Catford 1893 - 1914

There cannot be many sheets in this OS series that present such a sharp contrast between the editions of 1894 and 1914. The former, reproduced here, shows an area of which some eighty per cent is occupied by fields. Twenty years later (see —) eighty per cent was covered by houses. The transformation was largely the work of two remarkable Scots, Archibald Cameron Corbett and James Watt. Corbett (1856-1933), was an estate developer on a huge scale who became an M.P. and eventually Lord Rowallan. He bought 278 acres of farmland from the Earl of St Germans in 1896, and by 1913 had overseen the building of the great St Germans Estate, now better known as the Corbett Estate. Its three thousand houses filled much of the central third of this map. James Watt (1856/7-1932) was one of the contactors employed by Corbett: he built a third of the houses on the St Germans Estate. Watt was already active locally on his own account before his involvement with Corbett. Some of the houses seen here in Brookdale Road, Scrooby Street, Barmeston Road, and Aitkin Road were his. From 1902 he was the principal developer of the Forster family’s Sangley Farm estate, and in that capacity was to cover the south-western corner of this map with bricks and mortar. He was also a pioneer of popular entertainment who built skating rinks and cinemas in Catford and elsewhere.

But in 1894 all that lay just in the future, and the Catford countryside still had a few uneasy years of life ahead of it. At this date all of the St Germans land was worked from North Park Farm, which is seen at the top edge of the map. The last tenant was Samuel Sheppard, who in 1867 had built Eliot Lodge, the new farmhouse close to Hither Green Lane. It still stands there as number 295, a rare survival from Lewisham’s agricultural days. The track leading to the old farm and the farmyard is today known as Duncrievie Road. There had once been a South Park Farm as well, close to the line of Brownhill Road, but that had been demolished more than fifty years earlier. Cockshed Farm, in what is now Sangley Road, was an early nineteenth century offshoot of Priory Farm in Rushey Green. It inherited some of the surplus land when Priory Farm was demolished in 1877, to make way for Brownhill Road. Sangley Farm in Bromley Road belonged to the Forster family of Southend Village, just to the south of Catford. The Forsters were Lewisham’s principal landowners. The farmhouse survived until only a few years ago as the Priory House School.

Encroaching on the farmland from north, east, and west were two waves of suburban development, one that had broken and receded, and a second that was gathering strength to sweep all before it. The broken wave was that of the villas, the country retreats or retirement homes of wealthy Londoners that had been the classic building type in Lewisham between 1700 and 1850. Mountsfield (near the top of the map) was built in 1846-7 for the entomologist Henry Tibbats Stainton. Close to it were the late eighteenth century Hither Green Lodge and the early nineteenth century Wilderness House, both of which were about to be swept away to make room for the Park fever hospital. Hope Cottage in Hither Green Lane was built c.1840, and the group called the Woodlands at various dates from 1842 onwards. Sangley Lodge in Bromley Road originated in a farm and inn, but had become a country villa by the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was rebuilt. Penrith, just south of it, was a very late example of the type, dating only from c.1870. In Bromley Road were also the early nineteenth century pair of semi-detached villas known as Rose Lawn and Ravensbourne Lodge.

Apart from these scattered houses the only area of old development on the map was at the southern end of Rushey Green. Until 1810, when the Lewisham Enclosure Act was passed, the western side had been the open green from which the road took its name. The only notable building there was the Rising Sun, south of Wildfell Road, which opened in 1823. But the eastern side, facing the green, had been inhabited since the middle ages. The departed Priory Farm (on the line of Brownhill Road) was on a moated site. The moat may once have protected the great house known as Rushey Green Place. To the south of the farm was the group of old houses and cottages that included the Black Horse public house, now known as the Goose on the Green. All of these were soon to be rebuilt, the Black Horse as early as 1897.

Nearby were the public buildings that had clustered in this rather out of the way part of Lewisham. This was from the accident of the parish having been awarded a plot of land on Rushey Green by the enclosure commissioners. Hatcliffe’s Almshouses were built here in 1857, with unintended appropriateness, as William Hatcliffe, the founder of the charity, had lived at Rushey Green Place early in the sixteenth century. The Lewisham Board of Works offices, later the Town Hall, received the adjoining site in 1874, and the fire station facing Rushey Green was built at about the same time. St Laurence’s Church, which was said to look far more like a town hall than the Gothic building opposite, was opened in 1887. Two banks and the horse tram depot south of the Black Horse completed this official quarter of Catford. The tram service was started in 1890, and had already had a major impact on the social composition of the area by driving away the rich and making Catford a practical place of residence for working class commuters.

There was a smaller municipal outpost towards the bottom right corner of the map, in what was then still Hither Green Lane. The part south of Brownhill Road was to be renamed Verdant Lane in 1907, just as its green credentials were being destroyed by James Watt and other builders. Lee Cemetery was opened in 1873 by the parish of Lee (although the land was just within Lewisham) to replace the crowded graveyard at St Margaret’s Church. The cemetery has now been considerably extended, and is known as Hither Green. The cottage hospital to the north of the cemetery was run from 1871 until 1895 by the Lewisham Board of Works, as a fee-paying fever hospital. It was mostly used by employers for the treatment of sick servants.

The second wave of suburban development that was gathering to swamp all of Catford’s remaining farmland can be seen approaching from all directions except the rural south. Willow Walk and the Retreat, off the west side of Rushey Green, were part of the original early nineteenth century development after the enclosure act, but the roads to the north of them – Hawstead, Bradgate, Medusa, etc. – were all begun in the 1880s. Many of the houses were the work of James Watt or his countryman and original employer, James Laird. Springfield Park Crescent (now Catford Broadway) was planned as a rather grand housing development, but when the much-delayed building work began in the early 1880s the changing nature of the area meant that shops appeared instead.

The turnings off the east side of Rushey Green down to Brownhill Road were created in the 1870s and 1880s, but grew slowly as the market for middle class housing in Lewisham contracted. The roads south of Brownhill represented the reaction. Plassy, Engleheart, Bownes (a mistake for Bowness) and Jutland Roads featured much smaller and meaner terraces, aimed firmly at the working classes. Building work here began c.1880.

The advanced outpost of suburban housing off the west side of Bromley Road, in the bottom left corner of the map, was developed ahead of its time only because this was an outlying part of Priory Farm. When that was demolished in 1877 and the home fields used for Brownhill Road, etc., this isolated field came on the market and was acquitted by builders rather than a farmer. Barmeston, Charsley, and Aitken Roads were planned in 1877, but the development was still far from complete in 1894. James Watt was one of the builders active here.

The roads off Hither Green Lane, at the top of the map – Brightside, Mallet, and Elthruda – were laid out in 1882 by a speculator gambling that a station would soon be built at Hither Green. The idea had been in the air ever since the South Eastern Railway line was built in 1865, but in 1894 there was still no stop between Lewisham and Grove Park. The long wait ended in 1895, when Hither Green Junction was opened on the 1st June. Cameron Corbett’s purchase of North Park Farm followed almost immediately.

The developments on the eastern edge of the map were in Lee. The boundary between the two ancient parishes of Lewisham and Lee was formed by the stream that ran down the west side of Manor Lane, passed under the railway line, and followed the eastern side of Hither Green (or Verdant) Lane before encircling the cemetery. Lee was a more uniformly middle class and residential parish than Lewisham, with practically no industry. Large houses for commuters were a speciality of Lee from the 1840s, and the market for them had been further stimulated and extended south by the opening of Lee Station (just off the top right corner) in 1866 and Grove Park Station in 1871. The houses in Burnt Ash Hill, St Mildred’s Road, Newstead Road, and Birch Grove were part of this long ribbon development from Lee Green to Grove Park. The ones seen here were built in the 1870s and 1880s. New churches were an essential part of ambitious Victorian housing developments. St Mildred’s was built between 1877 and 1879 on a site given by the Earl of Northbrook, the Lord of the Manor and principal landowner in Lee.

Summerfield Street and Ronver Road, on the right edge of the map, were rather different. There were laid out in 1869 and 1877 as part of the same southwards extension of Lee, but these were far from being luxury houses for wealthy commuters. Every middle class community needed its pool of service workers, nearby but as unobtrusive as possible. These streets, which even had their own school and Baptist chapel in what is now Bromley Road, just off the map, fulfilled this vital function for Lord Northbrook’s tenants in Burnt Ash Hill and its offshoots.

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