Greenwich Overview

Above: Some of the many elegant houses still to be seen in Croom’s Hill today.

This land described here describes only the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. The original settlement called Greenwich was on land beside the Thames. The first recorded mention was in AD 918. Its name derives from two syllables which mean ‘green settlement’ or ‘green village’. The second syllable of the name ‘wich’ derives from an Old English word ‘wic’ which originally came from the Latin word ‘vicus’ – meaning a small civilian settlement outside a Roman fort. Today, place names in Britain ending in ‘wich’ and ‘wick’ often derive from ‘wic’. It would seem that Greenwich has enjoyed being a ‘green or rural settlement’ for over a thousand years.

Although many of the streets of Greenwich are today choked with traffic, the old village was relatively rural until the 19th century. The original village of Greenwich was essentially the long narrow thoroughfare called Croom’s Hill and its northerly continuation known as Greenwich Church Street which ends today at the ship called the ‘Cutty Sark. Any feeling of Greenwich Church Street being a village street has become almost obliterated by the ‘dreaded’ one-way system.

The village of Greenwich was essentially a place where sea-captains and the admirals lived. This was in contrast to the numerous narrow streets of Deptford, where the many workers in the Royal Naval Dockyard and the Royal Victualling Yard were living. When they closed down in the 1950s and 1960s, Deptford still had many small factories in the area. They have now closed down as well and Deptford has become gentrified. Apart from the high profile tourist attractions of Greenwich – like the old Royal Naval College – there is little difference between those who live in Deptford and those who live in Greenwich. Most of the working residents are more likely to take the DLR train to Canary Wharf for their place of work than to have local employment.

Before moving into Victorian times, it should be mentioned that there is a ‘West Greenwich’, and an ‘East Greenwich’ and a ‘North Greenwich’. Land west of the River Ravensbourne was known as West Greenwich. Land on the east side was known as East Greenwich. These two names derived from two manors with exactly the same names. The third name – North Greenwich – is a name that has more recently been applied to the Greenwich Penninsula which is a ‘finger’ of land in the NE of the old Metropolitan Borough.

Above: An outline map of the London Borough of Greenwich (now called the Royal Borough of Greenwich) with a YELLOW dotted line indicating where the old Metropolitan Borough boundary between Greenwich and Woolwich was (until 1965). The northern part of the River Ravensbourne can be seen towards the west of Greenwich (Click on image to enlarge to 1280×800).

Right up until Victorian times the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich was essentially still farmland that was gradually eroded by industrial sites being established mainly on land near the Thames. Along the western boundary was a very large common which has always been known as Blackheath. Only a small part of that common lies within the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich (now part of the London Borough of Greenwich). The larger part of the common lies within the old Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham (now part of the London Borough of Lewisham). While mentioning the open common called Blackheath, there is also the village called Blackheath and that too lies within the London Borough of Lewisham.

The only other early settlement in the old Metropolitan Borough was Charlton, first mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). The name means ‘farmer’s town or settlement’. This was not a place near the Thames but rather one that developed into a village on a high promontory of land well inland from the river. The village has a road running through it called ‘The Village’. It became – and still is today – a small village with a church and a large house nearby, originally the manor house. It was acquired at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536) and rebuilt as a grand Jacobean mansion called Charlton House. It is surrounded by its original gardens which are now a large public park.

Adjacent to Charlton is an area of land called Kidbrooke. It takes its name from the Kyd Brook – a tiny watercourse running from Orpington through Pett’s Wood to Lewisham, where it joins the River Quaggy. The Quaggy is a tributary of the River Ravensbourne and they meet very close to Lewisham Station. Kidbrooke never was a hamlet and has no real centre. The very large housing development, called the Ferrier Estate (built 1968) was demolished in 2012 and the new housing is known, confusingly, as Kidbrooke Village.

The old A2 – which essentially follows the original line of a Roman road – runs through the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. The route of the Roman road led SE off Borough High Street (on the line of another Roman road) and followed today’s Old Kent Road and New Cross Road. The route then entered the old boundary of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, crossing the River Ravensbourne by a ford. Being an unusually ‘deep ford’, the description gave the place called Deptford its name. While on the subject, part of Deptford, on the west side of the River Ravensbourne, is also actually part of Greenwich. The actual line of the original Roman road has been lost through much of Greenwich and its known route has only been confirmed for certain along Shooter’s Hill Road – to the east of Blackheath. Through Greenwich, the line of the Roman road is generally assumed to be Blackheath Road, Blackheath Hill and the part of Shooter’s Hill Road running across Blackheath. This part of the original Roman road has never been found by archaeologists.

The riverfront of the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich was in two parts. (1) The part near the original village which is today famous for the old tea clipper called the ‘Cutty Sark’ and the old buildings which were once the Royal Naval College. (2) The rest of the riverside was characterised by boat building, barge repair and industrial sites – along with a vast gas works and an equally large power station. Most of that gradually declined during the 1970s and 1980s, leaving mainly derelict land which is, at the time of writing, being redeveloped into bland faceless apartment blocks which are erasing all traces of the industrial history from the past. The large ‘finger’ of land, on the eastern side of the old Metropolitan Borough, became known as ‘North Greenwich’ and is also called the Greenwich Penninsula. After being the site for many industrial uses from Victorian times onwards, it was almost completely derelict just before the dawn of the new millennium. A huge ‘Millennium Dome’ was erected on part of the site, housing an exhibition to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000. This has found a new use as the ‘O2 Arena’ which is in use for many public events. All around the O2 Arena are new apartment blocks as well as a large retail park – served by roads leading from the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road as well as the newly constructed North Greenwich Underground Station.

To the east of the ‘finger’ of land is an important sand, gravel and aggregates wharf that is very much in use due to the frantic building work that is always part of the ‘scene’ in Central London. That wharf is served by vessels that bring aggregates to the site on the river. It is also served by a single railway line that is used by freight trains to convey the aggregates to other parts of London. The wharf is now the only working link with the riverside’s industrial past.

Taking a look at the map, it will be seen that the River Ravensbourne and its mouth – known as Deptford Creek – forms part of the western boundary but also flows through the part of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich where it reaches the Thames. This means that a small part of the land that called Deptford was actually in the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich and is now within the boundary of the London Borough of Greenwich. For example, all of Creek Road – on both sides of Deptford Creek – lies within the old and new borough boundaries. The east side of Watergate Street is the most westerly part of Deptford to be within the old and new boundaries. The fact that parts of Deptford have always been administered by Greenwich comes as a surprise to many Londoners.

-ENDS-

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