Changing Times: 100 years of the Broadway, Bexleyheath 1912 to 2012

The Bexley Historical Society received £31,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an exciting collaborative project working with Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre.

The project celebrated the centenary of the Clock Tower, which was built to commemorate the coronation of George V.

We looked at the history of the Broadway from the time the Clock Tower was built up to the present day, focusing on historical research, oral history and photographs.

The HLF funding allowed us to engage a wide audience by taking the project to local schools, training volunteers and appealing to the public to donate their memories and photographs. An interpretation panel and a commemorative plaque were placed at the foot of the Clock Tower in June 2012, unveiled by the Mayor of Bexley. The public were invited to learn from the project through activities such as talks, guided walks, a website and an exhibition.

We asked anyone who has lived, worked, shopped or otherwise spent time at the Broadway to contribute by writing about their memories or arrange to be interviewed. We also asked people to donate photographs of the Broadway or any documents, for example newspaper cuttings, maps, letters, diaries. We took photographs and listed the premises in the present-day Broadway, creating a complete record of what stands now. Volunteers researched aspects of the Broadway's history using the plentiful resources at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, looking at significant events or at the history of a building or business. This enabled us to piece together the history of the Broadway from the time the Clock Tower was built in July 1912 right up to the celebration of its centenary in July 2012.

By 1912 Bexleyheath was already a thriving community. Just over a century earlier, people had begun to live on the heath, drawn by the expanding fabric printing industry in nearby Crayford.

After enclosure of the heath in 1819 to 1820, when the land was partitioned between the parish's freeholders, houses replaced the shacks. The railway arrived in 1895 and tramways started in 1903, encouraging further development in the area. At the end of the 19th century the population of Bexleyheath was 6000 and in 1931 it had risen to 14,737.

The Broadway has long been a busy shopping area and transport hub. Significant changes include the opening of the Broadway Shopping Centre in 1984, pedestrianisation in 1993, and amidst competition from Bluewater, the building of Broadway Square in 2001.

Today the area is characterised by large-scale buildings of the 1980s and 1990s: the Civic Offices, Bexley Magistrates' Court, Central Library, Marriott Hotel, Police Station, Asda supermarket and several large car parks. Only a few older buildings survive: the Clock Tower, Christ Church, Trinity Chapel, the Kings Arms, the Prince Albert and the Golden Lion. Most of the older buildings have gone, but perhaps you remember them? Market Place, built around 1831, remained next to the Clock Tower until it was destroyed by fire in 1990. The Duke of Edinburgh pub and adjoining terrace of mid-19th century cottages were demolished in the early 1990s. The old Athenaeum formed part of the Bexleyheath Shopping Hall, also demolished in the early 1990s. Oak House (1817) and West Lodge (1820) were used as council offices until the 1980s, when the Civic Offices replaced them.

The Bexleyheath Coronation Memorial Clock Tower, commemorating the coronation of King George V, was formally opened on Bexleyheath Gala Day, 17 July 1912.

Designed by Walter Epps, the Clock Tower was intended to stand "as a memorial to the enterprise and loyalty of the inhabitants of Bexleyheath" and it was thought that the Clock Tower "would be the beginnings of better things to come in Bexleyheath". The clock would certainly be useful for passengers waiting at the tram terminus at the Market Place.

At the opening ceremony a "temporary" bust of King George V was unveiled. The architect, Epps, ended his speech with, "I hope to see all the niches filled with busts of members of the Royal Family".

A bell was installed on 17 June 1913 but in August 1914 the Defence of the Realm Act banned the ringing of bells for fear they might be used by German spies to convey secret messages. The bell did not ring again until the year 2000.

During the 1930s the bust of King George disintegrated and then completely fell apart during cleaning after WWII. It was recast by John Ravera, Bexleyheath resident and a President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, and re-installed in its niche. In 1996 Ravera was commissioned to sculpt a bust of William Morris, who lived at the nearby Red House, and it was unveiled by the Mayor on 18 January 1997.

The north and south niches remain empty to this day. With the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June 2012, it seemed fitting that one of the niches should be filled by a bust of Queen Elizabeth II.

An interpretation panel and commemorative plaque were installed at the Bexleyheath Coronation Memorial Clock Tower in June 2012.

The interpretation panel allows passers-by to learn the history of the Market Place area and the story of how and why the Clock Tower was built in 1912. It includes engravings of the Clock Tower and the Market Place building and Congregational Church which formerly stood there.

The plaque commemorates the centenary of the Clock Tower which was the focus of the Bexley Historical Society's Changing Times project. It was unveiled on 4 June 2012 by the Mayor of Bexley, Cllr Alan Downing, as part of the borough's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Photographs are available for everyone to see at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre.

We would also like to see any old photographs of the Broadway that you may have in your album.

Parlophone originally recorded a number of organ pieces by Robinson Cleaver and others. They were re-released on Past CD 9722 by Pavilion Records Ltd entitled Cinema Organ Volume 1. On this, Cleaver's recordings include those made at the Bexleyheath Regal Cinema in 1937:

  1. Medley: Boo-hoo; Little Old Lady of Poverty Street; Red, White and Blue (July 1937)
  2. Medley: Polly; Dinah; Nola (August 1937)

The Bexleyheath Coronation Memorial Clock Tower was formally opened on Bexleyheath Gala Day, 17 July 1912. The whole event, including the gala at Danson Park, was filmed by Harry Pease of the Picture Palace at the Public Hall on May Place Road. The films were shown at the Pictures on the following weekend. The Clock Tower, Bexleyheath 1912 is hosted on London's Screen Archives YouTube channel.

Poetry is a unique way of describing the changes which have occurred in the Broadway, Bexleyheath.

Tricia Dyer expressed her memories in a poem, How times change (PDF, 112KB).

Arthur Boswell (1880 to 1966) was a photography enthusiast and toured the borough giving talks and lantern slide shows. His poem, What a change (PDF, 133KB) is about the changes that happened to Bexleyheath during his lifetime.

The Broadway Bexleyheath Heritage Trail (PDF, 2MB) gives twelve points of historical interest along the Broadway.

The points include landmarks and sites which have played their part in the Broadway's history.

The leaflet is also available in Bexley libraries.

An education resource booklet has been produced which brings together visual and documentary material from Bexley's local studies and archive collections.

The booklet charts the changes to the Broadway, Bexleyheath in the hundred years before the Clock Tower was built, from 1812 to 1912. The cross curricular activities contained in this booklet are designed to engage children in key stage two with the fascinating history of the Broadway, Bexleyheath.