Friday 8 November 2019

Blackheath Hill - Steers family

 Blackheath Hill - Steers family

The Steer family can be held personally accountable for the hole in Blackheath Hill. William Steer was fined several times for his part in causing the hole - a total of £95! This was probably a great deal of money in 1666.  

The Blackheath Hill area was already being mined by the Steers, who were lime- workers when the Great Fire of London destroyed the City. This was the nearest area of chalk to the City and despite its poor quality, the chalk, processed into lime and used for mortar and building foundations, was in great demand. Sir Christopher Wren, how ever, refused to use it in his building works, which may explain the durability of his buildings when so little else from the time exists.

The mine workings must have been extensive because the family were still mining it in 1677 with their lime kilns situated on Greenwich South Street, formerly known as Limekiln Lane, when they fell foul of the law and William Steers was given his initial fine for  “filling up, supporting and making good, safe and secure the King’s Highway there against his lime kilns leading from Deptford to Blackheath which said highway he hath undermined by digging, taking and carrying from thence great quantities of chalk, whereby the said common highway is become very unsafe, and very dangerous for all the King's

Liege and over the said highway". He was fined again for the same offence and £5 for not putting up a fence against his Lime Kilns. Mining ceased around 1725 and the entrance in Maidenstone Hill was blocked up. By 1780 the mines were opened once again, and became the Blackheath Caves - a tourist attraction. A guided tour cost 6d. The main cavern was used for concerts and dances, and was a very fashionable venue to be seen at, but by the 1850s it was once again considered dangerous, and sealed.
And so to the question of "Can it happen in Westcombe Park?" - Frances Ward says no - Westcombe Park is built on the Blackheath pebble beds, while the area of Blackheath Hill is built on a remote out- crop of chalk. Our area was "open-mined" for its gravel and while small subsidences may occasionally occur, no caves exist beneath us. Engineers have recently researched the archives in the Local History Library relating to the caves to ascertain its extent. It seems eventually they will all be filled in, thus ending more than 300 years of existence.

Rachel Smith

this article dates from May 2002

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