History of Northumberland Heath

Northumberland Heath (or North’ Heath as it is sometimes known) is the area at the top of the high ground just to the south-west of Erith along Bexley Road, and was once an extensive tract of heath land. It was developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a residential suburb and shopping centre.

The name has led some people to suppose the district has connections with the county or dukes of Northumberland, but there is no evidence to support this. It has been in use at least since the 13th century, and is almost certainly derived from the Old English word humber (‘river’ or ‘stream’), ‘Northumberland’ meaning simply ‘the land north of the stream’.

The area was part of the old manor of Erith. In 1806 the Lord of the Manor, William Wheatley, allowed the building of a workhouse on estate land at Sussex Road. The 19th-century slang term for a workhouse was a ‘spike’ and this led to the whole district being known as ‘Spike Island’.

The church of St Paul’s was consecrated in November 1901. Originally in the parish of St John’s, Erith, it became a separate parish in November 1905. The Catholic Church has been represented in the area since 1879 but the modern Parish Church of our Lady of the Angels, which stands beside the monastery, was begun only in 1962, and opened in December 1963. Northumberland Heath Baptist Church grew from a mission established in 1887 by Queen Street Baptist Church in Erith. The Church’s first permanent building on the site, dating from 1900, was replaced in 1939 by the present building.

Residential development began in earnest in the 1880s to form a thriving community by the early years of the 20th century. The Brook Street/Bexley Road junction was the terminus for trams from both Erith and Bexley.

Northumberland Heath also had a windmill, built in the early 19th century on land near the middle of the present Mill Road. The mill’s prominent position made it a useful landmark for shipping on the Thames.

In the early years of the 20th century residents included the Meyer family, whose son Leo Meyer founded the building firm Blackwell and Meyer along with Thomas Blackwell. In 1929 Meyer, who also worked for Erith Urban District Council for a while, left Blackwell and set up his own company, New Ideal Homesteads, which is mentioned in relation to development of many of the other areas in the borough and became one of the largest house builders in the London area.

The Northumberland Heath area is today mainly residential, apart from the commercial and retail premises that line the main Bexley Road.

See historic maps of Northumberland Heath