Nairn’s Bromley: fuss and fidgets

London to Hastings (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. In this series I revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, to see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

 

I have to admit that I resent Bromley. As a Penge historian, I resent the fact that Penge, which for hundreds of years was a detached hamlet of Battersea, tied to the Surrey river-side, is now annexed to a London borough which half-believes it ought to be in Kent. And as a Penge resident and Labour Party member, I resent living in a borough dominated by a particularly obnoxious sub-species of Tory. 

But – somewhat to his own surprise – Ian Nairn liked Bromley when he visited in the 1960s. Or rather, he liked the High Street. In his view, Bromley High Street (unlike many others) had not been swamped by post-war modernisation, but nor had it set itself in aspic. Instead it had achieved its own unique “appealing suburban fussiness … the cheerful disorder of a village shop blown up to serve a population of 70,000“.   

He saw the local architecture, both good and bad, conspiring to serve this fussy purpose. Thus the inter-war half-timbered block in the Market Square was (and still is) truly ghastly: 

 
Market square

 “ … blubbery … really horrible … not fun in any sense … “ according to Nairn. And yet he also saw it as somehow fitting “because it bumbles along … and makes every corner into a fidget”. And Bromley’s few fragments of architectural modernism were equally apt: Dunn’s shop (1956), because it was “full of funny corners”; and Harrison & Gibson’s (1960) because it was simultaneously “flashy and sensitive”. As it happens, both were furniture stores, of which more later. 

The only problem was that, in the 1960s, the High Street was still part of the A21 from London to Hastings, with heavy traffic rattling its shop-windows. Nairn nervously anticipated an intervention by “road-wideners”, putting the fidgety yet precious local suburban ecology at risk.  

In the end it was the by-pass builders, and not the road-wideners, who won the argument: for more than 30 years now ‘Kentish Way’ has carried the A21 around and away from the old town centre, and the High Street is thoroughly pedestrianised. Where lorries once thundered, pop-up stalls now sell fresh fish and nick-nacks.  

 
High Street pedestrians

 In fact, if Nairn’s suburban cheerfulness still survives, it is probably due to this pedestrianisation. On a sunny day the High Street is bustling, not just with shoppers but also with older ladies and gents taking the air and enjoying the proximity, and sometimes the company, of others. Hence my encounter with the lady in the mobility scooter. Always a sucker for a bit of Victorian patterned brick, I had stopped to take a picture of a gable peeping above a modern shop front,  

 
Old library

 and was immediately accosted. “That was the old library, you know!” the lady announced. And she proceeded to tell me what it looked like, and where the steps were, and how often she used to visit in her youth. “I haven’t thought about the old library for years. I had forgotten it until I saw you taking a picture”. I was as delighted to become acquainted with the ghost of a library as she was to renew her acquaintance with her memories, and we parted on friendly terms.   

Back to those modernist furniture shops. They’re both still standing, but no longer sell furniture. What once was Dunn’s now houses Argos, Lakeland, Wallis and Starbucks at street level, with offices above.  

Dunn's

 And what once was Harrison & Gibson’s is now TK Maxx.  

Harrison Gibson

 To my eye, the Dunn’s building looks tired. And the Harrison & Gibson’s building looks drab. Whatever allure they held in the ‘60s has been dissipated by time and make-overs. 

And yet they had their moment, Dunn’s in particular. This was an old family concern, dating back to the eighteenth century. From the 1930s it was run by Geoffrey Dunn, a committed modernist, who focused the furniture part of the business on modern design. By the 1950s the shop was selling to customers throughout the UK, and in 1965 it attracted national attention when it launched its own version of a modernist icon, the Isokon Long Chair, created in the 1930s by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer. 

Ian Nairn’s visit in the mid-60s therefore happily coincided with Bromley’s very own modernist moment, a moment defined not by its architecture but by its furniture. And I have to admit that now that I know this, now that I know that Bromley was once nationally celebrated as a centre of modern design, I feel a certain grudging affection for the place – obnoxious Tories notwithstanding.

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Nairn’s Beddington: Poetry Please

Beddington #7

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn liked the liminal bleakness of Beddington Lane in the 1960s.

“A forlorn, atmospheric place … Six grand cooling towers … pylons everywhere, houses all round the horizon, light industry in the foreground. Yet out of these unexpected ingredients comes a poetry which is missing from most of the preserved villages around London … “

And today? Does Beddington Lane still retain that unexpected poetry? To my mind, sadly, No.

Nairn’s 1960s view was dominated by those enormous cooling towers.

Beddington #2

They belonged to Croydon ‘A’ power station, built by the local council in the 1890s. Next door was the ‘B’ station, opened in 1950. And together they sat at the heart of a well-established industrial zone, along Waddon Marsh Lane and the River Wandle.

The First World War gave birth to a second zone to the south, on Coldharbour Lane, where first a military airfield, and then an aircraft  factory – the Orwellian-sounding ‘National Aircraft Factory No. 1’ – were built. In 1920 the airfield became Croydon Aerodrome, Britain’s gateway to the world. And in 1925 the Purley Way was built along the line of Waddon Marsh Lane and Coldharbour Lane to create a new, modern road linking the older industrial zone to the north with the airfield and newer industries to the south.

With the Second World War, planning became respectable. In 1944 town-planner Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan, a blueprint for a prosperous, healthier post-war London. In general he was hostile to siting industrial or manufacturing activity within or close to residential areas, but he was always open to ‘special cases’ and Croydon was one of them:

“Croydon is a suitable area for industries associated with aircraft engineering and maintenance, or industries likely to use air transport for the export of light luxury goods like cosmetics, high quality leather work, including ladies’ handbags, expensive pottery and delicate precision instruments … Most of Croydon’s industry is post-1918 and its expansion was greatly stimulated by the development of the aerodrome and the Purley Way … “.

When Nairn visited Beddington Lane in the 1960s the landscape he saw – power stations, pylons, light industry – was part of the industrial area described by Abercrombie. When he marvelled at the cooling towers he was on its western edge, looking back east across the Purley Way, towards Croydon.

 

Beddington #7

The view today is both recognisably similar and depressingly different. The cooling towers of Croydon ‘A’ have gone, demolished in the 1970s. The chimneys of its neighbour Croydon ‘B’ survive, but their function now is to advertise the Ikea superstore in the retail park.

 

Beddington #8

There could be no better symbol of the change which has occurred, the shift from making stuff to selling stuff. Of course this shift is bigger than Beddington Lane, it’s global; it’s about neo-liberalism; it’s about the financialisation of capital and the re-location of manufacturing. Beddington Lane is just one charmless example of this global shift playing itself out on the local level.

Why charmless? Because despite everything, despite the monotonous and often dangerous work which they demanded, and the contribution to global warming from the millions of tons of coal which they burned, there was a drama, a poetry, to great twentieth-century productive engines such as power stations. And the drama stemmed not just from their monumental scale, but also from function: the making of electricity, the making of something new. Measured against this, a ‘retail park’ is a sad decline, a maze of designed ugliness, a car-friendly abstraction of pre-fabricated sheds. Some sheds claim to be ‘superstores’, others builders’ merchants, or depots, or wholesalers, but all, essentially, are just sheds, dumb and demeaning. ‘Retail parks’ shrivel the soul.

Beddington #3

But all is not lost. Continue down Beddington Lane to the south, approaching the River Wandle and, unexpectedly, we enter a hidden historical landscape. Appearances here deceive. Beyond the scrappy hedge and fence is the uninviting expanse of Beddington Sewage Treatment Works:

 

Beddington #6

but beneath the sludge beds lie the remains of a Roman villa. And also near-by is a pre-Roman Iron Age enclosed settlement; and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And the area has yielded finds from the Bronze Age, Neolithic, and perhaps even Mesolithic, attesting to a continuous human presence going back six thousand years or more, attracted and sustained by the modest River Wandle.

All of which is more than enough to exorcise the demeaning soullessness of the ‘retail park’ up the road, and open us up again to the possibility of poetry.
Beddington #1

 

Penge’s War Dead: Research and Remembrance

GWP - War memorial RG

Research

In these centenary years, like many others, I’ve been researching the meaning of the First World War for the place where I live. I’ve looked into the Home Front in Penge – food, drink, recruitment. And most recently, I’ve been finding out about the young men from Penge who went off to fight and never came back.

The sheer volume of material available for this sort of research, the variety of sources, is astonishing. In the case of Penge I have made use of:

  • The local war memorial with its four hundred inscribed names;
  • Local newspapers, some available online through the British Newspaper Archive. The Norwood News has been especially useful, and the Penge & Anerley Press has some good content.
  • The official ‘Penge Roll of Honour’, compiled diligently from 1914 onwards by local school-teacher W.T. Stuart with help from pupils at Oakfield School, written up and published as a bound manuscript after the War, now carefully preserved in the Bromley Archive.

GWP RoH #2

  • The National Archive, which has put a vast amount of its First World War holdings online, including soldiers’ and sailors’ individual ‘medal cards’.
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, another impressive resource in terms of the data it holds, and its ease of use. The CWGC embodies the moral imperative of ‘remembrance’, charged with remembering the war dead in perpetuity: even today they rededicate graves, and hold burial services when the remains of First World War victims are identified.
  • The Imperial War Museum (also a product of the First World War) and its ‘Lives of the First World War’ project.
  • Regimental histories: in my case, I’ve been looking at The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-1919 by C.T. Atkinson, published in 1924, because this was the Regiment that Penge men were most likely to join.

By putting all these together, every so often we can establish the circumstances of a death which would otherwise be just another statistic. For instance: the raw data on Leslie Kitchen of Minden Road in Penge is that he was a Private in the 7th Battalion of the West Kent Regiment, and died at the age of 19 on 28th March 1918. But from Atkinson’s history we can place the 7th battalion, and therefore Leslie, at the village of Gentelles, south of Amiens, on 28th March. Leslie was killed in a sudden and overwhelming German attack in which the battalion was virtually wiped out. This was one episode in the great offensive of spring 1918, Ludendorff’s last gamble, his attempt to exploit his temporary numerical superiority on the Western Front while Russia was out of the War, and the USA not yet properly in it.

One final word: I am enormously indebted to my partner, Dr. Lucie Dutton, for contributing her own research skills, honed in the course of producing her PhD. She has pulled together data from multiple sources to produce a consolidated record of the Penge war dead.

I’ll be talking about our findings, about who these young men were, where they lived, how they met their ends, on Tuesday 6th November, at 7 pm, in Melvin Hall, Melvin Road, Penge.

Remembrance

But is there a danger in this sort of research? Isn’t there something mawkish or prurient about cataloguing the War’s dead? And isn’t there a risk that it will be hi-jacked by the peddlers of cheap sentimental patriotism and Brexit nativism?

These risks are real, but there is also a duty here.

Millions of young men died on the battlefields of the First World War. Four hundred of them came from Penge. The streets where they lived, in many cases the houses where they lived, are still here. They were snatched from suburbia to face horror and death. Of course the same was true in the Second World War, and the other wars, but the fact is that, in this country, it was the First World War which became and remains the symbol of tragic slaughter, the source of the imperative of remembrance. And society is richer for having such a symbol and such a source.

Max Horkheimer put it like this:

“What has happened to the human beings who have fallen, no future can repair … human consciousness alone can become the site where the injustice can be abolished, the only agency that does not give in to it”.

What Horkheimer is saying is that the past is past, the dead are dead, the circumstances of their deaths cannot be undone, but some measure of hope and redemption for them is still possible if we, the living, can find it in ourselves to offer it to them. Our living human consciousness, our grief and sense of shared humanity, offers the only possible site, the only available place, where their suffering may be acknowledged and their humanity sustained despite their absence.

I find this thought immensely moving. It touches not just the First World War’s dead, but the victims of history as such. In fact it defines the moral ground of historical sensibility and historical study. It argues that the practice of history is simultaneously an intellectual and a moral endeavour, an exercise both in diligent research and interpretation, and in human sympathy, imagination and solidarity. This is why remembrance matters.

 

Home Front Penge: Demon Drink


Pubs Crystal Palace Station

One day in late 1916, in the Refreshment Rooms at Crystal Palace Low Level Station (today’s Crystal Palace Station), Walter Stamforth bought a drink for his friend Harold Manley. The drink was served by the barmaid Kate Truett, whose employer was Frank Hayward, the licensee. 

In January 1917, all four of them appeared at Penge Police Court, charged with committing or facilitating the crime of buying intoxicating liquor to be consumed by another person. Stamforth had broken the law by buying the drink, Truett by serving it, Manley by drinking it, and Hayward because it had all happened on his premises. The first three were fined, and Hayward lost his licence. All of this may strike us as barmy, but in 1917 it was the law. 

It had been illegal to ‘treat’ or ‘stand a drink’ since the spring of 1915, when David Lloyd George launched a full frontal assault on Britain’s drinking culture in the name of winning the First World War.  

In late 1914 and early 1915 the Western Front was taking shape, as the German Army dug in to defend its territorial gains in France and Belgium. British soldiers and politicians were trying to get to grips with the new phenomenon of trench warfare, in which artillery would clearly play a major role. But the Army lacked ammunition: there was a ‘Shell Crisis’. Lloyd George spotted an opportunity to play a bit of politics, by drawing a link between the Shell Crisis on the Front and industrial discipline at home. With no solid evidence, he asserted that the main reason for the shortage of shells was that munitions workers were drunk.

Rt Hon DLG commons wikimedia org

He quickly found a ready audience, because the War had unleashed a storm of moral panics and crusades. Self-appointed guardians of public morals insisted that, with the country at war, it was outrageous that some still sought entertainment in pubs, cinemas, football grounds or music halls. Even sex wasn’t safe. Lord Kitchener refused to allow condoms to be issued to British soldiers, insisting instead that they should ‘abstain’, for which he was publicly praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The prominent suffragette Christabel Pankhurst also chimed in, claiming that most men had VD and should learn to be ‘chaste’. 

Even with Lord Kitchener and Christabel Pankhurst on board, a campaign against sex was doomed. But Lloyd George calculated that a campaign against drink might succeed; and if he could position himself as its champion, rich political rewards may come his way. The temperance movement was, after all, part of the cultural landscape, part of the whole non-conformist and evangelical Christian tradition. Leading figures in all political parties were declared teetotallers. Here in Penge the local Band of Hope had been active since the 1870s, working closely with the Baptist and Congregationalist churches, running weekly services for children, and public meetings for adults, preaching the evils of drink. Similar groups were at work all over the country, providing a ready-made body of support for Lloyd George’s new measures. And the measures were drastic: in addition to making ‘treating’ illegal, he raised the price of drink, reduced its strength, and cut pub opening hours to two hours at lunchtime and three in the evening.

Pubs Crooked Billet

Pubs everywhere were affected, but for Penge’s pubs these new laws came on top of another sudden wartime measure, the closure of the Crystal Palace.

The vast Crystal Palace complex, combining museum and sports arenas and concert hall and conference centre and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of amusements, was mostly located within Penge’s boundary. And for sixty years it had provided reliable passing trade for Penge’s shopkeepers and landlords, as visitors wandered down to browse in local shops, or to have a drink in one of the sixteen pubs lining the High Street between the Penge Gate on Thicket Road, and the junction with Croydon Road. Then suddenly, out of the blue, in February 1915, the site was abruptly closed to the public and occupied by the Royal Navy which used it for the rest of the War as a ‘training depot’.  

Whether this led to a loss of trade for Penge’s pubs is hard to say: it may be that the loss of civilian customers was recompensed by a new influx of thirsty naval trainees. But even so it must have required some adjustment to deal with this sudden alteration at the same time as beer became weaker, prices higher, hours shorter, and landlords’ livelihoods were put at risk every time someone took it into his head to buy a drink for a mate.

Pubs Goldsmiths

 

The anti-drink laws of 1915 matter. They were an early signal that the First World War would be unlike any previous war; a ‘total war’, a national mobilisation, leaving no-one untouched. Many other aspects of ‘total war’ would follow in the months and years ahead: state direction of industry, mass employment of women, conscription, food controls, rationing. But drink – or rather the campaign against it – pointed the way.  
Pubs Pawleyne

 

Nairn’s Wimbledon: High towers in parks

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.

Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #2

It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.

 Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #1

Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.

 Wimbledon - 26 Bessborough Road

Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.

Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.

 Wimbledon - Alton East

Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.

Wimbledon - Alton West #1

In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.

Wimbledon - Alton West #3

But high-rise brutalism also has its dark side. More than a decade after Alton West, Lucas designed the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. Built between 1968 and 1972, organised around eleven 12-storey towers, it became notorious as a symbol of dysfunctional social housing, characterised by lonely walkways and crime-infested nooks and crannies.

Much of Lucas’s work is still with us. Oatlands Court is still there, modest and lucid. Alton West has celebrated its 60th birthday and still looks stunning. But the Ferrier never saw 40: by 2012 it had been demolished to make way for an emphatically low-rise replacement, Kidbrooke Village.

Home Front Penge: Allotments

 

GWP Allotment lead 

The single most pressing issue on the Home Front throughout the First World War, in Penge as elsewhere, was food. Britain relied on food imports; if they were cut off, within three months people would be starving. So alongside the naval effort to protect supplies from abroad, a domestic effort took shape, slowly and fitfully, to grow more food at home. And this effort took in not just the countryside but also the cities.

 Urban allotments were nothing new in 1914: Penge’s neighbours in Beckenham could boast several allotment sites dating back to the 1890s. But within the boundaries of Penge – which included Anerley and part of Upper Norwood as well as ‘Penge proper’ – there were none.

 Enter Edward George Hopper.  

GWP Hopper (3)

 

Hopper was a florist, a local councillor (‘Independent’, which in those days was code for Liberal), blessed with green fingers and boundless enthusiam. From the summer of 1915 he argued that Penge Urban District Council should take the initiative on allotments, and at a public meeting at the Co-op Hall in August many would-be plot-holders agreed. 

Penge was densely housed, but not as densely as it is today. In principle there was plenty of open ground which could be used for allotments, especially in the largely-undeveloped area bounded by Croydon Road, the High Street, Ravenscroft Road, and Elmers End Road. This map from 1909 shows the potential. 
GWP Allotment potential map

 But even where land was undeveloped, it was still privately-owned, and the Council had no powers of requisition or compulsory purchase. Some landowners acted voluntarily – Mr. and Mrs. Grose made land available at Chesham Park for allotments – but most didn’t.

Things changed when the Government brought in the Land Cultivation Order in December 1916. This gave local councils not just a right, but a duty, to identify and take over ‘unused’ land and make it available to local residents as allotments; in effect, allotment-holders became tenants imposed on the landowner, under the protection of the local council. Significantly, the Order was introduced under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act or ‘DORA’, the catch-all law passed in 1914 which gave the Government emergency wartime powers. In other words, allotments were officially defined as part of the war effort.

 In the early months of 1917 Penge Council identified and took over six sites. In Anerley there were two small sites at Stembridge Road and Bourdon Road, with room for 12 plots. In Upper Norwood there was a single 13-plot site at Milestone Road. But the large sites were in Penge proper, in the open area described above: 7 plots at Oak Grove, 41 at Chesham Park and 43 at the ‘Royston Estate’. The whole effort was overseen by the Council, and especially by Councillor Hopper. He presided at monthly Plot-holders Meetings at the Town Hall on Anerley Road, dispensing practical advice to first-time growers; co-ordinated bulk purchase of seed potatoes and other basics; and organised Summer and Winter Shows at which allotment holders could show off their produce.

The Council also negotiated water supplies for the different sites – though this provoked an angry debate about who should pay. Some councillors argued that allotment-holders should pay since they were the beneficiaries. Others argued that their efforts were benefitting the whole community, so that the cost should be met from the rates.

Today there are two allotment-sites within the old Penge boundary, at Upper Chesham, and Lower Chesham. Penge Green Gym’s impressive online history suggests that the modern Upper Chesham Allotments are on the site of the old Chesham Park, 

GWP Allotment Upper Chesham

 with the further implication that they are directly descended from the First World War allotments donated by Mr. and Mrs. Grose. Lower Chesham Allotments, meanwhile, are a few yards from Royston Road and Royston Field, and clearly within the old ‘Royston Estate’.

 
GWP Allotment Lower Chesham

 All of which suggests that they too owe their existence to the First World War, to Penge Urban District Council, and to Councillor Edward George Hopper.

Home Front Penge: Conshies

GWP Recruiting Officer

 May 15th was International Conscientious Objectors Day, which makes this a good time to look back to the First World War, when the concept of the ‘conscientious objector’ first appeared. I’ve been researching the home front in Penge during that War, when ‘conshies’ stirred up real passions.

Penge’s population in the early years of the twentieth century was mostly skilled working class, and lower middle class. It was a dormitory suburb for clerks in the City, with regular trains to Blackfriars (then called ‘St. Paul’s’) and London Bridge; and for workers in the West End, catching the train to Victoria. There was also the Crystal Palace, whose visitors spent their money in local shops and pubs. There was poverty, but far less than in other South London districts such as Lambeth or Greenwich. With an Urban District Council dominated by the Conservatives, Penge was quietly respectable.

Respectability was closely linked to religious observance. Active church attendance across London was notoriously low, but this co-existed with a widespread passive acceptance of Christian religion and morality. Most of Penge’s local worthies, councillors and community leaders, declared allegiance to one or other of the area’s churches or chapels, and this was clearly regarded as both normal and creditable.

GWP Congregational Church

But, as in previous eras, there was a tension between respectable church attendance, and the radical potential of the Biblical message. The sixth commandment did not say ‘Thou shalt be respectable’ but ‘Thou shalt not kill’. With the advent of the First World War this tension was exposed. So far I have only found evidence for a handful of men who identified themselves as conscientious objectors in Penge, but all of them rooted their objection in their Christian faith.

In early 1916, soon after conscription (compulsory military service) came in, Mr. A.W. Oakley of Cintra Park appeared before the Penge Tribunal, established by the District Council to deal with local men who objected to being called up. Oakley was a self-employed tailor, with a wife and an elderly mother. He could have argued that he was their only means of support: it was an allowable argument, which sometimes won a reprieve if not an exemption. But he argued on the grounds of his faith. He was a Christian, a Baptist, and “he could not take part in warfare … he would rather go to prison”. The Tribunal gave him non-combatant status.

John Hill, of Station Road in Anerley, was also declared non-combatant when he argued that military service was incompatible with his Christian principles. He was required to join the ‘Non-Combatant Corps’ with the rank of Private. This was an Army Corps set up specifically for conscientious objectors: its members wore uniform and were subject to regular Army discipline, but they were not required to fight, and worked instead in support roles, building, cleaning and so on. Although distant from the killing fields, they were in the Army, and liable to court martial if they made trouble. John Hill made trouble. Once in the Corps he refused to obey orders on the grounds that he had never agreed to be a soldier. In November 1916 he was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour.

Finally, H. Woodbank and G. Stephenson, lived at Lime Villas in Oakfield Road. They were members of, and may even have been employed by, the Bible Brotherhood. They argued that their Bible work was “essential” and therefore they should be exempt from military service. The Penge Tribunal gave them the benefit of the doubt, but this was over-turned at the next level up, the West Kent Tribunal in Bromley, which ruled that they must fight.

These decisions were taken in an atmosphere of overwhelming hostility to conscientious objectors. By 1916 it was widely understood that this was a war of mass slaughter, but the effect of the slaughter was not to undermine the willingness to fight, but to strengthen it. Because so many had already been lost, the majority view seems to have been that the country must press on so that they would not have died in vain. Hence the hostility to conscientious objectors, who seemed to put their own private principles before the lives of others. And this hostility was expressed not just in the press, or on political platforms, but also within the Christian faith from which the objectors drew their inspiration.

In March 1916 the Reverend Ernest J. Barson, minister at Penge Congregational Church, used his weekly sermon to attack conscientious objectors who claimed that war was contrary to Christianity.

 

GWP Conscientious objector

Theirs was not true Christianity, Barson argued. True Christianity was about fellowship, but conscientious objectors betrayed their fellows and comforted their enemies. True Christianity was about honour, and this was an honourable War. And true Christianity was about sacrifice, and the War had “lifted the manhood of the nation to a higher plane of service and sacrifice than any of us have known before”.

Barson wasn’t particularly reactionary: politically, if anything, he was a progressive. Nor was he the sort to send others into danger while staying safely at home himself; for several months he served as a YMCA volunteer on the Western Front.

GWP Barson in uniform

Barson – who continued as minister at Penge for another 30 years – was simply giving voice to the version of Christianity to which most people in the country subscribed; a no-nonsense, patriotic and utterly respectable version of Christianity, which supported the War and regarded conscientious objectors with contempt.

 

Text images are taken from various editions of the Penge and Anerley Press from 1916.

Nairn’s Sydenham Hill: A Private World

Sydenham Hill #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn was clearly taken with Sydenham Hill railway station, hiding away in its deep woodland cutting, when he visited in the 1960s. I think what most appealed to him was its innocent artifice. It was, he said:

“ … the quintessence of true suburbia, the illusion of rurality more effective here than the real thing would be”.

It was:

“ … a complete private world …  the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding-in”.  

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about a railway cutting. Much of the drama of railway engineering – bridges, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts – stems from the mundane imperative for trains to run on level tracks which natural landscapes tend not to provide for. A cutting is essentially a slice taken out of an inconvenient piece of countryside to allow the trains to run. Over time, as shocked vegetation recovers, a cutting may reinvent itself as a woodland dell, which is what has happened at Sydenham Hill. But it is no accident that Charles Dickens’s most effective ghost story, The Signalman, is set in a new railway cutting, where the violence done to the landscape is stark and raw and inseparable from the tale’s atmosphere of dread.   

Sydenham Hill #4

The cutting at Sydenham Hill, however, is neither stark nor raw. The scars made more than a century and a half ago are healed. But I take issue with Nairn. Its ‘unlikeliness’, its appeal, lies not in the site itself but rather in the means of access to it.

There are several stations in South London where the platforms are significantly below the level of the surrounding land: Denmark Hill, for instance. But at Denmark Hill you never forget that you are in a conventional Victorian railway station: you enter through a station house, walk down covered steps, and emerge onto a platform where you are surrounded by Victorian brick.  

At Sydenham Hill however, approaching from College Road, you enter a portal which ushers you down a rather wonderful little walkway.  

Sydenham Hill #1

As it twists and turns, dropping down the hillside in stages, the foliage presses in from both sides. Nairn whimsically imagined wild beasts crouching in hiding, and leaping out to snatch unwary commuters.    

Sydenham Hill #2

Officially, of course, this is simply the way down to the platform, but official purposes can be misleading. The Sydenham Hill walkway transcends such dumb functionality. It is an experience in itself. It is a brief woodland encounter inseparable from, but not reducible to, the presence of the railway station. 

Sydenham Hill #5

 And once you find yourself at the bottom, on the platform, you are confronted by the looming presence of Penge Tunnel, its elliptical entrance hard up against the station. The portal is rather grand with its classical side piers and cornice, though today its dignity is compromised by wear and tear and graffiti.    

Sydenham Hill #8

 For over 140 years this was the longest railway tunnel in London, an honour snatched away as recently as 2007 when the new Eurostar tunnels opened on the line out of St. Pancras. However, Penge Tunnel may still hold the record as the Longest Tunnel That Members Of The Public Can See Through End To End which, if true, is I suppose some compensation.  

Sydenham Hill #6

 

Penge by Design: Railway Picturesque

LCDR Penge East #2 (2)

 

Catching the train to work each day can be grim, and it’s understandable if this grimness attaches itself to the station where we do the catching, reducing it to merely a site where we must wait and endure. This is a pity, because railway stations are intriguing places, with a special place in London’s townscape.

Consider Penge East railway station. Consider it not as a place to be endured on the way to Brixton or Victoria, but as an example of mid-Victorian railway design.

 

LCDR Penge East #3

 

The station house has a domestic feel, with its homely brickwork and pitched roof. Gently asymmetrical, a short central range with wings at each end, but the wings don’t match: that on the left is taller, with gable-end windows set deliberately at odds with each other, and the chimneys are set differently.

 

LCDR Penge East #4

 

Multi-coloured brickwork, yellow stock with recessed horizontal bands, red brick ornamentation under the eaves, and red and black rows defining the bluntly-pointed arches over doors and windows. The arches have cream base-stones, and cream key-stones with neat little moulded trefoil logos.

 

LCDR Penge East #1 (3)

 

It’s a nice jumble. The multi-coloured and textured brick harks back to Tudor and Renaissance styles. The pointed-arch doors and windows are vaguely Gothic. The deliberate asymmetry was a very Victorian thing, seen in many churches. If we need a label, then I think ‘Railway Picturesque’ hits the mark.

‘Picturesque’ is usually taken to refer to certain whimsical buildings of the eighteenth century, but architectural historian Carrol V. Meeks maintained that it was a much broader and longer-lasting phenomenon. In his 1957 study of railway architecture ** he argued that the picturesque was the railway industry’s dominant style in the nineteenth century. It was characterised by asymmetry, variety, irregularity, and for its detail and ornamentation it happily raided various architectural traditions. The aim was to facilitate the business of the railway while achieving a variety of pleasing, perhaps mildly surprising, visual effects. Penge East railway station is a modest illustration of this.

But Penge East was not a standalone design. It was one of several stations built by the London Chatham & Dover Railway Company (LCDR) in 1862 and 1863 along its new commuter line.

Since the 1850s the South Eastern Railway Company had operated a line from Bromley and Beckenham to London Bridge. The LCDR aimed to compete by building a line from Beckenham to a new junction at Herne Hill, from where travellers could go on either to Victoria, or to St. Paul’s (the original name for the station we know as Blackfriars). Herne Hill was therefore the lynchpin in the project.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #5 (2)

 

The LCDR’s chief engineer was Joseph Cubitt, nephew of Thomas Cubitt, Victorian London’s greatest builder, responsible for Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham Park; and of Lewis Cubitt who designed Kings Cross Station. But Joseph Cubitt was an engineer rather than an architect, and the job of designing the railway stations along his new line fell to a young man called John Taylor. Taylor had a long career and eventually became Sir John Taylor, a safe pair of architectural hands, responsible among other things for the main staircase in the National Gallery. But in 1862 he was just starting out, and his design at Herne Hill station was rather impressive.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #4

 

The station house at Herne Hill is much grander than Penge East, but it has the same asymmetry, the same yellow brick and recessed horizontal bands, the same red brick ornamentation under the eaves, the same pointed red and black arches, and the same trefoil mouldings on cream key-stones. Herne Hill was the prototype for all these design elements. It set the style which was faithfully reproduced a year later at Penge East, and which informed the subtly different, slightly Byzantine variant at West Dulwich.

 

LCDR West Dulwich #1 (2)

 

Among this little group of stations Herne Hill stands out by virtue of its priority, and its size, and – crucially – by virtue of its tower.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #1

 

Square and chunky, with five high arched false window-recesses on each face, and a shallow pitched roof, the Herne Hill tower has an Italianate look – or would have if it were not for the very English chimney stack sticking out of its top. We might be forgiven for assuming that the tower was built purely for visual effect, but in fact it contained and concealed the station’s water-tank, which makes it quintessential Railway Picturesque: mundane industrial function masked by form; a form which is eclectic, arresting, and just off-balance.

None of this prevents the daily commute from being grim. But at least it’s picturesquely grim.

** Carroll V. Meeks, The Railway Station: An Architectural History, London, Architectural Press, 1957.

 

Nairn’s Addiscombe: Obsession

St Mary Canning Rd #2 (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years. 

Who would have thought that Addiscombe – modest, unpretentious Addiscombe – would contain a church as wonderfully weird as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Martin? (Which, for brevity, I will refer to simply as St. Mary Magdalene). But it does, and it attracted Ian Nairn’s attention back in the 1960s.

The architect was Edward Buckton Lamb, who in the 1850s and 1860s designed three eccentric neo-Gothic churches: Christ Church, West Hartlepool in 1854; St. Martin, Gospel Oak in 1865 (shown here);

St Martin Gospel Oak

and the Addiscombe church in 1868. All were commissioned by unconventional clients: at Christ Church, the West Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company; at Gospel Oak, a wealthy evangelical philanthropist. But Addiscombe was the most unusual of the lot: here, the guiding spirit was the Reverend Maxwell Macluff Ben Oliel.

Ben Oliel was a fascinating figure, a Jewish convert to Christianity who embraced  Anglicanism, landed the post of curate at a church in Croydon, built up a personal following with his dazzling preaching, and in 1866 led his followers out of the Church of England to found their own independent evangelical congregation. The church in Canning Road was the result: Lamb was engaged to design it, and the money came from Ben Oliel’s wealthy brother-in-law. While this independent congregation survived, the church was named for St. Paul, but before long Ben Oliel had fallen out with his own followers. After the inevitable period of mutual recrimination during which the building stood empty, he sold it to the Church of England which promptly consecrated it as the Anglican church of St. Mary Magdalene.

Given his record of building deviant churches for unusual clients, Lamb has acquired a reputation as a “rogue architect”. In fact, much of his work, and many of his clients, were entirely conventional. But his three churches, and above all the Addiscombe church, are proof that although he knew how to play the respectable architectural game, he also had a gleeful hankering to ignore its rules and do his own thing.

The eccentricity of the Addiscombe church derives from two of Lamb’s great architectural obsessions: roofs, and timber. These obsessions figure at West Hartlepool and Gospel Oak, but it was at Addiscombe, which he completed just one year before his death, that he pushed them to the limit.

St Mary Canning Rd #5

In Nairn’s London in 1966, Ian Nairn had this to say:

“… (Lamb) was obsessed with a huge timber roof … what he was after was a colossal cruck construction with no walls at all … in the transepts there is open war … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #3 (2)

Given that Nairn celebrated architectural boldness, and delighted in seeing rules successfully broken, I interpret terms like “obsession” and “open war” to signify praise, not horror.

And yet, just four years earlier, St. Mary Magdalene had been described in rather different terms:

“ … this east front … cannot be sufficient preparation for the nightmarish interior, a debauch of High Victorian inventiveness … purposefully composed cacophony … ruthless individualism … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #1 (2)

This is from the 1962 Surrey volume in The Buildings of England series, written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and … Ian Nairn. In the ‘Foreword’ Pevsner briefly summarises their division of labour, but without clarifying which of them would have visited St. Mary Magdalene. However, judging from the language, I think it must have been Nairn. Pevsner’s entries are clipped and constrained, sometimes little more than lists of architectural features, whereas Nairn always seeks to convey an overall impression, his language expansive and florid. Phrases like “nightmarish interior” and “debauch” are definitely Nairnian rather than Pevsnerite. But, unlike the 1966 commentary, they  hardly sound like praise.

It looks as if Nairn changed his mind about St. Mary Magdalene between 1962 and 1966, and shed his earlier nightmarish vision. If so, then he was right to do so. I’m backing 1966 Nairn against 1962 Nairn. I think St. Mary Magdalene is just great.

As 1966 Nairn says, there is a certain restraint in the relation of stone to wood at the west end, and in the apse at the east end.

St Mary Canning Rd #7 (2)

But it all breaks loose across the nave and transepts where there is a glorious chaos of timberwork, magnificently gloomy, overwhelming, great beams leaping from far down near the floor to far up in the high roof, crossing and clashing with each other. But it is chaos with a purpose, because its effect in daytime is to draw the eye through the dark web of timbers to the lantern, a single, high, concentrated source of light poised above the centre of the church. As 1966 Nairn says:

“ … the timber lantern, the real centre of the church, looks down, unwinking, on it all … ”

St Mary Canning Rd #6 (2)

This focus on a high, central point was a Lamb trademark, represented at West Hartlepool too by the lantern, and at Gospel Oak by the crossing. Whether Lamb intended this as an aesthetic effect, or whether it had some spiritual significance for him, I cannot say. But at the magnificently eccentric St. Mary Magdalene in Addiscombe, it’s rather wonderful.