You may have noticed the smattering of local references within the site (for example, the witticism in the title of this section). The potted history of Blackheath will explain all.
It is worth beginning any potted history to note that the origin of the name ‘Blackheath’ does not derive from the the heath being used as a burial pit during blackdeath as folklore will have it. The name was recorded well before in the 1100’s and (as old names often are) is descriptive – dark soil + heathland = black heath. However, that bodies are not buried under the heath cannot be ruled out as burial pits were not uncommon during both the blackdeath and later plague.
What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, the A2 as it runs across the heath for starters. This road was and still is part of the Dover to London route. The location of the heath on such an important route has placed it at the centre of many events, although often linked with trouble.
Ethelred the Unready had numerous problems with Danish raiders and invaders and in 1011 the Danes anchored at Greenwich and camped on the heath. Things quietened down a bit after that and it was not until 1381 when some 100,000 peasants gathered as part of Wat Tyler’s anti-tax revolt. However, the assault on London did no go quite to plan and the peasants were defeated.
The Kentish rebels, led by Jack Cade (grievances included corruption and abuse of power in the court of Henry VI, public debt, and the loss of Normandy) also choose Blackheath as a rallying point in 1450. Unfortunately the rebels got a little excited and started looting, losing focus of the objective (cleaning up government) and turning Londoners against them. By 1497 Blackheath had a bit of a reputation and seemed the ideal spot for Cornish rebels (Henry VII war taxes) to pitch camp. However, at the Battle of Deptford Bridge Henry VII’s superior forces defeated the rebels.
Rebels of the large and organised kind were not seen on the heath again, but by the 17th century Watling Street (current A2) was used by stagecoaches heading to Kent and the Channel ports and was seen as rather lucrative for highwaymen, reputedly including Dick Turpin. Gibbets would have been a familiar sight as a result.
It was not all doom and gloom, Henry IV met the Emperor of Constantinople on the heath in 1400 and the Prince Regent leased a summer home for Caroline, Princess of Wales in Blackheath around the turn of the 18th Century. Although there was some scandal as Caroline fell out with her neighbours (allegations of gentlemen callers, illegitimate children, and obscene letters) and a secret (‘delicate’) investigation was set up to. Fear not: the allegations were not proven!
Since then things have been remarkably quiet, although if you venture up Shooters Hill Road there are remnants of World War II defensives in the adjacent green spaces. The road contained part of the ‘Stop Line Central’ anti-tank defences designed to repel or delay an advancing German Army.
Other points of interest are the local architecture from the Paragon to the Cator Estate (both built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries), the Pagoda (where Caroline stayed) and more modernist houses. Whilst All Saints is the prominent church with its prime location on the edge of the heath, St Michael and All Angel’s (corner of Pond Road and Blackheath Park) is noteworthy as upon its completion in 1830 the tall thin spire was known as the Needle of Kent or the Devil’s Toothpick.
No history of Blackheath is complete without a reference to its place in sporting history. The Blackheath Rugby Club is the oldest documented club, founded in 1858, and organised the first international game between England and Scotland (played in Edinburgh).
It was not Blackheath’s finest hour when golf was introduced to England in 1608. Prince Frederick and his courtiers were said to play the game on the heath. On a misty morning peer out to spot a diamond-patterned jumper standing out in the gloom or listen for the faint cries of ‘Fore!’ to relive those dark days.
For those of a botanical and naturalist persuasion Carl Linnaeus was quite excited when he saw gorse growing on the heath in the 18th century and in 1859, Greenwich Natural History Society recorded a wide list of animal species, including natterjack toads, hares, common lizards, bats (still on the heath to this day), quail, ring ouzel and nightingales.
To finish, I will quote from Edward Lear:
There was an Old Man of Blackheath,
Whose head was adorned with a wreath,
Of lobsters and spice,
Pickled onions and mice,
That Uncommon Old Man of Blackheath.