Penge boundary #4: Park to Porcupine

In our journey around the ancient boundary of Penge hamlet, we have reached a section where recent changes – i.e. changes over the past two hundred years or so – prevent us from following it on foot.

For many centuries this stretch of the Penge boundary, which was also the Kent-Surrey county boundary, made its quiet way through woods and fields, probably marked by the ‘shire ditch’. But in the early 1800s it was invaded by gangs of navvies who cut down trees, dug up land, laid down a deep trench, and flooded it with millions of gallons of water. The Croydon Canal had arrived.


The Canal, which ran from the Surrey Docks and Camberwell to Croydon, was a commercial venture but never a commercial success. In the 1830s it went bankrupt, and was bought out by a railway company which drained it and ran a new railway line along the bed. This still exists as the line from London Bridge to West Croydon via Penge West and Anerley. Odd remnants of the Canal survive: the well-known culverted stretch in Betts Park; and the beautiful fragment in Dacres Wood in Sydenham, cared for by the Friends of Dacres Wood Nature Reserve.

Dacres Wood

So: to return to the boundary line. The boundary leaves the Park and crosses Crystal Palace Park Road a few yards north of the junction with Thicket Road, cuts through the BT telephone exchange, crosses the railway line (which used to be a Canal), then bears south-west to cross Crampton Road at right-angles. It forges on, cutting across Kingswood Road and Mosslea Road, and through back-gardens behind Phoenix Road and Lucas Road, to hit the Penge Lane-Parish Lane junction just where Alexandra Nurseries now stands.

This wedge of land, hemmed in by the London to Croydon railway line, the London to Dover line, the High Street and Penge Lane, has been filled with houses since the late nineteenth century. But this ‘Beckenham parish’ post on Kingswood Road (marked ‘4’ in red on the map blow) continues to mark the old Penge/county boundary.

Kingswood Rd post

The fact that the county boundary cut through these streets played a key role in the notorious ‘Penge Murder’ case of 1877. Without going into too much detail: a young woman called Harriet Staunton appears to have been abused by her husband and his family at their home in Kent. When she fell ill, they rented a house in Penge and brought her here, where she died. They then tried quietly to register her death, presumably hoping to stay ‘below the radar’ in this busy suburb. But the road where the death occurred was cut by the county boundary, which led to further enquiries to establish whether it should be recorded as a ‘Kent death’ or a ‘Surrey death’. All of this drew attention to the Stauntons, and led eventually to one of the most prominent murder trials of the century.

The road in which Harriet Staunton died was called Forbes Road, and quickly acquired a ghoulish fame as the site of the tragedy. After a few years the local authorities tried to break this association by changing the road’s name: we now know it as Mosslea Road.

Enough of this morbid stuff. We have reached Parish Lane, with Alexandra Nurseries and the Alexandra Estate lying on its north-east side. In the eighteenth century, this land was occupied by ‘The Porcupine’, clearly shown on Rocque’s 1746 map. The Porcupine was a farm, but how it acquired its interesting name I don’t know. ‘Porcupine’ is quite an old word: it means ‘prickly pig’, and has been used more or less in its modern form since the sixteenth century. And the humble hedgehog has occasionally been referred to as the ‘English porcupine’. So maybe ‘Porcupine Farm’ should really be ‘Hedgehog Farm’?


For now, we’ll pause at Alexandra Nurseries before moving on next time to explore the Boundary Stream.


Penge boundary #3: Penge Place and the Park

We can’t be certain when the first house called ‘Penge Place’ was built, but John Cary’s ‘pocket atlas’ map of 1786 shows a house just west of Old Cople Lane and south of its junction with (what is now) Crystal Palace Parade; and an Ordnance Survey map from the early nineteenth century shows a house called Penge Place which appears to be on the same site.

However, this house was replaced in the 1830s by a new Penge Place, a few hundred yards further south. This new mansion, designed by the architect Edward Blore who went on to work on Buckingham Palace, was in turn demolished less than twenty years later to make way for the Crystal Palace. It was located in the vicinity of the Crystal Palace’s concert platform, close to where the headless statue of Dante still stands.

Old Cople Lane marks the point where the Kent-Surrey boundary, coming in from the north, encounters Penge hamlet. For about two miles from this point the county boundary is also the Penge boundary, hence the reference in the 1604-5 document to the ‘shire (i.e. county) ditch’. It was not unusual to mark an important boundary by digging a bank and ditch. Penge’s ditch is long gone, but a few miles to the south there are still traces of what may be the Kent-Surrey shire ditch in woodland near New Addington.


The boundary ran downhill alongside Old Cople Lane, and we might assume that when the Crystal Palace was built it would respect these ancient lines on the landscape. It did no such thing. The Crystal Palace wiped out old roads, built new ones, and promiscuously straddled the Kent-Surrey border. So in order to trace the boundary we must take a walk through the middle of the Park.

Cary’s 1786 map gives us a general impression of the boundary line, but is impossible to reconcile with the modern landscape. This is where the much more detailed nineteenth century maps come into their own. The 1871 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map shows the old county boundary snaking across the Crystal Palace site from the Old Cople Lane entrance to the north-west, grazing the northern edge of the Lower Terrace, heading south of the Maze across the ‘North Basin’ which is now the NSC swimming pool, and just north of the tree-lined avenue which still leads to Penge Gate. It exits the Park somewhere near the bus stop, crosses Crystal Palace Park Road, and heads through the BT telephone exchange towards the railway line.

CP site

We don’t have to rely only on the map: there is also a small and rather forlorn boundary post hiding among the trees just north of the path to Penge Gate (marked ‘3’ in red on the map below). It announces itself as ‘Penge Hamlet 1875’ and may mark the point where the boundary line veers slightly west to leave the Park.


In addition to Old Cople Lane, Rocque’s 1768 map of Surrey, and Cary’s 1786 map, both show a track called Three Gates Lane, running east-west from Penge Gate up to Vicar’s Oak. And the eighteenth century maps also show three hills and two farms. The hills – Windmill Hill, Timber Hill and Isabel Hill – seem to have been within the area now occupied by the Park, but I haven’t shown them on my map because it’s impossible to work out where they were. We should remember that the Crystal Palace represented an enormous exercise in landscaping, not just in connection with the building and terraces at the top, but across the whole site where new lakes, fountains, picturesque glades and verdant lawns were created. I suspect that elevated points which once counted as ‘hills’ were simply absorbed into this new, artificial landscape.

The farms, Barnards Farm and Swingate Farm, are easier to locate. Barnards Farm seems to have been just east of Vicar’s Oak, while Swingate Farm was across the county boundary in Kent, on land now occupied by the north-east corner of the Park and the top of Crystal Palace Park Road.


Next time: onwards to the Porcupine!

Talking of commons …

The previous post found that in the seventeenth century, what is now Sydenham Hill was apparently called ‘the common of Rockhills’. So what exactly is a ‘common’?


As Raymond Williams said 40 years ago, the word ‘common’ “has an extraordinary range of meaning”. On the one hand there is a plebeian dignity in the notion of ‘the common people’ as opposed to the elite, or resources ‘held in common’ as opposed to private property. On the other hand, ‘common’ can also indicate vulgarity or lack of refinement. This ambiguity isn’t new. In the Civil War in the 1640s, Parliamentary troops refused to be called ‘common’ soldiers and insisted that they were ‘private’ soldiers; but with the War won and the king executed, the reformed state ushered in by those same soldiers was known as the ‘Commonwealth’.

The notion of ‘common land’, local ‘commons’, also carried both meanings depending on who was speaking. My book describes the long battle over Penge Common, between the Battersea Vestry and various private landowners. For the Vestry and local poor, Penge Common offered a customary right of access to food, firewood and grazing. For the landowners, all ‘common land’ was waste, squandered by the ignorant, unproductive and unprofitable.

In the case of Penge, the common was eventually enclosed or privatised: carved up, sold off, and developed for housing. Other South London commons were also lost, such as Kennington Common, famous for its enormous Chartist demonstrations in the 1840s,

which is now the site of Kennington Park.

Others fared better. Streatham Common is still with us, despite attempts by the Duke of Bedford to sell off bits of it in the 1790s: the local commoners intervened, and he beat a retreat. We’ve still got Clapham, Eltham, Mitcham, Tooting Bec, Wandsworth, Wimbledon, and others. And interestingly, perhaps paradoxically, the Corporation of the City of London preserves the commons at Coulsdon, Farthing Down, Kenley, Riddlesdown, Spring Park and West Wickham. Each patch of common land, a part of our common history.

Penge boundary #2: Rockhills and Old Cople Lane

The 1603-4 description of the boundary of Penge hamlet starts from the ‘common of Rockhills’, so that’s where I’ll start.

The name is still remembered today. Rock Hill is a steep road running down from Sydenham Road to College Road. Old Cople Lane used to be the ‘Rockhills Entrance’ to the Crystal Palace site, and some contemporary maps still show it as such. And at the top of Westwood Hill is a plaque marking the site of the house ‘Rockhills’ where Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace, used to live.

rockhills-plaque edit

John Rocque’s ‘Survey (i.e. map) of London, Westminster, Southwark and the Country Near Ten Miles Round’, published in 1746, shows a road which is clearly Sydenham Hill, running up from its junction with Westwood Hill to its junction with Kirkdale. And right along its length, the wooded hillside to the west is marked as ‘Rockhills’, at the northern end of the ‘North Wood’.

The original Rockhills therefore seems to have been a stretch of woodland running for about a mile along the hillside just below the ridge of Sydenham Hill. The 1603-4 document calls it a ‘common’ so maybe locals used it to gather firewood and graze livestock. One part of it – Dulwich Wood – still survives as a fragment of ancient woodland.

The southern end of Rockhills is where we start tracing the boundary of Penge hamlet. At this point it meets the old Kent-Surrey county boundary, which is also the boundary between two ancient parishes.

The Old Cople Lane

Old Cople Lane today is a short access road off Crystal Palace Parade, leading to the TV transmitter site and caravan park. But in the eighteenth century, and possibly for centuries before that, it was part of the main road to London which ran from Bromley and Beckenham, through Penge, up and over the hill, and on through Dulwich. It is shown on Rocque’s 1746 map as ‘The Old Cople Lane’.

The county boundary came down from the north along Sydenham Hill, between Camberwell parish in Surrey to the west, and Lewisham parish in Kent to the east. Old Cople Lane marks the point at which this boundary encountered Battersea parish in Surrey, as represented by its detached hamlet of Penge. And there are still visible markers to make the point. A few yards west of the Lane, on Crystal Palace Parade, is this metal post showing the boundary of Camberwell parish:

Camberwell post

And a few yards to the east is this one, representing Lewisham parish:

Lewisham post

So,  we’ve established our starting  point.

Just a couple more things. As part of this project I’ve drawn – literally – my own map of eighteenth century Penge. It’s based on eighteenth century maps, but with support from nineteenth century maps which are much more precise, and which often show details which clearly date from the previous century. On my map eighteenth century features are shown in black ink, with a few modern features (road names, railway lines etc.) in red ink to help you get your bearings. Here is the Rockhills and Old Cople Lane area (the red numbers 1. and 2. are the parish boundary markers):
Rockhills map 2

As you can see, the old manor house of Penge Place stood close to Old Cople Lane. Melvyn Harrison of the Crystal Palace Foundation is currently researching Penge Place, and also Paxton’s ‘Rockhills’ house. For more information go to

In the next post we ponder Penge’s ‘shire ditch’, and take a walk in the Park.