Honor Oak Road, SE23

Place Name

Directional, the road leading from Forest Hill to Honor Oak. There was indeed an oak tree, on One Tree Hill (which rises to over 90m), after which this area was named. It is believed that the tree served as a boundary marker between Camberwell in what was then Surrey and Lewisham, then in Kent. It was first mentioned as the Oke of Honor in 1609 and later Oak of Honour Wood in 1793. It is said to be so named as this is where Queen Elizabeth I on one of her excursions on horse back from Greenwich, dined beneath its shade – an act that was remembered by locals who honoured the oak every May day. (A somewhat more outlandish story suggest that the Virgin Queen was supposed to have drunkenly knighted the ‘one tree’, or Oak of Honour.) But others say that it was within the manor of Camberwell and “formed part of the estates or honour of the 12th-century Earls of Gloucester”. Sometime around 1884, the oak was struck by lightning and another oak planted in its place. The spelling comes from Middle English and has survived, despite an attempt in the mid-17thCentury to replaced it with Honour Oak, instead. But the story does not end there. In 1786, a large section of the local woodland was purchased by Samuel Atkinson, a cheesemonger from Tooley Street, who began laying out “a new road or carriage way from Peckham Rye to Sydenham Common” on a well-used trackway (which would later be called Honor Oak Road). In so doing, says John Coulter in Sydenham and Forest Hill Past, Atkinson “was to be the unlikely father, and perhaps god-father, of Forest Hill”. Sometime around 1788 he had a house, The Hermitage, built for himself. The following year he was selling building plots on his new road. But local residents objected, with some justification, that the estate was common land. In the autumn of 1792, a group of locals got together to assert their rights. Among them was Michael Bradley, a father of four, who lived in a cottage near the Bell Green end of Sydenham Hill. The Times, on October 26,  explained what happened next: “It appears that this Bradley and others belonging to Sydenham Parish, went a few days since on a piece of land called Colson’s Wood, to ascertain their rights of commonage, which have been held upwards of 200 years. A Mr Atkinson met the deceased and his associates, and asked them their business – they replied, there was a footway across, which right their fore-fathers had enjoyed and so would they. Atkinson said they could go no further – and the first man who did, he would shoot – Bradley was shot, and died.” He had, according to the report been shot in the leg by a pistol, which had fractured the bone resulting in the fatal injuries. A coroner ruled it as manslaughter. What happened to Atkinson next is unclear but it was reported that he quickly left the parish.


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