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HISTORY OF DOWNHAM 

Downham, as we all know it today, has really only been in existence since 1926, although its name had been bestowed upon it by London's governing body (L.C.C.) as far back as 1914, when they had agreed to build three large estates for the working classes, or 'Homes for Heroes' as Llyod George described them.

Before the Estate was built, there had been a little building south of Whitefoot Lane, and many residents of Lewisham used to take weekend walks over the 'Seven Fields', (although the site of Downham's Estate covered more than the seven fields).  Downham covered the lands of two farms, Holloway to the west and Shroffolds to the north.

In the late nineteenth century there was a rifle range near Holloway Farm, hence the name Rangefield Road.  Both farms were part of the extensive Lee Estate of the Baring family.  The land was mainly used for mixed agriculture, and farmed by tenants, John Dale at Shroffolds and Thomas Edgerton at Holloway in 1843.  Shroffolds, of some 258 acres, was an ancient farmstead, taking its name from an ancient Manor, Shrafholt, owned in the Middle Ages by the Banquel family.  It remained in existence until the beginning of this century.  Holloway was only slightly smaller, some 224 acres in extent.  Its farmhouse stood on the eastern side of Bromley Road, (formerly it had been on the western), at the bottom of Bromley Hill.  It is believed to have began life as a gate house for Bromley Hill House, now the Bromley Court Hotel.  The name Holloway derives from 'Hollow Way', the name of Bromley Road before it was turnpiked in 1718 and on which the farm stood.  The area of Southend, even as late as 1924, was described in the official guide as a 'lovely rural place'.  The village has a long history and first appears in the parish records in 1560.  It straddled Bromley Road, the main road from Kent into London, by which fruit and vegetables were transported to the markets.  There was a blacksmiths forge in the village, and the London to Sevenoaks stage coach used to stop there.

Downham's history as a settlement really began when it was acquired for housing by the London County Council in 1920, in order to help overcome the housing shortage which had arisen during the 1900's and had become more acute due to the lack of building during the 1914 1918 war.

During the 19th century, the more affluent had been able to leave London's centre for the suburbs, due to the opening of railways.  However, for the working classes to do likewise, a cheaper and more reasonable form of transport had to be found.  This was delayed until 1844, when the L.C.C. acquired the tramways.  These were electrified and expanded, as operating costs were lower than that of their horsedrawn counterparts.  However, a railway was extended to Southend in 1892, and the railways were to play an important part in Downham's creation.  It was their function to transport the sand and ballast from the L.C.C.'s sandpit, following an extension of the railways from Hither Green sidings crossing Downham Way via what is now Shroffold Road.

The main part of Downham's Estate, over 6,000 houses, was completed by the summer of 1930, its builders being Messrs.  Holland, Hannen & Cubbits Ltd., whilst and additional Estate of 1,038 houses was developed at Whitefoot lane in 1937, by builders Higgs & Hill, for the L.C.C., and is generally known today as North Downham; (this number has since diminished to a total of 6.700 due to Hitler's Second World War bombings on London) but on completion, some 30,000 people lived on Downham's newly built Estate.  However, with no factories, they commuted to work in London by train, tram or bus. Trains went from Grove Park, commencing as early as June 1925.  A cheap workman's ticket became available from November 1928.

Shopping facilities first came in 1926 on the New Bromley Road, followed later by centres at Grove Park, Burnt Ash Lane and one adjacent to the Downham Tavern.  The Downham Tavern was the only public house built on the area owned by the L.C.C., all the others being technically outside its boundaries.  It was for some years the world's largest pub, containing a Dance Hall, Beer Garden, two Saloon Bars, a Public Lounge, a Lunchroom (with flats above) and service was by waiter only.

The name 'Downham' derives from Lord Downham (William Haynes Fisher) a former chairman of the L.C.C., and in Old English means 'settlement on a hill', which certainly applies to some of the steeper roads on the Estate.  Many of the road names were taken from Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King', though there is no evidence that King Arthur had any connections with this area.  Other roads, such as Ilfracombe, took their names from places in Devon.

As the ground rises in the middle of the Estate, this part could not easily be built upon, and so were left open space.  The Ravensbourne and Spring Brook ran through part of the Estate, but were put into conduits when the Estate was built.  New roads were built, such as Downham Way, whilst others such as Whitefoot Lane were much altered as the photograph shows.

When Downham was first built it was regarded as a showpiece, a 'cottage Estate'.  It was a low density estate, with about 17 houses per acre, grouped around open spaces and served by shops.  A Lewisham Official Guide written in the 1930's described Downham as a 'Garden City'.

In 1926 a seven foot wall was placed across Valeswood Road, at its junction with Alexandra Crescent.  It was built by a private estate developer in response to objections from Bromley's private home owners to 'vulgar' people using their road as a short cut to Bromley's town centre.  Bromley's Town Council refused to remove the wall and the L.C.C. and Lewisham Council found themselves powerless to remove it either.  It was not removed until the early part of the Second World War, when fire engine access became essential.

In early 1927, a visit by King George V and Queen Mary to open the L.C.C.'s 17,000th dwelling, left egg on the face of the local councillors.  During their visit a tree was to be planted at the dwelling, 165 Downham Way, but due to a half day holiday being given to all Council workers, the tree was unfortunately locked away with the ceremonial spade in a council hut.  This is to be rectified on the Festival Opening Day, when the error of 60 years ago is to be put straight in the planting of another tree.

With additional recreation, the dream of the future Downham saw Forster Memorial Park opened in 1922 by Henry William Forster, who presented the Park to Lewisham in 1919 as a memorial to his two sons who were killed in the First World War.  More land has been added to this original bequest, and now covers some 42 acres.  In 1937, Downham witnessed the opening of a Swimming Pool and Library in Moorside Road, and a Cinema, 'The Splendid' which did a roaring trade in Bromley Road until its closure in 1957.  Sadly in that year, St, John's railway disaster claimed 94 lives, many of whom lived on Downham.

By 1960, the philosophy behind Downham's creation was beginning to alter as the first L.C.C. houses were put up for sale.  Although originally the houses cost a few hundred pounds, this figure is far inflated by today's cost of living and to buy a house it now costs far more in Downham Garden City.

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This history is based on research by Tim Bellenger and is taken from the commemorative booklet for Downham's 60th Anniversary Festival in 1986.

Lewisham have a brief paragraph on Downham and other Lewisham areas in their history section at
http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/LocalHistory/historydownham.asp

Send any comments about this site to enquiries@downhamonline.org.uk
This page last updated 12 October 2005