Tag Archives: history

Blackheath – playground and breathing place for Londoners

Nathaniel Hawthorne between 1860 and 1864

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer who lived in Blackheath in 1856. There’s a blue plaque dedicated to him on Pond Road, and Gloria emailed me (ages ago) to suggest a post about him. I’d intended to read his novel “The Scarlet Letter”, as it was recommended, and is available for free at Project Gutenburg… But as usual, I haven’t managed to get around to it.. I will one day, (and read The Blackheath Poisonings too).

Here is his description of Blackheath from the Squashed Writers website:

One summer we found a particularly delightful abode in one of the oases that have grown up on the wide waste of Blackheath. A friend had given us pilgrims and dusty wayfarers his suburban residence, with all its conveniences, elegances, and snuggeries, its lawn and its cosy garden-nooks. I already knew London well, and I found the quiet of my temporary haven more attractive than anything that the great town could offer. Our domain was shut in by a brick wall, softened by shrubbery, and beyond our immediate precincts there was an abundance of foliage. The effect was wonderfully sylvan and rural; only we could hear the discordant screech of a railway-train as it reached Blackheath. It gave a deeper delight to my luxurious idleness that we could contrast it with the turmoil which I escaped.

Beyond our own gate I often went astray on the great, bare, dreary common, with a strange and unexpected sense of desert freedom. Once, about sunset, I had a view of immense London, four or five miles off, with the vast dome in the midst, and the towers of the Houses of Parliament rising up into the smoky canopy–a glorious and sombre picture, but irresistibly attractive.

The frequent trains and steamers to Greenwich have made Blackheath a playground and breathing-place for Londoners. Passing among these holiday people, we come to one of the gateways of Greenwich Park; it admits us from the bare heath into a scene of antique cultivation, traversed by avenues of trees. On the loftiest of the gentle hills which diversify the surface of the park is Greenwich Observatory. I used to regulate my watch by the broad dial-plate against the Observatory wall, and felt it pleasant to be standing at the very centre of time and space.

Lovely scratchy photo from wikipedia, or even more spectacular 20MB original scan can be found here.

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Are people buried beneath Blackheath?

Uneven surface, as if you didn't know...

A lot of people come to this blog hoping for an answer to this question. I really am not sure how best to approach it, as there seem to be many different answers. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of mythology about Plague victims being buried there, with little or no historical evidence to back it up, that is apart from this page from a Channel 4 TV programme about The Plague:

Plague Victims Blessed by Priest

The idea that Blackheath got its name from its use as a burial pit goes all the way back to the medieval period, when it was almost certainly used for the disposal of the dead during the ‘Black Death‘. Virtually every part of London has a local tradition about plague pits under, say, the local school or the bakers. Certainly there were pits dug all over the place. The sheer number of bodies meant that the traditional church yards became, as one contemporary put it, ‘overstuft’ very quickly.

Lewisham Council says completely the opposite:

The name ‘Blackheath’ is popularly but erroneously held to derive from its reputed use as a mass burial ground for victims of the Black Death in the 1340s. Less grisly, but more plausible suggestions for the origin of the name, which was recorded as early as the 11th century, are that it stems from Old English words meaning ‘dark soil’ (although the soil is not particularly dark except when wet), or that it is a corruption of ‘bleak heath’. The latter seems the most likely derivation.

I’m more inclined to go along with the Lewisham Council version of events, and also as there is nothing mentioning burial pits in the superb “Blackheath Village and Environs” Volumes 1 or 2 by Neil Rhind (I finally managed to find Volume 2!).

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people buried beneath the heath… It just means that they weren’t plague victims. When you look at how long the heath has been in existence for, and the number of battles, raucous fairs, duels, roman remains, highway robberies, murders, etc that have happened upon it, there can’t possibly NOT be bodies under there…

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Old Maps of Blackheath

Old Map of Blackheath, London, section

I do like a vintage map or two, as you may remember. I’ve just found two amazing sites full of lovely antique London maps… You can almost smell the fustiness of the pages. I’m sure I’m not the first to find them, but nonetheless they’re worth a look.

The image above is a tiny section of the Blackheath map on mappalondon.com. The map was made by Edward Stanford in 1862 (now better known for their travel bookshop in Covent Garden). Stanford’s still sell the whole thing as a paperback for £33, or amazon sell the CD-ROM for £27.50. If only the map just went slightly further to the east!

Here’s a slightly earlier map showing a larger scale view of the whole of London at londonancestor.com. This site has much more than just maps, with loads of old newspaper clippings and other ephemera. The map is called “The Environs of London”, and was published by Baldwin and Cradock under “the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful knowledge”. It’s always nice when useful knowledge is diffused, I say…

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Blackheath Hill – the buried station

From 1871 until 1917, there was a Blackheath Hill Station, just west of the heath.  The wondeful Subterranea Britannica has some great photos of how it used to look, how it was filled in with earth, and a particularly good shot of part of the platform re-emerging out of the ground during building works.

These days the station has been replaced by an estate of houses.  I can’t help wondering if the residents of the houses built above the station sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, hearing ghostly steam trains rattling beneath their floorboards.

Have a look at the photos here.   The whole of their site is well worth a look – the mysteries of the deep level london shelters especially.

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Blackheath Camels

blackheath_camels

Just found a wonderful local history book -“A Century of Lewisham” by John Coulter.  One of the best images from it, showing a caravan of camels traipsing up Tranquil Vale towards “Billy Smart’s Circus” on the heath, in the 1950s.  The camels were supposed to have been Algerian veterans from the Foreign Legion.  Click the photo for a closer look.

A Century Of Lewisham

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School for Muggles

Blackheath Hospital

I overheard someone at the station a while back pointing up at the spooky Blackheath Hospital building and referring to it as “Hogwarts”…

It certainly does have a touch of the gothic about it…  According to the guru (amazon or abebooks), it was originally built as a boarding school, though not for trainee wizards sadly.  Instead it was a boys school for sons of missionaries.  And now it mends broken hearts, sort of…

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My god, what an ugly statue.

Clarendon Hotel Garden Statue, Blackheath

I popped in to the Clarendon Hotel the other day, looking for the definitive Blackheath history book “Blackheath Village & Environs” by Neil Rhind. I thought I ought to get a copy if I’m writing this blog, as it would be good to have a better understanding of the history of Blackheath.

Clarendon Hotel, GardenAs it was a sunny day, I thought I’d check out their garden at the rear of the hotel. If you haven’t been, you’re not missing much (as the Phantom pointed out). It looks a bit like a 1970s council block from the rear, which is a shame as the front looks quite impressive. Full of tacky garden ornaments too, like the beauties shown above.

I sat down for 5 minutes, and tried to do a crossword. Nobody asked me if I’d like to order anything, so I went off, book in hand.

If you’d like a copy of the book, but can’t get to the hotel, they also sell it in The Bookshop on the Heath, or you could try amazon or abebooks.

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