Lee is a largely Victorian suburb that sits astride the Lee High Road as it heads out of Lewisham to the country and, ultimately, Dover and the Continent.
The smaller Victorian streets to the north were swept away and replaced in the 1960s and 70s by more modern developments. But Lee’s Victorian legacy is preserved in the solid yellow London stock brick houses that range from sizeable villas to small terraces set on broad tree-lined avenues and with often surprisingly deep gardens.
The retail and commercial heart of the area is the Lee Green crossroads though lively parades of shops and cafes line the quieter suburban streets. Green space is provided by Manor House Gardens, which is on English Heritage’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest, and the smaller Manor Park.
The area’s older architectural heritage is evidenced by the 17th century Pentland House, the 18th century Manor House, once owned by the Baring banking family and now a library, and the recently restored Boone’s Chapel, a grade I listed gem established in 1683 by Christopher Boone, a prominent London merchant, and his wife, Mary.
The Domesday Book describes Lee as a small area of cultivation set in extensive woodland though the present-day parish covers a much larger area - from Blackheath in the north to Grove Park on its southern boundary. For much of its early history Lee was a scattered settlement comprising three main centres of population. The earliest settlement was around the present site of St Margaret’s Church, the parish Church of Lee, on Lee Terrace. A church has stood on this site for more than 800 years. The present building, dating from 1839-41, is the third.
In the 17th and 18th centuries wealthy city merchants built their large country houses off the main road from Lewisham to Lee Green. This led to a surge of building on Old Road and in Lee New Town, to the north of the high road, to provide homes for the staff who serviced these houses.
The third focus of the village grew up around the crossroads at Lee Green. John Rocque, a noted mapmaker, recorded a cluster of about a dozen houses at the crossroads surrounded by open fields in his map of 1741-45. Convenient road transport into London and the construction of Lee station in open fields to the south in 1866 led to further building – and persuaded the wealthy merchants to abandon their mansions, sell off their estates and move further out into the country.
Lee Green’s position on the main road for horse-drawn coaches and marching armies created a need for rest and refreshment. Wellington’s soldiers passed through in 1815 on their way to victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Two public houses, the Old Tiger’s Head and the New Tiger’s Head, became important features of the crossroads. The Old Tiger’s Head is thought to have begun trading some time before 1730 although the present building, the third inn on the site, was built in 1896. The rapid expansion of 19th century London led to Lee Green, the church, railway station and mansions of the wealthy being absorbed by the Victorian house-building boom.
Present day Lee is a lively neighbourhood marked by a range of residents’ groups dedicated to preserving its charms. The Lee Manor Society takes an overall view of the conservation area, covering many of the streets between the Lee High Road and the railway line. It restored the ice house – an early form of refrigeration – in Manor House Gardens and has contributed to tree-planting and other neighbourhood enhancements. Other residents’ groups are actively improving Manor House Gardens and the approaches to Hither Green station while local artists organise annual open days to show their work.
The Lee Manor Society