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.
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),
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.