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Over the last decade or so property developers have become the dominant force in shaping the Capital. It wasn’t always like that; in the past many of the buildings that define the city were built by philanthropists. Explore most areas in London and you can still see the almshouses, social housing, schools and libraries built for the good of the wider community.
I went on such an exploration of my local High Street. Philipot Path, an ancient right of way, runs parallel and behind Eltham High Street. Wedged between Sainsbury’s car park and Philipot Path are the Thomas Philipot Almshouses. They are obscured from the path by a six foot wall and are not visible from the car park. Stand on your tip toes you just might see some elegant chimney pots. The entrance to the almshouses is difficult to find, it took me two attempts. Hemmed in by the car park, hard surfaces and the detritus of the High Street shops are an elegant and grand set of buildings which are hidden in plain sight.
Thomas Philipot was a local landowner who bequeathed funding for six almshouses for poor people living in the parishes of Eltham and Chislehurst. Originally, the almshouses were on the High Street and were built 1694 where they remained until 1926.
Woolwich Borough Council purchased the almshouses in order to widen the High Street. They were rebuilt on the current site in 1931. When they were built they backed on to the convent school run by the Sisters of Mercy (now Sainsbury’s car park). Sainsbury’s bought the site in the 1960s and a new secondary school, St Thomas More opened 1964 close by.
The original convent can still be seen on the High Street a large imposing white building now St Mary’s Community Centre. The first Convent of Mercy in England was opened in Bermondsey in 1839 by Mary Catherine McAuley who founded the order. She had inherited a considerable fortune and chose to use it to build a house where she and other compassionate women could take in homeless women and children to provide care and an education for them. The Eltham convent was a branch house of Bermondsey and it was opened in 1874. In 1946 they opened an Approved School close by in Glenure Road, now St Mary’s Primary School. An Approved School was a residential institution to which young people could be sent by a court for committing offences or sometimes because they were beyond parental control.
Now the area is dominated by Sainsburys but its worth taking a closer look and discovering these gems left as a legacy to a philanthropic past.
** Image from http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/making-claim-to-elthams-history.html