Bromley was born around 750 AD, when King Ethelbert II of Kent gave the bishop of Rochester six sulungs (about 1,300 acres) of land. In 862, Ethelbert III, in another charter, mentioned it by name as Bromleag, which means “broom lea”, or in other words, a clearing where broom grows. Around 1080, the then bishop had a manor house built there, and it became the Bishops’ Palace (Bromley Palace, as it’s now known), but it’s been reconstructed several times since then, notably in 1774, when the whole thing was pulled down and built again from scratch. It’s now a civic centre, and the grounds have an eighteenth-century ice house, used before refrigeration to insulate and store ice by the ton in winter for use in the summer.
Also in the Palace grounds is St Blaise’s Well (sometimes spelt “St Blaze’s”). Originally it was just a spring, but the bishops of Rochester had a well and an oratory built nearby, and dedicated them to St Blaise, the patron saint of wool workers, wool being an important local industry in those days. Gradually, the well became a place of pilgrimage, and an annual fair was held here on St Blaise’s Day (3 Feb), but it fell into disuse after the Reformation, and people forgot about it, although it seems that the sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser makes a disguised reference to it in his work The Shepherd's Calendar. The well – or at any rate, a well – was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, when its iron-bearing (“chalybeate”) waters made it a popular health spa. Today it sits in a rockery made of an artificial stone called pulhamite, and its waters feed a lake that was once the moat of the Bishops’ Palace.
In 1158, Henry II gave Bromley a charter – a royal permit to hold a market – which officially turned it into a town rather that just a village. And so it remained until the nineteenth century. In 1840, although it wasn’t yet part of London, the Metropolitan Police made Bromley part of their manor, but what really put it into London’s orbit was the arrival of the railway at what’s now Bromley South station in 1858. The railway brought new life to the town, stimulating housebuilding, so that by the First World War, the whole area was largely built-up, and already a commuter suburb. It also had an important brickworks at what’s now Havelock Recreation Ground, still known locally as “the Brickfield”.
In 1867 the parish of Bromley – still in Kent, despite the arrival of the commuter line – set up a local board to administer itself, which became an elected urban district council in 1894, and a borough in 1903. There was also a rural district of Bromley, but that didn’t include Bromley itself, although it did include Hayes, Keston, and West Wickham (whose own history goes back to the Bronze Age). When the rural district was scrapped in 1934, those parishes joined the borough, and with the creation of Greater London in 1965, so did Orpington, Chislehurst, Beckenham and Penge, to make the London Borough of Bromley that we know today. Postally speaking, however, Bromley remained part of Kent, and has its own BR postcode.
Bromley isn’t short of musical connections, nor of literary ones. Sci-fi author H.G. Wells, who was a local lad, didn’t like the place much, and called it “a morbid sprawl of population”. Just William author Richmal Crompton, on the other hand, who was originally from Lancashire, started writing her William books when she was a teacher at Bromley High School, and must have taken a shine to the area, because she retired to Hayes and lived there for many years before moving to a smaller place in Chislehurst. Novelist Hanif Kureishi, who was born and brought up in Bromley, portrays it in his most famous book, The Buddha of Suburbia, largely as a place to move away from, but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he harbours a secret affection for it none the less.
In the 1970s, the Bromley Contingent were a group of pioneering punk rockers – including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol – who were early fans of the Sex Pistols. Several then set up their own punk bands. It was the artist Caroline Coon, then a journalist for Melody Maker, who first called them the Bromley Contingent, although only one or two of them were actually from Bromley. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was born in Bromley, but wasn’t part of the Contingent. David Bowie, although he was originally from Brixton, grew up in Canon Road, Clarence Road, and Plaistow Grove, and most of the Bromley Contingent were big Bowie fans.