King George III at Sydenham

The following article about King George III in Sydenham, was written by Steve Grindlay and appeared first in the Sydenham Society newsletter, followed by the October 1998 edition of Sydenham Life.

Over two centuries ago, when Sydenham was still a tiny village, the king came to the area to review four battalions of Foot Guards. 

On several occasions a reigning monarch has visited Sydenham (Queen Victoria at Crystal Palace and the present Queen at St. Christopher's Hospice come to mind). However, the Royal visit that probably had the greatest impact took place over two centuries ago. The Times newspaper of 14th June 1792 announced that George III would be reviewing four battalions of Foot Guards on Sydenham Common.

IN 1792 Sydenham was a small village with a scattering of cottages and some large houses strung along what is now Sydenham Road. The Common was bounded, approximately, by Westwood Hill, Sydenham Hill, Eliot Bank, Westwood Park and the railway line between Forest Hill and Sydenham stations. It consisted of undulating hills, streams and valleys sloping down from the ridge of Sydenham Hill, and covered an area nearly twice the size of Blackheath.

A couple of years earlier George had recovered from the first bout of "madness" (the period so graphically portrayed in the film Madness of King George). France was in the midst of revolution, and within eight months of the Review the British were to embark on the first of a series of battles against the French which were not finally resolved until Waterloo. At home, too, there was fear of revolution. The Review on Sydenham Common was therefore intended as a display of military strength and authority.

King George and the Review

On 25th June 1792 The Times carried the following report. It described the Review as "uncommonly well attended, both by the Nobility and Mobility . . . At nine the hill leading to the Common was competed stopped up, and the line of carriages reached as far back as Dulwich."

(This approach ws probably along what is now Lordship Lane and up Sydenham Hill to the junction with Kirkdale.)

"The Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, finally George IV) gained the summit . . . at half past nine. His Royal Highness waited there . . . til ten oclock when the KING, QUEEN, PRINCESSES, and Duke and Duchess of YORK appeared on the farther end of the ground, having taken a by-road to the left, in order to avoid the the crowd . .  The REVIEW commenced."

(This "by-road" (is possibly a track that followed the line of London Road towards the site of Forest Hill Station.)

"About twelve o'clock the marchings, counter-marchings and platoon firing being finished, the QUEEN, PRINCESSES and Duchess of YORK were conducted to a MARQUEE, commanding a full view of the mock fight."

(A later account makes it clear that the marquee was pitched on Peak Hill.)

"His MAJESTY seemed to be very warmly interested, and during the contest walked very nimbly on the brow of the hill, encouraging and commanding the Artillery."

(This paints a poignant picture of the recently "mad" King, and suggests that his health was still a matter of concern.)

"An elegant collection, consisting of fruits and ice, was prepared for her MAJESTY, who now and then gave a good-natured peep at honest Hon and his merry family . . . At three the Royal Family left the ground, amidst the buzz of the people."

For over five hours, King George and the entire Royal Family, together with most of the Court and nobility, their servants and sightseers, watched several thousand soldiers drilling and engaging in mock battles. It is hard to imagine what impact their presence must have had on the few hundred villagers of the time. It has been said that for years afterwards small boys re-enacted the exciting events of that day as they "fought over again the sham fight upon that very spot . . . there was not a furze bush or hawthorn tree that had not been taken by the French only to be retaken by the English."

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