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

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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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a theologian, author, vehement opponent of Nazism and martyr. He was also, for a short time, pastor of the German Church in Dacres Road.

The original German Church was consecrated in 1882, but was severely damaged during World War 2. It remained a burnt-out shell until the late 1950s when the present church was built on the site, and named after its most famous pastor.

Bonhoeffer was at the church for 18 months, from late 1933 to Spring 1935. During this time he lived at 2 Manor Mount, Forest Hill where there is a plaque, hidden by a large shrub. The Parsonage, as it was called, consisted of two rooms at the top of the house; the rest was occupied by a German girls' school. The house was described by one of Bonhoeffer's visitors as "uninviting and cold… damp air penetrated through the windows" and it was infested by mice. Things got worse. The same visitor wrote that the housekeeper had "all of a sudden gone mad and had to be taken to a home".

In 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to continue the struggle against Nazism. He was an active and outspoken critic, who offered one of the first clear voices of resistance to Adolf Hitler, and for this he paid the ultimate price. He was arrested by the Nazis in Spring 1943 for helping a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. He was held in various concentration camps, and finally hanged on 9 April 1945.

In 1998 Bonhoeffer was one of ten 20th century Protestant martyrs commemorated by statues on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

A brief history of the Dolphin

Records suggest that Sydenham's three oldest surviving public houses were founded within several years of each other; the Greyhound in 1726, the Golden Lion in 1732 and the Dolphin in 1733.

The earliest mention of the Dolphin is in the Parish Register of St Mary's, Lewisham which records that on 1 July 1733 "Stephen son of Richard Peke from Sippenham, ye Dolphin" was buried (note the earlier spelling of "Sydenham"). Stephen had been baptised in St Mary's only a couple of months earlier.

It is likely that the building occupied by Richard Peake was a farmhouse, the centre of a farm that extended towards Perry Vale. At the start of his tenancy Peake was probably principally a farmer, but also a publican. Berryman's Lane and then Mayow Road follow a field-path on his land between Sydenham Road and Perry Vale.

Richard Peake was at the Dolphin from 1733 until 1769, not only the first but also the Dolphin's longest serving publican. For more than 200 years after his tenancy ended there was a long succession of publicans who generally only stayed for a few years.

The Dolphin was on Sydenham's largest estate, centred around the Old House. This estate extended along Sydenham Road from the Dolphin to the Greyhound, and north as far as Perry Vale. It was created by Edward Hodsdon between 1713 and 1719. It cannot be coincidence that although the Greyhound and the Dolphin were on the estate, they were at its margins. It seems likely that both were encouraged to become public houses as a further source of revenue for Edward Hodsdon, who made his money as a Southwark wine merchant, but kept at a safe distance from his house.

After the death of the last owner of the Old House estate, Mayow Wynell Adams, in 1897 the land was sold, mostly for development. It was probably at this time that the Dolphin was acquired by Courage, of Horsleydown, Bermondsey.

During the 1930s whatever remained of the original building disappeared when Courage decided to rebuild the Dolphin. Their in-house architect, F M Kirby FRIBA, drew up plans for a new building in the then popular "Brewers' Tudor" style. It had lounge, saloon, private and public bars (patrons were carefully segregated by social classes and gender). The plans were approved on 28 Nov 1935 and during 1936 the new building was opened for custom.

One question remains; why was a pub so far from the sea called "The Dolphin"? Although dolphins feature in the arms of the Borough of Lewisham that was only from 1966. However, for centuries dolphins were believed to protect sailors and, by extension, became emblematic of safe travel, kindness and charity. "The Dolphin", therefore, is a most appropriate name for an inn at which travellers would rest and take refreshment before continuing their journey.

The Greyhound, Sydenham

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There has been an inn on this site since 1720, and possibly as early as 1713. Joseph Hyde was the first recorded landlord, mentioned in 1726, and the inn is first referred to as The Greyhound in 1727, and again in 1729 when parish registers record the burial of Joseph Hyde in St Mary's Church, Lewisham. The oldest part of the building, made of timber, was demolished several years ago. Its outline can still be seen at the side of the Greyhound, from the car park.

The inn was built on the south eastern edge of S
ydenham Common. The Common, now covered by Upper Sydenham and much of Forest Hill, was used by local people for grazing animals, gathering wood, recreation, hunting and holding fairs. The earliest inn faced the common (looking across Spring Hill), and had unbroken views to the summit of Sydenham Hill. Two tracks crossed the common, one leading to Dulwich (now Westwood Hill) and the other towards London (now Kirkdale).

In about 1640 mineral springs, with alleged healing properties, were discovered on Sydenham Common, in the present Wells Park Road and Taylor's Lane area. Demand for the water increased and several wells were sunk to ensure adequate supplies. Their popularity increased and one visitor complained about the "rabble
of Londoners" who came to visit the wells. Visitors were accused of mixing the water with "brandy or other strong liquors" (supplied by local inns), and then blaming their hangovers on the water! Wealthier visitors to the Sydenham Wells would have required lodgings and this could have been one reason for building the inn. The popularity of the Wells peaked with a visit from George III (in about 1760) but then declined. The wells were filled in. During the late 19C the last remaining well was described as "a dirty pool and the water very nasty".

The Greyhound Inn, like inns at Dulwich, Streatham and Croydon with the same name, was used as a meeting place for local hunts. Greyhounds were bred for hunting, using speed and keenness of sight. During the 18C and until 1812 or later, the Old Surrey Hounds (the fictional Jorrock's pack) would meet at the Greyhound. The Old Surrey hunted an area that covered Brockley, Sydenham, Dulwich, Peckham and Croydon. Sydenham and Forest Hill were particularly noted during the 18C for having a large fox population.

Trade at the Greyhound Inn was boosted wi
th the building of the Croydon Canal, which operated between 1807 and 1836. The canal connected Croydon with the Thames and followed roughly the line of the present railway track from New Cross Gate to Sydenham and beyond. The inn provided refreshment for the 'navvies' who built the canal and was also a resting place for those who used the canal for work or recreation.

The poet Thomas Campbell lived on Peak Hill between 1804 and 1820. He regularly used the Greyhound and apparently entertained some of his distinguished visitors (who included Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, George Crabbe and Sarah Siddons) at the inn. Sir Charles Bell (a Scottish surgeon) writes of an evening spent
with Campbell at the Greyhound when the poet returned home "not drunk, but in excellent spirits". Other accounts suggest that there were occasions when he had to be helped home to bed.

An early painting shows pleasure boats moored against a landing stage near the inn, known as Doo's Wharf. Certainly in 1807 the inn had a boat and boat-house, as the landlord was accused of not allowing his boat to be used to rescue a man who had fallen into the canal reservoir and drowned. The man had been trying to retrie
ve a duck he had shot.

A major change to the character of the area resulted from the passing of the Enclosure Act of 1810. This proposed the enclosu
re of all common land in Lewisham, except for Blackheath. From about 1820 what had been open common, from the Greyhound to the top of Sydenham Hill and from Westwood Hill to Honor Oak Road, was fenced in and gradually built over.

The Croydon Canal failed and in 1836 the London & Croydon Railway Company bought its assets. They built a railway, roughly alo
ng the line of the canal, which opened in 1839. A station, almost adjacent to the inn, gave yet another boost to the Greyhound.

Sydenham was becoming a thriving and populous suburb and there was obviously a need for a more modern and prestigious inn. In 1873 an application was submitted to the Board of Works by Abraham Steer, a Norwood builder, to add an extension to the southern side of the building, fronting on to Kirkdale. Much of the interesting detail of the inn dates from this time.
The character of the Greyhound Inn has
undergone a number of changes over more than 270 years. It has, at different times, provided strong refreshment for visitors to Sydenham Wells, been a meeting place for local huntsmen, refreshed those boating on the Croydon Canal, played host to Georgian literati and quenched the thirst of clerks returning from their offices in the City.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Kirkdale Learning Centre

As it now seems probable that the main part of the Kirkdale Learning Centre was built to the designs of Sir Jose
ph Paxton, I thought it might be worth tracing the history of the building, and its contribution to the community.
The origins of the building can be traced back to about 1853, when the Crystal Palace was still being erected on Sydenham Hill. Sir Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace, was approached by John Scott Russell, (also closely involved with the Crystal Palace) who had just moved from his cottage in Charlecote Grove to be nearer to the Palace. Scott Russell asked Sir Joseph about the possibility of building a scaled down version of the Crystal Palace, as an "Institution" for the working men of Sydenham.

Nothing further is recorded until in 1858 a meeting was held where it was agreed to build a lecture hall in Sydenham along the lines of the Mechanics' Institutes. These institutes were intended as "self-improving working men's adult education colleges", often funded by wealthy local people and offering free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects. They might include a library and newspaper reading room, and sometimes also a school.

A suitable site was bought with the help of a loan from Robert Harrild, of Round Hill. Sir Joseph Paxton was asked to produce designs for the building, which he did. Unfortunately funds were not sufficient to follow his designs fully, and they were modified by Henry Dawson. The foundation stone was laid on 12 October 1859 by Alderman David Wire, Lord Mayor of London, who lived at Stone House, Lewisham Way.

The building was officially opened by Sir Joseph on 15th January 1861. From the beginning he had been closely involved with the institute and was described as its "originator". He was appointed its first president and a trustee. Other trustees included Scott Russell and Sir George Grove.

The building included provision for a school on the ground floor. The British School, which had been founded near the Golden Lion in 1851, moved into the new building in January 1861. A girls' school opened a couple of months later, apparently on the first floor. British Schools were non-denominational, set up as an alternative to the National Schools, such as St Bart's, which were strongly Anglican.

In 1876 the School Board for London became responsible for the British School, and it was renamed Sydenham Central School for Boys. Then, in 1905, the LCC took over responsibility. They renamed it Sydenham County Secondary School (and, for a while, Shackleton Girls School). In 1917 the school moved into new premises in Dartmouth Road to become today's Sydenham School.

The building was enlarged in 1904 with wings and large chimneys at each side, and a single storey extension across the front. Above the entrance are the words "Sydenham Central School". Behind these extensions the original building rises, in a style described as "Italian Renaissance". The detail and colour of the brickwork are worth a close look.

The contemporary drawing above, which has recently come to light, shows the building as it was intended, with two towers that were never built, and extending further back, but the main block appears very much as it survives today. Although much of the building is now pebble-dashed, I suspect this was applied when the Edwardian extensions were built. The outline of the five tall ground-floor windows can still be seen within the modern extension. All this suggests, therefore, that the present building is nothing less than the central block of Sir Joseph Paxton's original design.

Boys' Industrial Home, Perry Rise

Early in 2000 Shaftesbury House, 67 Perry Rise was demolished. This building was the "Forest Hill Boys' Industrial Home".

The original Boys' Industrial Home was opened at 17 Rojack Road on 3 May 1873 "for the reception and industrial training of destitute boys". There were just six boys in the home in 1873. By 1875 the home included 16 Rojack Road (both these houses still survive), and the number of boys had increased to nine.

The purpose of the home was to ensure that "a boy is rescued from the perils of the street, fed, clothed, housed, educated [they attended Christ Church School] and taught a trade [shoe-mending for the older boys while the younger ones made bundles of firewood to sell], and finally started in life with a fair prospect of doing well".

The home was largely supported by voluntary contributions. As usual, F J Horniman was a major benefactor - he subscribed 18 guineas a year, the annual cost of supporting one child. Further support came from the Reformatory and Refuge Union. This was a national organization, founded by the great philanthropist the Earl of Shaftesbury, to offer grants and advice to homes set up to help deprived and destitute children. The Union also provided annual inspections and reports on the homes.

Admission to the home was carefully controlled. Children needed a recommendation, and the committee offered places to "those whom they know to be destitute, or the children of poverty-stricken parents".

By 1881 there were 25 boys in the home. The committee felt that having the school in two houses was inefficient. Finally they found a suitable site for a new home in Perry Rise. Thomas Aldwinckle, an active member of the committee, was a young architect living at that time in Church Rise, Forest Hill. He agreed to make plans for the new home. Aldwinckle was responsible for several other local buildings including Forest Hill Pools, the old Ladywell Baths and the Girls' Industrial Home at Louise House, Dartmouth Road.

As the president of the Boys' Industrial Home the Earl of Shaftesbury laid the foundation stone on 18 June 1883. The 83 year-old earl returned to Forest Hill on 13 May 1884 to attend the formal opening. This was clearly quite an event. The Daily Dispatch reported that the Lord Mayor of London "attended in state". Other guests included Viscount Lewisham and the Hon and Rev Canon Augustus Legge, vicar of St Bartholomew's Church. "The road from the Forest Hill station", the paper continues, "which is known as Perry Rise, was gaily decorated with bunting...a large number of residents turned out to cheer the Lord Mayor". The Home was called Shaftesbury House, in honour of its president. Shaftesbury House continued as the Boys Industrial Home until at least 1939.

The Girls' Industrial Home originally opened in Rojack Road on 20 July 1881. In 1891 Louise House, Dartmouth Road had been completed, also to the designs of Thomas Aldwinckle. The Girls' Industrial Home gave girls the skills needed to become domestic servants.

When I realised that the building had been demolished I contacted the Council Planning Department to find the reasons. They knew nothing about it. I finally spoke to someone from the Education Department who admitted that they were responsible for the demolition. The principal reasons he gave were that squatters had occupied the building, and the land would allow an extension to the adjacent school. He was unaware of the historical significance of the building, or that an important local architect designed it. When I mentioned these points to him he implied that they were irrelevant. He also saw no need to consult with, or even take account of, local opinion. Four years on the site is derelict, with only a pile of rubble to show where the Forest Hill Boys' Industrial Home once stood.

Scandal of Lewisham's first mayor

The closure of the Sydenham branch of Barclays Bank and its reopening as the ACTS Credit Union, opposite the Greyhound, set me thinking about the colourful career of one of its former employees. During the 1880s the bank was known as the London & South Western Bank (it was taken over by Barclays in 1918) and its manager was Theophilus William Williams, a man described (perhaps with some exaggeration) as "the biggest crook the borough has ever known". He was also, for many years, the most powerful political figure in Lewisham (one account describes him as "virtually dictator").

Williams came from humble origins. He was born in a workhouse in East London in 1846. By March 1871 he was lodging in a house in Longton Grove and working as a bank clerk.

In December 1871 he married Jane Dexter, a wealthy heiress, at the Church in the Grove, Jews Walk (now the Grove Centre). Although only a bank clerk his marriage certificate describes him as a "gentleman". Probably from the time of his marriage (he has, after all, married into money) he was living at Shirley House, 133 High Street (now Dartmouth Road, on the site of Sydenham School). By 1876 he had risen to become the manager of the L&SW bank. He had also moved house, to Borrowdale, 13 Westwood Hill (this still survives, on the corner of Lawrie Park Gardens).

Williams was a lay preacher at the Church in the Grove during the 1870s and, apparently, could draw large crowds. However, it was in local politics that he used his oratorical skills to best effect, and through which he pursued his ambitions. In 1876 he was elected to the Lewisham Vestry, and was elected to the Lewisham Board of Works the following year. In 1882 he became Chairman of the Board of Works, a position he held until the board was dissolved in 1900, when the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham was formed. He was then elected Mayor of Lewisham and, in 1901-1902, served a second term in that office. During this time he represented Sydenham on the council. For twenty years, between 1882-1902, he was the most powerful politician in Lewisham. He was also a magistrate, and he represented Lewisham on the LCC.

During the mid 1880s Williams retired from the bank and became proprietor of the Kentish Mail, a small chain of local newspapers. A sympathetic newspaper is perhaps the most useful aid an ambitious politician can have.

It is clear that Williams was a persuasive public speaker, and a person of some charm and charisma. Many years later a former employee described him as "a dominating personality … (with) tremendous charm and forcefulness". He was a veritable model of the Victorian self-made man, with a seemingly selfless devotion to public service. It was during his second term as Mayor, however, that "unwholesome rumours" began to circulate about his private life.

In fact, Williams was not self-made. Other people paid for his respectability and extravagant lifestyle. Through fraud and embezzlement he persuaded them to part with their money. He had, after all, been a bank manager, and people trusted him. He spent both his wife and sister-in-law’s inheritance, under the guise of managing it. He was the trustee of a widow, and lost her money; he embezzled his employees out of their savings (it was claimed he forced them to invest in his companies as a test of loyalty).

It was not until 1908 that matters finally came to a head. He was summoned to appear at Lambeth County Court to face bankruptcy proceedings. The investigation was impeded because Williams had burnt most of his business records. It is clear that his business affairs were highly irregular, involving his use of false names; business colleagues who had died, gone missing, or whom he simply couldn’t remember; loans to himself from trusts he was managing and gifts to people whom he "didn’t know". During the proceedings Williams attempted to flee to France, but was recognised and arrested at Liverpool Street Station.

As a consequence of his bankruptcy examination he was summoned to appear at the Greenwich Magistrates’ Court (where he himself had been a magistrate) to answer charges of obtaining money under false pretences.

However, the case never came to court. On the day of his trial, 11 Nov 1908, the magistrate was informed that Williams was dead. The inquest was held a few days later. Williams had taken an overdose of morphia (it seems that he was a regular user of this drug, at least during the last weeks of his life) and the jury returned a verdict of "suicide during temporary insanity". The coroner quibbled with this and the agreed verdict was "death from an overdose of morphia, self-administered". This avoided the stigma of suicide – clearly an attempt by the coroner to save something of the reputation of the former mayor and magistrate.

This was not the end of Theophilus William Williams. His name lives on, particularly in Sydenham and Forest Hill. It is to be found on the foundation stones of Forest Hill Library, Forest Hill Swimming Baths, and the Jews Walk fountain. Elsewhere in the borough it is on the foundation stones of the old Lewisham Central Library and Ladywell Swimming Baths. It is ironic that a man so corrupt should leave behind such a worthy legacy.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

A Brief History of Lawrie Park

e Park takes its name from the Lawrie family, several generations of whom owned extensive land and several large houses in Sydenham. In 1806, Andrew Lawrie bought the newly rebuilt Sydenham Hall (to which Hall Drive once led). He was a major under Wellington, died at Burgos in 1812 and has a memorial in St Bartholomew’s church. The family also owned Westwood House, which was on the site of the Shenewood estate.

When the Great Exhibition of 1851 closed, the Crystal Palace Company was formed to re-erect an enlarged building within a grand park. To this end they bought nearly 400 acres of land on the slopes of Sydenham Hill. An 1852 map of their property shows that the estate included not only the present Crystal Palace Park but also (with a few exceptions) the present Lawrie Park estate. The original site acquired by the Company extended from Crystal Palace Parade in the west to the railway line between Sydenham and Anerley in the east. The southern boundary was Anerley Hill, and in the north, Westwood Hill formed the boundary. It is clear from the map that as early as 1852 the Company intended to raise funds by building along Crystal Palace Park Road and Sydenham and Lawrie Park Avenues.

Lawrie Park was one of five local estates built during the early 1850s and in 1858 a writer commented that Sydenham had many parks “consisting not of open spaces, but of good roads and detached or semi-detached villas”. Lawrie Park, being so close to the Palace and under the direct influence of the Crystal Palace Company, was probably the most prestigious.

George Wythes of Bickley Hall bought the site enclosed by Crystal Palace Park Road, Lawrie Park Road and Westwood Hill. Wythes made his fortune building railways, so developing housing was a new venture. On the strength of his success at Lawrie Park, he went on to develop Bickley Park. It was surely no coincidence that Wythes was a good friend of Sir Joseph Paxton.

Wythes employed William Goodwin as his builder. The Goodwin family had built houses in London Road and the Jews Walk conservation area. They now turned their attention to Lawrie Park. By 1858 there was “a large manufacture of bricks on the upper part of the land”. Charleville Circus, the final development, was built over the brickworks in the mid-1880s.

William Goodwin built Cecil House, 191 Lawrie Park Gardens, for himself in 1860, and lived there until 1862. Interestingly, Luis Zorilla, an exiled Spanish anarchist and friend of both Camille Pissarro (who painted the best known image of Lawrie Park in 1871) and Paul Gauguin, was living here in 1885. According to Gauguin’s biographer, he travelled from France
“to Cecil House in Lawrie Park where Ruiz Zorilla was now living”. So both Pissarro, in 1871, and Gauguin, in 1885, visited Lawrie Park.

Several distinguished architects have been associated with the estate. Charles Barry, the architect of Dulwich College, designed several buildings including, possibly, Holmbury Dene, 2 Lawrie Park Road. It is possible that Watson Fothergill designed Burnage Court, Lawrie Park Avenue, in 1888. Joseph Fogerty, who lived at Ashbourne, Lawrie Park Gardens, did some work for what is now Sydenham High School, including the extraordinary stable and coach-house. His daughter, Elsie, went on to found the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Other architects who live
d on the Lawrie Park estate, and may have designed some of its buildings, included Henry Currey (St Bart’s lychgate and St Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster Bridge Road), Edwin Nash (interior of St Bart’s and St Michaels School, Lower Sydenham), John Norton (houses in Crystal Palace Park Road and Tyntesfield, Somerset) and James Tolley (ACTS Credit Union building in Kirkdale). Even Forest Hill’s best known builder, Ted Christmas, had an influence. He converted Bolney Court, 3 Lawrie Park Road, to flats where he spent the last few years of his life, dying there in 1935.

Although so few of the original buildings survive, the wide roads, grass verges, mature trees and views have helped Lawrie Park retain much of the quality and character envisaged by its creators and captured so vividly by Camille Pissarro.

Thursday 6 November 2008

The Armoury, Perry Vale

At the junction of Perry Vale and Hindsley's Place, on the opposite corner to the Foresters Arms, stood a two storey cream-painted building with a slate roof. At one time, this building played an important role in the social life of Sydenham and Forest Hill.

It is possible that between about 1847-1849 the Foresters Arms originated in this building before moving to the opposite corner of Hindsley's Place. However, a decade later the building was used for a rather unexpected, although better documented, purpose.

During the first half o
f the 19th century there were periodic panics over the intentions of the French, and fears that they were planning to invade England. As a result of such a scare in 1859 the Government encouraged the formation of local volunteer forces, prepared to defend the realm (or, some cynics of the time suggested, the property of the wealthy) in the event of a French invasion.

Sydenham and Forest Hill were not slow to respond to this patriotic call. A public meeting was held at the Dartmouth Arms on 29 June 1859. John Scott Russell (a naval architect of considerable note, who constructed the Great Eastern steamship) was in the chair. The proposal put to the meeting was: "That in the present state of Europe and with the view of maintaining an imposing neutrality it is essential that the defences of the Empire should be such as to defy attack. That with this view it is desirable that a volunteer force should be enrolled & that a rifle company be raised within this district to be called the Sydenham Rifle Company." There were just three dissenters who supported an amendment that it was not desirable to raise a Volunteer Rifle Corps.

A committee was formed, under the chairmanship of John Scott Russell, to carry through this proposal. Other wealthy and influential local people served on the committee, including Robert von Glehn of Peak Hill, Rev Taylor Jones of Sydenham College and Edwin Clark, an engineer who built canals in Russia, docks in India and Peru, and the time-ball on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Before a local force could be recognised, the Government insisted that a number of conditions be met. These included an adequate and safe firing-range and secure storage for the weapons. The committee met regularly over the following months (principally at John Scott Russell's house, Westwood Lodge, or the Forester Inn, Perry Vale) to try to resolve these and other issues.

By the end of July 1859 the committee had found suitable land for their firing range. Mr William Dacres Adams had offered a strip of land between Forest Hill and Sydenham stations, on the eastern side of the railway line. The firing range followed roughly the present line of Dacres Road, from near its junction with Perry Vale to just past the junction with Inglemere Road. However, within six months Mr Adams was expressing concern at the amount of disruption caused by building the butts (banks of earth at the Inglemere Road end of the range, intended to stop stray bullets). He was also worried about the safety of the range, but the committee managed to reassure him. When completed the range was some 325 yards long.

The committee appointed a drill sergeant (a professional soldier who would train the volunteers). He demanded accommodation. The committee still needed a secure place for their weapons. They also required headquarters for the volunteers and a meeting room for themselves. They found a building that could combine all these functions. Mrs Goding offered a house on the corner of Perry Rise and Hindsley's Place, built about 1845. It would be rent- free on condition that the committee undertook certain repairs and improvements. This they accepted. The building was renamed The Armoury and, in early 1860, became the headquarters of the Sydenham Rifle Corps. It consisted of an armoury, committee rooms and accommodation for the drill sergeant. Outside, there was a drill ground. This would have been at the back of the building, on the area now covered by a large extension.

The next task was to enlist sufficient volunteers. This proved difficult, which is hardly surprising as drill practice was held three times a week, at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. They eventually mustered a roll of 60 volunteers.

By the end of December 1860 the conditions required by the Government had been satisfied and the Sydenham Rifle Company became officially known as the 8th Kent Rifle Volunteer Corps. The committee felt a little aggrieved that they were only the 8th rifle corps in Kent. They were, in fact, the first to pass a resolution to form a volunteer corps but because of difficulties of recruitment, only 8th to gain government recognition.

John Scott Russell was appointed the first Captain-Commandant of the Corps in 1859, a post he held until 1861.

Life for the Rifle Volunteer was not all drill and target practice. Several members formed a dramatic club and in 1869 they gave a performance of three one-act plays (including "the laughable farce of “The Charming Pair"') at the Foresters Hall, Clyde Vale.Political circumstances changed, and interest in the volunteer corps waned. The 8th Kent Volunteer Rifle Corps was disbanded in 1871. The Armoury survived until a couple of years ago.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Ted Christmas, builder

Estate agents are fond of describing certain local houses as “Christmas houses”. Of course, these houses have nothing to do with the festive season. They are the work of a local builder, Ted Christmas whose buildings have a reputation for quality and interesting detail both inside and out.

Edward Charles Christmas was born in Lewisham in 1867. By 1871 his family were living above the stables of Prospect House, which is now 79 London Road (on the corner of Taymount Rise). Ted’s father was the gardener at Prospect House. The garden extended from the rear of the house up Taymount Rise to the church (now flats).

At the age of 14, Ted was serving an apprenticeship with a local carpenter. By 21 was able to begin working on his own account so, in 1888, he moved into a small cottage, with a builder’s yard attached, at 55 Dartmouth Road.

In the early years, Ted installed “sanitary plumbing”, electric-bells, burglar and fire alarms, lincrusta wallpaper and “Roman mosaic tiles”. However, as a trained carpenter, his speciality was “artistic joinery” and there were, apparently, many fine shop fronts installed by him. It is unlikely that any of this early work survives.

By the turn of the century, Ted was building on a large scale. He began developing “most of the shops" on the east side of Dartmouth Road. His initials (ECC) are above the first floor windows of 49 Dartmouth Road and the date “1901” on 53 Dartmouth Road. He redeveloped the group of cottages, including his own, between 55 and 57a Dartmouth Road. There is a foundation stone at the side of 55 Dartmouth Road (the entrance to his yard), laid by his wife in 1900.

Ted also built houses. His best-known early development is between Perry Vale and South Road, Forest Hill. In 1901, he completed 108-116 Perry Vale, five substantial detached houses called Linstead (conveniently bearing the date 1901), Ashdale, Ulverston, Rosaville and Aberleigh in honour of his wife, Laura. A couple of years later 131-153 Perry Vale were completed. Their names spell “TED CHRISTMAS”. Round the corner, 72-64 Sunderland Road spell “GRACE”, his daughter. He also built houses in Gaynesford Road and there are several other groups in this area. They are distinctive, and easily recognised.

Ted and his family were living at Arundale, 151 Perry Vale in 1911. Clearly, his business was successful for in 1913 he moved to Newfield Villa, Dartmouth Road, a large semi-detached Victorian house on the corner of Derby Hill, on the site of the present Kingswear House and opposite his business.

The other major development of Christmas houses began about 1930 on a field behind Holy Trinity School when 58-92 Thorpewood Avenue were built. This development also included houses in Round Hill and Radlet Avenue. The Radlet Avenue houses were the last to be built by E C Christmas and were still being completed at the outbreak of war.

Ted Christmas also converted Victorian villas into flats. Perhaps the best-known example is Courtside, off Round Hill, converted from two Victorian villas in 1922. This has the small leaded-light windows that are characteristic of much of his work. Other distinctive features include the elaborately carved bargeboards over many of the porches and the patterns often cut in the lead flashing beneath the windowsills. Such features make Christmas houses distinctive, and quite easy to recognise, although there is a marked difference in style between his Edwardian and 1930s work.

Many Christmas houses and flats were built to let. Letting, and then later selling the properties, led the firm inevitably towards estate agency, particularly when Ted’s son (also called Edward) took over the firm in the late 1930s.

In 1933 Ted Christmas moved from Newfield Villa to Bolney Court, 3 Lawrie Park Road, where he died in 1936. E C Christmas continued to operate as estate agents until the early 1970s. The shop at 55 Dartmouth Road retained its original front until replaced a couple of years ago. There are other “Christmas houses” and conversions scattered around the area. Because of their distinctive style, it is not too difficult to recognise them. For some homeowners in Forest Hill and Sydenham, the spirit of Christmas lasts all year round.

First published in the Sydenham Society newsletter, Autumn 2005.

Fox & Hounds & High Street Buildings

An application was recently submitted to English Heritage asking that they consider listing the Fox and Hounds and the adjacent High Street Buildings, 134-150 Kirkdale. Although we were delighted that English Heritage agreed to list High Street Buildings grade II, it was disappointing that they felt unable to list the Fox and Hounds.

The EH advisors were enthusiastic about High Street buildings, noting the “special architectural interest of their attractive, free Queen Anne style architecture, dramatic roofline, and presence in the streetscape” and remarking on the survival of “original features including three of the five late C19 shop fronts” (a couple of years ago the Sydenham Society successfully objected to plans to remove these shopfronts).

High Street Buildings was erected in about 1896 to the designs of Alexander Robert Hennell, a local architect born in Mayow Road in 1872 and still living in Forest Hill 40 years later. Several other buildings by Hennell have been listed including the Jews Walk fountain and Forest Hill Library. The EH advisor commented that High Street Buildings displays Hennell’s “skill for quirky use of a variety of architectural motifs”.

The name “High Street Buildings” reflects the fact that for more than 100 years Kirkdale, between Wells Park Road and Fransfield Grove, and Dartmouth Road as far as the police station was officially “High Street, Sydenham”. The earliest buildings in the High Street were built during the 1820s, mostly small artisans’ cottages. The area became the centre for shopkeepers and tradesmen, and was Sydenham and Forest Hill’s very first shopping centre. The fortunes of the High Street began to decline when Lawrie Parade, a rather more fashionable group of shops, was built at Cobb’s Corner. Walter Cobb had a small drapers shop in Lawrie Parade (where the Citizens’ Advice Bureau now is) that he called “Regent House”. He gradually took over other shops in the parade and eventually created perhaps the most fashionable store in SE London.

The fortunes of the High Street shops went into further decline with the building of Grand Parade in Sydenham Road, between Queensthorpe and Mayow Roads, in the early 20th century. By 1936 “High Street, Sydenham” had become quite inappropriate, and so it was renamed.

Unfortunately, the EH advisors felt that the criteria for listing the Fox and Hounds were not fulfilled, although they remarked on its “handsome exterior which contributes to the streetscape” and added “there are some attractive details in the two principal elevations; it is also of some historic interest”. The Fox and Hounds was first licensed in 1826, and was thus one of the earliest buildings in the High Street. The present building was erected in about 1891, to the designs of Thomas Haliburton Smith, and the “historic interest” refers to the fact that it was one of the first pubs to have a “saloon bar”, a novel feature in the 1890s. Unfortunately, that was removed some years ago.

The listing of High Street Buildings means that, in this part of Sydenham, the Jews Walk fountain, Farnborough House, High Street Buildings and the adjacent group of buildings (124-128 Kirkdale) are all now listed grade II, as are most of the Victorian buildings in Jews Walk and the buildings in Westwood Hill down to, and including, St Barts. There are, of course, other significant buildings that enjoy no protection whatsoever and we must do what we can to protect those.

Blue plaque for Eleanor Marx

English Heritage has recently agreed to put a blue commemorative plaque on the house in Jews Walk where Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl and herself a passionately committed socialist and activist, spent the last few years of her life.

The first commemorative plaques were installed during the 1860s but it was not until 1901, when the London County Council took over responsibility from the Royal Society of Arts, that they began to achieve popular appeal. The earliest LCC plaques were designed by Arthur Halcrow Verstage, who lived on Horniman Drive. When the LCC was abolished in 1965, responsibility for the scheme passed to the GLC. Since 1986 the scheme has been managed by English Heritage. Because they have strict guidelines English Heritage blue plaques are the most prestigious of all. There is a strict set of criteria to be met before they are approved.

Eleanor’s plaque is the fifth in our area. There are already plaques to FJ Horniman on the Horniman Museum clock-tower (LCC), Sir Ernest Shackleton on 12 Westwood Hill (GLC), John Logie Baird in Crescent Wood Road (GLC) and Sir Francis Pettit Smith on Sydenham Hill (EH), installed earlier this year.

Born in 1855, Eleanor Marx was Karl Marx’s youngest and, perhaps, favourite daughter. She grew up to become a passionate disciple of his, and worked tirelessly to further the cause of international socialism, particularly after his death in 1883. Eleanor’s father was dominating and strong-willed yet she was closely attached to him, and admired him immensely.

Within months of his death Eleanor became involved with Dr Edward Aveling in what she called a “free love” liaison. Her attachment to her dominating father might explain her attraction to Aveling who was domineering and selfish. Few of those who knew him had anything good to say of him. William Morris described him as “a disreputable dog” and Engels’ biographer said that he had “the thieving instincts of a jackdaw and the morals of a tom-cat”. The more Eleanor’s friends tried to warn her against Aveling the more attached she became to him. She took his name, and called herself “Eleanor Marx-Aveling”. Friederich Engels, Marx’s collaborator and Eleanor’s mentor, died in 1895 leaving Eleanor some £7000, enough to make her financially independent. She decided to use some of this money to buy herself a house.

Why she chose to look in Sydenham we don’t know, but one clue is provided by her remark in a letter to her sister on 17th November 1895 that “the house we are about to buy... (Edward swears this is my only reason for buying it) is in JEWS Walk, Sydenham”. On her father’s side Eleanor was Jewish and this was very important to her. Just days before she moved in she wrote “I am Jewishly proud of my house in Jews Walk”. Clearly she was very excited by the prospect of moving to Sydenham. On 29th November 1895 Eleanor signed the lease, and paid £525. On 14th December Eleanor, and perhaps Aveling, moved into 7 Jews Walk. Originally called “Moraston Lodge”, Eleanor decided to call the house “The Den”. It seems that Aveling spent little time at The Den. He visited occasionally “to demand money, speak of his conquests, and menace her”, according to one account.

Eleanor spent much of her time working on her father’s papers, and writing. Thanks to Engels’ bequest she could now afford some secretarial help so, in early 1896, she engaged Edith Lanchester. Edith was quite as radical as Eleanor. Just before starting work for Eleanor, Edith decided to live with her partner James Sullivan. Her family was so outraged that they attempted to have her certified insane. Edith’s daughter, Elsa Lanchester (born in 1902), became an actress and married Charles Laughton. Eleanor had a wide circle of friends on the left of European politics, and there are suggestions (in letters and other sources) early members of socialist movement visited Eleanor at Jews Walk, including HG Wells, E Nesbitt and George Bernard Shaw.

During 1896 Eleanor added a codicil to her will, benefiting Aveling. Some have suggested that he persuaded her to do this. The witnesses were Gertrude Gentry, her maid, whom Eleanor described in a letter as “excellent, but rather stupid”, and “an unidentified John Smith”. Aveling was known to use false names. On 8th June 1897, using the name Alec Nelson, he secretly married a young actress called Eva Frye. Eleanor was persuaded that Eva was merely another of his mistresses and she continued giving money to Aveling. In January 1898 Aveling needed a kidney operation. One of Eleanor’s friends, H M Hyndman, hoped that “the surgeon’s knife might slip” and was inclined to blame the doctor when Aveling recovered. Eleanor paid for the operation, and also took Aveling to Margate where she nursed him back to health. In March they returned to Jews Walk. Eleanor scoured Sydenham for an invalid chair so that she could take Aveling out.

Sometime at the end of March 1898 Eleanor discovered, possibly through a letter received on 31st March, that Eva was not Aveling’s mistress but his wife, a discovery too distressing for her to bear. At about 10am on 31st March the maid was given a note to take to George Dale, chemist of 92 Kirkdale (now no. 181, sixth door down from the Catholic Church). Gertrude returned to The Den with a small white parcel and the poison book for Eleanor to sign. Dr Aveling then left the house to spend the day in London; some have asked how a man apparently so ill was able to travel to London for the day. While Gertrude was returning the poison book to the chemist, Eleanor went upstairs. The white parcel contained prussic acid and chloroform. At 10.45 am Gertrude went upstairs and found Eleanor on the bed, barely breathing. She alerted a neighbour, and then ran around the corner to summon Dr Henry Shackleton of 12 Westwood Hill, Eleanor’s doctor and father of Sir Ernest Shackleton. By the time Dr Shackleton arrived Eleanor was dead.

The inquest was held at Park Hall, Sydenham Park (now a fitness centre). Dr Aveling was evasive and non-committal. The Coroner described him as “a most difficult man”. Aveling said that Eleanor had been “of a morbid disposition and had several times suggested they commit suicide together”. The verdict was suicide, but it is widely accepted that Aveling’s unfaithfulness and profligacy with her money contributed to Eleanor’s unhappiness, even depression. There are still some who believe that he actually tricked her into killing herself. Aveling died just four months later, from complications arising from his operation.

The Origins of Mayow Park

Click here for more pictures

On 29th May 1875, a "Plea for a People's Recreation Ground" appeared in the Sydenham, Forest Hill & Penge Gazette. It regretted that "all available land in our neighbourhood is being taken for building purposes" and young people "meet and loiter about the roads, congregate at every street corner, becoming a moral pest and a nuisance". Furthermore, the poor had nothing but "the streets, the music hall, the penny gaff or the public house for their evening's resort".

This letter, written by Rev William Taylor Jones, headmaster of Sydenham College, led to the creation of Sydenham Public Recreation Ground (later renamed Mayow Park), the first public open space in the south of Lewisham. The following week, the Hon and Rev Augustus Legge, vicar of St Bartholomew's, wrote endorsing Taylor Jones' proposal. He also offered twenty guineas towards the cost.

Six months later, stung by an editorial in the Gazette that asked why so little progress had been made, Taylor Jones replied that he had hoped that "a more energetic person" would have taken up the reins. He then discussed the two major issues - how was money to be raised, and where was the ground be located?

Raising money was straightforward. The Metropolitan Board of Works (the London-wide local authority of the time) might make a significant contribution, and the rest would come from donations. The Lewisham District Board of Works (forerunner of Lewisham Council) could lay out and maintain the ground.

Finding a suitable site was more difficult. Several were discussed. One, "an excellent site", was not then available, but it would later become Wells Park. Another suggestion was glebe land (called Vicar's Field) in Dartmouth Road, where the Library, swimming pools, Thorpewood Avenue and Derby Crescent were later built. This was the preferred site. However, objectors suggested that as it was let as allotments to the poor, at a very low rent, it would be unjust to deprive them of this benefit.

By November 1875 Taylor Jones had formed a committee of two dozen of the more wealthy and influential residents, including Mayow Wynell Adams, F J Horniman, A G Hennell (architect of Forest Hill library), Rev Augustus Legge and T W Williams (embezzler, drug-taker, suicide, local politician and Lewisham's first mayor). Taylor Jones also published a list of those willing to give money, of whom F J Horniman (with £100) was the most generous.

By December 1875 the Lewisham District Board of Works had agreed that it would accept and "enclose, plant, and preserve [a suitable site] as an open space forever". Taylor Jones said, "The ground should be used for recreation, and not a mere ornamental or pleasure ground". By "recreation", he meant sports (football, cricket etc.). This comment makes clear the distinction between a "park", which was primarily ornamental, and a "recreation ground", which was primarily for sports.

A public meeting at the Foresters' Hall, Clyde Vale (the building survives) on 24th February 1876 was a turning point. It was attended by "many well known ladies and gentlemen". The Earl of Dartmouth was in the chair. Sharing the platform with him was his younger brother, the Hon and Rev Augustus Legge. Their father, as Lewisham's major landowner, was a principal proponent and major beneficiary of the enclosure of Sydenham Common in 1819.

At this meeting, Taylor Jones announced that Mayow Wynell Adams had offered 17½ acres of land for £8,500 (about half its market value). The meeting unanimously accepted the site offered by Mayow Adams and accepted a motion, proposed by George Grove, to open a subscription list of those willing to donate.

In a book published in 1878, Mayow Wynell Adams wrote, "It had often occurred to me how pleasant a thing it would be if I could devote a portion of land for the amusement and recreation of the public, but … it was not in my power to give it." In 1874, Mayow Wynell Adams inherited the Old House, on the site of the present Earlsthorpe Road. After a legal dispute with his trustees, he was able to offer the site of the present park.

A deputation, led by William Taylor Jones, approached the MBW to apply for a grant. After much discussion (and an Act of Parliament, which was needed to allow the MWB to use ratepayers money to buy land, and to bind the Lewisham District Board of Works and its successors to care for the ground in perpetuity) the MBW agreed to contribute half the cost of the site. The trustees of the Lewisham Parochial Charities (of whom Taylor Jones was chairman) agreed to donate £1000. That left £3250 for local people to raise.

The Sydenham, Forest Hill & Penge Gazette was vociferous in its support for the campaign. It pointed out that there was an obligation on the part of those who had benefited from the enclosure of Sydenham Common to give something back. "From those who received so much, something substantial is expected in return, and the public eye … will not fail to watch closely their response to the appeal for funds," the Gazette said, threateningly. Then there were those who lived near the proposed park, for their houses "will be considerably enhanced" by it. In fact, it concluded, everyone will benefit and therefore all should contribute.

By early May 1876, the treasurers held only £700 of the £3250 that local people needed to raise. William Taylor Jones wrote again to the paper, reminding people of their duty. Thomas Coleman Dibdin, a landscape painter well known in his own day, and local resident, donated "six delightful sketches" of the site of the park, for sale at £5 each, to raise money.

Eventually contracts were exchanged and the Lewisham Board of Works began the task of preparing the ground. The site consisted of four fields, and while the hedges were cleared, the ancient hedgerow oaks were kept. The site had to be levelled and drainage installed, particularly in the central area, which was to be used for cricket. The surviving bank around this area was for spectators. The original layout did not include the main entrance from Silverdale (that had to wait until the road itself was developed) but otherwise the design of the park has changed little, the bowling green and tennis courts being the main additions, and the lodge (part of the original design) the main loss.

On 1st June 1878 the Sydenham and Forest Hill Public Recreation Ground was formally opened. A procession left what is now Dalmain Primary School in Brockley Rise at 3 pm. It made its way along Dartmouth Road, down Kirkdale, Sydenham Road and Mayow Road to the park. Children from schools along the route joined it, as did many shopkeepers, who had closed their shops for the occasion. Buildings were decorated with flags and bunting hung across the roads. Members of local organisations marched (Kent Artillery Volunteers, West Kent Fire Brigade, Ancient Order of Foresters and others). There were also the carriages of those too important to walk. The "oldest inhabitant" said he could not remember an occasion to equal it. By four o'clock, the procession entered the recreation ground.

There were some 11,000 people in the park. The chairman of the Lewisham District Board of Works declared the park open "for ever", and added "those two words … signified that it was to be kept open and in good order for ever … in the same beautiful order to which it was now seen … never worse, but probably better". Another speaker showed a model of a drinking fountain to be erected in honour of the Rev William Taylor Jones. He also presented Taylor Jones with a silver inkstand.

Since the opening of Mayow Park, some ten open spaces have been created in the area. The significance of Mayow Park, however, is that it was the first. William Taylor Jones created something that few had done before. It was a typically Victorian venture, led and largely funded by the wealthy and influential, undoubtedly from the best of motives, for the benefit and improvement of those less fortunate.

Footnote: At today's prices, the 17½-acre site cost £378,057. The Metropolitan Board of Works gave £189,029 and Lewisham Parochial Charities £44,477. The local community donated £144,551. The largest individual donation (F J Horniman at £100) would be worth £4,447 today.