Two or three hundred years ago the most celebrated feature of Norwood was an ancient tree of immense age, known as the Vicar’s Oak. At the spot where this tree stood no less than four parishes (Lambeth, Camberwell, Battersea and Streatham) met; and at the periodical beating of the bounds this place was chosen (among others) for the refreshment of the parochial authorities after their arduous labours. The Vicar’s Oak is frequently mentioned in the accounts of the parish, and that, too, over a period of nearly 150 years.
The Churchwardens, by their own account, seem to have been particular as to the people they admitted to share in the festivities always enjoyed at such ceremonies. Observe how carefully the writer insists on the fact:-
Henceforth the churchwardens gradually become more liberal to themselves and their friends (the “honest men” to be met with above):-
Aubrey, in the second volume of his Perambulation of Surrey, in describing Croydon, gives us the best account we have of the great Northwood: ‘A great wood called Norwood, belonging to the Archbishops, wherein was anciently a tree called the Vicar’s Oak, where four parishes met as it were a point. It is said to have consisted wholly of oaks, and among them was one that bore mistletoe, which some were so hardy as to cut, for the gain of selling it to the apothecaries of London, leaving a branch of it to sprout out. But they proved unfortunate after it, for one of them fell lame and others lost an eye. At length in the year 1678 a certain man, notwithstanding that he was warned against it on account of what others had suffered, adventured to cut the tree down and soon after broke his leg. To fell oaks has long been accounted fatal.’
The wood was seized from the Archbishops of Canterbury by Oliver Cromwell, and at this time consisted of 830 acres, ‘but such havoc had been committed in it that it contained only 9,200 oaken pollards and eighty timber trees’. In 1746, as will be seen from our reproduction of Rocque’s map of that date, it was about three miles across in its widest part. A little later we find it bisected by two roads at right angles. Starting from the corner of Lordship Lane we can trace the wood extending along Dulwich Common up to what is now the Norwood Road; and then in a southernly direction towards Croydon. Turning northwards, it included Penge and Forest Hill, and came down to Dulwich Common again at Lordship Lane corner. It must have been of this size throughout a large part of the last century; but all the time the ancient forest was passing away, as the trees were disappearing fast, so that it was at the end of the century simply a common in some parts; even in 1700 it was by some called a common, and Norwood Common then consisted of 200 acres. The common was or course originally part of the wood, but at what time it became separate we cannot discover. An Act was passed in 1808 for enclosing this land, and a plan of the allotments then made is still preserved. The remnant of the wood that survived was only a mile in extent, but is marked as belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury, two parts of which, it is curious to notice, retained the names of Great Elderhole Coppice and Clayland Coppice respectively. The common which surrounded this was broken up in innumerable small allotments. This plan of 1808 mentions the Vicar’s Oak, which stood somewhere in Upper Norwood.
Whether the oak itself survived all these years, or whether it was simply the site itself that retained the name, we are unable to determine. But it was certainly a favourite spot with the worthy Churchwardens of Lambeth. No doubt it was chosen as the scene of the parochial picnics from its rural condition; and that Norwood was a very rural spot prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century there can be little doubt.
Extract from ‘Norwood and Dulwich, Past and Present’ by Allan M. Galer, 1890.
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