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.


Penge by Design: the National Sports Centre and the LCC


The National Sports Centre (NSC) at Crystal Palace emerged from the same school of municipal modernism as the Royal Festival Hall and National Film Theatre on the South Bank, and from a time when social and political progress, though not taken for granted, was at least widely believed to be possible.

The NSC was conceived by Gerald Barry, in the aftermath of his stint as Director General of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He was invited to come up with ideas for the largely derelict Crystal Palace site, and responded by pointing out that Britain, a sports-mad nation, had no centre, no physical place, dedicated to sporting excellence. Crystal Palace, he said, could be that place. It had its own sporting traditions – it had hosted FA Cup finals before the First World War, and motor racing more recently – and it offered space and a dramatic hillside setting.

The London County Council (LCC) owned the site, and took up Barry’s proposal. Its own Architects Department was a powerhouse of post-war modernism, which at its best combined functionalism, a commitment to new materials and solutions, and a social-democratic ethos of meeting practical, popular needs. It was led at the time by Leslie Martin, who before joining the LCC had designed the Royal Festival Hall, still today a fantastic building,


the closest we get in London to a People’s Palace. While at the LCC he put together the overall plan for the South Bank complex, including the National Film Theatre and National Theatre;


and subsequently he designed the Museum of London and the London Wall elevated walkway connecting with the Barbican estate.

For the NSC, Martin and his colleague Norman Engleback conceived a unity of three parts: a Sports Hall containing an Olympic swimming pool plus room for indoor sports; a stadium and athletics track; and a hostel and houses for athletes and staff. These three elements would be drawn together by a bridge-walkway taking advantage of the hillside setting, running down from the hostel to provide access to the hall and a vantage point over the stadium. The first plans were produced in 1954, building started in the late ’50s, and the NSC was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on 13th July 1964.

The Builder, in a feature article that same month, lauded the 11-storey hostel, the 12,000-seater stadium carved out of the hillside, and the Sports Hall’s undulating roof. But it was almost apologetic about the Sports Hall interior with its ubiquitous concrete, seeking to defend it as a purely pragmatic measure “around the public areas where the maintenance of paintwork might be a problem”.


This undersells a stunning design. There’s no doubt in my mind that the architects – first Martin, then his successor Hubert Bennett – used concrete because they loved concrete. Concrete is often associated nowadays with Brutalism, and Brutalism has a certain dark charm, but the Crystal Palace Sports Hall is far from Brutalist. Instead, this is concrete as elegance, concrete springing aloft in the service of light and space.


More than 50 years have passed since the Sports Hall was opened, and 20 since it won a Grade II* listing, but to my mind it is still beautiful, still doggedly optimistic in these mean-minded, shameful, Brexit-hugging times.

Around 2004/2005 the site was in the news when the Twentieth Century Society revealed that Bromley Council was considering demolishing it. This would of course have been illegal; its Grade II* listing placed a duty on the Council to maintain it in good condition. The immediate threat was lifted by London’s success in winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and since then the NSC has been associated with various pipe-dreams such as Crystal Palace Football Club’s flirtation with a possible return to its first home, or the appalling proposal from China’s Zhang Rong Group to build a retail and entertainment opportunity masquerading as a facsimile of the original Crystal Palace.

For now, the NSC is run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd., a charitable social enterprise, as a public sports facility. In other words, for now, it’s doing what it was always meant to do.


Noviomagus: South London’s Roman puzzle


 In 1568 William Camden, antiquary and humanist, published his great work Britannia, a topographical survey of sixteenth century Britain. In discussing the area that we now call South London he made reference to:

“ … Woodcot, where by a tuft of trees upon an hil-top there are to be seene manifest signes of a prety towne and diverse wals built of flint stones … This in my conceit was that Citie which Ptolomee called Niomagus, and the Emperour Antonine Noviomagus”.

Woodcote today is a suburb merging into Purley to the east and Wallington to the north, and I doubt whether many residents are aware that it was once written of as a ‘Citie’ which caught the attention of a Roman emperor.

However, the key point of interest here is the reference to Noviomagus. Scholars were arguing about its location when Elizabeth I was on the throne, they were arguing about it a century ago when the Victoria County History described it as “one of the greatest puzzles of Romano-British topography”, and they are arguing about it still. Noviomagus may not be a lost Roman ‘Citie’, but it is a lost Roman settlement, and it’s lost somewhere in South London.

Camden’s mention of the ‘Emperour Antonine’ is an oblique reference to a Roman imperial document, the Antonine Itinerary, produced in the early 200s, which listed routes and distances across various provinces of the Western Roman Empire. The reference to Noviomagus occurs in Iter II or “Route 2” of the British section, which describes a journey from Londinium (London) to Durobrivae (Rochester). According to the Itinerary, travellers following this route from London would after 10 Roman miles reach Noviomagus; after another 18 miles, Vagniacis; and finally arrive after another 9 miles at Rochester. The overall distance from London to Rochester by this route would therefore be 37 Roman miles.

There is of course a well-known Roman road – Watling Street – which runs direct from London to Rochester, so our first thought is that Noviomagus and Vagniacis must lie somewhere on Watling Street. But the distances don’t work. Depending on where you measure from, the direct distance from London to Rochester along Watling Street is between about 27 and 31 Roman miles, not 37.

Our second thought, therefore, is that the Itinerary simply made a mistake and got the distances confused. But this doesn’t work either, because other parts of the Itinerary correctly state the direct distance between London and Rochester: Route 3 and Route 4 both describe this journey, without any mention of Noviomagus or Vagniacis, and both give the distance as 27 Roman miles.

Route 2 must therefore be describing a more indirect journey, 10 miles longer than those in Routes 3 and 4, which might include some stretches along Watling Street, but which also clearly involves one or more significant detours. Suddenly, the location of Noviomagus becomes much more intriguing because in principle, it might be anywhere in South London which (a) can claim to be a ‘Roman site’; and (b) lies about 10 miles from the city of London and no more than 27 miles from Rochester. A lot of places meet these conditions, and over the years scholars have performed heroic feats of advocacy in arguing for their personal favourites. Suggestions have included Bexley Heath, Charlton, Crayford, Croydon, Greenwich Park, Keston, Welling, West Wickham and (as we have seen) Woodcote. Some claims are rooted in solid argument, others in parochial loyalty. But for my money a particularly convincing case was made almost 90 years ago by F.C. Elliston-Erwood.

Elliston-Erwood was a respected archaeologist and historian who published a paper in 1928 in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. In it, he argued that routes in the Itinerary must have run along recognised roads: that is to say, while they needn’t necessarily stick to high-quality military highways, they would at least follow established tracks or ‘minor roads’ connecting settlements and centres of population. They would not simply wander off into the countryside.

Secondly, he pointed out that a journey from London to Rochester involves four river-crossings, at the Ravensbourne, Cray, Darent and Medway. Each of these had an established crossing point, at Deptford, Crayford, Dartford, and Rochester respectively. So, he argued, any reasonable route would make use of these crossing points.

This approach throws a new light on Route 2, with its additional 10 miles and its references to Noviomagus and Vagniacis. It suggests that these references signify not just places, but roads; that Route 2 detours off Watling Street to follow “the Noviomagus road”; returns to Watling Street for a river crossing; and then leaves it again further on to take “the Vagniacis road”. And the distances suggest that we should expect to find “the Noviomagus road” between Deptford and Crayford, and “the Vagniacis road” between Dartford and Rochester.

If this is right, then Noviomagus cannot be several miles to the south at Croydon, Keston, West Wickham or Woodcote. The Roman site at West Wickham, for instance, has been championed in recent years as the site of Noviomagus, and it is indeed about 10 miles from London. But it is also far from any of the established river crossing-points. And the only way for a Roman traveller to get from West Wickham to Rochester, while covering no more than 27 miles, would have been to strike out across open country. It is hard to believe that a cross-country hike like this would be consecrated as an imperially-approved route when good firm roads were available a few miles to the north.

This leaves us with five places which have been proposed as Noviomagus, and which are sited on roads which connect with the established river crossing-points. They are Greenwich Park, Charlton, Crayford, Welling and Bexley Heath.

We can dismiss Greenwich because it’s far too close to London. And if we’re right in suspecting that Noviomagus and Vagniacis are associated with minor roads, then we can also dismiss Crayford, Welling and Bexley Heath, all of which lie on Watling Street itself. That leaves us with Charlton.

Elliston-Erwood pointed out that there was a Romano-British settlement at Charlton: he should know, because he helped excavate it. It was on Cox’s Mount, the highest point of Gilbert’s Pit.



Gilbert’s Pit is the sandy bluff which lies between the Woolwich Road and Maryon Wilson Park, whose sand-pits were quarried for the Woolwich Arsenal and for glass-making in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


The busy A206 at its foot, now lined with warehouses and retail parks, is the modern version of an old road, with a good gravel surface, connecting a line of settlements – Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Plumstead – all of which have produced Roman remains. And the distance from London is about right. This is why Elliston-Erwood had “no hesitation” in declaring that Charlton was Noviomagus, which means that the modern A206 was once “the Noviomagus road”.

Following the same logic, he suggested that Vagniacis was probably on another by-road at Greenhithe or Northfleet, rather than at Springhead on Watling Street, where it is usually placed.

So: unless and until I come across a better case for some other site, and a convincing rebuttal of Elliston-Erwood’s arguments on river-crossings and minor roads, I’m backing Charlton as the likeliest solution to the centuries-old puzzle of Noviomagus.



The Lambeth Ford and Roman Watling Street


 The London region, before the Romans arrived, wasn’t a bad place to live. The clay soil was hard work, but close to the Thames and its tributaries the soil was better, and the river itself was rich in food and other resources. For travellers by boat the Thames was also a highway, but for those on foot it was more of a barrier. Long before the Romans arrived, therefore, people would have needed crossing-places on the Thames.

There is a longstanding tradition that there was a ford across the river, roughly between St. Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.


And there are versions of the tradition which associate this ford directly with the Roman road, Watling Street, whose southern section comes in to Southwark from Kent, and whose northern section heads up from Marble Arch along the Edgware Road. For some, because the line of Watling Street appears to ‘point’ at the ford, it follows that the ford must be its intended destination. For others, Watling Street in its entirety was merely the Roman version of an ancient pre-Roman track-way which ran from Kent to Wales, and which crossed the Thames at Lambeth.

I have no problem with the notion of a ford at Lambeth. I have no problem with the notion that people would have used the ford in Roman times, just as they did in the centuries before and after. But I don’t believe that this ford was directly connected with the Roman road that we call Watling Street.

Let’s take things in order. The idea of a ford at Lambeth may seem unlikely to us because today, it would be suicidal to try to wade across the river between St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Houses of Parliament. Today’s Thames at this point is an urban, embanked and tidal Thames, deep, fast, and dangerous. But for most of its life the river here was wider, shallower and slower, and it wasn’t tidal because the tide exhausted itself further downstream. Its banks were made up of mudflats, marsh and beach, broken up by creeks and inlets into numerous small islands or eyots. One of these on the north bank was Thorney Island, formed by the two arms of the River Tyburn as it approached the Thames from the north.

Thorney Island no longer exists as an island, but we can still place it, because in the seventh century it was chosen as the site for the church which went on to become Westminster Abbey. We know that early medieval churches were often located on or near roads or tracks, so maybe one reason for choosing the site of Westminster Abbey was its proximity to the crossing-place on the Thames.

It is therefore perfectly possible that there was a ford between Lambeth and Thorney IsIand, and that it was already there long before the Romans arrived. But what connection, if any, might this ancient ford have with Watling Street?

Watling Street is a Roman road. There is no evidence that it was laid on top of an ancient British track-way, and Alec Detsicas, in his well-researched study The Cantiaci, firmly refutes this idea. It is also intuitively unlikely if we look at the line of Watling Street on the map, because it really is one of the straightest Roman roads in Britain, slicing across the landscape along uninterrupted alignments in both its southern and northern sections. It has all the signs of a route dictated by the preferences and prejudices of Roman engineers.

So let’s come at it from another angle. Let’s take two fixed points: the church of St George the Martyr, which marks the junction where Watling Street meets two other Roman roads, Stane Street and Borough High Street; and St Thomas’ Hospital, which we believe was the site of Lambeth ford. If we really want to believe in a link between Watling Street and the ford, then we must posit some sort of spur-road running between these points, from St George the Martyr to St Thomas’ Hospital.

On the map below,


the broken line represents the most direct route for such a spur: parallel with and a short way north of Borough Road, north of St George’s Circus, cutting across Westminster Bridge Road near Lambeth North tube station,


grazing the northern edge of Archbishop’s Park before passing through the Hospital and across the river. On Thorney Island it runs up the nave of Westminster Abbey,


then roughly along the line of today’s Tothill Street towards Buckingham Palace, where it veers somewhat north to track Park Lane up to Marble Arch and Edgware Road.


But this broken line is entirely speculative. The only tentative suggestion that such a route may have existed as a Roman road is a trace of an undated gravelled road in Lambeth Palace garden. There is nothing else. Maps offer no support: the earliest accurate street map of this part of South London, John Rocque’s map of 1746, shows no road corresponding even faintly to our posited route. Nor is there any trace of it in parish boundaries: the boundary between the old parishes of Southwark and Lambeth runs north-south, not east-west as it would need to do if it were following our broken line.

Instead, the evidence suggests that travellers along Watling Street would have passed through the Roman city of Londinium. Coming in from Kent, they would have turned up Borough High Street to go through Southwark, across the bridge and into the city. When they resumed their journey they would leave along the line of High Holborn and Oxford Street to Marble Arch, where they would turn up Edgware Road towards Verulamium (St. Albans) and the north.

On a modern map this may look like a convoluted detour. But modern maps do not reflect Roman priorities. I believe that this ‘detour’ makes perfectly good sense once we grasp that Roman roads were projections of urban-based Roman power.

Roman roads were about control exercised at many levels. Their solid foundations and surfaces allowed for rapid travel, especially rapid travel by soldiers bent on keeping the peace: this is well known. Their engineering, combining straight alignments and pragmatic deviations (discussed in another post), were both practical, and highly symbolic assertions of control over the landscape itself. And most important of all, the roads ran to and from towns and fortresses, the sites from which power was exercised. The roads served both to push the agents of Roman power outwards in the form of soldiers and administrators and tax-gatherers; and to pull its subjects inwards, into the towns, to gain access to markets and special services and the prestige that came from rubbing up against Romanitas. Roman power was an urban power, and its roads were the means by which that urban power projected itself out into the rest of the country.

So, when travellers coming along Watling Street from Kent in the second or third century arrived at the junction where St George the Martyr now stands,


they would not have regarded Londinium as a detour. They would have regarded it as a natural and welcome destination. For farmers or merchants or artisans it had markets. For artists it had rich clients. For soldiers It had barracks. For everyone it offered food, rest, creature comforts, and a renewal of the sense of belonging to a vast, cosmopolitan civilization.

I have no problem with the notion of a ford across the Thames at Lambeth. But I don’t believe that the Romans would have regarded the existence of such a ford as justifying the construction of a new road, when the alternative crossing-place at London Bridge gave access to the city.

Penge By Design: Edwin Nash


 Penge’s church of St. John the Evangelist on the corner of St. John’s Road and the High Street, built in 1849-1850, was designed Edwin Nash & J.N. Round.  


 It was one of Penge’s landmark buildings erected from the 1830s as it made its transition from semi-rural hamlet to railway suburb.

 Although Round is credited as joint-architect, he never seems to have had a substantial career. His only other project that I can identify was in the 1860s, again working with Nash. More of this below.

 Edwin Nash on the other hand, although never a great architectural name, was active for nearly forty years in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. These were the years of the Gothic Revival, and to understand his career, we need to understand what the Gothic Revival was all about.

 Whimsical buildings reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with ‘picturesque’ pointed arches, cropped up occasionally from the mid-eighteenth century, and insistently by the 1820s. Then, in the 1830s, Augustus Pugin burst on the scene. A devout Catholic and talented designer, he published a manifesto arguing that the medieval ‘Gothic’ (i.e. non-classical) style was the authentic expression of Christendom; that its revival was a religious duty; and that new Gothic buildings should faithfully follow medieval practices and designs. Many agreed, including power-brokers in the Anglican Church, and the 1830s and 1840s saw a fashion for historically-correct churches built in close imitation of the ‘Early English’ and ‘Decorated’ styles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  

 By 1850 the Gothic was triumphant, but some architects were feeling constrained by Pugin’s historical correctness. They started to mix styles and motifs from different medieval moments; designs became less predictable, clearing the way for soaring asymmetrical masses of brick and stone; there was a passion for colour, pattern, mouldings, and contrasting textures; and the Gothic look, already seen in schools and colleges as well as churches, was now thought appropriate for hotels, offices, railway stations, warehouses, statues … This eclectic style, with its free-wheeling elaboration of the omnipresent pointed arch, is known as the High Gothic and it dominated architecture in the second half of the century.

 Edwin Nash’s career began in the 1840s, in the era of historical correctness, and his early jobs reflect this. In three busy years from 1849 to 1852 he worked on three churches in north-east Surrey and north-west Kent: St. John’s, Penge; St. James, North Cray; and All Souls, Crockenhill. St. John’s and St. James were in the fourteenth-century Decorated style, while All Souls was thirteenth-century Early English.

 The features that define St John’s as ‘Decorated’ include both its overall design – nave and transepts, tower at the west end, a striking ‘broached’ spire 


 – and its detail, such as the stone tracery within its windows, which allowed bigger window-spaces and more light while still providing secure housing for the glass.

 The south windows facing the High Street suffered bomb damage in the War, but two of the original windows survive on the north side, complete with Nash’s stone tracery and stained glass from William Morris’s works at Merton.


 But the single most striking internal feature is the roof. An open, high, timber truss runs down the nave, reminiscent of medieval hammer-beam roofs such as that in Westminster Hall.  


 And in the transepts, timber beams leap from the corners to meet in mid-air.


 These beams impressed the architectural historian John Newman as “especially provocative” when he visited in the 1960s. They are not strictly historically accurate – they are not a typical fourteenth century feature – but it seems to me that they are apt. The Gothic style in all its variations aspires to height and space and light. It seems to me that Nash’s airy timber roof, and his flying timber beams, respect that aspiration. 

His career from the 1850s, once his first three churches were complete, settled into a different pattern. Most of his work involved assisting with restorations and re-buildings, rather than taking overall responsibility. He contributed to medieval restorations and re-builds at St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield; St. Mary, St. Mary Cray; and St. Nicholas, Sutton. And he added to or enlarged newer nineteenth century churches at St. Bartholomew, Sydenham; and All Saints, Beulah Hill. His particular specialism was in restoring, rebuilding or adding the chancel, the area around the altar which includes the choir and sanctuary.  

But in two busy years in 1863-4 he did take on two complete projects. Firstly, he returned to Penge to design and build St. John’s Cottages at the bottom of Maple Road.



 Just across the road from St. John’s church, these modest, secluded (and now highly desirable) homes were originally built as alms-houses, presumably connected with the church.    

Secondly, together with his former collaborator J.N. Round he designed the nearby church of St. Philip in Taylor’s Lane, next to Wells Park in Sydenham. Their work here reflected the dominant High Gothic approach, combining elements of Early English design with an unusual, short and contained overall plan. St. Philip’s was badly damaged during the War, grappled with continuing structural problems, and was finally demolished in the early 1980s. (More information at 

Edwin Nash was a safe pair of architectural hands in South London’s Gothic Revival, He left his mark on Penge and many other places, with variations on the Gothic theme which defined the Victorian city.

Roman Stane Street: on firm ground through Ewell & Epsom


We saw in a previous post that in his book on Roman Stane Street published just before the First World War, Hilaire Belloc insisted that it followed a single straight alignment from Merton Priory to Pebble Lane, seven or eight miles to the south on the downs above Dorking. If true, this would mean that Stane Street was unconnected with the suspiciously straight stretch of the modern A24 from Morden to Nonsuch Park, and it would mean that it simply bypassed modern Ewell and Epsom.


After the Great War, Captain Grant published his damning rebuttal of Belloc. He argued, correctly, that the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24 was an authentic part of Stane Street. He then projected this line to the south-west, and argued that the road ran through Ewell and Epsom and on to Ashtead, before turning south-east to cross the River Mole at Burford Bridge. In Grant’s view, Pebble Lane had nothing to do with Stane Street.


Grant was right in general, but wrong in this particular. Both the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24, and Pebble Lane, are bona fide survivors of Stane Street. But they are clearly on quite different alignments. So we have to ask (a) how do they connect? and (b) why did the Roman engineers make things so complicated in this area?

First of all, let’s sort out the route of the Roman road through Ewell, which was clarified by excavations in 1970-75 and 2003.


The modern road runs down from Morden and alongside Nonsuch Park, then does a dog-leg before meeting the dual carriageway which by-passes Ewell. The Roman road, however, carried straight on along the Morden-Nonsuch alignment, crossed the dual carriageway, crossed St Mary’s churchyard, and continued to the Old Tower just beyond the church.


Here it shifted slightly to the west to cut through Ewell’s residential streets (Staneway, St James Avenue).

It ran on to cross the modern railway line close to Windmill Bridge, through St Martin’s churchyard in Epsom,

Stane St Epsom St Martin's church

and on to the top of Woodcote Park. Here it shifted east, ran on, shifted west, ran on, shifted east, and finally met Pebble Lane just beyond Thirty Acre Barn.


There is nothing unusual about a few changes of direction in a road or path over the course of four or five miles, the distance from Nonsuch Park to Pebble Lane. However, this is not just any road, but a Roman road which is notable for its long straight alignments. As we saw in the previous post, the Roman engineers liked their alignments – but they were also happy to make pragmatic compromises when circumstances justified it. So: what were the circumstances around Ewell and Epsom?

According to Ivan Margary, the doyen of Roman road studies, it was all about the road surface. We saw previously that the course of Stane Street at Newington, and possibly at Clapham, was diverted to skirt around areas of marshland. In the Ewell and Epsom area the issue wasn’t marsh but clay: the connecting route between Ewell and Pebble Lane was chosen to keep the road off the clay and on firm chalk.

Finally: note once more the recurring theme of churches. Medieval churches situated directly on Stane Street as it passes through South London include St George the Martyr, Merton Priory, St Mary’s Ewell, and St Martin’s Epsom.

Belloc made much of this connection and, however wrong he may have been about other things, he was right about this. There is a pattern here to which we will return.

South London Modernism: Threepenny Bit

Just look at this lovely print


of the NLA Tower in Croydon, aka No. 1 Croydon, aka the Threepenny Bit to us oldies who were around before 1971, aka the Fifty Pee to callow youngsters for whom pre-decimal coinage is as historically remote as the Battle of Hastings or the England football team actually winning something.

The building was designed by Richard Seifert, master of the high-rise tower in the 1960s and 1970s, architect of Centrepoint near St. Giles in 1966, which notoriously stood empty for many years; and the NatWest Tower in the City in 1980, which we are now required to refer to as ‘Tower 42’ as if it had been cast for a bit-part in a near-future urban dystopia directed by Ridley Scott. Seifert didn’t only do towers. He also designed the vile monstrosity of Euston Station, and as such was implicated in the demolition of the nineteenth century station with its famous and irreplaceable Euston Arch.

But the Threepenny Bit is OK. It works. It has character. It’s high but not too high. Its clambering, stacked jaggedness is strangely satisfying. And it has stood the test of time: it was completed almost half a century ago back in 1970, since when other buildings have crowded in, and East Croydon station next door has had a post-modern facelift, and the Croydon Tram has arrived and squatted down in its shadow. But the Threepenny Bit, middle-aged and concrete-clad, is still comfortable in its space, one item – rather a late item – of Croydon’s Modern Moment.

In Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, that extraordinary exercise in utopian social democracy, Croydon loomed large as a centre of population, commercial services and manufacturing industry. In general Abercrombie was hostile to industrial development in the suburbs, but he regarded Croydon’s significant industrial base as a special case that deserved protection.


He also argued that working class housing should be close to workers’ jobs, and lambasted Croydon’s Tory Council for its pre-war cynicism in siting a new working-class housing estate out at Lodge Lane, far from either jobs or decent public transport. That estate continued to grow and became New Addington.

Abercrombie’s vision did have an impact – the Green Belt, New Towns – but the Plan as a whole was not implemented. Local planning stayed with the local boroughs, and in Croydon the borough council was dominated by an ambitious group of Tories. Where Abercrombie had advocated a deliberate, planned redistribution of manufacturing and services across the metropolitan area, they sniffed a local opportunity for a different sort of redistribution – competitive rather than planned, investment pulled in by low rates and good transport links, a zero-sum redistribution of jobs and money to Croydon from central London, with the emphasis on commercial services and scant interest in manufacturing.

The 1956 Croydon Corporation Act gave them the powers they needed, and Croydon’s Modern Moment arrived. The focus was on Wellesley Road, which was comprehensively refashioned as a zone of commercial and cultural modernism: the Fairfield Halls in 1962; St George’s House (the Nestlé building) and St Georges Walk (a first stab at a shopping mall) in 1964; the Wellesley Road underpass in 1965; Taberner House in 1967; the Whitgift Centre (a more ambitious and successful stab at a shopping mall) and the Wellesley Road flyover in 1968; Apollo House and Lunar House (a grimly familiar landmark to generations of migrants) in 1970; and the Threepenny Bit, another couple of hundred yards to the east, in the same year.

Croydon’s Modernist Moment was, therefore, a Tory Modernist Moment. Which is annoying for those of us who (a) don’t like Tories but (b) are rather fond of some bits of Croydon Modernism, such as the Threepenny Bit and the Fairfield Halls. But I suppose we’ll just have to learn to live with complexity.

Meanwhile: if you like the Threepenny Bit print, go to where there are many more wonderful London Modern designs by Kate Marsden.

Stane Street at Merton: the Wandle and the Priory

Despite arguments about the precise course of Roman Stane Street as it makes its way through South London, there has always been a consensus that the road crossed the River Wandle at Merton, close to the site which later became Merton Priory. However, for a long time no-one knew the exact location of the crossing.   

In trying to identify this location, we might expect the River Wandle itself to provide a reliable fixed point from which to start. But rivers are not fixed. It is in their nature to wander, to find new courses, and in Merton the course of the Roman Wandle was some way to the east of the modern Wandle. Two thousand years ago the river ran close to the line of today’s Christchurch Road, and passed in front of today’s Colliers Wood tube station. In fact Colliers Wood tube station is the site of the Roman river crossing. An extended and highly successful archaeological excavation, which ran from 1976 to 1990, answered this and other longstanding questions. 


The Roman river crossing was simply the first in a long line of interventions which have continued right up to the present, and which make this part of Merton into a perfect illustration of the rationale for this blog. My aim in PengePast is to look beyond and beneath the suburban familiarity of South London, and to reveal it as an ancient landscape of human endeavour, struggle and strangeness. Merton certainly does that. 

To illustrate the point: here is the southern edge of the retail park, next to Merantun Way, as it is today. 


Three thousand years ago, this site was a riverside meadow. A little less than two thousand years ago, it carried the Roman road. 800 years ago it was the west end of a large priory church, as shown in the map at the top. 100 years ago  


it was Merton Abbey railway station. And today it is a retail park of quite astonishing ugliness. But in its very ugliness it makes the point that even the most mundane and hideous expressions of suburban modernity are part of an historical process. Even a shoppers’ car-park represents another set of meanings, laid on the palimpsest of South London’s landscape. 

Roman Stane Street was first built around AD 50, with further work carried out between 150 and 200. It seems to have fallen into disuse – or at least, it wasn’t repaired any more – towards the end of the Roman period, from about 350. But the string of Anglo-Saxon settlements and medieval churches along its length show that even if its paving fell short of the Roman ideal, it continued to serve as an important highway long after Britain fell out of the Empire. 

The map at the top highlights two phases of the site’s history: the Roman phase, including the course of the Wandle, the line of Stane Street, and the river crossing; and the medieval phase, including Merton Priory church, and the boundary of the Priory precinct. Both phases were addressed by the 1976-1990 excavations.    

The Augustinian Priory at Merton was founded in 1117, and became an important ecclesiastical institution enjoying royal patronage. At this time abbeys, monasteries and priories acted as clerical, economic and educational centres in their surrounding areas. Merton certainly played this role, and in the Priory’s early years the young Thomas Becket was sent from his home in the city of London to be a scholar here. By the time the Priory church was built towards the end of the C12th, Becket was already a martyr, murdered at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. 

The church was built in the Romanesque style, its west door standing directly on top of the Roman road, and for more than three centuries it stood as the most imposing element of a powerful institution. With the C16th Reformation, of course, like other abbeys and monasteries throughout the country, Merton Priory was closed down. But whereas the buildings on many other sites were simply left to moulder, Merton’s church was promptly dismantled, its stones robbed for re-use in Henry VIII’s new palace a few miles down the road at Nonsuch. Some buildings seem to have survived into the 1640s, when the site was used to garrison troops in the Civil War. But the whole area was transformed from the late C17th as the Wandle in general became increasingly industrialised. Among these industries was textile manufacture and printing, which eventually led William Morris to establish his Abbey Mills works here in 1881.  

By this time, any physical traces of Merton Priory were thought to have disappeared. But in 1914 a Romanesque gate-way was discovered, built into the fabric of a local house. It had clearly belonged to an important Priory building, such as a guest-house or chapel. It was removed and re-erected about a mile away in the church-yard of St. Mary the Virgin.  


Here it still stands, a robust piece of C12th masonry, its chevron pattern still sharp, a surprising and rather wonderful remnant of the great medieval Priory at Merton.  

Roman Stane Street: the Clapham Deviation

Ivan D. Margary was the doyen of Roman road studies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He is still recognised as a formidable authority, and his books such as Roman Roads in Britain and Roman Ways in the Weald


are a wonderful resource. Margary always stressed the disciplined pragmatism of the Roman engineers. They used straight alignments to identify ideal and economic lines across the landscape, and would happily run their roads along these alignments where practicable. But when local topography or soil conditions intervened, they adjusted.

So for instance, at the northern end of Stane Street close to the Thames, the Roman landscape was made up of small islands, creeks and marshes (for more on this see ‘South London Begins‘). Between Newington Causeway and Great Dover Street was a marsh later known as ‘Stewfens’; just to the north was the aptly-named Marshalsea, later the site of a famous debtors’ prison; and the name ‘Newington Causeway’ suggests a raised track around boggy ground. Pragmatic Roman engineers were hardly likely to run their road straight through a marsh, when a minor detour would keep it on firm ground. This is why Margary and others agree that the curve of Newington Causeway round to Elephant and Castle does represent the original route of Roman Stane Street.

But for the next six miles or so, from Kennington right down to the Wandle crossing at Merton, Margary argued that Stane Street was guided by a single straight alignment pointing to the road’s ultimate destination of Chichester.

The modern road more or less sticks to this alignment, with one major exception. It is pretty straight from Kennington to Stockwell; and despite some wandering it stays broadly faithful to the alignment between Balham and Merton. But between Stockwell and Balham we have the “Clapham Deviation”: at Clapham North tube station the modern road veers off to the west up Clapham Rise and Clapham High Street, and then along Clapham Common South Side and Balham Hill, only re-joining the alignment at Balham Station.

In Margary’s view, the route followed by Roman Stane Street was much more direct. It did not veer west at Clapham North, but ploughed straight on through the tube station, through the residential streets to the east of Clapham High Street, through Clapham Crescent, across Clapham Park Road, running just east of Klea Avenue to cross Cavendish Road, and on to meet the modern road close to Balham Station. The map below


shows the deviation in diagrammatic form: Margary’s alignment is in red, and the course of the modern road in black. It also shows the locations of the Northern Line tube stations. I like tube stations. They are friendly and familiar markers in the London townscape, and along this section of the Northern Line they represent a string of ancient South London settlements which sprang up along the length of the road. Kennington, Clapham, Balham, and Tooting are all recorded in the Domesday Book, and must go back many centuries before that.

Essentially Margary’s argument was an application of Occam’s Razor: since the Romans who built the road followed a clear alignment from Kennington to Stockwell, and resumed that same alignment from Balham, the most economical assumption is that the section between Stockwell and Balham was also on that alignment. However archaeological excavations, while not proving him wrong, have failed to prove him right. An excavation in the 1940s at Tableer Road/Worsopp Drive south-west of Clapham Park Road; and another in the 1960s at near-by Lambeth College; found no sign of a road, though both were close to his projected alignment. A 1970s dig on the north side of Gaskarth Road did find pebbles and gravel which seemed to indicate a road or path, but not necessarily a Roman one.

Consequently local historian Michael Green, in his 2008 book Historic Clapham, argues that Roman Stane Street passed through Clapham not on Margary’s alignment, but on the route of the modern road. And he suggests that the Roman road took this course in order to avoid boggy ground in the area which later became Clapham Park. If this is right, then the “Clapham Deviation” is no deviation at all, but a sensible adjustment undertaken for the same reason as the adjustment at Newington Causeway.

Next time: Stane Street, the Wandle crossing, and the tragic fate of Merton Priory.