A Brief History Of The Lewisham Borough

Ever wondered who the first people to settle in Lewisham were? Or why Ladywell is called Ladywell? Look no further. We've gone on a brief but intense look back in time to unveil some of the earliest facts about Lewisham and how the borough came into existence...

John Marius Wilson, writes in the topographical dictionary The Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1872 of a town once called Levesham, signifying the ''dwelling among the meadows”. Wilson continues by stating that the village “consists chiefly of one street, about a mile long, extending N and S; is supplied with water from a stream rising at its upper end, and flowing through it”. Here Wilson is referring to the River Ravensbourne that enters into a confluence with the River Quaggy. It is these two, now relatively small rivers, that were formative in shaping what we now know to be Lewisham.

Map of Lewisham

Map of Lewisham, c. 1743 (Ideal Homes: A History of South-East London Suburbs)

The origins of Lewisham begin with the Saxons. Bede, also referred to as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede was an English monk who resided at the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, an area of Sunderland. As a monk and a scholar, Bede’s most famous work was Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). He wrote of how the Jute, Germanic people, settled near St. Mary’s Church in Ladywell. The Jute chieftain named Leof alighted his vessel, surveyed the land and burnt his boat as a mark that they had finally settled. The area was dry yet had easy access to water. As time went on drainage and irrigation techniques improved which allowed the village to expand north into the wetter areas.

Ladywell Spring 1840

"The Ladywell" in Ladywell Fields, c. 1840 Ladywell was originally named after its medicinal well - ‘Our Lady’s Well’ - named after the Virgin Mary, which was based near the Fields where the Cafe ‘Le Delice’ now stands.

King Alfred the Great (849 – 899) became Lord of the Manor of Lewisham, and this title is celebrated by a plaque in Lewisham Library. The Manor of Lewisham then changed hand over the next few centuries. The Environs of London: Volume 4, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent (1796) outlines the exchanging of ownership. The historical journal states how King Alfred’s niece, Elthruda, gave the Manor of Lewisham to the Abbey of St. Peter in Ghent (Belgium) in about the year 900. This conversion of possession was confirmed by Edward the Confessor and maintained until the early 15th Century when Henry V seized the Manor from Ghent and subsequently granted it to the prior and convent of Shene (now Richmond).

Over the next few centuries the manor changed hands between various stewards entrusted by the monarch at the time. In the mid-17th Century the Vicar of Lewisham, Abraham Colfe, founded Colfe’s School, a primary school and six alms-houses. The 18th Century saw Baron Dartmouth come into possession of Lewisham, and his son William, who was raised by Queen Anne, was appointed Viscount Lewisham and Earl of Dartmouth. The Viscount’s son, Lord Dartmouth, obtained from King Charles II the right to hold a fair on Blackheath twice a year and a market twice a week. Unfortunately these have been discontinued; however one could claim that they have been replaced by the Blackheath Farmer’s Market and On Blackheath Festival.

The centre of Lewisham was generally considered to be in the southern part of the town, where the University Hospital Lewisham now lies. However, the nucleus extended north with the arrival of the North Kent Railway Line in 1849.

Lewisham Market 1903

Lewisham Market 1903 (Ideal Homes: A History of South-East London Suburbs)

Lewisham Central holds the position of the focal point of the county, since the first arrival of the Jute people. The surrounding environs include: Bellingham, Blackheath, Brockley, Catford, Crofton Park, Downham, Evelyn, Forest Hill, Grove Park, Ladywell, Lee Green, New Cross, Perry Vale, Rushey Green, Sydenham, Telegraph Hill and Whitefoot.

Lewisham was administratively part of Kent until 1889, and then formed part of the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham in the County of London until 1965 when it became the London Borough of Lewisham.


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