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.

Nairn’s Bromley: fuss and fidgets

London to Hastings (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. In this series I revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, to see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.


I have to admit that I resent Bromley. As a Penge historian, I resent the fact that Penge, which for hundreds of years was a detached hamlet of Battersea, tied to the Surrey river-side, is now annexed to a London borough which half-believes it ought to be in Kent. And as a Penge resident and Labour Party member, I resent living in a borough dominated by a particularly obnoxious sub-species of Tory. 

But – somewhat to his own surprise – Ian Nairn liked Bromley when he visited in the 1960s. Or rather, he liked the High Street. In his view, Bromley High Street (unlike many others) had not been swamped by post-war modernisation, but nor had it set itself in aspic. Instead it had achieved its own unique “appealing suburban fussiness … the cheerful disorder of a village shop blown up to serve a population of 70,000“.   

He saw the local architecture, both good and bad, conspiring to serve this fussy purpose. Thus the inter-war half-timbered block in the Market Square was (and still is) truly ghastly: 
Market square

 “ … blubbery … really horrible … not fun in any sense … “ according to Nairn. And yet he also saw it as somehow fitting “because it bumbles along … and makes every corner into a fidget”. And Bromley’s few fragments of architectural modernism were equally apt: Dunn’s shop (1956), because it was “full of funny corners”; and Harrison & Gibson’s (1960) because it was simultaneously “flashy and sensitive”. As it happens, both were furniture stores, of which more later. 

The only problem was that, in the 1960s, the High Street was still part of the A21 from London to Hastings, with heavy traffic rattling its shop-windows. Nairn nervously anticipated an intervention by “road-wideners”, putting the fidgety yet precious local suburban ecology at risk.  

In the end it was the by-pass builders, and not the road-wideners, who won the argument: for more than 30 years now ‘Kentish Way’ has carried the A21 around and away from the old town centre, and the High Street is thoroughly pedestrianised. Where lorries once thundered, pop-up stalls now sell fresh fish and nick-nacks.  
High Street pedestrians

 In fact, if Nairn’s suburban cheerfulness still survives, it is probably due to this pedestrianisation. On a sunny day the High Street is bustling, not just with shoppers but also with older ladies and gents taking the air and enjoying the proximity, and sometimes the company, of others. Hence my encounter with the lady in the mobility scooter. Always a sucker for a bit of Victorian patterned brick, I had stopped to take a picture of a gable peeping above a modern shop front,  
Old library

 and was immediately accosted. “That was the old library, you know!” the lady announced. And she proceeded to tell me what it looked like, and where the steps were, and how often she used to visit in her youth. “I haven’t thought about the old library for years. I had forgotten it until I saw you taking a picture”. I was as delighted to become acquainted with the ghost of a library as she was to renew her acquaintance with her memories, and we parted on friendly terms.   

Back to those modernist furniture shops. They’re both still standing, but no longer sell furniture. What once was Dunn’s now houses Argos, Lakeland, Wallis and Starbucks at street level, with offices above.  


 And what once was Harrison & Gibson’s is now TK Maxx.  

Harrison Gibson

 To my eye, the Dunn’s building looks tired. And the Harrison & Gibson’s building looks drab. Whatever allure they held in the ‘60s has been dissipated by time and make-overs. 

And yet they had their moment, Dunn’s in particular. This was an old family concern, dating back to the eighteenth century. From the 1930s it was run by Geoffrey Dunn, a committed modernist, who focused the furniture part of the business on modern design. By the 1950s the shop was selling to customers throughout the UK, and in 1965 it attracted national attention when it launched its own version of a modernist icon, the Isokon Long Chair, created in the 1930s by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer. 

Ian Nairn’s visit in the mid-60s therefore happily coincided with Bromley’s very own modernist moment, a moment defined not by its architecture but by its furniture. And I have to admit that now that I know this, now that I know that Bromley was once nationally celebrated as a centre of modern design, I feel a certain grudging affection for the place – obnoxious Tories notwithstanding.

Nairn’s Beddington: Poetry Please

Beddington #7

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn liked the liminal bleakness of Beddington Lane in the 1960s.

“A forlorn, atmospheric place … Six grand cooling towers … pylons everywhere, houses all round the horizon, light industry in the foreground. Yet out of these unexpected ingredients comes a poetry which is missing from most of the preserved villages around London … “

And today? Does Beddington Lane still retain that unexpected poetry? To my mind, sadly, No.

Nairn’s 1960s view was dominated by those enormous cooling towers.

Beddington #2

They belonged to Croydon ‘A’ power station, built by the local council in the 1890s. Next door was the ‘B’ station, opened in 1950. And together they sat at the heart of a well-established industrial zone, along Waddon Marsh Lane and the River Wandle.

The First World War gave birth to a second zone to the south, on Coldharbour Lane, where first a military airfield, and then an aircraft  factory – the Orwellian-sounding ‘National Aircraft Factory No. 1’ – were built. In 1920 the airfield became Croydon Aerodrome, Britain’s gateway to the world. And in 1925 the Purley Way was built along the line of Waddon Marsh Lane and Coldharbour Lane to create a new, modern road linking the older industrial zone to the north with the airfield and newer industries to the south.

With the Second World War, planning became respectable. In 1944 town-planner Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan, a blueprint for a prosperous, healthier post-war London. In general he was hostile to siting industrial or manufacturing activity within or close to residential areas, but he was always open to ‘special cases’ and Croydon was one of them:

“Croydon is a suitable area for industries associated with aircraft engineering and maintenance, or industries likely to use air transport for the export of light luxury goods like cosmetics, high quality leather work, including ladies’ handbags, expensive pottery and delicate precision instruments … Most of Croydon’s industry is post-1918 and its expansion was greatly stimulated by the development of the aerodrome and the Purley Way … “.

When Nairn visited Beddington Lane in the 1960s the landscape he saw – power stations, pylons, light industry – was part of the industrial area described by Abercrombie. When he marvelled at the cooling towers he was on its western edge, looking back east across the Purley Way, towards Croydon.


Beddington #7

The view today is both recognisably similar and depressingly different. The cooling towers of Croydon ‘A’ have gone, demolished in the 1970s. The chimneys of its neighbour Croydon ‘B’ survive, but their function now is to advertise the Ikea superstore in the retail park.


Beddington #8

There could be no better symbol of the change which has occurred, the shift from making stuff to selling stuff. Of course this shift is bigger than Beddington Lane, it’s global; it’s about neo-liberalism; it’s about the financialisation of capital and the re-location of manufacturing. Beddington Lane is just one charmless example of this global shift playing itself out on the local level.

Why charmless? Because despite everything, despite the monotonous and often dangerous work which they demanded, and the contribution to global warming from the millions of tons of coal which they burned, there was a drama, a poetry, to great twentieth-century productive engines such as power stations. And the drama stemmed not just from their monumental scale, but also from function: the making of electricity, the making of something new. Measured against this, a ‘retail park’ is a sad decline, a maze of designed ugliness, a car-friendly abstraction of pre-fabricated sheds. Some sheds claim to be ‘superstores’, others builders’ merchants, or depots, or wholesalers, but all, essentially, are just sheds, dumb and demeaning. ‘Retail parks’ shrivel the soul.

Beddington #3

But all is not lost. Continue down Beddington Lane to the south, approaching the River Wandle and, unexpectedly, we enter a hidden historical landscape. Appearances here deceive. Beyond the scrappy hedge and fence is the uninviting expanse of Beddington Sewage Treatment Works:


Beddington #6

but beneath the sludge beds lie the remains of a Roman villa. And also near-by is a pre-Roman Iron Age enclosed settlement; and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And the area has yielded finds from the Bronze Age, Neolithic, and perhaps even Mesolithic, attesting to a continuous human presence going back six thousand years or more, attracted and sustained by the modest River Wandle.

All of which is more than enough to exorcise the demeaning soullessness of the ‘retail park’ up the road, and open us up again to the possibility of poetry.
Beddington #1


Penge’s War Dead: Research and Remembrance

GWP - War memorial RG


In these centenary years, like many others, I’ve been researching the meaning of the First World War for the place where I live. I’ve looked into the Home Front in Penge – food, drink, recruitment. And most recently, I’ve been finding out about the young men from Penge who went off to fight and never came back.

The sheer volume of material available for this sort of research, the variety of sources, is astonishing. In the case of Penge I have made use of:

  • The local war memorial with its four hundred inscribed names;
  • Local newspapers, some available online through the British Newspaper Archive. The Norwood News has been especially useful, and the Penge & Anerley Press has some good content.
  • The official ‘Penge Roll of Honour’, compiled diligently from 1914 onwards by local school-teacher W.T. Stuart with help from pupils at Oakfield School, written up and published as a bound manuscript after the War, now carefully preserved in the Bromley Archive.

GWP RoH #2

  • The National Archive, which has put a vast amount of its First World War holdings online, including soldiers’ and sailors’ individual ‘medal cards’.
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, another impressive resource in terms of the data it holds, and its ease of use. The CWGC embodies the moral imperative of ‘remembrance’, charged with remembering the war dead in perpetuity: even today they rededicate graves, and hold burial services when the remains of First World War victims are identified.
  • The Imperial War Museum (also a product of the First World War) and its ‘Lives of the First World War’ project.
  • Regimental histories: in my case, I’ve been looking at The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-1919 by C.T. Atkinson, published in 1924, because this was the Regiment that Penge men were most likely to join.

By putting all these together, every so often we can establish the circumstances of a death which would otherwise be just another statistic. For instance: the raw data on Leslie Kitchen of Minden Road in Penge is that he was a Private in the 7th Battalion of the West Kent Regiment, and died at the age of 19 on 28th March 1918. But from Atkinson’s history we can place the 7th battalion, and therefore Leslie, at the village of Gentelles, south of Amiens, on 28th March. Leslie was killed in a sudden and overwhelming German attack in which the battalion was virtually wiped out. This was one episode in the great offensive of spring 1918, Ludendorff’s last gamble, his attempt to exploit his temporary numerical superiority on the Western Front while Russia was out of the War, and the USA not yet properly in it.

One final word: I am enormously indebted to my partner, Dr. Lucie Dutton, for contributing her own research skills, honed in the course of producing her PhD. She has pulled together data from multiple sources to produce a consolidated record of the Penge war dead.

I’ll be talking about our findings, about who these young men were, where they lived, how they met their ends, on Tuesday 6th November, at 7 pm, in Melvin Hall, Melvin Road, Penge.


But is there a danger in this sort of research? Isn’t there something mawkish or prurient about cataloguing the War’s dead? And isn’t there a risk that it will be hi-jacked by the peddlers of cheap sentimental patriotism and Brexit nativism?

These risks are real, but there is also a duty here.

Millions of young men died on the battlefields of the First World War. Four hundred of them came from Penge. The streets where they lived, in many cases the houses where they lived, are still here. They were snatched from suburbia to face horror and death. Of course the same was true in the Second World War, and the other wars, but the fact is that, in this country, it was the First World War which became and remains the symbol of tragic slaughter, the source of the imperative of remembrance. And society is richer for having such a symbol and such a source.

Max Horkheimer put it like this:

“What has happened to the human beings who have fallen, no future can repair … human consciousness alone can become the site where the injustice can be abolished, the only agency that does not give in to it”.

What Horkheimer is saying is that the past is past, the dead are dead, the circumstances of their deaths cannot be undone, but some measure of hope and redemption for them is still possible if we, the living, can find it in ourselves to offer it to them. Our living human consciousness, our grief and sense of shared humanity, offers the only possible site, the only available place, where their suffering may be acknowledged and their humanity sustained despite their absence.

I find this thought immensely moving. It touches not just the First World War’s dead, but the victims of history as such. In fact it defines the moral ground of historical sensibility and historical study. It argues that the practice of history is simultaneously an intellectual and a moral endeavour, an exercise both in diligent research and interpretation, and in human sympathy, imagination and solidarity. This is why remembrance matters.


Home Front Penge: Demon Drink

Pubs Crystal Palace Station

One day in late 1916, in the Refreshment Rooms at Crystal Palace Low Level Station (today’s Crystal Palace Station), Walter Stamforth bought a drink for his friend Harold Manley. The drink was served by the barmaid Kate Truett, whose employer was Frank Hayward, the licensee. 

In January 1917, all four of them appeared at Penge Police Court, charged with committing or facilitating the crime of buying intoxicating liquor to be consumed by another person. Stamforth had broken the law by buying the drink, Truett by serving it, Manley by drinking it, and Hayward because it had all happened on his premises. The first three were fined, and Hayward lost his licence. All of this may strike us as barmy, but in 1917 it was the law. 

It had been illegal to ‘treat’ or ‘stand a drink’ since the spring of 1915, when David Lloyd George launched a full frontal assault on Britain’s drinking culture in the name of winning the First World War.  

In late 1914 and early 1915 the Western Front was taking shape, as the German Army dug in to defend its territorial gains in France and Belgium. British soldiers and politicians were trying to get to grips with the new phenomenon of trench warfare, in which artillery would clearly play a major role. But the Army lacked ammunition: there was a ‘Shell Crisis’. Lloyd George spotted an opportunity to play a bit of politics, by drawing a link between the Shell Crisis on the Front and industrial discipline at home. With no solid evidence, he asserted that the main reason for the shortage of shells was that munitions workers were drunk.

Rt Hon DLG commons wikimedia org

He quickly found a ready audience, because the War had unleashed a storm of moral panics and crusades. Self-appointed guardians of public morals insisted that, with the country at war, it was outrageous that some still sought entertainment in pubs, cinemas, football grounds or music halls. Even sex wasn’t safe. Lord Kitchener refused to allow condoms to be issued to British soldiers, insisting instead that they should ‘abstain’, for which he was publicly praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The prominent suffragette Christabel Pankhurst also chimed in, claiming that most men had VD and should learn to be ‘chaste’. 

Even with Lord Kitchener and Christabel Pankhurst on board, a campaign against sex was doomed. But Lloyd George calculated that a campaign against drink might succeed; and if he could position himself as its champion, rich political rewards may come his way. The temperance movement was, after all, part of the cultural landscape, part of the whole non-conformist and evangelical Christian tradition. Leading figures in all political parties were declared teetotallers. Here in Penge the local Band of Hope had been active since the 1870s, working closely with the Baptist and Congregationalist churches, running weekly services for children, and public meetings for adults, preaching the evils of drink. Similar groups were at work all over the country, providing a ready-made body of support for Lloyd George’s new measures. And the measures were drastic: in addition to making ‘treating’ illegal, he raised the price of drink, reduced its strength, and cut pub opening hours to two hours at lunchtime and three in the evening.

Pubs Crooked Billet

Pubs everywhere were affected, but for Penge’s pubs these new laws came on top of another sudden wartime measure, the closure of the Crystal Palace.

The vast Crystal Palace complex, combining museum and sports arenas and concert hall and conference centre and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of amusements, was mostly located within Penge’s boundary. And for sixty years it had provided reliable passing trade for Penge’s shopkeepers and landlords, as visitors wandered down to browse in local shops, or to have a drink in one of the sixteen pubs lining the High Street between the Penge Gate on Thicket Road, and the junction with Croydon Road. Then suddenly, out of the blue, in February 1915, the site was abruptly closed to the public and occupied by the Royal Navy which used it for the rest of the War as a ‘training depot’.  

Whether this led to a loss of trade for Penge’s pubs is hard to say: it may be that the loss of civilian customers was recompensed by a new influx of thirsty naval trainees. But even so it must have required some adjustment to deal with this sudden alteration at the same time as beer became weaker, prices higher, hours shorter, and landlords’ livelihoods were put at risk every time someone took it into his head to buy a drink for a mate.

Pubs Goldsmiths


The anti-drink laws of 1915 matter. They were an early signal that the First World War would be unlike any previous war; a ‘total war’, a national mobilisation, leaving no-one untouched. Many other aspects of ‘total war’ would follow in the months and years ahead: state direction of industry, mass employment of women, conscription, food controls, rationing. But drink – or rather the campaign against it – pointed the way.  
Pubs Pawleyne


Nairn’s Wimbledon: High towers in parks

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.

Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #2

It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.

 Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #1

Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.

 Wimbledon - 26 Bessborough Road

Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.

Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.

 Wimbledon - Alton East

Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.

Wimbledon - Alton West #1

In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.

Wimbledon - Alton West #3

But high-rise brutalism also has its dark side. More than a decade after Alton West, Lucas designed the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. Built between 1968 and 1972, organised around eleven 12-storey towers, it became notorious as a symbol of dysfunctional social housing, characterised by lonely walkways and crime-infested nooks and crannies.

Much of Lucas’s work is still with us. Oatlands Court is still there, modest and lucid. Alton West has celebrated its 60th birthday and still looks stunning. But the Ferrier never saw 40: by 2012 it had been demolished to make way for an emphatically low-rise replacement, Kidbrooke Village.

Home Front Penge: Allotments


GWP Allotment lead 

The single most pressing issue on the Home Front throughout the First World War, in Penge as elsewhere, was food. Britain relied on food imports; if they were cut off, within three months people would be starving. So alongside the naval effort to protect supplies from abroad, a domestic effort took shape, slowly and fitfully, to grow more food at home. And this effort took in not just the countryside but also the cities.

 Urban allotments were nothing new in 1914: Penge’s neighbours in Beckenham could boast several allotment sites dating back to the 1890s. But within the boundaries of Penge – which included Anerley and part of Upper Norwood as well as ‘Penge proper’ – there were none.

 Enter Edward George Hopper.  

GWP Hopper (3)


Hopper was a florist, a local councillor (‘Independent’, which in those days was code for Liberal), blessed with green fingers and boundless enthusiam. From the summer of 1915 he argued that Penge Urban District Council should take the initiative on allotments, and at a public meeting at the Co-op Hall in August many would-be plot-holders agreed. 

Penge was densely housed, but not as densely as it is today. In principle there was plenty of open ground which could be used for allotments, especially in the largely-undeveloped area bounded by Croydon Road, the High Street, Ravenscroft Road, and Elmers End Road. This map from 1909 shows the potential. 
GWP Allotment potential map

 But even where land was undeveloped, it was still privately-owned, and the Council had no powers of requisition or compulsory purchase. Some landowners acted voluntarily – Mr. and Mrs. Grose made land available at Chesham Park for allotments – but most didn’t.

Things changed when the Government brought in the Land Cultivation Order in December 1916. This gave local councils not just a right, but a duty, to identify and take over ‘unused’ land and make it available to local residents as allotments; in effect, allotment-holders became tenants imposed on the landowner, under the protection of the local council. Significantly, the Order was introduced under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act or ‘DORA’, the catch-all law passed in 1914 which gave the Government emergency wartime powers. In other words, allotments were officially defined as part of the war effort.

 In the early months of 1917 Penge Council identified and took over six sites. In Anerley there were two small sites at Stembridge Road and Bourdon Road, with room for 12 plots. In Upper Norwood there was a single 13-plot site at Milestone Road. But the large sites were in Penge proper, in the open area described above: 7 plots at Oak Grove, 41 at Chesham Park and 43 at the ‘Royston Estate’. The whole effort was overseen by the Council, and especially by Councillor Hopper. He presided at monthly Plot-holders Meetings at the Town Hall on Anerley Road, dispensing practical advice to first-time growers; co-ordinated bulk purchase of seed potatoes and other basics; and organised Summer and Winter Shows at which allotment holders could show off their produce.

The Council also negotiated water supplies for the different sites – though this provoked an angry debate about who should pay. Some councillors argued that allotment-holders should pay since they were the beneficiaries. Others argued that their efforts were benefitting the whole community, so that the cost should be met from the rates.

Today there are two allotment-sites within the old Penge boundary, at Upper Chesham, and Lower Chesham. Penge Green Gym’s impressive online history suggests that the modern Upper Chesham Allotments are on the site of the old Chesham Park, 

GWP Allotment Upper Chesham

 with the further implication that they are directly descended from the First World War allotments donated by Mr. and Mrs. Grose. Lower Chesham Allotments, meanwhile, are a few yards from Royston Road and Royston Field, and clearly within the old ‘Royston Estate’.

GWP Allotment Lower Chesham

 All of which suggests that they too owe their existence to the First World War, to Penge Urban District Council, and to Councillor Edward George Hopper.