The History of Brockley Cross

One of the things we underestimated when we started this blog was how great the appetite would be for local history - and how much knowledge would rest with our readers.

Following the recent article about the Knights Templar comes this article, contributed by Moira Tait, based on her own research. It tells the history of Brockley Cross in a time when locals may have suffered from Scrofula, but they were unafflicted by the double roundabout. It also explains why the tiny scrap of Common we have left is worth preserving.

The History of Brockley Cross by Moira Tait

If you read any local history about Brockley Cross, you’ll find no reference to it until the 19th century with the coming of the canal and the trains. While Brockley Green as a settlement (situated further south in the modern Brockley Rise area) does appear earlier, and the Manor of Brockley was in existence since the 12th century with the Premonstratensian Abbey founded near present St Peter’s church in c1187, the area of Brockley Cross is an unnamed meeting place of three roads. But if you look a little more closely at early maps, they suggest a more interesting history.

Most of the earliest maps of this area show three roads: The first road ran from the Cross area to Butt Lane (now Tanners Hill) and onto Deptford. (We know a settlement at Deptford was in existence in pre-Conquest times as it was called Mereton meaning ‘town in the marsh’.) The second road ran from Coulgate Street, along Brockley Road, onto Brockley Green near the site of the modern Brockley Jack pub. The third road ran from the Cross area south of Plow Garlick Hill (Telegraph Hill) onto Nonehead (Nunhead) and Goose Green. These are most likely Medieval routes because of the presence of the abbey near St Peter’s Church and Medieval settlements at Sydenham and Dulwich.

One of the earliest large-scale maps dates from 1741 and shows the junction of these three roads as a large diamond-shaped area. There are some buildings immediately to the east of this junction (on the site of Breakspears Road just north of the railway) which are named on later maps as Manor Farm. This farm supported the old manor house which may have been on the site of Breakspears Mews. Interestingly, the 1800 Milne map indicates field boundaries adjacent to Manor farm that show a reeve type pattern that probably goes back as far as the Neolithic period 5,000 years ago.

The junction at Brockley Cross has a number of features, namely a well and a few disparate buildings, typical of commons all over England and which were used to graze animals by anyone who lived locally to the common. The common was usually owned by the lord of the manor.

Brickworks on Plow Garlick Hill (Telegraph Hill) are first indicated on the Cole map of 1756 suggesting that the land had been sold and the new owners were no longer interested in farming. By 1775, the road to Nunhead and Goose Green appears to have truncated, only going as far as about Aspinall Road.

On the 1777 Andrews map, this road is extended north to New Cross Gate on present day line of Aspinall Road, crossing the railway to Waller Road.

By 1800 the road ceases to exist. Perhaps, the new owners of Plow Garlick Hill did not want anyone walking over their land or it may have had something to do with the military telegraph communication system established a few years earlier (hence the name Telegraph Hill). The common at Brockley Cross, however, appears not to have a name until 1800, when it is called Deptford Common. But Deptford Common used to be north of Hilly Fields. As this area was the first to be built upon, perhaps the name was re-allocated to the common at Brockley Cross.

Further changes in land ownership occurred in order to bring about the creation of the Croydon Canal and which destroyed the common in 1809. Its route followed Shardeloes Road, across the end of what is now Brockley Cross, along the western edge of Coulgate Street and then joined the line of what is now the railway. Even though it is hard to imagine a canal here, there are still traces to be seen. The retaining wall in the southern part of Shardeloes Road (site of the Brockley poem) reveals the cutting that gave a level section between two flights of locks of which were at least six locks between Brockley Cross and New Cross to be negotiated. A lock-keeper’s cottage named the Old Lock House was situated on the east side of the canal (Shardeloes Road) opposite Millmark Grove on the site of four modern garages. This cottage survived until the early 1940’s. The land on which it stood is a strange triangular shape and I believe is so because it was built on the common; its northern boundary is the edge of the common and the land adjacent was owned by someone else. The lock cottage land stretched into later Malpas Road and is marked by the four modern houses of 247-243A Malpas Road. When Malpas Road was built in the 1890’s a gap was left in the Victorian terrace for three houses - the builders were clearly expecting the cottage to disappear shortly! The later infill of the four houses rather than three explains the numbering of the fourth house as 243A.

The Canal was a financial failure and was closed in 1836 with the land sold to the new railway companies. It took three years for the London to Croydon Railway to open but there was no station at Brockley until forty years later in anticipation of the completion of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway route (to Victoria). This route opened its station Brockley Lane the following year (only to close during WWI as an economic measure). These two railways together with the canal finally obliterated all remaining evidence of the common. So the area of Brockley Cross, rather than being a simple junction of three roads, could have been a place where people grazed sheep, sold their goods at a marketplace and met for fairs. It may never have been deemed significant enough for mapmakers to name it, but in the lives of the people of Deptford, Brockley Green and Nunhead, the common at Brockley Cross was certainly known and used by them.

Thanks, of course, to Moira for her excellent work.