Local History

A Brief History of Lewisham

  Carl Evans

As I own a HMO Letting Agency that lets HMOs in Lewisham, own HMO BTL investments in Lewisham, and am very interested in history, I thought I’d compose a quick article on Lewisham’s rich and varied past!
Anglo-Saxon Origins
Once part of Kent, the area of Lewisham was first mentioned in a document written about the history of churches almost 1500 years ago. The document is the famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, authored by Venerable Bede. Bede, a monk from the Northumbria region of England, wrote many seminal religious commentaries and is credited as the writer of one of the most famous stories of the English literary tradition, Beowulf.

In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People Bede reveals that a tribe arrived in the area sometime between 400-500 AD and after a close survey of the land, the chieftain, known as Leof, decided that it would be an excellent location to build a village. Leof named the area “Levesham”; “leve” meaning field and “ham” meaning village.

By the late 800s, the Anglo-Saxon crown had absorbed the land, and King Alfred the Great held the title and became ‘Lord of the Manor’. In the year 899 or 900, King Alfred the Great died, and he willed Elthruda (also known as Elfrida), his niece, the title to Lewisham. Today, Lewisham library totes a plaque in remembrance to King Alfred, and in Hither Green there is a road named Elthruda Road, honoring the Old English royalty.

Lewisham Library

Lord of the Manor Alfred the Great

Elthruda granted Lewisham to The Abbey of Ghent, a convent in Ghent, Belgium, after Elthruda married a man from Ghent. Although the convent technically held the title to the land, marauding Vikings seized Lewisham and held it until the 1040s when Edward the Confessor took it back and restored ownership to the Abbey.

After the 1066 Norman invasion, Lewisham grew into a decent-sized farming community – as noted in the 1086 Domesday Book stating that Lewisham contained over 50 households which was a highly populated suburban area for that time. In addition to farmland, Lewisham also contained 6 mills which counted as early industrial centers for the middle ages; these mills made steel for tools and weapons, tanned leather, and ground corn.

Following the Anglo-Saxon kings before, the new Norman overlords continued to allow the Abbey of Ghent to hold the title to Lewisham. The convent owned Lewisham until 1415, when, during the 100 years war, King Henry V seized Lewisham, and granted ownership to Sheen Priory in Richmond, which held the land until Henry VIII confiscated all the church’s landholdings in 1535.

The Ivy League Connection
In 1673, King Charles II granted Lewisham to Admiral George Legge. Legge had led the English navy in several successful campaigns against the Dutch and in addition to receiving a large grant of land, Legge also received the title of “Baron Dartmouth.”

His grandson, William, the Second Earl of Dartmouth, served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1772-1775. During this time William advocated educating the Native Americans in English schools, and from this advocacy Dartmouth College, now a major Ivy League university in America was founded.

William Legge’s portrait, painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1756, is currently on display in the Abigail Wright Gallery at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, USA.

The Father of Self Help
Although it is debatable that much of the philosophy from the Age of Enlightenment could be considered as ‘self-help’, or for that matter even books from The Bible, such as Proverbs could be considered ‘self-help’; the first self-proclaimed self-help book, released in 1859, was Self Help by Samuel Smiles. Perhaps inspired by the 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled Self Reliance, Smiles wrote this Victorian classic whilst living in Lewisham, at a house with a plaque commemorating his residency, at 11 Granville Park Road SE13.

Samuel Smiles Lewisham

‘Perseverance is the great agent of success’

Self Help quotes titans such as Napoleon, and philosophers such as Socrates but its main discourse impresses upon the reader that one should work hard; ‘Labour conquers all things’ and that we should persevere; ‘It is will –force of purpose – that enables a man to do or be whatever he sets his mind on’.

Smiles also authored other self-betterment books, like Character (1871), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880), and Life and Labor (1878). Self-Help, however, earned Smiles the most notoriety and fame. Founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda, gained so much influence from the book that an original copy of it is on display at Toyoda’s birthplace, now a museum. It also undoubtedly inspired such Self Help classics as:
Hereditary Genius (1869) by Francis Galton. In this work Galton scientifically studied the origins of high achievement in fields from sports to science. He claimed, like Smiles, that those who excel have the common traits of ‘ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labour’. Charles Darwin, a cousin of Francis Galton wrote in a letter upon reading the book; ‘I do not think I ever in all of my life read anything more interesting’.
Law of Success (1928) by Napoleon Hill. To build on the work of both Smiles and Galton this book was commissioned by the great businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Carnegie interestingly enough funded the building of many libraries all over the world – including two in the Borough of Lewisham). For over 20 years Napoleon Hill researched giants of industry such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan and Rockefeller to get their personal opinions on what specific characteristics makes a person successful. The conclusion was that as well as having a ‘Definite Major Purpose’ that ‘You can get nowhere without persistence, a fact which cannot be too often repeated’.

Queen Victoria’s Time
1897 saw the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which commemorated 60 years of her reign. To honor Britain’s longest standing monarch at that time, Lewisham officials ordered the construction of an ivory colored Clock Tower at the intersection of Lee High Road and Lewisham High Street.

Lewisham Clock Tower

Lewisham Clock Tower

While the powers of the monarch dwindled during Victoria’s reign across the Empire, Victoria had a major impact on continental Europe as well as western culture. Correctly dubbed the “grandmother of Europe”, Victoria had many of her children married into Europe’s royal families.

The builder of the clock tower, a company called S.J. Jerrard and Sons contributed greatly to the development of the Lewisham area. S.J. Jerrard constructed much of the Victorian style housing around South West Lewisham. Unfortunately, Lewisham sustained heavy damage during the Second World War, and much of it required rebuilding. Miraculously, however, the Victorian Clock Tower did not receive any damage levied by the Luftwaffe or V2 rockets.

Once owned and operated by a foreign monastery in Belgium, Lewisham has links to great businessmen, American Universities and one of the founders of the self-help movement. I believe Lewisham to be the next area of great economic growth in London.If you feel as though I have missed anything in this article feel free to contact me here. If you have HMO in the Borough of Lewisham feel free to call the office on 0208 895 6195 and ask for me, as I may be able to help.

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live in New Cross, Borough of Lewisham, and I’m the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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