The Early History of Norwood

Published 1965

Norwood was originally groups of scattered houses and is described by Manning & Bray, History of Surrey, as ‘a village scattered round a large wild common and a principal haunt of gipsies’. Aubrey, Perambulation of Surrey, 1661, writes ‘In the parish of Croydon lies the great wood called Norwood belonging to the see of Canterbury, wherein was an ancient tree where the churchwardens of the several parishes used to dine at their boundary perambulation.’ The parishes were Croydon, Lambeth, Camberwell, Lewisham and Battersea of which Penge was then a detached portion. A map in the Surrey volume of Lyson’s Survey of London, 1792, shows the wood rather broken up by then, as stretching along the Kent/Surrey border northwards from Woodside wood almost to Goose Green, Dulwich. The only road was the old Roman Road through Brixton and Streatham to Croydon which would link the two Archbishop’s Palaces of Croydon and Lambeth. There were also a number of cross tracks which were probably mere bridle paths, used by the colliers who frequented the wood for the purpose of making charcoal which, until Tudor times, was the principal fuel of London.

The woods extended westwards as far as the old Roman Road and, in earlier times, must have connected with Wimbledon to the Thames at Kingston. Indeed, the upper end of Streatham Common with its trees and footpaths will give an excellent picture of the area as it was in 1792, as also will the wooded areas of Wimbledon Common. The district did not begin to develop until the Croydon Enclosure Acts of 1797-1802. This Act enclosed the former common lands of Croydon, dividing them amongst a number of people who formerly held grazing, lopping and other rights in the woods, and the whole area became privately owned being incorporated into Bensham, Whitehorse and other manorial properties, whose owners sold parcels of land for private building and a number of large houses were erected. Most of them have now been demolished, the last to go being Portobello House, formerly the home of Admiral Vernon who seized Porto Bello in Panama during the war against Spain in 1739. Other large houses of later dates that still remain are Norwood Grange and the centre part of St. Joseph’s College.

In spite of the developments of the last 150 years which have converted Norwood’s oakclad hill into an extensive region of suburban houses, there are still many patches of woodland remaining in our district which are marked and named in Lyson’s map. Amongst these may be mentioned Whitehorse, now Grange Wood. Along a track leading south towards Croydon, we have a number of small woods as Convent Wood, Biggin Wood and Farm; the woods at the bottom of the area were occupied by Beulah Spa, Bewleys Farm and Norbury Farm, whilst to the east are still Peckerman’s Wood and Dulwich Woods in Dulwich. Bewleys Farm and Norbury Farm have disappeared only since the last war - indeed, until a few years ago when the farm was cleared for the new school in Spurgeon’s Road, the piggery could be smelled whenever the wind blew from that direction. The main cross track in 1792 was that which is now Streatham Common North Side, Central Hill and Westow Hill, leading by way of Anerley Road to South Norwood and Elmers End. In earlier days the district was a haunt of gipsies, some of whom lived in caves dug into the hillsides. Samuel Pepys tells in his Diary of a visit to these Gipsies in 1688: ‘Aug.11, 1688. This afternoon my wife and Mercer and Deb went with Pelling to see the Gipsies of Lambeth and have their fortunes told but what they did I did not enquire.’

The neighbourhood was, and still is, remarkably healthy and in the mid-nineteenth century, even after the closing of the Spa, London physicians used to send their patients here as to a health resort, and James Thorne writing his Environs of London in 1876, tells that there were then hydropathic and homeopathic establishments, capacious and comfortable hotels (one of which, the Queen’s in Church Road, still does business), endless lodging houses and the Crystal Palace for a summer and winter garden. 1876 brings us to almost living memory for people who are long-lived in Norwood. We conclude this section by quoting Aubrey’s Perambulation of Surrey of 1678: ‘The wood wholly consists of oaks. There was one oak which had mistletoe, a timber tree, which was felled about 1678. Some person cut this mistletoe for some apothecaries of London and sold them a quantity at 10/- a time, leaving only one branch to sprout out. One woodman fell lame shortly after, each of the others lost an eye and the last that felled the tree broke his leg, as if the Hamadryade had resolved to take an ample revenge for the injury done to this venerable oak.’ So the fairies of the Norwood woods were a vindictive lot!

Mrs G. Eades

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