The West Wood

Dominating the north west part of Blackfen used to be The West Wood, a surviving section of much more extensive ancient woodland. In the 1200s it belonged to the Lord of the Manor of Bexley, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was valuable, providing wood for fences, poles and gates, logs for fires and charcoal for fuel, and a great pond was stocked with 4000 fish. In earlier times local tenants would have taken their pigs to feed in the woods, but in 1284 there were complaints that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s systematic use of the woodland had taken away their ancient rights.

Labourers were employed to cut the wood and a ‘woodward’ was in charge of selling the wood to shipmen, coopers and brewers, transporting it overland to Woolwich or Erith to be sent up the river to London. The aerial view below (dating from 1932) shows the proximity of the River Thames (across the top). Also below are images of the Thames at Erith.

After the Reformation, ownership of the West Wood passed to Henry VIII. After being passed around a few times it was granted in 1621 to the University of Oxford to provide endowment for a professorship of history. By 1854 foreign imports of timber had made the woodland unprofitable and all the trees were dug up so the land could be used as a farm instead – Westwood Farm, which remained until 1930s housing redevelopment.

From Ireland to Blackfen

On St Patrick’s Day, let us remember the most prominent Irishman in Blackfen’s history, Michael Heaslip, who was born in Newmarket, Co. Cork and came to England with his young family in the 1890s. He worked as a haulage contractor in north Woolwich and he bought a farm in Blackfen as grazing for his horses which he liked to use as his weekend retreat! His son, also Michael, served at the Woolwich Arsenal during WWI and his picture (see below) was part of the WWI display at Sidcup Library.
The farm was sold off for 1930s housing development, but Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church was later built on land next to the site of Heaslip’s farmhouse. The Catholic Church was in high demand in the 1930s while house-building was active in Blackfen as there was a large Irish population who came to find work.
And when Irish people in Blackfen married their weddings were often announced in Irish newspapers. The Ballina Herald reported on 14 April 1951 the marriage of John Bradley, only son of Mr and Mrs John Bradley, Glasgow, to Breedge, youngest daughter of the late Mr John Granahan and Mrs Mary Granahan, Creevy, Castlehill, Ballina, which took place on Easter Monday at the Church of the Holy Rosary, Blackfen Kent. Meanwhile the Irish Independent of 20 November 1962 p13 reported the marriage (pictured) of Mr Thomas Sullivan, Rosmuck, Co. Galway and Miss Elizabeth Dunne, Sidcup Kent, who were married in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen, Kent.

Lamorbey House

The history of the Lamorbey Estate is closely intertwined with the history of Blackfen.

In 1608 the Goldwell family’s Lamorbey estate included a 54 acre farm at Blackfen. This later got passed around as fortunes rose and fell. In the 18th century landowners bought up parcels of land to convey their wealth, political power and social status. William Steele enhanced his Lamorbey estate by buying up land in Blackfen in 1745. But it worked both ways: when Robert Owen Jones died and his Blackfen home was put up for auction in 1861 a key selling point was the fact that the property adjoined big estates like Lamorbey and Danson. Estate agents were at work even then!

And when Blackfen’s Church of the Good Shepherd was built in 1967 it was Lt-Col G. I. Malcolm of Poltalloch (a descendant of the Malcolms of Lamorbey) who laid the foundation stone.

The Grade II listed Lamorbey House (now the home of Rose Bruford College) is open to visitors as part of Open House next Saturday 22 September 10am-3pm. https://www.bruford.ac.uk/news-events/events/lamorbey-house-part-of-open-house-london/

Lamorbey_House

 

Townshends of Scadbury and Frognal

Glamorous landlords! One of Blackfen’s farms, on the east side of Days Lane, was owned from the early 1800s by the Townshends, including the politician John Robert Townshend, 3rd Viscount and later 1st Earl Sydney. The family also owned fields in what is now the Boundary Road area. They lived at Scadbury in Chislehurst and later at Frognal House. All the land was sold off as part of the vast Frognal and Scadbury estate in September 1915.

Each year there is an Open Weekend at Scadbury. You can see excavations of the ruined remains of the medieval manor house and moat, plus WWII defences. There is a self-guided tour of the site and there is a bookstall and refreshments. It takes place this year on 15 and 16 September 2pm-4.30pm. Well worth a visit. http://www.odas.org.uk/open-weekend/

James Lee of Strawberry Gardens

It’s difficult to imagine these days, but in the 1880s there were just fields here at what is now the junction of Westwood Lane/Blackfen Road. James Lee, a market gardener and florist kept ‘Strawberry Gardens’ here, and he lived in a rather run-down cottage with his wife Elizabeth. At that time it was still part of the Danson Estate. But the soil was heavy and three years of wet weather led to bad crops… and when his wife died he started to get behind on his rent – it was his wife who had kept the accounts. In April 1906 he went bankrupt, and Strawberry Gardens was taken over by Walter Cook.

Westwood Lane_Blackfen Rd 2018

Bankruptcy in 1819

On 16 March 1819 the London Gazette announced the bankruptcy of Richard and Robert Day. Their father, Richard Day, had purchased Blackfen Farm in the 1790s and rented it to the farmer, John Solomon, for £200 per year. But in 1819 the brothers, who were also co-partners in a seed-crusher and oil-broker business, got into financial trouble and the farm was put up for auction. The four-bedroom farmhouse was in 134 acres of land which was ‘abundant with game’. The farm was located to the west of Days Lane. However, ‘Dayes Lane’ is referred to in the records as early as 1681, long before the Day family’s association with Blackfen.

Michael Heaslip of Blackfen Farm

Michael Heaslip was born in Newmarket, Co. Cork and came to England with his young family in the 1890s. He worked as a haulage contractor in north Woolwich and also ran a pub there with his wife Margaret. He bought a farm in Blackfen as grazing for his horses and liked to use it as his weekend retreat! His granddaughter Kathleen used to help pick the strawberries (which grew where Bargain Booze is now!) and said they were the best she’d ever tasted. As they were Catholics they went to Mass in Sidcup on Sunday mornings, bringing back Father O’Knight for lunch and later playing cards round the dining table.

The farm was sold off for 1930s housing development, but it is fitting that Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church was later built on land next to the Heaslip farmhouse. The Catholic Church was in high demand in the 1930s while house-building was active in Blackfen as there was a large Irish population who came to find work.

Listed buildings of Blackfen

LOCAL LIST

A locally listed heritage asset is a building or structure which is deemed to be of local architectural or historic interest and is included on the local heritage list drawn up by Bexley Council. There are several in Blackfen, and a few just outside which are so close it seemed a shame to omit them here. They make a positive contribution to the area’s local character and sense of place, and they are offered some level of protection by the local planning authority.

177-179 Blackfen Road (corner of Burleigh Avenue). Known as Westwood Cottages, or Maxwell’s Cottages, they were built in 1890 to house workers on Westwood Farm. A footpath led to the farmhouse which was at the site now occupied by the children’s playground at The Green.

George Staples pub, 271 Blackfen Road (formerly The Woodman). Built in 1931 by the architect, Kenneth Dalgliesh, it replaced an earlier pub on the site.

Edward VIII pillar box, Tyrrell Avenue. Only a small number of letter boxes were made during the short reign of Edward VIII in 1936 and after his abdication, most boxes bearing his cypher were modified or replaced. So a surviving one is a rare sight.

ARP warden’s shelter, Wellington Avenue, near The Oval. Used during the Second World War as part of a network of shelters for ARP wardens.

The Three Blackbirds pub, 118 Blendon Road. Licensed as far back as 1717, it was rebuilt after being gutted by a fire around 1900.

Blendon Lodge, 167 Blendon Road. The West Lodge, built in 1855/56 stands at the corner of Blendon Road and The Drive. It had four rooms and a garden and housed various staff of Blendon Hall which was demolished in 1934. (The East Lodge, built at the same time as the West Lodge, was at the corner of today’s Beechway and was demolished in the 1930s).

STATUTORY LIST

Listing of a building or structure on the national Statutory List marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.

The Chapel House, 497 Blackfen Road – Grade II listed. Decoration giving the impression of a ‘chapel’ was added to the cottage when John Boyd of Danson acquired the parcel of land on which it was sited.

Jay’s Cottages, 1, 2, and 2a Blendon Road – Grade II listed. Jay’s Cottages, originally known as Blendon Villas, have stood in Blendon Road since the early 18th century to house workers on the Blendon Hall estate. They still have a lack of rear windows which was intended to stop the inhabitants gazing over the grounds of the Hall and invading the privacy of the Hall’s wealthy residents!

 

Blackfen in 1822

While carrying out my New Year’s Resolution of having a bit of a tidy up/clear out, I was looking over my Blackfen research papers (I have boxes and boxes of them…), and I came across a copy of the Survey and Valuation of all the Rateable Property in the Borough of Bexley taken on 11 April 1822. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the Bexley area at that time.

Blackfen at that time was just a tiny hamlet. Its inhabitants consisted of:

BLACK FENN

James Townsend: house, garden and orchard (owned by James Townsend)

Edmund Newsted: house, garden and orchard (owned by James Townsend)

Thomas Tyler: farm house, barn, yard, stables, garden, orchard, arable and meadow land (owned by Lord Sidney)

Robert Ingram: farm house, yard, barns, stable, garden, arable and meadow land (owned by Messrs Day)

Thomas Warde: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

William Smith: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Staples: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Newsted: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Foster: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Near Black Fenn, on Danson land, were the Whale family living in a cottage with stable and garden. This fascinated me at the time because whale jaw bones had been discovered when Westwood Lane was made up in the 1930s. I had no idea what whale jaw bones were doing there and wondered if it was anything to do with this family named Whale!

Sir John Kirkland at Beckenham Place

Sir John Kirkland, a wealthy army agent who purchased the Blackfen Farm in 1861, lived in some very grand houses. His London homes had included 10 Portman Square and 80-82 Pall Mall, while his country homes had included The Priory in Roehampton, Surrey (now the Grade II listed Priory Hospital) and Dulany House in Patching, Sussex (destroyed by fire in 1945).

From 1869 he was a tenant of Beckenham Place. This mansion had been built by John Cator, MP around 1763. The layout and design is strikingly similar to that of Danson House, Bexley, built around the same time. A portico with four Ionic columns was added to the frontage in the 1780s, and this element is a reminder of Foots Cray Place in Bexley which Sir John Kirkland had rented previously. (The only homes he actually owned were Avoch in Ross-shire and Queens Wood in Blackfen.) Not many people were wealthy enough to pay the rent on such properties, and Beckenham Place lay empty for some years after his death in 1871.

Front of Beckenham Place, 2015

Front of Beckenham Place, 2015

Beckenham Place facing its splendid grounds

Beckenham Place facing its splendid grounds

In the early 1900s Beckenham Place was used as a boys’ school and then as a sanatorium, while the grounds became a golf course. The whole estate was acquired by London County Council in 1927 and has been managed by the London Borough of Lewisham since 1971. The stable block was destroyed by fire but the formal gardens are still glorious.

Beckenham Place stable block and formal gardens

Beckenham Place stable block and formal gardens

Today, Beckenham Place Park is an area of over 200 acres of beautiful open space, ancient woodland, meadow areas and a public golf course. There is a nature trail, a sensory garden and a children’s playground. The visitor centre (open Sundays 1.30-3.30pm) is run by volunteers and contains a fantastic collection of history on the park and mansion, information leaflets and books, plus the chance to see some of the 18th century-style interior.

Beckenham Place golf course

Beckenham Place golf course

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Beckenham Place Park. But it appears to be under a degree of threat, as a lottery bid for ‘improvements’ to the park by Lewisham Council includes the closure of the golf course and there is a campaign against it. I just hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the beautiful open space that I saw today and that Sir John Kirkland enjoyed until his death in 1871.