Where on Earth is Penge?
Penge is a suburb of South East London within the London Borough of Bromley and is located 7.1 miles southeast of Charing Cross. It is within the SE20 postcode.
It was once a small town on the road to Kent, which was recorded under the name Penceat in an Anglo-Saxon deed dating from 957. It means the top of, or a place the end of the wood, a reference to the area’s position in the Great North Wood or Norwood. Penge was first on the map through an inn called the Crooked Billet where horses would be changed. Roque’s 1745 map of Penge shows the oldest pub was the Porcupine which is on the site of the Alexandra in Parish lane.
There is wonderful architecture in the old alms-houses. The architecture was based on Hampton Court. The oldest being the Royal Watermen’s Alms-houses, built around 1840 by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the City of London for retired company Freemen and their widows. Queen Adelaide’s cottages were for the widows and orphans of naval officers and built in 1848 in memory of her husband William IV. St. John’s Cottages on Maple Road were built as alms-houses in 1863, designed by the architect Edwin Nash.
The Police Station at the corner of the High Street and Green Lane (recently closed) was believed to be London’s oldest working police station. It was built because of the large influx of labourers into the area, first through the Croydon Canal and subsequent Croydon Railway, and then because of the Crystal Palace. This also explains the astonishing number of public houses. It was noted in Victorian times for its ’25 pubs to the square mile’.
In 1854, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, created to showcase industrial and technological advances of the day at the Great Exhibition three years earlier, was moved from its original Hyde Park home and rebuilt on Penge Common next to Sydenham Hill, where the cast-iron and plate-glass behemoth stood until it burned down in 1936.
With an Italian Garden and fountains, the Great Maze, the English Landscape Garden, the life-sized models of Dinosaurs, and geological exhibition, it became the world’s first Theme Park!
Tourists flocked to see the palace, then rolled down the hill in the evening to visit Penge’s pubs and music halls. The railway’s arrival meant they could travel back late to central London. However, the attraction soon wore off. The Palace slowly fell into decline, and then in 1877 the town’s reputation was tarnished by a notorious murder.
Harriett Staunton had apparently died of starvation. Her new husband, Louis Staunton, his lover Alice Rhodes, his brother Patrick and his sister-in-law Elizabeth were all accused of her murder. They had rented a room in Forbes Road (now Mosslea Road) locked Harriet in and threw the key away. She starved to death and Victorian society was shocked by the crime, although they were later acquitted.
Penge was an inconspicuous area with few residents before the arrival of the railways. H G Wells lived in the area as a boy. In the book, ‘The New Machiavelli,’ there is a wonderful description of a walk between Anerley and Penge through the open fields. He also describes the Dinosaur Park in his novel, ‘Kipps’.
Thomas Crapper lived in Thornsett Road. He marketed and popularised the flush toilet. His surname is purely coincidental. W G Grace played cricket at the Crystal Palace, and also against Arthur Conan Doyle in South Norwood. Both Thomas Crapper and W G Grace are buried in Elmer’s End Cemetery. Walter de la Mare, poet and author of ghost stories, lived in Mackenzie Road, Worbeck Road and Thornsett Road at various different times.
Camille Pissarro, French impressionist painter, lived in Penge in the 1870s and many of his most famous paintings are of the Norwood area. There is a phone app you can purchase to match up his paintings with the same modern viewpoint.
Edward Lear, artist, illustrator, author and poet, was a resident of Anerley. He popularised the Limerick verse, amongst them:
“There was an Old Person of Anerley,
Whose conduct was strange and unmannerly;
He rushed down the Strand
With a pig in each hand,
But returned in the evening to Anerley.”
During the Second World War the area was devastated. Penge had the doubtful distinction of receiving more ‘Doodlebugs’ per square yard than any other place in the UK. British fooled the Germans using a turned German spy to send misreports of where the V1’s had landed so that they pitched them too far south. Penge was also targeted during the blitz because of the importance of the Penge railway tunnel. In addition, piloted bombers dropped their bombs on Penge when they couldn’t go any further into Central London.
Peggy and Frank Spencer made up one of the most successful dance partnerships, winning lots of competitions and awards. Their formation teams appeared on Come Dancing for 40 years! The Spencer’s dancing school was in Woodbine Grove. Their original dance school was above Burton’s tailor’s shop on the High Street. At the Royston Club, Salsa dancing continues on today.
Bill Wyman went to Kentwood School and the Rolling Stones were supposedly formed above the sweet shop opposite the school.
David Bowie, born in Beckenham, in the song ‘Did You Ever Have a Dream’, wrote the lyric, “It’s a very special knowledge that you’ve got my friend; you can walk around in New York while you sleep in Penge.”
Alan Minter, the boxer, used to own the Queen Adelaide pub on Penge High St in late 70s-early 80s. Bobby Smith and Garry Stretch trained boxers above the Alexandra Pub, including Kevin Lutchin who became European champion.
Derek Underwood, the cricketer, went to Penge Grammar School. Herbert Strudwick, Surrey and England wicket-keeper, lived in Worbeck Road.
Sid Vicious lived in Maple Road. Captain Sensible still lives in South Norwood.
The area is also home to some of the largest lakes in London. Besides several lakes in Crystal Palace Park, and in Kelsey Park, Beckenham, the South Norwood Lake is a six acre former Croydon Canal feeder reservoir, and the Norwood County Park Lake, is truly enormous.
There is a motorcar and motorcycle former grand prix racing circuit at Crystal Palace that was patronised by Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham. The National Sports Centre was opened in 1964 and hosted international athletics and aquatics before the building of the Olympic park in Stratford in 2012.
The athletics stadium is on the same land as a previous football ground, the original home of Crystal Palace football club from 1861. The first ever F.A. Cup Final was held at Crystal Palace in 1895 and it hosted all the finals until 1914. Crystal Palace football club now play at Selhurst Park, though they may still return one day.
The first experimental television pictures were broadcast from here by John Logie Baird. When completed in 1956 the Crystal Palace Transmitter was the tallest structure in the UK. It remained the tallest structure in the London area until 1991.
In the original version of ‘The Italian Job’, during the scene where they are “only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,” the Crystal Palace terraces, the transmitter mast and the old motor racing circuit track are all visible. ‘Our Mother’s House’ has scenes on a boat on the lower lake with the Dinosaurs in the background. A scene from TV drama ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ was filmed around Penge East station, and showed the offices of Tomei & Sons, complete with fake telephone boxes and a Routemaster bus.
Penge has some of the lowest house prices within easy reach of central London, and the advantage of good train links to Victoria and London Bridge, on Thameslink to St Pancras via Blackfriars and Farringdon, and on the Overground to Canary Wharf via Canada Water.