Sydenham, Lewisham (with parts in Bromley and Southwark)

A formerly grand Victorian suburb situated south of Dulwich and Forest Hill

Hidden London: Charleville Circus, Upper Sydenham, by Mike Faherty

This was Chipeham in 1206, prob­a­bly the farm­stead of a man called Cip­pa, and the name evolved in stages over sev­er­al cen­turies. The last change, when the ‘p’ became a ‘d’, did not occur until the late 17th cen­tu­ry.

By this time two dis­tinct set­tle­ments had evolved: one around Bell Green in present-day Low­er Syden­ham and the oth­er in what is now Syden­ham Wells Park, where the pres­ence of springs with alleged med­i­c­i­nal qual­i­ties was draw­ing vis­i­tors. These two halves of Syden­ham were sub­se­quent­ly divid­ed by the Croy­don Canal, which was con­struct­ed from 1801, and by West­wood Com­mon, which was enclosed in the 1810s.

When the canal com­pa­ny went bank­rupt, a rail­way line was laid along the course of the filled-in canal and Syden­ham sta­tion opened in 1839, after which hous­es for wealthy Lon­don­ers began to appear on the for­mer com­mon.

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham (1854)
The Crys­tal Palace at Syden­ham (1854)

In 1854 the Crys­tal Palace was brought from Hyde Park and rebuilt on the south­ern ridge of Syden­ham Hill in the south-west cor­ner of the dis­trict. This event trans­mut­ed the for­tunes of the extend­ed vil­lage. Improve­ments in com­mu­ni­ca­tions made Syden­ham the best con­nect­ed place south of the Thames. Hotels and every kind of ameni­ty catered to the needs of the tens of thou­sands of tourists. Grand hous­es were built for the new res­i­dents, includ­ing Crys­tal Palace man­agers and direc­tors, in Upper Syden­ham and Lawrie Park, with atten­dant accom­mo­da­tion for those who pro­vid­ed their ser­vices or laboured less lucra­tive­ly at the palace.

A huge gas­works was con­struct­ed at Bell Green, which became one of the most dense­ly built-up parts of out­er Lon­don. Sydenham’s pop­u­la­tion dou­bled every ten years in the three decades to 1871 and dou­bled again over the remain­der of the 19th cen­tu­ry, reach­ing around 40,000.

The appeal of the Crys­tal Palace declined in the 20th cen­tu­ry but its destruc­tion by fire in 1936 was still a tremen­dous blow. Many of Sydenham’s grand­est hous­es were replaced by homes for the new breed of com­muter, while munic­i­pal estates were built in sev­er­al cor­ners, for exam­ple at Shee­newood in Lawrie Park, High Lev­el Dri­ve in Upper Syden­ham, the Dacres estate in Low­er Syden­ham, in the Kirk­dale area north of Syden­ham sta­tion, and at Bell Green. On Dart­mouth Road, Syden­ham School was great­ly enlarged to become a com­pre­hen­sive in 1957.

Despite the changes, the hilly ter­rain and sur­viv­ing ves­tiges of its Vic­to­ri­an hey­day con­tin­ue to endow Syden­ham with a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter, although the town cen­tre has long been in need of some form of regen­er­a­tion – and the form this is begin­ning to take is the replace­ment of sur­plus shops with com­pact blocks of pri­vate flats.

The Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton lived at 12 Westwood Hill.

Postal district: SE26
Population: 15,605 (Lewisham’s Sydenham ward, 2011 census; however, the southermost part of Sydenham, including Crystal Palace Park and Lower Sydenham station, falls within the borough of Bromley while the westernmost part, including Sydenham Hill station, is in Southwark)
Station: Southern (zone 3)
Further reading: Steve Grindlay, Sydenham and Forest Hill Through Time, Amberley, 2014
and Joan P Alcock, Sydenham and Forest Hill: History and Guide, Tempus, 2005
Websites: Sydenham Town and the Sydenham Society


* The picture of Charleville Circus, Upper Sydenham, on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Mike Faherty, at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence. The image of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham is in the public domain.