Saturday 4 June 2016

A Blue Plaque for Sir George Grove

English Heritage recently agreed to install a blue plaque on 14 Westwood Hill, Sydenham, where Sir George Grove lived between 1852 and 1860.

George Grove was born in Clapham in 1820, the son of a fishmonger. He trained as an engineer, graduating from the Institute of Civil Engineering in 1839. He travelled to Jamaica and Bermuda to oversee the building of lighthouses. He also worked with Robert Stephenson on the Chester to Holyhead Railway, helping build Chester Station and the bridge over the Menai Strait.

Although an engineer Grove also had a passionate interest in music and took every opportunity to attend concerts.

In 1850 he decided to embark on a new career which would enable him to pursue this passion. He accepted the post of secretary of the Society of Arts which, at that time, was making plans for the Great Exhibition. His predecessor in this post was John Scott Russell, a naval architect who was living in Charlecote Grove, off Kirkdale. Scott Russell was to become a lifelong friend.

The original Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was a temporary structure built to house the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The exhibition opened on 1st May 1851 and closed five months later. There followed much heated debate about the future of the building: should it be demolished as originally intended, retained or re-erected somewhere else. In April 1852 the government decided that the building would be demolished. This led to the formation of the Crystal Palace Company which would buy the building and re-erect it, much enlarged, on a another site.

It cannot be co-incidence that several directors of the Crystal Palace Company already had links with Sydenham. Leo Schuster had lived at Penge Place since about 1847 and was prepared to sell his house and estate, on the slopes of Sydenham Hill, as a site for the new building. Samuel Laing had been living in Mayow Road since 1847 and Thomas Newman Farquhar had lived at The Old Cedars, opposite the Greyhound, since 1845. John Scott Russell had been living in Charlecote Grove since 1847. Leo Shuster was also chairman and Samuel Laing a director of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway whose line ran through Forest Hill and Sydenham. George Grove was appointed secretary of the Crystal Palace Company on 13th May 1852.

When the decision was taken to rebuild the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill Grove decided to move to the area.  He found a house on a new development called Church Meadow, next to St Bartholomew's Church. St Bartholomew's was built on a triangle of land bounded today by Westwood Hill, Jews Walk and Kirkdale. In about 1849 this land was acquired by John Goodwin, a builder, and it is probable that his son George, an architect, designed the houses that were soon to be built.

Grove complained that his move to 14 Westwood Hill was being delayed by "the dilatoriness of the builders". Eventually, in October 1852, Grove and his wife Harriet were able to move in. The vicar of St Bartholomew's, the Rev Charles English, became one of Grove's "best Sydenham friends".
14 Westwood Hill, Grove's first house in Sydenham
When the Groves moved to Westwood Hill the land between their house and the church was a footpath leading to Wood's Nurseries on Kirkdale. In 1875 12 Westwood Hill, later to be the Shackleton's house, was built on this site. Several of Grove's friends lived nearby including Henry Wyndham Phillips, "a portrait painter of great merit" who lived at 24 Westwood Hill between 1857 and 1861 and August Manns who lived at Athol Lodge, 174 Kirkdale from 1865 to 1871.
In 1860 George, Harriet and their children moved to a late 17th century cottage in Lower Sydenham where he was to spend the rest of his life.

Grove's Cottage in Lower Sydenham.

One biographer described George Grove as "the intellectual centre of the Sydenham set", a group of Sydenham people who shared an interest in the arts, particularly music. The Sydenham Set included the von Glehns on Peak Hill, the Scott Russells and Arthur Sullivan who "took rooms over a shop in Sydenham Road, to be near his kind friend Grove, at whose house he almost lived". Sullivan also frequently stayed at the Scott Russell's house at the end of Sydenham Avenue.
It was with Grove's wholehearted support that the conductor August Manns provided "a range of the orchestral fare... that eclipsed that of any other British concert-giving organization, with a unique record of new works by foreign composers giving British first performances, and new works by British composers". Grove wrote many of the highly detailed programme notes for these concerts and these were to form the basis of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the first volume of which was published in 1879.
During 1882 George Grove headed a fund-raising campaign which led to the opening of the Royal College of Music. He was its first director and was knighted the same year.
Sir George Grove died at his cottage in Lower Sydenham on 28th May 1900. His funeral service was held at St Bartholomew's Church and he was buried in the Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery.
C L Graves, who wrote the first biography of Sir George in 1903, described him as: "one of the most remarkable men of his remarkable generation... A man who was at once an able engineer, a self-taught but conspicuous Biblical scholar and geographer, the secretary of an enormous commercial enterprise, editor of a prominent magazine, the Director of a College of Music, editor of a musical dictionary and heaven knows what besides".


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