There were once quite a few purpose-built recreation halls in Blackfen. With all the in-coming residents in the 1930s making a new life for themselves, organisations and clubs would hold their meetings in them. The Queenswood Hall (pictured here, next to the Co-op car park) was built in 1938 and used for dance classes and snooker. Later it became the home of the Queenswood Club, run by Mrs March, and hosted boxing matches. For a time it was a printer’s premises and is now occupied by a window company.
There were also halls above the RACS Stores (now Katie’s Playpen), behind Woodlands House (now Fenways Car Sales), the Lamorbey Labour Hall (now demolished for housing in Foxglove Close), and the Pop-in-Parlour in Sycamore Avenue.
This building in Bexley village was once the parish workhouse. The Pickett family of Blackfen ended up here in 1835, most likely because James Pickett could not find work. Esther Pickett made a complaint to the authorities about repeated harsh treatment towards her six children. She was summoned to give evidence but the officers, including the vicar of Bexley, did not believe her and he had ‘great pleasure in reporting… that she deserved the severest reprehension’. Years later the vicar reported that the Master of the Workhouse had been dismissed from other jobs for ‘great cruelty’. His wife was sacked from Dartford Workhouse for drunkenness and ill-treatment of children. The vicar admitted that the Pickett case had been a whitewash.
James Pickett died in 1841 leaving behind a family with no source of income. Blackfen was not an easy place to survive if you were poor. Esther later moved to Bexleyheath to be with family who lived there.
On Remembrance Sundays the British Legion would hold a parade at the Woodman before marching to the Holy Redeemer Church for a service. The Blackfen and Lamorbey Branch of the British Legion was formed in April 1937 to stand for the interests of ex-servicemen and at its peak membership was over one thousand. The branch finally closed in 2001 when membership had fallen to sixteen. There is still a Royal British Legion cross at Holy Redeemer Church in memory of those who fell serving their country.
Holy Redeemer Church, Days Lane, 2018
British Legion cross, Holy Redeemer Church
Until the late 19th century Blackfen was in the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Bexley (pictured here). Those who lived in Blackfen had to travel (most likely on foot) to Bexley village for baptisms, marriages and funerals and to attend services if they wished. That’s quite a hike!
The parish records show that on 4 April 1638 John Philips de Blackfen was buried at St Mary’s Bexley.
It was only when Holy Trinity Lamorbey was built in 1880 that people didn’t have to travel quite so far to get to church. Meanwhile, the north side of Blackfen became part of the parish of Christ Church, Bexleyheath.
On 6 March 1957 a new pub opened in Blackfen: The Jolly Fenman. It had three bars: the Kingfisher Lounge, the Saloon Bar and the Public Bar. On the walls were paintings of geese and ducks as well as a specially commissioned painting ‘The Kingfisher’ by Edward Ward, RA. (I wonder what happened to that painting?). There had been a competition to name the new pub, and the winner was Mr Robert Tidy of Curran Avenue who got a £25 prize and the honour of drawing the first pint of beer.
A few days after the anniversary of the opening of the pub, thanks to a great find at the Animal Protection charity shop in Blackfen, I became the proud owner of a framed 1977 price list from the Jolly Fenman. A pint of bitter would set you back 32 pence, and a bottle of Babycham 23 pence. That day, 10 March, would have been my dad’s birthday, so I was thinking of him stood looking at this price list which was hanging in the pub! I would love to know where it has been residing for the last few years and why it has suddenly surfaced.
The Jolly Fenman
William Duggan, my dad
1977 price list of The Jolly Fenman
During 1938/39 there was a real fear by the authorities that if war broke out, bombing raids would cause mass casualties. Trenches were dug in parks to protect the public if they were caught out in a raid and couldn’t get to their own shelters.
Trenches were dug at right angles to each other, with earth walls reinforced with sandbags and a corrugated iron roof covered with a layer of soil. The roof was raised about a foot above ground level. They were not particularly safe. A direct hit or even a nearby bomb would probably collapse the whole shelter. They were also very unpleasant – smelly, unsanitary and waterlogged.
By October 1939 there were public shelters built or planned at The Oval, Penhill Park, Marlborough Park, Holly Oak Park and Willersley Park. The shelter at The Oval was designed for 316 people, but it immediately flooded and extra drainage had to be constructed. However, it seems no-one ever actually used the shelter during air raids. In Blackfen, people tended to have gardens with Anderson shelters (or if not, Morrison shelters), so they were much less likely to have to use public shelters in parks, unlike in London where most people didn’t have gardens. And most shelters dug in the ‘Black Fen’ were never going to be much use as they were often flooded.
As always, vandalism was a problem. There was damage and thefts from trenches in Holly Oak Park on 5 and 6 February 1940. Tools were stolen by five boys who were caught and charged, appearing in court on 20 February.
Today there is no trace on the surface of the trenches at The Oval. The entrance, which would have been in between the two rectangle sections, was blocked up.
The original Woodman Public House was built by George Staples, a publican and wood merchant, in 1845. At that time there were only nine families living in the hamlet of Blackfen, so he must have been catering for the passing trade on the road from Eltham to Bexley. After his death in 1859 his wife and son took over the running of the pub. There was a tradition that Charles Peace, a notorious burglar around southern London, frequented The Woodman and treated all the customers to a drink. (He was put on trial and executed in 1879).
From 1914 the landlord was John Alfred Harvey, a retired slaughterman who was known for keeping a pet goose. By 1930 it was clear that the old pub no longer met the requirements of the district – farmland was being sold off and hundreds of houses were being built. The new Woodman Inn was built in 1931, erected behind the old one so that business could continue – this explains why the present pub is at an angle facing the crossroads.
The Woodman in 1906
The Woodman in 1931, shortly before it was replaced by the new Woodman Inn.
‘Gwillim Close’ is named after Thomas Walter Gwillim. He had been a newsagent in Woolwich but when his father died he had money to buy some land in Blackfen. In 1927 he wanted to build a huge development of houses on the north side of Blackfen Road but planning permission was denied because of access and drainage issues.
Instead he built a row of just seven houses in Blackfen Road approximately where the east part of Wellington Parade is now. He moved into one which he called Gwenlliant (after his sister), and this is the only one which survives, incorporated into the 1930s Wellington Parade. Its roof can be seen above the shop roof line.
For some years a dilapidated ‘haunted house’ remained where children would explore and scare each other! Gwillim’s land was later sold off but he is remembered in the road name ‘Gwillim Close’.
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.
The strawberry fields of Blackfen Farm were located where the RACS Stores was later built – now (in 2018) Katie’s Playpen, Browne’s Chemist and Bargain Booze
Our Lady of the Rosary RC Church, 2018
John Cronin was one of many people who came to live in Blackfen in 1931. He had lived in Islington but rents there were rising dramatically. At that time there was no Bexley Labour Party group and Cronin became committed to establishing one. This was a time when the trade unions were growing in importance and many of the new residents had an interest in politics.
Cronin became councillor for the Falconwood Ward in 1937 and later for St Michael’s Welling. He worked hard to assist those in need – some people who moved to Blackfen had over-reached themselves and couldn’t afford rents, food or clothing. When Cronin became Mayor in 1947 he and his wife Ellen regularly had to attend ceremonies and dances but they couldn’t afford extravagant clothes and as Mayoress, Ellen held her ‘at home’ at Danson Mansion rather than at their bungalow.
During the Second World War Cllr Cronin’s home became a centre for the distribution of gas masks and his garage was used by teams of builders repairing house roofs to store their tools. As one of the few people in the area with a telephone, he placed it by an open window so people could stick their hand in and use it. He was an ARP Warden and his duties included enforcing blackouts, directing people to shelters when the sirens sounded, reporting bombings and helping with the aftermath of an air raid.
John Cronin died in 1986 aged 84.