Ladywell, Lewisham

A verdant residential locality beside the River Ravensbourne on the west side of Lewisham

Hidden London: Hilly Fields Park From Ladywell Fields

As early as 1472 a spring was recorded on the site of what is now 148 Ladywell Road. It was called Our Lady’s Well because of its supposed healing powers and was visited by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

In the 18th century the Ladywell area was sometimes called Bridge House, after a farmhouse that was the only signif­i­cant structure in the vicinity.

From the 1780s small­holders enclosed strips of waste bordering Ladywell Road, often applying to the manor court for squatters’ rights and being granted 21-year leases. On the expiry of these leases the farmers became the direct tenants of the lord of the manor.

In 1830 a brick-built bridge replaced the wooden foot­bridge that had formerly provided the sole connec­tion with Lewisham.

Ladywell station opened on the Mid-Kent Railway in 1857 and the Lady Well was covered over as terraced housing began to line Ladywell Road. On the far western side of the locality the Lewisham (now Ladywell) and Deptford (now Brockley) ceme­teries opened in 1858. As the former Ideal Homes website pointed out, “for much of its short history the dead popu­la­tion of Ladywell has outnum­bered the living.” Orig­i­nally separated by a wall, the two ceme­teries were merged in 1965.

Ladywell water tower

From the mid-1880s a cluster of municipal buildings provided various civic amenities, from a swimming bath to a coroner’s court. In 1894 the five Thames-side parishes of the Bermondsey poor law union acquired Slagrave Farm and built the huge St Olave’s workhouse, which opened amid scenes of extra­or­di­nary jubi­la­tion in 1900.

Part of the workhouse survives as Ladywell Lodge; the rest has been replaced by housing on Dress­ington Avenue, Rushey Mead and Slagrove Place, together with some council facil­i­ties, including the Ladywell Centre.

The work­house’s water tower is also still standing, though it has of course been converted to resi­den­tial use.

Council housing was built in Ladywell after each of the world wars, but some former meadows were left open because they were liable to regular inun­da­tion when the Ravens­bourne over­flowed. These now consti­tute Ladywell Fields, a 46-acre park divided by the railway lines into three separate sections. The creation of weirs and levées elim­i­nated the flooding problem and sections of the fields were taken for the creation of Ladywell Arena, on the border with Catford, and a major extension of Univer­sity Hospital Lewisham.

The neigh­bour­hood is well endowed with green spaces, as the satellite map below shows. In addition to Ladywell Fields (and the cemetery), Hilly Fields has been a public park since 1896, thanks largely to the efforts of the heroic Octavia Hill. The Friends of Hilly Fields website has a brief history of the park. The photo­graph at the top of this article shows a view across the rooftops of Ladywell from the northern end of Ladywell Fields to Hilly Fields.*

Ladywell leisure centre opened in 1965, in what is really Lewisham itself rather than Ladywell. It was colour­fully revamped in 2004 but has since been super­seded by the Glass Mill leisure centre, which opened in June 2013 on Loampit Vale, opposite Lewisham station. There were hopes that the old centre might be converted to a cinema but the building was quickly demol­ished and replaced by a kind of pop-up village called PLACE/Ladywell, with 24 homes on the upper floors and an enter­prise hub, creative workspace, retail space and café at street level. PLACE was to have remained here until 2020, by which time it was hoped that a long-term plan for the site would have been developed and approved. However, the council subse­quently decided that it will “remain for the fore­see­able future” – but will ulti­mately be replaced by approx­i­mately 100 “new, afford­able high quality council homes for local people in housing need.”

The residents of Ladywell ward tend to be rela­tively young and well-educated.

Henry Williamson, the celebrated author of Tarka the Otter (but who was less well regarded for his fascist connections), grew up in Eastern Road. In 1984 the Henry Williamson Society and Lewisham council placed a commemorative plaque on the house where he spent the greater part of his childhood and youth, and which is the setting for the early volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.

Postal districts: SE13, SE4 and SE6
Population: 14,515 (2011 census)
Station: Southeastern Trains (zone 3)
Further reading: Robert Smith, The Well of Our Lady, Ladywell Village Society, 1986


* The picture of Hilly Fields Park from Ladywell Fields at the top of this page is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Loz Pycock, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence. The photo of Ladywell water tower was released into the public domain by ‘Quintus Petillius’.