The Bookshop at The Oval

In 1933 the shop at 9 The Oval was a newsagent, bookseller, general and fancy stationer. It was also a lending library with music, and it sold toys and games.

According to the Sidcup and District Free Press, “The Bookshop at The Oval, Sidcup, caters for those who like early morning deliveries of the daily newspapers – also those who like the evening editions. There is a most excellent ‘No Subscription’ Lending Library at this Bookshop. Lovers of books have an opportunity there of obtaining real good reading matter. Special books, magazines, music and back numbers are delivered in less than 24 hours.”

This shop must’ve been a really useful one to the early residents of Blackfen and the Marlborough Park Estate, as the library (the old one in Cedar Avenue) was not built until 1937.

And it’s still a newsagent today!

Woodlands Parade 1933

I’ve just acquired a 1933 ‘Sidcup and District Free Press’ which has a page of adverts for Blackfen. Here are R. E. West hardware stores, Woodlands Post Office and H. E. Rowbottom grocers in what was then called Woodlands Parade, opposite Sycamore Avenue. Plus in the house alongside, the rather fabulous Blackfen School of Music, Dancing and Elocution. The photo is 1934. And lastly, the same view today (2019).

Blackfen in 1962

Today would’ve been my dad’s birthday so I was thinking about 1962 – the year he moved to Blackfen from Wandsworth. With his job as an overseas telegraph operator he had saved enough money to get a mortgage on a house in the tree-lined East Rochester Way.

What did Blackfen look like in 1962? Although my dad was a keen photographer he took virtually no photographs of Blackfen which is rather annoying!

Wally Racher, shoe repairer was still in his cabin near the Jolly Fenman, from which he would regularly emerge to see school children across the road. There was a grocery store at 10 Blackfen Road (now converted back to a house), and a newsagent/Post Office at the corner of Fen Grove. In the centre of Blackfen you could find Jackson’s greengrocers, Lintorn Butchers, the Corn Shop, Homepride, Woolworths, Lipton and Sylvia’s Cafe as well as the still familiar names J. Ayre bakers and Copelands the newsagent. One of my dad’s favourite shops was Corbett’s timber merchant and his favourite pub was The Jolly Fenman.

The library was in an austere building in Cedar Avenue. The Odeon Cinema in Westwood Lane had been closed for years but the derelict building still stood in 1962. (Shortly afterwards it was demolished and replaced by Safeway). The A2 flyover had not yet been built and there was just a crossroads with a set of traffic lights. It was in 1969 that the Rochester Way was widened and the grass verges were lost.

There are quite a few photographs from this era in my book ‘Woodmen and Fenmen: Blackfen’s Story’ which you can borrow or purchase from Blackfen Library. It was because of my dad that I wrote the book – I wanted to know why he (and all the other people who came here) chose Blackfen as the place to make a new life.

Blackfen School of Music, Dance and Elocution

Here is Woodlands Parade in Blackfen Road in 1934 (Sycamore Avenue can just be seen on the left). The house just past the shops had been a private school since 1928, where Mr and Mrs Ashdown ran The Blackfen School of Music, Dancing and Elocution. As well as normal school lessons, there were dancing lessons on Saturday mornings and typing lessons in the evenings. The school was very successful, with regular displays and competitions. Apparently for boys it was THE place to go on Friday nights if you wanted to meet a girl!

Woodlands Post Office 1934

Why do people moan about Blackfen?

Happy New Year 2017” created lively discussion on the Blackfen Past and Present Facebook Group. Not everyone is happy with the arrival of Costa or the presence of Tesco because of competition with local independent shops, and there were complaints that there is not enough choice of shops and there is a lack of community spirit.

Why do people talk Blacken down? No, it isn’t glamorous or swanky, but it isn’t meant to be. Blackfen has a wide range of shops, a new community library and a low number of empty premises compared to other town centres. It enjoyed a successful Christmas event with the lights switched on by James Brokenshire, MP. Why do people moan about Blackfen?

It isn’t a new thing. In 1978 the Kentish Times reported that “Blackfen is a thrusting shopping centre, whose character is still changing… Everything needed to support life and leisure is to be found in its shops… Old shops are closing but new ones are taking their place”. But in 1976 the same newspaper had published an article looking at Blackfen’s problems: “Many regard it as an idyllic place in which to live… but Blackfen is not entirely a land flowing with milk and honey. Pensioners have to battle with cars being driven over the pavement in front of the shops… Shopkeepers, finding they cannot make a profit, are closing their stores and non-retail businesses are moving in. Several empty shops await new owners. Residents, making use of the reasonably frequent and convenient bus services, are beginning to do their shopping elsewhere… Traffic and parking seem to be the source of most of the complaints”.

The writer of the article asked local residents for their opinions. Mrs Cahill liked living in Blackfen but said ‘There is not much for the younger people, but I would not like to see discos or coffee bars opened. The cars on the pavement are an eyesore and there are not enough different types of shop’. Mrs May said ‘When you live on a fixed income, you have to shop around’. David Kane, 13, said ‘Blackfen is a boring place. There are no cinemas here. Someone should build a cinema in Blackfen’. His friend Sean Hurley, 12, said Blackfen was ‘all right, but not exciting’. Mrs Miles said ‘there is no excitement here’. Mrs Leonard said that ‘there is nothing for people to do in the evenings but I don’t think we want coffee bars or discos. If we did have them, we would get trouble from gangs.’ Mr Harper said he did not want to see any major leisure developments in Blackfen because of the fear of being chased by gangs of troublemakers. Mrs Watkins had stronger words and said ‘Blackfen is a dump’.

So perhaps nothing changes?

[For the record, Blackfen did have its own cinema until 1956. And it did have a coffee bar in the 1960s but “it was closed down because of trouble with motorcycle gangs”].

Happy New Year 2017

2016 saw quite a few changes in Blackfen, some good and some bad. But let’s look on the bright side and hope that 2017 will see lots more good things!

Bexley Council removed Blackfen Library from its core library service. The library is now managed by New Community Church. It still has a range of groups and activities, plus a community cafe.

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Blackfen lost both of its banks: Barclays Bank at the corner of Wellington Avenue and Lloyds Bank in Gloucester Parade. Customers now have to travel to other town centres or use online banking, and it means there are two large empty premises in central Blackfen.

The good news is that a range of new shops have opened: Costa coffee shop and The Bagel Shop have added a different dimension to the cafés in Blackfen. The Beauty Lounge and The Little Gym might help with your New Year Resolutions. Posh Paws dog grooming parlour and Affix Windows may well bring in customers from further afield as well as from the local area. And opening soon is an indoor play centre and cafeteria.

Blackfen’s micro pub, The Broken Drum, celebrated its first year anniversary. Long may it continue!

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Blackfen Community Association meeting: 6 May 2015

A meeting of the Blackfen Community Association was held on Wednesday 6 May 2015 at 7pm at the Jolly Fenman.

The meeting began with apologies for absence from Cllr Peter Craske, Cllr Brian Beckwith and Joy Barnes (Treasurer).

Karen Mensa Bonsu, Chairman, explained the current situation regarding Blackfen Library. The Blackfen Community Association had submitted an application form to Bexley Council as an expression of interest to help manage the library from April 2016. Its preference would be to manage the library in partnership with another organisation. Four organisations had submitted forms, more than any of the other borough libraries which had been put out for community management. The news just in was that our Association had been shortlisted and we would have to submit a business plan by July. The final decision on who will manage the library will be made in November/December. Karen asked if any of those present would come forward as volunteers and/or had ideas about how they would like the library to operate.

Karen explained that the committee of the Blackfen Community Association had drawn up a constitution and opened a bank account. Those present were asked if anyone would like to become a member of the committee.

Next, those present were asked if they had ideas for improvements to Blackfen or if there were any events that could be held for the community. One gentleman pointed out that there were large numbers of ‘legal high’ gas canisters in alleyways lately and they were dangerous for cyclists. It was asked who might be selling them to under-age children and what could be done about them. A suggestion was made to contact the Safer Neighbourhood Team.

An apology was given on behalf of the Jolly Fenman for the lack of tea and coffee. Four funeral wakes that day had led to a shortage of tea and coffee-making facilities.

A thank you should be given to those people who have responded positively to the Association’s work in applying to help run the library and have expressed an interest in volunteering.

It should be noted that no councillors attended the meeting.

Blackfen Library – Community Management: response by Bexley Council

At the Blackfen Community Association meeting on 18 February 2015 a number of questions were asked by those who attended. They were addressed to the councillors who were present. Some but not all of the questions were answered at the time.

On 25 March Bexley Council addressed these questions by publishing the following response on their website:

Blackfen library – community management proposals

The following is being published in response to questions raised about the community management of Blackfen Library.

Would a community library result in fewer books to borrow?

Not necessarily – there are many different options for a community library. It could involve the same number of books as is currently held in stock, or more or less – it depends on the proposals that are received from the community management organisations and the level of emphasis they place on stock holdings. It should also be noted that book borrowing levels are falling overall in libraries across the country, and established professional practice suggests that simply increasing or maintaining the number of books will not resolve this downturn. The number of people borrowing books and the number of book loans from libraries nationally has fallen by half since 1997 and therefore it follows that stock levels in libraries generally, are changing.

Would library membership have a fee?

Our existing community managed libraries offer different membership tiers, including a free membership that offers similar benefits to the Council service, as well as ‘paid’ memberships that provide enhanced benefits, such as freedom from library fines. We welcome creative proposals that demonstrate a business case that seeks to provide sustainability but we would not approve a proposal that made use of the library exclusively dependent on a ‘paid’ subscription.

How could volunteers run it if they aren’t professional librarians?

Professional Librarians work out of our shared back office and offer support to libraries in Bexley and Bromley. Our Librarians offer continued support to Bexley’s existing community libraries, where they require it, and would extend this to all community managed libraries going forward.

The staff that work in Council libraries on a day-to-day basis are trained in customer service and gain a great deal of experience through their work. They are also trained to handle the complexity of running the Council’s service as it is currently delivered. The model for our existing community managed libraries (that was proposed to the Council by Greener Bexley) is to ‘second’ staff from the front line Council service (our current branch libraries), to provide an appropriate level of support These seconded staff work with the volunteers, as they do in the Council’s libraries.

We would welcome proposals that suggest the use of seconded staff. Alternatively, we welcome other proposals, if potential community management organisations have other ideas as to how they would wish to manage staff.

It is also worth noting that the role of staff/volunteers in the library in terms of the skills needed will be very much dependent on the form that the management model takes and it does not need to be beyond the reach of volunteers in terms of complexity. We would also be happy to provide training as part of the setting up of the new arrangements.

Why was money being spent on new Council offices and Sidcup improvements but Blackfen gets nothing?

The provision of the new Civic Offices was funded by the sale of other Council properties and has resulted in a net saving to the taxpayer, as well as investment in community facilities and new homes. The improvements to Sidcup Library have been paid for through external funding that the Council secured for the purpose of regenerating the town centre.

Has Bexley Council protested to Central Government about the cuts to local government?

Councillors have raised the issue of the Council’s funding with Ministers.

Why was a petition of 3,017 signatures ignored?

The petition was reported on and heard at Public Cabinet. A debate (also broadcast on the internet) was held about the petition at the meeting and Members took the petition and overall response to the consultation into account when making the decision about the future of libraries in the context of the challenging financial position that the Council is facing and their responsibility to set a balanced budget.

Why has Sidcup Library just received money for refurbishment?

The refurbishment of Sidcup Library was fully funded by external development funds that were secured to improve community facilities in Sidcup.

Why was no account taken of the numbers who use Blackfen library compared to others?

The rationale for how the Council has defined its core Library Service was set out in the consultation proposals in Autumn 2014. This rationale is that the Council’s statutory duty to provide a library service has been defined through an assessment of need, including an assessment of the geographical coverage of the borough’s libraries. The 6 libraries that will remain in Council control will mean that over 98% of the population will be within 1.5 miles of a Council-run library. If Blackfen was included as a 7th core library, it would not extend coverage to any additional residents on this measure. If Blackfen Library was included as a core library instead of Welling, then 6,000 fewer residents would be within 1.5 miles of a Council library.
Usage figures on a branch by branch basis did not influence the approach outlined above, as the rationale was to provide maximum geographical coverage across the borough to the core service for residents. Focusing on usage levels would be more problematic as they vary over time.

Would a similar situation happen in Blackfen as happened in Slade Green where a community group’s application was refused?

The process to identify and appoint partners for the community management of libraries is a procurement process that allows the Council to dismiss bids that do not meet key criteria. In the case of multiple bids being received for the same library, we will assess and compare quality and financial factors to determine the successful bidder.

What would be the cost of a community-run library sharing books and facilities with the Council service, and what would be the cost of lighting, heating, wages, etc?

This would very much depend on a range of factors – including the proposals made by the group for staffing arrangements. Groups that declare their interest in the first phase of the process (expressions of interest) and that are shortlisted will be sent these costs along with other supporting information. At this point in the process, shortlisted groups will also be provided with information about the level of finance that the Council can provide as annual revenue support to the groups. Council officers will work with them to develop a model that seeks to meet their aspirations and that addresses the financial challenges.

What should we do if we have volunteers but they do not have the necessary skills to put forward a business plan?

After groups have expressed an Interest, we would suggest that the particular areas where help is needed are flagged in order that we can offer help and support – as far as this is possible within the terms of the procurement process. It should be noted that the business planning stage of the process does not require extensive business planning skills, because the structured application documentation will guide groups through the process It might also be possible to signpost groups towards other sources of help outside the Council to help them with this process.

Blackfen Community Association: next meeting 6 May

The next meeting of the Blackfen Community Association will be on Wednesday 6 May at 7pm at the Jolly Fenman in Blackfen Road. I am confident that there will be some positive things to talk about this time!

In the meantime it would be useful to have a contact list of anyone who is particularly interested in becoming actively involved in Blackfen Library’s future. So please do get in touch. You can contact me here.

Blackfen Community Association meeting 18 February 2015

The new Blackfen Community Association held its second meeting on 18 February 2015 at the Jolly Fenman pub. Fifty residents and traders packed into the room, along with several Councillors. The focus of the meeting was the situation regarding Blackfen Library.

The councillors in attendance were Peter Craske (Cons, Lamorbey and Blackfen), Brian Beckwith (Cons, Lamorbey and Blackfen), Louie French (Cons, Welling and Falconwood), Lynn Smith (UKIP, Welling and Falconwood), Cafer Munur (Cons, East Wickham) and Mac McGannon (UKIP, Colyers – who explained that he used to live in Blackfen). All nine councillors from the three wards which represent residents of Blackfen were invited to attend and it is noticeable that those from Blendon and Penhill, in which ward the library is physically located, did not respond.

Karen Mensa-Bonsu explained the concern over the decision to remove Blackfen Library from the core borough service. She explained that the decision was made for ‘geographical’ reasons and did not take account of cost or the effect it would have on the community. She outlined the possible actions from this point: 1. judicial review. 2. that everyone present should contact their councillors and MP to express their concern directly. 3. as Cllrs Craske and Beckwith hold their surgeries at the library, could they offer any help? 4. any suggestions from anyone else?

Cllr Craske gave the reasons for Bexley Council’s decision: that government spending cuts were having an impact on local government and that £50m savings had to be made. Small unnoticeable cuts had already been made, such as merging library administration with Bromley Council, but now larger cuts were needed. He suggested that Blackfen Community Association should apply to manage the library.

Strong views were expressed by those present at the meeting, and questions were asked. Would a community library result in fewer books to borrow? Would library membership have a fee? How could volunteers run it if they aren’t professional librarians? Why was money being spent on new Council offices and Sidcup improvements but Blackfen gets nothing? Has Bexley Council protested to Central Government about the cuts to local government? Why was a petition of 3017 signatures ignored? Why has Sidcup Library just received money for refurbishment? Why was no account taken of the numbers who use Blackfen library compared to others? Would a similar situation happen in Blackfen as happened in Slade Green where a community group’s application was refused? What would be the cost of a community-run library sharing books and facilities with the Council service, and what would be the cost of lighting, heating, wages, etc? What should we do if we have volunteers but they do not have the necessary skills to put forward a business plan?*

Cllr Craske reiterated that the Blackfen Community Association should apply to manage the library: “Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in”. Cllr McGannon suggested prioritising what the community wants from its library and looking at overall costs to find the best non-political community package possible. The councillors promised that they would get hold of the running costs for Blackfen Library so that the Blackfen Community Association would be in a better position to be able to put together a successful application and understand what they are committing to.**

As a final item, those present voted to formalise the name ‘Blackfen Community Association’.

Many thanks to the Jolly Fenman for generously providing tea and coffee as well as the venue.

 

*On 25 March Bexley Council published responses to these questions which can be seen here.

**On 21 February Cllr Craske told us that he was not able to give the running costs for Blackfen Library after all, as Bexley Council had refused to share financial information while the procurement process was ongoing.


 

On 27 February Karen Mensa Bonsu and Joy Barnes met with James Brokenshire, MP to explain the dissatisfaction with the decision to remove Blackfen from the borough’s core library service. (Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to work commitments).

Since the meeting we have been trying to talk to as many people as possible about the various models for community libraries and we are considering our options.