It is believed that Kenley Common was cleared of forest in prehistoric times to be cultivated for crops and later for grazing. In medieval times Kenley Common and Riddlesdown (q.v.) formed part of the waste land of the Manor of Watendone. The Lord of the Manor did not have exclusive use of this commonland, the Statute of Merton having guaranteed the rights of commoners in 1235 to the products of the soil, pasture for livestock, and gathering material for fuel, livestock bedding and roofing. However when the value of the land increased following the coming of the railway in the C19th, the then Lord of the Manor of Coulsdon, Edmund Byron, began enclosing land and appropriated some 150 acres at Hartley Down. One neighbouring landowner, William Hall, refused to sell to Byron and eventually approached the Corporation of London with an offer to sell his land and commoners rights in the hopes that the Corporation would protect the land from further encroachment as it had done in Epping.
As a result the Corporation negotiated with Byron for ownership of Kenley Common and in 1883 purchased 347 acres, which excluded the commonland already enclosed and sold to others. The acquisition of both Riddlesdown and Kenley Common ‘for public recreation and enjoyment’ and ‘to preserve the natural aspect’ was enabled under the powers of the Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act 1878. In 1883 Kenley Common consisted of 70 acres, surrounded by land owned by George Cutt of Welcomes Farm and John Young who owned Kenley House (q.v.), both of whom had appropriated areas of the common. In the late C19th the common was used for grazing sheep by various landowners with or without grazing rights; the Common Keeper impounded sheep whose owners were without grazing rights. In 1891 an area was turned into a golf course, recalled in the name of Golf Road.
Land at the centre of the Common was taken for Kenley Airfield (q.v.) during WWI under the Defence of the Realm Act and bylaws eventually restricted access by the public. After the war the land was not handed back and the airfield was upgraded for the new Royal Air Force. In return for the appropriation of 51 acres of commonland, the Corporation of London was given 61 acres of farmland to the east overlooking Whyteleafe; this land was adapted for public use in 1923-5, paid for by the Air Ministry and became part of the public open space in 1925 when it was officially handed over. Under the Air Ministry (Kenley Common Acquisition) Act 1922 no building was allowed on former commonland, which was to revert to the Corporation if no longer needed for military purposes; the airfield would not be used for civil aircraft and would be opened on public holidays. The Corporation of London still has the option to purchase the land back at the market value for agricultural land when the airfield is no longer required for military purposes. In 1924 the airfield was upgraded and further land acquisition took place in 1928. Extensive rebuilding took place in 1932-34.
Since its original acquisition in 1883 the shape and extent of Kenley Common has almost doubled in size as a result of Governmental compulsory purchase and land acquisitions/re-acquisitions. Some features of the historic commonland survive in the form of boundaries and old trees. Traditional haymaking, hedge-laying and cattle and sheep grazing still take place here.