Category Archives: Prehistoric London

A Latter-Day Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury contd. – Shooters Hill to Dartford

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas (a) Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 29th December, 1170 (by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the  King, Henry II).  The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint).  The practice of pilgrimage ceased after the Reformation and Dissolution under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, but may be said to have resumed in later  centuries.  Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”).  Further research from this time suggests that the journey along this – sixty-mile or so – route would probably have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns (where suitable accommodation was available).  I follow in the pilgrims’  tracks …

Shrewsbury Tumulus


On the brow of Shooters Hill, just under half a mile north of the water tower, and accessed by way of Shrewsbury Lane and Plum Lane,  is a Bronze Age burial mound known as the Shrewsbury Tumulus.  It is the only  one of a number of tumuli discovered in the 1930s to survive.

Watling Street



From Shooters Hill, the old Roman road of Watling Street runs essentially due ESE through Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford (and beyond).

Lesnes Abbey



A couple of miles north of the road as it approaches Welling, and accessed by way of the Green Chain Walk,  are the ruins of Lesnes Abbey.

Lesnes Abbey  was founded by one Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar to Henry II, in 1178, and dedicated by him to St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr, possibly as penance for his, Richard’s – indirect – involvement in Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  The first abbot, William, was consecrated in 1179, the by-then canon Richard de Luci dying that same year and being buried in the Chapter House.  The abbey was originally an Augustinian foundation, but under the second abbot, Fulc’s incumbency between 1187-1208 adopted the Rule of Arrouaise.  It always struggled financially to meet its running costs, which included those of maintaining its  river walls and draining its marshy  land-holdings, and, in consequence, its  buildings  began to fall into disrepair in the fourteenth century.  The abbey was eventually closed down by Cardinal Wolsey  in 1524, in other words some years before the Dissolution of the Monasteries beginning in 1536.  Most of its buildings were at least partially pulled down in the sixteenth century (some of the salvaged stone being used in the construction of Hall Place in Bexley), although the former Abbot’s Lodgings survived intact and in use until the nineteenth.  Only picturesque ruins remain today.


Welling was first recorded in 1361 as Wellyngs, alluding  either to the Willing family, who owned land here in the fourteenth century, or to the presence of springs here.

East Wickham

Around half a mile north of the road as it passes through Welling, and accessed by way of Upper Wickham Lane, is East Wickham, first recorded in 1240 as Wikam, meaning, in Old English, homestead (ham) associated with a vicus, or  earlier Romano-British settlement (wic).


What is now the Greek Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour was formerly a chapel of ease attached to the church of St Nicholas in Plumstead.  It is believed to have been built in the thirteenth century.


Around  a mile south of the road as it passes between Bexleyheath and Crayford, and accessed by way of the A220, is Bexley, 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.


The church, 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”. 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.


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 Champneys (d. 1556) of Hall Place, a successful member of the Skinners’ Company and sometime Lord Mayor of the City of London, and his second  wife Meriell.

Hall Place, on the eastern outskirts of the village, was originally built in stone – salvaged from Lesnes Abbey – in 1537 by  the aforementioned Sir John Champneys (probably on the site of earlier, thirteenth- and fourteenth- houses respectively owned by the de Aula and Shelley families).    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.



Crayford was first recorded as Crecganford in the  Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as the site of  a battle that took place in 457 between Germanic invaders and native Britons.  The name alludes to a crossing-point on the River Cray (a tributary of the Thames), which had been in existence since earlier  times (the “lost” Roman settlement of Noviomagus may have been here). The early settlement grew   in the Medieval period, and began to become industrialised in the post-Medieval.



The church of St Paulinus was probably originally built in timber in the Saxon period, being mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 (”the archbishop himself holds Erhede and there is a church”).   It was subsequently rebuilt in stone in the Norman period and style at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (nave and chancel).  And extended in the later Medieval English Gothic style in the early thirteenth century (south aisle); in the Decorated style at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth (second nave); and in the Perpendicular style in the fifteenth (tower).


River Darent - Copy.JPG

Dartford takes its name from a ford over the River Darent, present at least as long ago as Roman times (there was also extensive settlement along the Darent in Roman times).  The present town is thought to have been founded in Saxon times, and is mentioned in the Norman Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, as belonging to the King (though by the twelfth century it had entered the possession of the Knights Templar).


It became an important waypoint for pilgrims en route to Canterbury and the continent in the later Middle Ages.   Pilgrims stayed in The Bell (One Bell Corner), The Bull (Royal Victoria and Bull) or  The Bull’s Head (Bull’s Head Yard) on the High Street.




Holy Trinity Church was originally built in the ninth century, and  rebuilt in the late eleventh, around 1080, by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester.  It was then extended in the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, and in 1235 hosted the proxy wedding of King Henry III’s sister Isabella and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.  Later, Henry V gave thanks here for his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.


The fine painting of St George and the Dragon dates to 1470.


Dartford Priory, England’s only Dominican convent, was founded here in 1346.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the site became that of a Tudor manor house, where King Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, lived for a while after her divorce, and where Queen Elizabeth I stayed twice.   The  gate-house to the manor still survives.


Dominican and Franciscan hospitals were also founded here in the fourteenth century.


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Mitcham was first recorded in 727 as Micham, and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Michelham, from the Old English micel, meaning large, and ham, meaning homestead or village.   It was evidently originally settled even earlier, though, there being here not only a large Anglo-Saxon pagan cemetery dating to the late fifth to sixth century, but also the remains of Roman and even Prehistoric farmsteads.

In the early post-Medieval period, Mitcham became popular among the wealthy as a place in which to build rural retreats, and Elizabeth I is known to have been entertained here a number of times in the late sixteenth century.   Industrialisation may be  said to have begun  in the seventeenth century, with the establishment of calico bleaching and printing works here, although until as late as the eighteenth to early nineteenth, the cultivation of herbs was also to remain an important activity.  Urbanisation did not really begin until after the arrival of the tramway in the late nineteenth century, and the last of the market gardens remained until the mid-twentieth.  Mitcham is now part of the London Borough of Merton.

Church of St Peter and St Paul (Mitcham Parish Church)




The church of St Peter and St Paul was originally built at least as long ago as the thirteenth century, circa 1250, and possibly as long ago as the Saxon period.  It was subsequently substantially rebuilt in the early nineteenth century, between 1819-22,  by the local master-craftsman John Chart, to the design of George Smith.  Essentially only the base of the tower still survives from the Medieval church.


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Close-up general view

Stanmore was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Stanmere, from the Old English stan, meaning stone, and mere, pool.

The area has been occupied since  prehistoric times.  In the Iron Age, around 100BC, a tribe of Ancient Britons known as the Catuvellauni occupied  Brockley Hill.  Later, in around 55BC, according to local legend, they, under their King Cassivellaunus, fought a battle there against the Romans under Julius Caesar (the mere on Stanmore Common is still known as Caesar’s Pond – and a mound there as Boudicca’s Grave).  There is archaeological evidence of Roman as well as Ancient British settlement in the area, although not of a battle.  The Roman settlement, beside Watling Street, was known as Sulloniacae.

Stanmore was essentially a small village surrounded by open countryside in the Medieval to post-Medieval period.    The – Augustinian – Bentley Priory was built in the area by Ranulf de Glanville in 1170, and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1546, the original building thereafter passing into private ownership until 1777, when it was taken down (and the present building put up in its place).  Later, in the fourteenth century, the Augustinian Canons of St Bartholomew in Smithfield in the City of London were granted land in the area, which became known as Canons Park.  They were also granted the existing church of St Lawrence Whitchurch in Little Stanmore.  There had been a Medieval church in Great Stanmore, too, but it was replaced by the church of St John the Evangelist in the seventeenth century.

Stanmore remained largely rural until the twentieth century, when it finally became suburbanised.  A number of historic buildings still survive here, including not only the above-mentioned and below-discussed churches of St Lawrence Whitchurch and St John the Evangelist, but also the  sixteenth-century Cotterell Cottages on the  High Street in Great Stanmore.

Photos of Cotterell Cottages – 

Cotterell Cottages 1 Cotterell Cottages 2

Surviving Medieval tower

Church of St Lawrence Whitchurch

The church of St Lawrence Whitchurch in Little Stanmore was originally built in the Medieval period and subsequently substantially rebuilt in 1715, with essentially only the earlier tower still surviving.  The rebuilding work, in the Baroque style, was by John James, and it was funded by the local resident James Brydges, later the First Duke of Chandos, shortly after he made a vast fortune by speculating – legally – with the monies he handled as Paymaster of the Forces Abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession, and shortly before he lost it  in the “South Sea Bubble” (*).  The church is chiefly famous for its opulent interior, and contains wood-carvings attributed to  the English master-craftsman Grinling Gibbons, and paintings attributed to  the continental great masters Laguerre and Bellucci, whose reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration in the Ducal Chapel is particularly magnificent.   Handel played the organ  in the church, and, among others, both Francesco Scarlatti, brother of Alessandro, and J.C. Bach, cousin of J.S., also played here.  The supposed “harmonious blacksmith” William Powell, who was the parish clerk in Handel’s time,  is buried in the churchyard.

(*) Brydges’s residence, “Can(n)ons”, was demolished after his death.

Photos of St Lawrence – 


Church of St John the Evangelist

The shell of St John’s –

If you put your ear to it

You can hear the past.

Hollond family mausoleum

The church of St John the Evangelist  in Great Stanmore was originally built in the Medieval period and substantially demolished and rebuilt, in the post-Medieval, Stuart, period, in 1632 (when it was consecrated by Archbishop William Laud).  The rebuilding work, in brick, which was at the time an essentially experimental church-building material, was paid for by the merchant-adventurer Sir John Wolstenholme.   The experiment was not altogether successful, and the church had become unsafe by 1845, and was subsequently allowed to fall into disrepair (although an attempt to demolish it had to be abandoned after local protests).  It now forms a romantic ruin surrounded by an atmospheric churchyard.  The former interior, now open to the elements, contains a number of memorials, including the Hollond family mausoleum.  W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, is buried in the churchyard.

Photos of the old church  – 


The old  church was replaced by a new one  in 1850.

Photos of the new church (including salvaged memorials from the old church) – 



Pre-Roman London

London would appear to have been founded by the ancient Britons or Celts in the Bronze or Iron Age.  According to the now sadly thoroughly discredited  Geoffrey of Monmouth,  quoted by John Stow, in his magisterial “Survay of London, written in the Year 1598”, it was founded under  the reign of  King Lud, sometime in the first century BCE, and at that time called “Caire Lud”, or Lud’s town (?or fort).  When Lud died,  his two sons Androgeus and Tenvantius, or Theomantius, as Stow put it, “ … being not of an age to govern … , their uncle  Cassibelan [Cassivellaunus] took upon him the crown; about the eighth year of whose reign, Julius Caesar arrived in this land with a great power of Romans to conquer it … ”.  The Roman invasion under Caesar, described in his “Gallic Wars”, was in  55-54BCE.

Sixteenth-century statue of King Lud and his sons, St Dunstan in the West

Sixteenth-century statue of King Lud and his sons, St Dunstan in the West

Unfortunately, the only surviving structures from the Bronze or Iron Ages  are  some  enigmatic pits and post-holes interpreted as representing the sites of former homesteads or farmsteads,  in Leicester Square in the West End, near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and south of the Thames in Southwark (and  the remains of a bridge at Vauxhall).  There are no surviving structures or  streets at all  in the City of London, perhaps at least in part because, again as Stow put it, “ … the Britons call that a town … when they have fortified a cumbersome wood with a ditch and rampart … ”.  This period of the city’s history remains shrouded in mist and mystery.

Important archaeological finds from the Bronze or Iron Ages include (alongside more or less everyday items such as worked flints, pot-sherds, and coin, in potin, or tin-rich bronze, in bronze, in silver and in gold), much equipment associated with horses and chariots, a ceremonial horned helmet recovered from the Thames at Waterloo, and an ornate bronze shield recovered from the Thames at Battersea. It has been speculated that the last-named might have been offered as a plea to the gods of the river at the time of the Roman invasion.