Penge is mentioned in the Domesday Book but a settlement can be traced back much earlier than that. It is first mentioned in a document of 957 AD by King Eadwig, a Saxon King. Penge is one of the few places in London with an original celtic name. The settlement developed initially in the Green Lane area and, over the centuries, spread outwards.
There is a Welsh and Cornish element in the word Penge which means ‘top or edge of the wood’, the wood being the Great North Wood. The wood was dense and covered much of Penge, Anerley and Norwood. Wild boar roamed freely. Penge Common was a vestige of this and sloped down Anerley Hill and in and around Beckenham Road which became Penge High Street. The population peaked at 60 in 1725.
Over the centuries Penge has, at various times, been geographically part of Kent or Surrey or the County of London. Local artists were to draw and paint idyllic views of the countryside. Perhaps the continually shifting boundaries has given rise to the idea that Penge ‘is a state of mind’!
Penge remained in the parish of Battersea until 1866 and there are still boundary signs showing this. Until 1850 church-goers had to walk to Battersea to attend church on Sunday. The Crooked Billet, possibly the oldest site in Penge dating back to 1601, faced onto Pengegreene. Coaches probably stopped here for a change of horses on their way to Dover.
Few houses were built here in the first half of the nineteenth century. There were just 270 inhabitants in 1841.The elegant White House (1840) is one of the earliest built in rural Penge and is now a nationally listed Grade 11 building, as is the house next door, No 50. Imagine a few houses surrounded by meadows, farms and fields and you get the picture of Penge before 1840. The Royal Watermen’s Almshouses were built around this time, as was the Royal Naval Asylum.
St John’s Church came a little later in 1849/50 to solve the problem of the onerous seven mile walk to church for local people. By 1850 the Common had been sold off piecemeal and the poor who relied on it for their survival, suffered.
The Croydon canal and then the railways bought commerce to and from Penge. Easy transport opened up Penge’s rural delights for Londoners wanting to escape the polluted air of the metropolis. They might spend an afternoon at the Anerley Tea Gardens or have a stroll on what was left of Penge Common. All this changed dramatically with the transfer of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to the grounds of Penge Place in 1854.
The date 1854 is a pivotal year for Penge. The transfer of the Crystal Palace resulted in a rapid building programme in and around Penge. From just 270 inhabitants in 1841, the population grew to 1,119 in 1851, largely owing to the building of the Almshouses. By 1901 it was 22,465. Villas were built for the wealthy, houses diminishing in size the further down the hill they were built. Ira Aldridge, the celebrated Afro-American actor bought a house in Hamlet Road, invested in several others, and got married in St John the Evangelist church, on Penge High Street, in 1865. Other distinguished people followed. Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro came in 1870, escaping the Franco Prussian war. Walter de la Mare arrived in 1899 and stayed twenty-five years, writing some of his best work.
The Crystal Palace brought prosperity to Penge even though Penge’s image was tarnished a little when Harriet Staunton was murdered in 1878 in Forbes Road. The crime scandalised polite society and made national headlines.
Penge Vestry was built in 1878 and became Anerley Town Hall in 1900. The Vestry conducted public business for the area and was highly regarded. Penge had its own Police Station built in 1872 on the advice of the Vestry (until 1878 lacking its own public building) concerned with the drunken behaviour of the residents. Interesting that the architecture of both buildings has a kind of similarity.
Though heavily-bombed during the second world war, Penge recovered and has its own Festival of Britain Certificate of Merit for the post-war building, Queen Adelaide Court. The former Groves estate was demolished and a new-build estate created with high rise tower blocks.
Seven Penge Parks evoke the remains of Penge Common, some opening in the 1890s with great fanfare. The Penge Empire was built in 1915 with a plethora of great stars appearing there over the years: Marie Lloyd, Gracie Fields, Max Miller, Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, Noel Gordon… Great department stores like Bryce Grants and Rogers flourished. Penge had its own Urban District Council from 1900 to 1965 when it was absorbed into the London Borough of Bromley.
Penge has the Edge
In 2018 Penge is a thriving and vibrant place to live. The area is now part of Greater London and in the borough of Bromley with a population of about 18,000. Rich in heritage and history as this website shows, it has a diverse mix of inhabitants with a colony of artists of all kinds.
There is an eclectic range of architecture from early, middle and late Victorian styles through to the uncompromising brutalism of the sixties and the re-imagined Groves development. The charming Alexandra Estate (1866/68) is much sought after as a residential area. Alexandra Nurseries, situated in the Estate House, is an award-winning garden centre. Schools are rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.
There are not so many pubs, perhaps, as attracted people down from the Crystal Palace in the old days, but a growing range of quality gastro pubs in addition to the more traditional establishments. Quality stores abound – Designer Drapes, Wilkinsons, Pengetout – and the town has its own virtual community in the Penge Tourist Board. An excellent new library has opened in Green Lane.
Drama, poetry and entertainment was always an aspect of Penge as clippings from older newspapers show. This tradition continues at the Bridge House Theatre and also in local pubs and public halls as well as on Penge Days. There are newly-formed groups such as SE20Art, Penge Poets and Penge Sounds. The annual Penge Festival, soon to celebrate its 46th anniversary, has a wide range of activities over three weeks in June.
New improvements are being made to the town centre with an imaginative building plan and the refurbishment of Empire and Arpley squares.
For heritage and history Penge must be one of the most vibrant areas of Bromley. As its name implies, Penge has the edge as an up and coming and desirable place to live.
For further reading and for a defence of Penge in The Times newspaper of June, 2017, see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/stop-sniggering-at-us-say-the-peeved-of-penge-m9mmpmwnh
Peter Abbot, The Book of Penge, Anerley and Crystal Palace (London: Halsgrove, 2002)
David R. Johnson, Around Crystal Palace and Penge (Stroud: The History Press, 2012)
Doris Pullen, Penge (London: Lodgemark Press, 1978)
Martin Spence, The Making of a London Suburb (Monmouth: Merlin Press, 2007)
To be added: Penge Legends.