Thursday, 26 May 2011

Pulhamite in Sydenham

In 2008 English Heritage published a guide to the work of Pulham & Co, who created artificial garden landscapes including grottos, temples and follys. The company developed cement that bore a striking resemblance to natural stone and called it Pulhamite.

Pulhams produced a prospectus in 1877 listing the gardens they had worked on up to that date including six in Sydenham and two in Forest Hill. Most of these gardens can be identified, and one or two Pulhamie structures have survived. In each case the site name, completion date and client is given. With the name of the client it is relatively easy to identify where these grottos and follys were built.

“Hill Wood, Sydenham Hill; 1863, 1866; Alderman Stone”
This is the folly in Sydenham Hill Woods. Alderman David Henry Stone, one time Lord Mayor of London, lived at Fairwood, 53 Sydenham Hill from 1864 (when the house was built) until about 1869. Fairwood was immediately to the south of Beechgrove.

“(Site in) Sydenham Hill, SE26 (may be Kingswood House?),London; 1870; L Clark”
This was not Kingswood, it was actually Beechmount, later Hitherwood, 19 Sydenham Hill near the lane that goes past the old reservoir to College Road (?Rock Hills). It was occupied by Latimer Clark, a civil engineer, between about 1864 and 1882.

“(Site in) Sydenham Hill, London SE26; 1874, 1875; Dr Barry”
This is the surviving Fountain House, 17 Sydenham Hill which still has an extraordinary fountain surviving the back garden. "Dr Barry" was Dr John Boyle Barry, a surgeon who lived at the house between 1871 and 1879.

“(Site in) Sydenham, London SE26; 1869; H Gover”
This was the surviving Lyncombe, 1 Crescent Wood Road, occupied by Henry Gover, a solicitor, from before 1871 until 1895. There is something that might be the remains of a folly visible from the path to Sydenham Hill station.

“(Site in) Sydenham, London SE26; 1869; W J Mace”
This was somewhere on the Lawrie Park estate,but I'm not sure where.

“(Site in) Sydenham Hill, London SE26; 1869; F Peek”
Francis Peek lived at 21 Sydenham Hill until 1869 then moved to 7 Crescent Wood Road so I suppose it could be either of those.

“(Site in) Forest Hill, London SE23; 1865; J Fielding”
This was The Grange, Honor Oak Road (between Benson and Ewelme Roads) where John Crossley Fielding lived between 1854 and 1878. He also used Owen Jones to decorate his drawing room.

“(Site in) Forest Hill, London SE23; 1869; H Moser”
Henry Moser lived at Westwood Lodge, 70 Honor Oak Road, from about 1862 until 1872. The site is now occupied by a block of flats.

History of Beechgrove, Sydenham Hill

Beechgrove was near Cox's Walk, opposite Lammas Green. A stretch of garden wall along Sydenham Hill survives. The house was built about 1862. The first occupant, William Patterson, was an East India merchant and he called his new house “Singapore”. After a couple of years he decided “Beechgrove” was more appropriate. Patterson lived there until his death in 1898.

The next two occupants have entries in the Dictionary of National Biography. By 1911 Samuel Herbert Benson had moved from London Road, Forest Hill to Beechgrove. Benson had been invited by John Lawson Johnston (another local person) to become the advertising agent for Bovril. He is regarded as the originator of modern advertising campaigns by using advertisements to engage potential buyers rather than merely informing them. His company was eventually absorbed by Ogilvy & Mather who were, allegedly, the inspiration for the advertising agency in the television series “Mad Men”.

Benson was followed at Beechgrove by Sir William Watson Cheyne who lived there from 1919 to 1921, a distinguished surgeon who was assistant to Joseph Lister and, later, President of the Royal College of Surgeons. During his time at Beechgrove he also served as an MP.

In 1922 Frederick Aubrey Norris moved into Beechgrove. He was an engineer whose firm, F A Norris & Co, made iron staircases, particularly fire escapes. In 1930 Norris moved to Eliot Lodge, Kirkdale and Miss Rose Ellis moved into Beechgrove. She had moved out by 1932 when Lionel Logue and his family moved in. In time Logue’s children left home, his wife died, the house became too large and expensive to maintain and, in April 1947, Logue moved to a flat in Knightsbridge.

The house seems to have been unoccupied until, on 17 June 1952, it opened as Beechgrove Home for the Aged Sick, run by the Red Cross to provide nursing care for patients who had been discharged from hospital but still needed medical care. When the Home closed in 1960 the house remained unoccupied again until it was demolished in 1983.

Several sources suggest that the folly in Sydenham Hill Woods was once in the grounds of Beechgrove. This was not the case. It was in the grounds of Fairwood, the house immediately to the south of Beechgrove. Fairwood was built in about 1862 and the first occupant was Alderman David Henry Stone, Lord Mayor of London. Shortly after moving to Fairwood he commissioned James Pulham & Son to build the folly. Pulhamite garden ornaments are now highly regarded and a number have been listed by English Heritage. There are at least two other surviving examples hidden away in gardens along Sydenham Hill.

Beechgrove now is little more than an overgrown pile of rubble although a section of the garden wall survives to its full height along the boundary with Fairwood and remains of the greenhouses can be seen along the boundary with Lapsewood to the north.

Sydenham & The King’s Speech

At the Academy Awards this year (2011) “The King’s Speech” won four Oscars including best film, and best leading actor for Colin Firth as George VI. The film tells the story of how speech therapist Lionel Logue helped Prince Albert, later George VI, overcome a speech defect that made public speaking difficult and embarrassing. A book, “The King’s Speech: how one man saved the British Monarchy”* has also recently been published. The man who saved the monarchy was Lionel Logue, and he lived on Sydenham Hill.

Logue was an Australian, born in Adelaide in 1880. He and his wife Myrtle paid a brief visit to England in about 1910, leaving their youngest son, Laurie Paris Logue, in the care of Myrtle’s mother. The trip was partly funded by Lionel’s uncle Paris Nesbit, a cousin of Edith Nesbit author of “The Railway Children”. While in England Lionel and Myrtle visited Edit at Well Hall, Eltham (she had previously lived in Lewisham and Grove Park).

In 1924 Lionel and his family came to live permanently in England. Shortly after they arrived Lionel leased a consulting room in Harley Street and set up in practice as a speech therapist. Apparently he charged higher fees for his wealthy patients to subsidise the poorer ones.

Lionel, Myrtle and their three sons moved to Beechgrove, 111 Sydenham Hill in 1932. The house was large and imposing; when it was put up for auction in 1921 it was described as having “10 bed and dressing rooms, two bath rooms, four reception rooms, electric light, ‘phone, 4½ acres with tennis lawn, woodland etc”. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1941 Lionel said the house "had 25 rooms and 5 bathrooms”. The house was clearly extended during the inter-war years.

According to Myrtle, the house became “a calling point” for visiting Australians, and Australian servicemen were billeted there during the war. One recalls: “…three of us went to a doctor and Mrs Logue. She was a wonderful lady and he was a wonderful person... a speech therapist helping the King. He was quite a fellow. They lived down at Sydenham and we hopped in the tram… spent quite a few nights with them… that was when we first heard the air raid sirens go and hustled down into the basement of the house to wait till the all clear”. Logue served as an air raid warden during the war.

Although there was an oft repeated rumour that George VI visited a house on Sydenham Hill for speech therapy it seemed unlikely that a reigning monarch would deign to travel to south London for such purposes. However, from their first meeting Logue insisted that any treatment would only work if he and the future king met on equal terms. This meant that all sessions would take place either in Logue’s consulting rooms or his home. Although Lionel was highly discrete about his dealings with George VI, Myrtle was less so and on one occasion she told an interviewer that “His Majesty frequently comes to our house [in Sydenham] – he is so charming”.

During the war Beechgrove, like so many other houses, was proving difficult to maintain. Lionel wrote: “Beechgrove has been terribly hard to keep going as there is no labour”. They had to get a sheep to keep the lawn under control.

Myrtle died on 22nd June 1945. Lionel lived at Beechgrove for a further two years but the house was too large and held too many memories. He sold the Beechgrove in April 1947 and moved to a flat in Knightsbridge. He died on 12th April 1953.

Sydenham’s links with “The King’s Speech” do not end there; Michael Gambon (George V) lived in Sunderland Road during the 1970s and Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill) still lives in this area.

*“The King's Speech” by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (Quercus, 2011)

Saturday, 21 August 2010

August Manns, Musical Director of the Crystal Palace


From 1855 to 1901 August Manns was musical director of the Crystal Palace. During this time he made two very significant contributions to English music. The Dictionary of National Biography says that he was “unrivalled in England as an orchestral conductor” and an article in The Musical Times (1st March 1898) elaborates on this:

The orchestral conductor plays an important part in modern musical life… but it should not be forgotten that the permanent introduction into England of even the baton itself, as a time-beating stick, is within living memory. When Spohr temporarily used it in 1820, the gentlemen of the orchestra revolted [the author said “mis-conducted” themselves]. It was not until 1832 that conductors began to use the baton… It might be supposed that the modern orchestral conductor [in England] began with Hans Richter when he conducted his first orchestral concert in 1879. But for nearly a quarter of a century previously there had been working at the Crystal Palace a conductor who has had a great influence upon orchestral music in England. For more than forty-two years Mr Manns has zealously discharged his conducting duties with singular ability.
This article credits Manns with establishing the role of the "orchestral conductor" in English music.

Manns other major contribution was to introduce the works of Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Schubert, Sir Arthur Sullivan and many others to sometimes sceptical English audiences.

On 10th June 1854 Queen Victoria opened the rebuilt Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill. Earlier that year Henry Schallehn, a German ex-military bandmaster, was appointed Musical Director and charged with forming a brass band to entertain visitors to the Crystal Palace. On 1st May 1854 Schallehn appointed August Manns as assistant-conductor and clarinettist. The band, with Manns playing clarinet, gave its first public performance at the opening ceremony in front of the Queen.

The next major event at the Palace was a Grand Fete, to raise money to aid the widows and orphans of the troops fighting in the Crimea. Schallehn wanted something special for the orchestra to play, and asked Manns to compose it. Manns was happy to do this and devoted much time and effort to it. When shown the proofs Manns realised that not only did Schallehn claim that he composed the music he but also received £50 for it. Manns challenged this. He didn’t mind Schallehn being credited but surely, as the actual composer, he should have received some payment. Manns also pointed out that while Schallehn was paid £600 a year, he only received £156. Schallehn claimed he was the “proprietor” of anything that his assistant might compose and that attaching “Schallehn” to a piece of music would sell it better than “Manns”. He offered Manns £1 for his efforts; Manns refused this, and was dismissed.

Matters did not rest there. Manns wrote to The Musical World, appealing to the English for justice, “which I am denied by a countryman of my own”. The editor of the periodical vigorously took up Manns’ cause, claiming that “every Englishman will burn with indignation at such an injustice” and demanding that Manns be reinstated and Schallehn dismissed. Within a year that is what happened. Largely through the influence of the Secretary of the Crystal Palace, Sir George Grove, Schallehn was dismissed and on 14th October 1855 Manns was appointed conductor and musical director.

August Manns grew up in a family that cared about music. He was born on 12th March 1825 in Stolzenburg, Pomerania, Prussia. Stolzenburg is now Biskupia Górka, part of the city of Gdańsk, on the Baltic coast of Poland. August was the fifth of ten children of Gottfried Manns, foreman at a local glass factory. When Gottfried returned from work he would take his fiddle from the wall and “make music to his children”. His children, self-taught, would join in with violoncello, horn and flute.

Manns married for the first time in 1850. We know little about his life at this time and less about his wife, although he told a friend that within a year she died “in great pain in bitterly cold weather”.

On 30th July 1857 August married a second time, to Sarah Ann Williams. The wedding took place in St Pancras Old Church. While Manns’ address was given simply as “St Pancras”, Sarah’s father (Frederick, a tobacco broker) was living at Norwood. Soon after their marriage August and Sarah moved to 12 Eden Villas (now 135 Knights Hill), West Norwood where their only child, Augusta Kate Frederica, was born on 18th October 1858.

August and his family moved several times, mostly keeping close to the Crystal Palace. By 1864 they were at Athol Lodge, 174 Kirkdale, Sydenham. They were still there in March 1871 but, according to one source, in 1872 they were living in Balham High Road, near the station. Apparently, even then, this was “an inconvenient train service” to the Crystal Palace. By 1880 the family were at Larkbeare, 4 Dulwich Wood Park, where they stayed until about 1889.
After a brief sojourn at 56 Central Hill in 1891 August and his family finally settled at Gleadale, 4 Harold Road, Upper Norwood. It was here that August was widowed for the second time, when Sarah died on 7th January 1893.

On 7th January 1897, the 4th anniversary of Sarah’s death, August married Katherine Emily Wilhemina Thellusson, great-grand daughter of the 1st Baron Rendlesham.
In 1903, August was both knighted and made an honorary Doctor of Music in recognition of his service to music.

In Summer 1906, in failing health, Sir August and Lady Manns made a final move to White Lodge, Biggin Hill at the junction with Beulah Hill. It was here, on 1st March 1907, that Sir August Manns died. He was buried in West Norwood cemetery on 6th March. Lady Manns continued living at White Lodge until her own death on 25th February 1921.

Two years after Manns’ death the first biography appeared, written by a personal friend and music writer. The author ended by saying that in England Manns was survived by a nephew, son of his youngest brother Otto, and a grandchild so “his stock was not likely to die out soon” in this country. The grandchild, Louisa Bonten, died unmarried in Hastings in 1984 while the nephew had one child, a son called Frederick, who died aged 15 when he fell under a passing train. Sadly, August’s “stock” does not seem to have survived in England.

Yet we do have a tangible link with August Manns, apart from his musical legacy, as two of the houses he lived in still survive: 12 Eden Villas, 135 Knights Hill where he lived from 1858 until about 1861 and Athol Lodge, 174 Kirkdale, Sydenham, his home from about 1864 until 1871.

Manns’ house in Kirkdale was a short distance from St Bartholomew’s church. His close friend and staunch supporter, Sir George Grove, spent his early years in Sydenham even closer to the church. From 1862 he was at 14 Westwood Hill (actually next to the church until the Shackletons’ house was built between them in the early 1870s) until he moved to Lower Sydenham in 1860. Although there is no evidence that Manns was involved with the church Grove certainly attended regularly and was a close friend of several of the vicars and curates. The occasion when, in 1875, Dean Stanley came to St Bartholomew’s to preach gave Grove one of his most cherished moments at the church.

In 1893 Dr Frederick Shinn, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Music, was appointed organist and choirmaster of St Bartholomew’s, a post he held until just before his death in 1950. Shortly after this appointment Dr Shinn was invited to work closely with August Manns to produce two booklets: A Catalogue of the Principal Instrumental and Choral Works Performed at the Saturday Concerts (1855-1895) and Forty seasons of Saturday concerts at the Crystal palace: a retrospect and an appeal (Crystal Palace company, 1896). There is a memorial to Dr Shinn near the organ in St Bartholomew’s.

In a speech to celebrate Manns’ 70th birthday in 1895 Sir George Grove paid tribute to his close friend and colleague:
We have to express our gratitude for your efforts at the head of the Crystal Palace orchestra by which the works of many of the great composers have been introduced to England, in a manner well worthy of the fame of those great men. No Englishman could have given more encouragement to our native school than you have given by your cordial behaviour to our composers and performers, by the extraordinary pains you have bestowed upon their works, and the careful and brilliant performances by which you have introduced them to the public. As your first friend in this country, I may be permitted to acknowledge the honour and gratification which I have felt at working by your side for many years, and the pleasure which our uninterrupted friendship has given me.
No eulogy could be more fitting for this man who had such an influence on the development music in England.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Who was Janusz Korczak?


Amongst the reasons given by English Heritage for making Louise House, Dartmouth Road a Grade II listed building was the “decisive impression” it made on Janusz Korczak when he visited in 1911. Korczak is little known in this country and it seemed worth finding out about him.

Born Henryk Goldszmit in Warsaw in 1877 he took “Janusz Korczak” as a pen-name when he began writing in his early 20s. He studied medicine, became a paediatrician, a teacher and then worked in an orphanage, where he began developing his ideas about working with children.

In the Autumn of 1911 Korczak visited London. Political unrest in Warsaw, with rising anti-Semitism, left him uncertain about his future, feeling that his life was “unordered, lonely and alien” and he hoped his visit would relieve this depression. While in London he came to Forest Hill. It seems highly likely that he already knew about the two industrial homes established here in the mid-1870s and he came specifically see how they cared for destitute and orphaned children. Louise House and Shaftesbury House (in Perry Rise and demolished a few years ago) were founded on principles similar to those Korczak was developing; giving respect, care and support to needy children.

The founders of the industrial homes believed that children thrived best in a secure and supportive family environment. Because of unemployment, sickness or death som
e families were unable to provide this support and the industrial homes attempted to offer their children something approaching a family life, away from their home environment. They also offered a basic education and taught skills that would allow the children to find employment.

His visit to the industrial homes made a deep impression on Korczak. In a series of brief notes he described his visit. There were two houses, similar in style (they were designed by the same architect). In each house there were 30 children. The girls had a laundry, and were also taught sewing and embroidery. They walked each day to the local school (Kelvin Grove). Korczak also mentions an aquarium and rabbits, guinea pigs and pigeons kept as pets “like a miniature zoo”. There was also a kitchen garden, where the children could grow food, and a small museum.

In a letter written many years later Korczak described how affected he was by this visit and added: “I remember the moment when I decided not to have my own family. It was in a park near London…” He decided that rather than having children of his own he would “serve all children”.

Thus inspired, Korczak returned to Warsaw to develop his own orphanage along similar lines to those he saw at Louise House. In one of his books he wrote: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously. They have a right to be treated by adults with tenderness and respect, as equals. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be.”

Korczak believed that children had rights and his proposals were eventually incorporated into the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rules in his orphanage were discussed and agreed by the children, who also imposed sanctions on those who broke the rules. The children were also encouraged to write their own newspaper which was published as a supplement with the Warsaw daily newspaper.

His orphanage thrived, his enlightened ideas influencing teachers across the world, until 1 September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was created, a small area of the city to which Jewish people were confined. Korczak was told that he would have to move his children and staff to premises within the ghetto. Korczak was given many opportunities to leave, but each time he refused saying he would not abandon his children.

On the morning of 6 August 1942 German soldiers ordered the occupants of the orphanage to line up in the street. Korczak made sure his children were dressed in their best clothes and carried a favourite toy. The orphanage staff and 192 children were then herded through the streets of Warsaw towards the railway station, with Korczak at their head. During that fateful walk Korczak was again given the opportunity to escape, and again refused. Eye-witnesses said that his only concern was to comfort, reassure and support his children. The group was forced onto a train bound for Treblinka extermination camp. That is the last that was heard of them.

By an extraordin
ary coincidence Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another anti-Nazi who also chose death rather than betray his principles, had strong links with Forest Hill. There is a plaque on the house in Manor Mount where he lived for 18 months before returning to Germany to oppose Nazism. He is commemorated as a “protestant martyr” with a statue above the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Janusz Korczak is also revered as a martyr.

To have two such courageous and principled people, who died for their beliefs, so strongly associated with our area is a rare privilege, and something we should cherish and celebrate.

President Obama at a Korczak memorial
ceremony in Janusz Korczak Square, Jerusalem.
Behind him is the statue
“Janusz Korczak and the Children”.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The World of Herbert Brush

In 1937 two men, a journalist and a film-maker, wrote to the New Statesman outlining their plans for a scientific survey of the everyday lives of ordinary people. They proposed that volunteers should keep diaries, recording their daily lives. The project, which became known as “Mass Observation”, was based at Grotes Building, Blackheath. By 1939 some 500 volunteers countrywide had agreed to keep diaries which were sent each month to Mass Observation. Although some wondered whether anybody was bothering to read them most continued writing their diaries throughout the war, and a few continued until the early 1960s.

The diaries offer a unique insight into the lives of ordinary people during this turbulent period. A few years ago a selection of post-war extracts from these diaries was published*. One of the diarists was “Herbert Brush” from Sydenham, a “retired electricity board inspector”. He began writing his diary in September 1940 and continued until March 1951.

“Herbert Brush” was a pseudonym, but the writer left sufficient clues in the diary to identify him. He was, in fact, Reginald Charles Harpur, aged 73 in 1945. He lived at 25 Kirkdale, on the junction with Thorpewood Avenue, from 1939 until his death in 1959. He shared the house with Winifred Gunton (“W” in the diaries and owner of the house), Dorothy Woods (“D”), and a cat. The relationship between the three members of the household is not clear.
View down Kirkdale with Reginald's house just visible behind the long fence.

Reginald spent much time tending his allotment, round the corner in Baxter Field. He was not averse to experimenting: “I have planted out a row of ‘celeriac’ this afternoon. This is the first time I have attempted ‘celeriac’, and I don’t even know what it looks like”. He was disappointed with the results.

Reginald regularly entered a borough-wide competition for the best kept allotment. In 1946 he was dismayed that he was not even given a certificate. The following year he writes: “I have again put my name down as an entrant to the allotment competition though I nearly made up my mind to give it a miss this year, as I was not at all satisfied with the judging last year and suspect that the Labour Council… was responsible.” Reginald was, in his own words, “a Conservative Nationalist” and distrusted both the Labour council and government.

Gerald was regularly stopped by “Old Ing” on his way to the allotment. William Ing was a retired policeman who lived in Lynton Cottage, Mount Gardens. He liked to pass on gossip, which Gerald would record:
“…met Ing on the road... he always has the latest bit of news. Apparently the postman who delivered our letters and parcels has been caught pinching things and when the police visited his house they found about a ton of things which he had stolen…”
“According to Ing, the landlord of the Woodman went to the Derby… he telephoned and told his family to put their shirts on Airborne… which won. Ing was of the opinion that there was a wangle…”

Another person he chatted with in Kirkdale was Miss Hudson “the ninety-three-year-old nurse… with a voice like a foghorn” who, Ing claimed “can drink beer by the pint.”

Sometimes Reginald was inspired to write poetry:
“Is now too hot
To go to the plot
So I’ll sit indoors awhile
And drink barley water
As everyone ought’er
Who suffers a little from bile…”

And sometimes he would think about numbers: “I have been playing with no.37 today, a very remarkable number. A prime number, multiplied by 3 the product is 111, by 6 it is 222, by 9 it is 333 and so on by multiples of 3 up to 27”.

The diary records frequent visits with Winifred to the Capitol Cinema in London Road, or the State in Sydenham Road. In January 1948 he and Winifred went to the Capitol to see “Gone with the Wind”. Reginald writes that “…there was a queue about 100 yards long when we arrived, but we got in.”

During the summer Reginald creosoted the long fence that still surrounds the garden: “…it is rather a slow job, many people stop to talk about the weather and the iniquity of small boys who like to damage garden fences.”

Once, he records, a woman stopped him in Thorpewood Avenue: “… a large hedgehog was lying near the steps which led up to her house. She was afraid to touch it so I put it in her front garden, saying that it would be a useful pet… the animal had evidently tired itself out trying to escape from the pavement, but the only way was up the steps and I don’t think that hedgehogs can climb steps.”

In 1945 Churchill passed through Forest Hill “… so W, D and I went to London Road near Horniman’s Museum to see him go by. We got there about 6pm but it was 7:10pm before he went past in an open car… making his usual V sign and I only caught a glimpse of him…”

Going to his allotment one evening he saw the postman emptying the pillar box in Kirkdale (it is still there) when a man in a car drove up and tried to hand a large envelope to the postman: “the postman would not touch it and said that the man must put it through the slot... the man had to get out of his car and walk round to reach the slot and then had some difficulty getting it through… the postman then picked the letter out of the pillar box and put it in his bag. The man began to curse him and gave him a few unpleasant names. I looked round several times as I walked down the road with my bucket and hoe, and they were still at it when I turned into Charlecote Grove.”

Reginald experienced two exciting examples of modern technology. Someone lent him a Biro pen: “I am trying it out, just to find whether it would do for my diary writing”. He was impressed, saying that “the ‘Biro’ pen runs so easily it is a pleasure to write with it”.

Reginald was not so easily impressed with television. In 1948 Reginald and Winifred “went into the Sparks, next door [Seymour Lodge, on the site of Hassocks Close], to wish them a Happy New Year and to look at their television picture of the Cinderella pantomime. My eyes are not good enough to see such a small picture well”.
Reginald also gives his views on the younger generation (for him, those born after 1914): “My own opinion is that they are very much worse in every way. Judging by the ones I come across they have no manners at all… London children are absolutely crafty little liars and clever thieves…”

Gerald finds shrapnel on his allotment, sees people sifting through rubble in the grounds of Sydenham School and long queues to buy a loaf of bread. These glimpses of life in Sydenham in the immediate post-war years give a fascinating insight into the issues of the time and especially the mundane preoccupations of ordinary people.

* “Our Hidden Lives”, Simon Garfield (Ebury Press, 2004)

The theft of the Irish Crown Jewels

Sir Ernest Shackleton, who spent part of his boyhood at 12 Westwood Hill, was one of Sydenham's best-known residents. Heroes are fine, but often villains are more interesting and one of Sydenham's most notorious villains was none other than Sir Ernest’s younger brother, Francis Richard Shackleton, known as Frank.

The story begins with a report in The Times of 8 July 1907 that the “Crown Jewels and other Insignia of the Order of St Patrick”, popularly known as The Irish Crown Jewels, had disappeared from a safe in Dublin Castle, Ireland. This regalia had been created in 1830 from diamonds and rubies once belonging to Queen Charlotte and was used on State visits to Ireland. Queen Victoria used the regalia on four occasions and Edward VII once, in 1903.

On 6 July 1907, during the preparations for Edward VII's next visit to Ireland, it was discovered that the regalia had disappeared. It was clear that this was an inside job as there was no evidence of a break-in, and both the strong room and safe had been opened with keys.
The safe was in the office of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms and guardian of the Crown Jewels.

In the official report of the theft, Vicars was found negligent and forced to resign. One "grave charge" against him was that he “associated with a man of undesirable character” and “introduced this man into his office”. In defence, this man was said to be a friend of influential peers and “came from a well-known and highly respected family”. He is not officially named.


Vicars vigorously protested his innocence. His three assistants resigned. One of these, with the job title “Dublin Herald”, was a young man of “charismatic personality” called Frank Shackleton. Frank was, and still is, widely regarded as the most likely suspect. He was probably the “man of undesirable character”. He “lived by his wits and his charm, ingratiating himself into the highest social circles”. He was also homosexual. I suspect that is what “undesirable character” means.

There have been suggestions that the heralds and others were involved in nightly orgies at Dublin Castle.
It is claimed that Sir Arthur Vicars was blamed in order to protect someone else, and that the King himself was involved. In Vicars’ will he states that he was made a scapegoat when they “shielded the real culprit and thief Francis R. Shackleton”.

Frank was never charged with the theft. However some six years later he was found guilty of “fraudulent conversion” when he and another cheated a woman out of nearly £6,000. He was sentenced to 15 months hard labour. On his release he changed his name to "Frank Mellor", and under that name he lived in Cator Road in 1919-1920. He then lived for a time in Penge. In about 1934 Frank Mellor moved to Chichester where he ran an antiques shop. He died there in 1941.

Several questions remain. Why would Edward VII want to protect Frank Shackleton? In early 1907 Ernest Shackleton was making arrangements to lead his first expedition to the Antarctic, an expedition being followed closely by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. They visited Ernest when his ship was at Cowes on 4 August 1907. In September 1907, shortly before leaving for the Antarctic, Shackleton gave a lecture to the King and Queen at Balmoral where he said the King was “very jolly” and “enjoys a joke very much”. Was the unfortunate Vicars sacrificed to save the family name of a national hero?

Another reason for Edward VII's close interest in the case has been suggested. The Marquis of Lorne, who was married to the king's sister, Princess Louise, is known to have been homosexual. He was also a close friend of Frank Shackleton. At this time homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence. If it became widely known that the King's brother-in-law had a relationship with the man, even then, widely suspected of having stolen the Irish Crown Jewels the scandal would have shaken the Monarchy to its roots.

For many, that is the reason why so many vital documents were destroyed, why Shackleton was shielded and why the inocent and naive Vicars took the blame.

And what of the Irish Crown Jewels? There are various theories including that they were sold to a Dutch pawnbroker, or to private collectors, or buried outside Dublin. They were even, according to an official document, offered for sale to the Irish Free State in 1927. Whatever became of them, to this day their whereabouts has remained unknown.

First published in Sydenham Society Newsletter (1999)

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Frightful Accident at the Crystal Palace

On the afternoon of Thursday 18th August 1853 over a thousand mourners gathered in the nave of the partially completed Crystal Palace, on Sydenham Hill. As the clock struck three a procession formed and began the journey down Westwood Hill (then West Hill) to St Bartholomew's Church, described in one account of the funeral as "an elegant modern structure, embosomed in luxuriant foliage, and situated in a most romantic spot". Others joined the procession as it made its way down Westwood Hill. By the time it reached the church there were, according to one estimate, between two and three thousand mourners.

They were paying their last respects to eight men who, with four others, had died while working on the construction of the new Crystal Palace. The men were killed when scaffolding upon which they were working collapsed. Their funeral was conducted "in a very impressive manner" by the incumbent of St Bartholomew's, the Reverend Charles English.

Nearly two years earlier, in October 1851, the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations" had closed. The exhibition had been held in a wonderful building in Hyde Park, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and dubbed by Punch "the Crystal Palace". The building was due for demolition and a new site was desperately sought. Eventually a perfect spot was found, on the summit of Sydenham Hill. The erection of a much larger Crystal Palace began on 5th August 1852.

The rebuilding progressed speedily and within a year much of the structure was in place. By August 1853 work was starting on the arched roof of the great central transept, to become perhaps the most easily recognisable feature of the completed building. This transept, which crossed the central part of the main building, was 384 feet long by 120 feet wide and 208 feet high and had to be spanned by a great arched roof. The builders had to construct a series of temporary trusses to support the arches over which the glazed roof would be built. The trusses were made in situ, 170 feet above the ground, on scaffolding that was supported not on the ground but on already constructed galleries around the central transept.

At about 2 p.m. on Monday 15th August 1853 Mr Chamberlain, a medical man, was walking down Anerley Hill. He heard a sharp noise "like the falling of a plank". He then heard "a loud crack" and saw a large part of the scaffolding in the central transept give way. There was "a great cry followed by a tremendous crash" and he saw (in an unfortunate but graphic phrase) "workmen dropping like partridges". Mr Chamberlain hurried to the central transept where he saw, amongst the debris of the fallen scaffolding, "sixteen or seventeen workmen, dead and dying". In fact, twelve men died, five were injured and one, amazingly, survived quite unhurt. The precise cause of the accident was never determined, and the coroner's inquest was unable to apportion blame. However Messers Fox & Henderson, the building contractors, decided that future scaffolding would be built from the ground rather than from the galleries.

The Times reported that the accident was: "...an example of the risks to which the working classes are exposed in the course of their employment... The character of the building in which the accident occurred and the favour in which it is regarded by the public insure for this melancholy event an unusual degree of sympathy. These men have perished while engaged upon the construction of a building unparalleled for its magnitude, for the originality of everything connected with it, for its social objects, and for the manner in which it is to be carried out... How little will these [men] be remembered bye and bye when the people are in full enjoyment of their Palace and everything but its transcendent splendour is forgotten".

But these men are remembered, and the Crystal Palace itself has gone. Ten of the dead share a grave, 16 feet deep, in St Bartholomew's churchyard. Their grave is marked by a large flat stone surrounded by a low railing to the right of the middle path, from Westwood Hill to the south porch. It is shaded by a yew tree. Although the inscription is now barely legible those buried in this grave were: James Wardlow, Joseph Copping, George Rolph Smith, George Topham, William Hardy, John Foreman, William James, Henry Fielding, Henry Reading and William Harris. The last two died in Guy's Hospital and were buried in the grave on the following day, 19th August 1853.

An architectural adviser from English Heritage recently visited the monument, and reported on its condition, giving advice on repair and preservation. It is hoped that resources will become available at least to prevent further deterioration and, perhaps, to restore the monument.


Footnote: this article was first published in 2000; the grave was restored and rededicated in 2003.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Cobb’s Department Store, Sydenham

There are more pictures of Cobb's here

For 70 years or more Cobb's was perhaps the most prestigious department store in SE London. In 1900 The Times mentioned it in the same paragraph as Debenham & Freebody, D H Evans, Harvey Nichols, John Lewis and Marshal & Snelgrove. Cobb's was founded by Walter Cobb in 1860 and closed in 1981.

Walter,the son of Frederick and Maria Cobb, was born at Mercery Lane, Canterbury in 1835. His father was a grocer, his shop within yards of the entrance to Cathedral Close. By 1851, when he was 15, Walter was an assistant at a draper’s shop in Dover.


In 1860 he came to Sydenham and opened his own draper’s shop. It was in a newly built parade of shops called Lawrie Place, between what is now Spring Hill and Peak Hill Gardens. His original shop was on the site of the present 301 Kirkdale and Cobb called it “Regent House”, a name that still survives. Walter Cobb, his new wife Mary and two sales assistants lived above the shop.
Walter Cobb was an astute businessman, and the shop prospered. Over the next 30 years he acquired other shops in the terrace, on either side of his original shop. By 1898 Cobb's store extended from 297 to 301 Kirkdale. He also bought other property in Sydenham: 270 and 272 Kirkdale (St Christopher’s Hospice and the paint shop), a depository in Silverdale (recently converted to flats) and 1-3 Railway Approach where he had an estate agents and funeral parlour. Cobb’s became the leading store for the fashion conscious of Sydenham and a considerable area around. People even travelled from Bromley to shop at there.

The shop that Walter Cobb must have coveted most, the present 301 Kirkdale, on the corner of Spring Hill, remained unavailable. From 1861 it had been a butcher’s shop, owned by William Glass. In about 1900 the shop finally became available and Cobb lost no time in rebuilding it to provide a grand entrance to his department store. The upper floors had large arched windows, the central one surmounted by a pediment with carved decoration and the date it was built, "1902". Above this was a lead-covered dome, topped by a flagpole.

Walter Cobb lived above his original shop for a few years, then in Silverdale Lodge, Silverdale and Peak Hill Avenue. In about 1898 he moved to The Old Cedars (then called "Wunderbau") before finally moving to Sussex where he spent his retirement growing prize-winning orchids. He died in 1922.

On 25 October 1940 Cobb's was hit by a bomb. About "three quarters of the building was destroyed with all contents”. The principal material loss was most of the original Lawrie Place. The surviving parts of the building, mainly the 1902 rebuild, was “adapted and fixtured to maintain the restaurant and other departments in condensed form”. Cobb’s suffered other damage, and after the war was rebuilt and restored.

During the restoration much interesting detail was lost. The arches of the second floor windows were filled in. The stonework in the pediment was plastered over, and “1860” (the date the shop was founded) replaced the original “1902” (the date of the building). Cobb’s declined, and finally ceased trading in 1981

In 1997, when the 1902 building was converted to flats, the the original window arches were exposed and restored and the carved stonework in the pediment (and date) was revealed.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Louise House, Dartmouth Road


To the “disappointment” of some but the delight of many the Girls’ Industrial Home, between Forest Hill pools and the library and popularly known as Louise House, was recently listed Grade II by English Heritage. The EH report noted the building’s historic and architectural interest, its association with several distinguished people and its value as part of a group of striking Victorian buildings.

Industrial Homes developed from the Ragged School movement of the mid-19 century. These schools sought to give children a basic education and sufficient training to earn an honest living. However, it was believed that some children would only prosper if they were removed from the corrupting influence of their home environment; the industrial homes, often established in pleasant locations, provided that refuge; they were intended to be “home” for the children.

The first industrial home in Forest Hill, for boys, was opened in 1873 at 17 Rojack Road. In 1881 a girls’ home was opened at 16 Rojack Road. These tw
o houses (which still survive) proved too small and in 1884 a purpose built boys’ industrial home, Shaftesbury House, Perry Rise, was opened by the Lord Mayor of London in the presence of the Earl of Shaftesbury, patron of the home. This building was needlessly demolished in 2000.

The four buildings fronting Dartmouth Road comprising Holy Trinity School, Forest Hill Library, Louise House (all three listed Grade II) and th
e pools were built within 25 years of each other and shared a common purpose, the welfare of less advantaged people in Forest Hill, Sydenham and beyond. They provided opportunities for education, religious instruction, exercise, cleanliness and training for a trade. Until fairly recently all four buildings were in use for the same, or very similar, purposes as those for which they were intended.

The history of the site began in 1819 when Sydenham Common (500 acres of open land in Upper Sydenham and Forest Hill) was enclosed. Since time immemorial the common had provided local people with certain rights su
ch as free access, grazing livestock, gathering firewood, hunting and holding fairs. With enclosure the common was divided into small plots that were fenced to keep out trespassers. These plots were awarded to those who already owned land in Lewisham. Thus, as so often happens, the wealthy benefitted at the expense of the poor.

One of the beneficiaries was the Vicar of Lewisham who was awarded the large field on which these four buildings were to be erected. Thi
s field, known as Vicar’s Field, was originally let as allotments to those who had lost their common rights. As circumstances changed, the vicar (from 1854 the Vicar of St Bartholomew’s became the freeholder) was persuaded to make parts of this field available for purposes he deemed to be socially worthwhile. During the early 1870s Vicar’s Field was one of the sites proposed for a public recreation ground but the vicar decided such a use was not a good enough reason to deprive the poor of their allotments. An alternative site was found, now known as Mayow Park.

However, the vicar did agree to make pa
rt of the field available for a church school and in 1874 Holy Trinity School was opened. This was followed by the pools in 1885, Louise House in 1891 and finally the library in 1901.

Among local benefactors of the industrial homes FJ Ho
rniman was one of the most generous as were several members of the Tetley family, Forest Hill’s other famous tea merchants. Princess Louise retained an interest in the building that bore her name.

Thomas Aldwinckle (1845-1920) was the principal architect of both the pools and Louise House. Although he built hospitals and workhouses across the south east (including Brook Hospital and the water tower on Shooters Hill, and the important Kentish Town baths) he was very much a local architect. He lived in Forest Hill for almost all his working life, at 1 Church Rise, Forest Hill from the mid-1870s until the mid-1880s and then at Saratoga, 62 Dacres Road until about 1908. His house in Dacres Road survives between Hennel Close and Catling Close, and was almost certainly designed by him.

Perhaps the most important person connected with Louise House was Janusz Korczak, a Polish Jew from Warsaw who wrote that he was inspired by a visit to Louise House in 1911 to found a similar institution in Poland. As a result of his experience at Louise House Korczak developed the idea that “the key to a happy and useful adult life lay in childhood; hurt the child and you hurt the adult.” He became an active campaigner for children’s rights which culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, later adopted by the United Nations. In 1942 Korczak, 12 members of his staff and 192 children at his orphanage were rounded up by the Nazis. Korczak was given the chance to escape but he would not abandon his children. The group was transported to the Treblinka extermination camp; that is the last that was heard of them.

Louise House remained a girls’ home (the word “Industrial” was carefully removed in about 1930) until the mid-1930s. By 1939 it was occupied by Air Raid Precautions and after the war it became a child welfare centre. Louise House was closed and boarded-up in 2005. The crèche in the laundry block at the back of Louise House, which continued the tradition of caring for young people, finally closed earlier this year after more than 25 years service.

Louise House is a rare survivor of a purpose built industrial home, made all the more important because it is largely intact, both inside and out. We are fortunate that its importance has been recognised and it has been saved for posterity.

All Saint's Church Bell, Sydenham


All Saints Church, Trewsbury Road, cannot now be seen to best advantage. The most visible part is the unattractive west end, which was never finished. The rest of the exterior (now obscured by more recent building), and the interior, are of exceptional quality, and the building is listed Grade II.All Saints’ Bell, which was hung on an external wall under a small shelter at the NW end, has not been heard for many years, perhaps since World War II. It was recently taken down for cleaning and restoration. On removing the corrosion and bird droppings the restorers noticed the remains of an inscription round the waist of the bell. It read “ROYAL EXCHANGE 1844”. Apparently, this discovery caused great excitement amongst bell historians. Research was undertaken to discover how a bell, clearly destined for the Royal Exchange, ended up in a church in Sydenham that was not built until 1903.

The Royal Exchange was destroyed by fire in 1838, and was rebuilt during the early 1840s. It stands between the Bank of England and the Mansion House, at the heart of the City of London. The bells of the Royal Exchange have been an integral part of the sounds of the City since at least 1601. When the Exchange was rebuilt it was agreed that a suitably impressive peal of bells should be part of the design. However, there was protracted controversy over the quality of the bells, experts disagreed and acrimoniously questioned each other’s competence, new bells were cast, and still there was disagreement.
The company that cast the bells, Mears of Whitechapel, invoiced a bell to “The New Church at Sydenham” on 21 Dec 1844. The term “New Church” is misleading. St Bartholomew’s, then only 12 years old, was often referred to as the new church, but it already had a bell. However, in 1845 the Episcopal Chapel (on the corner of Sydenham Road and Trewsbury Road - see illustration) was “thoroughly repaired… when a small spire in the early English style was added”. If there was a spire, there should surely be a bell to go in it. From the end of the 18th century, Christ Church, as the chapel was then called, was a chapel of ease for the fairly distant parish church of St Mary’s, Lewisham. The congregation had little money to buy a bell, so they bought a reject, or “scrapper”, one of the bells originally intended for the Royal Exchange.
When All Saints (the dedication was changed to avoid confusion with Christ Church, Forest Hill) was built in 1903, and the Episcopal Chapel became All Saints Church Hall, the bell was moved to the new church. It is likely that around this time the spire on the chapel was removed. The restored bell will soon be reinstated and, after fifty years of silence, a sound that first summoned the faithful of Sydenham to prayer nearly 160 years ago will be heard once again.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Forest Hill Station

Click here for more pictures


During the early 1880s people were writing to the local papers complaining about the shabby condition of Forest Hill Station; the grubby appearance and poor accessibility of the station underpass; trains that were untidy, over-crowded and often late - issues still causing anxiety and annoyance to Forest Hill residents.


There was also an East London Railway, co
nnecting Liverpool Street station with East Croydon. It used Marc Brunel's pioneering Thames Tunnel, a pedestrian tunnel opened in 1843, and still used by the ELL between Shadwell and Wapping. The tunnel was converted to rail use, and by 1876 a service was in operation, connecting Croydon with Liverpool Street via New Cross Gate. This service continued until 1913.

The present uninspiring station is Forest Hill's fourth. The second was built to the south of the present subway, in 1854. By the 1870s letters were appearing in the local press vigorously criticising the station's inadequacies. It was too small, uncomfortable and often over-crowded. In bad weather, passengers waiting on the platforms for the frequently delayed or cancelled trains were offered little protection from the elements and, when the trains did arrive, they were often over-crowded and dirty. In 1879 the local newspaper, The Sydenham, Forest Hill and Penge Gazette, described the station as "a scandal to the locality". So began a campaign led by local businessmen, residents and the press, and supported by the local authority, to persuade the operator, the London Brighton & South Coast Railway, to improve matters.

Work on a new station began in early 1882 and was completed by March 1883. However, the campaigners kept up the pressure with a barrage of complaints about how long the project was taking. By today's standards, a mere four years from the time these grievances were first aired at a public meeting to the opening of the new station (including road widening and rebuilding the underpass) seems expeditious.

The new station was indeed impressive. Older readers may remember the unusual Romanesque building, with its imposing clock tower. A worthy centrepiece to Forest Hill, it came about largely in response to the vociferous campaigning of local residents, supported by the local press.

The original subway, built in the early 1840s, was sloped rather than stepped. Although described as dirtier than a pigsty, it was easily accessible. From its opening in 1883 the rebuilt subway attracted criticism for its inaccessibility, principally for the "27 steps … a piece of positive cruelty". There are still 27 steps, and they are still causing difficulty for many users.

The station was severely damaged by a flying bomb in 1944 and demolished in 1972 to be replaced by what is the smallest, meanest and least attractive of all the stations that have served Forest Hill.

It is a sad irony that local people are still voicing the same concerns about the station, about the underpass and about over-crowded and unreliable trains as they were 120 years ago.

W Reginald Bray, the autograph king

For more information, and examples of some of his cards, there is an excellent site on W Reginald Bray here

In 1899 a young man began sending postcards to people who had achieved some measure of success or notoriety. He asked them to sign the card, and return it to him. In time he accumulated several thousand cards, autographed by soldiers (for example, Lord Roberts, who had a house in Sydenham for a short time), politicians (Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson), sportsmen (including W G Grace, who lived in Lawrie Park Road), churchmen (he wrote to the Pope in Latin), actors, explorers (including Shackleton, who lived next to St Barts), scientists (John Logie Baird, who lived in Crescent Wood Road) and authors.

He also collected the signatures of many less well-known people: the first person to write while flying in an aeroplane, the policeman who stopped Churchill driving the wrong way up a one-way street and he wanted the entire population of Tristan da Cunha, although they didn't all sign. He claimed to be the owner of the largest collection of modern autographs in the world, and he proclaimed himself "The Autograph King".

He was, in reality, W Reginald Bray, born at 155 Stanstead Road (on the site of the present fire station) in 1879. Reggie (as he was called by his family), attended St Dunstan's College from 1889 to 1895. His family moved to 135 Devonshire Road in about 1899, and at this time Reggie began sending postcards and other postal curios.

Bray was a clerk in the City and each evening, on his return from work, he would write his cards, and post them. There was, and still is, a pillar-box almost directly outside his house in Devonshire Road. It is an octagonal "Penfold" (designed by the architect J W Penfold in 1866, with several variations). There are two Penfolds in Devonshire Road, both listed Grade II. The box outside Bray's house is of the fifth type, and is one of only eight surviving examples. One would like to think that the presence of such an unusual pillar-box outside his house provided the inspiration for Reggie's lifelong passion.


Between 1899 and 1939 Bray amassed a collection of over 15,000 autographs. He posted over 30,000 requests and, as he pointed out ruefully, half of those failed to respond, including George V, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. After several requests to Hitler he received a firm but polite refusal, stating that as the Fuhrer was already overburdened with work would Bray "refrain from further letters in this regard".

Many of Bray's cards were chosen to reflect the recipient's interests; the stationmaster of Forest Hill station signed a postcard of the station, MPs were asked to sign cards of the Palace of Westminster and I have a postcard of an advertisement for Nestlé's Milk, signed by Henri Nestlé.

During the 1930s Bray appeared on the radio programme "In Town Tonight", not because of his autograph collection but as "The Human Letter". Apparently, he posted himself. One imagines Reginald, wrapped in brown paper and stuffed into a mailbag, but the truth is simpler. He lived not far from the then newly opened Postmen's Office in Devonshire Road. I suspect he turned up there, perhaps with an address label and the correct postage, and was taken home by a postman. He also claimed to have posted, amongst other things, a turnip with the name, address and message carved on it!

Reginald seemed to enjoy challenging the postal service; his addresses were often inaccurate, sometimes misleading. One of his earliest postcards was addressed to "Daughter of the Postman who has walked 232,872 miles, Kirriemuir PO". It never reached its destination.

Between about 1909 and 1911 Reginald lived at 13 Queenswood Road, moving to Queens Garth, Taymount Rise in 1912. He lived at Queens Garth until 1938 when he moved to Croydon to be nearer to his family. He died in June 1939.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Sydenham VC holders


Sydenham can boast several VC holders. The earliest holder I could find was Private Harry Hook (1850-1905) who received his VC at Rorke's Drift, Natal, in 1879. He bought his discharge in June 1880 and came to live on Sydenham Hill. However by March 1881 he was working as a groom in Monmouthshire (he probably did similar work in one of the large houses on Sydenham Hill), so his links with Sydenham were short-lived.


Major Francis Harvey (1873-1916) has a rather stronger connection as he was born in Sydenham, although I haven't yet been able to establish where. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, and his VC was awarded posthumously.

Our next VC technically lived in Camberwell. Commander Gordon Campbell (1886-1953) was the seventh son of Colonel Frederick Campbell who lived at 2 Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham Hill from about 1882 until his death in 1926. Gordon attended Dulwich College and on leaving in 1900 joined the navy. He won his VC in February 1917, as commander of a Q-ship (a tramp steamer armed with hidden guns and torpedoes, intended to lure U-boats). Gordon Campbell's nephew, Lt Col Lorne Campbell (who grew up in a house near the petrol station on Crystal Palace Parade) also won a VC, during World War 2.

However, Philip Gardner had the strongest links with Sydenham. His father, Stanley, lived at 37 Trewsbury Road from about 1914. Stanley ran the family business, J Gardner & Co, Monument Works, Beckenham. They made air-conditioning equipment.

Pip was born in Sydenham on Christmas Day, 1914. He attended Dulwich College 1928-1932 and, on leaving, went to work in the family firm. In 1938 he joined the Westminster Dragoons, Territorial Army (confiding to a friend: "I must do my duty, but I'm no soldier"). In 1940 he was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment and in April 1941 was posted to North Africa.

In June 1941 Pip was awarded the MC. Several tanks had entered a minefield in Libya, and become immobilised. The senior officer, inspecting the damage, stepped on a mine. Pip jumped from his own tank and walked through enemy machine-gun fire to the injured officer. He returned to his tank to get morphine, and went back to the officer. The man was dying, so Gardner stayed with him until the end, still under machine-gun fire. He then led the tanks back to safety.

Five months later, at Tobruk, Pip won his VC. He took two tanks to assist two armoured cars, broken down and easy targets for enemy gunfire. Pip tied a tow-rope to one of the cars. It broke, so he returned to the car and, despite wounds to his arm and leg, he managed to carry a wounded man back to the tank, and eventually safety, all the time under heavy fire. The citation said: "The courage, determination and complete disregard for his own safety … enabled him, despite his wounds and in the face of intense fire at close range, to save the life of his fellow officer in circumstances fraught with great difficulty and danger" or, as he put it in a letter to his parents: "I went back again and got the poor chap out of the car and on to the tank and set off again".

Pip Gardner died in 2003 aged 88. He showed genuine heroism, all the more impressive because of his modesty. One obituary described him as "the most delightful of men, combining modesty, courage and charm with sensitivity and strength of character". When he was 71 he caught a robber in the street, and held him until police arrived. Afterwards he commented to his companion: "Well, that got the adrenaline going a bit!"

Pip sold the engineering side of the business in 1988, but remained chairman of J Gardner Holdings until 2001. Although he long ago moved from the area, the Gardner Industrial Estate, in Kent House Lane, is a tangible reminder of his close links with Sydenham.

I am very grateful to Jan Piggott for providing much information on Pip Gardner.