By 1800 Norwood had been described as a hamlet with a score of farm houses and cottages scattered about the lanes which intersected the woods. The only means of communication with the outside world was the carrier’s cart, which started off daily from the village that had begun to grow up in the Triangle. The first public house in Upper Norwood, The Woodman, made its appearance on Westow Hill, its front windows looking out over London, the cross on the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral exactly level with the step into the public house.
By 1820 Norwood had taken on the character of a delightful suburb, but it was still remote. A Dr. Leese, who lived on Central Hill, on winter nights used to fire a pistol at an open window to let people know he had firearms in the house.
At that time there was a considerable expanse of pasture land between Upper and Lower Norwood, while Upper Norwood was still surrounded on the South and East by thick woods. Houses were beginning to appear at wide intervals, and there were not half a dozen shops in the neighbourhood.
Bread was supplied from Streatham and an Irish woman, Peggy O’Neale, mother of the famous prize-fighter Ned O’Neale, brought fish to sell from door to door. She carried her fish in a flat basket poised on her head, and decked her neck and shoulders with handkerchief of yellow silk. She was immensely proud of her son’s pugilistic prowess, and would sit on anybody’s doorstep, just to talk about him.
When Ned retired from the ring, he purchased the goodwill of the Rose and Crown tavern at the crossroads leading from Norwood to Streatham, at the top of Knights Hill.
Like Hampstead Heath, the heights of Norwood were the holiday playground of the cockney tripper. Traditional pastimes die hard. Fortune-telling by the gypsies was still one of the attractions. The Thames Watermen after the Dogget Coat and Badge Race used to repair to the White Hart public house at the Westow Street-Church Road corner to celebrate the annual event.
A popular amusement was that known as Tumbling. Men and girls linked their arms in a row and started to race down the steep slopes. Many of course fell and, with shouts of laughter, rolled over and over down the hill.
It was a frolic not without danger. A notice appeared in the Press dated 1827: ‘An inquest held at The Woodman, Norwood on the body of J. W. Weightman. It appeared that the deceased had fallen upon his face and cut the temporal artery, while amusing himself with racing downhill with some ladies.’
Another attraction was The Jolly Sailor at the foot of South Norwood Hill, its large tea gardens running down to the canal with its pleasant boating facilities.
Tea gardens abounded in Norwood. There were the Windmill tea gardens in Westow Hill, near to the Norwood windmill. The foundations of the old windmill lie behind Squire’s Printing Works, close by the Royal Albert public house. Skittles were played there. There were tea gardens attached to the White Swan and to the White Hart. The entrance to the White Hart tea gardens was through the enormous jaws of a whale. Within the gardens were arbours all around and a bowling green in the centre. Waiters from the White Hart dashed to and fro with tea and refreshments. The White Hart itself was a single storey wooden structure with trees and posts and chains in front. Beneath the trees were seats and tables, while pails of water and supplies of hay were there for the horses. There was also a pump from which, in large barrels on wheels, water was supplied to the local inhabitants at so much a pail.
So idyllic a spot as Norwood could not fail to attract people of means as a place in which to live. It rose clear of the smoke of London that lay in the valley. Church Road had two or three handsome detached villas and a little wooden cottage. The rest was fields, over which a footpath led to Beulah Hill. The footpath was closed during haymaking, but the meadows were very popular with the visitors and invalids that came to Norwood and with the growing number of residents. On fine summer days many people could be seen reading or doing needlework, and children playing. Across the fields were the Beulah Spa gardens. Further along Beulah Hill were strawberry gardens.
An extract from The Phoenix Suburb, by Alan Warwick
The Norwood Review Edition #50. Published 1972