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.

The Legacy of Slavery

Yesterday I visited the ‘Slavery, culture and collecting’ exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands which investigates the relationship between European culture and transatlantic slavery. It’s an uncomfortable truth that many ‘philanthropists’ commemorated for their associations with charitable causes generated their wealth from slavery.

And Blackfen is directly affected by this. Danson House was the lavish country home of Sir John Boyd who owned sugar plantations on St Kitts. He acquired the freehold of Danson Hill in 1759, had a new Palladian villa built and set about greedily acquiring parcels of land to enlarge his estate to display his wealth and social status – this took the boundary up as far as Westwood Lane and south of Blackfen Road, including the cottage which became the ‘Chapel House’. He travelled abroad, purchasing works of art for his villa. In later life he focused ‘on religious subjects and good deeds and administering local charities’.

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Neill Malcolm inherited the Malcolm family fortune made in Jamaican sugar plantations and through marriage inherited Lamorbey House (now Rose Bruford College) in 1812. He extended Lamorbey’s estate by buying up surrounding parcels of land. The Malcolm family went on to endow the chapel at Holy Trinity, provided land for a new vicarage, supported the church school in Hurst Road, established another school in Burnt Oak Lane and built cottages for workmen. Although the family moved away from the area, it was Lt-Col G. I. Malcolm of Poltalloch, a descendant of the Malcolms of Lamorbey, who laid the foundation stone for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Blackfen Road in 1967.

First Aid Post

In 1939 a First Aid Post was built on the triangular plot of land at the corner of Sherwood Park Avenue. Kent County Council had already planned to erect a Maternity and Welfare Clinic in the Blackfen area and so it was agreed that they could be permitted to use it as a clinic in Peace Time. Not far away a Cleansing Station and Ambulance Station was built at Willersley Park.

There were quite a few public shelters, including trenches underneath the gardens of The Oval for 316 people. I spoke to someone who remembered chasing his friends around the tunnels as a boy, but it seems no-one ever actually used them as a shelter during air raids. Like many shelters dug in the ‘Black Fen’, they frequently flooded!

Danson House in 2016

Changes have been made to the management of Danson House. Bexley Council has taken over responsibility for Danson House from the Bexley Heritage Trust. According the Council website it will re-open spring/summer 2016 but it looks likely it won’t be open for as many days of the week as it used to be. Not sure where that leaves the tea room! It is proposed that the Borough’s civil ceremonies and registrations will be held at Danson House from September 2016 instead of at Sidcup Manor House.

Meanwhile here is Danson House in 1950.

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Danson House, 1950

Parks and Open Spaces Sell-off

The Bexley Council ‘Strategy 2018′ budget public consultation which closed on 9 January 2015 proposed the sale of 27 sites in the borough to reduce maintenance costs, but the location of the sites were not identified. This lack of vital information prevented any real debate and meant that the public could not give any informed opinion. Campaigners feared that Danson Park could be one of the sites. A further consultation on parks and open spaces, ground maintenance, street-lighting and recycling closed on 20 February 2015. It was only after this closing date, on 20 February, that the 27 sites were named.

There are three sites affecting Blackfen:

1. Berwick Crescent (triangular site to east), Sidcup (Open Space)

2. Berwick Crescent (two corner plots to south west), Sidcup (Open Space)

3. Land fronting 65-69 Blackfen Road, Sidcup (Highway)

Open spaces sell-off: sites at Berwick Crescent

Open spaces sell-off: sites at Berwick Crescent at the junction with Fen Grove (right) and Norfolk Crescent (left)

Open spaces sell-off: sites at Blackfen Road

Open spaces sell-off: site at Blackfen Road at the junction with Chester Road

According to Bexley Wildlife, Mandy Stevens, a member of community group Friends of the Shuttle said:“We are very concerned about the sites for disposal near the Shuttle at Berwick Crescent and we have asked the Council if we can see the detailed plans.”

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.”