Penge Greene situate and being within the parish of Battersey

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 1

My previous post focused on two sixteenth century legal disputes regarding Penge Common. One concerned allegedly unlawful timber-cutting, and the other concerned allegedly unlawful occupation of a house. The first case was brought by Elizabeth Royden as holder of the lease for Battersea and Penge; and the second, almost twenty years later, by Elizabeth’s son-in-law Oliver St. John, who had acquired the lease when he married Elizabeth’s daughter Joan. St. John’s claim in this second case was made against a man called Style.

In this post we move forward to the seventeenth century, and examine the contents of two more legal documents: one dating from 1630 held in the National Archives, and the other from 1677 held in the Bromley Archive. (The Bromley library strike is now happily settled, so self-respecting socialist historians can use the library and archive once more). These documents are fascinating in themselves, and astonishingly we encounter the same families as we met in the previous century: the St. Johns and the Styles

“ … the tyme of her said wyddowhood … “

A bit of family background will help here.

When Elizabeth Royden’s daughter Joan wed Oliver St. John in the early 1590s, she knew she was marrying into a prestigious aristocratic family. But she could not have foreseen the glittering career which lay ahead for her new husband. St. John prospered mightily once the new Stuart king James I was on the throne. He was made Lord Deputy of Ireland, Viscount Grandison, and finally Baron Tregoz. Joan, as his wife, became a great lady of the realm. But they had no sons.

This meant that when St. John died in 1630, his estate went to William Villiers from another branch of the family. Joan seems to have found that all the honours and titles which she had accumulated by virtue of being St. John’s wife counted for little now that she was his widow. In particular, it seems that Villiers laid claim to the place where she had lived for virtually all of her life.


Penge Common - C17 - NA 2

 The 1630 document in the National Archives is Joan’s response to this situation. In it, she challenges Villiers’s right to inherit the lease for the manor of Battersea and Penge. She relies on the fact that, before she ever married St. John, an extension to the lease was secured to run to 1634. This was done by her mother Elizabeth in order to secure Joan’s future. And at the time it worked: it enabled Joan to bring a long-running, copper-bottomed lease for a valuable property to her marriage settlement with St. John.

Now that St. John was dead, however, ownership of the lease was in dispute. Villers argued, presumably, that it now belonged to him as part of St. John’s estate. Against this Joan seems to be arguing, in this document, that the lease had a special status and should now revert to her. In particular she refers to the extension secured by her mother: the phrase “one and thirty years” occurs repeatedly. We don’t know the outcome, and quite probably the dispute never reached a court, because Joan died in the following year.

Penge Common - C17 - NA 1

This is a family property dispute. It does not concern Penge directly, except as part of the property. But for precisely that reason, it is interesting to see that Penge is named in the document. It is not simply taken for granted as part of the manor of Battersea, but is referred to explicitly. The implication is that, in 1630, Penge was a sufficiently valuable possession for its association with the manor to be worth spelling out.

“ .. lawfull money of Englande … “

The 1677 document from the Bromley archive is very different. This is not a family matter, but rather a dispute rooted in class, status and money.

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 1

As so often with these odd surviving archival fragments, we see only one side of the story. The Bromley document sets out a claim on behalf of “William Burke, citizen and blacksmith of London”, concerning a cottage “ … being near unto a certain Greene called South Greene also Penge Greene situate and being within the parish of Battersey within the County of Surrey … “. In addition to Burke himself, a number of other respectable citizens are also listed in his support: William Russell, citizen and skinner of London; Daniel Palmer, citizen and apothecary of London; and so on. The whole thing conveys a sense of prosperous and well-connected City tradesmen closing ranks against an outsider.

Who is this outsider? He is John Style the Elder, who is apparently “in occupation” of the cottage near Penge Green. He is evidently not a citizen of London nor a member of a City company, but he does bear the same family name as Edward Style, who was also accused of unlawfully occupying a house in Penge eighty years before.

Penge Common - C17 - Bromley 2

This raises several questions. Firstly: was John descended from Edward? We can’t know for sure, but Style is not a common name, and the population of Penge at that time was tiny, so it seems to me that it would be extraordinary if he wasn’t. Secondly: despite the passage of time, could both cases have concerned the same dwelling? Could Edward’s ‘house’ have been the same place as John’s ‘cottage’? Again we cannot know for sure, but it seems to me that if we are dealing with a single family then the two cases may indeed refer to the same place. And thirdly: since Edward’s defence in the 1590s seems to have been that the ‘house’ was not in Penge, but Beckenham, could John have made the same argument in 1677? We don’t have a document setting out his side of the argument, but I suspect that he could not have defended himself in the same way as Edward, because the claim brought against him was different in nature.

Burke’s claim is rooted in a different principle to Oliver St. John’s claim in the previous century. St. John’s case was based on his rights as ‘lord of the manor’ by virtue of his lease: he argued that the disputed house stood within the boundary of Penge, which allowed Edward to argue back that it didn’t because the boundary was in a different place. But Burke’s claim had nothing to do with boundaries. It was entirely commercial and referred to a single property; he had bought a cottage with “lawfull money of Englande” and was therefore entitled to “hold occupy possess and enjoy the said cottage”. When he referred to the cottage as “near unto … Penge Greene” he wasn’t invoking ancient land-rights, he was simply using ‘Penge Greene’ as an address. Where St. John was an aristocrat referring back to medieval notions of land-holding, Burke was a business-man looking forward to a modern commercial property market. Hence the form of his claim, and the appearance in it of other City business-men keen to associate themselves with the same commercial principle.

Burke’s claim of 1677 is a small harbinger of things to come. Just eleven years later, James II would be expelled, and William of Orange would come in, bringing in his wake the Bank of England, the National Debt, and a new round of wars against the French. William III inaugurated a thoroughly capitalist commercial culture in Britain. But William Burke was already working along the same lines in his attempt to take possession of a cottage near Penge Green.


“Touching the comon of Penge”

Penge Common NA #1 (4)


I have been looking at two documents in the National Archives, dating from 1578 and 1596/7. Each is a record of evidence gathered during a legal dispute about land in Penge.

These disputes arose a few decades after Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church and ‘dissolved’ hundreds of monasteries and abbeys along with their millions of acres of land. Throughout the country farmers and landowners, gentry and aristocracy, became rich by acquiring this land. It was a windfall which secured their families’ futures, and usually secured their loyalty to the newly-Protestant Tudor regime. And not surprisingly, they were more than ready to go to law if they thought their new property rights were being infringed.

Penge at this time was an expanse of common land, heath and woodland, “waste ground and coppices”, belonging to the manor of ‘Batrichsey’ or Battersea. Until 1540 Battersea (including Penge) had belonged to Westminster Abbey. But in that year the Abbey was dissolved and its lands were taken by the Crown. So at the time of our legal disputes the manor of Battersea (including Penge) was owned by the monarch, Elizabeth I, who leased it out. In the 1570s it was leased to Elizabeth Roydon; it then passed to her daughter Joan; and by the mid-1590s Joan had married Oliver St. John, and the lease had passed to him.

So far so good. We know broadly what the documents are about, we know their dates, and we know the key players. But my problem, as I sat staring at them in the Reading Room at the National Archives in Kew, was that I was, mostly, unable to read them. These are hand-written parchments. They are written in English, but they use unfamiliar words, unfamiliar spelling, unfamiliar grammar and punctuation, and almost indecipherable script.

Penge Common NA #2 (3)

Almost indecipherable to my eye, anyway. Of course there are historians who are familiar with sixteenth century script and can read it readily, but I’m not one of them.

This might suggest that the whole exercise was a waste of time, but it wasn’t. There is a wealth of historical detail in these documents that I have so far been unable to unlock, which is frustrating. But I was able to decipher enough for fascinating fragments of meaning to emerge.

The first case: cutting timber on Gravel Hill

The 1578 case involved illicit tree-felling in a copse at Gravel Hill (sixteenth century spelling “Grabbelhill”). Elizabeth Roydon (sixteenth century spelling “Ridon”) accused Hugh Gouldwell, Randall Snowe and Mathew Dawes of “cutting of timber in Gravel Hill Coppice”. It’s not surprising that she took tree-felling so seriously: Penge’s primary value was as a source of timber.

In order to have a genuine complaint, however, Elizabeth Roydon had to show that Gravel Hill was part of Penge Common, in which she had rights as tenant. The defendants seem to have denied this, claiming that Gravel Hill was not in Penge, but in Croydon. The whole case therefore turned on establishing the precise location of the boundary between Penge and Croydon, and the document records witnesses’ evidence on this question.

The witnesses’ evidence included several references to oak trees (sixteenth century spelling “oke”) acting as boundary markers. This provided confirmation, if we needed it,  of the special significance of oak trees in the English landscape. And it also set me off on the trail of the ‘Vicar’s Oak’, squinting at the script in search of a reference to this particular tree which, until the seventeenth century, stood at the top of Anerley Hill, marking the meeting place of four parishes: Battersea, Camberwell, Croydon and Lambeth. It is commemorated today at the top entrance to Crystal Palace Park, recently re-designed and greatly improved by local educational charity Invisible Palace.

Vicar's Oak - Invisible Palace

(Picture courtesy of Invisible Palace)

Sadly, I failed to find any mention of the Vicar’s Oak. I did find references to a “famous oak” (“oke”), which might even be the same oak, but in this particular document it had a different name. And inevitably, I was unable to decipher it. Can you do any better? It’s reproduced below, where it appears twice, on consecutive lines, as part of the phrase: “ … famus oke comonly called (NAME) … “

Penge Common NA #7 (3)

On both lines the mystery name is the same, but I can’t make it out. If you can, please get in touch. All I know is that it’s definitely not ‘Vicar’ or ‘Vicar’s’.

So, where exactly may Gravel Hill have been? Clearly it was close to the Penge/Croydon boundary, the first part of which runs from the south-west end of Marlow Road in Anerley, up and across Croydon Road and Selby Road, to the railway line. This involves a gentle rise, but nothing that could be called a ‘hill’.

Map - Penge-Croydon boundary 2 (2)


It’s much more likely that Gravel Hill was located further on, where the boundary turns away from the railway line to head into Upper Norwood, climbing up Fox Hill, before turning towards the north into Lansdowne Place and Church Road. Maybe Gravel Hill was a sixteenth century name for the steep slope that we know as Fox Hill?

A final frustration is that we don’t know who won. The document in the National Archives contains ‘depositions’, witnesses’ evidence, but it doesn’t tell us the outcome. Did Elizabeth Roydon succeed in her claim? Was Gravel Hill found to be part of Penge Common? If so, what penalty was imposed on Gouldwell, Snowe and Dawes for taking her timber? We’ll probably never know.

The second case: a messuage called Grovefield House

The 1590s dispute concerned the other end of Penge, where it bumps up against Beckenham. In this case Oliver St. John, lessee of the Manor of Battersea, brought a claim against Edward Style regarding “ … a messuage called Grovefield House in the defendant’s occupation … “ (‘messuage’ means a dwelling house together with other buildings or facilities attached to it).

I was unable to make out exactly what provoked the dispute but it seems, again, to have touched on the location of the boundary. Perhaps St. John believed the house was inside Penge and that Style therefore owed him rent; while Style believed it was in Beckenham. Intriguingly, St. John called several witnesses from Penge or Battersea, while Style called several witnesses from Beckenham, so maybe there two different views, a Penge view and a Beckenham view, about where the boundary lay.

Since witnesses are the central figures in both these documents, it’s worth looking a little more closely at who exactly they were.

The witnesses

The authors of both manuscripts, one from the 1570s and one from the 1590s, appear to have been lawyers, charged with the task of collecting evidence. In cases like these, concerning local boundaries, there were no local maps to refer to. The only source of such information was people. So the lawyers drew up their questions (‘Interrogatories’) which they then put to witnesses.

Penge Common NA #5 (2)

The witnesses they called on were ‘experts’ – but not experts as we think of them today. Their expertise lay not in special training or qualifications, but in long working lives spent in the local landscape. They were peasants and rural workers, illiterate and elderly. But they had lived in this area all their lives and knew it like the backs of their gnarled, weather-beaten hands: Henry Dare of Lambeth in the county of Surrey, Yeoman; Thomas Kempsell of Beckenham, aged 80; Thomas Lamon of Penge in the parish of Battersea, aged 63; Andrew Levern of Croydon, husbandman; Alice Wilton of Camberwell, aged 60.

One by one, more than four hundred years ago, these old people, who lived where we now live, gave their careful opinions on the lie of their land, its peculiarities, names, markers, limits and boundaries. And their words were transcribed by lawyers, and the parchments on which they were written have, remarkably, survived, and we can read them today. Or at least, we can try.


Penge Common in the archives



Archives - LL #1

What does the word ‘common’ imply? When we say that someone has ‘common sense’ we are being complimentary. But when we refer to something as ‘common or garden’ it’s a bit of a put-down. Back in the seventeenth century, during the Civil War, Parliamentary soldiers were fighting for the House of Commons, and succeeded in replacing the monarchy with a ‘Commonwealth’ – but they refused to be called ‘common soldiers’ which they regarded as an insult.

Despite these various and shifting meanings, there has been one consistent usage over the centuries: the use of ‘commons’ as a name for assets or resources accessible to all. Today, the term appears in the debate on climate change, where the Earth itself is coming to be understood as a common resource; and in the debate on the future of the internet which some regard as ‘digital commons’.

But the archetype of ‘commons’ is common land: land available to the rural poor. This was an intrinsic part of the medieval economy, and for much of its history Penge was just such a piece of common land. And it had an additional value because it was heavily wooded, and timber was a scarce resource.


Archives - LMA #1

Penge Common no longer exists. Instead, on the land which it once occupied, is the Penge that we know: houses and shops, roads and railways. This transformation was achieved, with due legal process and an Act of Parliament, in the early nineteenth century. Modern Penge only exists because Penge Common doesn’t.

Most of the people who lived on Penge Common before the nineteenth century, or had an interest in it, left no trace. But some did. Some of their stories survive in the archives. It’s an unrepresentative sample, skewed towards the rich and literate because they were the ones who produced the legal documents, contracts, accounts, letters and minutes which the archives hold. But even so, we are able to recover some sense of the past meanings of the place where modern Penge now sits.

I did a fair bit of archival research when working on my book, The Making of a London Suburb, about the history of Penge. But the story of the Common was only one chapter in that book, and there is lots more out there which I’ve never investigated.


Archives - BNA

So, over the next few months I will be burying myself in the archives, ferreting out scraps of material on Penge Common, and surfacing again to post progress reports here. And I hope to pull it all together in a public talk during the Penge Festival in June 2020.

As ever with research, I anticipate a heady mix of excitement, frustration, and more excitement. Excitement because I already have a whole lot of unanswered questions in mind; frustration because I know I won’t find answers to most of them; and then more excitement because failure to answer the first set of questions will inevitably throw up a second set.

One final comment. One of the most important archival sources is Bromley Historic Collections, accessed through the Local Studies section of Bromley Central Library. I have been a regular user over the past twenty years, and have benefitted from the presence of helpful, professional archivists and librarians. But for some months now they and their colleagues have been on strike in defence of the library service. The least I can do is repay their professionalism with a bit of solidarity. So Bromley’s archive is out of bounds until the dispute is settled.

Instead, early in the New Year, I’ll be heading for one of the other archives in the hope of shedding a bit of light on Penge’s lost common.

Archives - Kew #2


Penge’s Crooked Billet: Auctions and Inquests

Crooked Billet - close text #1 (3)

At the time of writing the Crooked Billet in Penge has just re-opened after a facelift. But one thing hasn’t changed and for that we should be truly grateful: it’s still called the Crooked Billet. Over the years it has inhabited various buildings, and at one point it was in a completely different place, on the other side of Penge Lane, where the Watermen’s Almshouses now stand. But the name is unchanged: it’s always been the Crooked Billet.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for travellers from Kent into London, the Crooked Billet was Penge’s key defining feature. At that time there were precious few houses, and certainly no landmarks such as churches. To one side of the Beckenham Road were fields; to the other side an expanse of rough wood-heath stretching up the hillside. Those with local knowledge might guess they were in Penge when they crossed the track from Croydon to Lewisham, but it was the sight of the Crooked Billet which confirmed it.

The Crooked Billet at this time was a coaching inn, a resting place for travellers and horses, providing food, drink and shelter. But in addition, as the most substantial public building for miles around, it was the natural place for any commercial business or official gathering.

Crooked Billet - close text #5 (2)

So for instance: when in the spring of 1827 Parliament passed an Act for the enclosure of Penge Common, the practical business was organised from the Crooked Billet. ‘Enclosure’ means privatisation: Penge Common was divided up into plots, which were either awarded to local residents who could prove a legal claim, or sold off at auction. This required organisation, and a Commissioner, Richard Peyton, was appointed to see to it. He based himself at the Crooked Billet in the autumn of 1827, and here he approved or dismissed individual claims, and oversaw a series of auctions.

Another instance: when the body of a young man was found on the towpath of the Croydon Canal in June 1829, apparently dead from gunshot, it was taken to the Crooked Billet and laid out in the parlour. A “highly respectable jury” was assembled, according to a newspaper report, and it examined the body “which presented a most shocking spectacle”. Witnesses were heard, including John Scott, a bricklayer from Rotherhithe, who had found the body. The jury brought in a verdict of death by suicide.

Crooked Billet - close text #4 (2)

The landlord of the Crooked Billet during both these episodes was Richard Harding. His will survives, and provides some fascinating insights.

Harding was a licensed victualler, and a prosperous man. His will lists his various belongings which included the Crooked Billet premises at Penge, plus household goods and financial assets: “ … furniture, plate, linen, china, books … bills, bonds, notes, ready money … securities for money … “. And he also had another property: “ … a freehold estate purchased by me of Thomas Woodgate situate at Lower Norwood in the parish of Croydon in the County of Surrey adjoining the canal … “.

Crooked Billet - will of Richard Harding (4)

Richard had a wife, Martha, and a daughter, Matilda, but strangely he didn’t leave his property directly to them. Instead he bequeathed it to his brothers, John and James, to hold in trust for their benefit. This looks like a very patriarchal arrangement, where the men hold the power and the women are subordinate. But the will goes on to say that if Martha wants to take up the trade of victualler and carry on running the Crooked Billet after Richard’s death; and if Matilda wants to do the same after Martha’s death; then the trustees must enable this and support them. This suggests that Richard had a fair degree of respect for the practical common sense of his wife and daughter. But it still doesn’t explain why he didn’t do the obvious thing, and simply leave his worldly goods to them and let them get on with it.

As ever with historical research, we learn something new and gain some new insight into the past; and as ever, we are left with more unanswered questions than we had in the first place.

Penge by Design: Railway Picturesque

LCDR Penge East #2 (2)


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

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


LCDR Penge East #3


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


LCDR Penge East #4


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


LCDR Penge East #1 (3)


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

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

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

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


LCDR Herne Hill #5 (2)


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


LCDR Herne Hill #4


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


LCDR West Dulwich #1 (2)


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


LCDR Herne Hill #1


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

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

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


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.


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.