The Development of Lewisham

The London Borough of Lewisham is a combination of three distinct settlements, the ancient Kentish manors and parishes of Lewisham and Lee, and the eighteenth century parish of St Paul, Deptford. There is little evidence of Roman activity in the Lewisham area. Lewisham and Lee were Anglo-Saxon foundations, probably of the sixth century. Deptford was also an Anglo-Saxon village, but in 1730 it was divided into two parts. The small original parish of St Nicholas eventually became a part of Greenwich, while the large new parish of St Paul was incorporated into Lewisham.

Lewisham and Lee were essentially farming communities. Lewisham’s economy was given a little variety by the River Ravensbourne, which until the nineteenth century was deep and fast-flowing enough to power a succession of water mills. Most of them were used to grind corn, but others produced luxury goods like cutlery, swords, and glassware for the London market. This industrial phase in Lewisham’s history petered out late in the eighteenth century as steam replaced water power. Lee was almost purely agricultural until the nineteenth century.

One thing that distinguished Lewisham and Lee from most other Kentish villages was their proximity to the royal palace of Greenwich. While that was a favourite residence of our kings and queens, which it was throughout the sixteenth century, the surrounding villages became very popular with the many courtiers and officials who had to be in attendance on the sovereign. Most of the large old houses in Lee and Lewisham were built for courtiers. Lewisham was a royal manor for more than a century, and part of Lee was included in the deer park of Eltham Palace.

The fortunes of Deptford were also dependent on royalty, though in a different way. It was an obscure fishing village until the sixteenth century, usually referred to as West Greenwich. The deep ford from which the more familiar name is derived stood some way inland from the fishing village, where Deptford Bridge is now, on the Dover Road. But in 1513 Henry VIII’s political ambitions led him to found royal dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich, where he could keep a close watch on them from Greenwich Palace. The royal dockyard soon attracted other shipbuilders, ropemakers, anchorsmiths, and provision dealers into Deptford, and the village grew rapidly into a flourishing town. It was this that led to the creation of the new parish of St Paul in 1730.

When the courtiers deserted Lewisham and Lee in the seventeenth century their place was taken by the first commuters, London merchants who wished to live part of their lives out of the noise and crowds of the City, but remain within reach of their businesses. At first only a few very wealthy men could afford this luxury, but as transport improved over the next two centuries commuting became possible to more and more City workers. This was the dominant process in the history of Lewisham and Lee between 1800 and 1939. As the trickle of commuters became a flood swamping more and more of the farmland in the two parishes their medieval political arrangements became inadequate to deal with complex modern problems.

In the 1830s the care of the poor was taken out of the hands of the parishes and entrusted to Poor Law Unions. This was the remote origin of modern hospitals and social services. In the 1850s Boards of Works were set up to take over responsibility for roads, sewers, refuse collection, and similar matters from the parish vestries. These were the direct ancestors of the modern boroughs. The Lewisham Board of Works included Penge, which is now part of Bromley. Lee was originally part of the Plumstead Board of Works, and Deptford part of the Greenwich Board. Between 1856 and 1900 these authorities, aided by Burial Boards, Baths Commissioners, Public Libraries Commissioners, and School Boards, created most of the existing infrastructure of Lewisham.

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