Who’s Who of Blackfen

On 18 March I’ll be giving a talk at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre on ‘Who’s Who of Bexley’.

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Of course I will be including some of the names from Blackfen who have been in Who’s Who.

Sir Vesey Holt, KBE, banker, lived at Queenswood, Blackfen from 1868 and later lived at Mount Mascal in North Cray. There is also Brig.-Gen. Sir Charles Martel and his son Lt-Gen. Sir Giffard Martel who both lived at Queenswood, Blackfen from 1910. Mike Rann lived in Blackfen as a child but emigrated to New Zealand and was Ambassador of Australia to the UK 2012-14. Audrey Slaughter lived in Blackfen as a child and became a writer and magazine editor. George Wallace, MP, later Lord Wallace of Coslany lived in Blackfen and it was his intervention that saved Queen Mary’s Hospital from closure in 1948. And Rev. David Silk who started his career in Blackfen went on to become Bishop of Ballarat in Australia.

To book a ticket and for more information about events at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, see http://www.bexley.gov.uk/archiveevents.



Lt-Gen. Sir Giffard Martel, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC

Giffard Le Quesne Martel, born in 1889, lived at Queenswood House, Blackfen after his family moved there in 1910. After attending the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He served in France from 1914 and took an active interest in the development of tanks. After the war he lived in Camberley, Surrey and he built a workshop in his garden where he built a prototype one-man tank which others later developed into the British light tank and machine-gun carrier. He also served in the Second World War in France, India, Burma and Moscow. He was described as “a remarkable officer and constitutionally fearless… a natural bruiser… with a deep hoarse laugh”.

NPG x83846; Sir Giffard Le Quesne Martel by Bassano

Lt-Gen. Sir Giffard Martel (from National Portrait Gallery)

It was when he was back in London in 1944 that he lost an eye in the bombing of the Army and Navy Club. He died in 1958: he was found dead, shot in the head, with the shotgun near the body.

His parents, Brig.-Gen. Sir Charles Martel and Lilian Martel, lived at Queenswood until 1931, when the estate was sold to the housing developer, C. R. Leech.

Gypsies in Blackfen

James Turner, who lived in Sidcup (at Westburton, The Park – a rather large house near The Green) from 1909 to 1927, wrote an autobiography in which he describes the area around the time of the First World War. In contrast to Sidcup, “many gypsies lived in Blackfen. Their existence was recognised (when it could not be avoided) only in shocked whispers by the middle class who lived north of Sidcup High Street. It represented a threat to them. Gypsies did not conform to any known kind of society and certainly did not sit down to polite afternoon tea”.

Indeed, Blackfen had a reputation for gypsies; five families of gypsies were
listed on the 1881 census dwelling in Westwood Lane. Henry Lait, who lived in a cottage next to the old Woodman Inn, recalled “one part of the area was the home of vagabonds, tramps, beggars and thieves. Where houses now stand there was a gipsy encampment.”This refers to fields off Burnt Oak Lane.

During the 1930s, when rapid house-building brought lots of new home-owners to the area, gypsies from Foots Cray were regular traders, selling pegs and plants.

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 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.”