by Brian Green

If the idea of lording it over your neighbours appeals you, then you are in luck. The title of lord of the ancient Manor of Levehurst is up for sale; a snip at £3995 (incl VAT!). Of course, the first question you might ask is; ‘Where is it?

Levehurst manor, which dates from 1290 is bounded by the southerly leg of Croxted Road, which was once called Hall Lane, parts of Norwood Road, Leigham Vale and a line roughly parallel with Canterbury Grove on Knights Hill. You could easily survey most of your terroir from the top of a No 3 or 68 bus.

According to the title deed, the first lord was Pinus Bernardi of Florence, a Citizen of London who in 1309/10 received a grant of free warren (leave to hunt the King’s beasts) in the manor of Levehust. By 1326, our friend Pinus has an oratory at his manor house, which a map in the National Archives dated 1563 appears to show as south-west of St Luke’s church, West Norwood on the slopes of Knights Hill. The title to the lordship of the Manor of Levehurst has not been in use for the past 250 years.

To confuse matters, there are two Knights Hills, the one running south of St Luke’s Church to Crown Point, and the other. bounded roughly by Croxted Road and Thurlow Park Road is mostly covered by allotments and the Peabody Estate (and is partly owned by The Dulwich Estate).

This would be useful knowledge to any future lord of the manor. Such a person would also be pleased to learn of the connection with Dulwich which played landlord to the Knight, sometimes spelled Knyght, family and who gave their name to both local hills. 

You may remember the Knights (as we shall call them). They featured in the pages of the Journal last autumn in an article ‘Who Was Who in Dulwich in 1425’. They were in the wool trade, having large flocks of sheep which they sometimes over-grazed on Dulwich Common. Some were also members of th City’s Worshipful Company of Butchers’. The family’s connection with Dulwich is first recorded in 1389 when John Knight of Camerwelle leased a house and garden in south Dulwich which he had acquired from Nicholas de Strode. The family then began acquiring other land and property locally for the next two centuries.

Over this long period they leased a considerable number of the fields on both sides of Croxted Road, both in Dulwich and in the neighbouring manor of Levehurst and also in Lambeth. These extended southwards including a large field once named Blabbesheth (or Blobbesheth) probably in the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury who also owned a large part of the Great North Wood, hence the name Norwood. The Knight’s field was next to another field named Gillians, today memorialized for us as present-day St Julians Farm Road, on the slopes of the southerly of the two Knights Hills. Their farmhouse was probably Knights Hill Farm, between Lancaster Avenue and Elmcourt Road and later occupied by Lord Thurlow and his mistress Polly Humphries from 1771 for some thirty-five years.

In the middle of the 16th century a couple of incidents involving Henry Knight, his brother John and brother in law Henry Rydon who was married to their sister Elizabeth, provides the evidence that life in and around Dulwich was not always tranquil.

The first incident took place in 1547 when, according to the Star Chamber account Henry Knight was assaulted at his lands at Blobbesheth by four assailants who were armed with hooked bills and other weapons. The assailants were identified as Henry Henley, Richard Heryngman, John Foryng and Thomas Kelly.

In April 1558 Henry Knight’s brother John was involved in some form of financial dealings with a Sir Thomas Newneham which culminated with John Knight being forcibly evicted from Knights Hill Farmhouse, leaving him ‘most shamfully spoylled dispossessed and disinherited of all his substans and welth’. This allegation was denied by Newneham. 

Two months later, on Sunday 12th June 1558, John Knight while hunting in the area with friends decided to take matters into his own hands and entered his old home claiming that he wanted to get back some of his possessions. However, Newneham’s servants, armed with roasting spits, cornered him in the hall. Fearing they were ‘like to have killed him’, a friend passed a bow and arrow through the window. After Knight fired a warning shot, the servants fled, but locked him in for the next three hours.

John Knight’s brother-in-law, Henry Rydon, who was entertaining friends at his house at Battersea received a message of John’s predicament. A party was formed including Henry Knight which immediately set off for Knights Hill. According to the case brought by Newneham, this group numbered twenty-one ‘unrewlie and ryottuus persons… being all well weaponed with bows arrows Bylles staves pykes swords and bucklers and other weapons ‘. entered the house ‘wyth force and armes’ and removed various possessions, including a horse and saddle from the stable.

Knight and his fellow defendants strenuously disputed these allegations as ‘craftily contyved & wrought by froward and subtill invention’, asserting that they approached the house peaceably to negotiate John Knight’s release, and had summoned the constable and a justice of the peace from Camberwell to prevent any mischief being done. Henry Knight, for his part, denied carrying ‘any manner of weapon save only a dagger which he commonly useth to weare in quiet and peaceable manner’. Rydon, it was claimed, had only a billhook. Apparently Newneham’s men agreed to release John Knight and Rydon’s party made their way back to Battersea.* However, Newneham did not let up and the case dragged on in the Star Chamber for a number of further hearings.

After two centuries of intense agricultural activity at least some of the family moved out of farming and into law and Henry Knight’s son Nicholas is described as a lawyer of Thavies Inn, Holborn, now part of Lincoln’s Inn. In 1599 Nicholas Knight surrendered his lands in Dulwich to Edward Duke and Francis Calton for the sum of £400 thus ending the long family connection other than their Knight name, immortalized on Google maps as two distinct hills in South London.

Fast-forward 250 years and the northerly of the two Knight’s Hills, where the Knights grazed their sheep had become part of Lord Thurlow’s large estate and had later been acquired by Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift from Charles Ranken who lived at Belair. It would be an advantageous transaction for soon after the purchase the College was able to sell off some of this land for the building of a new railway line by the London Chatham and South Coast Railway Company. 

This transcription appears in The Wood that Built London pages 41-42 by C J Schueler