Holmes story, a novella like the first, and also like the first a tale of foreign exotica, in which crimes and passions aroused far away seek consummation here in London. It is a tale of honour among thieves, and dishonour among army officers. A gang of four – three Sikhs and a white man – steal and hide a great treasure during the Indian Mutiny. Afterwards they are imprisoned, but they persuade two army officers to help them escape in exchange for a share of the treasure. One of the officers, Major Sholto, betrays them, seizes the whole treasure for himself, flees to England, and sets himself up at Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood. There he is tracked down first by his fellow officer, and then by Jonathan Small from the original gang. These encounters trigger Holmes’s involvement. (I should add that this summary is a brutal simplification of a morally and narratively complex tale which, among other things, positively reeks of late Victorian racism).

Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood is, we are told, “a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic … (of) vast size”, standing in its own grounds, surrounded by a grim high wall secured against intruders. It is an ugly, guilty house, furnished with stolen wealth, a monument to theft and betrayal, even the allure of its exotic name belied by its prosaic and vulgar bulk.

Map - Upper Norwood (2)

From Bacon’s Atlas of London & Suburbs 1909

Late Victorian Upper Norwood liked to think of itself as the height of prosperous repute, but Doyle’s story acknowledges that money has history, and that today’s respectable wealth is all too often born of yesterday’s shabby crime. We expect bad things to happen in a place as flawed as Pondicherry Lodge, and we are not disappointed.

As for the other story, here again we are given a precise address. Jonas Oldacre, The Norwood Builder, lives at Deep Dene House, Deep Dene Road, Lower (a.k.a. West) Norwood. Oldacre has made his money building suburban houses, and he too lives in a suburban house which he himself has built. It appears to be an entirely unremarkable place, “a big modern villa of staring brick”, a practical house built by a practical man. But appearances are misleading.

Oldacre has designed his house as an engine of revenge. Hidden within it is a secret room, whose existence is known only to himself, the key element in his plot against a woman who refused his offer of marriage many years before. His plan is to destroy her happiness by framing her son John McFarlane for murder. To achieve this he entices McFarlane to Deep Dene House, fakes his own death, and leaves false evidence pointing to McFarlane as the killer. Oldacre himself meanwhile is in his secret room, alive and well. It goes without saying that Holmes is not fooled and succeeds in flushing him out.

Deep Dene House in Lower Norwood is therefore guilty in its very fabric, in its timber, plaster and staring brick, positively designed for malice. And when it is placed alongside Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood, that ugly monument to dishonour, we are left in no doubt: Norwood is South London’s guiltiest place.

South London trek

Two other issues arise from these Norwood stories, one touching on South London as a whole, and the other on a particular character.

The climax of The Sign of Four involves the pursuit of Jonathan Small, which ends with a celebrated chase down the river, and Small struggling in the mud of the Plumstead Marshes. But before the river chase, when Holmes is still trying to trace Small’s route from Norwood, he and Watson trek on foot across South London guided by Toby the mongrel tracker-dog. Toby leads them from Upper Norwood through Streatham, Brixton, and Camberwell to Kennington Lane, then cuts to the east of the Oval, and after some brief confusion leads Holmes and Watson to Mordecai Smith’s wharf on the Lambeth riverside, from which Small has hired the steam launch in which he hopes to make his escape.

I find this journey fascinating, because it seems to me to signal Doyle’s early commitment to the narrative possibilities of South London. Remember, this was only his second Holmes story. The first, A Study in Scarlet, concerned a murder in Brixton. This one concerns a mystery (and subsequently a murder) in Norwood. Both are South London stories, and both were written while Doyle was still living in Portsmouth. At this time he had no first-hand knowledge of South London, he certainly didn’t know that he would end up living there, and (according to his own later account) he probably used a Post Office map to work out the details. But in The Sign of Four he was already sufficiently committed to the narrative potential of unfashionable, suburban South London to send Holmes and Watson on an extended tramp right across the territory, as if staking a claim for future tales.

Mary Morstan 

Finally: Norwood is the place most intimately associated with Dr. Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan.

Among Holmes obsessives Mary Morstan is a controversial figure. Some acknowledge that she was Watson’s fiancée, but argue that he married not her but some other, unnamed, woman. Others argue that he had two wives. Others again say that he had many. And so it goes on.

I take a brutally conventional view. Watson’s role, as the fictional narrator of the Holmes stories, is not to tell us about his love life, but to tell us about Holmes’s cases. When he does tell us about his love life, its narrative purpose is to add depth and colour to his relationship with Holmes. Mary, like Mycroft and Lestrade and Moriarty and all the other characters who are present in more than one story, is entirely secondary when set against the central relationship of Holmes and Watson.

Mary is the only character in all the stories to whom Watson declares his love, and she declares hers in return, so when in subsequent stories Watson refers to his wife, it is simply perverse to suggest that this wife might be someone other than Mary. It is perverse at the detailed level of coherent story-telling. And it is even more perverse at a larger level in that it mistakes the meaning of the stories themselves; it confuses what is primary with what is secondary in what is, after all, an entirely fictional world.

The reason why Norwood is relevant here is that Watson meets and falls in love with Mary in the first Norwood story, The Sign of Four; and after her death, after Watson has moved back to Baker Street, his first case with Holmes is the second Norwood story, The Norwood Builder. Norwood therefore frames Mary’s brief presence in poor old Watson’s fictional life.     


South London Holmes: Brixton (part 2)

The previous post focused on two of Sherlock Holmes’s cases – one a murder, the other an attempted murder – in which Brixton figured prominently.

Brixton also appears, in passing, in a number of other stories – but just because a reference is casual does not mean that it is unimportant. On the contrary, a casual throwaway comment may tell us a great deal. It may tell us that the writer is making a firm but subsidiary point in the story – for instance: ‘This guy is a bully, and that’s all we need to know’. Or, it may tell us that the writer is counting on a shared understanding with the reader, and can therefore settle for brevity, confident that the reader will do the rest of the work and flesh the matter out.

In these particular cases, I think that Doyle assumes a shared understanding with his reader. More specifically, he assumes a shared middle-class understanding. All the Holmes stories are written from an emphatically middle-class point of view, so that passing references to middle-class characters or circumstances have a very different tone and flavour to references to working-class characters or circumstances. Let’s take some examples.


We saw in the previous post that late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton was, mostly, a comfortable and respectable suburb, and this is often its role in the Holmes stories. Brixton’s purpose in The Greek Interpreter (1893), The Adventure of Black Peter and The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (both 1904) is to signal middle-class respectability. In the first story it is the address of a friend of an heiress. In the second it is revealed as the home of Inspector Stanley Hopkins, “a young police inspector, for whose future Holmes had high hopes”. In the third it is the scene of an apparently pointless crime in which a burglar breaks into a doctor’s surgery in order to smash a plaster bust of Napoleon.

But for our purposes, the narrative details are less important than the social clues. What sort of man is likely to be the personal friend of an heiress, if not a man who is himself prosperous? What sort of neighbourhood is a police inspector likely to live in, if not a thoroughly respectable neighbourhood? And what sort of man is a GP, if not the acme of bourgeois esteem? All these references, brief as they are, reveal Doyle using Brixton to signify solid, suburban, middle-class repute.


But Brixton also had its working class which also appears, occasionally, in the Holmes stories. And when it does appear, it is treated very differently.

In The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892) Mrs. Oakeshott, sister to hotel attendant James Ryder, runs a small poultry business from her home on the Brixton Road. This is a Christmas story, populated by several humble and semi-comical characters: an honest commissionaire, a decayed intellectual, an acerbic goose-seller, and the pathetic thief Ryder. The tale is set in motion by his opportunistic theft of a jewel from the Countess of Morcar, a guest at the Hotel Cosmopolitan where he works. In a state of panic, he hides the jewel in the crop of one of his sister’s geese, while crouching behind the shed in her back-yard. This vulgar little scene is offered as a glimpse of plebeian Brixton, low-life Brixton, a far cry from Doyle’s, and Holmes’s, and the presumed reader’s, middle-class world. It is intended to raise a condescending chuckle.

The second example, The Naval Treaty (1893), is different again. The tone here is sombre, because the story concerns a weighty matter, the theft of a crucial diplomatic document; and the main characters are of high social status, upper middle class and aristocratic, senior members of Government, elevated and elegant gentlemen.

Naval Treaty #1

Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

Set against these elegant gentlemen is Mrs. Tangey, a Foreign Office charlady, who lives at 16 Ivy Lane, Brixton, and who is initially suspected of being the thief. The portrayal of Mrs. Tangey is highly unsympathetic: “a large, coarse-faced, elderly woman” who drinks and is in debt. It could be argued that these details are necessary for her role in the story, which is to offer us a suspect as unlike the elegant gentlemen as possible – female, coarse, unreliable, working class – in order to misdirect us, because the real culprit is indeed one of the elegant gentlemen. This narrative job could, of course, have been done without the casually contemptuous portrait of a working-class woman with which Doyle chooses to present us. But Doyle is confident that his presumed reader will raise no objection.

Finally: despite their different moods, these two stories share a certain similarity of structure. Each involves a theft from a prestigious Westminster address, one a fashionable hotel, the other a government office. Each involves a victim who is a person of social status and consequence. And each lays emphasis on these themes of social and geographical ascendancy by confronting them with their opposites: upper-class Westminster on the banks of the Thames meets working-class Brixton south of the river.


South London was largely outside the ‘Popularly Imagined London’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Proper London, landmark London, self-congratulatory London, the London where stories about London belonged, sat north of the river. South London was somewhere else, across the river, on the other side of the river, transpontine.

So: by establishing Holmes so emphatically as the pre-eminent London detective, and then sending him off so regularly to the suburbs south of the river, Doyle was being a bit deviant, a bit scandalous, and was at the same time cleverly serving his own story-telling purposes. He was challenging comfortable assumptions about what London was; and he was laying claim to a whole new narrative territory. And Brixton, that recently-emerged and rather shapeless suburb, was of all South London places most open to his peculiar knack for a yarn.


South London Holmes: Brixton (part 1)

Brixton is one of the most frequently recurring locations in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s not the most frequent: that’s 221B Baker Street. But Brixton is the scene of the very first murder in the very first Holmes story, published in 1887; and it is the hiding-place of a mysterious recluse in one of Doyle’s last stories, published 40 years later. In the intervening decades Holmes is summoned to Brixton by numerous thefts and a grisly attempted murder; and Brixton residents caught up in his investigations include a poultry keeper, a charlady, the friend of an exotic heiress, a police inspector, and a bogus clergyman. Doyle kept sending Holmes back, time after time, to the streets of Brixton.

Historically, Brixton was the name not of a hamlet or parish, but of a region. The medieval ‘Brixton Hundred’ covered much of South London, from Barnes to Bermondsey, and Battersea to Streatham. Brixton only started to appear in its own right in the nineteenth century, as builders threw up houses along Brixton Hill and Brixton Road. And perhaps the absence of a sense of historical identity, a sense of place, which an old parish church or village centre might have bequeathed to it, meant that as the new suburban Brixton emerged, it was somewhat characterless.

If this sounds unlikely, it’s because we’re thinking of modern Brixton. Brixton today is far from characterless: socially and ethnically mixed, deprived, gentrified, affluent, poor, loud, cool, edgy, sexy … But places change. History happens, people happen, and places change. Brixton today still has many of the same buildings and street-names as late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton, but it is not the same place.

Late Victorian and Edwardian Brixton, Sherlock Holmes’s Brixton, was a shapeless, unremarkable suburb whose builders aimed initially at the well-to-do middle class, and then from the 1870s shifted their focus to smaller houses for the lower middle and skilled working classes.

Map Booth Sheet 11 (3)

(Detail from Charles Booth’s Map 11. No known copyright. More information available at

Booth’s colour-coded poverty map, constructed in the 1890s when Doyle and Holmes were at their most active, shows the result. The solid red along main roads and substantial side-roads indicates middle-class affluence. Pink signals lower middle class and skilled working-class households which, while not wealthy, are “comfortable” (one of Booth’s key terms). The purple and light blue show areas of increasing distress; and the fragments of dark blue and black represent dire poverty. There are such fragments in Brixton, but only a few. This was not a glamorous or fashionable place in the 1890s, but it was, for the most part, comfortable and respectable.

We cannot know whether Doyle knew, or cared, about Booth’s carefully-researched social geography. It certainly didn’t influence his early Brixton stories, which pre-dated its publication. But his portrayal of the place, its social mix, its domestic privacy, its dominant atmosphere of prim propriety, broadly matches Booth’s findings.


A Study in Scarlet is the first Holmes story, in which he meets Watson; and it tells of the first crime which they investigate together, the murder of Enoch Drebber whose body is found at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road. Watson reports that the house “wore an ill-omened and minatory look” when they arrive, part of a small terrace, half-occupied, with several ‘To Let’ signs in the area. This is a drab and obscure neighbourhood, a lonely place – which, it turns out, is precisely why the killer chose it. Brixton’s first function in the Holmes canon is therefore to offer anonymity, to turn a blind suburban eye, an ideal place to accommodate dark secrets and dead bodies.

Sinister Brixton is equally in evidence in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, in which it serves as the lair of ‘Holy Peters’, a.k.a. the Reverend Doctor Schlessinger, a particularly unpleasant confidence trickster. In this story, published in 1911, Peters and his equally obnoxious wife kidnap Lady Frances for her money, and seek to get rid of her by burying her alive. They arrange a normal, legal, dignified funeral in the name of another woman, whose death has been properly registered – but they intend that Lady Frances, drugged, will also be in the coffin. Peters’s home, where he imprisons her and at which the horrible plot is hatched, is at 36 Poultney Square, Brixton, “a great dark house”.

Here, we are in affluent, middle class Brixton, where the appearance of propriety offers a screen behind which Peters seeks to hide. Here, respectability is crime’s accomplice. The house is in a respectable neighbourhood – but it harbours kidnap and horror. Peters appears to be that most respectable of men, a clergyman – but he is a thief and a would-be murderer. His scheme involves that most respectable of public rituals, a funeral – but it is a cover for homicidal deceit. Brixton’s solid respectability makes it the perfect hiding place for the confidence trickster, the crook who specialises in hypocrisy, and trades on the gullibility and prejudice of others.

But this is just the start. In A Study in Scarlet and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax Brixton figures prominently, but there are many other stories in which it makes more fleeting, but equally significant, appearances. The true meaning of Doyle’s Brixton, Holmes’s Brixton, can only emerge when all these tales are considered together.

Next time in South London Holmes: Brixton (part 2).


South London Holmes: Guilty Places


Illustration by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

This is the second in a series looking at Arthur Conan Doyle’s repeated use of South London to provide settings for his Sherlock Holmes stories. In my last post I suggested that he re-imagined South London’s suburbs as a new territory of crime, and now I want to push that a bit further. Specifically, I want to start to explore the relation between crime and place in the South London Holmes stories.

Crimes, of course, are committed not by places but by people. Or are they? Surely life is more complex, weird and interesting than this. All human activity has a context, and a place is a context. No place is neutral, every place is a particular place, exerting its particular influence on those who pass through it, and this is true both in the lives we live and in the stories we tell. So when a writer of fiction chooses to tell us that a certain crime has been committed in a certain place, it means that the place participates in the crime. It may even mean that it shares in the guilt.

In the course of his South London stories, Doyle describes many crimes committed in many places, to the point where patterns start to emerge. Firstly, there are guilty places: places where crime lives and belongs, where it is engendered and cultivated and brought to fruition. Secondly, there are places which are guilty by association: places which act as magnets for criminality whose intent and origins lie elsewhere. And thirdly, there are innocent places: places where crimes occur which are unrelated to them, arbitrary violations of their suburban peace.

Let’s start with somewhere guilty.

Chiselhurst: Guilty

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, published in 1904, is in my view a nasty little story – though it is also the story in which Holmes awakes Watson with the iconic cry “The game is afoot!”, which is I admit a redeeming feature. The crime around which it revolves occurs at Abbey Grange in “Marsham, Kent”, but we are told that the house is only a couple of miles from Chiselhurst Station, so as far as I’m concerned it’s in Chiselhurst, and therefore a legitimate South London setting.

Sir Eustace Brackenstall, in the prime of life and very wealthy, is brutally murdered at his home, Abbey Grange. His beautiful young Australian wife, Lady Mary – “blonde, golden-haired, blue-eyed” – is also injured. Some detail with wine glasses throws suspicion on the Randalls, an enterprising family of burglars from Lewisham. But Holmes uncovers the truth: Brackenstall was an alcoholic bully who beat his wife (that is how she came by her injuries) and he was killed by her lover as he sought to defend her. This lover is Captain Crocker, a “tall … golden-moustached, blue-eyed” Adonis, his skin “burned by tropical suns”, who met and adored Mary, before she became a Lady, on the boat from Australia. In deference to this romance, Holmes and Watson take it upon themselves to decide that the golden, blue-eyed, and now presumably very rich young couple is innocent, and withhold their full knowledge of the affair from the police.

This legally-dubious gambit may be touching, but what about the Randalls? The damning detail with the wine glasses, which appears initially to mark them out as murderers, is no accident: it is deliberately set up by Lady Mary and Captain Crocker. They intend not just to deflect attention from themselves, but actively to focus it on these entirely innocent burglars who happen to have been in the news recently. It is a cold-blooded attempt to frame them for murder. Holmes is not fooled of course, because Holmes is Holmes, and the Randalls turn out to have an alibi, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a frame-up, a callous attempt to get the wrong men hanged for murder, and yet it is passed over in the story as a matter of no account. Apparently, so long as you are young, golden and rich, you will not be judged for such things.

Chiselhurst is therefore a doubly guilty place. It is the scene of an unhappy marriage, in which a young woman is bullied and brutalised by her drunken husband, leading ultimately to his murder by her lover, and the story tells us as much. And it is the scene of an attempt to frame the Randalls, which is also a crime, but which is disgracefully unacknowledged as such within the story. The guilt of Abbey Grange starts with Brackenstall, but spreads like a stain to encompass Lady Mary and Captain Crocker, and Holmes and Watson, and seeps beyond the story to Doyle himself.

Beckenham: Guilty by association

The Greek Interpreter, which appeared in 1893, is notable for introducing us to Sherlock’s brother Mycroft: brilliant, obese, lazy, and endlessly re-imagined in film and TV adaptations. In this first appearance he introduces Holmes and Watson to Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter who comes to a sticky end.

The story tells of an English crook who worms his way into the affections of a young Greek heiress, and then kidnaps her brother and tries to force him to sign over the family fortune. But the brother speaks only Greek, so the crook kidnaps Melas to act as interpreter, driving him in a window-less carriage to a mysterious house where the brother is imprisoned. While interpreting, Melas discovers who the young man is. He is then released with dire warnings from the crook to keep his mouth shut, warnings which he promptly ignores by seeking advice from Mycroft, and which Mycroft also ignores by placing a public advertisement in the Daily News giving full details of the whole affair. This advertisement attracts a reply from a friend of the Greek sister, revealing her address to be “The Myrtles, Beckenham”. But it also signals to the crook that Melas has talked. Consequently, the poor man is kidnapped again. Holmes and Watson rush down on the train from London Bridge to Beckenham, but by the time they arrive at The Myrtles the crook has fled, having locked up the Greek brother and Melas in a small room full of poisonous fumes. The brother survives, but Melas does not. A post-script suggests that the Greek sister takes her fatal revenge upon the crook some months later, and then disappears.


Map - Greek Interpreter

The Myrtles, we are told, stands within half a mile of Beckenham station (today’s Beckenham Junction), and is “a large, dark house standing back from the road in its own grounds”. In other words, it is modelled on the many large detached houses with which late Victorian Beckenham was peppered, along Foxgrove Road perhaps, or The Avenue, some of which still survive. Each of these houses was built with an eye to upper-middle class domestic privacy; a privacy which for Doyle suits criminal purposes very well. Beckenham is not therefore a guilty place: it does not hatch the crime. But its genteel and private respectability positively recommends it as an ideal place to prosecute the crime. It is guilty by association.

Finally, regarding Mycroft: if he’s so clever, why does he place that disastrous advertisement in the press, which effectively dooms Melas? And why does he suffer no criticism, within the story, for this thoughtlessness? Sherlock comments that Melas is now in danger, and warns him to watch his back, but that’s as close as we get to a reprimand.

Narratively, of course, the ad is ‘just’ a plot device to hurry the story along, a quick way to pinpoint the location of the mysterious house. In just the same way, the attempted frame-up in the Abbey Grange story is ‘just’ a plot device, allowing Holmes to strut his stuff by refusing to snatch at a proffered solution. There is nothing wrong with plot devices, when they are sensitively handled and worked into the fabric of the story. But there’s everything wrong when they are used as blunt instruments, and these two instruments are decidedly blunt.

The problem is that Doyle uses each of these plot devices to perform a particular narrative function, while refusing to face up to the wider narrative consequences of that function. In each case, the device requires an initiator within the story: the Abbey Grange frame-up is put in place by the golden lovers; the Beckenham ad is put in place by the brilliant Mycroft. But these actions contradict everything that Doyle has told us about these characters, for it is hardly golden to frame innocent men for murder, or brilliant to betray a friend to a violent crook. Doyle, however, chooses not to see this. He passes over these incidents as matters of no account. He refuses to confront the narrative consequences of his own narrative manoeuvres. This is lazy writing.

Croydon: Innocent

Here I will be brief.

In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Miss Cushing, a quiet elderly spinster living alone in Cross Street, Croydon, receives a gruesome package: a box containing a severed human ear. And yet the place to which this horrid package is delivered, Miss Cushing’s “neat and prim” little house, is itself quite innocent. It has engendered no crime, and done nothing to attract crime to it. In fact the atmosphere within which the story unfolds is created precisely by the paradox of such a ghastly item turning up in such a blameless place.

I will say no more about the package, or the explanation for it, because I intend to dissect this story in more detail in a future post. My reason for mentioning it here is simply to make the point that South London is not always guilty.

Next time

Sherlock Holmes’s Brixton

South London Holmes

Map Booth sheet 9 (2)

As Coronavirus sweeps the world, shuts down the economy, and teaches us all what an ‘essential worker’ really looks like, I suppose I shouldn’t complain that it’s also knocked this blog off its stride.

For the past few months I’ve been taking myself off to the archives, to look out documents which shed light on life in Penge when it was still an expanse of woodland. But the Lockdown has changed all that. While many archives and archivists are doing great work in making certain items from their collections available online, this doesn’t include the obscure documents that I’m interested in. Consequently, this particular line of research is suspended for the time being. In fact, any line of research which involves leaving home is suspended.

So: I have been looking for a new theme which is (a) consistent with the spirit of the Pengepast blog – i.e. truly committed to Penge, but always up for a flirtation with Greater South London; (b) do-able without leaving the house; (c) nothing to do with Coronavirus; and (d) pure escapism. I think I’ve found one. I’m calling it ‘South London Holmes’.

We might think that there’s nothing left to say about Sherlock Holmes. He is, after all, the most famous detective in human history, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories have been best sellers for over a century, generating stage-plays, films, TV series, spoofs, reinterpretations, and libraries full of literary analysis.

But why? What makes the Holmes stories special? They did not pioneer detective fiction: Edgar Allen Poe wrote his Dupin tales half a century earlier. Their plots are not fiendishly clever: many of them rely on frankly unconvincing accidents or chains of association. The Holmes/Watson relationship in their shared rooms in Baker Street is part of the answer, but even this starts as a contingent, practical response to a deeper problem. The name of that problem, and the reason why the Holmes stories are special, is London.

Sherlock Holmes is not just a detective, but the quintessential London detective. Doyle’s vision of late Victorian and Edwardian London suffuses the Holmes tales. It is a powerful vision of horse-drawn cabs and gas-lit streets, suburban villas and mean terraces, comfortable drawing-rooms and sinister riversides, which has stamped its imprint on popular culture to this day, not only through Doyle’s writing but also through the film and TV productions inspired by that writing. Within the stories, we are told that Holmes himself is a connoisseur of London; he knows its secret ways, its back-streets, alleys and courts. This implies that his creator, Doyle, was also a connoisseur, and that the urban intimacy which he attributes to Holmes was in fact his own. But this was not the case.

Doyle hardly knew London at all when he kicked off the franchise with his first two stories, the novellas A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. He was living in Portsmouth at the time, and his personal knowledge of London was based on a few brief visits. But he could not fail to be aware of the clichés through which the city lived in the popular imagination, clichés both self-congratulatory (‘World’s Greatest City’, ‘Capital of Empire’) and self-condemnatory (‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’). His genius was to realise that if he could write some rattling good yarns which put this Popularly Imagined London centre-stage, acknowledging its familiar parameters (so as to reassure his readers) while also challenging them (so as to scandalise and excite his readers), he might sell a few copies.

And here’s a thing. When we consider all the London locations in which Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are set or to which they refer, three constantly recur. First is the iconic address at 221B Baker Street; no surprise there. Second is the West End; no surprise there either, because the West End naturally figures in stories featuring privilege, power or money; and also because it was a familiar element of Popularly Imagined London. But the third location is a surprise. The third constantly-recurring location is South London.

The Popularly Imagined London of the 1890s happily embraced the poverty and peril of the East End, but it did not really reach south of the river. Sherlock Holmes, however, did. His adventures in South London took him to Beckenham, Blackheath, Brixton, Chislehurst, Croydon, Kennington, Kingston, Lambeth, Lee, Lewisham … and that’s just the first half of the alphabet. Penge is on the list too, in a minor way. It seems to me that Doyle used South London’s suburbs to challenge the familiar parameters of the Popularly Imagined London of his day, by presenting it as a whole new territory of greed, passion, theft and violence, ripe for the attention of the world’s first consulting detective.

In the next post we’ll start to map out Sherlock Holmes’s South London, and identify some of his favourite haunts.

The map shows parts of Lambeth/Walworth/Southwark as depicted in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of the 1890s. No known copyright. More information available at  


Penge Greene situate and being within the parish of Battersey

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 1

My previous post focused on two sixteenth century legal disputes regarding Penge Common. One concerned allegedly unlawful timber-cutting, and the other concerned allegedly unlawful occupation of a house. The first case was brought by Elizabeth Royden as holder of the lease for Battersea and Penge; and the second, almost twenty years later, by Elizabeth’s son-in-law Oliver St. John, who had acquired the lease when he married Elizabeth’s daughter Joan. St. John’s claim in this second case was made against a man called Style.

In this post we move forward to the seventeenth century, and examine the contents of two more legal documents: one dating from 1630 held in the National Archives, and the other from 1677 held in the Bromley Archive. (The Bromley library strike is now happily settled, so self-respecting socialist historians can use the library and archive once more). These documents are fascinating in themselves, and astonishingly we encounter the same families as we met in the previous century: the St. Johns and the Styles

“ … the tyme of her said wyddowhood … “

A bit of family background will help here.

When Elizabeth Royden’s daughter Joan wed Oliver St. John in the early 1590s, she knew she was marrying into a prestigious aristocratic family. But she could not have foreseen the glittering career which lay ahead for her new husband. St. John prospered mightily once the new Stuart king James I was on the throne. He was made Lord Deputy of Ireland, Viscount Grandison, and finally Baron Tregoz. Joan, as his wife, became a great lady of the realm. But they had no sons.

This meant that when St. John died in 1630, his estate went to William Villiers from another branch of the family. Joan seems to have found that all the honours and titles which she had accumulated by virtue of being St. John’s wife counted for little now that she was his widow. In particular, it seems that Villiers laid claim to the place where she had lived for virtually all of her life.


Penge Common - C17 - NA 2

 The 1630 document in the National Archives is Joan’s response to this situation. In it, she challenges Villiers’s right to inherit the lease for the manor of Battersea and Penge. She relies on the fact that, before she ever married St. John, an extension to the lease was secured to run to 1634. This was done by her mother Elizabeth in order to secure Joan’s future. And at the time it worked: it enabled Joan to bring a long-running, copper-bottomed lease for a valuable property to her marriage settlement with St. John.

Now that St. John was dead, however, ownership of the lease was in dispute. Villers argued, presumably, that it now belonged to him as part of St. John’s estate. Against this Joan seems to be arguing, in this document, that the lease had a special status and should now revert to her. In particular she refers to the extension secured by her mother: the phrase “one and thirty years” occurs repeatedly. We don’t know the outcome, and quite probably the dispute never reached a court, because Joan died in the following year.

Penge Common - C17 - NA 1

This is a family property dispute. It does not concern Penge directly, except as part of the property. But for precisely that reason, it is interesting to see that Penge is named in the document. It is not simply taken for granted as part of the manor of Battersea, but is referred to explicitly. The implication is that, in 1630, Penge was a sufficiently valuable possession for its association with the manor to be worth spelling out.

“ .. lawfull money of Englande … “

The 1677 document from the Bromley archive is very different. This is not a family matter, but rather a dispute rooted in class, status and money.

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 1

As so often with these odd surviving archival fragments, we see only one side of the story. The Bromley document sets out a claim on behalf of “William Burke, citizen and blacksmith of London”, concerning a cottage “ … being near unto a certain Greene called South Greene also Penge Greene situate and being within the parish of Battersey within the County of Surrey … “. In addition to Burke himself, a number of other respectable citizens are also listed in his support: William Russell, citizen and skinner of London; Daniel Palmer, citizen and apothecary of London; and so on. The whole thing conveys a sense of prosperous and well-connected City tradesmen closing ranks against an outsider.

Who is this outsider? He is John Style the Elder, who is apparently “in occupation” of the cottage near Penge Green. He is evidently not a citizen of London nor a member of a City company, but he does bear the same family name as Edward Style, who was also accused of unlawfully occupying a house in Penge eighty years before.

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 2

This raises several questions. Firstly: was John descended from Edward? We can’t know for sure, but Style is not a common name, and the population of Penge at that time was tiny, so it seems to me that it would be extraordinary if he wasn’t. Secondly: despite the passage of time, could both cases have concerned the same dwelling? Could Edward’s ‘house’ have been the same place as John’s ‘cottage’? Again we cannot know for sure, but it seems to me that if we are dealing with a single family then the two cases may indeed refer to the same place. And thirdly: since Edward’s defence in the 1590s seems to have been that the ‘house’ was not in Penge, but Beckenham, could John have made the same argument in 1677? We don’t have a document setting out his side of the argument, but I suspect that he could not have defended himself in the same way as Edward, because the claim brought against him was different in nature.

Burke’s claim is rooted in a different principle to Oliver St. John’s claim in the previous century. St. John’s case was based on his rights as ‘lord of the manor’ by virtue of his lease: he argued that the disputed house stood within the boundary of Penge, which allowed Edward to argue back that it didn’t because the boundary was in a different place. But Burke’s claim had nothing to do with boundaries. It was entirely commercial and referred to a single property; he had bought a cottage with “lawfull money of Englande” and was therefore entitled to “hold occupy possess and enjoy the said cottage”. When he referred to the cottage as “near unto … Penge Greene” he wasn’t invoking ancient land-rights, he was simply using ‘Penge Greene’ as an address. Where St. John was an aristocrat referring back to medieval notions of land-holding, Burke was a business-man looking forward to a modern commercial property market. Hence the form of his claim, and the appearance in it of other City business-men keen to associate themselves with the same commercial principle.

Burke’s claim of 1677 is a small harbinger of things to come. Just eleven years later, James II would be expelled, and William of Orange would come in, bringing in his wake the Bank of England, the National Debt, and a new round of wars against the French. William III inaugurated a thoroughly capitalist commercial culture in Britain. But William Burke was already working along the same lines in his attempt to take possession of a cottage near Penge Green.


“Touching the comon of Penge”

Penge Common NA #1 (4)


I have been looking at two documents in the National Archives, dating from 1578 and 1596/7. Each is a record of evidence gathered during a legal dispute about land in Penge.

These disputes arose a few decades after Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church and ‘dissolved’ hundreds of monasteries and abbeys along with their millions of acres of land. Throughout the country farmers and landowners, gentry and aristocracy, became rich by acquiring this land. It was a windfall which secured their families’ futures, and usually secured their loyalty to the newly-Protestant Tudor regime. And not surprisingly, they were more than ready to go to law if they thought their new property rights were being infringed.

Penge at this time was an expanse of common land, heath and woodland, “waste ground and coppices”, belonging to the manor of ‘Batrichsey’ or Battersea. Until 1540 Battersea (including Penge) had belonged to Westminster Abbey. But in that year the Abbey was dissolved and its lands were taken by the Crown. So at the time of our legal disputes the manor of Battersea (including Penge) was owned by the monarch, Elizabeth I, who leased it out. In the 1570s it was leased to Elizabeth Roydon; it then passed to her daughter Joan; and by the mid-1590s Joan had married Oliver St. John, and the lease had passed to him.

So far so good. We know broadly what the documents are about, we know their dates, and we know the key players. But my problem, as I sat staring at them in the Reading Room at the National Archives in Kew, was that I was, mostly, unable to read them. These are hand-written parchments. They are written in English, but they use unfamiliar words, unfamiliar spelling, unfamiliar grammar and punctuation, and almost indecipherable script.

Penge Common NA #2 (3)

Almost indecipherable to my eye, anyway. Of course there are historians who are familiar with sixteenth century script and can read it readily, but I’m not one of them.

This might suggest that the whole exercise was a waste of time, but it wasn’t. There is a wealth of historical detail in these documents that I have so far been unable to unlock, which is frustrating. But I was able to decipher enough for fascinating fragments of meaning to emerge.

The first case: cutting timber on Gravel Hill

The 1578 case involved illicit tree-felling in a copse at Gravel Hill (sixteenth century spelling “Grabbelhill”). Elizabeth Roydon (sixteenth century spelling “Ridon”) accused Hugh Gouldwell, Randall Snowe and Mathew Dawes of “cutting of timber in Gravel Hill Coppice”. It’s not surprising that she took tree-felling so seriously: Penge’s primary value was as a source of timber.

In order to have a genuine complaint, however, Elizabeth Roydon had to show that Gravel Hill was part of Penge Common, in which she had rights as tenant. The defendants seem to have denied this, claiming that Gravel Hill was not in Penge, but in Croydon. The whole case therefore turned on establishing the precise location of the boundary between Penge and Croydon, and the document records witnesses’ evidence on this question.

The witnesses’ evidence included several references to oak trees (sixteenth century spelling “oke”) acting as boundary markers. This provided confirmation, if we needed it,  of the special significance of oak trees in the English landscape. And it also set me off on the trail of the ‘Vicar’s Oak’, squinting at the script in search of a reference to this particular tree which, until the seventeenth century, stood at the top of Anerley Hill, marking the meeting place of four parishes: Battersea, Camberwell, Croydon and Lambeth. It is commemorated today at the top entrance to Crystal Palace Park, recently re-designed and greatly improved by local educational charity Invisible Palace.

Vicar's Oak - Invisible Palace

(Picture courtesy of Invisible Palace)

Sadly, I failed to find any mention of the Vicar’s Oak. I did find references to a “famous oak” (“oke”), which might even be the same oak, but in this particular document it had a different name. And inevitably, I was unable to decipher it. Can you do any better? It’s reproduced below, where it appears twice, on consecutive lines, as part of the phrase: “ … famus oke comonly called (NAME) … “

Penge Common NA #7 (3)

On both lines the mystery name is the same, but I can’t make it out. If you can, please get in touch. All I know is that it’s definitely not ‘Vicar’ or ‘Vicar’s’.

So, where exactly may Gravel Hill have been? Clearly it was close to the Penge/Croydon boundary, the first part of which runs from the south-west end of Marlow Road in Anerley, up and across Croydon Road and Selby Road, to the railway line. This involves a gentle rise, but nothing that could be called a ‘hill’.

Map - Penge-Croydon boundary 2 (2)


It’s much more likely that Gravel Hill was located further on, where the boundary turns away from the railway line to head into Upper Norwood, climbing up Fox Hill, before turning towards the north into Lansdowne Place and Church Road. Maybe Gravel Hill was a sixteenth century name for the steep slope that we know as Fox Hill?

A final frustration is that we don’t know who won. The document in the National Archives contains ‘depositions’, witnesses’ evidence, but it doesn’t tell us the outcome. Did Elizabeth Roydon succeed in her claim? Was Gravel Hill found to be part of Penge Common? If so, what penalty was imposed on Gouldwell, Snowe and Dawes for taking her timber? We’ll probably never know.

The second case: a messuage called Grovefield House

The 1590s dispute concerned the other end of Penge, where it bumps up against Beckenham. In this case Oliver St. John, lessee of the Manor of Battersea, brought a claim against Edward Style regarding “ … a messuage called Grovefield House in the defendant’s occupation … “ (‘messuage’ means a dwelling house together with other buildings or facilities attached to it).

I was unable to make out exactly what provoked the dispute but it seems, again, to have touched on the location of the boundary. Perhaps St. John believed the house was inside Penge and that Style therefore owed him rent; while Style believed it was in Beckenham. Intriguingly, St. John called several witnesses from Penge or Battersea, while Style called several witnesses from Beckenham, so maybe there two different views, a Penge view and a Beckenham view, about where the boundary lay.

Since witnesses are the central figures in both these documents, it’s worth looking a little more closely at who exactly they were.

The witnesses

The authors of both manuscripts, one from the 1570s and one from the 1590s, appear to have been lawyers, charged with the task of collecting evidence. In cases like these, concerning local boundaries, there were no local maps to refer to. The only source of such information was people. So the lawyers drew up their questions (‘Interrogatories’) which they then put to witnesses.

Penge Common NA #5 (2)

The witnesses they called on were ‘experts’ – but not experts as we think of them today. Their expertise lay not in special training or qualifications, but in long working lives spent in the local landscape. They were peasants and rural workers, illiterate and elderly. But they had lived in this area all their lives and knew it like the backs of their gnarled, weather-beaten hands: Henry Dare of Lambeth in the county of Surrey, Yeoman; Thomas Kempsell of Beckenham, aged 80; Thomas Lamon of Penge in the parish of Battersea, aged 63; Andrew Levern of Croydon, husbandman; Alice Wilton of Camberwell, aged 60.

One by one, more than four hundred years ago, these old people, who lived where we now live, gave their careful opinions on the lie of their land, its peculiarities, names, markers, limits and boundaries. And their words were transcribed by lawyers, and the parchments on which they were written have, remarkably, survived, and we can read them today. Or at least, we can try.


Penge Common in the archives



Archives - LL #1

What does the word ‘common’ imply? When we say that someone has ‘common sense’ we are being complimentary. But when we refer to something as ‘common or garden’ it’s a bit of a put-down. Back in the seventeenth century, during the Civil War, Parliamentary soldiers were fighting for the House of Commons, and succeeded in replacing the monarchy with a ‘Commonwealth’ – but they refused to be called ‘common soldiers’ which they regarded as an insult.

Despite these various and shifting meanings, there has been one consistent usage over the centuries: the use of ‘commons’ as a name for assets or resources accessible to all. Today, the term appears in the debate on climate change, where the Earth itself is coming to be understood as a common resource; and in the debate on the future of the internet which some regard as ‘digital commons’.

But the archetype of ‘commons’ is common land: land available to the rural poor. This was an intrinsic part of the medieval economy, and for much of its history Penge was just such a piece of common land. And it had an additional value because it was heavily wooded, and timber was a scarce resource.


Archives - LMA #1

Penge Common no longer exists. Instead, on the land which it once occupied, is the Penge that we know: houses and shops, roads and railways. This transformation was achieved, with due legal process and an Act of Parliament, in the early nineteenth century. Modern Penge only exists because Penge Common doesn’t.

Most of the people who lived on Penge Common before the nineteenth century, or had an interest in it, left no trace. But some did. Some of their stories survive in the archives. It’s an unrepresentative sample, skewed towards the rich and literate because they were the ones who produced the legal documents, contracts, accounts, letters and minutes which the archives hold. But even so, we are able to recover some sense of the past meanings of the place where modern Penge now sits.

I did a fair bit of archival research when working on my book, The Making of a London Suburb, about the history of Penge. But the story of the Common was only one chapter in that book, and there is lots more out there which I’ve never investigated.


Archives - BNA

So, over the next few months I will be burying myself in the archives, ferreting out scraps of material on Penge Common, and surfacing again to post progress reports here. And I hope to pull it all together in a public talk during the Penge Festival in June 2020.

As ever with research, I anticipate a heady mix of excitement, frustration, and more excitement. Excitement because I already have a whole lot of unanswered questions in mind; frustration because I know I won’t find answers to most of them; and then more excitement because failure to answer the first set of questions will inevitably throw up a second set.

One final comment. One of the most important archival sources is Bromley Historic Collections, accessed through the Local Studies section of Bromley Central Library. I have been a regular user over the past twenty years, and have benefitted from the presence of helpful, professional archivists and librarians. But for some months now they and their colleagues have been on strike in defence of the library service. The least I can do is repay their professionalism with a bit of solidarity. So Bromley’s archive is out of bounds until the dispute is settled.

Instead, early in the New Year, I’ll be heading for one of the other archives in the hope of shedding a bit of light on Penge’s lost common.

Archives - Kew #2


Penge’s Crooked Billet: Auctions and Inquests

Crooked Billet - close text #1 (3)

At the time of writing the Crooked Billet in Penge has just re-opened after a facelift. But one thing hasn’t changed and for that we should be truly grateful: it’s still called the Crooked Billet. Over the years it has inhabited various buildings, and at one point it was in a completely different place, on the other side of Penge Lane, where the Watermen’s Almshouses now stand. But the name is unchanged: it’s always been the Crooked Billet.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for travellers from Kent into London, the Crooked Billet was Penge’s key defining feature. At that time there were precious few houses, and certainly no landmarks such as churches. To one side of the Beckenham Road were fields; to the other side an expanse of rough wood-heath stretching up the hillside. Those with local knowledge might guess they were in Penge when they crossed the track from Croydon to Lewisham, but it was the sight of the Crooked Billet which confirmed it.

The Crooked Billet at this time was a coaching inn, a resting place for travellers and horses, providing food, drink and shelter. But in addition, as the most substantial public building for miles around, it was the natural place for any commercial business or official gathering.

Crooked Billet - close text #5 (2)

So for instance: when in the spring of 1827 Parliament passed an Act for the enclosure of Penge Common, the practical business was organised from the Crooked Billet. ‘Enclosure’ means privatisation: Penge Common was divided up into plots, which were either awarded to local residents who could prove a legal claim, or sold off at auction. This required organisation, and a Commissioner, Richard Peyton, was appointed to see to it. He based himself at the Crooked Billet in the autumn of 1827, and here he approved or dismissed individual claims, and oversaw a series of auctions.

Another instance: when the body of a young man was found on the towpath of the Croydon Canal in June 1829, apparently dead from gunshot, it was taken to the Crooked Billet and laid out in the parlour. A “highly respectable jury” was assembled, according to a newspaper report, and it examined the body “which presented a most shocking spectacle”. Witnesses were heard, including John Scott, a bricklayer from Rotherhithe, who had found the body. The jury brought in a verdict of death by suicide.

Crooked Billet - close text #4 (2)

The landlord of the Crooked Billet during both these episodes was Richard Harding. His will survives, and provides some fascinating insights.

Harding was a licensed victualler, and a prosperous man. His will lists his various belongings which included the Crooked Billet premises at Penge, plus household goods and financial assets: “ … furniture, plate, linen, china, books … bills, bonds, notes, ready money … securities for money … “. And he also had another property: “ … a freehold estate purchased by me of Thomas Woodgate situate at Lower Norwood in the parish of Croydon in the County of Surrey adjoining the canal … “.

Crooked Billet - will of Richard Harding (4)

Richard had a wife, Martha, and a daughter, Matilda, but strangely he didn’t leave his property directly to them. Instead he bequeathed it to his brothers, John and James, to hold in trust for their benefit. This looks like a very patriarchal arrangement, where the men hold the power and the women are subordinate. But the will goes on to say that if Martha wants to take up the trade of victualler and carry on running the Crooked Billet after Richard’s death; and if Matilda wants to do the same after Martha’s death; then the trustees must enable this and support them. This suggests that Richard had a fair degree of respect for the practical common sense of his wife and daughter. But it still doesn’t explain why he didn’t do the obvious thing, and simply leave his worldly goods to them and let them get on with it.

As ever with historical research, we learn something new and gain some new insight into the past; and as ever, we are left with more unanswered questions than we had in the first place.