Thamesmead: A late 20th century New Town

Lesnes Abbey

The history of the site’s development dates far back beyond the Middle Ages. The area that Thamesmead now occupies was originally uninhabited marshland known either as Erith Marshes or Plumstead Marshes (it straddled what is now the border of the two London Boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley).

As early as the Bronze Age humans were active on the marshes, as evidenced by the discovery of a brushwood trackway during excavations for building the spine road through Erith in 1997.

Augustinian monks from Lesnes Abbey were the first people known to have reclaimed and drained land in the area. The Abbey had been founded in the 12th century by Sir Richard de Lucy on slightly higher ground to the south of Thamesmead. The monks cultivated their own crops and reared domestic animals and for this they needed level ground. They began draining land in the area now occupied by Thamesmead. The River Thames originally came right up to Lesnes Abbey and it is said that the monks used to fish from the abbey walls – sharks’ teeth have been found in the Abbey Woods.

In his History of Kent, Edward Hasted states that in 1279 the monks of Lesnes ‘enclosed a great part of their marsh near Plumstead’. This type of small-scale cultivation and animal farming was also taken up by local people, but in general the land was too wet and marshy to justify any attempt at large-scale farming.