The Lemon Well at Avery Hill

Lemonwell Drive is named after the ‘Lemon Well’ which was a bricked well beside the road from Avery Hill to Eltham. At one time it had a reputation for its medicinal properties and was used for ‘affectations of the eye’. The spring which supplied the well was in the grounds of Lemon Well House, occupied by Major Sir Harry North, son of Col John Thomas North of Avery Hill.

Born in Leeds in 1866 and educated at Cambridge, Harry served in the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was knighted in 1905 for his military service. He married Jessie in 1894 and they lived at Lemon Well with their three children, a butler, cook/housekeeper, housemaid, kitchen maid, nurse and ladies’ maid.

The house was sold after his death in 1920 and divided into three units. But in 1961 it was demolished and twenty-four flats were constructed in its place.

This part of Bexley Road, between Avery Hill and Eltham, still has a rural feel to it.

Col North: mechanic to millionaire

Avery Hill Mansion and the Winter Garden were created by Col John Thomas North ‘Nitrate King’ in 1890. But he didn’t get long to enjoy his house, as he died suddenly in 1896. In his obituary he was described as “a solid, sturdy Yorkshireman, shrewd, honest”.

John Thomas North was born in Leeds in 1842 and was apprenticed to a machine manufacturer. He was sent to South America to superintend machinery there. While there he found vast deposits of nitrate of soda and he realised the commercial value of this as fertiliser. This made him very wealthy. On his return to London he became a familiar face in the City, built himself an extravagant house at Avery Hill and became Honorary Colonel of the Tower Hamlets Volunteer Engineers. He had risen from mechanic to millionaire. But his business empire collapsed, and after he died his widow sold Avery Hill.

William Willett (1856-1915), builder and inventor of daylight saving

Did you know that it was a Chislehurst house builder, William Willett, who first proposed daylight saving hours in this country?

When most people lived in agricultural communities, the sun rising earlier in the summer than in winter had not been a problem as people just shifted their habits according to the daylight. But by the end of the 19th century more people were living in towns and cities and working in offices and shops, and their daily routines were determined by the clock. On his early morning horse rides over Chislehurst Common William Willett noticed how many window blinds were still down. He realised that warm spring evenings were being wasted because it got dark early, so he came up with the obvious solution – to change the nation’s clocks, and in 1907 he wrote a pamphlet, ‘The Waste of Daylight’. This would also benefit golfers playing in the evening (he was a keen golfer!).

But it took nine years and a world war to persuade the Government to adopt his proposal. In 1916 an emergency law was passed to change the clocks twice a year, increasing war production, and this became permanent by the passing of the 1925 Summer Time Act.

Sadly William Willett died from influenza in 1915 before his idea was enacted. He is buried in St Nicholas Churchyard, Chislehurst. There is a blue plaque on the wall of his house, The Cedars and a Willett Memorial sundial in Willett Wood. There is even a pub named after him in Petts Wood, the Daylight Inn.

It’s worth mentioning that the link between Blackfen/Sidcup and Chislehurst was once much stronger than it is now. The A20 cut them adrift, but large areas of Blackfen were owned up to 1915 by the Townshends of Frognal and Scadbury.

 

Is Blackfen in London or Kent?

Blackfen has for centuries been a small hamlet in the parish of Bexley in the county of Kent.

Administrative changes in 1894 meant that Blackfen became part of the new Bexley Urban District Council but in 1910 the southern half of Blackfen was transferred to Foots Cray Urban District Council, renamed Sidcup UDC in 1921 and in 1934 becoming Chislehurst and Sidcup UDC. In 1965 Blackfen was united once again into the London Borough of Bexley under the London Government Act. Ever since then, residents have argued over whether the Borough of Bexley is part of London or part of Kent.

Many, and perhaps younger generations in particular, identify more with London. If someone asks where I live, I say different things according to who has asked. Sometimes I say south-east London to avoid notions that I live in a picturesque village, but I always feel a terrible sense of disloyalty when I do this. Usually I would instinctively say Kent.

When I commute to central London each day, I do feel that I leave Kent in the morning and return to it each evening. When driving down the Maidstone Road between Ruxley and Swanley and reaching the ‘Welcome to Kent’ sign, I always protest “but I was already in Kent.”

How has this contradiction come about? Since 1965 Bexley has been a London Borough. We are eligible to vote for the London Mayor and part of our council tax goes towards funding the Greater London Authority. Bexley is under the Metropolitan Police and our regional television is London. However, Bexley does not have a London postcode.

Why does it have such great importance? After all, these are just administrative factors. A sense of belonging is a core part of our being. The Kent motto ‘Invicta’ (meaning ‘undefeated’) was adopted just after the Norman Conquest, and that motto was applied at the Battle of Britain in 1940 which was fought in the skies over Kent. The symbol of Kent, the white horse, is included in the Bexley Borough Coat of Arms.

The only reason Bexley does not have a London postcode is because the Post Office was not able to expand its London postal district after 1965 due to the prohibitive cost. If this changes, is it inevitable that one day people will forget that Bexley was once part of Kent? I hope not!

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 www.averyhillpark.org.uk 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.”