Blackheath: a birthplace of rebellion, not just Golf

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) giving an election address on Blackheath, General election February 1874

The Blackheath Societys new digital archive of photos and prints is a reminder that Blackheath is not just a sleepy Kentish village, famous only for the invention of Golf, that became a south London suburb. Blackheath also has a proud radical past.

The archive was subject of a week-long exhibition at Blackheath Halls in late September, which I was lucky to be at the launch of. Though the exhibition is now over, all you need do is go to, register with your name and email address and you can browse all 1,500 images collated so far.

The archive is an organic thing and needs to grow further. The Blackheath Society welcomes donations of photos (I am donating some of my own limited archive of photos of places, and political events, in Blackheath and Westcombe Park from the last 15 years).

Blackheath has long played a key role in British history, even before there was a large settlement here, because it was a large area of common land a day’s ride from London on the road to Dover.

As well as being a place for Royal receptions and pageants (after Agincourt in 1415, Blackheath was where a victory reception was held for Henry V’s victorious army on its return from France), Blackheath has always been subversive. It has long been a place of rebellion, rallying and political debate, as well as Highwaymen, Golf and other sports.

William.Morris.John.BallJohn Ball’s famous rhetorical question, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” – the inspiration behind this E. Burne-Jones etching of April 1888, for William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball’ – was apparently first posed in Blackheath.

During the Peasant’s revolt of 1381, Blackheath was where the followers of the radical cleric John Ball (after which a local primary school is now named) and Peasant leader Wat Tyler, rallied. It was on Blackheath that they met a contingent of Richard II’s court (who unsuccessfully attempted to persuade them to return home to Kent). Some accounts have it that 200,000 people gathered on Blackheath to hear John Ball preach (I am not sure how he could have been heard on the windswept heath without any amplification).  John Ball’s famous rhetorical question, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”, was apparently first posed in Blackheath.

Jack Cade, the Kent insurrectionist behind the ‘Blackheath Petition'(whose objects were ‘to punish evil ministers, and procure a redress of grievances’) camped with 20,000 men on Blackheath, en route to London in 1450. After Cade was slaughtered and his revolt defeated, many of his followers came back to Blackheath to be pardoned by the King. In 1497, Blackheath was where members of the Cornish rebellion (an uprising against Henry VII’s punitive tax levy) camped the night before their defeat at the battle of Deptford.

In the 1840s mass Chartist rallies on Blackheath were addressed by Fergus O’Connor and drew large crowds. On several occasions in the 1870s, Blackheath attracted crowds of up to 10,000 people to hear speeches by Prime Minister William Gladstone (then MP for Greenwich). Whatever one thinks of Gladstone’s politics, he certainly drew a big crowd.

This radicalism has continued, rather more sedately, in the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, according to the Society’s excellent new history, Guardians of the Heath, there was much conflict between the conservationists who wanted no new development at all, and those who favoured Span Housing development in the large gardens of old houses, which allowed people to live in Blackheath more affordably.

 In the early 1970s there was a popular, and successful, campaign against the “Motorway Box” that was proposed to drive a four-lane highway through the middle of Blackheath Village. And for several weeks in 2009 the heath hosted the Camp for Climate Action (which attracted much less hostility from local people than a proposal for a money-making pop concert, On Blackheath, has).

Climate Camp on Blackheath, summer 2009Climate Camp on Blackheath, summer 2009

Although the Blackheath Society has always been strictly apolitical, its President for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the politician and journalist John Grigg, was himself a subversive. A liberal Tory who was unsuccessful in getting elected to Parliament, in 1955 Grigg entered the House of Lords on his father’s death, and sitting as the 2nd Baron Altrincham. Grigg made a devastating attack on Anthony Eden’s handling of the Suez crisis and in 1957, he argued that the Queen’s court was too upper-class and British, and attacked the Queen’s style of speaking as “a pain in the neck”.

He was then ostracised by the Tory establishment and even though he renounced his peerage in 1963 (following in Tony Benn’s footsteps), he never became a Tory MP. In later life he lived in Blackheath and worked on a multi-volume biography of David Lloyd George: politics’ loss was biography’s gain.

Today, Blackheath still attracts such types: not rabid Bohemians or revolutionaries, but edgy figures on the outer fringes of the establishment who are politely, or not so politely, subversive.

Blackheath today has a great deal of wealth, but also some poverty. It is a place with little snobbery, a great deal of tolerance, and which welcomes all who visit or who come to live here. One of its strengths is strong civic institutions, like the Blackheath Society and the Age Exchange, which do not rest on their laurels but embark on bold new projects to cater for changing times: without the Age Exchange, there would now be no public library in Blackheath Village.

The digital archive is one of these bold new projects. It enriches our heritage, and makes it accessible to all, and encourages us to reflect on the past while looking to the future. Well done to the Blackheath Society for getting the Heritage Lottery Funding, and harnessing the enthusiasm of its members, to get this project off the ground.


2 Responses to Blackheath: a birthplace of rebellion, not just Golf

  1. Pingback: OnBlackheath: getting the balance right between music and nuisance | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

  2. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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