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A few years before the outbreak of World War 1 HG Wells had published his book The War in the Air (1907). For the workers toiling in the munitions factory in Woolwich the threat of an aerial bombardment seemed like a science fiction story rather than a real threat. Yet by 1915 the large looming Silver Fish in the sky, guided by the moonlit gilded Thames would wind their way to London. They knew that if they dropped their bombs before they reached the bulge in the river, Greenwich Peninsula, there was a chance they could hit the Royal Arsenal, so crucial to Britain’s war effort.
Munitions workers who had flocked to Woolwich to take up work in the Royal Arsenal soon had experience of the Zeppelin raids. There was an air attack on 25th August 1916 which damaged property in Dickson Road, Sandby Green and completely demolished a house in Well Hall Road all on the new Garden City Estate that had been built to house workers. Three members of the same family were killed. There was a further raid on September 3rd 1916.
The people were better prepared for the attack the following week. They were warned late on Saturday evening to leave their houses and move to open space. Crowds gathered on Woolwich Common as the search lights began looking for the incoming Zeppelin. The thin light of a Zepplin became visible and the gunners began their work. The Zepplin turned and was moving off and the guns stopped. The ship then became a mass of white flames. The crowd cheered, hugging one another and began singing Rule Britannia and Men of Harlech.
Woolwich, a military town, had many monuments of past conflicts and had within its community soldiers involved in those wars. However, this war was different as now civilians were the target. The Zeppelin raids were an object of contempt and became known as the “baby-killers”. The accounts of the raids in the local Kentish Independent fuelled this hatred with several mentions of the “Apostles of Kultur”. This is a reference to the belief that German “kultur” would spread to all countries across the globe. Little wonder the crowd found their patriotic voice.
Where better for an amateur flaneur to spend a few days than Paris. That little known gateway to the continent, Ebbsfleet International proved to be a real find. Fifteen minutes drive from SE London, easy parking and no queues; a dream start. The sun shone and walking conditions were good. Paris is considered by many as one of the most beautiful cities in the world characterised by tree lined streets with the majority of buildings being no more than six or seven storeys high.
A mix of art deco, art nouveau buildings with a few Baroque churches here there presents much to please the eye and no tall glazed curtain walls. There are modern buildings but they are sympathetic to their surroundings and don’t extend beyond the obligatory seven storeys. The exception is the Montparnasse Tower built on top of the Montparnasse-Bienvenue Paris Metro station which consists of 59 floors.
When the tower opened in 1973 it was surrounded with controversy and public outrage at such an ugly building spoiling the Parisian landscape. This resulted in city planners limiting the height of new buildings to 37 metres and banishing skyscrapers to nearby suburbs. Yes the Parisians can still make their voices heard and have an impact. More recent changes to planning regulations allows buildings up to 180 metres still considerably less than the Eifel Tower’s 324 metres. One benefit of the height restrictions is that the iconic sights such as the Eifel Tower and The Sacre Coeur have the same impact as when they were first built still domineering the cityscape.
The story of the Montpanasse Tower made be reflect on the high rise developments along the Thames. Public opinion certainly doesn’t seem to be able to stop their development in London not even the decisions by locally elected politicians can. Hertsmere Tower will be higher than Canary Wharf and will create 700 luxury apartments to appeal to the world’s hyper rich. Planning permission was turned down by Tower Hamlets Council in 2009 only be to overturned by Mayor Johnson some months later. Lewisham council turned down Hutchinson Whampoa’s , a Hong Kong based development company, plan to build 3,500 apartments including 3 towers rising to 48 storeys that does little to reflect or maintain the integrity of the historic Royal Deptford Dockyard site. The scheme is now being considered by Mayor Johnson. If I were a betting person I know where I would put my money.
Multi-billionaires and global corporations are investing in these luxury high rise constructions because they generate a high short term return. The schemes have little to do with the development of decent places for ordinary people to live and are destroying the social and physical fabric of London. These super high structures are not only a visible reminder of the increasing inequality gap between the very rich and the poor but between the very rich and everyone else.
Situated on the corner of a busy intersection of the Rochester Way and the South Circular Road in SE London is a remarkable building; St Barnabas Church. Remarkable because it was physically rebuilt brick by brick and then survived serious bomb damage in the Second World War.
St Barnabas started life as The Royal Woolwich Dockyard Chapel built in 1856-58 in the Early English Gothic style of red brick with black bands. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, who was one of the most prolific Victorian architects, and possibly the most unsung. He later went on to design the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station. So, St Barnabas is a real Victorian Gothic gem in this part of London.
By the 1860 the future of the Royal Dockyard was in doubt as it didn’t have the facilities to build ironclads. The future of the church was also uncertain and it closed for a period. From 1899-1923 it was adapted and used as the Royal Arsenal’s Ordnance Chapel but from 1923 it again fell into disuse.
The Royal Arsenal workers who lived on the new Garden City Estate (later re-named the Progress Estate) had erected a wooden hut (1917) in Arbroath Road to use for church services. In 1932 it was decided to take the Dockyard Church building down and to re-erect it in a reduced form as the local church for the Progress Estate. An ingenious piece of recycling. It was reconsecrated as the Church of St Barnabas. During a bombing raid, March 1944, it was seriously damaged and only the walls were left standing. The church was repaired and re-dedicated in June 1957.
The church’s current location, so close to the main busy road, makes it difficult to get a good view and a building designed for contemplation can be too easily overlooked. George Gilbert Scott was a devoted follower of that other Victorian architect Pugin and one of his buildings is close by, Sir Peter’s Church in Woolwich. It’s not easy to contemplate this building either as the carbuncle that is the new Tesco over-shadows it.
Next to St Barnabas is a community hall which is named after the comedian Frankie Howerd who was a former Sunday School Teacher at the Church. It’s said that the hall had a stage where he did his first performance.
Such was the social sensibilities of the C18th that no matter how wealthy a person was a fortune made in “trade” was frowned upon. This was the time of Jane Austen and the unfavourable position of “trade” in English society feature in many of her novels. In a small corner of Blackheath two important buildings have curious links with “trade”.
Tucked away in an incline in the south east corner of Blackheath is Morden College designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Built in 1695-1702 as Almshouses for “decayed Turkey Merchants” nothing to do with Christmas fowl but rather The Levant or Turkey Company. This was a chartered company formed in 1581 to regulate trade with Turkey and the Levant. A member of the Company was known as a Turkey Merchant. In the mid C17th John Morden was residing in Smyrna as a Turkey Merchant. There is an interesting story about the loss and recovery of his fortune which motivated him to build the almshouses.
The family were returning to live in England and Sir John shipped his merchandise on board three of his ships and sent them on a trading voyage after which they would proceed to London. Sir John and his family arrived safely in England to learn that the ships were missing. This loss plunged the family into poverty and Sir John was forced to work alongside a “tradesman”. For someone of his rank this was really demeaning and he was obliged to visit customers to get their orders.
Whilst waiting in the hall of a gentleman’s house he overheard an account of the arrival in the Port of London of three ships thought to have been lost for over ten years. He rushed to the docks to discover they were his ships. With his recovered wealth he commissioned Morden College to provide accommodation for merchants like himself who had fallen on hard times. It continues to provide this service for retired people who have been in a profession or trade. Statues the Founder and his wife, in decorative arches and flanked by scrolls, are above the main entrance.
Sir John Morden Walk is a public path running through the grounds that follows the course of the Upper Kidbrooke long since lost in a culvert. There are three boundary stones still visible demarcating the old parishes of Charlton, Kidbrooke and Blackheath a two dated 1890. Across from the college is The Paragon a significant and visible landmark on the heath.
The Paragon is a crescent of 14 semi-detached houses linked by single storey colonades. Built between 1795 and 1806 by John Cator and designed by Michael Searles. The houses were designed to attract wealthy merchants who wanted to leave the dirt and the noise of London behind. The leases were prohibitive and prevented anyone involved in the “art and mystery of trade” from renting them. The exclusion of tradesmen was successful and notable residents included; Quarles Harris the co-founder of The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Sir John Simon first officer for Health in the City of London and McGregor Laird the explorer.
But fortunes are won and lost and after the 1st World War the Paragon began to deteriorate as they became multiple occupancy, converted to boarding houses or hotels. Looking at these elegant houses it’s difficult to think that they were once thought to be “seedy”. During the 2nd World War they were severely damaged by bombs then later restored by the architect Charles Bernard Brown.
So there you have it two distinctive buildings one designed to house tradesmen and the other designed to keep them out.