How the Rec came to be what it is today

(Grateful thanks to Chris Wells for his research)

The site comprises Chislehurst and Walden Recreation Grounds and Whyte's & Walden Woodland. The name Chislehurst derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'Ciselhyrst', meaning 'wood on the stony hill'.  

The creation of Chislehurst and Walden Recreation Grounds is intriguing. 

The simple story is that the Chislehurst part - the field that now runs between Empress Drive and Walden Road - was given to the Chislehurst Urban District Council in February 1930, by Chislehurst Sports Ground Ltd. In July 1937 the Council gave permission for West Chislehurst FC to establish a pitch on the ‘land at the rear of Walden Manor’. It is unclear how the Council had come by this land, but even so, the following year they renamed it Walden Recreation Ground after Viscount Walden, 9th Marquess of Tweeddale who was born in Edinburgh but came to live in the area.

The final and linking piece – the wooded area today known as Whyte’s Woodland - was donated by way of gift by Agnes Whyte on 7 October 1938 thereby substantially increasing the area available for public recreation. This woodland was once part of the ancient Red Hill Wood but was given a number of names over the years, including Storth Oaks. At some time the Storth Oaks woodland became linked with an C18th house built by Lord Sydney called The Briars in Watts Lane where the Misses Whyte lived in the C20th. In her gift, Miss Whyte stipulated that the woodland was 'to be used for the purposes of Pleasure Walks and Arbours for the benefit of persons residing in the said Urban District or in the neighbourhood and for no other purpose'. A designated part of the woodland was to be preserved as a bird sanctuary, fenced on all sides, with no entrance to the general public.  The bird sanctuary remains in the woods today.

However, the detail behind this story shows that our Rec. was actually some 50 years in the making.

Council records show the idea of an area for public recreation in West Chislehurst was discussed in 1899, but no agreement could be reached on a suitable site. Four years later the Chislehurst Ratepayers’ Association (forerunner to the Chislehurst Society) asked the Council to reconsider. The principle movers for this were Messrs Dobbing and Lund.

The latter went on to become chairman of the Council, but on the matter of a Rec. Dobbing was in the lead. At a special meeting in February 1903 he argued that a Recreation Ground was needed because: i) of the rapid development of Prickend; exemplified by ii) the fact there were now ‘250 boys in the schools’. He then announced that he had purchased 5 acres of land between Green Lane and Red Hill, at a cost of £2,250 - a fair amount for the time - which he was willing to donate to the Council; adding that in addition to sports, he hoped they would establish a ‘drill hall and rifle range’ on the site. Unfortunately, a month later the District Surveyor declared the site unsuitable, principally because of poor drainage - a recurring issue, as we shall see.

The matter was next discussed in June 1912, once again sparked by a suggestion from the Ratepayers’ Association, this time urging the Council to purchase ‘the 12 acres of land abutting on the High Street, which can be obtained from the Executor of the late Owen Edwards at a reasonable price’. This must have been sufficiently persuasive because the Council decided to approach the Ministry of Health for a loan to establish a ‘Public Recreation Ground’ - which can only be read as suggesting loans to Councils for such purpose were generally on offer.

But not, it seems, easily available. Whilst the ‘Department’s Officer’ did not say No, he was certainly not overly-enthusiastic, saying it was likely the Minister would want a public enquiry to assess whether the need for a recreation ground in West Chislehurst was really that pressing. He then added that ‘in his view the possible demand for a recreation ground for Lower Chislehurst should not be overlooked …’ 

The Department’s man is never named; nor do the Council records give any hint as to why Lower Chislehurst might have been considered a more pressing case than West. 

‘Lower’ here refers to what is today part of Sidcup: an area between the A20 and Rectory (formerly Church) Lane, ie straddling Sidcup Hill, bordered to the east by Cray Road and to the north by what today is Footscray Meadows. This is not a densely populated space today, and was far, far less so in the early 20th century. That said, in 1912 one fairly influential person did live there: Robert Marsham-Townshend, the Lord of Chislehurst Manor, resident at Frognal Manor.

It is only speculation that suggests Robert may have had influence over the Minister’s man. But as a story, it is not fanciful: not only would he have had many people working for him on the Frognal and Scadbury estates, he had also recently established Western Motor Works, which would have drawn new people to the area. So, the idea that he would have had an interest in the creation of a new public space for them has credibility. And there is a reference to the Clerk discussing possible sites with Robert’s agents in the Council’s minutes for September 1912.

Yet the Ministry ‘view’ still feels odd. By 1912 there was an established Recreation Ground in Foots Cray. Being sited to the east of Rectory Lane, it actually belonged to the Foots Cray Urban District Council (renamed Sidcup in 1921). But it was a public space, as easily accessed from Lower Chislehurst as Foots Cray village. What’s more, Robert’s correspondence from 1897 suggests he had himself purchased this land with the express intention of creating a recreation ground and rifle range. That said, it was then - and remains - prone to water-logging!

Whatever the facts, the pressure told. Excepting the war years - when concern was for allotments, not leisure parks - the Council looked at various options for Lower Chislehurst, without once reconsidering the position for the West. Finally, in May 1926 they agreed to purchase land on Cray Road. The seller? Hugh Marsham-Townshend, Robert’s son and successor.

Most of what became Lower Chislehurst Rec. remains. Save, these days it is - somewhat confusingly - known as Foots Cray Recreation Ground! The former ground off Rectory Lane today forms part of Footscray Meadows.

Turning back to the question of a Rec. for West Chislehurst, as mentioned, the Chislehurst part came as a donation from Chislehurst Sports Ground Ltd. It is not clear how they got the land. According to a Tithe Map of 1844 the field then belonged to Lord Sydney, Robert Marsham-Townshend’s ancestor as Lord of Chislehurst Manor. Quite when and to whom it was sold on is not clear, although the description given in those Council minutes of 1912 suggest it had by then become part of Owen Edwards’ estate. 

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Whatever the story, just like the plot Mr Dobbing purchased in 1903 on the other side of Red Hill, it was not exactly dry. Indeed, when first offered the site in 1929 the Council made acceptance conditional on drainage work being completed first. Chislehurst Sports Ground Ltd - who were in the process of winding-up - replied they simply could not afford to do so. Then, according to the Council minutes of January 1930, another ‘proposal’ had been made to the company - ie, the land was wanted by a developer.

That was enough. The Council changed its mind and accepted the gift, with a stated intention of using it to provide ‘a playing field for cricket, football or other games, and recreation’. They then set about improving it. During the following years money was spent on levelling, drainage, new changing and storage facilities, the laying of a bowling green and in 1934 - showing an enlightened move towards equality for the time - a netball pitch. The latter agreed following a request from the Headteacher of Prickend Girls’ School.

Still, the perennial problem of drainage was never quite overcome. The Council allowed West Chislehurst FC to relocate up to the ‘land at the rear of Walden Manor’ following a report from the Parks Superintendent that the pitches in the Sports Ground, West Chislehurst (as that part was now called) had not recovered from rains the previous season.

With the decision to name the new part Walden Recreation Ground the Council began a new round of investment; first, to create an area for ‘children’s playground apparatus’. At the same time, in an effort to unite the Sports Ground and Rec. they tried to persuade the owner of the neighbouring parcel of land, Kent County Council, to sell. Kent declined, saying they intended establishing a school on the site - ie, Red Hill. Whether that had some influence over Agnes Whyte we cannot say, but her gift - to ‘the people of Chislehurst’ - of the Woodland did give the Council the linking piece they wanted.

According to the memoire of Ken Speers, a lifelong Chislehurstian, the unified Rec. as we have it today - with the full name of Chislehurst & Walden Recreation Grounds, with Whyte's & Walden Woodland - was not fully established and formally opened until 1948. The pieces had been in place for a decade, but of course the challenge of another war made finding land for food production, gun emplacements and air-raid shelters far more important than sports and recreation.

In the full sweep of history, the journey from that first Council consideration in 1899 to the  unified space of 1948 was not so very long. But try telling that to the boys and girls who grew up in the early 20th century without the fun and play opportunities we today take for granted. Which means we should not take the Rec. for granted at all. Rather, we should cherish and protect it.

Can you identify this picture?

We believe the photograph below may have been taken for VJ Day celebrations in 1946 or for the Festival of Britain or it may be from a May Queen fancy dress event. If anyone can confirm, do please get in touch.  It appears to have been taken in Chislehurst Rec by the tennis courts with houses in Empress Drive behind.

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By 1959 Chislehurst Recreation Ground had been extended by a small area of land in the south-west corner of the site. At one time in the 1960s there was an aviary in the park and in addition to the children's playground there were facilities for cricket, tennis and football. Today it is a largely level area of open space almost entirely surrounded by residential housing. A tarmac path leads between houses in Walden Road to the children’s playground and park. For many years an area of the grass near this entrance was left uncut for most of the year and there are some mature trees here. Tarmac paths surround a central area of mown grass, with seats placed at intervals along the path. Whyte's Woodland to the north is semi-mature woodland through which the Green Chain Way runs to Elmstead Woods. A second entrance to the recreation ground is in Red Hill to the north-east, which leads past the library and tennis courts into the recreation ground.

The history of FC Elmstead in the Rec

(Thanks to David Brown, founder member, for this.)

The inaugural meeting of the Elmstead Football Club was held at 74 The Avenue, Chislehurst, on Monday 13th Oct 1958. Elmstead began life as Elmstead Rovers and changed its name to FC Elmstead in 1964. The first competitive season saw them run one adult side. Within weeks, there were enough players to also form a reserve side. In November 1958 the club joined a local league (Orpington, Bromley & District (OB&D)) by taking over the fixtures of a team that had dropped out. Unfortunately, they also inherited their points total of nil from four games played.  However, the club now had two teams and the rec had a pitch vacancy on alternate Sundays.  The first team joined the Metropolitan Sunday FL and played home games at the rec, while the reserves stayed in the OB&D playing at Walden rec.  The club shared Chislehurst rec for one season with Wolves Athletic, also in the MSFL, until they played their home games at King George's Playing Field, Sidcup.  In the early sixties, the Club was growing quickly and a Junior section Elmstead Colts was added to the adults in 1961. When the club had sole use of Chislehurst, they played both Elmstead sides there, and played the under 18 team, Elmstead Colts, at Walden rec.  

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Earliest group photo taken Oct/Nov 1958 at Walden Rec: Back row L-R: Robin Little, Bert Glasscoo, John White, Chris South, Pat Dunne, Dave Brown, Alec Miller & John Dunne.  Front row L-R: Dave Thorne, Ian Little, Andy Dunne, Tony McCormack, Len Harley & Terry Lowrie

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FC Elmstead Res 1966 taken at Chislehurst Rec with Red Hill school playing fields in the background. Back row L-R: Frank Sharpe, Dave Seare, Alan Priddle, Roger Hosking, Roger Mitchell, Ron Coleman.  Front row L-R: Glenn Wilson, John Simmonds, Dave Brown, Doug Springett & Brian Harris

The local authority in control of Chislehurst rec then was the Chislehurst & Sidcup Urban & District Council.  Permits were obtained from their offices at Sidcup Place, and cost 12/6 per game, the decimal equivalent of 62.5p. This included the use of changing rooms. The football pitches in the Borough were very well planned, and always level.  Only later additions and junior pitches were squeezed onto adjoining sections of grounds that were on sloping ground.

The small dressing room hut that was erected at Walden rec was soon vandalised, and a second one didn't last as long as the first. The metal fixed posts were also completely bent over on one occasion.  The pavilion at Chislehurst has also been subjected to vandalism, as was the adjoining aviary of budgerigars which was destroyed in the mid fifties.  The Elmstead club lost £1,500 worth of markers and tools etc when the small equipment shed was set on fire. 

Football has been played at Chislehurst rec for a century, with the pitch in the same place until the children's swings were moved for the third time, this time very close to one goal.  It has seen some famous players too.  Dennis Studley played there, before playing for Bromley, he was an England amateur international forward.  Pat Welton, goalkeeper, played for Chislehurst before signing for Orient in 1949, where he made over 250 first team appearances.   Colin Foster, played for Elmstead before signing for Orient and then Nottingham Forest, where he was regular centre half for five years.From the very first Colts team, Ivan Farman went on to play for Reading FC.

The history of the tennis club in the Rec

Chislehurst Lawn Tennis Club was formed in 1976 when the courts in Chislehurst Recreation Ground were due to be closed by the local council, and a leasing arrangement was agreed for the continued use of the facilities as a public club.  The clubhouse was built in 1985, and officially opened by Miss Sue Mappin, then captain of the Great Britain national ladies tennis team. The photos below were taken in the late 1980s during a tennis club Finals Day.

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