Eltham (St. John the Baptist)

ELTHAM (St. John the Baptist), a parish, in the union of Lewisham, hundred of Blackheath, lathe of Sutton-At-Hone, W. division of Kent, 8½ miles (S. E. by S.) from London; containing, with the hamlet of Mottingham, part of which is in the parish of Chiselhurst, 2310 inhabitants. This place, in Domesday book called Alteham, is supposed to have derived its name from the Saxon, Eald, old, and Ham, a dwelling. It formed part of the royal demesnes in the reign of Edward the Elder, by whom it was given to Odo, Archbishop of Canterbury; and at a very early period became a favourite retreat of the English kings. Henry III. kept a grand festival in 1270, attended by his queen and the whole court, in the palace of Eltham, which was enlarged by Anthony Beck, Bishop of Durham, about the close of the thirteenth century. Edward II. resided here for some time, and at this place also his son was born, from this circumstance called John of Eltham, and the palace, erroneously, King John's Palace. Edward III. held parliaments here in 1329 and 1375, and in 1364 sumptuously entertained his prisoner, King John of France, in the palace. Richard II. here celebrated the festival of Christmas, in 1384 and 1386, as did Henry IV. in 1405, on which occasion the Duke of York was accused of an attempt to surprise and murder the king. Edward IV. repaired the palace, and inclosed one of the parks. Henry VII. built a front to it, and otherwise improved the building; and it continued to be the occasional residence of the sovereign till the reign of Henry VIII., who celebrated two splendid festivals in it, after which time it began to yield in importance to Greenwich, which, in the reign of Elizabeth, obtained the ascendancy. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., Eltham was occupied by the Earl of Essex, the parliamentary general, who died here in 1646. Of the extent of this once magnificent pile, some idea may be formed from the parliamentary survey, in which it is described as having "one fair chapel, one great hall, forty-six rooms and offices, below stairs, with two large cellars; and above stairs, seventeen lodging-rooms on the king's side, twelve on the queen's side, and nine on the prince's side; thirty-five bayes of building, or seventy-eight rooms in the offices round the court-yard, which contained one acre of ground." The principal remains are the great hall, 100 feet long and 36 wide, having ten windows on each side and a finely ornamented roof, and which had for many years been used as a barn, but is now partially restored. The area is inclosed by a stone wall of great thickness, from 18 to 20 feet in height: the moat by which it was surrounded was from 70 to 80 feet in breadth, and from fourteen to fifteen in depth; it is quite dry, and though converted into a garden its original form may be distinctly traced.

The village is irregularly built, but contains many handsome houses, and the environs abound with noble mansions and elegant seats. Near the road from Eltham to Shooter's Hill, is Savendroog Castle, a square building with angular turrets rising above the battlements, erected in 1784 to commemorate the taking of the castle of that name, on the coast of Malabar, in the East Indies, by Sir William Daines, Bart., commander of the company's marine forces in those seas, on the 2nd of April, 1755. It forms a conspicuous and romantic feature in the scenery. Shooter's Hill, so named from its having been anciently used for the practice of archery, and on which a singular triangular tower was erected, by his lady, to the memory of Sir William Daines, is celebrated for the extent and variety of its prospects. The parish comprises 4350 acres, of which 449 are in wood. The living is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £3. 2. 6.; net income, £355; patrons, the Fryer family; impropriators, the Provost and Fellows of Oriel College, Oxford. The church is a plain edifice, with a spire: in it were interred the remains of Dr. Horne, Bishop of Norwich, who died in 1792; and in the churchyard, those of Sir William Daines, and Dogget, the comedian, partner with Wilks and Cibber. There is a place of worship for Independents. A school was built in 1634, and endowed in 1714 by Elizabeth Leggatt, with lands producing more than £30 per annum. An almshouse was founded in 1680, by Thomas Phillipot, for six aged persons, and endowed with land now yielding an income of £165. 12.; there are four other almshouses, and among the benefactions to the poor are, a grant of land by Henry VII. in 1492, and another in 1509 by John Passey. On the summit of a hill, south-by-east from the town, are the remains of a Roman camp. Dr. William Sherard, the celebrated botanist, resided here in the early part of the eighteenth century, and cultivated a botanical garden, assisted by the German botanist, Dillarius, who published a catalogue of the plants in two volumes folio, under the title of Hortus Elthamensis, in 1732. The learned herald and Kentish historian, John Phillipot, also resided here.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.