Bexley

Another in the occasional series on historical sites  on the “London Loop” (London Outer Orbital Path)  walk …

Bexley was first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 814 as Byxlea, from the  Old English byxe, meaning box tree,  and leah, meaning clearing.  From the ninth century until the Reformation of the sixteenth, it was a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the “Domesday Book” of 1086, Bexley Village was recorded as home to three (?water) mills (?on the River Cray, a tributary of the Thames), as well as a church.  It  remained an important agricultural centre until the twentieth century, when it was at last overtaken by subrbanisation.

Church of St Mary

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The church of St Mary, with its striking octagonal shingled  tower, was originally built at least as long ago as the eleventh  century, although “each generation since has left its visible mark on the fabric”.

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The present nave, chancel and west tower were built toward the  end of the twelfth century.  The north aisle was added in the thirteenth century, and extended to accommodate a Lady Chapel at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth.  The whole fabric of the church was  restored in the late nineteenth century.

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Among the many memorials in the church are them are an unusual “Hunting Horn” brass one, believed  to be to Henry Castilayn (d. 1407); another brass  one,  to John Shelley of Hall Place (d. 1441) and his wife Joan; and a highly decorated carved stone  one,   to Sir John Champeneis or Champneys of Hall Place (d. 1556), Lord Mayor of London in 1534, and his second  wife Meriell.

Hall Place

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Hall Place was originally built in stone – salvaged from Lesnes Abbey – in 1537 by  Sir John Champneys, a successful member of the Skinners’ Company and sometime Lord Mayor of the City of London (it was probably built on the site of earlier, thirteenth- and fourteenth- houses respectively owned by the de Aula and Shelley families).

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It was subsequently extended in brick in 1649-66 by Sir Robert Austen, who had bought  it from Sir John Champneys grand-son Richard in 1649.  In the eighteenth century the property entered  the possession of Sir Francis Dashwood (*); and in the nineteenth that of his  grand-son, Maitland.  For much of the  nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was rented out to a series of tenants.  During the Second World War it was occupied  by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who worked there on decoding intercepted messages sent by the German army and air force.  At this time, radio aerial wires were strung over the roof-tops, and the Tudor Kitchen and Great Hall were converted into “set rooms” filled  with banks of receivers.  Hall Place presently houses Bexley Museum and Galleries, and is open to the public (although a charge is payable for access to the – substantially surviving Tudor and Stuart – interior).

(*) Otherwise known as “Hell-Fire Francis”!

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