Penge boundary #5: Heart of Penge and Boundary Stream

On our trip around the ancient boundary of Penge hamlet we have reached Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane, on the site of the former Porcupine Farm.

Alexandra Nurseries

The road system here looks like a set of cricket stumps with the High Street as the ground; Penge Lane, Green Lane and Kent House Road as the stumps; and Parish Lane sitting on top as the bails. This road system is old, clearly visible on eighteenth century maps. It may not be the geographical heart of Penge – it’s tucked in the south-east corner – but it is certainly its historical heart. This is where most of the hamlet’s small population used to live, at least until the 1830s when Upper Norwood started to develop as an affluent suburb.

The boundary we are following is still a double-boundary: the boundary of Penge hamlet, and also the ancient county boundary between Kent and Surrey. It follows Parish Lane from Penge Lane, across Green Lane and down to the junction with Kent House Road, where it turns south-west to head towards the High Street.

This stretch between Parish Lane and the High Street is now simply the final part of Kent House Road as it heads down from Bell Green. But on Rocque’s map of 1746, this stretch is called Willmore Lane, and it meets the High Street at Willmore Bridge. So who or what is Willmore?

The Willmore is a river, one of the three tributaries of the River Pool. It marks the southern boundary of Penge hamlet and, remember, the county boundary between Surrey and Kent. Hence its alternative name, the ‘Boundary Stream’. Today it flows underground, but back in the eighteenth century the main road required a bridge to cross it, more or less where Tesco stands today.

Heart map

Given its historic role as a county boundary, we might expect the Willmore to be well known, but it seems to be largely forgotten. The 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map ignores it. The 1:25,000 OS map shows a wiggly line between properties which reflects its course, but isn’t shown as a waterway. Some A-Z maps do show part of it, but describe it incorrectly as the River Pool. And an otherwise useful website about London’s lost rivers – – states baldly that the River Pool only has two tributaries, the Beck and the Chaffinch, thus writing out the poor old Willmore altogether.

But anyone who cares to visit Cator Park can see for themselves that the Willmore is alive and kicking. The River Pool is formed in Cator Park, first by a meeting of the Beck and the Chaffinch

Beck Chaffinch confluence

and then, a few yards to the north, by the advent of the Willmore.

Willmore confluence

To get to this point from Willmore Bridge, the river has flowed alongside Kent House Road before turning sharp east to pass under Reddons Road and Aldersmead Road and so into the Park.

So: having reassured ourselves that the River Willmore does actually exist, we are now walking upstream (south-west) from Willmore Bridge. The river flows between Royston Road (in Penge hamlet) and Ravenscroft Road (in Beckenham parish), so if we’re staying inside Penge we need to go along Royston Road, turn right into Westbury Road and immediately left into Percy Road, and then carry straight on as it becomes Chesham Road and Ash Grove.

Willmore map

The River Willmore is parallel to us, at the bottoms of the gardens of the houses on our left. The best place to convince ourselves of this is at the junction with Avenue Road, where a quick glance to left and right shows that we are in a river valley. The river bank on the left rises to the footbridge at Avenue Road tram-stop. The bank on the right rises to Croydon Road – the ‘Green Way to Lewisham’ – with the Crystal Palace transmitter photogenically placed beyond.

River Willmore valley

Beyond Elmers End Road – or Clay Lane as it was known in the eighteenth century, when it ran only as far as the junction with Croydon Road – the course of the river becomes uncertain. But the line of the Penge boundary is clear enough: it runs just north of Marlow Road as far as the junction with Cambridge Road.

Cambridge Road

At this point the hamlet of Penge encounters the parish of Croydon, which is also in Surrey, which means that Penge’s boundary ceases to act as the county boundary. Which makes this a good point to pause.

But not before paying tribute to Walter De La Mare. The poet and writer lived in this area, where he produced much of his best work, from about 1900 to 1925. Personally I prefer his short stories to his poetry: his ghost stories in particular have a fine, subtle chill. More info at Penge Tourist Board at

Talking of navvies …

“These banditti, known in some parts of England by the name of ‘Navvies’ or ‘Navigators’, and in others by that of ‘Bankers’, are generally the terror of the surrounding country …”. So said Lieutenant Peter Lecount, assistant engineer on the London to Birmingham railway, in 1838.

In my previous post I referred to ‘navvies’ coming through Penge in the first years of the 19th century to build the Croydon Canal. And in the 1850s ‘navvies’ built the Crystal Palace when it moved from Hyde Park to Penge Place. But who exactly were these ‘navvies’? And how did they come to be called ‘navvies’?

‘Navvy’ is a slang version of ‘navigator’, which from the late 18th century was the name given to canal-builders. Southey in 1819 referred to “navigators, as canal men are called in the midland counties.”

However, navvies were not general labourers. They were the shock troops of canal-building, specialising in all the heaviest and most dangerous work: mining, tunnelling, blasting. Some of them learned their skills building ‘banks’ or sea-walls in Lincolnshire and the fens – hence the alternative name ‘banker’. But navvies always held themselves aloof from mere labourers, whom they “out-worked, out-drank, out-rioted and despised” according to Terry Coleman in his brilliant book The Railway Navvies. 


As canals were superseded by railways from the 1830s, creating even more opportunities for mining, tunnelling and blasting, navvies moved into the new industry. And because the railway industry was so much bigger than canals had been, they became much more visible. This was when they acquired their fearsome reputation for drunkenness and fighting – and for heathenism, so that some missionaries, rather than setting off for Africa, chose instead to take the good book to the godless navvies on the railway workings.

In the 1850s navvies arrived to build the Crystal Palace at Penge Place


sparking a moral panic, as middle class residents in Upper Norwood’s fine mansions suddenly found themselves living cheek by jowl with new and alarming neighbours, housed on Central Hill. A wall was built to separate the two communities, and there were regular police patrols.

While the Central Hill navvies were working on the Crystal Palace, others went over to Canada to build the ‘Grand Trunk’ railway (which you can find about at: )

And when these jobs were finished, navvies from both crews went off to the Crimean War, to build a railway for British troops besieging Sebastopol. This was after all a time when Britain was the world-leader in railway technology, laying down more miles of track than any other country, and the experience of British railway navvies made them – for a while, at least – into a unique workforce, not just nationally but internationally.

So: respect to the navvies. They built our canals. They built our railways. They built the Crystal Palace. And they drank a lot of liquor along the way.