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Petts Wood

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Bromley

The acme of Kentish suburbia, situated midway between Chislehurst and Orpington, and previously divided between those two parishes. 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 the remainder of the wood and erected a granite sundial in William Willett’s honour. Scruby appointed the architect Leonard Culliford to lay out roads that emphasized the natural curves of the landscape, rather than simply cutting across it. He also paid the Southern Railway Co. 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. 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, 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 suburbanization 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 in 1982, whereupon five local shops closed within months, but generic factors have also played their part in the subsequent decline of the centre’s village character.

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The William Willett memorial sundial

In 1940 General Charles de Gaulle and his wife rented 41 Birchwood Road after the fall of France but they judged Petts Wood to be at risk of bombing, so the family moved to rural Shropshire while the general stayed in a Mayfair hotel. The dour entertainer Jack Dee was born in Petts Wood in 1964.

Postcode areas: Orpington, BR5 and Chislehurst, BR7
Population: 13,627 (Petts Wood and Knoll ward)
Station: South Eastern (Zone 5)
Further reading: Peter Waymark, A History of Petts Wood, Petts Wood and District Residents Association, 2000

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

 
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