Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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BLACKHEATH, CHARLTON, AND ITS NEIGHBOURHOOD.
"And eastward straight from wild Blackheath the warlike errand went,
And roused in many an ancient hall the gallant squires of Kent."
Macaulay's Ballad of "The Armada."
Situation and Description of Blackheath—Derivation of its Name—Discovery of Numerous Tumuli—Encampment of the Danish Army—Wat Tyler's Rebellion—Reception of Richard II. at Blackheath—The Emperor of Constantinople—Reception of Henry V. on his Return from Agincourt—Other Royal Receptions—Jack Cade and his Followers—Henry VI. and the Duke of York—The Cornish Rebels—The Smith's Forge—Reception of Cardinal Campegio, and of Bonevet, High Admiral of France—Princess Anne of Cleves—Arrival of Charles II., on his Restoration—Blackheath Fair—The "Chocolate House"—Present Condition of Blackheath—East Coombe and West Coombe—Lavinia Fenton ("Polly Peachum"), Duchess of Bolton—Woodlands—Montagu House—The Princess Charlotte—Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke and the Duke of York—Flaxman, the Sculptor—Maize Hill—Vanbrugh Castle—The Mince-pie House—Charlton—St. Luke's Church—Charlton House—Horn Fair—Shooter's Hill—The Herbert Hospital—Severndroog Castle—Morden College—Kidbrook.
Blackheath, which is divided from its aristocratic neighbour only by a wall, pleasantly overlooks a portion of the counties of Kent and Surrey, and affords such extensive views of the distant scenery as can be exceeded only by climbing Shooter's Hill, or some of the neighbouring heights on the left of the heath. In past times it was planted with gibbets, on which the bleaching bones of men who had dared to ask for some extension of liberty, or who doubted the infallibility of kings, were left year after year to dangle in the wind. In the distance the ancient palace of Eltham may just be seen between the trees, heaving up like a large barn against the sky.
Blackheath—which furnishes the name to the hundred to which it belongs—lies chiefly in the parishes of Greenwich and Lewisham, a portion, however, being in the parish, or "liberty," of Kidbrook, while a part of Blackheath Park is in Charlton parish. The name is variously derived from its bleak situation, and from its black appearance. The heath is a broad expanse of open greensward, intersected by several cross-roads. Nearly in the line of the present Dover Road, which traverses the centre of the heath from the top of Blackheath Hill eastward towards Shooter's Hill, ran the ancient Watling Street or Roman Road; and along this road were numerous tumuli. Many of them, including those within Greenwich Park, near Croom's Hill Gate, of which we have spoken in the previous chapter, were opened towards the end of the last century. They were found to be mostly small conical mounds, with a circular trench at the base, and are presumed to have been RomanoBritish. No skeletons were discovered in them, but there were "some locks of hair, and one fine braid of an auburn hue was 'tenacious and very distinct,' and 'contained its natural phlogiston.' The spolia were chiefly iron spear-heads (one fifteen inches long and two inches broad was found 'in the native gravel'), knives, and nails, glass beads, and woollen and linen cloth. At the south-west corner of the heath, by Blackheath Hill, urns (some of which are in the British Museum) and other Roman remains have been found." Near the summit of the hill, at a spot called "The Point," a remarkable cavern, extending several hundred feet under ground, was discovered about the year 1780, in laying the foundation of a house. "The entrance," writes Richardson in his "History of Greenwich," "was then through a narrow aperture, but a flight of steps have since been made. It consists of four irregular apartments, in the furthest of which is a well of pure water, twentyseven feet in depth. They are cut out of a stratum of chalk and flint, and communicate by small avenues; the bottom of the cavern is sand. From the well at the extremity of this singular excavation, it seems probable that it has, at some distant period, been used as a place of concealment, and the general supposition is that it was used for that purpose during the Saxon and Danish contests, but nothing has been discovered to assist inquiry."
Previous to the erection of the several villa residences with which the heath is now nearly surrounded on three sides, this place was the scene of many important historical and political events.
Here, as we have already had occasion to remark, the main body of the Danish army lay encamped in the reign of Ethelred, while their ships held possession of the river for three or four years in succession. Several places in the neighbourhood are still called "Coombs" and "Comps." East Coombe and West Coombe, two estates on the borders of the heath, are presumed to trace their names from the encampments of the Danes at this place—coomb as well as comp signifying camp; coomb being probably the Saxon term, and comp the Danish or corrupt Saxon, both of which tongues were then in use. The manors of East and West Coombe are situated at the north-east corner of the heath; and there was formerly one called Middle Coombe, otherwise Spittle Coombe, which in all probability, was attached to that of West Coombe. Vestiges of intrenchments were, some years ago, distinctly traced in different parts of the heath, some formed doubtless by the Danes, and others by the various bodies of insurgents who have encamped here at different times. Of these, the most formidable was that in 1381, raised by Wat Tyler, a blacksmith of Dartford, on account of the imposition of a "poll tax" of three groats on all persons above fifteen. When the insurgents of Essex arose, they were joined by those of Kent, and began to assemble on Blackheath; whence, having in a few days increased to 100,000 men, they marched on to London under the command of their principal leaders, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, and afterwards separated into three parties; one of these proceeded to the Temple, which they burnt to the ground, with all the books and papers deposited there; another party burnt the monastery of St. John of Jerusalem, at Clerkenwell; while the third took up its position at the Tower. Wat Tyler, as all readers of English history know, was soon afterwards slain in Smithfield by William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London; and Jack Straw, with many others, was beheaded.
Again, when Richard II. took for his second wife Isabel, the "little" daughter of the King of France, the royal train, on approaching London, was met on Blackheath by the lord mayor and aldermen, habited in scarlet, who attended the king to Newington (Surrey), where he dismissed them, as he and his youthful bride were to "rest at Kennyngtoun."
In 1400, Manuel Palæologus, Emperor of Constantinople, who had come to England to entreat the assistance of King Henry IV. against Bajazet, Emperor of the Turks, was met on Blackheath by the king, who conducted him to the City with great state and magnificence. In 1415, Henry V. was met here by the lord mayor and aldermen, and a large number of citizens, on his return from the battle of Agincourt; and in the following year this spot was the scene of the reception of the Emperor Sigismund, on his arrival in this country to treat for peace between the crowns of England and France.
On the 21st of February, 1431, Henry VI., who, twelve months after his coronation in England, had gone to France to be crowned in the church of Notre Dame in Paris, was received with great pomp on Blackheath, upon his return, by the lord mayor and aldermen of London.
The following is an extract from a curious
poem (transcribed by Sir Harris Nicolas from
the Harleian and Cottonian MSS. in the British
Museum) written by John Lydgate, the "Monk of
Bury," and entitled, "The Comynge of the Kyng
out of France to London," when the citizens of
"Statly horsyd, after the Mair ridyng,
Passyd the subbarbes to mete with the Kyng,"
attended by all their officers and servants.
"To the Blakeheth whanne they dyd atteyne,
The Mair of prudence in especialle
Made them hove in renges tweyne,
A strete betwen, ech party lik a walle,
Alle clad in whit, and the most principalle,
Afore in red, with the Mair ridyng,
Till tyme that he saw the Kyng comyng;
Thanne, with his sporys, he toke his hors anone,
That to beholde it was a noble sight,
How lyk a man he to the Kyng is gone,
Right well cheryd of herte, glad, and light,
Obeienge to hym, as hym ought of right." (fn. 1)
During Jack Cade's noted rebellion in 1449 and
1450, his followers—
"Rebellious hinds, the filth and scum of Kent"—
were twice encamped "on the plaine of Blackheath between Eltham and Greenwiche," as we learn from Holinshed's "Chronicle." Of Cade's subsequent capture and death we have already spoken in our account of the "White Hart" Inn in the Borough. (fn. 2) On the 23rd of February, 1451, his followers came "in their shirts," and with "halters on their necks," to the king on Blackheath, and begged his pardon on their knees, professing themselves ready to receive from him their "doom of life or death."
In 1452, Henry VI. pitched his tent on Blackheath, when opposing the forces of his cousin, the Duke of York, father of King Edward IV. In 1471 the "bastard" Falconbridge (fn. 3) encamped here with his army against Edward IV.; and three years later the lord mayor and aldermen of London, with four hundred citizens, here met the king on his return from France, where he had been with an army of 30,000 to conclude a treaty of peace with Louis, the French monarch.
In 1497, the Cornish rebels, (fn. 4) amounting to 6,000, headed by Lord Audley, Michael Joseph, a farrier, and Thomas Flammock, a lawyer, were defeated on this heath by the forces under King Henry VII. Two thousand of the insurgents were slain, and the rest forced to surrender. Lord Audley was beheaded on Tower Hill, and Joseph and Flammock were hanged at Tyburn. Lambarde, the Kentish historian, who at the beginning of the seventeenth century lived at West Coombe, and was therefore familiar with the locality, writes in his "Perambulation of Kent," "There remaineth yet to be seen upon the heath the place of the smith's tent, commonly called his forge, and the grave-hills of such as were buried after the overthrow." The Smith's Forge is a mound of earth partly surrounded by fir-trees, to the south-west of Montagu Corner, which is at the end of Chesterfield Walk. Down to a comparatively recent date, this mound was frequently called "Whitefield's Mount," from the circumstance of that celebrated preacher having delivered from it some of what are termed his "field discourses." The spot seems also to have been used in former times as a butt for artillery practice; for Evelyn in his "Diary," under date of March 16, 1687, writes, "I saw a trial of those develish, murdering, mischief-doing engines called bombs, shot out of a mortar-piece on Blackheath. The distance that they are cast, the destruction [which] they make where they fall, is prodigious."
In 1519, Cardinal Campegio, the Pope's Legate, was received on Blackheath with great state by the Duke of Norfolk, and a large retinue of bishops, knights, and gentlemen, "all richly apparelled." His Eminence was conducted to a tent of cloth of gold, "where," as Hall's "Chronicles" relate, "he shifted himself into a robe of a cardinal, edged with ermines, and so took his moyle [mule], riding towards London. Soon afterwards, another pretty sight was witnessed here, when Bonevet, High Admiral of France, attended by a splendid cavalcade of twelve hundred noblemen and gentlemen, was met by the Earl of Surrey, as High Admiral of England, with a still more gorgeous retinue. Hall tells us how that "the young gallants of France had coats guarded with one colour, cut in ten or twelve parts, very richly to behold; and so all the Englishmen coupled themselves with the Frenchmen lovingly together, and so rode to London."
On the public entry of the Princess Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII.'s new bride, she was met on Blackheath on the 3rd of January, 1540, by the king, accompanied by the lord mayor, aldermen, and citizens of London, with all the foreign merchants resident in the City, and escorted in grand state to the royal palace at Greenwich. The old chroniclers record how that on the eastern side of the heath "was pitched a rich cloth of gold, and divers other tents and pavilions, in the which were made fires and perfumes for her and such ladies as should receive her grace;" and "from the tents to the park gate . … a large and ample way was made for the show of all persons." Along this way were ranged the mayor and aldermen, citizens, and foreign merchants, all in their richest liveries, esquires, gentlemen, pensioners, and serving-men, "well horsed and apparelled, that whosoever had well viewed them might say that they, for tall and comely personages, and clean of limb and body, were able to give the greatest prince in Christendom a mortal breakfast if he were the king's enemy." About mid-day Anne came down Shooter's Hill, accompanied by the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and a large number of other noblemen and bishops, besides her own attendants, and was met and conducted to her tent by the lord chamberlain and other officials. Magnificent as was the suite of Anne, it seems to have been outshone in splendour by that of the king, while Henry himself, if we may trust the description given in Hall's "Chronicles," was all ablaze with gold and jewellery. Here is his portrait as sketched by the old chronicler:—"The king's highness was mounted on a goodly courser, trapped in rich cloth of gold, traversed lattice-wise square, all over embroidered with gold of damask, pearled on every side of the embroidery; the buckles and pendants were all of fine gold. His person was apparelled in a coat of purple velvet, somewhat made like a frock, all over embroidered with flat gold of damask with small lace mixed between of the same gold, and other laces of the same so going traverse-wise, that the ground little appeared: about which garment was a rich guard very curiously embroidered; the sleeves and breast were cut, lined with cloth of gold, and tyed together with great buttons of diamonds, rubies, and orient pearl; his sword and sword-girdle adorned with stones and especial emerodes; his night-cap garnished with stone, but his bonnet was so rich with jewels that few men could value them. Beside all this, he wore in baudrick-wise a collar of such balystes and pearl that few men ever saw the like . … And notwithstanding that this rich apparel and precious jewels were pleasant to the nobles and all other being present to behold, yet his princely countenance, his goodly personage, and royal gesture so far exceeded all other creatures being present, that in comparison of his person, all his rich apparel was little esteemed." The royal pair were conducted from Blackheath to the palace at Greenwich by a procession of the chief nobles, and afterwards conveyed in the grand City barges, with the lord mayor and chief citizens, to Westminster, where they were married; a few months after, they were divorced; and on the 8th of August of the same year, Catherine Howard, to whom the king had been some time privately married, was publicly declared Queen of England.
On May-day, in the year 1645, Colonel Blunt, in order to gratify the Kentish people, who were partial to old customs, drew up two regiments of foot, and exercised them on the heath, representing a mock fight between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads.
One of the most memorable scenes witnessed on Blackheath, however, was the arrival here of Charles II., on his Restoration, on the 29th of May, 1660, whilst on his way from Rochester to London, "all the ways thither," says Clarendon, "being so full of people, as if the whole kingdom had been gathered there." Macaulay, in his "History of England," gives us the following striking description of the king's reception here:—"Everywhere flags were flying, bells and music sounding, wine and ale flowing in rivers to the health of him whose return was the return of peace, of law, and of freedom. But in the midst of the general joy, one spot presented a dark and threatening aspect. On Blackheath the army was drawn up to welcome the sovereign. He smiled, bowed, and extended his hand graciously to the lips of the colonels and majors. But all his courtesy was vain. The countenances of the soldiers were sad and lowering; and, had they given way to their feelings, the festive pageant of which they reluctantly made a part would have had a mournful and bloody end."
Numerous reviews, &c., of militia and other troops have, at various times, been held on Blackheath. Under date of June 10, 1673, Evelyn writes in his "Diary:"—"We went after dinner to see the formal and formidable camp on Blackheath, raised to invade Holland, or, as others suspected, for another designe."
Blackheath Fair was a celebrated place of resort every year in the months of May and October; and, like its neighbours at Greenwich, Peckham, and Camberwell, was always well supplied with startling monsters, with some of which we have since been familiarised by our Zoological Gardens. These fairs were first established by Lord Dartmouth, as we learn from the following entry in Evelyn's "Diary:"—"May 1, 1683. I went to Blackheath to see the new faire, being the first, procured by Lord Dartmouth. This was the first day, pretended for the sale of cattle, but I think, in truth, to enrich the new tavern at the bowlinggreene, erected by Snape, his Majesty's farrier, a man full of projects. There appeared nothing but an innumerable assembly of drinking people from London, pedlars, &c.; and I suppose it is too neere London to be of any greate use to the country."
In "Merrie England in the Olden Time" is
printed the following announcement of the exhibition of one of the "strange monsters" above
Geo. II. R.
This is to give notice to all gentlemen, ladies, and others, That there is to be seen from eight in the morning till nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other; having no hands, fingers, nor toes; yet can she dress or undress, knit, sew, read, sing [Query—a duet with her two mouths?]. She has had the honour to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society.
N.B.—Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses if they please. This great wonder never was shown in England before this, the 13th day of May, 1741. Vivat Rex!
The author of the above-mentioned work adds, as a foot-note, "That the caricaturist has been outcaricatured by Nature no one will deny. Wilkes was so abominably ugly that he said it always took him half an hour to talk away his face; and Mirabeau, speaking of his own countenance, said, 'Fancy a tiger marked with the small-pox!' We have seen an Adonis contemplate one of Cruikshank's whimsical figures, of which his particular shanks were the bow-ideal, and rail at the artist for libelling Dame Nature! How ill-favoured were Lord Lovat, Magliabecchi, Scarron, and the walleyed, bottle-nosed Buckhorse the Bruiser! how deformed and frightful Sir Harry Dimsdale and Sir Jeffry Dunstan! What would have been said of the painter of imaginary Siamese twins? Yet we have 'The true description of two Monstrous Children, born in the parish of Swanburne, in Buckinghamshyre, the 4th of Aprill, Anno Domini 1566; the two Children having both their belies fast joyned together, and imbracing one another with their armes; which Children were both alyve by the space of half an hower, and were baptised, and named the one John, and the other Joan.' A similar wonder was exhibited in Queen Anne's reign, viz., 'Two monstrous girls, born in the kingdom of Hungary,' which were to be seen 'from 8 o'clock in the morning till 8 at night, up one pair of stairs, at Mr. William Suttcliff's, a Drugster's Shop, at the sign of the Golden Anchor, in the Strand, near Charing Cross.' The Siamese twins of our own time are fresh in every one's memory. Shakespeare throws out a pleasant sarcasm at the characteristic curiosity of the English nation. Trinculo, upon first beholding Caliban, exclaims, 'A strange fish! were I in England now (as I once was), and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver; there would this monster make a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.'"
Blackheath Fair lasted, till a very recent date, as a "hog and pleasure" fair—being held on the 12th of May and 11th of October—till the year 1872, when it was suppressed by order of the Government; and the swings, roundabouts, spiced gingerbread, penny trumpets, and halfpenny rattles have now become things of the past.
From the early part of the present century, down to the year 1865, a considerable part of the surface of Blackheath has been greatly disturbed and cut up, owing to the Crown having let, for a rental of £56, the right to excavate an unlimited quantity of gravel. All these, and other such encroachments, however, were brought to an end by the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, when Blackheath was secured to the public as a place of healthful recreation. During the summer months the heath is largely resorted to by holiday-makers, and, like Hampstead Heath, it is much infested with donkeys; but owing to the stringent bye-laws that have been passed of late years, the donkeydrivers are not the nuisance that once they were. Cricket matches take place here in the summer; the Royal Blackheath Golf Club also use the heath as their play-ground, and in winter a well-contested match at foot-ball may often be witnessed here.
In the last century Blackheath was a notorious resort of highwaymen. Under the Reform Bill of 1832, it was made one of the polling places for members of Parliament for the western division of Kent. Of late the heath has been built up to, wherever land was available. On the south side, near Tranquil Vale, stands All Saints' Church, a neat Gothic edifice, erected in the year 1859, from the designs of Mr. B. Ferrey. The village, or—as it is beginning to call itself—town of Blackheath, is built chiefly about Tranquil Vale; it has its churches and chapels, assembly-rooms, railway station, skating rink, banks, besides several good shops. At the end of the heath, near Blackheath Hill, is another collection of shops and dwellings, with a church and schools; here, too, is the principal inn, the "Green Man," well known to holiday-makers. In former times there was a house of entertainment here, called the "Chocolate House;" it is mentioned by the Duke of Richmond, Master-General of the Ordnance, in a private letter; and it would seem to have been largely patronised by the heads of Woolwich Dockyard and the college hard by, and by their friends. The name of this house was long kept in memory by "Chocolate Row." Lord Wrottesley had an observatory on Blackheath for some time, previous to his accession to the title, when he removed the astronomical apparatus to his seat in Staffordshire.
The Manor of East Combe, which lies near the Charlton Road, on the north-eastern side of the heath, was appended for several centuries to that of Greenwich, and was settled, in 1613, on Queen Anne of Denmark for life. It was afterwards leased out by the Crown, and has since been held by several private families; in the early part of the present century it was the seat of the Countess of Buckinghamshire. A little to the west, and near the north-east corner of Blackheath, is West Coombe, the manor-house of which was at one time the residence of William Lambarde, the learned antiquary, and author of the "Perambulation of Kent," who died there in 1601. Early in the last century the estate was purchased by Sir Gregory Page, who soon afterwards granted a lease of the house to Captain Galfridus Walpole. This gentleman pulled down the old manor-house, and erected the present mansion at a short distance from the original site, from, it is said, the designs of the Earl of Pembroke. The lease came afterwards into the possession of Charles, Duke of Bolton, who resided here for several years with Lavinia Fenton (the original "Polly Peachum" in the burletta of the Beggar's Opera), whom he married after the death of his duchess, in 1751—twenty-three years after he had taken her from the stage. Of this lady, Lysons, in his "Environs of London," gives the following particulars:—"The year 1728 is famous in theatrical annals, for having produced the favourite burletta of the Beggar's Opera. Its success surpassed all precedent: it was acted more than sixty nights during the first season. The part of 'Polly' was performed by Lavinia Fenton, a young actress, whose real name, in some of the publications of that day, is said to have been Beswick. Her performance of this character raised her very high in the opinion of the public; and it is uncertain whether the opera itself, or 'Polly Peachum,' had the greater share of popularity. Her lovers, of course, were very numerous: she decided in favour of the Duke of Bolton, who, to the great loss of the public, took her from the stage, to which she never returned; and on the sixty-second night of the performance, a new 'Polly' was, to the great surprise of the audience, who expected to see their old favourite, introduced on the boards. After the death of his first wife, from whom he had been long separated, the duke, in 1751, married Miss Fenton, who, surviving him a few years, resided at West Coombe Park, in this parish, and died Duchess-dowager of Bolton, in the month of January, 1760." We have already spoken of her interment in Greenwich Church in a previous chapter.
Between East and West Coombe, in the Charlton Road, is Woodlands, long the residence of the Angersteins. The mansion was erected and the grounds laid out about the year 1770; they command a beautiful view of the valley of the Thames and the opposite coast of Essex. Here, in 1823, died Mr. John J. Angerstein, whose splendid collection of pictures—of which Waagen gives an account in his "Art and Artists" in England—formed the nucleus of our National Gallery. (fn. 5) Caroline, Princess of Wales, resided here for a short time. In a letter from Geneva, dated May 20, 1820, she tells Miss Berry that she shall go to "the Maison Angerstein à Blackheath" on her return to England. St. John's Church, in Charlton Lane, was built at the cost of the late Mr. W. Angerstein.
In former times, apparently, Blackheath was not considered an aristocratic neighbourhood; at all events, Horace Walpole contrasts the genealogies of illustrious families with those of the denizens of "Paddington and Blackheath," whom he classes epigrammatically together. Nevertheless, the place seems to have improved as time wore on, for from about 1797 to 1814, the Princess Caroline, the much-injured but foolish and frivolous Consort of George IV., was living here at Montagu House. This was after the birth of her child, the Princess Charlotte, whom she saw once every week at the house of the Duchess of Brunswick, close by. "The princess's villa at Blackheath," wrote Miss Aikin, "is an incongruous piece of patchwork; it may dazzle for a moment when lighted up at night, but it is all glitter, and glare, and trick; everything is tinsel and trumpery about it; it is altogether like a bad dream. One day the princess showed me a large book in which she had written characters of a great many of the leading persons in England; she read me some of them; they were drawn with spirit, but I could not form any opinion of their justice."
"About this time" (1811), writes the Hon. Miss Amelia Murray in her "Recollections," "there was an extravagant furore in the cause of the Princess of Wales. She was considered an ill-treated woman, and that was enough to rouse popular feeling. My brother was among the young men who helped to give her an ovation at the opera. A few days afterwards he went to breakfast at a place near Woolwich. There he saw the princess in a gorgeous dress, which was looped up to show her petticoat covered with stars, and with silver wings on her shoulders, sitting under a tree with a pot of porter on her knee; and as a finale to the gaiety, she had the doors opened of every room in the house, and selecting a partner, she galloped through them, desiring all the guests to copy her example. It may be guessed," adds the writer, "whether the gentlemen were anxious to clap her at the opera again."
Here, too, was living the celebrated Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke when she first made the acquaintance of the Duke of York. She is said to have been the daughter of a journeyman-printer, named Farquhar, who lived in a court between Fetter Lane and Cursitor Street, though Cyrus Redding affirms that she was the daughter of a Colonel Frederick, and granddaughter of Theodore, King of Corsica. A parliamentary inquiry in 1809 brought to light the extent to which she and the duke had trafficked in the sale of commissions in the army; for though nominally acquitted of that offence, the duke had to retire from the post of Commander-inchief.
Flaxman, the sculptor, when tired of his town rooms near Buckingham Gate, would take country lodgings in Blackheath; Crabb Robinson tells us in his "Diary" that he visited him here in 1812.
From the north-eastern corner of Blackheath, a somewhat steep and winding road, called Maze Hill, leads down to East Greenwich. On this hill, nearly opposite the eastern gate of Greenwich Park, which opens upon the pathway leading to OneTree Hill, stands an irregular castellated brickbuilt structure, called "Vanbrugh Castle." It stands on the Page-Turner estate, and was erected, about the year 1717, by Sir John Vanbrugh. It is entered by an embattled gateway, profusely overgrown with ivy; the "castle" itself is a large red-brick building, resembling a fortification, with battlements and towers. The edifice, which has for some years been used as a ladies' boardingschool, was in former times called the "Bastille," from a fancied resemblance to its prototype at Paris. At a short distance from this building are the Vanbrugh Fields, in which is another singularlooking house, also built by Vanbrugh, and still called after his name. It was at one time called the "Mince-pie House," doubtless having been used as a place of public entertainment. An arched gateway, with a lodge on each side, now standing some distance within the principal field, appears to have formed the original entrance from the heath. Vanbrugh House is a brick building, ornamented with raised bands: it has a round tower at either end, and a central porch.
Passing along Charlton Road, which runs eastward from Vanbrugh Park, a short walk brings us to the pretty little village of that name, which stands on the high ground between Greenwich and Woolwich, and has a charming look-out over the valley of the Thames. Here we find ourselves upon the chalky soil of Kent; and although the place has within the last few years lost much of its rural character, through the gradual extension of buildings, it is still green and pleasant. In this neighbourhood, if we may believe the Gentleman's Magazine, in 1734, a large eagle was captured, and, strange to say, by a tailor. Its wings, when expanded, were three yards eight inches in length. It was claimed by the lord of the manor, but was afterwards demanded by the king's falconer as a royal bird, and carried off to Court. Its subsequent fate is not recorded.
In Philipott's "Survey of Kent" (1659) we find that Charlton was "anciently written Ceorlton, that is, the town inhabited with honest, good, stout, and usefull men, for tillage and countrye business;" the Saxon word ceorl signifying a husbandman, or churl, as it is termed in old English, whence Churlestown or Charlestown was easily derived, and so by abridgment Charlton.
The church, a red brick-built edifice, dedicated to St. Luke, has a lofty embattled tower, which serves as a landmark for those who sail up or down the river. It has a double roof, supported by pillars, forming arches down the centre of the building. The edifice was erected by the trustees of Sir Adam Newton, in 1630–40. The chancel was added by the rector in 1840; in it is a handsome stained-glass window. Among the monuments in this church is one for the Hon. Brigadier Michael Richards, Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, who died in 1721; he is represented by a life-size figure of a man in armour, holding a truncheon in his right hand, with military trophies, &c. A marble statue, by the younger Westmacott, commemorates Sir Thomas Hislop, G.C.B., who died in 1834; and there is also a monument to Sir William Congreve, the inventor of the rockets which bear his name: he died in 1814. A neat tablet by Chantrey records the interment in the vaults below of the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, who was assassinated by John Bellingham, in the lobby of the House of Commons, (fn. 6) on the 11th of May, 1812. In the churchyard, close by the porch, lies buried Mr. Edward Drummond, who was shot in the neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, in January, 1843, in mistake for Sir Robert Peel, the then Prime Minister, whose private secretary he was. Here, too, is buried James Craggs, Postmaster-General, and father of Pope's friend, Mr. Secretary Craggs, who, in consequence of the scandal occasioned by their connection with the South Sea Bubble, destroyed himself by poison in March, 1721; there is a monument to his memory in Westminster Abbey. (fn. 7)
Immediately to the south of the church stands
Charlton House, the seat of the lord of the manor,
Sir Spencer Maryon-Wilson. The manor of Charlton was given by William the Conqueror to his
half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, from whom it
passed to Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, who,
about the end of the eleventh century, gave it to
the priory of St. Saviour's, Bermondsey. Having
reverted to the Crown at the Dissolution, it was
given by James I. to one of his Northern followers,
John, Earl of Mar, by whom it was sold in 1606
to Sir James Erskine, who, in turn, disposed of it
in the following year to Sir Adam Newton, Dean
of Durham, tutor to Henry, Prince of Wales. In
1659 it passed to Sir William Ducie, afterwards
Viscount Downe, and subsequently it was owned
successively by the Langhornes, Games, and
Maryons, and also by Lady Spencer Wilson, from
whom it has descended to the present owner. The
mansion, which Evelyn describes as "a faire house
built for Prince Henry," is pleasantly situated in
extensive park-like grounds; it was commenced
by Sir Adam Newton in 1607, and completed in
about five years. The house is very pleasantly
situated on rising ground overlooking the Thames
and the opposite shores of Essex, and commands
a most delightful prospect, which has been described by Evelyn as "one of the most noble in
the world for city, river, ships, meadows, hill,
woods, and all other amenities"—a prospect, by
the way, which has been considerably abridged of
late years by the growth of the surrounding trees.
Its situation might indeed well recall to memory
those charming lines by Mrs. Hemans, descriptive
of the halls of our old nobility:—
"The stately homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amid their tall ancestral trees,
All o'er the pleasant land."
The mansion is certainly one of the finest speci mens extant of the domestic architecture of the time of James I., having been erected when the architecture then in vogue was about to be supplemented by what was then thought to be a purer style. When first erected, its appearance must have formed a striking contrast to the more sombre structures of a preceding age. Red brick—so popular in that era—is the material used in its construction; this, however, is relieved with white stone quoins and dressings, and mullioned windows. Its form is an oblong, with slightly projecting wings at each end. The centre of the principal front also projects, but to a less extent than the wings; this compartment has a richly decorated porch, and is entirely of stone. The principal ornamentation of the exterior appears to have been bestowed on this central projection; the arched doorway has plain double columns of the Corinthian order on each side, whilst above it there is a niche containing the bust of a female figure. The first storey has quaintly-carved columns on either side of its mullioned window, and over it a series of grotesquely sculptured brackets. To this succeeds another storey, with another row of similar brackets. Along the entire front is carried an open stone balustrade of somewhat peculiar character, and at each end of the building there is a small square turret, surmounted by a cupola, one of which contains a clock.
The entrance-hall is spacious and oak-panelled, with a gallery at the western end of a comparatively recent date; whilst a deep central pendant hanging from the ceiling adds considerably to the general ornamentation. At the bottom of the grand staircase is the dining-room, a very handsome apartment, the side of which overlooks the garden and forms a kind of arcade, separated from the room by a row of elegant marble columns with semicircular arches. Adjoining the dining-room, and occupying the north-east angle of the building, is a small chapel, dedicated to St. James. The apartment—for it can hardly be called by any other name—is furnished in accordance with the rest of the building; each side is occupied by a row of pews, and in the recess formed by the bay-window at the eastern end is the communion-table, enclosed by a wooden railing. In the centre of the chapel is a curious font, the circumference of which is almost equal to that of a quart basin. The ancient doors of both the chapel and the dining-room are elaborately carved in oak, and ornamented with bright steel hinges and fastenings.
The upper floors are reached by a spacious and richly-ornamented staircase of chestnut, its arabesque balusters being surmounted by capitals of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, and also the armorial bearings of the Wilson family, supported by a wolf, whilst the walls are enriched with arabesque mouldings, intermixed with fruit and flowers. The principal or "state" apartments are situated upon the second floor. The first of these, which is entered from the grand staircase, is the gallery (seventy-six feet in length), extending the whole depth of the house. The walls of this room are wainscoted with oak, the ceiling is elaborately moulded with arabesque ornamentation; and in the bay-windows at either end are stained-glass armorial bearings of the Ducies (former owners of Charlton) and their alliances. In the room adjoining the gallery, called the north sitting-room, the ceiling of which is also very rich, is a most elaborately carved chimney-piece, representing the mythological story of Medusa, beneath which are two allegorical basso-relievos. From this room we enter the saloon, a lofty and well-proportioned apartment, lighted at either end by large mullioned windows; in the ceiling of one of the recesses are the royal arms of James I., the ostrich feathers—the cognisance of the Prince of Wales—occupying a similar position opposite. This room has some highly-wrought marble chimney-pieces, and its ceiling is likewise enriched with arabesque ornamentation, intermixed with fruit and flowers, and decorated with elaborate pendants. In the room next entered, called the south sitting-room, it is traditionally related, on the authority of Dr. Plot, that the marble chimney-piece—a very handsome piece of workmanship in black marble—was so exquisitely polished, that Lord Downe, one of the former owners of the mansion, "did see in it the reflection of a robbery committed on Blackheath, whereupon, sending out his servants, the thieves were taken."
Interspersed throughout the various rooms are some choice works of art, and also a very fair collection of family portraits; and one of the outbuildings, at a short distance from the house, has been converted into a museum, in which are several interesting objects of natural history, chiefly brought together by Lady Wilson, but greatly augmented by the late Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson during his travels in the north and south of Europe.
The park, although containing but about one hundred acres, is well timbered with trees of magnificent growth, among which are several venerable yews; whilst the gardens are laid out with considerable taste, and abound in shrubs and plants, both native and foreign. In the grounds in front of the mansion is a picturesque building of red brick. said to have been originally erected as a "drinking house," but now made use of as an orangery. Until very recently, this structure had been for several years overshadowed by a solitary cypresstree, the only one at that time remaining of a long row mentioned by Evelyn as having adorned the front of the mansion, and which Hasted refers to as seeming "to be of great age, and perhaps the oldest in England." The ancient gateway, immediately in front of the principal entrance, has long been disused. The mansion is presumed to have been erected from the designs of Inigo Jones, who resided for some time in a house, said to be still standing, in the immediate neighbourhood; and from the fact of the principal apartments being situated on the second floor, it is inferred that it was built shortly after the return of that celebrated architect from Italy, where the state apartments are usually placed upon the uppermost storey.
Henry III. granted to Charlton a market and
also a fair, both of which appear to have been
given up prior to the middle of the seventeenth
century. Notwithstanding the discontinuance of
the fair, the village had been for ages, until late in
the last century, famous for a "disorderly fair"
held there on St. Luke's day, October 18. It was
called "Horn Fair," according to Philipott, "by
reason of the great plentie of all sorts of winding
hornes and cups and other vessels of horne there
brought to be sold." Concerning the origin of this
fair there are several wild traditions, but that most
usually accepted is that it was held to keep in
remembrance the little episode between King John
and the miller's wife, of which we have already
given the details in dealing with Cuckold's Point. (fn. 8)
Mr. S. C. Hall, however, in his "Baronial Halls,"
observes that the more probable origin of the
term "horn fair" is that it was symbolic of the ox
of St. Luke, by which he is usually distinguished
in ancient paintings. The fair was formerly held
upon a green opposite the church, and facing
Charlton House; but this piece of ground having
some years ago been enclosed so as to form part
of the gardens belonging to the mansion, the fair
was subsequently held in a private field at the
other end of the village, under the auspices of
a few speculative publicans. During the reign
of Charles II. it was a carnival of the most unrestrained kind, and those frequenting it from London
used to proceed thither in boats, "disguised as
kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their
heads; and men dressed as females, who formed in
procession and marched round the church and
fair." Nicholas Breton, in a poem published in
1612, entitled "Pasquil's Nightcap, or Antidote
for the Headache," gives an amusing account of
these annual gatherings, which shows that they
were held in great pomp, and with an immense
concourse of people, all of whom
"In comely sort their foreheads did adorne
With goodly coronets of hardy horne;"
but the decadence of this ancient custom was at that time evidently anticipated, for Breton ends his poem by indignantly telling us that—
"Long time this solemne custome was observ'd,
And Kentish-men with others met to feast;
But latter times are from old fashions swerv'd,
And grown repugnant to this good behest.
For now ungratefull men these meetings scorn,
And thanklesse prove to Fortune and the horn;
For onely now is kept a poor goose fair,
Where none but meaner people doe repaire."
The reader, of course, will not have forgotten the mysteries attached to "swearing in" on the horns at Highgate, of which we have already spoken at some length. (fn. 9)
In "Merrie England in the Olden Time" we
read that "at Horn Fair, a party of humorists of
both sexes (query, of either sex) cornuted in all the
variety of bull-feather fashion, after perambulating
round Cuckold's Point, startled the little quiet
village of Charlton on St. Luke's Day, shouting
their emulation, and blowing voluntaries on rams'
horns, in honour of their patron saint." Ned Ward
gives a curious picture of this odd ceremony, and
the press of Stonecutter Street (the worthy successor of Aldermary churchyard) has consigned it
to immortality in two broadsides—"A New Summons to all the Merry (Wagtail) Jades to attend at
Horn Fair," and "A New Summons to Horn Fair,"
both without a date, inspired by the Helicon of the
"Around whose brink
Bards rush in droves like cart-horses to drink,
Dip their dark beards among its streams so clear,
And while they gulp it, wish it ale or beer."
Leaving Charlton House behind us, and pursuing a south-western course, we make our way to
the southern side of the Great Dover Road after it
crosses Blackheath. Here we pass, at a short
distance on our left, the steep ascent of Shooter's
Hill, which, as Philipott writes, was "so called for
the thievery there practised, where travellers in
early times were so much infested with depredations and bloody mischiefs, that order was taken in
the sixth year of Richard II., for the enlarging the
highway, according to the statute made in the time
of King Edward I., so that they venture still to
rob here by prescription." The road continued a
steep and narrow thoroughfare, closed in by thick
woods—a convenient harbour for highwaymen—down till about the year 1733, when, as Hasted
informs us, "a road of easier ascent and of great
width was laid out at some distance from the old
one;" but still the highwaymen lingered about the
neighbourhood, and consequently the hill main
tained its reputation long after the new road was
made. Byron has rendered the spot familiar to
his readers by his description of the prospect from
the summit of the hill looking towards London—
"A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping,
Dirty and dusky, but as wide as eye
Could reach, with here and there a sail just skipping
In sight, then lost amidst the forestry
Of masts; a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tip-toe through their sea-coal canopy;
A huge dim cupola, like a foolscap crown
On a fool's head—and there is London town."
Here, too, probably, was the scene of Don Juan's musings on the morality, or immorality, of "the great city"—"Here are pure wives, safe lives;" a reverie which was destined to be broken off rather abruptly—if there be any truth in the poet's words which follow—by the sudden attack of a highwayman.
For the discouragement of these knights of the road the usual methods were adopted here; and in former times Shooter's Hill was seldom without the ornament of a gibbet. Pepys tells us in his "Diary," under date of April 11, 1661, how that of all the journeys he ever made, "this [from Dartford to London] was the merriest. … Amongst other things," he adds, "I got my lady to let her maid, Mrs. Anne, ride all the way on horseback. … Mrs. Anne and I rode under the man that hangs upon Shooter's Hill, and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones." With the improved condition of the times in which we live, however, an end came some years ago to the practice of the highwaymen; but a somewhat ludicrous attempt at its revival was made in the year 1877, and in this very neighbourhood, with some little success; but the young ruffians having been brought to justice, it is to be hoped that henceforth the midnight wayfarer may proceed on his way over Blackheath or Shooter's Hill in security.
On the western slope of the hill, close by the road leading to Eltham, stands the hospital for the Woolwich garrison, called the Herbert Hospital, after Mr. Sidney Herbert, afterwards Lord Herbert of Lea. The building was erected in 1866, from the designs of Captain Galton, R.E., during the period when Lord Herbert was Secretary of State for War. It is constructed on the pavilion system, and comprises six parallel blocks, in which are the hospital wards, providing accommodation for between 600 and 700 patients. On the summit of the hill beyond we just catch a glimpse of Severndroog Castle, which was erected by Lady James, in 1784, in commemoration of the gallantry of her husband, Sir William James, who died in the preceding year, "and in a peculiar manner to record the conquest of the Castle of Severn Droog, on the coast of Malabar, which fell to his superior valour and able conduct on the 2nd day of April, 1755." The castle is a triangular brick edifice, of three floors, with turrets at the angles, and contains a few specimens of armour, weapons, &c., captured at Severndroog.
Since the close of the last century considerable progress has been made in the erection of villas in the immediate neighbourhood of Blackheath, particularly in that part lying to the south-east, known as Blackheath Park. This park forms an estate anciently called Witenemers, or Wricklesmarsh, which during the reign of William the Conqueror formed part of the possessions of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. At the close of the seventeenth century it came into the possession of Sir John Morden, the founder of Morden College, who, dying in 1708, bequeathed the estate to his widow. Soon after Lady Morden's death, in 1721, it was sold to Sir Gregory Page, who pulled down the old house and erected a large edifice of stone, consisting of a centre and two wings, united by a colonnade; and this mansion is described in the "Ambulator" for 1774 as "very magnificent, and one of the finest seats in England belonging to a private gentleman." The writer enters into almost as many details about it, and the picture-gallery which it contained, as he does in describing Lord Burlington's mansion at Chiswick; and the catalogue of the paintings alone occupies three pages. On the death of Sir Gregory Page, the mansion and estate passed to a greatnephew, who sold the estate, and the house was soon after pulled down.
At the south-east extremity of Blackheath, but in Charlton parish, is Morden College, so named from its founder, Sir John Morden, a wealthy Turkey merchant, mentioned above. He erected this structure in Great Stone Field, near his own residence, in 1695, and placed in it, during his lifetime, twelve decayed merchants; and by his will (dated October 15, 1702) devised all his real and copyhold estates, after the decease of Lady Morden, to the Turkey Company, in trust, for the support of this college, and for the maintenance of poor, aged, and decayed merchants of England, "whose fortunes had been ruined by the perils of the sea, or other unavoidable accidents." The premises occupy a spacious quadrangle, and are built of brick, with stone quoins and cornices. There is a lofty entrance gateway, and the lodgings of the inmates, dining-hall, and chapel form a quadrangle. Over the entrance are statues of the founder and his wife. The college provides a comfortable home, including lodging, maintenance, and attendance, for about forty pensioners, who have each an annual stipend of £72.
From the grounds attached to Morden College a walk of a mile and a half by the footpath by Kidbrook Church, and across some pleasant fields, brings us to Eltham, which will be the limit of our perambulation in this direction.