Once upon a time, Beckenham was a little village in rural Kent. That all changed when the railway arrived in 1857.
Beckenham – as you might guess from its name – was an Anglo-Saxon settlement. Already by 862 AD, it was being referred to on a land charter as Biohhahema Mearc, meaning the borders of the homestead of Beohha, presumably the name of a Saxon clan chief who’d founded it. Even by the time William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book in 1086, that had been shortened to Bacheham (the modern spelling didn’t become standardized until the seventeenth century).
In fact, Beckenham’s history is even older than that. Kingswood Glen was once an Iron Age fort, and was then taken over by the Romans as a military camp. A house that later stood on the site was called Romanhurst, and the street leading to where it stood is still called Romanhurst Avenue. Indeed, Beckenham was on an old Roman Road, which ran down Worsley Bridge Road, and passed through the Old Dunstonian Rugby Club in Langley Park (you can still see its course through the sports field on satellite images).
The local parish church of St George goes back to the twelfth century, although today’s building mostly dates from 1903, when it was largely rebuilt. It was damaged by two V1 Nazi rockets which hit Beckenham Green in 1944, but it lived to tell the tale. Six local residents were unfortunately not so lucky. As well as being a current place of worship, the church also sometimes hosts concerts. The church’s lych gate (roofed churchyard gate) dates back to the thirteenth century, and is the oldest in London and possibly the British Isles. In the eighteenth century, the renowned Romany fortune teller Margaret Finch, known as “the queen of the Gypsies”, used to ply her trade at this very gate.
Also in the eighteenth century, the politician and property developer John Cator began buying up land in the area, starting with Stump's Hill around 1760. He had a house built there, and when he had it tarted up and bought the manor of Beckenham from the Bolingbroke family in 1773, he changed the name of his house to Beckenham Place (not to be confused with Beckingham Palace). The house is now a café and community centre and its grounds have become Beckenham Place Park. When the railway arrived in 1857, Cator’s heirs realized the area was prime suburban real estate, and began developing it into the solid London suburb that it is today.
By 1894, Beckenham was urban enough to become an urban district council, but in 1935 it absorbed a few bits of Hayes and West Wickham from Bromley and was upgraded to a borough. Bromley had its revenge in 1965, when it absorbed the whole of Beckenham (plus Penge, Chiselhurst and Orpington) to form the London Borough of Bromley, and Beckenham even has a Bromley postcode, BR3.
Local heroes (aside from Margaret Finch, mentioned above) include poet and ghost story writer Walter de la Mare, who lived at 195 Mackenzie Road, and children’s author Enid Blyton, who invented Noddy and the Famous Five (not the ones who played for Arsenal), and lived at 95 Chaffinch Road and then a few other local addresses. Mary Poppins and Sound of Music star Julie Andrews lived at 15 Cromwell Road, and comedian Bob Monkhouse lived at 168 Bromley Road (a street with quite an interesting history itself). Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia is largely set in Beckenham.