“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 Boundary #8: The Map

Just to round things off, this is my map of Penge hamlet as it may have appeared in the eighteenth century. In previous posts I’ve revealed tantalising bits and pieces of it, but here’s the whole thing.

My Penge map

I chose the eighteenth century as my reference point because (a) it’s when map-makers like John Rocque, and publishers like John Cary, started to produce detailed maps of South London, which gave me something to work with; and (b) it was Penge’s last moment as a rural hamlet, before it was hit by the nineteenth century capitalist hurricane of canal and enclosure and railway and Crystal Palace and housing that made it the place it is today.

The eighteenth century features are shown in black. Some contemporary features – roads, railways, Crystal Palace Park – are shown in red to help you get your bearings.

Penge boundary #7: Fox Hill and Vicar’s Oak

We are on the final leg of our perambulation of Penge hamlet, facing a daunting climb up Fox Hill, a pretty road distinguished by the fact that it has its very own picture hanging in the National Gallery.

Fox Hill

 Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, by Camille Pissarro, 1870:

Copyright National Gallery, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1870. Pissarro had worked in Paris in the 1860s with other pioneering impressionists, though he himself was not French but Danish. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, he found himself in an uncomfortable position and moved to England, settling in Norwood. For more on his time here, have a look at the excellent Norwood Society site: http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/74-pissarro-and-norwood.html

Impressionism is sometimes discussed as if it were mainly about formal technique, but early impressionists like Pissarro were equally driven by subject matter. They favoured ordinary, demotic, unremarkable landscapes, places belonging to living people rather than classical gods and heroes, and they painted outside rather than in the studio. Pissarro’s South London pictures illustrate this perfectly: his quiet, wintry, slightly rickety rendering of Fox Hill, its three figures paused uncertainly in the snow; the suburban stateliness of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’ (Lawrie Park Avenue) (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/camille-pissarro-the-avenue-sydenham), all formal perspective and width and neatness and respectable gentlefolk; and ‘Lordship Lane Station’, in which a train gently makes its way along the long-gone line to Crystal Palace High Level. Pissarro’s vantage point for this work was the footbridge on Cox’s Walk in Dulwich Wood: a deforested bare hillside in his day, now gloriously wooded once more. See Michael Glover’s thoughts on the Lordship Lane painting here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/great-works-lordship-lane-station-dulwich-1871-camille-pissarro-2033005.html

I think Glover gets it exactly right: the painting is rooted in “its own sense of its ordinariness”, but it took enormous care and skill to allow that “ordinariness” to express itself.

Back to the boundary. Near the top of Fox Hill, with Church Road in sight, the boundary veers right to follow Lansdowne Place. This seems a bit counter-intuitive: why not carry straight on? Perhaps the answer is that this apparently erratic course was the original path up the hill. Whatever the truth of the matter, to reassure us that we are going the right way, the junction is marked by a boundary post and a nice little plaque from Bromley Council.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #2

And just in case you’re still not convinced: further along Lansdowne Place, close to the junction with Church Road, Belvedere Road and Westow Street, there’s another post. This one is clearly marked ‘Battersea’ to remind us that for most of its history Penge was a ‘detached hamlet’ of that parish. It’s rather poignant to see it here, nestled up against the wall, unobtrusive, miles from Battersea proper, but defiantly re-asserting a connection first recorded in the Domesday Book.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #3

Belvedere Road and Westow Street date from the Victorian suburbanisation of the nineteenth century. But Church Road is much older, part of a road which ran for centuries along the ridge-top, comprised today of Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace Parade, Church Road, and Beulah Hill. At the end of Lansdowne Place the boundary joins this old road, heading north-east towards the roundabout at the top of Anerley Hill, the site of the Vicar’s Oak.

Vicar's Oak

In the early 1670s, soon after Cromwell’s remarkable republic was replaced by Charles Stuart’s vindictive and corrupt monarchy, John Aubrey was commissioned to produce a Perambulation of Surrey. When he visited Norwood he found:-

“an antient, remarkable Tree call’d the Vicar’s Oak, where four Parishes meet at a point. This Wood wholly consists of Oaks”.

Aubrey’s four parishes were Lambeth, Camberwell, Battersea (represented by Penge hamlet) and Croydon; their modern descendants, whose boundaries still meet at the Vicar’s Oak roundabout, are the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Bromley and Croydon.

Aubrey was one of the last visitors to see the Vicar’s Oak. It was cut down by some vandal, for reasons unknown, in 1678 or thereabouts. But the site continued to be known as Vicar’s Oak, and even in the nineteenth century some locals referred to the road not as Church Road but as ‘Vicar’s Oak Road’. For more on this, go to http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/87-norwood-and-the-vicars-oak.html and http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/170-replace-the-vicars-oak.html.

And now we have almost completed the circuit of Penge. From the Vicar’s Oak the boundary runs along Crystal Palace Parade; past the bus station; over the subway from the old High Level Station, now being renovated thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (http://www.cpsubway.org.uk/index.html); and on to Old Cople Lane where the perambulation began several posts ago.

If you want to start all over again, just go to https://wordpress.com/post/pengepast.wordpress.com/9

Alternatively, you’re very welcome to come to my Penge Festival talk about tracing the Penge boundary, on Tuesday 14th June, at 7.30 p.m. in the side-bar of the Crooked Billet, at the junction of Penge High Street and Penge Lane.

And on Sunday 19th June we won’t just be reading or talking about Penge’s ancient boundary, we’ll be walking it, tracing it through today’s streets. Join us if you can: 11 a.m. outside Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane.

For all Penge Festival events, go to http://pengetouristboard.co.uk/events/2016-06/

Penge boundary #6: A Tale of Two Commons

The south-west corner of the ancient hamlet of Penge is now represented by the junction of Marlow Road and Cambridge Road. Above and behind Cambridge Road is a railway embankment, carrying the line between Birkbeck and Crystal Palace. But the railway line is a recent arrival – that is to say, it’s only been around since 1858. What was here in the centuries before that?

All the land on the Penge side of the boundary, northwards for a mile and a half to the Vicar’s Oak, and eastwards right over to the cluster of houses around the Crooked Billet, was Penge Common – the large tract of rough heath and woodland which occupied most of the hamlet. The various attempts to ‘enclose’ (i.e. privatise) Penge Common which were made from the 1780s onwards are covered in detail in my book. They led to Parliamentary manoeuvring, legal action, physical confrontation and fence-breaking. Eventually, in the 1820s, enclosure was pushed through by the local landowner John Barwell Cator. The Common was carved up, with some bits allocated to local land-owners, and the rest sold at auction.

On the other side of the boundary was Croydon Common – but unlike Penge Common, there seem to be different views about its precise location.

John Rocque’s 1768 map of Surrey shows Croydon Common as a relatively small area around Selhurst and West Croydon, including the Whitehorse Road / Windmill Road / Northcote Road junction, and the land where Selhurst Station and the Selhurst train depot now stand.

Rocque 1768 Surrey

The same area is marked as ‘Croydon Common’ on John Cary’s 1786 map; and also apparently served as the parish of Croydon Common, created in the 1820s and served by St. James’ church.

On the other hand, our trusty document of 1604 implies that the “waste or common of Croydon” extended much further east, to meet the boundary with Penge. And this is consistent with John Rocque’s map of 1746, and with the 1800 Croydon Enclosure map, which shows allocations of land right up against the boundary.

Perhaps the explanation for these discrepancies lies in something as mundane as local custom. Even if common land as legally defined ran right up to the Penge boundary, locals may still have used ‘Croydon Common’ as a place-name for the smaller area around Selhurst and West Croydon.

But to return to the Penge boundary: having run just north of Marlow Road, it makes a sharp right-angle turn to the north-west, between Cambridge Road (in Croydon) and Wheathill Road (in Penge). It crosses Croydon Road to the east of Selby Road, then crosses Selby Road after a few yards to meet the Birkbeck-Crystal Palace railway line at the point where it crosses the Anerley-Norwood Junction line. From here it follows the railway line towards Crystal Palace, just to its east, as it skirts around the green expanse behind James Dixon School. Then, roughly at the point where the line squeezes between William Booth Road to the east and Windall Close to the west, the boundary leaves it. It veers across the railway, and runs north-west between Belvedere Road and Mowbray Road towards the bottom of Fox Hill.

Cambridge to Fox

Which provides a convenient place to break off for now.

Coming soon: the seventh and final stage in the circumnavigation of Penge, featuring an impressionist painter, a purloined post, and a Vicar’s Oak.


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 – http://www.londonslostrivers.com/river-pool.html – 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 http://pengetouristboard.co.uk/walter-de-la-mare-a-penge-poet/

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!

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 http://www.crystalpalacefoundation.org.uk/

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

Penge boundary #1: Where was Penge?

I’ve met people who’ve spent all their lives in South London, but still don’t know where Penge is.

Of course there’s a boring local-government answer: it’s sandwiched between Sydenham, Beckenham, Anerley and Crystal Palace in south-east London.


But Penge was here long before all these other places. It doesn’t even have an English name. Its name is Celtic or British, belonging to the language of the people who lived here before the Romans arrived, the language that survives today as Welsh. It means something like ‘High Wood’ or ‘Wood End’.

Penge is ancient. So the really interesting question is not: “Where is Penge?” but “Where was Penge?” Where was its original boundary? What was its function? What other places was it connected with?

Although it is mentioned in a tenth century charter, we can only really start to pin things down from the following century. After the Battle of Hastings, King William and the Normans divided much of the country between themselves and the Church, and this was when Penge acquired the status that would define it for centuries to come. As part of a wider carve-up which transformed South London, the manor of Battersea was granted to Westminster Abbey. And as part of this package, Penge was included as a “detached hamlet”.

This was not an unusual arrangement. Many medieval estates and manors owned “detached” parcels of land. In the case of Penge, its main value was as a source of timber. So, despite its location several miles from the Thames, adjacent to Beckenham, Camberwell, Croydon and Lambeth, Penge’s land and produce belonged to the riverside manor of Battersea.

This connection survived for 800 years, until the second half of the nineteenth century. A verbal description dating from the seventeenth century is summarised in the Victoria County History:-

“The boundaries of the hamlet on the north in February 1604–5 were the common of Rockhills (evidently Rockhills in Upper Sydenham, immediately north of the Crystal Palace) and the ‘Shire Ditch’ leading past the house called ‘Abbetts’ to the north corner of ‘Lord Riden’s Wood.’ The Shire Ditch also bounded the hamlet on the east and was crossed by ‘Willmoores Bridge,’ half in Kent and half in Surrey. On the south it was bounded by the waste or common of Croydon, the green way from Croydon to Lewisham. On the west was a wood ‘of Mr. Colton’s’ in Camberwell parish, which stretched from Vicker’s Oak to the Low Cross near Rockhills.”

I’m not aware of any detailed maps of the area dating back as far as the seventeenth century (although Speed’s large-scale map of Surrey, produced in 1610, clearly shows ‘Pensgreene’ which is rather gratifying). However, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards detailed maps were being produced. So over the coming weeks, drawing on these maps and other sources, and on the 1604-5 text above, I will be trudging around modern streets and footpaths looking for surviving traces of the ancient boundary of the detached hamlet of Penge.

Watch this space …