Nairn’s Streatham – English Rundbogenstil

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.

Christchurch #3 (2)

 When Ian Nairn admired Christchurch, Streatham, back in the 1960s, it was as we see it today: handsome, striking, refusing to be discomfited by the endless flood of traffic on the South Circular Road. Nairn was effusive in his praise: he found the church:

“ … noble strong and sensitive … unselfconscious style … incredibly delicate and completely original”.

And he was right.

Christchurch was designed by John Wild at the age of just 28, and completed in 1842. Nairn accuses Wild of allowing his talent to “curdle” after this job, which is a bit unfair: he went on to supervise the architectural section of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and then to teach. But in terms of his surviving works, it’s true that Christchurch is his greatest achievement.

Christchurch #7 (2)

Its design has been variously described as Italian (it has been called both Italian Romanesque and, bizarrely, Italian Gothic); German (Pevsner regarded it as English Rundbogenstil, of which more below), and Byzantine.

Let’s start by agreeing that Christchurch is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Gothic. It doesn’t have a Gothic brick in its body. In Nairn’s view, its significance lies precisely in its un-Gothic character:

“This is how nineteenth century church architecture could have gone if Pugin had not dashed in with his inspired lunacy”.

The lunacy in question was, of course, Pugin’s frantic advocacy of all things Gothic, and Nairn’s comment has a ring of truth. But it still invites us to celebrate Christchurch for being not-Gothic, rather than for being what it is. Which brings us back to the question: what, architecturally, is it?

Let’s break it down. The main body is a basilica: rectangular, aisled, with an apse at the eastern end.

Christchurch #4

The building material is brick – London stock mostly – not stone. The windows, both along the aisles and in the celestory, are round-arched.

Christchurch #5 (2)

All these features refer to Romanesque and Byzantine variations on the classical tradition.

And yet: Wild himself described his cornices as “Egyptian”, and there is also perhaps something “Egyptian” about the two brick obelisks outside the main west door.

Christchurch #6

On the other hand, his use of alternating red and yellow bricks in the window arches (voussoirs) is a lovely detail which is all his own.

Then there is the tower, the campanile, the single most powerful feature of the whole composition, the feature which draws the eye.

Christchurch #3 (2)

But the tower is neither Romanesque (too slim, too elegant) nor Byzantine (Byzantine churches prefer ballooning bulk to towers, they crouch but do not spring). In its placing – not central at the west end as English tradition would suggest, but asymmetrical at the south-east corner – the tower is rather Italian. But in its structure, in its clean brick height, it anticipates modernism. It was designed in 1840, but the vertical simplicity of its pilaster strips seems almost to belong to the 1920s or ‘30s.

What then should we call a church which is a bit Romanesque, a bit Byzantine, a bit Egyptian, a bit Italian, a bit modern, and yet whole and integrated and comfortable in itself? We should call it Rundbogenstil. The term is commonly associated with Pevsner, but he didn’t invent it, he merely introduced it from his native Germany, where it was coined in the nineteenth century. It refers collectively to those European styles which favour the round arch over the Gothic pointed arch: Rundbogenstil simply means ‘round-arch style’.

Christchurch #7 (2)

This notion of eclectic round-arch design was important in Germany from the 1820s, and insofar as Wild was subject to any single influence at Christchurch, this was surely it. But, despite the clean clarity of his essay in English Rundbogenstil, it remained a one-off. The future lay with Pugin and his aesthetic-theological campaign for a revival of the Gothic.

Christchurch #6 (2)

Finally: if you approach Christchurch from the South Circular/Streatham Hill junction, you cannot fail to see the prominent six-pointed star, the Star of David, above the west door. We in 2017 may wonder what this symbol, resonant today of the state of Israel and of Zionism, is doing on an Anglican church. But back in the 1840s, the six-pointed star was treated as a venerable religious symbol not just by Jews, but also by Christians and Muslims. It appeared over many centuries in Christian churches, especially Orthodox churches. At Christchurch, like the basilica with its round-arched windows, it would have been intended to hark back to the early church, to conjure up a sense of Christian antiquity. The fact that its meaning has shifted since then is a sobering reminder of our interesting times.



The Roman road to Brighton: South of Croydon

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown road

My previous post interrogated the route of the Roman road from London to Brighton as it heads north from Streatham. This time we are looking at the same road as it heads south from Croydon.

From Streatham Hill down to Broad Green the A23 follows the route of the Roman road. Beyond that point, it has two options: a high way along the line of North End and Croydon High Street leading to the modern Brighton Road; or a low way down Handcroft Road to Old Town and Croydon Minster.

In favour of the North End/High Street route is the fact that it stays on higher ground, away from the River Wandle. And there is a cluster of Roman burials in the High Street/George Street/Park Street area, vaguely reminiscent of the roadside ‘cemetery zones’ outside Londinium: if the Romans were happy to bury their dead alongside Ermine Street, maybe they did the same alongside Croydon High Street.

As for the other route, Handcroft Road’s descent towards the Wandle seems to count

Brighton Rd - Handcroft Rd

against it, because in general Roman road-builders sought firm dry ground. But the Wandle at this point is close to its spring, and hardly a formidable obstacle. It’s even possible that the spring provided a religious or ritual attraction. Certainly this area was settled: it was part of Roman Croydon (occupation sites have been found at Rectory Grove and Old Town) and later on it was the centre of Saxon Croydon and a major ecclesiastical estate.

Brighton Rd - Croydon Minster (2)

Manning & Bray, in their 1809 History of Surrey, reported a local tradition of the Roman road passing through Old Town; and Ivan D. Margary, twentieth century Roman-road-hunter extraordinaire, agreed.

Between Croydon and Caterham, Margary admits that “ … we can only trace the probable course … for it is represented almost throughout by existing suburban streets which have covered all traces of ancient work”. Nevertheless his suggested route is rather compelling, consisting of a series of terrace-ways along the hillsides, avoiding the damp valley bottoms. Much of this route is not only walkable, but enjoyably walkable, and certainly not confined to suburban streets.

So: from Croydon Minster and Old Town, if you go up Duppas Hill and through the underpass, you will come out near the northern end of Violet Lane.

Brighton Rd - Violet Lane 3

This is a residential road about half a mile long, and is the surviving fragment of the original Violet Lane which ran for two miles to Russell Hill above Purley. Margary suggested that it may represent a survival of the Roman road. It’s clearly visible on John Rocque’s 1768 map as the track heading south-south-west out of Croydon, brushing the western edge of Haling Park.

Rocque Croydon (3)

Rocque’s map also shows it meeting another road at a Y-junction: this other road used to be called Coldharbour Lane, and is now the Purley Way.

Walk on down Violet Lane as it is today, follow it round to the junction with Waddon Way, and turn left. You are now facing Purley Way playing fields stretching away into the distance.

The original Violet Lane, and (if Margary’s hunch was correct) the Roman road, run underneath the football pitches. Assuming nobody is in the middle of a game, if you head south-south-west across the playing fields, aiming to hit Purley Way in the far corner somewhere near the reservoir, you’ll be roughly on the right line.

A short way beyond the Violet Lane/Purley Way junction, the Roman road would have swung round south and east to head downhill into Purley. We don’t know its precise line: maybe it is represented by the sole surviving scrap of Coldharbour Lane, a bridle path which runs down Russell Hill.

Brighton Rd - Coldharbour Lane

But whichever way it came down the hill, the Roman road would then have crossed the line of today’s Brighton Road, to head south-east along the line of today’s Godstone Road.

You are now down on the valley floor, but not for long. After about a third of a mile you will reach Downs Court Road, climbing up the valley’s eastern flank towards Riddlesdown. Margary suggested that this may have been the way taken by the Roman road, and there is general agreement that Riddlesdown’s main north-south track represents the Roman route.

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown road

After a mile or more you reach a bridge over a railway line. Here, the modern track heads down to the valley bottom, but this does not represent the Roman route which would have stayed higher up on the hillside. In fact the railway line may give a fair idea of the course of the Roman road for the next mile and a half – so long as we remember that the railway runs low down in its cutting, while the Roman road would have been higher up on a hillside which no longer exists, having been excavated away to accommodate that same cutting.

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown railway

Further on, where the railway line swings away towards Woldingham, Margary thought that Court Bush Road may lie along the Roman route.

Just as it was obliged to come down to the valley floor at Purley before shifting to the south-east and climbing up again onto Riddlesdown, here again the Roman road comes down in the vicinity of Wapses Lodge Roundabout before turning south, and climbing up Tillingdown Hill, and on towards Godstone.

Brighton Rd - Tillingdown Hill

We are now well outside London – we crossed the Surrey county boundary back in Whyteleafe –so maybe it’s time to call it a day. Caterham town centre is close by, offering coffee and cakes, and trains back to South London, home and glory.

Brighton Rd - Croydon map (2)


The Roman Road to Brighton: North of Streatham


Brighton Rd - Rocque (4)

The Roman road from London to Brighton – or to be more precise, to Pyecombe or Portslade outside Brighton – was an industrial road like the Lewes Way, as opposed to a military highway like Stane Street or Watling Street. It linked London to the rich farmland of the South Downs. And like many Roman roads, it followed straight alignments where possible, but adjusted to local conditions where necessary. This is an important point to remember as we chart its route through South London.

Firstly, let’s deal with the straightforward bit. Since the 1930s, it’s been widely accepted that the modern A23 between Streatham and Croydon follows the line of the Roman road. Ivan D. Margary, doyen of Roman road scholars, put the evidence together. He pointed to reliable eighteenth century antiquarian reports of Roman paving visible at Broad Green on the northern edge of Croydon; to nineteenth century builders who found Roman material at various sites close to the road in Streatham; and to twentieth century Post Office engineers (remember them?) who reported regular encounters with ancient hard-packed gravel along the line of the modern road. He also pointed to the straightness of the modern road, apart from a wiggle just north of Norbury Station to accommodate the crossing of Norbury Brook.

Margary fails to mention the more significant shift in direction, from NNW to NNE, at St. Leonard’s Church in Streatham. But here the presence of the church may itself signify that we are still on the Roman route. There is a pattern of medieval churches being located at junctions, turning points and river crossings on Roman roads. The present St. Leonard’s is fourteenth century, and may well be on the site of an early medieval chapel recorded in the Domesday Book. And further north on the A23 a 1967 excavation found signs of a Roman road at the top of Telford Avenue, opposite the bus station on Streatham Hill.

So Margary was right. For something over four miles, from Broad Green in the south to Streatham Hill in the north, the modern road follows the line of the Roman road.

The question is: where did it go next, north of Streatham?

Margary argues that it stuck with the modern road down Brixton Hill, along Brixton Road, to meet Stane Street opposite the Oval, at Kennington Park. In support of this he points out that Brixton Hill used to be called Brixton Causeway. He says this is “most suggestive”, since ‘causeway’ means a paved or pebbled road. But ‘causeway’ also implies a raised track over wet or marshy ground – which brings us to the River Effra.

People argue about the upper parts of the River Effra, but it’s an established fact that once it hit Brixton, it ran along the line of Brixton Road up to Kennington. It is clearly shown on Rocque’s map of 1746

Brighton Rd - Rocque Effra (2)

where it is called not the Effra but ‘The Shore’. At Kennington it turns west to enter the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.


Because of the Effra, Brixton Road was notorious for being water-logged: it used to be known as the ‘Wash Way’, and it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the river was contained within the new network of sewers. If the area around Brixton Road was water-logged as recently as the nineteenth century, it is likely to have been even wetter in Roman times, because the climate generally was wetter.

Roman road engineers hated wet, boggy, marshy places, and took drastic steps to avoid them. For instance: they built Stane Street along a lovely straight alignment down Kennington Road and Clapham Road – but they cheerfully abandoned that alignment in order to stay on dry ground at Newington Causeway, and then again at Clapham Rise. So: if we imagine Roman engineers standing at the top of Streatham Hill, looking north, arguing about the best way to link up with Stane Street and reach Londinium, we would expect them to choose the driest option.

The driest option was not Margary’s route, by Brixton Hill,  Brixton Road and the River Effra. The driest option was along the line now followed by Lyham Road and Bedford Road, heading down to connect with Stane Street at Clapham North tube station.

Brighton Rd - map

This would avoid the Effra entirely, while keeping to the east of another boggy area which Stane Street avoided by veering to the west at Clapham Rise. This Lyham-Bedford line has a long and continuous history in the landscape. A thirteenth century charter confirms it as the boundary between Clapham and Lambeth manors, and Michael Green suggests in Historic Clapham that it may have been a property boundary as far back as the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries. The connection between Roman roads and medieval property boundaries is well-known: Margary himself makes frequent use of it. The Lyham-Bedford line also served continuously as a road or track, and appears in Rocque’s map as ‘The Back Road’, which meets Stane Street at ‘Babilon’.

Brighton Rd - Rocque (3)

For all these reasons, it seems to me that the Lyham-Bedford route makes more sense than the Brixton Road route. Of course, I may be wrong. Someone, at some point, did run a road down Brixton Hill, River Effra notwithstanding, and that someone may have been the Romans. The old name ‘Brixton Causeway’ does suggest a paved or pebbled road, whose builders may have been the Romans. And there is no direct archaeological evidence for the Lyham-Bedford route, any more than for the Brixton Road route.

All I’m saying is that it would surely have been peculiarly perverse for pragmatic Roman engineers to run a road into a river, and condemn it to regular flooding, when they had a drier alternative.

Nairn’s Loughborough Junction: Promise and Perform

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.


Loughborough #4

Ian Nairn’s 1966 comments on Loughborough Junction are ambivalent. He liked the area’s visual drama, railway bridges in all directions, but couldn’t quite bring himself to praise it:

“No performance, so far, but tremendous promise”.

But he didn’t like the Loughborough Estate:

“ … all artificial relationship … an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place”.


First things first. Why “Loughborough”? What has a midlands town to do with this patch of South London? It’s all down to Henry Hastings, seventeenth century aristocrat, incorrigible Royalist, ennobled as First Baron Loughborough by Charles I during the Civil War. Hastings eventually joined the younger Charles Stuart in exile, and came back with him in 1660 for the orgy of intolerance and vindictiveness generally known as the Restoration. From then until his death a few years later Hastings lived south of the river, in what was then London’s semi-rural hinterland. His home was about here:


Loughborough #9

in the triangle now formed by Evandale, Claribel and Akerman Roads on the edge of the Minet estate. He called it Loughborough House.

Fast forward to the mid-eighteenth century and Loughborough House was still the most significant property in the area. In Rocque’s map from the 1740s, there is a hamlet or scattering of smallholdings called Coldharbour. The road on the map which runs to Loughborough House through Coldharbour is today’s Loughborough Road; and the road on the map called Camberwell Lane is today’s Coldharbour Lane.

Loughborough #10 (3)


Fast forward another century and things changed utterly. Loughborough House was demolished in the 1850s, brick terraces were going up everywhere, and within a few yards of Loughborough Road several new thoroughfares – Flaxman Road, Herne Hill Road, Milkwood Road – were all emptying themselves into Coldharbour Lane.

In other words the area was already a road junction before the railways arrived. But it required the railways before it was referred to as a junction.

Although South London had some early commuter lines – London Bridge to Greenwich, London Bridge to Croydon – much of its early railway history focused on longer-distance lines to the south coast and south-west. By the 1860s, however, the commercial value of urban commuter traffic was clear, and railway companies were eager to cram South London – and the rest of metropolitan London – with new routes. The London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. (LCDR)


already had a profitable long-distance line, and was now intent on breaking into London’s urban commuter market. In the 1860s the LCDR built an elevated north-south line, on embankments and viaducts, from Blackfriars and Elephant & Castle down to Herne Hill; and, in partnership with another company, an elevated east-west line linking London Bridge to Victoria.

At the point where these lines crossed the company built a railway station in 1864, and called it Brixton Junction. It was briefly renamed Loughborough Road in July 1872; and then Loughborough Junction from December 1872.

The visual drama of Loughborough Junction is created not just by the railway junction above, but rather by its superimposition on the road junction below: a convergence of brick and tarmac, crouched beneath a convergence of steel and concrete; a grubby confusion of urban energy, impatience in all directions and at two levels, hemmed in, compressed and intense.

Loughborough #6

Loughborough #8

Loughborough #5


If Nairn was cool about all this, his comment on the Loughborough Estate – “an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place” – is positively unfair. This was a London County Council project, approved in 1952, opened in 1955. The principal housing architect was Whitfield Lewis, also responsible for the famous Alton Estate in Roehampton. Roehampton, however, had a natural setting with all sorts of possibilities – rising ground, proximity to Richmond Park – which Lewis and his colleagues fully exploited. By comparison, the site at Loughborough offered nothing more than a flat patch of South London basin. Perhaps the estate’s geometry, to which Nairn objected so strongly, was an attempt precisely to create a sense of place, an identity, a quiddity, on an essentially featureless site.

If so, it was an emphatically modernist sense of place, and the Loughborough Estate wears its 1950s social democratic heart on its sleeve. Nine eleven-storey slab blocks, fifteen four-storey blocks, one six-storey block. Acres of reinforced concrete and glass. Sixty years on, it looks remarkably good for its age.

Loughborough #2 (2)

And let’s not forget that each flat, each maisonette, would have seemed like paradise to its first residents, after the slums and bombed-out neighbourhoods from which they came.


Loughborough #1


Nairn’s Deptford: Surrealist Sandwich


Deptford St Nicholas #6


Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.

Deptford Town Hall

When Ian Nairn came to Deptford in the 1960s, he waxed lyrical over its town hall: “the jolliest public building in London … infectious topsy-turvy composition“. Pevsner liked it too, describing it as “one of the most florid of Edwardian public buildings”.

Deptford Town Hall #1

It no longer functions as the Town Hall – it now belongs to Goldsmiths College – but is still worth a visit. The basic form of the building is nothing special, a neo-classical box and pediment. But the completely inappropriate clock tower sticking out at the top hints at a spirit of cheerful excess which is best seen in the carved ornamentation.

I especially like these two figures above the entrance, straining to support the balcony above.

Deptford Town Hall #2

These are ‘male caryatids’. A caryatid is, strictly speaking, a draped female stone figure acting as a column or pillar – as at St. Pancras Church on Euston Road. These Deptford figures are emphatically masculine, and would probably object to being called anything as girly as a caryatid, but they’re doing (roughly) the same job, and there isn’t an equivalent male name for it, so caryatid it is. Mind you, their upper-body human masculinity is somewhat compromised by their birds’ wings, and their fishy nether regions.

The caryatids’ fishiness is part of a broader sea-going, naval theme. On the first floor, in niches between the windows, we find statues of famous admirals, including of course England’s darling, Nelson himself.

Deptford Town Hall Nelson

And above them, below the pediment, is a man-o’-war in full sail. All of which is entirely appropriate, given that Deptford Dockyard was a crucial centre of shipbuilding from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

And yet these references to the river and the Dockyard are a bit awkward, because Deptford Town Hall is nowhere near the river. In fact it isn’t really in Deptford, it’s in New Cross. But there again, perhaps this is just one more of those cheerful incongruities which Nairn found so jolly. 

St. Paul’s Church, Deptford Church Street

The majority opinion on St. Paul’s Church is that it’s a triumph: “one of the major architectural thrills of London” (Blatch); “the finest church in London south of the river” (Leonard); “one of the most moving churches in London” (Pevsner).

Deptford St Paul #1 (2)

Enter Ian Nairn, party-pooper: “forceful enough … but nothing behind it … rhetoric where there should be poetry … towering but empty … one of London’s least accommodating places”.

St. Paul was a product of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, established by Act of Parliament in the early eighteenth century in response to London’s ballooning population. The Commission didn’t get anywhere near its target of fifty churches, but it did put up quite a few, most of them designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architect at St. Paul, however, was Thomas Archer, a member of the Commission, who also built St. John’s Smith Square, and Birmingham Cathedral.

According to Pevsner, Archer’s great achievement at St. Paul was his solution to “the eternal English west tower and west portico problem”. That is to say: the problem of how to reconcile the centuries-old English tradition of a tower at a church’s west end, with the classical tradition of a grand porch at the west end incorporating a row of columns, roof and (usually) pediment.

The most notorious failure to solve this problem is James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which Pevsner describes – generously I think – as “illogical and aesthetically painful”. Let’s speak plainly: St. Martin is stupid and ugly. It fails to get the tower and portico to work together, and it fails even more blatantly to get the two of them to work with the rest of the building. Tower and portico are simply bolted onto the west end of an otherwise elegant basilica in such a way as to throw the whole composition off balance, as if threatening to tip it over into Trafalgar Square. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look.

Archer avoided repeating Gibbs’s failure through two complementary moves. Where St. Martin is all straight lines and angles, he embraced curvature; and where Gibbs conceived tower and portico as separate items and then rammed them together, Archer approached tower-plus-portico as a single rounded conception, balanced by a rounded apse at the church’s east end. The result is a semi-circular porch and round tower with its own clear centre of gravity, opening into a square interior which is also balanced and centred.

Deptford St Paul #7 (2)

I’m no great enthusiast for the classical, and even less for the baroque, which tends to strike my puritan soul as simply silly. But St. Paul’s Church at Deptford is very fine. On this occasion, Nairn got it wrong.

St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green

St. Nicholas on Deptford Green is the original parish church. However,  despite its medieval foundation, the only remaining medieval fabric at St. Nicholas is the lower part of the tower.

Deptford St Nicholas #2

The body of the church was re-built in red brick in 1697, only about twenty years before St. Paul went up. 250 years later it was all but destroyed in the Blitz. The church which we see today is an amalgam of the medieval tower, surviving seventeenth century fabric at the west end, and (shown here) a thoughtful post-war reconstruction at the east end.

Deptford St Nicholas #4

However, what caught Nairn’s attention back in the ‘60s was the accident of place which produced a bizarre encounter between early modern macabre and grim industrial modernity. On arrival, he was much taken by the stone skulls on the church-yard gates: “the sharpest memento mori in London”.

Deptford St Nicholas #5

But beyond them, hard up against the church-yard and looming over it, he found to his delight “a whopping power station”. Nairn loved the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing, and clearly took great delight in relegating poor old St. Nicholas Church to “the filling in this surrealist sandwich”.

But the power station is no more. And it wasn’t just any old power station: it was Deptford East Power Station, on the site of the world’s first-ever station generating at high tension for long-distance transmission. Built from 1887 and operating from 1889, this original station generated power for the West End – which may not seem ‘long-distance’ to us, but was back then. There’s a class angle to this of course: the affluent residents of Mayfair and St James’s got their clean modern electricity, while the working class residents of Deptford lived with the coal and dirt and smog involved in producing it. The station grew steadily over the decades, until in the 1960s Nairn found it casting its giant shadow over St. Nicholas. The CEGB (remember them?) closed it down in 1983, just short of its centenary.

With the power station gone we can no longer share Nairn’s surreal encounter. The church survives, with its church-yard, charnel house, and endlessly grinning skulls. But where once a mighty power station stood, now we find a quiet little housing estate.

Deptford St Nicholas #3


Nairn’s Catford: Brutal Honesty



Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.

When Nairn came to Catford in the mid-60s, the building that caught his eye was only two or three years old. Eros House, the Brutalist tower at the junction of Rushey Green and Brownhill Road, was designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, and finished in 1962. Nairn loved it. Now that Brutalism is all the rage and terribly fashionable (there’s even a ‘Brutalist London Map’ retailing at around £8), it’s time for a second look.

Brutalism erupted in the 1950s as a sort of modernist rudeness, in rebellion against modernist politeness.

Modernist architecture of any kind had been rare in Britain before the War. Post-war, there was more ambition and creativity, especially in public building authorities such as the London County Council. Many of these architects and planners were on the left and saw their work, quite literally, as part of the construction of socialism. But – as Owen Hatherley has pointed out – their design inspiration came not from Moscow but from Stockholm, the showcase for a style of elegant modernist classicism which has variously been called ‘New Empiricist’ or ‘New Humanist’ or ‘Welfare State’ architecture. Stockholm Public Library exemplifies the style.


Stockholm (2)


Here in London, similar forces were at work at the Royal Festival Hall.

If the Stockholm style was uplifting and consensual, Brutalism was rude and contrary. If the Stockholm style celebrated a people united in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, Brutalism celebrated a people arguing, pushing and shoving in the here and now. But perhaps what was most astonishing about Brutalism was its Britishness. Suddenly Britain, having been sullenly behind the modernist curve for decades, was at the cutting edge of a whole new school.

Despite this, the origin of the term itself – or at least the origin-story that I like best, the one that rings most true – is French. It derives from the French béton brut meaning ‘raw concrete’, rough concrete, concrete straight from the tin, concrete to scrape your knuckles on. Brutalism expressed a sort of bleak honesty about the act of throwing up a building, a ‘truth to materials’. It didn’t have a monopoly in this regard: the Arts & Crafts movement made the same claim. What distinguishes Brutalism from Arts & Crafts is that they chose different materials to be true to.

This raw material honesty was what Nairn liked about Eros House:

“ … rough concrete put through all its paces … done from real conviction, not from a desire for self-advertisement… The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists”.


Eros House #1

Fifty years on and Eros House is now the proud possessor of a Grade II listing, but I have to say that at ground level, when I visited, its pride wasn’t evident. It’s difficult to look proud with ‘To Let’ signs on your shop fronts.

Eros House #3

Looking up, the original raw concrete intent has been muted by the addition of bland off-white cladding. The projecting concrete window frames which so excited Nairn with their gaunt honesty are still evident, but (to me at least) not terribly exciting.

Eros House #4

Maybe the windows’ impact has been blunted by the cladding. Maybe I am simply unable to think myself back to a moment around 1960 when this gesture was genuinely innovative. Or maybe my sensibility is blunted by having seen too many mediocre tower blocks built since then, unimaginatively recycling the same idea.

I do however like the stair-tower.

Eros House #5

Nairn doesn’t mention the stair tower, though Pevsner (also an Eros fan) gives it a nod of approval. For me, it works by playing off glass against concrete. The fluting in the glass gives it height, and works nicely against the horizontal and pitched bands of concrete, tracking externally the staircases within – truth to materials and truth to function too. The no-nonsense porch is also good, as is the unadorned raw concrete frontage above it.

By the way – why Eros House? Why this erotically-named tower in the middle of Catford? Is something phallic going on? Not really. It turns out that Gordon’s tower was named for the Eros Cinema which was demolished to make way for it.

The Eros Cinema was the last gasp of what had been Lewisham Hippodrome, originally a 3,000-seat music-hall, which hit hard times in the 1920s and was regularly reinvented thereafter – music-hall, cinema, music-hall again, cinema again. Badly damaged in the War, it limped through the ‘50s as the Eros Cinema before the whole site – including the rival Gaumont Cinema next door – was demolished in 1959 to make way for Brutalism. I suspect that the Gaumont was Catford’s respectable cinema while the Eros was somewhat less so, but I may be doing both of them a disservice.

Eros House was only one – and not the most famous – of the Brutalist projects erected by Gordon, Luder and their partners in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They put up the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth in 1966 – voted Britain’s most hated building in 2001 by Radio 4 listeners. And they put up Derwent Tower and Trinity Square in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle. I lived in Newcastle and worked in Gateshead in the ‘80s, and both were local landmarks. Derwent Tower, a standalone stunning high-rise block of flats stranded by a sea of low-rise housing and industry, was affectionately known as the Dunston Rocket, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Derwent Tower 2


Trinity Square included the all-concrete multi-storey car-park made famous by the 1971 Michael Caine film Get Carter. By the ‘80s, I think most local people regarded it as an eyesore – but at the same time they rather liked the reflected glamour of its brief film career. Glamour was a rare commodity in Gateshead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so if a multi-storey car-park was the only way to grab a bit, no-one was going to turn it down.

Tricorn Centre, Trinity Centre and Dunston Rocket were all demolished before the current nostalgia for Brutalism set in. Maybe if they’d survived they would now be vying for a listing, just like good old Eros House.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 2)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

In the previous post I walked the first part of the Roman Way from London to Lewes, from the New Cross/Peckham area to Blythe Hill – or rather, I tracked it at a distance, because what’s special about this Roman road is its stubborn refusal to conform to modern roads or paths. But that will change, as we shall see.

The engineers who built the Lewes Way shifted its alignment fractionally to the south at Blythe Hill, aiming across Stanstead Road and Catford Hill for a crossing point on the River Pool. Rather wonderfully, that crossing point is still in use 2,000 years later. The modern bridge is at exactly the same place, in the River Pool Linear Park.

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 2

In the 1930s our intrepid archaeologists, Davis and Margary, revealed the line of the Way here on the eastern bank of the river

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 1

where it cuts diagonally from right to left to cross the railway line and head into Bellingham.

Here its course runs through houses and gardens as it heads south-south-east towards Beckenham, but we can still identify certain marker points. For instance, this is where it crosses Stumps Hill Lane

Lewes Road Stump Hill 1

before continuing over Southend Road, and hitting the old London Chatham and Dover railway line a couple of hundred yards’ east of Beckenham Junction Station.

Lewes Road Beckenham Junction

From here the Way tracks the course of the River Beck, before cutting across the south-east corner of Kelsey Park, conveniently close to the café where I reckon I had earned the right to a refreshing cuppa.

Lewes Road Kelsey Park

I was now deep in leafy suburbia, and the next marker point was St. Dunstan’s Lane which wanders quietly through a landscape of sports grounds and playing fields and golf. Just where the Lane turns from a south-westerly to a near-southerly direction, the Lewes Way comes through, still on its south-south-east trajectory.

Lewes Road St Dunstan's Lane 1

It ploughs straight through the golf course – no bad thing in my opinion – to cross the Charing Cross to Hayes railway line almost exactly at West Wickham Station.

Lewes Road West Wickham station

The next marker point was Sparrow’s Den, at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill, south of West Wickham, where the road cuts across the playing field. Here we are close to a Roman settlement just across the road, near St. John the Baptist church.

Lewes Road Sparrows Den

This is one of many sites in South London to be nominated as the ‘lost city’ of Noviomagus, which lay somewhere on an imperially-endorsed route from London to Rochester. Clearly there was a Roman settlement here – excavations prove that. But as I’ve argued at length in a previous post, the notion that West Wickham is Noviomagus makes no sense. Who would travel from London to Rochester via West Wickham?

The course of the Way meanwhile carries on, south-south-east, across the fields, gradually approaching the New Addington estate. And here at last, after all those miles of hiding in suburban gardens and scuttling across railway lines, the Lewes Way deigns to correspond to a modern way in the modern landscape.

From Addington Road I took a foot-path which climbs south-east through Birch Wood towards Castlehill Ruffs. It was not marked on the OS map as a public right of way, but neither was it marked on the ground as private or with warnings against trespass. It is  clearly regularly used as an informal way up to the New Addington estate. After a bit less than a mile the path crossed a rough vehicle track, and I turned left for a couple of hundred yards along this track towards an electricity sub-station. Just before the sub-station I turned right again onto a new foot-path heading south-south-east through Rowdown Wood.

I was now, finally, walking the line of the Lewes Way, the first time I had been able to do so since leaving Watling Street.

Lewes Road New Addington path 2

The path continued through the woods, not arrow-straight by any means but not deviating wildly either, edging closer to New Addington’s eastern border. It hit this border right at its most unattractive point, next to the industrial zone. Suddenly, what had been a pleasant enough woodland walk became a grim urban edgeland slog, pinned between an ageing concrete fence to the right, and shabby undergrowth to the left, littered and scattered with rubbish and debris of all kinds.

Lewes Road New Addington path 4 (2)

This grubby scramble didn’t last for ever. Once it got beyond the industrial area and backed onto housing, the path became more pleasant. And even when it was at its worst I tried to remind myself that I was walking the line not of a pristine Roman military highway, but of a working industrial road whose job was to link the manufacturing zone of the Weald with markets and barracks in Londinium. So maybe the waste scattered along the path was fitting, a grim nod of recognition from one industrial era to another, expressed in refuse.

This grubby scramble is also, by the way, the line of the modern borough boundary between Croydon and Bromley, which follows the much older county boundary between Surrey and Kent. And this in turn suggests that the course of the Lewes Way across this particular landscape was very clear in early medieval times, offering itself as a ready-made marker just when these two English counties were defining themselves and acquiring firm borders.

The path finally emerges on the southern edge of New Addington, a few yards from Fairchild School, and opposite a Bromley Borough post to confirm that we are indeed right on the old county boundary.

Lewes Road Bromley boundary

That’s as far as I intend to follow the Lewes Way. If you fancy carrying on, I suggest you try to get hold of a copy of Margary’s 1948 classic Roman Ways in the Weald.


It is of course out of print, but there were copies available through last time I looked, and if that doesn’t work, we still – just about – have libraries. Of course Margary was at work many decades ago, and his arguments have sometimes been superseded by more recent scholarship. But for me, none of this alters the fact that the book itself is a sheer delight, and with a bit of interpretation to make allowance for seventy years of suburban growth, its brilliant maps are still surprisingly useable.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 1)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

Most of South London’s Roman roads coincide, roughly or in part, with modern roads: Watling Street with the A2; Stane Street with the A3; the Brighton road with the A23. But there is one Roman road which is positively modest, self-deprecating, leaving no visible mark on the modern townscape, remembered by no modern highway. This is the London to Lewes Way which cuts through South-East London, from Peckham through Nunhead and Brockley and Beckenham and West Wickham, and onwards to the south.

Lewes road map

One practical result of its modesty is that for a walker, following this route on foot is a far more pleasant experience than following the others. Rather than a charmless tramp along busy main roads infested with exhaust fumes and bad temper, the Lewes Way offers quiet streets, footpaths and parks.

This was not a military highway but a working road, connecting Roman Londinium with the industrial zone in the Weald: charcoal-burners and iron-works. But this doesn’t mean that it was a cart-track, or that it took shape in a casual manner. It was constructed by professional engineers, along straight alignments where possible, using high ground as a vantage point to alter those alignments where necessary. At Blythe Hill for instance, the alignment shifts from a south-easterly to a more southerly direction.

Blythe Hill also serves as a break-point in my own walk along the Lewes Way as it progresses through South-East London. This post records the first stretch from Peckham. The next will carry on from Blythe Hill to the south.

The Lewes Way heads north to south, and its starting point is its junction with Watling Street, the Roman road to Kent, which goes west to east.

In broad terms it makes sense to think of the Old Kent Road or A2 as the successor to Roman Watling Street, but only in broad terms, because the Old Kent Road does not follow the line of the Roman road. In this part of London, the line of the Roman road is about 260 or 270 yards to the south of the Old Kent Road. Consequently its junction with the Lewes Way is not on the A2, but in a residential street running off it.

The junction is, in fact, somewhere around here:

Lewes road Asylum Road

This is Asylum Road, named after the very large and impressive almshouses built by the Licensed Victuallers Association in the 1820s/30s. (As reported in a previous post, at one point Penge’s Watermen’s Almshouses were going to be located here as well, and were only re-routed to Penge after a timely intervention by a wealthy local resident).

The view above is looking north-east, so we must imagine Watling Street cutting across in front of us to meet the Lewes Way behind the houses, with the Way itself setting off to the south-east, to our right.

It would be nice if the route of the Lewes Way ran neatly down the middle of Asylum Road, but it doesn’t. Instead, it runs through the back-gardens of the houses on its east side, and for much of its passage through South-East London it is equally self-effacing. It rarely coincides directly with a modern road or path. The best way to follow it, therefore, is to identify a few ‘marker points’ where we know that we are on its track.

For instance, after running down behind Asylum Road, the Lewes Way crosses Queens Road about here, at the junction with York Grove, a few yards east of Queens Road Peckham station:

Lewes road York Grove

It then cuts uphill to the east of Nunhead Station, to run through some more back gardens, this time behind the houses on the east side of Ivydale Road:

Lewes road Ivydale Road

The line of the Lewes Way runs eerily parallel to the line of the northern section of Ivydale Road, and this was noticed by the archaeologists – messrs. Davis and Margary – who first established its route in the 1930s. Some Roman routes are ‘remembered’ by parish or county boundaries, but this is not the case with Ivydale Road. Instead, the line of the Lewes Way may have been ‘remembered’ as a property boundary, carried down through the centuries as the plot of land was bequeathed and sold on, until eventually a commercial builder acquired it and unwittingly reproduced the old Roman line in the form of a nice new residential street.

Our next ‘marker point’ is the footbridge which crosses the railway line just east of Camberwell Cemetery, between Brockley Way and Eddystone Road:

Lewes road Brockley bridge

A bit of imagination is required here. The cutting through which the railway now runs was first made for the Croydon Canal in the early nineteenth century. When the Canal Company went bankrupt in the 1830s, the canal was drained and a railway was run along its bed. But this is all recent history compared to the age of the Roman road which we are trying to follow. We must try to forget the cutting, the canal, the railway, and the footbridge, and imagine this site as an unblemished woodland ridge. From Queens Road onwards the Lewes Way has been coming up a gentle slope, and this site marks its top. From here, the Way heads downhill towards Brockley Rise, running straight through the middle of St Hilda’s Church:

Lewes road St Hilda's Church

From St Hilda’s it ploughs on, up the hill on the other side of Brockley Rise, heading for the top of Blythe Hill. From here we can look back along the line of the Lewes Way, with St Hilda’s in the foreground, and the glass towers of the City beyond:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

And if we turn around to the south we can see where our modest way will take us next time, guided of course by the new alignment prescribed by the Roman engineers when they stood here two thousand years ago:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

Next time: Beckenham and beyond.

Main sources for this post:

Bernard F. Davis, ‘The Roman Road from West Wickham to London’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. XLIII, 1935.

Ivan D. Margary, Roman Ways in the Weald, Phoenix House, London, 1948.

Penge by Design: the Naval Asylum

Hardwick Naval Asylum 1

Compared to the Watermen’s Almshouses, prominently sited on Penge High Street, Penge’s ‘other’ almshouses, the King William Naval Asylum on St. John’s Road, are positively retiring. But their story is just as interesting.

The Naval Asylum was made possible by the Queen Dowager Adelaide, widow of William IV.

Hardwick - Adelaide

William had been on the throne during the political turbulence of the early 1830s, at which time Adelaide had been very politically active herself, openly supporting the Tories and opposing Parliamentary reform. She had made herself highly unpopular. When William died and Victoria succeeded in 1837, Adelaide became Queen Dowager. She mostly – though not entirely – dropped her political intrigues, and concentrated on charitable works, and Penge was a beneficiary of this new generosity. In 1840-41 she agreed to contribute as patron to the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Almshouses. And when in the mid-1840s she decided to establish a new set of almshouses to accommodate the widows of naval officers, Penge again was the chosen location.

The big difference between the Watermen’s Almshouses, and the new King William Naval Asylum, is architectural. As described in the previous post, the Watermen’s Almshouses were designed by George Porter, who finessed his position as Surveyor to the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Society to land himself the commission, despite having very little architectural experience. The choice of an architect for the Naval Asylum could not have been more different: as an initiative by a leading member of the Royal Family, nothing less than an utterly respectable, utterly reliable, establishment architect would do. And an establishment architect was duly appointed.

Philip Hardwick belonged to an architectural dynasty. His grand-father was an architect, his father was an architect, and his son was an architect. At the time of the Naval Asylum commission he was in his 50s, and had been designing and building high-profile projects for prestigious clients for more than 20 years. He acted as in-house architect and/or surveyor to the St. Katherine’s Dock Co. (this was the great period of dock construction along the Thames), the London & Birmingham Railway Co. (this was also the time of the first great railway boom), and the Duke of Wellington. He had helped design St. Katherine’s Dock, Wellington Barracks, and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and had been solely responsible for Goldsmiths’ Hall, the City of London Club, the Euston Arch (the focus of a celebrated, but unsuccessful, conservation battle in the 1960s),

Hardwick - Euston Arch

and the Great Hall and Library at Lincoln’s Inn.

Hardwick’s favoured style was neo-classical: grandly symmetrical statements of power and tradition, with porticos and pediments and columns in white stone. Goldsmith’s Hall (1829-35) is a good example.

Hardwick - Goldsmiths Hall

It is very much not to my taste, with an opulence and confidence bordering on smugness. His work at St. Katherine’s Dock, Wellington Barracks, St. Bart’s, the City of London Club, and the massive triumphal Euston Arch, were broadly in the same tradition.

But he was capable of branching out. At Lincoln’s Inn in 1843-5 Hardwick achieved something very different. The style here was Tudor: still ultimately rooted in the classical tradition, but pulled in a different direction firstly by its openness to the Gothic legacy; secondly by its commitment to brick rather than stone; and thirdly (it seems to me) by a certain homeliness, a warmth, which the neo-classical distinctly lacks. I can appreciate Hardwick’s work at Goldsmith’s Hall, but I could never like it in the way that I like his work at Lincoln’s Inn.

Hardwick - Lincolns Inn 2

The invitation to design the Naval Asylum at Penge must have come very soon after the completion of Lincoln’s Inn. Compared to the sheer scale of most of his commissions, this was a very small job. But it came direct from the Queen Dowager, so Hardwick was hardly likely to turn it down. Consequently, he found himself once more working within the Tudor style – not because he had become a Tudor convert, but simply because this was the accepted style for almshouses. The Watermen’s Almshouses were Tudor, as were the Hickey almshouses in Richmond, the Boot & Shoemakers in Mortlake, the Aged Pilgrims in Peckham, and Dovedale in Battersea.

The King William Naval Asylum is only a few yards from the Watermen’s Almshouses, so comparisons between the two are easy if not inevitable. The Watermen’s is undoubtedly more striking and prominent by virtue of both its location and its design. But according to Pevsner, Hardwick’s Naval Asylum is better: “not only more correct than Porter (the Watermen’s architect) could manage to be, but much more sensitively designed”.

I’m aware that I’m reluctant to agree, because I find the enthusiastic opportunist Porter a more engaging character than the well-connected establishment architect Hardwick. But: character is one thing, and talent is another. I have to admit that Hardwick was the better designer, and the Naval Asylum is the better design.

It is better because it is more fit for purpose – the purpose being the provision of quiet, pleasant, respectable homes for the widows of naval officers: as Pevsner says, the Naval Asylum is “quite humble”.

Hardwick Naval Asylum 2

And it is better because unlike Porter, Hardwick had studied and mastered the Tudor style. So: Hardwick used red brick, where Porter used London stock. Hardwick integrated a black diaper pattern, where Porter had no pattern. And Hardwick made more imaginative use of the Tudor fancy for roofs and chimneys.

Hardwick Naval Asylum 1

Of course, Hardwick had enormous advantages over Porter in terms of time, resources, and experience, including the very recent experience of his Tudor work at Lincoln’s Inn. But it’s no crime to find oneself at an advantage so long as one puts it to good use, and Hardwick did. The result was the Naval Asylum, and Penge is the better for it.

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.