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.

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.”