Shooter’s Hill – A Quick Look Around

Above: Looking towards London near the highest point on the road called Shooter’s Hill. When the road was cut away, the pavement was left at its original level.

Shooter’s Hill is the name of a hill in SE London – rising to 432 feet (132 m). The hill is part of a ridge which includes the land crossed by Shrewsbury Lane on the north side of the road called Shooter’s Hill. To the south of the road, the land is still covered in woodland. Leading to the hill from the west is Shooter’s Hill Road but the hill is crossed by a road just called Shooter’s Hill. The name Shooter’s Hill is also the name for the local area which is a community of houses with its own parish church.

From certain points at the top of the ridge, there are some fantastic views across London as well as across the counties surrounding London. In the 18th century, the hill was the haunt of highwaymen. It is said that the highwaymen – carrying ‘shooters’ or guns – gave the hill its name. However, the name ‘Shooter’s Hill’ is first recorded in 1226 – long before guns were invented (during the 16th century) – and highwaymen came even later. A more likely explanation is that it was a hill whose slopes are known to have been in use for archery practice.

The hill’s early history goes back possibly to the bronze age. A place of burial lies on the northern side of the summit. The road over the hill may also have been an ancient track. It was certainly part of a Roman road – then starting from today’s Southwark, passing over the summit of the hill and leading eventually to Dover, in Kent. The whole road was called ‘Watling Street’ by the Saxons.

From the 14th century onwards there was a beacon on the summit of the hill – sometimes known as Shooter’s Hill Beacon. It was one of many around the country used to signal warnings of an invasion of England. It could be seen from Purfleet, Knockholt and Leith Hill, in Surrey. In the old accounts for the churchwardens of Eltham various payments are recorded ‘for watchinge the beacon on Shutter’s Hill’.

The hill was – and still is – covered by thick woodland. Henry IV ordered the clearance of trees bordering the road in an unsuccessful bid to protect travellers from ‘violent practices’.  The hill became infamous for its gibbets of executed felons. In his diary for 11 April 1661, Samuel Pepys records passing a gibbet beside the road – ‘I rode [from Dartford to London] 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.’

Watling Street, which crosses the hill under the name of Shooter’s Hill, was used as a route for horse-drawn mail-coaches linking London with Dover. As stagecoaches came into use, in the 17th and 18th centuries, highwaymen took advantage of the steep incline running through the woods to rob the slow-moving coaches. The men would hide in the bushes beside the road and suddenly appear, surprising the occupants in the coaches. The coachman could not pull away and the unfortunate passengers were often robbed of their money and their valuables.

In 1749, the Bull pub opened near the summit of the hill, on the London side, being used as a refreshment stop by stagecoaches. It was not used by the Royal Mail coaches who had an interchange of mail bags at the Post Office near the Red Lion pub further down the hill, also on the London side.

An 18th-century grade II listed milestone in the grounds of Christ Church, Shooter’s Hill, has 19th-century plates giving the distances of ‘Dartford 7 miles’, ‘London Bridge 8 miles’. An unusual later addition is a plate proclaiming ‘130 miles to Ypres: in defending the salient our casualties were 90,000 killed, 70,500 missing, 450,000 wounded’, commemorating the Battle of Ypres.

In the 18th century, the area began to be developed, with fine houses being built on slopes on both sides of the hill. A spa town was proposed because of the many springs that rise on the hill but nothing came of that idea. The folly known as Severndroog Castle, in Castle Wood, was built in 1784 as a memorial to the exploits of Sir William James. By the end of the 18th century, Shrewsbury House had been built, where Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, stayed in 1799. The present Shrewsbury House was built in 1926 on a site adjacent to the original mansion.

At the end of the 18th century (from 1796), the top of the hill was used as the site for one of the stations of the Admiralty Shutter Telegraph, receiving signals from Telegraph Hill, at New Cross, about four and a half miles (7.2 m) away. It then transmitted the signal on to Swanscombe, 10.5 miles (16.8 km) away. The site at Swanscombe lay just south of the old A2 road (Watling Street). The station stood in Telegraph Field but the site was not ideal being subject to fog.

From the mid-19th century onwards, a village began to develop on the hillside, soon gaining a church and a school. Christ Church was built 1855-56 and remains in use today. A water tower, rising to 130 feet, stands further west down Shooter’s Hill. This was originally built in the 1890s to designs by Thomas W Aldwinckle to supply water to the Brook Fever hospital, which was demolished in the 1990s to be replaced by a housing development. The tower consists of a plain brick pillar ornamented simply with bands of terracotta tiles and windows like arrow-slits. It is not listed, but it was cleaned, repointed and underpinned for conversion into a family home. It is the centrepiece of a housing estate.

As has already been mentioned, a gibbet once stood on Eltham Common, at the foot of Shooter’s Hill on the London side. It became the site of Shooter’s Hill Police Station, which was built in late-Victorian times and later extended. It has been converted into apartments. Eltham was said to be the only town in England with two fully functional police stations – the other being in Well Hall Road – having been placed there due to the lawlessness associated with the area.

Above: Due to the trees, views of London from the position in the top picture are very limited. This view is from nearby Ankerdine Crescent. Tower Bridge is to the left. To its right can be seen the BT Tower, the white arch above Wembley Stadium and St Paul’s Cathedral.

In the 20th century, the thick woodland on Shooters Hill was seriously threatened by housing developments. Suburban housing had already spread over much of the farmland at the foot of the hill – in Welling, Plumstead and Kidbrooke. Fortunately for later generations, the London County Council (LCC) was able to acquire Castle Wood (including Severndroog Castle) in 1922, Jackwood in 1923, and Oxleas Wood in 1934. They were made into public open spaces. The large combined public open space has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI). Nearby, there is also a golf course.

Early 20th-century further amenities were added. (1) The ornate octagonal gothic revival water tower at the top of Shooter’s Hill is a landmark that was built in 1910 and can be seen from far around. (2) A fire station that has been converted into flats – one of which retains the firemen’s pole. (3) The Woolwich Memorial Hospital was built 1925-17 near the road called Shooter’s Hill. (4) George Wimpey laid out the Shooters Hill Estate in the 1930s.

During the Second World War (1939-45) the hill was used as the site of an array of anti-aircraft guns for the protection of London. As part of ‘London Stop Line Central’ it was a last line of defence from a German land invasion that was assumed would follow the old route of Watling Street from Dover. A number of devices were under the control of the Home Guard including a fougasse and a flame thrower. The site was the subject of a Time team programme a few years ago. Adjacent to an anti-aircraft battery was built a prisoner-of-war camp on what is today part of the golf course on the north-eastern slopes.

During the 1950s, alterations were made to the road surface to make the incline less steep. Low-powered motor vehicles of that era frequently struggled to get to the top. As a remedy, a small section of the road surface on the London side of the summit was excavated and removed to slightly decrease the gradient. This alteration is evident today where the road surface (opposite Craigholm) runs through a cutting and the pavement (following the original gradient of the hill) can be seen to rise about 1–2 metres above the present-day road surface. The earth was removed and used to fill in pits on Woolwich Common.

From 1985 to 1993 a large area of Oxleas Wood and Woodlands Farm was threatened by the proposal of a new road as part of the East London River Crossing road scheme. Fortunately, the proposal was abandoned in 1993 following a European Court decision the previous year. Woodlands Farm, a remarkable survival, on the Welling side of the hill is now a flourishing community farm with sheep, cows, and horses grazing in fields bordered with ancient hedgerows.

Near the summit of the road called Shooter’s Hill there is a stone Mounting Block, once used to aid the mounting of a horse.

-ENDS-

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