Petts Wood

Petts Wood, Bromley

The acme of Kentish suburbia, situated midway between Chislehurst and Orpington, and previously divided between those two parishes

Hidden London: William Willett memorial obelisk and sundial by Graham Seppings

The wood is believed to have been plant­ed in the last quar­ter of the 16th cen­tu­ry by the Pett fam­i­ly, who were lead­ing ship­wrights for 200 years and are men­tioned in Pepys’ diaries. Not until 1872 was the first house said to have been built here, and named Lady­wood.

William Wil­lett came up with his idea for day­light sav­ing time while rid­ing through Petts Wood just after dawn one morn­ing in the ear­ly 1900s.

Basil Scru­by, an entre­pre­neur from Har­low in Essex, had already built more afford­ably at New­bury Park and else­where when he turned his atten­tion to Petts Wood in 1927, secur­ing an option on 400 acres of wood­land and straw­ber­ry fields and pro­ceed­ing to buy it in sec­tions. In the same year, the Nation­al Trust acquired most of what was left of the wood and erect­ed a gran­ite obelisk and sun­di­al (show­ing British Sum­mer Time) in William Willett’s hon­our. The Wil­lett Memo­r­i­al is shown in the pho­to at the top of this arti­cle and its loca­tion is indi­cat­ed by a big pink pin near the top of the map below.

Also in 1927, Colonel Fran­cis Edl­mann acquired a neigh­bour­ing swathe of wood­land and added it to his Hawk­wood estate, thus pro­tect­ing it too from devel­op­ment. Robert and Francesca Hall bought the Hawk­wood estate after Edlmann’s death, and lat­er pre­sent­ed it to the Nation­al Trust.

Basil Scru­by appoint­ed the archi­tect Leonard Cul­li­ford to lay out roads that empha­sized the nat­ur­al curves of the land­scape, rather than sim­ply cut­ting across it. Scru­by also paid the South­ern Rail­way Com­pa­ny £6,000 to open a sta­tion in 1928, and pro­vid­ed the site for the pas­sen­ger build­ing and a goods yard. Shops, the Day­light Inn hotel and the Embassy cin­e­ma were built in the vicin­i­ty of the sta­tion from the ear­ly 1930s.

Hidden London: Petts Wood village sign by Ian Capper
Petts Wood vil­lage sign

Scru­by leased groups of plots to numer­ous builders, includ­ing his Har­low friends Wal­ter Reed and George Hoad. The var­i­ous sub­con­trac­tors soon built up the east­ern side of Petts Wood in a vari­ety of grandiose styles, with mock-Tudor pre­dom­i­nat­ing.

St Francis’s church was built on Wil­lett Way in 1935. From around this time, Basil Scru­by began to sell off the land west of the rail­way line but as a result of his finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties he was unable to exert con­trol over the qual­i­ty of build­ing. Much of this area was devel­oped by Morrell’s and New Ide­al Home­steads, both major play­ers in the sub­ur­ban­i­sa­tion of rur­al south Lon­don.

On the edge of Scruby’s land, oth­er devel­op­ers added some mod­ernist hous­es and chalets, a few in the vogu­ish ‘sun­trap’ style. Con­gre­ga­tion­al (lat­er Unit­ed Reformed), Methodist and Roman Catholic church­es were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Embassy cin­e­ma closed in 1973 and was replaced by a Safe­way super­mar­ket (now a Mor­risons) in 1982, where­upon five local shops closed with­in months, but gener­ic fac­tors also played their part in the sub­se­quent decline of the centre’s vil­lage char­ac­ter.

In 1940 General Charles de Gaulle and his wife rented 41 Birchwood Road after the fall of France but they (perhaps overcautiously) judged Petts Wood to be at risk of bombing, so the family moved to rural Shropshire while the general stayed in a Mayfair hotel before moving to Frognal.

The dour entertainer Jack Dee was born in Petts Wood in 1964.

Postcode areas: Orpington, BR5 and Chislehurst, BR7
Population: 13,651 (Petts Wood and Knoll ward, 2011 census)
Station: Southeastern (zone 5)
Further reading: Peter Waymark, A History of Petts Wood, Petts Wood and District Residents Association, 2000
and Chris Pearce, The Great Daylight Saving Time Controversy, Australian eBook, 2017 (the definitive work on the subject)
* The photograph of the William Willett memorial obelisk and sundial at the top of this article is by Graham Seppings and is used here with his kind permission.
The picture of the Petts Wood village sign is slightly modified from an original photograph, copyright Ian Capper, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence – and any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence. The sign features Invicta, the emblem of Kent; the coat of arms of the Pett Family, granted in 1583; day and night, as a representation of daylight saving time; and an Elizabethan galleon, built at Deptford by William Pett, using oak from his wood.