Lewisham Council - History of Blackheath

History of Blackheath

A brief history of Blackheath from the period of ancient Roman civilisation to the Victorian era.

The name 'Blackheath' is popularly – but incorrectly – believed to derive from its reputed use as a mass burial ground for victims of the Black Death in the 1340s. Less grisly, but more plausible suggestions for the origin of the name, which was recorded as early as the 11th century, are that it stems from Old English words meaning 'dark soil' or that it is a corruption of 'bleak heath'. The latter seems the most likely derivation.

As an area of open, high ground just outside the City of London, the strategic importance of Blackheath has been recognised since the Romans first built their London to Dover road, known as Watling Street (now the A2), across it. Since that time, the Heath has played host to more than its share of rebel gatherings, military encampments and exercises, royal meetings, religious festivals, sports, fairs, circuses and a host of other activities.

The heath was perfectly situated for armies to gather before invading London. The Danes camped here in 1011, and, during the Peasants' Revolt, Wat Tyler's anti-poll tax rebels, 100,000 strong, amassed in 1381 before marching on London, where they were defeated.

In 1450, Jack Cade led 20,000 Kent and Essex yeomen on to the Heath, where they set up camp in opposition to higher taxes being imposed by Henry VI. After fleeing to Sussex, Cade was eventually caught by the King’s forces and murdered.

A later rebellion, of Cornishmen angry at being taxed for Scottish wars, was put down in the Battle of Blackheath Field in 1497. Over 2,000 of the slain are reputedly buried in and around Blackheath. Whitefield Mount is presumed to be their main place of burial. This was the only battle actually fought on Blackheath. The heath has also been used as a marshalling area for British armies waiting to be shipped to fight abroad, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, for military training and for parades.

The heath has also hosted numerous more peaceful gatherings. It was a favourite place for Lord Mayors of London to welcome their monarchs, from Richard II to Elizabeth I, and for royalty to meet distinguished guests (Henry IV met the Emperor of Constantinople here in 1400). Charles II met the welcoming citizens of London on Blackheath at the Restoration. John Wesley preached Methodism from Whitefield Mount, and Gladstone held election meetings there in the second half of the 19th century.

Less welcome visitors were the highwaymen who frequented Blackheath, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. A newspaper report of October 1735 noted that: 'We hear that for about six weeks past, Blackheath has been so infested by two highwaymen (supposed to be Rowden and Turpin) that 'tis dangerous for travellers to pass.'​

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