Erith, Bexley

A fast-growing and relatively affordable Thames Gateway district situated east of Belvedere and across the river from Rainham Marshes

A maritime sculpture in Erith town centre
A maritime sculpture in Erith town centre

A forest estab­lished itself here after the last ice age, stretching across what became the Thames to Hornchurch. The name Earhyth, which means ‘muddy landing place’, was first recorded in the seventh century when lands here were granted to the bishop of the East Saxons.

Henry VIII estab­lished a naval store­house at the end of West Street in 1512. The town briefly flour­ished as a summer resort in the mid-19th century after the opening of a steamboat pier, a hotel and the station. Riverside gardens were laid out, with a maze and arboretum. At the same time, the docks brought indus­trial growth, which accel­erated over the second half of the century, when Erith’s population increased tenfold.

The town filled with terraced housing for workers, while lords of the manor the Wheatley family progress­ively developed a high-class suburb in the Lesney Park area. The Wheatleys built a new manor house in Northumberland Heath and created Avenue Road as a direct route to the town. To the north-west, British Oil and Cake Mills built innov­ative concrete silos on Church Manor Way in 1916.

In the first half of 20th century the manufacture of armaments and cables were the dominant indus­tries. Callender’s laid a pipeline across the bed of the English Channel, which was used to supply fuel for the D-Day landings.

As a consequence of its military signi­ficance, Erith was the target of heavy bombing during the Second World War and was radically redeveloped after­wards. A concrete pier was built in 1957 and the Pier Hotel was demol­ished to make way for warehouses.

New homes in Erith, photographed c.2005
New homes in Erith

More historic buildings were lost in the 1960s but a few remain, notably the White Hart, St John’s church and Erith library.

In 1999 a Morrisons super­market was built on the site of the old deep wharf, retaining the pier and reviving a disused indus­trial part of the riverside. In 2004 funding was secured for a regen­er­ation scheme that included a public art project.

The decline of industry has freed up large areas for resid­ential devel­opment. Flats, townhouses and maison­ettes have sprung up all over the town in recent years, such as the block shown in the photo on the right.

Mainly because of its remoteness, Erith has some of the lowest property prices in the London area, both for houses and flats. Research published by the Londonist in 2013 – based on Zoopla data – found London’s cheapest bricks-and-mortar home at that time was a ground floor studio flat in Erith, for which “offers in excess of £60,000” were being sought.

However, Erith’s low-lying situation beyond the Thames flood barrier may make it increas­ingly prone to flooding if global warming causes the expected rise in sea levels.

Alexander Selkirk, the real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, arrived back at Erith in 1711 after being rescued from his desert island. He is remembered (or at least Daniel Defoe’s portrayal is remembered) in the names of Friday Road and Crusoe Road.

Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher met her husband Denis while campaigning in Erith in 1950. He was chairman of the Atlas Preservative Company, the family paint and chemical business, and he commuted to Erith each day from his flat in Flood Street, Chelsea.

Postcode area: Erith DA18
Population: 12,053 (2011 census, representing 23 per cent growth on the 2001 figure)
Station: Southeastern Trains (zone 6)
Web page: Thames barge mural
Further reading: Frances Sweeny, Memories of Erith and Crayford, Bexley Education and Leisure Services Directorate, 2002