Spring of Water Rises: A history of Orpington before 1900

I recently moved to Orpington, part of the London Borough of Bromley, on the border of London and Kent. Despite only becoming part of London in 1965, Orpington has a long and interesting history which has meant my original idea for this blog post has changed several times. Therefore this post only covers the history of Orpington up until 1900, I hope to at some point in the future to blog about the history of Orpington post 1900. The name Orpington comes from a bastardized version of Dorpentune which means ‘where the head or spring of water rises’.

Tools from the Stone Age, pottery from the Bronze Age and a farmstead from the Iron Age show that Orpington has been settled since early human history, however our first concrete history of Orpington comes from the Crofton Roman villa. It is thought to have been occupied from around 140 AD to 400 AD. The villa was the centre of a 500 acre farming estate overlooking the River Cray. The villa underwent various changes during its 240 year existence, possibly containing around twenty rooms with at least sixteen found during its excavation. By 400 AD it was abandoned and eventually due to the remains of the buildings being taken or lost under soil washing from the slopes above, the villa was lost until 1926 when it was found during construction work. Ten of the rooms are now preserved in the Crofton Roman villa museum.

The next records of Orpington appeared in 862 AD in a charter under King Ethelbert of Wessex. It then appears again in 1032 when King Cnut’s chaplain gave his estate to the Christ Church Priory in Canterbury.  Four years later the area was first recorded as Orpedingetune. Ten years before the Domesday Book in in 1076, there were disputes within the church about the lands around Orpington. The Domesday Book however is our best source of information for Orpington as it records its population as around 75-100 people detailing their possessions and livelihoods. It also included who owned what parts of Orpington. The largest manor belonged to the Monks of Christchurch Canterbury, as had been given to them in 1032. There was a second manor, known as ‘Little Orpington’ which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not the monastery.

The first major secular records begin in 1111, with the construction of the first manor house in Oprington, built by the de Rokesle family who then let the manor to Philip de Malevil. By 1281 the house reverted back to de Rokesle family, who had risen to prominence with Gregory de Rokesle holding the position of Lord Mayor of London. However the residence of such a prominent figure seems to have done little for Orpington. By 1363 on the death of John de Rokesle, his lands including the manor house were sold to Sir John Peche.

Upon the dissolution of the monasteries the Priory was given to Sir Percival Hart. In 1554 Hart built on the Priory land, retaining some of the existing buildings. In 1573 Elizabeth I as part of her Royal Progress visited Orpington staying at the property known as Bart Hart. She spent three days in Orpington before moving on to her own property in Knolle. The manor and land would remain in the Hart family until 1671.

The seventeenth century saw the beginning of recorded industry. The Colegates Mill was constructed on the River Cray in 1634. This mill would remain until at least the nineteenth century. In 1654, the Hodgson Brothers built their foundry also on the Cray, where not only did they cast bells for the local St Mary’s Church but also the famous Bow Bells for St Mary Le Bow of Cheapside in central London. Those born in the sound of the bells are considered ‘true’ cockneys. As industry spread so did the need for better transport links with the turn-piking of the London to Tunbridge Wells’s road being completed in 1750 which Orpington was situated on. By the early nineteenth century two paper mills were established which would remain until the Great Depressions in the 1930s. Fox and Sons also established a large brewery in Orpington in 1836. They would later build housing in the area for their employees.

Such development of industry lead to the building of train stations in the area. St Mary Cray Station predated Orpington by ten years arriving in 1858, this helped development around the river Cray. The railway helped Orpington gain links not just with the surrounding areas of Kent but also with London. At this time Orpington was still mostly an agricultural area along with the industry around the Cray. The Vinson family for instance who were the largest soft fruit producers in England invested heavily in the area. However Orpington was growing, with its population increasing from 754 in 1841 to around 4000 in 1900.

By 1900 Orpington had developed from a tiny village to the beginnings of a growing town. Despite its small population until the mid-nineteenth century, Orpington had a rich history dating from the Roman period. It began to develop more into what the town appears as today, although much of the events of the twentieth century would truly form it.

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