Blackfen in 1822

While carrying out my New Year’s Resolution of having a bit of a tidy up/clear out, I was looking over my Blackfen research papers (I have boxes and boxes of them…), and I came across a copy of the Survey and Valuation of all the Rateable Property in the Borough of Bexley taken on 11 April 1822. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the Bexley area at that time.

Blackfen at that time was just a tiny hamlet. Its inhabitants consisted of:


James Townsend: house, garden and orchard (owned by James Townsend)

Edmund Newsted: house, garden and orchard (owned by James Townsend)

Thomas Tyler: farm house, barn, yard, stables, garden, orchard, arable and meadow land (owned by Lord Sidney)

Robert Ingram: farm house, yard, barns, stable, garden, arable and meadow land (owned by Messrs Day)

Thomas Warde: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

William Smith: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Staples: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Newsted: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Foster: house and garden (owned by John Johnston, Esq.)

Near Black Fenn, on Danson land, were the Whale family living in a cottage with stable and garden. This fascinated me at the time because whale jaw bones had been discovered when Westwood Lane was made up in the 1930s. I had no idea what whale jaw bones were doing there and wondered if it was anything to do with this family named Whale!

Pickpockets at the Club

The Morning Chronicle of 14 June 1854 reported on page 12 that George Gettins and William Stephens were charged with attempting to pick the pocket of Sir John Kirkland, of No. 10 Portman Square. Sir John Kirkland said he was near the Carlton Club yesterday afternoon when he felt a hand in his pocket. He turned round, and seeing his handkerchief nearly out of his pocket, and the prisoner Stephens close to him, he seized him by the collar, and held him till the police came up. The prisoner begged to be let off that time. The prisoner Gettins was close to the other prisoner.

Police Constable Keech, 102 C said he saw the prisoners and two other well-known thieves in company together in Charles Street. He saw Gettins try a gentleman’s pockets, and Stephens, who carried a bag, tried to rob a lady, who beat him off with her parasol.

Mr Bingham committed both prisoners as rogues and vagabonds to hard labour for two months.

[Sir John Kirkland bought the Blackfen Farm in 1861 and renamed it Queens Wood].

Leechcroft in Blackfen, Swanley and Wallington

C. R. Leech built three estates in Blackfen from 1929 onwards: the Burnt Oak Estate on what had been Heaslip’s farm, the Westwood Estate on what had been Westwood Farm, and the Queenswood Estate on what had been Queenswood House. Leech’s estates consisted of a variety of house size for a variety of needs, a mixture of semi-detached bungalows, terraces of four, five and six, and larger semi-detached houses. The roads he built reflected family connections (his wife’s maiden name was Mary Curran) and conjured up a rural setting (Sycamore, Lime, Willow, Ashcroft, Elmcroft, Maple, Beech, Cedar). The origins of ‘Lyndon’ and ‘Burleigh’ are not known. ‘Leechcroft’, of course, remembered the family surname.

Born in Rotherhithe, Charles Richard Leech began his work as a tarpaulin maker in Deptford. He later moved to a factory in Carshalton and built houses in the Butter Hill district of Wallington.

Estate built by Leech in Carshalton/Wallington. Recognise the street names?

Estate built by Leech in Carshalton/Wallington. Recognise the street names?: Lyndon, Curran, Burleigh, Leechcroft

As well as the three estates in Blackfen, he also built houses in Old Farm Avenue Sidcup and the Kingswood Estate, Swanley.

Kingswood Estate, Swanley. Recognise more street names?

Kingswood Estate, Swanley. Recognise more street names?: Leechcroft, Beech, Willow

Sir John Kirkland at Beckenham Place

Sir John Kirkland, a wealthy army agent who purchased the Blackfen Farm in 1861, lived in some very grand houses. His London homes had included 10 Portman Square and 80-82 Pall Mall, while his country homes had included The Priory in Roehampton, Surrey (now the Grade II listed Priory Hospital) and Dulany House in Patching, Sussex (destroyed by fire in 1945).

From 1869 he was a tenant of Beckenham Place. This mansion had been built by John Cator, MP around 1763. The layout and design is strikingly similar to that of Danson House, Bexley, built around the same time. A portico with four Ionic columns was added to the frontage in the 1780s, and this element is a reminder of Foots Cray Place in Bexley which Sir John Kirkland had rented previously. (The only homes he actually owned were Avoch in Ross-shire and Queens Wood in Blackfen.) Not many people were wealthy enough to pay the rent on such properties, and Beckenham Place lay empty for some years after his death in 1871.

Front of Beckenham Place, 2015

Front of Beckenham Place, 2015

Beckenham Place facing its splendid grounds

Beckenham Place facing its splendid grounds

In the early 1900s Beckenham Place was used as a boys’ school and then as a sanatorium, while the grounds became a golf course. The whole estate was acquired by London County Council in 1927 and has been managed by the London Borough of Lewisham since 1971. The stable block was destroyed by fire but the formal gardens are still glorious.

Beckenham Place stable block and formal gardens

Beckenham Place stable block and formal gardens

Today, Beckenham Place Park is an area of over 200 acres of beautiful open space, ancient woodland, meadow areas and a public golf course. There is a nature trail, a sensory garden and a children’s playground. The visitor centre (open Sundays 1.30-3.30pm) is run by volunteers and contains a fantastic collection of history on the park and mansion, information leaflets and books, plus the chance to see some of the 18th century-style interior.

Beckenham Place golf course

Beckenham Place golf course

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Beckenham Place Park. But it appears to be under a degree of threat, as a lottery bid for ‘improvements’ to the park by Lewisham Council includes the closure of the golf course and there is a campaign against it. I just hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the beautiful open space that I saw today and that Sir John Kirkland enjoyed until his death in 1871.

Gamble North and the Avery Hill Winter Gardens

Living on the western side of Blackfen, trips to Avery Hill Park were a regular thing as a child. Just a walk away and we were in a huge expanse of green. There were the swings in the playground, but the best bit was the steamy exotic greenhouse of the Winter Gardens. Even as an adult, I still enjoy the occasional walk through the park and around the tranquil greenhouse.

Avery Hill Winter Gardens in February 2014

Avery Hill Winter Gardens in February 2014

In fact Avery Hill has a link with Blackfen in its history. Avery Hill Mansion was created by Col John Thomas North ‘Nitrate King’ and the Winter Garden was completed in 1890. His brother, the mine engineer Gamble North, was married to Leila, daughter of the tenant of Westwood Farm in Blackfen, John Hunt. After Col North died and his widow sold Avery Hill, Gamble North resided at Queens Wood, Blackfen.

The question is, of course: was the fertiliser produced by Col North’s Chilean business used for the benefit of Westwood Farm?!

Avery Hill Winter Gardens in February 2014

Avery Hill Winter Gardens in February 2014

I was dismayed to hear recently that Greenwich University, the current owner, has announced its intention to sell the entire Mansion House campus in 2015.

A Facebook Page ‘Save Avery Hill Winter Gardens’ has been created by the Friends of Avery Hill Park to monitor the process and ensure that the concerns of local residents and the wider community are represented. “While we understand that Greenwich University is primarily an educational institution and has determined the need to sell this property in order to fulfill its primary aim. However, we are determined to ensure that whoever buys the property takes on the responsibility of restoring the Winter Gardens and maintaining public access as Greenwich University had started to do.”

“In 2012 Greenwich University was awarded £192,000 Development Fund to help the university progress its plans to apply for a full grant at a later date. It is curious that the announcement to sell the property was made on the same day the final stage of the lottery grant application was to be submitted. The application was withdrawn. This means that at least any restoration will be delayed until the new owners apply for funding and if successful start preserving the decaying building. In the mean time the problems will only get worse.”

Sir John Kirkland of Queens Wood, Black Fen

Sir John Kirkland (1796-1871) was an army agent, providing a banking service to soldiers and their families, and was also military agent to Prince Albert. He was knighted at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. He lived in some very grand homes in London, Surrey, Sussex and Scotland, and also at Foots Cray Place and Beckenham Place in Kent.

In August 1861 Sir John Kirkland purchased the Black Fen Farm, a substantial residence and farm, surrounded by arable and meadow land, on the west side of Days Lane. He named the estate Queen’s Wood (presumably after the reigning monarch and perhaps inspired by the nearby Crown Woods). At the same time he purchased adjoining farmland towards Avery Hill and Days Lane Farm to the south, near Halfway Street.

Items specified in Sir John Kirkland’s will of 1866 include:
• gold inkstand and pair of gold candlesticks, a gift from Queen Victoria in 1852
• portraits of Her Majesty and the Prince Consort sent to Sir John from Osborne on 18 January 1862
• onyx pin containing a portrait of the Prince with a personal inscription from Queen Victoria sent from Balmoral on 19 May 1862.

Osborne House in 2011

Osborne House, Isle of Wight, in 2011

Sir John Kirkland was buried at St George’s, Beckenham. He is remembered in ‘Kirkland Close’ in Blackfen.

Kirkland Close, 2013

Kirkland Close, 2013

C. R. Leech ends his days in Brighton

C. R. Leech was responsible for the building of hundreds of houses in Blackfen. He bought up farmland and Queenswood House in the early 1930s and built bungalows, terraced and semi-detached houses on the Burnt Oak, Queenswood and Westwood estates. A variety of house styles and sizes catered for a variety of needs, and customers ventured out from crowded inner London to live in houses with more space, fresh air and modern facilities.

Originally from Rotherhithe, Charles Richard Leech worked hard as a tarpaulin maker and moved to Carshalton, Surrey in 1922, taking over a floor-cloth factory. He later started building houses in Surrey, and then in Kent, once the prospect of people being able to afford their own homes became a reality. All his family were involved in his house-building business and often lived in houses on the new estates themselves.

C. R. Leech was a keen yachtsman and at the time of his death in 1952, aged 82, he was living at 12 Old Steine, Brighton. On a recent visit to this popular seaside resort I decided to look for his house.

12 Old Steine, Brighton (2014)

12 Old Steine, Brighton (2014). It is now the premises of an English language college. Next door is a Sainsbury supermarket.

This property is just a short distance away from the sea he loved.

Brighton Pier from Old Steine (2014)

Brighton Pier from Old Steine (2014)

The house overlooks a lovely green area with the city’s war memorial.

War memorial and gardens, looking towards 12 Old Steine (2014)

War memorial and gardens, looking towards 12 Old Steine (2014)

After photographing 12 Old Steine, I turned around and was astonished to see the view he had from his house! No wonder he wanted to live there!

Brighton Pavilion from Old Steine (2014). Leech's view probably would not have included the ice rink cafe!

Brighton Pavilion from Old Steine (2014). Leech’s view probably would not have included the ice rink and cafe!