The residential development that got under way in the late 1860s transformed the area entirely. Until this period of building activity, Bromley Common and its environs remained largely undeveloped and rural, dominated by farming and the grand estates of a few large landowners. Little had changed for centuries for this predominantly agricultural land that was then just outside of Bromley. Over the previous century, the wider area had begun to attract what the Bromley historian E.L.S. Horsburgh calls ‘a leisured class of wealthy and more or less distinguished men’ (William Pitt bought Holwood Estate, just up the road at Keston, on becoming prime minister in 1783).
John Dunkin in 1815 describes Bromley Common as ‘a very extensive piece of waste land, on the side of which several gentlemens’ seats are erected’. The common itself was owned by the Bishops of Rochester as Lords of the Manor, but on the condition that various ‘commoners’ should be allowed to freely enjoy their privileges on it. It amounted to about 300 acres, extending irregularly along the sides of the road that formed the main route from Tunbridge Wells and Hastings to Bromley and, beyond, to London. It was a well-known and profitable haunt for highwaymen. After the common was enclosed by Act of Parliament in 1826 (the Act was passed in 1821), there was some limited residential development, but this was mostly to the south of the old common, where it fanned out from the main road; a substantial number of homes had been built around Oakley Road and Princes Plain such that in 1842 Holy Trinity Church, at the junction of Bromley Common and Oakley Road, was built to cater for the expanding population.
In the northern section of the old common development was much more modest, with just a few dozen homes put up along the east side of the road. Most of those homes appear to have been built by 1832, when Charles Freeman noted that a ‘vast number of neat cottages’ had been put up by the Bromley builder Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett. The last of these homes, coming from Bromley town, was Bromley Villa, a sizeable property situated at the corner of what is now Chantry Lane (then a footpath leading to Southborough) and Bromley Common; this was occupied by a Henry Hebbert. Between Hebbert’s property and Trinity Church, a stretch of about a mile, there was little habitation at all, with the exception of a handful of stately residences set back from Bromley Common, chief among them The Rookery (occupied by the Norman family) and Elmfield to the west of the road. Freeman noted that it was ‘surprising that a portion of the ground still remains unbuilt upon’.
Writing in 1858, Edward Strong recorded that the population of Bromley Common had ‘much increased’ in the previous 20 years, but still only numbered about 1,000. The development that followed the enclosure of the common in the 1820s was little added to over the following decades. In the early 1860s, The Crown Inn, standing opposite the junction with Crown Lane (and opposite its present location), would still have been a rare sign of life from the road between Bromley Villa and Trinity Church. The land was still mainly used for farming, divided up principally between Hook Farm to the west of Bromley Common, situated in the location of what is today the car park of Norman Park, and Turpington Farm to the east, close to the junction of Crown Lane and Turpington Lane. Hook Farm was owned by the Norman family of The Rookery, and Turpington Farm belonged to the Wells family of Southborough Lodge (both of these residences are now destroyed).
Compared with what was to follow, Bromley grew only quite gradually across these early decades of the 19th century, the population rising from 2,700 in 1801 to 4,127 in 1851. By the mid-19th century it remained a small country town, its only means of communication with the outside world by way of stage-coach. The coming of the railway in 1858 changed everything. With Bromley now suddenly very much connected to London and the rest of Kent, land in the area became of interest to prospectors and builders. The population advanced in leaps and bounds over the following decades, to 5,505 in 1861, 10,674 in 1871, 15,154 in 1881, 21,684 in 1891, 27,397 in 1901 and 33,646 in 1911. The number of homes rose from 1,090 in 1861 to 6,776 in 1911 – a more than six-fold increase in half a century. This boom in residential dwellings transformed the character of the town, and this change was reflected in the transformation of Bromley Common, which played a major role in the enlargement of the conurbation.
Next – Chapter Two: Bromley Villa and the Hebbert Estate