Chislehurst is an Anglo Saxon descriptive place name, a reference to its appearance, not to a founder. The first element, Chisel or Chesil, indicates a stony or gravelly place; the second element, hurst, indicates woodland. So Chislehurst literally means a stony wood, and this can still be confirmed by taking a walk across the common and amongst the trees, with eyes focused on the ground. The stones are geologically the Blackheath beds, forming a free-draining but rather poor soil. They are widespread in this area of Kent; Hayes Common comes to mind as another example. The original parish was very large, and included in its north-east quarter a substantial portion of what is now Sidcup, and to the south a similarly large part of the urban area now known as Petts Wood.
It is important to realise that although Chislehurst and Scadbury are Anglo Saxon descriptive names they do not necessarily indicate Anglo Saxon settlement at that time before the Norman Conquest. They describe the land as seen from outside, respectively a stony wood and a shady hill. It should be emphasised that it is not all dry stony soil; there are, as we shall see, small watery and more fertile areas suitable for early settlements. Overall it is fundamentally within an area of ancient occupation. The Cray valley settlement began very early, and archaeology has revealed some Palaeolithic traces and occupation from the Neolithic and Iron ages onwards. The website of ODAS, Orpington District Archaeological Society, is worth exploring for details. Within the Chislehurst area there is some slender evidence of possible Roman or Romano-British use of the chalk, based on the discovery in 1857 (reported in Webb’s History of Chislehurst, and in Archaeologia Cantiana) of an ancient chalk pit next to the old quarry at the bottom end of Lubbock Road. Bromley, Mottingham and Eltham were all established before Chislehurst was fully settled. In those days land belonged to the king, and he gave much of it to the church.
We first hear of Chislehurst as a place on the boundary of land in Bromley given by the king to St Andrew’s Priory, Rochester. At that time it is likely that most of what later became Chislehurst parish was entirely rural, typically woodland, with some open spaces, part of the king’s hunting ground and thinly populated. Historical records indicate that Chislehurst was at that time part of the Royal Manor of Dartford. This probably explains why Chislehurst does not appear in William of Normandy’s Domesday Book survey of his lands and other property in 1086. Chislehurst church is first mentioned in 1089 as part of a gift of several churches to the monks at St Andrew’s Priory, by which time it is supposed that there was some settlement in the area.
Any settlements would have been adjacent to water supplies. The woodland, which was of great value as timber for building and for fuel, and pannage for pigs, was probably in the care of a bailiff working on behalf of Dartford manor, and some of this woodland might well have been the present day Petts Wood, adjacent to the Kyd Brook. It is a wet area. In autumn the woodland floor here is smothered in acorns and beechmast, traditional food for pigs. It is very likely that there were a few scattered farms or hamlets on the more fertile soils within and surrounding the widespread dry stony Blackheath beds, which remained as waste or common ground. Tong Farm within the Kyd Brook valley (now the National Trust Hawkwood estate), could be a very early settlement site, and also, farther upstream, the area now occupied by the Petts Wood town area, a very watery district in medieval times, where the ancient moated Manor of Town Court once flourished. Farther north we have the Kemnal Road area, as a likely precursor of the later Kemnal Manor, where a small stream still flows north towards Sidcup. The area where Frognal was to develop is another good site. This important settlement was founded on the ‘spring line’ where the stony Blackheath beds terminate over the underlying clay, and springs of fresh water can flow; note that Frognal Avenue becomes ‘Watery Lane’ farther down towards Foots Cray. Scadbury and Town Court were also on the same spring line. Factors determining population growth are many and varied, but the valuable woodland, its manorial status and its probable resident bailiff, the arrival of the church and ultimately the advent of a resident lord at Scadbury, have all to be taken into consideration.
The position of the church is significant. It stands on the highest part of the Common, about 300 feet (100 metres) above sea level, near the junction of the main roads that ran from Eltham to the Cray Valley and Bromley to Bexley. The dedication of the church to St Nicholas, a patron saint of travellers, may be significant. With the advent of the church came the parish, an Anglo Saxon method of ensuring fair division of the land and its produce for the benefit of the church. This in its turn would have led to further settlement, so that by the thirteenth century, when population levels were generally rising, there was a thriving community and Chislehurst village within its parish became established, with a resident Lord of the Manor at Scadbury. Kemnal Manor was also occupied by this time. It must be reiterated that much of the foregoing is speculation, based upon the general trends of population growth in southern England at that time.