Updated: Jul 27, 2021
Blackheath – a suburb where the heath accommodates traditional ice cream vans, happy dogs running off lead, wildflowers dressing the edges that buzz with bees, runners running, cyclists whizzing, keep-fit boot camps enjoying the open space, and the general pleasures of concerts, funfairs, and stunning sunsets.
A beautiful leafy and peaceful village on the outskirts of London – but not if you look at its history.
The Blackheath we know sits between Greenwich and Lewisham, but during medieval times, it was over four miles to the south-east, and from its heights one could look down on London Bridge and the city itself. Running across it is the Roman road – Watling Street (now the A2).
It was once the meeting place for the ancient hundred of Blachehedfeld (its name meaning the dark-coloured heathland or possibly, just bleak). Since these times, its history has been layered with mayors of London greeting triumphant kings and royalty camping to meet future wives. The militia of London once stood proud on our local land to demonstrate their support for Queen Elizabeth I just before the Spanish Armada, and rebels from different decades and centuries have set up camp on the heath before doing what they came here to do.
Blackheath’s strategic importance has made it a fantastic location for revolts, rebellions, and rallies. As a result, its past has also been interestingly tumultuous ever since the Danes arrived and camped here after kidnapping St Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The most interesting thing about all of this is that much of the turbulence Blackheath has witnessed comes not from its residents but from those who have used the heath as a place of dissenting expression.
It is the heath that can rightfully claim the history of revolution, more than the people who have resided here. Something about it has inspired generations, be it the location, space, openness, or just because Blackheath owns something quite extraordinary.
The Peasants' Revolt
(Monarch: King Richard II)
In 1381, when the whole country was festering resentment towards King Richard II, several thousand Kentish rebels (possibly even 20,000), led by Wat Teghler (now known as Tyler), camped out on the heath. They came to demand that Richard, a young boy king of just fourteen years old, should meet them to listen to their demands.
Richard sailed up the Thames on his royal barge and planned to meet the rebels, but the river’s banks were awash with angry insurgents bursting into a raucous fray of activity. The boy-king was advised not to get off his barge, so he didn’t. The rebels eventually met Richard in Mile End, but the outcome wasn’t favourable for Tyler or his rebels. Rebellious Wat was stabbed, then beheaded, and the ‘wicked war’ was over.
Jack Cade’s Revolt
(Monarch: Henry VI)
Life still wasn’t good for the lower classes in 1450, and many of the underlying reasons for the Peasants’ Revolt were still rankling beneath the surface of society. The Hundred Years war, poverty, nobility corruption, and high taxes created ripe conditions for an uprising – so that’s exactly what happened.
On 8th June, those Kent rebels again issued The Complaint of the Commons of Kent and marched to London to deliver it to King Henry VI. By 11th June, the rebels had reached Blackheath and set a fortified camp with:
‘Dykyd and stakyde welle abowte’ so that “no power of horsmen shuld com and override theym’
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a particularly successful rebellion, despite Henry sending a negotiation delegation led by Cardinal Kemp and Archbishop Stafford. No good came from the meeting, and Henry decided to march on Blackheath with over 20,000. They marched in what was known as a ‘battle order,’ which is the hierarchical organisation of a command structure. With them came five canons ready to blast the rebels off Blackheath (amongst other battle artillery).
By the time Henry’s army arrived, the rebels had done a runner and headed towards Sevenoaks. Sir Humphrey Stafford of Grafton and a few of his men followed fast behind but were ambushed near Bromley and killed. The King fled London, and the heath once again played host to Jack Cade and his followers.
Events unravelled at a fast pace, and a battle commenced on and around London Bridge where several hundred were killed. After many of his followers surrendered, Cade fled to Sussex, where he was caught and wounded. He died on the way back to London. Still, even after death, he was beheaded at Newgate, and his body was dragged through the streets before finally being quartered.
Why did we come this far in the Jack Cade story when all he did was camp out at Blackheath? Well, his head was stuck on a spike and placed on London Bridge, with his face turned towards Kent, but his quartered body was sent back to Blackheath. Nice.
Duke of York’s Rebellion
(Monarch: Henry VI)
Henry wasn’t a particularly fortunate king. He’s often forgotten in popular history except for his alleged madness, yet his reigning years were more than just a little interesting. In 1452, Just two years after Jack Cade’s rebellion, Henry found himself having to camp out on Blackheath when his cousin, the Duke of York (father to the soon-to-be King Edward IV), gathered an army against him and was camped out in Sandhill, just between Dartford and Crayford.
With a massive army of around 24,000 men, Henry pitched his tents on the heath before they marched up Watling Street, over Shooter’s Hill and to the site of York’s camp. Henry stayed behind, but York surrendered anyway.
Rebellious historical events didn’t stop there.
The Cornish Rebellion
(Monarch: Henry VII)
Yet again, heavy taxation caused dissent amongst the people of England, especially in Cornwall, where Henry VII had recently stopped the legal operation of its tin-mining industry. The taxes were being levied due to Henry’s need for money to fund his Scottish war – a war so remote from Cornwall that its people didn’t see why they should pay for it.
Surprisingly, those pesky rebels in Kent, generally up for a bit of rebellion and uprising, didn’t want to get involved – there are only so many rebellions a person can take!
The Cornish rebels marched to London in 1497, through Guildford, Hounslow Heath, and onto Blackheath. During this time, their numbers dwindled due to death or desertion; when they arrived on the heath, only around 9,000-10,000 remained. Some sources suggest that the leader of the rebels, Michael Joseph, pitched his tent on Smith’s Forge (now Whitefield’s Mount).
Cleverly, Henry spread rumours that he would attack on 19th June, but instead, he struck at dawn on 17th. The Cornish fought with their archers at Deptford Strand and their army at the top of Blackheath Hill.
The Battle of Blackheath had begun!
Unfortunately, or fortunately, the Cornish rebels didn’t win against the Crown; instead, they lost between 200-2,000 men (it’s a broad estimate based on sources), and eventually, they had to surrender or be wiped out. There is a plaque outside Greenwich Park gates on the south side to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the battle and the lives lost.
Thomas Wyatt’s Rebellion
(Monarch: Mary I)
Just over half a century passes without any rebellious carry-on, and the Blackheathens might be forgiven for sighing with relief. But no!
Thomas Wyatt, irked by his experiences with the Spanish Inquisition, is pretty annoyed when Queen Mary announces she will marry Philip of Spain. To Thomas, it was an injustice to the nation.
Wyatt became the leader of a rebellious movement to oppose the marriage. It doesn’t sound much, but with his small army of 1,500 men, Wyatt defeated the Duke of Norfolk, who fled to Gravesend when some of his own men switched sides and joined the rebellion.
Following this, in January 1554, Wyatt and four thousand men marched through Gravesend and Dartford to Blackheath. Although the government took Wyatt seriously, they also deemed him disloyal to the Crown, and over twenty thousand men volunteered to help the Queen.
Several skirmishes later and Wyatt’s army dwindled – as did its enthusiasm – and he eventually had to admit defeat. There was some hope that during his trial, Wyatt would blame Queen Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, but he didn’t.
Mary married Philip of Spain anyway, which didn’t work out particularly well for her.
(Monarch: Charles I – Hanging on by the thread of his neck)
In 1642, a meeting of the ‘Kentish Men’ took place on the heath during the English Civil War. The purpose of the meeting was to support the established Catholic Church, request that parliament reach an accommodation with King Charles, and condemn a militia ordinance that gave control of the militia to parliament.
The petition didn’t go down too well for a few reasons. England was in the midst of a civil war – a war that saw the first-ever execution of a king (excluding battles), and the petition supported the King. So parliament, harsh and extreme in its views at the time, sent for four of the signatories of the petition, called them ‘delinquents,’ imprisoned them and got the hangman to publicly burn the petition as a show of it being seen as ‘scandalous.’
The News from Blackheath pamphlet was created during this time.
The Gordon Riots
(Monarch: George III)
In 1780, unrest was stirred up by the Protestant Association, which Lord George Gordon led. Its purpose was to oppose the civil rights of Catholics. Some historians consider the riots as the closest Britain has come to a full-blown revolution.
In June, a crowd of nearly 50,000 marched to parliament to present a petition. After that, things got a bit tricky (and chaotic) – not surprising with 50,000 men all in one place. The army was called in to disperse the crowds, and violence raged across London for at least a week afterwards. Angry mobs pulled down catholic houses and chapels. The Bank of England came under attack, and prisoners were released from London’s central prisons. Over 300 rioters were shot dead.
During the riots, troops camped out on the heath. This was obviously something of an amusement for the local ladies!
(Monarch: William IV)
During the 1830s, a working-class movement called Chartism emerged. It aimed to achieve political rights and influence for the working classes. The movement got its name from the People’s Charter, which listed their six points.
Greenwich established a Chartist organisation in the 1830s, and in the 40s, the heath became a location for mass rallies. As a side-note, Princess Sophia’s estate is likely to be the Ranger’s House as this is where she lived until her death later in 1844. Princess Sophia Matilda was niece to George III.
In 1848, Blackheath held a rally with the intention to promote and encourage attendance at the mass rally in Kennington the next day.
During my research, I also discovered that there was a particular way to deal with female Chartists and that the general view was that these women must be 'put down.' Little did the writer know what was coming next from such 'female turbulence.'
Anti-Catholic Effigy Burning
During the late 1850s, anti-papal demonstrations took place on the heath in protest about the building of a new catholic church. According to the Metropolitan Police, effigies of quite some expense were burnt on the heath by respectable tradesmen.
Dock Workers’ Strikes
During 1889, London’s dock workers downed their tools and went on strike. Over 100,000 workers fought for their rights, resulting in the development of strong trade unions for dockers. According to Colonel G. R. Birt, the general manager at the Millwall Docks, who gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee on the physical condition of the workers:
The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state ... These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d.; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours.
The dock workers chose Blackheath to celebrate, have a party and make a lot of noise with loud drums and frivolity. It sounds like a fun rally rather than one of death.
The Suffragettes and Votes for Women
(Monarchs: Edward VII and George V)
There were many suffragette meetings and rallies on the heath from 1903 to 1918. Lewisham had one of the most active branches of the movement, and Blackheath had some of the well-known members living here, such as Emily Wilding Davison (trampled on by the King’s horse) and May Billinghurst (pillar box outrages on Aberdeen Terrace).
With a turbulent past for revolts, rebellions, and rallies, the heath was the perfect location for the suffragettes to meet and speak – and to inspire a movement.
Poll Tax Rallies
(Monarch: Elizabeth II)
Blackheath’s involvement in the anti-poll tax rallies and riots is a bit fuzzy – possibly something to do with the festival!
But we know things happened. We know that there was a free festival in 1988 where locals dressed up as shrimps and Squeeze played live on the heath. We think we know that Tony Benn gave a speech during the festival, but we can’t find any evidence of this (yet) except for the shrimp and the recollection by Squeeze. If anyone has any local information to share, we’d really appreciate it.
Camps for Climate Action
(Monarch: Elizabeth II)
It’s been over a decade since the heath has drawn activists, protesters, campaigners, and dissenters to its open spaces. The last substantial activity was in 2009 at the Climate Camp.
Blackheath was the best-kept secret on the day, with those attending having to follow clues and directions via social media and good-old word-of-mouth. Even the Metropolitan Police didn’t have the inside knowledge.
According to the Independent, over 1,000 activists descended on Blackheath for a week-long campout. One organiser said that the ‘Camp for Climate Action is setting up camp at the doorstep of the economic and political systems that are fuelling catastrophic climate change.’
There’s no question that Blackheath is a place with an incredibly rebellious history. It would be interesting to know if anywhere else in the country has such an abundance of visiting and home-grown revolutionists. Perhaps York has, as they came up a lot in all the research searches.
Whatever does come next, I hope someone documents it well, with oral accounts and photographs because Blackheath’s history needs to keep being told.
If you'd like to get in touch about anything you've read, or have more information you'd like to share, please contact Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you. You can also subscribe to keep updated with new blogs.
You can find out more about Blackheath's history by taking a look at its timeline. This is still a work in progress as each entry is checked against the primary sources rather than a reliance on Google.
R. Flenley (ed.), Six Town Chronicles of England (Oxford 1911), p. 130
The Times Archives
Gale Primary Sources
British Library Newspapers
Lansberry, H. C. F. Government and Politics in Kent, 1640-1914. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001. Print. Kent History Project ; 7.
Running Past: South East London History on Foot
Votes for Women