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One Tree Hill is a high-lying, now wooded, hill that has a long history and connections with significant people and events. It was owned by the Abbots of Bermondsey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it became the property of the monarchy. Although the land was once part of the Great North Wood it was later devoid of trees and used for grazing. By the late 1890s the majority of the hill was owned by a Mr Alfred Stevens. It was named after the Oak of Honor that marked the southern boundary of lands belonging to the Honour of Gloucester in Norman times, and eventually provided the name for the surrounding area. Various unproven stories abound including that it was from here that the Romans viewed the position of Boudicca's army in 61 AD, enabling them to overcome them in battle, and it was also reputedly a lookout for highwaymen, including Dick Turpin. The most famous story is that Queen Elizabeth I rested under an oak at the summit on her way to Lewisham in 1602, which is referred to in various sources, including Daniel Lyson in his 'Environs of London' in 1796, and E Hasted in his 'History of Kent' in 1797. By then the original tree had gone and a new one planted, this second tree later struck by lightning in the 1880s and another was planted nearby. The position of the second tree was marked by a hexagonal seat in 1905, which was dedicated on 22 December of that year and commemorated 'the restitution of this beautiful resort to the public use for ever on 7th August 1905'. The stump of the old tree was 'capped' to form a back to the seat, but only the concrete footings remain today, its demise likely to have been as a result of a bonfire lit on the summit to celebrate the end of WWII in 1945. The third successive specimen planted in 1905 remains, surrounded by iron fencing.
The height of the hill was exploited for both defence and commercial purposes. The East India Company had built a semaphore station on the summit by the end of the C18th so that they could signal that their ships had appeared in the Channel, and there may have been a cottage at the top of the hill for the operator. The hill was used as a beacon point by the Admiralty in the Napoleonic Wars. The summit of the hill marked the parish boundary of Lewisham and Camberwell and a parish marker installed in 1870 remains, although it is partly buried and its inscription obscured. In 1901 boundary changes led to the site being wholly in Camberwell. In 1896 the hill was enclosed by a 6 foot high wooden fence without warning when the adjacent Honor Oak and Forest Hill Golf Club rented the land from Alfred Stevens. However, the hill had long been considered public open space, used as an important short-cut as well as recreational space. In 1897 the Enclosure of Honor Hill Protest Committee was set up, which included a number of local councillors. After various meetings held on Peckham Rye, a mass trespass of c.2,000 people took place on 10 October 1897 when the fence and gate were torn down and the new golf pavilion and greens damaged. The following Sunday a peaceful trespass by 5 members of the non-constitutional group took place but the following day a larger crowd comprising 10,000 reported demonstrators faced 500 police and attempted to repeat this with the new fence and a number of them gained entry, lit fires and stoned the greenkeeper's cottage. The official Protest Committee succeeded in gaining agreement of the Camberwell Vestry and Lewisham Board of Works to discuss the public rights over One Tree Hill. Although public rights of ownership could not be proved, negotiations continued slowly and a ruling was required by the LCC in their General Powers Bill of 1902 to allow for the compulsory purchase of the land as an open space by the relatively new Camberwell Borough Council in 1905.
The major portion was purchased for £6,200, with a further 7 acres 2 rood for £427. The campaign was supported by the Commons Preservation Society, who later assisted with legal advice and made financial contributions towards the purchase of the land. It was opened that year on 7 August, with 8,000 people attending the ceremony. A seat presented by John Nisbet, Honorary Secretary of the Protect Committee and later Chairman of the Roads and Public Gardens Committee of Camberwell Borough Council, was one of 15 presented by 'various local gentlemen'. John Betjeman described One Tree Hill in The Spectator in 1957 as 'the nearest and strangest piece of country surviving in London' with a view that was 'better than that from Parliament Hill'. In 1925-6 a new road was built around the northern base of the slopes to connect Forest Hill Road and Brockley, now known as Brenchley Gardens. Problems with landslips occurred throughout the early C20th into the 1960s, probably as a result of the removal of tons of clay for use in pottery and brick building in the C19th.
Sited on the north east slopes of the hill is the church of St Augustine off Honor Oak Park, built 1872/3 by William Oakley. The site was a gift from a local resident who lived in a nearby villa called Oaklands, and who also donated £700 towards the cost of construction. The tower was completed in 1888, the north vestry added in 1894 and the outer north aisle in 1900; it is fenced off from the public park.
The boundary to the west abuts Camberwell New Cemetery (q.v.). At the summit is the beacon and also an octagonal raised platform from where there are fine views over London to the north and west. This was constructed as mounting for a 2-3 inch naval gun used to counter Zeppelin attacks in WWI but it was replaced by a 'Seat of Peace' after the war by a Mrs Cadbury 'in faith that the things of war shall be transformed to the purposes of peace'; it later became known as 'the bandstand'. The beacon was last used to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 but had also been lit for George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935, when the Boy Scouts, of which he was patron, lit beacons across the country.
A Millennium Grant of £5,000 from LB Southwark in 2000 enabled the tree canopy to be lowered so that the views could be revealed once more. Various paths cross the park, and in 2005 a new path parallel to the north boundary was laid with support of the Friends of One Tree Hill, which had been formed in 1994. Steps lead to the summit of the hill. In 2007 the park was designated a Local Nature Reserve. Along the northern boundary there are remnants of ornamental planting of cherries, and on the slopes are significant specimen trees including wild service tree, Turkey oak, sessile oak and London plane.
W H Blanch, The Parish of Camberwell Facsimile reprint, Stephen Marks for The Camberwell Society, 1976; John Nisbet, 'The Story of the One Tree Hill Agitation' The Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee, Nunhead 1905; Southwark Life, Southwark Council, October 2007, pp16-17, ms; E Hasted, 'The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent,' Volume 1, 1797 p505; Lysonís Environs of London Vol IV pt II Kent London 1796; The Story of the London Boroughs Borrow, 1938, 6th edition [no author or editor traced]; O A Walker, 'A Tour of Camberwell', H H Greaves Ltd, London, 1954; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); John Archer, Bob Britton, Robert Burley, Tony Hare, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Southwark' Ecology Handbook 12, London Ecology Unit, 1989; John Beasley, 'Southwark Remembered' (Tempus Publishing, 2001); 'The London County Council and what it does for London: London Parks and Open Spaces' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1924); Southwark Listed Buildings data; Alan Scott & Barry Nicholson 'Draft Management Plan for One Tree Hill Nature Reserve 2004-2009' for London Conservation Services Ltd, for LB Southwark 2004;
LPGT Volunteer Research by Verena McCaig, 2008