In the second half of the 19th Century, the Brockley area became built up, as farmland was sold off and streets of houses crept further south. Hilly Fields was only saved from development by the protests of local residents. A committee of influential people was formed, including Octavia Hill (new window), the philanthropist and co founder of the National Trust.
In her article “Space for the People” (1883) Octavia records that when visiting tenants in Deptford one day, she noticed a vase of freshly picked flowers. On being told they had been picked on Hilly Fields, she set off to visit the area the same day and as a result became instrumental in raising subscriptions to save Hilly Fields from being built over. The list of subscribers ran to thirty-one pages and includes William Morris and F D Mocatta, a well-known Jewish philanthropist. Generous benefactors included the Duke of Westminster and many of the City Livery Companies, such as the Goldsmiths’, Fishmongers’ and Leathersellers’.
They managed to raise some of the purchase money, and other financial contributions were made by the London County Council and the Greenwich and Lewisham Boards of Works. Part of the site (the northern end) was occupied by a brick works, part was owned by the Corporation of London who had leased it to a developer for building purposes and part was glebe land of the parish of Lewisham. The southern end of the park had originally been fields, part of Bridge House Farm.
After lengthy and difficult negotiations the site of the park was bought and improvements were made by the London County Council. The site of the brick works was drained, levelled and marked out as a cricket pitch. A bandstand was also provided. The park was formally opened on 16 May 1896.
Sir Arthur Arnold, chairman of the LCC, which had spent £4,685 on laying out the grounds, opened the park to the public on 16th May 1896. Sir Robert Hunter, in his capacity as chairman of the committee set up to save Hilly Fields, attended the opening ceremony and paid tribute to Octavia Hill’s hard work. ‘So well-known to many of them by reason of her public- spirited labours, in the course of her work in Deptford’.
The Dedication To the Public of Hilly Fields, Brockley, by Sir Arthur Arnold, Chairman of the Council, took place on Saturday, 16th May, 1896. (document will be uploaded in the near future)
From “Dedication to the public of Hilly Fields, Brockley by Sir Arthur Arnold, Chairman of the Council on Saturday, 16th May 1896” Lewisham Local Studies Archives 352.944 BRO
“…Taking the statistics compiled with such care by Mr Charles Booth, it will come as a surprise to many to learn that in the county of London there is more poverty south than north of the Thames, while the district lying along the river from Greenwich to Rotherhithe is the second poorest in London…..dealing with blocks of about 30,000 inhabitants, Mr Booth finds that the two poorest are situate, one between Blackfriars and London-bridge, and the other by the riverside at Greenwich, which includes Deptford. The first with a population of 33,000 has 68 per cent of poor; the second with 31,000, 65 per cent, whilst there is no similar block in East London which has more than 59 per cent. ….All the greater importance therefore attaches to the preservation of such a fine open space as this, which is only a mile distant from some of the most congested quarters. But Deptford is not the only district which will reap benefit, for the more immediate neighbourhoods of Brockley and Lewisham, although comparatively open at present, must ere long be covered with building to accommodate the ever increasing population of the this mighty London. Moreover, the character of the Hilly Fields gives a wide range to their influence upon the health of the metropolis. It has long been recognised that it is especially important to keep the hilltops round London free from buildings, so that the purity of the air blowing in from the country may thus be preserved….”
The summit of Hilly Fields stands 175 feet above sea level, and the park commands very good views. A local man remembering the park in its early days wrote, “Here promenaded all the smart folk of Brockley and Lewisham and to go home from church without crossing the breezy hill to see the sights and get an appetite for the Sunday joint was quite unheard of!”
The red brick building in the park was the West Kent Grammar School, built in about 1885, which later became part of Brockley County School. Further north, beyond the tennis courts, various buildings and Nissen huts were erected by the Army during WWII. Prefab bungalows were also built along the Adelaide Avenue and Montague boundaries of the park; they were still there in 1960s. The park did suffer some bomb damage during the war.
In 1971 Hilly Fields was transferred from the Greater London Council to the London Borough of Lewisham.
LITERARY REFERENCE TO HILLY FIELDS
Edith Nesbit, a contemporary of Octavia Hill, walked to Hilly Fields in Brockley near New Cross from her home in Elswick Road, Lewisham and referred to the area in “Wings and the Child”. ‘Once there were nightingales that sang in the gardens in Loampit Hill. Now it is all villas. Once the Hilly Fields were hill fields where the children played, and there were primroses.’