Above: Honor Oak Road near the junction with Westwood Park. The location is still quite wooded even today.
Ask anyone where the centre of Forest Hill is today and you will probably get a reply along the lines of “Does Forest Hill Have a centre?” or maybe “I suppose it’s somewhere near the station”. Either answer sums up the demise of what was once a flourishing collection of shops.
First, we will look at the origins of Forest Hill. If you look at John Rocque’s map (1746), you will find that while there are quite a few houses shown where Sydenham started but there are none to be seen around the location of Forest Hill. While the thoroughfare we now called Sydenham Road has plenty of houses shown beside it, you will have to struggle to even work out where the original site of Forest Hil is to be found. If you have looked at the small scale sheets of Rocque’s map, you find the land that became Forest Hill is partly on the sheet where ‘Oak of Arnon’ is shown and partly on the sheet where ‘West Wood Common’ is shown. Forest Hill developed somewhere in between.
The ‘Oak or Arnon’ should be ‘Oak of Honor’ and is now a small park called One Tree Hill. ‘West Wood Common’ is now mostly built over but above that name is shown the words ‘Hensford Pond’ and ‘The Lapse’. While ‘Hensford Pond’ is not a recognisable name, the name ‘The Lapse’ is now a lane called Lapsewood Walk – almost opposite Horniman Gardens.
If all this sounds a bit vague, it is. Forest Hill – as a name and as a place – just did not exist in 1746. Another 50 years later, the place called Forest Hill is starting to emerge. It all started happening near the T-junction of Honor Oak Road with Westwood Park. Two houses – Hill House and the nearby White House – were built during the 1790s. Other houses were built at the end of the Georgian period and a name for the area followed – Forest Hill. It was not so much a place name and a place description because these houses were certainly built ‘in the forest and on the hill’.
That was the 1790s and about 40 years later the route of the Croydon Canal was acquired to build London’s second oldest railway – the London and Croydon Railway – which opened in 1839. Forest Hill Station was one of the stops on that line. As with most stations, residents tend to live nearby if they want to commute to London. So it was that the ‘centre of gravity’ for Forest Hill moved from Honor Oak Road down to the T-junction that is made up of three roads – Devonshire Road, Dartmouth Road and London Road.
Goods and also food arrived at Forest Hill Station which was delivered to the nearby shops. In Victorian times crates of fish and many boxes of fruit and vegetables were delivered by train. Gradually a flourishing shopping centre emerged. High-class shoe shops and ladies’ dress shops were set up in business along with men’s outfitters. Does anybody remember Humphries in Dartmouth Road? One of the most expensive china and glassware shops in the area was also in Dartmouth Road – Brice Rogers. Don’t forget that plenty of wealthy people lived in and around Forest Hill (and also Sydenham) due in part to the coming of the Crystal Palace.
After the Second World War, Forest Hill was an important shopping centre. There were no fewer than five butchers within 200 yards of each other near Forest Hill Station. One of the early Sainsbury’s shops (actually two shops side-by-side) was set up in London Road – not on the site of today’s large Sainsbury’s but in smaller shops closer to Forest Hill Station.
Then, it all began to change. A short length of Devonshire Road and all of London Road had become part of the South Circular Road. People started to acquire motor cars and, because they wanted to park at the shops, along came the man who marked out the double-red line. One by one the shops closed down leaving most people to wonder if Forest Hill has a ‘centre’ at all!
We better not omit the amazing Mr Horniman from the story – the German tea merchant who lived in a large house on an estate now known as Horniman Gardens. He loved to travel and bring back plants and even trees to grow on his estate. Some of them are quite rare and they are still to be seen in the gardens today. He also loved collecting things and he had to build a museum to house his vast collection. He eventually gave his museum to the London County Council (LCC) which is why Forest Hill still has the Horniman Museum.
Forest Hill is still a ‘green and pleasant land’ on account of its origins as part of the Great North Wood that once extended across the hills now known as Sydenham Hill, London Road, Horniman Drive, Canonbie Road and One Tree Hill. All of these are either completely or partially within the boundary of Forest Hill.
The area also extends towards Catford where Blythe Hill should also be mentioned – right on the very edge of the Great North Wood, not far from the River Ravensbourne.