“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.