Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …
Plumstead was first recorded in and Anglo-Saxon charter of King Edgar of c. 960 as Plumstede, meaning, in Old English, a place where plum trees grow (the charter can still be seen in the British Museum). However, the area was evidently first settled in earlier antiquity, there being pre-Roman burial mounds on Shooters Hill and on Winns Common, and Roman burials on Wickham Lane. A Roman road – Watling Street – essentially defines the southern edge of the area.
By the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, the settlement comprised two manors, one owned by the Abbot of St Augustine in Canterbury, in accordance with Edgar’s earlier charter, and the other by the Bishop of Bayeux (*). It prospered in the Medieval period and into the post-Medieval, with good livings to be made from fishing in the river, rearing sheep on the adjoining low-lying marshy ground, and growing fruit in orchards on the rich alluvial soil.
The population began to grow rapidly in the nineteenth century, and exploded after the arrival of the railway in 1849 (in 1801, it was 1166; and in 1861, 24502). Much of Plumstead is now built up, especially along the riverfront.
Church of St Nicholas
The church of St Nicholas was originally built in the tenth century, on a spur of chalky high ground rising from the clayey marsh. It was subsequently rebuilt in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, and in the sixteenth, in 1552, was recorded as owning three bells and a silver chalice weighing nine ounces, as well as a Bible with paraphrases of Erasmus. It was repaired in the late seventeenth century, in 1662, and extended in 1664, when the tower was added, at the expense of the wealthy local farmer John Gossage.
The church had fallen into disrepair by the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the roof open to the sky, and trees growing in the aisles. It was restored in the 1860s, and further extended to accommodate a larger congregation in 1905, only to be badly damaged by an explosion at the Royal Arsenal in 1907. It was then restored again and re-opened in 1908, only to be badly damaged again by a V2 bomb in the dying months of the Second World War, in 1945.
The surviving south aisle of the church dates to the twelfth century, the transept to the thirteenth, the north aisle to the fifteenth, and the tower to the late seventeenth, to 1664.
One former vicar, the – evidently not very – Reverend William Morice, a Cavalier, was removed from his office in the church during the Civil War, in 1647, the case against him arguing that “he is a swearer and a drunkard, has drunk Prince Rupert’s health in an alehouse with malignants on a fast day, has kissed the mistress of the house and has neglected to read the ordinances of parliament”. A less controversial later incumbent was the Rev. Baden Powell, father of Robert, the founder of the scouting movement.
(*) Note, though, that there are records of only one manor house – now demolished – close to the church of St Nicholas at the eastern end of the long high street.