Penge by Design: the Watermen’s Almshouses

View of the Watermen and Lightermen's Almshouses in Penge, Kent, 1842. Artist: WF Starling Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Free Watermen and Lightermen’s Almshouses is Penge’s most prominent building, its iconic building, sitting at its historic heart, next to St John’s Church and directly opposite the Crooked Billet. The three ranges of cottages, arranged with their distinctive gate-tower around a formal garden, were built in 1840-41 “for the benefit of Aged and Decayed Members of the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company and their Widows”. But only a year before building began, the almshouses were heading not for Penge but for New Cross.

 The story begins in 1838, when the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames resolved to build a set of almshouses. The Company was a guild of the City of London, established in the sixteenth century to regulate the carrying of passengers and goods on the river. By the 1830s many guilds had little to do with their original craft or trade, and functioned instead as convenient business networks for merchants and financiers. The Watermen’s Company however still had a connection with its original purpose, and included both well-to-do businessmen and working members plying their trade on the Thames. But their jobs were fast disappearing, under pressure from the newly-erected London docks, the new bridges, and the advent of steam-power. The Company decided to build its almshouses partly because its working members’ traditional livelihoods were on the way out.

 Thames waterman 1824

 By the end of the year, prospective sites had been identified at Bow Common, Deptford, East India Dock Road, Hanwell, Kennington, Kingston, Peckham, Rotherhithe and Wandsworth. But the favoured location was Asylum Road at New Cross. Here, the Licensed Victuallers had built an estate of almshouses in the early 1830s: a large and ambitious project in a neo-classical style, long ranges of cottages with a central portico of giant columns. In December, the Watermen’s Company decided in principle to follow suit and build its own almshouses in Asylum Road, because of its “proximity to the metropolis and its central and healthy location and favourable aspect”.  

 At this point, John Dudin Brown stepped in. He was a wealthy merchant member of the Watermen’s Company, with a large house in the posh new suburb of Penge. For him the almshouses were a prize, which could bring prestige both to Penge in general, and to himself in particular, and he went methodically about the task of claiming his prize. First, he got himself co-opted onto the strategically-important Almshouses Committee. Next he undercut the Asylum Road lobby through sheer generosity, announcing that he was prepared to donate 1.5 acres of land in Penge “as a gratuitous present to the Company” to accommodate the almshouses. And finally he invited the Committee’s members to come down to Penge as his and his wife’s guests, to view the site. They duly arrived on 24th January 1839, looked it over, and engaged in some polite horse-trading which led to Brown enlarging his offer from 1.5 to 2 acres. They then retired to his house for refreshments, and one week later the Company’s governing body held a special meeting at which it gratefully accepted Brown’s offer. The almshouses were coming to Penge.

 The pace now quickened. Fundraising got under way, significantly helped when the Queen Dowager Adelaide agreed to be patron – hence the celebratory engraving at the top of this piece, which with its ambitious perspective makes the almshouses look about twice the size of the Palace of Versailles.

 At the same time the Company called upon its Surveyor, Mr Porter, for a briefing on contemporary almshouse designs, and with these in mind it invited architects to submit their proposals. Fourteen were received, including one from Mr Porter. From these a shortlist of four was drawn up, which included Mr Porter. And on 23rd May 1839 the governing body voted overwhelmingly in favour of the design submitted by – Mr Porter. It looks very much as if George Porter was the favoured internal candidate from the start, well-placed to exploit his inside knowledge as Company Surveyor to give it the design that it wanted.

 The Watermen’s Almshouses are neo-Tudor, described by Pevsner as “the inevitable style for almshouses” at this time. The original sixteenth-century Tudor style was an English interpretation of Renaissance ideas coming in from Italy. It took on board the Renaissance taste for rectangular symmetry, and for brick rather than stone, and to these it added a fashion for clusters of tall brick chimneys. And, because many well-known Tudor buildings were associated with court-yards (Hampton Court, Fulham Palace, Lincoln’s Inn), nineteenth-century architects seeking to emulate the Tudor style also included court-yards in their designs, which in turn required gate-houses or gate-towers.

 Many of these elements are present at the Watermen’s Almshouses. It consists of three ranges of cottages around an open space – a formal garden rather than a court-yard, but the point is made. The buildings are of brick. The design overall is nicely symmetrical. The two-storey cottages are comfortable, homely, pleasantly screened by brick arcades, and topped with tall chimney clusters at regular intervals.  

 But over and above this attractive arrangement, dominating it, drawing the eye, is the gate-tower.

 Watermens Almshouses 2

 To my mind the gate-tower is simply wrong. It’s too big. It overshadows the cottages on either side, twice or three times their height, and the sheer bulk of the central gabled gate-house, and the two solid battlemented turrets with their leaden square-cut ogee roofs, dominates the scene. These were after all meant to be almshouses, modest dwellings where retired watermen and their widows could live in peace and quiet, but the big gate-tower seems instead to hint at alarums and excursions.

 And yet, I have to admit, the whole is somehow saved by sheer chutzpah. Porter’s design is historically inaccurate, and in my view thrown off-balance by the gate-tower, but its self-confidence, its refusal to apologise for itself, wins us over regardless. In the end, we can’t help liking the Watermen’s Almshouses, and we can’t help liking George Porter for building them.

 To the best of my knowledge his only other architectural project dates from a decade before. In 1830 he remodelled the exterior of the church of St Mary Magdalene in Bermondsey Street, a short walk from London Bridge Station. Pevsner forgivingly calls it “gimcrack, charming, unscholarly Gothic Revival”. Here it is.

 St Mary Magdalene

 Let’s be generous. This job pre-dated Pugin’s scholarly turn, his call for historically-accurate churches in the Gothic style, and to that degree we can perhaps forgive Porter. But even with that allowance, this is curate’s-egg Gothic, Gothic only in parts, those parts being the windows. Otherwise it’s pure Porter fantasy. What is Gothic about the blocky square tower with its over-sized battlements? What is Gothic about the sloping over-sized battlements on either flank? What is Gothic about the large expanses of flat unadorned light stone facing? Just like the Penge gate-tower, it’s all wrong.

 And yet, just like the Penge gate-tower, there is an in-your-face audacity about it that is rather winning. I have no idea what Porter thought he was doing here, but whatever it was, he did it with boundless energy and utter conviction. And ten years later, he repeated the trick at Penge.

 Key sources: Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South, Penguin Books, London, 1983; Records of the Society of Watermen & Lightermen, Guildhall Library.



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