Lewisham

Lewisham dates from Anglo-Saxon times, having been founded not by an Angle nor by a Saxon, but by a settler named Leof who belonged to the third and smallest of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, the Jutes.

Did Leof burn his boat
around here? (photo
by Chris Wheal,
CC BY 2.0)

It seems that Leof, arriving with his family by boat from Jutland (the mainland of Denmark), found a suitable place to settle by the River Ravensbourne, near where St Mary’s church now stands, and symbolically burned his boat, as if to say, “This is where we stay.” It isn’t clear whether the name Lewisham is derived from the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of “Leof’s ham[let]” or from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning “the house among the meadows”.

King Alfred on a coin

By the ninth century, the manor of Lewisham had become the property of Wessex’s king Alfred the Great, who (in between burning cakes – if indeed he ever really did that) led the Anglo-Saxons in a fightback against the Vikings, taking London in 886, and building up a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom that would eventually become England. A 1901 plaque in Lewisham Library, struck for the thousandth anniversary of his death, commemorates his ownership of the manor.

Central Lewisham in the nineteen-Os

Lewisham remained a quiet little Kentish village until the railway arrived in 1849, effectively making it a suburb of London. At the turn of the next century it became a metropolitan borough in the County of London, and in 1965 it merged with Deptford to make today’s London Borough of Lewisham. The railway was the scene of a tragic accident by St John’s station in 1957, when two trains crashed during a pea-soup fog, killing ninety people.

Memorial plaque to
victims of the 1957
Lewisham train crash
(photo by Ethan Doyle
White, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ladywell, southwest of central Lewisham, was originally a well dedicated to the Virgin Mary: Our Lady’s Well. It stood roughly where Ladywell Road crosses the railway, just north of Ladywell station, and had already run dry by the time the railway was built, covering it over. It seems that some of the coping stones from the well were later rescued and incorporated into a fountain in the grounds of Ladywell’s public baths. The Lewisham Dutch Elm standing in Ladywell Fields, is one of the few London survivors of the Dutch elm disease outbreak which destroyed most of Britain’s elm trees in the 1960s, but new ones have been planted not too far away.

Catford Bridge around 1920

Catford, south of Lewisham proper but still inside its borough, was indeed Cat Ford: a ford across the Ravensbourne in an area frequented by wild cats, although it was later (until 2003) famous for dog racing. When the ford was upgraded to a bridge, it became Catford Bridge, in much the same way that the Deep Ford further downstream became Deptford Bridge. Plans to demolish the 1974 Catford cat sculpture outside Catford’s shopping centre were officially dropped by the council in 2017 in the face of local opposition, definitively establishing the fibreglass feline mall moggy as a local landmark and symbol.

Mural of the 1977 Battle of Lewisham

The Second World War saw a Nazi V1 rocket hit Lewisham High Street, killing 51 people. A stone in the pavement marks the spot, but had become so worn by 2011 that a new plaque was then installed on the wall of Marks and Spencer’s to commemorate the tragedy more visibly. That was not however the last time that Lewisham was the target of a Nazi attack. In 1977, a neo-Nazi political party called the National Front (NF, forerunners of the BNP) marched on Lewisham, to be seen off by anti-Fascist demonstrators and local residents in what became known as the Battle of Lewisham. They did not pass. The battle is commemorated by a plaque where the NF march started (at 1 Clifton Rise, just off New Cross Road), and a mural outside Goldsmiths College on Lewisham Way, where it was halted.

Lewisham market
(photo by Paul Wilkinson, CC BY 2.0)

Lewisham now is best known for its popular market. It’s also the main centre for London’s Sri Lankan community, Tamil and Sinhalese alike.