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  • Writer's pictureCarol Harris

The Streets Where We Live: Merritt Road

A look at the history of one of Crofton Park's oldest roads.

We’ll start with a bit of proof-reading: the spelling of this road’s name changes during its 150-year history. So don’t be thrown by the variations – it’s not always a mistake. Today, the road sign says, definitively, Merritt. But if you are researching the history of the street yourself, it’s useful to know that it might also be listed as Merrit Road or Merrett Road. We’ll stick with Merritt, as that is the one everyone uses today.

Go back to the 1877 Stanford map, and you will see fields where Merritt Road would soon be. Two years later John William Webb, the man who developed Crofton Park, bought the land as part of a parcel stretching from the south side of the cemetery, bounded by the Brockley Road, and Brockley Grove. Over the next two years, the site was quickly cleared and prepared, and building began. There are variations in detail but most of the houses were built as two or three-bedroom flats or houses.

By the time of the 1881 census, Nos 11 to 15 on the north side, and 2 and 4 to the south were built and occupied. The people living in them were building workers and their families. The only other house in the street at this time was number 17, which was the home of John Ellis, Superintendent of Deptford (now Brockley) Cemetery, and his family.

Ten years later and the 1891 census shows Nos 3-29, 35-39, and 2-22 are occupied. Most of those addresses were homes for two separate families. Each address lists the head of each household, which gives us an interesting snapshot of a rural community undergoing rapid urbanisation: 26 heads of household were building workers, bricklayers, carpenters, labourers, painters, or similar; also living in Merritt Road were three gardeners, an agricultural labourer, a domestic coachman, an estate porter, a horse-keeper, a wheelwright, and a wood turner, as well as the foreman at the cemetery.

A plan from 1892 marks Merritt Road as ‘sewered’. It is an interesting aspect of housing developments at this time that sewers, pavements and streetlighting were often added to streets in the years after the houses were built and occupied. This plan also shows a horticultural nursery stretching from around where Nos 47 and 49 are now, to the end of the road. The nursery contains a pair of buildings, near the site of the present-day Nos 59 and 61, and there are greenhouses around the site of No 55. Possibly some or all of the gardeners shown in the census worked there.

Section of the Booth map showing Merrett (sic) Road, backing on to the cemetery

The Booth survey of November 1899, reports; ‘Merritt Road now "full up"; 2-storey houses. Some of the newer houses are 5-roomed, letting at 9/6d to 11/- [a weekly rent of 45p to 55p!]. Others are built in flats with double fronts and two doors, the alternate doors leading straight up stairs. Rent about 10/- [50p] a flat. All Pink (Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.)’

Around this time the Hay family moved to No 40, from Eddystone Road. Among them was the young William Hay, who would become the 1930s/40s film comedy star Will Hay. Another notable resident was Mr Standen, the cat’s meat man.

The location also appears in a 1903 census of churchgoing in London, carried out by the Daily News, a popular national radical newspaper. Among a wide range of non-conformist churches active in Crofton Park, the smallest local congregation is that of 45 people who meet in a Weslyan Methodist Church in Merritt Road.

Walk along Merritt Road today and you will see three distinct gaps in the otherwise uniform architecture, at Nos. 23 to 29, 67 to 73 and, 86 to 88. All suffered bomb damage in the Second World War. Kath Withersby, who lived at No. 28, wrote; ‘Our grandparents rented the flat circa 1900 and later in the 1920s we took the flat over as a family until the bomb fell outside the front door on October 1st 1940, demolished the houses opposite and damaged No 28 -- too much to live in.

‘Dad found another house to rent at 28 Bexhill Road, where we stayed until the flying bomb hit the Ewhurst Road shops,[and] badly damaged No 28 Bexhill…We decided to move down to Eastbourne and share our aunt’s house. 28 Merritt was eventually repaired and we moved back in 1946.’

The flats on the right as you walk towards the Brockley Road are the most obvious examples of post-war building, filling in the spaces left by war damage. However, most of Merritt Road is as it was in its original form. Some are flats and some are houses; some have a shared front garden, path and front door -- a common theme in Victorian housing locally.

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