Oxleas Woodlands – A Brief History
Parts of Oxleas Woodlands may date back thousands of years to the ancient forest that stretched all across lowland Britain. The woodlands survived initially because the hillsides were less suitable for settlement or agriculture. The names Oxleas and Shepherdleas probably date back to the Anglo-Saxon period as ‘leah’ was the Old English word for either woodland or a clearing within the woods.
Despite the popular myth, Shooters Hill does not get its name from an association with archery. The earliest recording of the name appears to be in a petition to King Edward III, around 1369-1375, when it is referred to as Shetereshelde.
Oxleas Woodlands were part of the royal estate of Eltham from at least the early 14th until the 20th century – hence the name Crown Woods. Because woodland was valuable both for timber and underwood, parcels of the land were leased out. From 1679 Oxleas Woodlands were leased out to Sir John Shaw and his family.
The woods were coppiced to produce wood for a wide range of uses (tool handles, furniture, fencing etc) and mature trees were grown for more structural timber ( e.g. for buildings and ship construction). By 1811 between 64-85% of trees in the woods had been felled for timber.
Shooters Hill from the south c.1900, with Castle Wood House prominent in the woods.
Shooters Hill by
William Bath. 1845
Thick woodland crowded along either side of the old Dover road (Watling Street) that crosses the summit, and by the 18th century this had become a favoured haunt of highwaymen. Newspapers from between 1740-1800 frequently carried reports of armed robberies on Shooters Hill. Many of the perpetrators met a grisly end on gallows erected along the Dover Road on either side of the hill. Eventually part of the woodland beside of the road was cleared to prevent highwaymen and footpads hiding there. The steepness of the hill itself also caused frequent difficulty for horse-drawn coaches, and in 1817 labourers were employed to dig soil from the south side of the hill to even-out the road as it climbed the hill.
In 1842 the right to shoot game (primarily rabbit and game-bird) was taken over by William Coulthurst who constructed the long ride that runs from the south-east corner of Oxleas Meadow towards the old Dover road (near the Thompsons garden centre). Shooting rights were rigorously protected but poaching was common especially by poorer families from Woolwich and Plumstead.
By the mid-19th century Shooters Hill was regarded as a desirable out-of-town location with stunning views of the Kent countryside. Much of the land along the top of the hill, to the south of the road, was divided up and leased to wealthy individuals so that they could build attractive country houses.
One of the earliest houses built in the woodlands was Nightingale Hall, built between 1780-1800. This became known as Wood Lodge and was demolished in 1932. The Oxleas Café now stands on the site.
Other impressive houses built in the woodlands included the mock-tudor Jackwood or Mayfield House, built 1862-63. The house was demolished in 1918 but its ornamental brick terrace retained.
Castle Wood House was built on a terrace below Severndroog castle in 1869. The building was of striking appearance and often appears in early photographs of Shooters Hill taken from the south. The house was demolished in the 1920s and the site is now a rose garden.
Oxleas Woods in the 1930s
Probably the most impressive building built in the woodlands was Falconwood, a stylish neo-Palladian mansion built by Lord Truro in 1864. This later became the Falconwood Hotel and was demolished in 1959.
By the 1920s – despite objections from the owners of the big houses, the Oxleas Woodlands were widely regarded as an important public amenity, and an area to which the public could escape the overcrowding and pollution of south-east London. When it was proposed that the London County Council purchase Castle and Jack Wood at a cost of £8,295, several south-London borough Councils contributed towards the cost.
Oxleas and Shepherdleas Woods, and Falconwood field, were added to the LCC estate in 1934 at a cost of over £70,000. At the time, the purchase was widely applauded across the country, with the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer proclaiming it the ‘Hampstead Heath of South London’.
The woodlands passed from the LCC to the Greater London Council and then, ultimately, to Greenwich Borough Council.
Jackwood House, 1911 - probably taken from the west