Short history

Short history

Sydenham has an interesting social history – a possible derivation of the name is from the Anglo-Saxon “Cippas’ settlement – meaning drunkard’s settlement. A more likely derivation is from “Syp” meaning sheep, “en” (inga) meaning people and “ham” (haema) home of hamlet – ie the home of people who keep sheep. This was a heavily wooded area of fine oaks, yew trees and quiet country lanes – a few cottages among the woods and along a rough road than ran through the wooded area of Upper Sydenham to the lower part called Southend. The inhabitants grazed their animals (cattle, sheep, pigs), collected wood for fuel and drank cider made from the local orchards of apples and pears.

At the eastern end of Sydenham Road was the site of Place House built around 1580 for the Earl of Sussex. This was the administrative centre of the Manor of Sydenham a large agricultural estate which dominated the economy of the area from the medieval period until the 17th century. There is evidence that in 1615 the people of Sydenham organised a petition and protest march to the City of London to appeal to King James I to prevent the enclosure of the common – the petition was successful as the people continued to use the land. Fairs were held on Sydenham Common until 1766 and foxhunting took place with the Greyhound Inn used as hunt meeting place. From parish registers a landlord is recorded in 1726 so it is thought that an inn has been on the present site from 1720.

In the 1640s mineral springs, with alleged healing properties, were discovered on Sydenham Common, in the present Wells Park Road and Taylor's Lane area. As demand for the water increased a number of wells was sunk to ensure adequate supplies. Their popularity increased and complaints were made about the “rabble of Londoners” who came to visit the wells. In 1651 the Commonwealth Government was concerned with the number of people gathered at the wells and a declaration was published to behave themselves peacefully at their peril. The popularity of the Wells peaked with visits from George III (reigned 1760 – 1820) and during this period wealthy people began to settle in the area.

John Rocque’s map (1744) prominently marks Dissenters Meeting House on the site of the corner of Sydenham Road and Trewsbury Road. Many Dissenters and Presbyterians had come to the area during the Civil War and a recognised place of worship was established in Sydenham. Non conformists met at a house on this site from 1670 – 1784. It became a chapel and is thought to be the only place of worship until St Bartholomew’s was built in 1832. On Rocque’s map Sydenham Road is a ribbon development with the Greyhound Inn at the top of the hill to the lower end of Sydenham with the Dolphin and Golden Lion.

The greatest change to the area resulted from the passing of the Enclosure Act of 1810. This proposed the enclosure of all common land in Lewisham except for Blackheath. In 1810 Sydenham Common covered nearly 500 acres. From about 1820 what had been open common land from the Greyhound to the top of Sydenham Hill was gradually built over and Sydenham became a suburban community. Public coaches and private carriages were travelling to the City and Westminster.

Canals became popular for the transportation of goods in the late 18th century. The Croydon Canal Company was formed in 1801 and work was started on the Deptford to Croydon canal following an Act of incorporation passed by Parliament which recognised the town of Sydenham as having water. The canal was nine miles long and was formally opened on the 22 October 1809 with a 21 gun salute in Sydenham, a band playing God save the King and a procession of barges decorated with flags and carrying coal, stone and corn. The canal did not prosper for long as competition came in the form of the railway. The Greyhound Inn was a convenient meeting place for the directors of the company and provided refreshment for the workers who built the canal. It was also a resting place for those who used the canal for work or recreation. An early painting shows pleasure boats moored against a landing stage beside the inn which had a boat-house.

By 1836 the Croydon Canal had closed and the London and Croydon Railway Company bought up the assets. The Company used the canal bed as a base for the rails and the Sydenham Reservoir was drained so that the railway line could be opened in 1839. Sydenham Station was built almost adjacent to the Greyhound Inn.

The rapid growth of Sydenham in the 19th century can be attributed to the impact of the Enclosure Act, introduction of the canal which was then converted into a railway followed by the relocation of the magnificent glass building, called the Crystal Palace, of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. By the middle of the century there are shops, inns, schools, churches and a busy social life at Bell Green as well as the Dolphin and the Golden Lion. The Golden Lion was also home to a Music Hall Palace of Varieties.

In 1852 the Directors of the Railway Company decided to purchase and relocate the Crystal Palace built by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition in 1851 from Hyde Park to Sydenham. They bought up 389 acres of land on Sydenham Hill – high ground with views of the centre of London that was easily accessible. In 1854 the “Palace of the People” became the world’s first theme park. The vision of the railway company was to encourage Londoners to take a day out 'in the country' to visit the new enlarged Crystal Palace set in its own pleasure gardens complete with pools, fountains and a Dinosaur Theme Park. Exhibitions, concerts, conferences and sporting events were held at the Crystal Palace until it burned down in 1936.

By 1870 Sydenham had become a thriving and populous suburb. The heart of Sydenham had shifted from Bell Green and Lower Sydenham to the upper end of Sydenham Road around Cobb’s Corner. Wealthy Victorians looked for fresh air on high ground as they believed the air was healthier. Sydenham Hill had a number of large houses for families with servants and the privacy of large gardens.

There had been an expansion of churches and church schools – St Bartholomews’s opened in 1832, Christ Church in 1859, St Michael and All Angels’ in 1872, St Philip’s in 1873, Holy Trinity in 1874 – all Anglican. The Roman Catholics had a base at Our Lady and St Philip Neri in 1875. There had been private schools in Sydenham since the mid 18th century and Sydenham High School was founded in 1887. The 1870 Education Act was a real impetus for the education of the working classes.

The Crystal Palace and District Gas Company was founded in 1854 with works at Bell Green providing gas and continued in production until 1969. The Gas Company made a distinctive contribution to the quality of life at Bell Green and Lower Sydenham. The Electric Light and Supply Company was formed in 1891 and supplied domestic needs to the wealthy area.

There was a class divide between the more affluent Upper Sydenham and the contrast with Lower Sydenham where the gas workers and other labourers lived in some of the worst slums in Sydenham. Between the wars there was a sharp decline in the large houses in Upper Sydenham whilst jobs were available on the industrial estates in Kangley Bridge and Worsley Bridge Roads.

The Recreation Ground (Mayow Park) was established in 1878 and Home Park in 1901. The library was made possible by a donation from the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in1904. He sponsored seven new libraries for the newly established Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. All of them are still the serving the community.

The Old House was the base for the Mayow family who owned most of the land between Sydenham Road and Perry Vale. The last occupant of the house was Mayow Wynell Adams who died in 1898 and the estate was the largest section on Sydenham Road covering from Mayow Road to the Greyhound – a total of 110 acres when demolished in 1902. Shops were built on Sydenham Road whilst the garden area provided the space for the building of The Thorpe Estate. This was declared a conservation area in 2001 – the last of the 25 Conservation Areas in Lewisham. The first was Blackheath in 1968. Other Conservation Areas in Sydenham cover Jews Walk and Halifax Street.

Over 150 years later Sydenham Railway Station is still the focus for the community. Proposals for improvement are to found on the Sydenham Society web site. Sydenham Wells Park had been awarded a Green Flag.

For further information please visit the web sites of:

Further reading:

Sydenham and Forest Hill - Joan P. Alcock (2005 Tempus Publishing Limited)

Sydenham and Forest Hill Past - John Coulter (1999 Historical Publications))

Sydenham – Doris E. Pullen (19