Whether a name painted onto a wall qualifies to be called a mural is probably open to debate. The wall in question is in fact one side of a brick abutment supporting a railway bridge that crosses a really quite ordinary thoroughfare called Ennersdale Road. Although almost nobody would bother to give the road a second look, it is well-known to many motorists because it is a handy short-cut for traffic wishing to get from one side of a long railway embankment to the other. It is probably the main reason why the artwork was painted in this position because the mural makes a statement for the benefit of the large number of motorists to read and realise the name of the locality through which they pass on a daily basis.
The earliest map for the whole of what we now called Inner London was made in 1746 by a cartographer called John Rocque. On his splendid map he records the location as ‘Hether Green’. It was a misunderstanding of the name on his part which was ‘Hither Green’ being nearer to the village of Lewisham than another green which was further away. Hither Green on his map was just an open space beside a road. There were no houses and the location was not even a hamlet. The nearest large village was Lewisham with the smaller village of Lee nearby and, slightly further away, was Eltham.
Moving the time-marker forwards by about 150 years, it was not until 1895 that Hither Green Station was opened in what was at the time mainly open countryside with a few roads laid out with houses but still plenty of farmland. Even now, living in the 21st century, although all the farmland of Hither Green is now entirely covered by streets and houses, Hither Green is hardly regarded as a shopping centre. It is loved by those who live there but for those who take the short-cut through Ennersdale Road, on their way to and from work by car, it is just another road along their tedious journey around the side-streets of south-east London.
So how did the area develop into a place name? Well, it was really all down to the coming of the railways. Until about 1800 the land we now call Inner London was made up of the City of London, the City of Westminster and a whole host of villages and hamlets whose history, in the main, started in Saxon or Norman times. Suddenly, just a few decades after 1800, a new form of transport was invented and in 1836 the very first railway line opened in London – between Deptford Station and London Bridge Station. It was called the London and Greenwich Railway and within about 40 or 50 years of it opening the whole of Inner London was to be criss-crossed by numerous railway lines serving stations located in the cities, villages and hamlets that make up today’s Inner London.
At the same time, new streets lined with new houses were appearing where once there had been farms and open fields. In many cases the streets of houses were built well outside most villages and therefore the location did not really have a recognisable name. Due to the need to build stations that served the new suburbs, these stations had names created for them which did not necessarily relate to the nearest village. For example, Sydenham was a long established village which acquired a railway line serving the newly formed Sydenham Station. Only a short distance away two other railway lines ran through nearby areas with Sydenham Hill Station and Lower Sydenham Station being devised as their names. The location where the new station appeared suddenly became the name for a new ‘place name’. In other words the station name created a new location name which came into common usage.
As another example, there is a suburb called Forest Hill which started as a handful of houses built on the side of a deeply forested hillside – hence the name. The houses had only been in existence about 40 years when a railway line was built and Forest Hill Station opened. Within a few decades of that station opening two more stations opened just a mile or so away. The two stations were named Honor Oak Park and Honor Oak. Until the stations had been built there were almost no houses nearby and the two station names did not reflect the names of the localities in any way. Suddenly, naming a station in a location that really had no name of its own suddenly created a new place name. There are plenty more examples that could be mentioned.
Within four years of the opening of London’s railway, the ‘Penny Post’ came into being – in 1840. The man responsible was Rowland Hill who had the idea that no matter how far the recipient of the letter lived from the sender the cost of postage would always be the same. The Penny Post – with the famous ‘Penny Black’ postage stamp – was very popular and it gave rise to vastly increased volumes of mail, some of it being carried long distances by the newly invented railways. More people wrote to each other than ever before. Confusion then started to arise within the Post Office about where people lived. Suddenly, post-men were delivering letters to places that had similar names but were geographically far apart. One of the well-known problems in London came with the place-name ‘Bromley’. Not far from Mile End was a village called Bromley but Bromley was also the name of a village in Kent, not far from Farnborough. To obviate the confusion the ‘Bromley’ near Mile End changed its name to ‘Bromley by Bow’.
Looking at the newly completed mural under the railway bridge at Hither Green makes us think of times when only parts of London were known by place names. Other parts would have been described as being a field or a farm near a named village. Today we have post codes which add a further degree of geographic accuracy to pin-pointing a street for postal purposes. The Victorians were really the first people to have to adapt to a ‘modern’ world where every mile or so there was a railway station causing the immediate locality to adopt the name of that station. Any confusion over names of villages, due to the postal system, also added further modifications to long established place names.
The reason for painting the mural – which was only completed at the beginning of July – was to make a bold statement on a rather uninteresting road where many cars passed by each day so that they realised that they were driving through an area called Hither Green. It came as a bit of a surprise to the locals that a bare wall supporting a railway bridge should suddenly become a piece of artwork. It was not as much of a surprise as the locals in 1895 experienced when steam engines hauled carriages across their land and stopped at the newly opened Hither Green Station. Suddenly the ‘middle of nowhere’ was being served by a new-fangled railway line and nothing would ever be the same again. For those who shudder when progress starts to ‘interfere’ with their lives it might be good to remember that people have been coping with change for a very long time!