Blackheath is common land, the name probably arising from the colour of the soil. It has been managed for public use since 1871 when it was taken over by the MBW, although it has long had public access courtesy of the lords of the manor, an important place for a multitude of events from fairs to actions of highwaymen, royal celebrations to rebellions, battles to religious gatherings. Associations with sporting activities include its early use for golf, cricket and football. Until the C18th and rise of speculative building Blackheath was largely undeveloped and consisted of a few cottages; a number of the ponds are probably the remains of gravel pits. During WWII parts of Blackheath were ploughed and other areas had Nissen huts for the army. The northern part of the heath is in LB Greenwich, the southern part in LB Lewisham.
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The northern part of Blackheath adjacent to Greenwich Park (q.v.) is in LB Greenwich while the southern part is in LB Lewisham. Blackheath is common land, the name probably arising from the colour of the soil. It has been managed for public use only since 1871 when part was given over to the Metropolitan Board of Works for regulation and management under the Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act 1871. However, before this it had long been used for public recreation, as well as an important place for a multitude of events from fairs to actions of highwaymen, royal celebrations to rebellions, battles to religious gatherings.
There is evidence of pre-historic man here, with the discovery of Blackheath Cavern under The Point or Point Hill containing 7 chambers and a well, created by tools made of antlers; Celtic carving was found within the entrance. Once it was rediscovered, the Cavern was visited from the 1780s not only by academics and historians, but also became a place of entertainment, degenerating to the extent that it was closed in 1854, and it collapsed in the 1880s. The Roman Watling Street crossed Blackheath, and the Danes camped here between 1011-1014 having captured Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury; the parish church of St Alfege is purportedly built on the site of his murder. The heath was the massing point for Wat Tyler and Jack Straw's 1381 doomed peasants revolt protesting against taxes, with 100,000 rebels gathering here; Jack Cade's march to London began here on 1 June 1450, whose 40,000 followers included '74 gentlemen' of important families, some of them local, on a mission of justice, among other things against the non-punishment of murderers. February 1452 saw the first Yorkist attempt to rally opposition to Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou; in 1497 the rebellion by the men of Cornwall led by Michael Joseph and James Tuchet, Lord Audley, was crushed by Henry VII. The bodies of slaughtered rebels were buried under mounds, one of which remains and was later re-named Whitefield's Mound, after the revivalist preacher George Whitefield who preached here, as did John Wesley, in the C18th. In 1554 the unsuccessful rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt against the Tudor Queen Mary's Spanish marriage camped on the heath.
However, the heath also witnessed many celebratory events, such as Henry V's return from Agincourt in 1415 and Charles II restoration to the monarch in 1660. Fairs have been held since the 1680s. Associations with sporting activities include its use as a golf course by the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, founded in 1608, until it amalgamated with the Eltham Golf Club and moved to Eltham in 1923, the decision to cease playing on the heath largely due to the increase in other sports here as well as cars, and golf is now banned. Cricket was played on the heath from the 1820s at least, by teams such as the West Kent Wanderers, founded in 1870. Blackheath Football Club, formed in 1862, played here until 1877, a club influential in the establishment of the Rugby Football Union.
Blackheath consisted of a few cottages and was largely undeveloped by housing until the C18th and rise of speculative building. In the C18th and C19th botanists found numerous uncommon plants here, and in the C18th and C19th land was quarried for chalk, sand and gravel; after World War II all but one of the gravel pits, Vanbrugh Pit, were filled with rubble from bombed buildings. One of the four ponds on the heath is in the Greenwich section, Folly Pond, which was once a sizeable boating lake with an island in the middle. During the war barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns were sited on the heath and Nissen huts erected.
A number of built structures remain on the heath, including All Saints Church in the south, built in 1857 - 67 to designs of Benjamin Ferrey, the former Heathkeeper's House adjacent to Folly Pond, and the Andrew Gibb Memorial, a bandstand-like shelter and drinking fountain at the junction of Charlton Way and Maze Hill, erected in memory of Andrew Gibb in 1931 in accordance with his will. One of the first Aldermen of the new Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich and a generous supporter of local charities, Gibb died in 1908 leaving a bequest of £1,200 for a drinking fountain to come into force on the death of his widow, who survived him until 1928. The available money was sufficient for a shelter as well as the drinking fountain and a suitable location was found opposite the war memorial 'adjacent to omnibus stopping place where the fountain would not be likely to cause any obstruction to traffic, and at the same time in a position which would be of greatest service to the public' (unveiling ceremony leaflet). Designed by A G Theakston, it is an open-sided structure of artificial stone on an octagonal base with a four dial clock on top, illuminated at night. It was unveiled 16 April 1931. It was damaged over the years, the clock dials replaced by pictures in the four spaces.
In 1871 the management of Blackheath passed by Act of Parliament to the Metropolitan Board of Works, passing in 1889 to the LCC, then to the GLC on the abolition of which in 1986 responsibility was vested in the two boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham, although the freehold remains with the Lords of the Manor, the Earl of Dartmouth the current owner in the Lewisham section, the Crown in the Greenwich section. It is held in trust for public benefit under the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1886. A number of active groups are involved in the preservation and maintenance of Blackheath, combining as the Joint Blackheath Working Party. The Blackheath Society, founded in 1937, was set up to preserve and enhance the heath. Funding of £100,000 by Greenwich Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from several local groups and individuals was raised to restore the Gibb Memorial, which was completely renovated and many features that have been missing for years were restored such as the four face clock, weather vane, glass windscreens to the seating and a stone obelisk. It was officially opened by the Mayor of Greenwich on 15 November 2003. Blackheath received a Green Flag Award in 2010-11.
Beryl Platts 'A History of Greenwich' 2nd ed. (Procter Press), 1986; Sue Swales, Meg Game, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Greenwich', Ecology Handbook 10 (London Ecology Unit), 1989; John Archer, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Lewisham' Ecology Handbook 30, 2000; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); K D Clark, 'Greenwich and Woolwich in Old Photographs' (Alan Sutton) 1990; Robert and Celia Godley, 'Greenwich: A history of Greenwich, Blackheath, Charlton, Deptford and Woolwich', 1999; LB Greenwich website Historic Monuments notes; Kim Wilkie Associates, 'Blackheath: The next 50 years' consultation draft study, February 2003; The Parks Agency, 'Commons, Heaths and Greens in Greater London, A short report for English Heritage' (2005)