The present Crooked Billet pub, dating from the late nineteenth century, is situated on one of the oldest sites in Penge. This was where the Hamlet of Penge clustered: a group of a few dwellings on the edge of Penge Common, before the rapid Victorian build resulting from the coming of the railways in 1839 and the transfer of the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park in 1854.
A coaching inn, or public house, existed on this site or near to it, as far back as 1601, or even earlier. Possibly the inn was a horse change stop en route to Dover and the Cinque Ports.
William Hone wrote about a visit to the Crooked Billet in 1827. He did a detailed sketch of how it looked then. This must have been before it was rebuilt later that year. [See illustrations.]
Penge was still very much a rural hamlet at this time, twenty-seven years before the coming of the Crystal Palace and before the enclosures carved up all of Penge Common. The Penge Enclosure Act had come into being in 1827.
The Crooked Billet was situated on the edge of Penge Green, named Pensgreene on Kip’s 1607 map. In 1827 roads though Penge were just cart tracks. Local people still gathered firewood on Penge Common.
Penge was still in the Parish of Battersea and local Christian folk had to journey many miles to and from Battersea to church every Sunday morning. It was not until the 1840s that St John’s Church was built to overcome this inconvenience. The Crooked Billet would have been situated on Old Penge Lane in an almost totally rural landscape at this time.
Old Penge Lane became Penge Lane as a result of the coming of the railways in 1839. The railways helped change the face of Penge forever with an incoming tide of residents over the next few years. Population peaked with the building of the Crystal Palace. The Crooked Billet was no longer one of a few Penge pubs but one of thirty plus in the area.
In 1840 the 1827 building was demolished and a new, grander, Victorian three-storey building took its place. The triangle area outside the pub was used for public meetings between the wars.
Vera Brittain, in her memoir Testament of Youth, records her attendance, age 29, at such a meeting in the autumn of 1922. She had been ‘invited to a curious open-air gathering in Penge’ where she had been asked to speak about the Greco-Turkish conflict which ‘had seen thousands of refugees flying in terror from devastated Smyrna, and the League scheme for the reconstruction of Austria.’
She shared the same platform as two members of Parliament and a Liberal candidate. Brittain describes the Crooked Billet site as ‘ grass and one or two trees enclosed by a railing in the middle of some wide cross -roads… Buses, trams, etc, were going by all the time. On the opposite side of the road was a large pub… ‘ She also makes comment about the underground ‘gentlemen’s lavatory’ to and from which staggered drunken clientele throughout her speech.
The pub, popular for its lunches and dining as for its alcohol consumption, was bombed during the blitz, and rebuilt in the nineteen fifties. Some indication of late fifties design is indicated in the almost brutalist cube shape of the frontage although a Victorian aspect remains in its public rooms at the back. The rebuild was concurrent to much rebuilding of heavily-bombed Penge in the fifties and sixties.
Today the Crooked Billet hosts art exhibitions, poetry readings, jazz evenings and Penge Festival events as well as being a popular meeting place for local people.
Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Virago Press Ltd, 2018 )