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.
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.
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 … “.
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.