History of Eltham

Eltham is an attractive suburb, which has developed along part of the old road from London to Maidstone.

The opinion of place name scholars is divided. It could mean "Homestead or river meadow frequented by swans" or from an association with a man named "Elta". The latter Anglo Saxon derivation is currently favoured.

On a high, sandy plateau with fine views it also had a strategic significance, which led to the creation of the moated Plantaganet palace of Eltham. Convenient for monarchs travelling to and from their French territories it became a favourite home of Plantaganet kings and queens. The two main surviving structures at the Palace: the great hall and the moat bridge were built towards the end of the 15th century.

The Tudors and their successors preferred the riverside palace of Greenwich and neglected Eltham. Eventually, after the ravages of the Civil War, the palace was used as a farm and the Great Hall became a barn. The palace's three parks, Great Park, Middle Park, and Horn Park were stripped of their timber for shipbuilding. Two of the parks became farmland but the Great Park was leased by Sir John Shaw, a financier who supported the restoration of Charles II. Shaw built himself an elegant mansion (Eltham Lodge) in the park. The Lodge is now the headquarters of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club and the former royal park is a golf course.

It wasnít until Stephen and Virginia Courtauld moved to Eltham in the 1930s that proper restoration of the surviving structures was carried out. Adjoining the Medieval Great Hall, the Courtaulds built their astonishing mansion with its remarkable Art Deco Hall.

Close to the palace beside the road to Woolwich was the medieval estate of Well Hall, which was also moated. The main house, of which no record survives, stood in the centre of the moat. It was here in the 16th century that William Roper lived with his wife Margaret, the daughter of Sir Thomas More. More, who must have been in residence in the Lord Chancellorís Dwelling at the palace often, may have been a frequent visitor to Well Hall.

William Roper was almost certainly responsible for building the misnamed "Tudor Barn". This fine building, with its two inpressive fireplaces, was almost certainly part of Roperís dwelling. The "Tudor Barn", the moat, and garden walls survive but the original house within the moat, and its 18th century successor, which was built outside the moat, have disappeared without trace.

The later Well hall House was home to the bohemian Bland family, Hubert Bland and Edith Nesbit, from 1899 to 1921. The large dilapidated house, its moat and grounds were an inspiration to Edith Nesbit when writing her childrens books.

The village street adjacent to the palace and the surrounding land remained rural until Archibald Cameron Corbett bought the Eltham Park Estate and developed it with well-built suburban housing between 1900 and 1914.

Corbettís estate, the opening of two railway lines through Eltham, and the construction of the Shooters Hill by-pass (Rochester Way) were the main stimuli for a flood of further private building in the inter-war years. In addition, in 1915, the government built the extremely attractive Progress Estate, and large estates of temporary hutments to house the vastly increased numbers of workers in the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

The local authority also played their part in changing the face of Eltham. In 1923 the Woolwich Borough Council built the Page Estate and, later, the Council built the Middle Park (1931 - 1936) and Horn Park Estates. Building work on the latter estate, begun in 1936, was interrupted by World War II but continued through the 1950s. These two estates were built on two of the former hunting parks of Eltham Palace. Finally, in 1947, Coldharbour Farm on the border with Chiselhurst was acquired and the large Coldharbour Estate was built.

See historic maps of Eltham