Blackheath and the GPO Film Unit

At the end of Bennett Park in Blackheath is a fine Grade II listed, red brick building which has two ‘badges’ of an interesting history – lettering above a doorway bearing the legend ‘Blackheath Art Club’ and close by a blue plaque for the GPO Film Unit, which was later to become the Crown Film Unit.



The Blackheath Art Club was founded in 1883 to ‘promote social intercourse among gentlemen interested in science, literature, painting and music in Blackheath and the neighbourhood’ (1). The Bennett Park building was completed in 1886 and formed both artists’ studios and exhibition space.

Neil Rhind’s fantastic book on Blackheath village has an interesting section on the Art Club, it had biannual exhibitions which he describes as ‘Blackheath’s alternative to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy’ (2).

One of the other organisations that met at the Arts Club was the Blackheath Essay and Debating Society, whose honorary secretary was Hubert Bland (3). Bland was a leading light in the Fabian Society and was husband of Edith Nesbit – there will be a post on her in the blog in a few weeks. Bland was described by one of his biographers, Clare Tomalin as

one of the minor enigmas of literary history in that everything reported of him makes him sound repellent, yet he was admired, even adored, by many intelligent men and women…

The Art Club was requisitioned by the Government in 1916 for war use and the Club itself was wound up soon after the war. The building went through a variety of uses in the 1920s and early 1930s, but was taken over in 1933 by the GPO Film Unit.


The unit initially made films promoting the work of the Post Office, perhaps the best known of these was Night Mail which included music by Benjamin Britten and a poem by W. H. Auden which begins

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

World War 2 changed the nature of work at the unit which became the Crown Film Unit under the control of the Ministry of Information in 1940. Dozens of films were made at the Unit, some of the early ones using the writing talents of Laurie Lee. One of the more significant films was a ‘short’ made in 1940 – London Can Take It! The film was narrated by American journalist Quentin Reynolds, it was targeted at the U.S. audience where it had a major impact

There were longer films too, such as Target for Tonight about the crew of a Wellington aircraft.

The Unit moved to the slightly safer wartime environs of Beaconsfield in 1943 and continued to operate after the war before being closed down in 1952. As for the building, it continued to be used as part of the war effort – used for the assembly of aircraft instruments (4). After the war it was used as a hostel and a boarding house and while there were hopes to restore it in community use in the 1970s (5) it was eventually converted into flats.

1 Neil Rhind (1976) ‘Blackheath Village and Environs 1790 to 1970’ (Blackheath Bookshop, London) p226
2 ibid p227
3 ibid p227
4 ibid p22
5 ibid p229



14 thoughts on “Blackheath and the GPO Film Unit

  1. Caroline

    I have always loved “London Can Take It” (especially the bit at the end where the cat is rescued!) – great to read about the people who made that film and their link to Blackheath.

  2. Steve

    This is brilliant, thank you! I noticed the plaques a few years ago and always wondered what films were actually produced there. Turns out it was some of the most well-known ones!

    1. runner500 Post author

      Thanks – I only wandered up to the end Bennett Park earlier in the year when I was recovering from an accident, noticed the sign and made a mental note to look into it. When I found what had come out of there was astounded. I almost wish now that I had split the war and pre-war stuff and done separate posts.

      1. dpreeyore

        You don’t specifically mention it, so may not be aware. To add to the building’s post-war uses it became one of the Halls of Residence (Bennett Park Hall) used by Goldsmith College, now Goldsmiths UoL. I’m not sure of the precise dates that it was used for this purpose, but certainly throughout the 1960s.

      2. dpreeyore

        I have just checked with the Goldsmiths Historian. Bennett Park ‘Hall’ was apparently leased to the College from 1962-1969. I was still a student at the College in 1970 and was sure it was still in use as a Hall then.. but apparently not.

  3. fifepsychogeography

    Once did some film courses taken by John Gray who worked with John Grierson and the GPO. He also made another famous GPO film ‘West Highland’. Incredible to think of the people who passed through the unit. Equally difficult to think how anything remotely similar would be initiated today.

    1. runner500 Post author

      The depth of talent is quite incredible isn’t it? I stumbled across the building only because I decided to explore all the bits of Blackheath I didn’t usually pass through as I recovered from my accident. The more I found out about it, the more astounded I became, so many prominent names in film and literature worked for the Unit. I was going to suggest that it would be difficult to see anything like it now from a privatised Post Office, but I suppose it could be argued that the BBC perhaps does some similar things in the age of television.

  4. Pingback: Mass Observation in Blackheath and Bolton, 80 Years On | Running Past

  5. Pingback: Variety, Soap Suds and Building Supplies – The Story of Lee Public Halls | Running Past

  6. Pingback: World War Two Food Rationing in Lewisham | Running Past

  7. Pingback: 2 – 30 Burnt Ash Road – the Story of a Shopping Parade Part 1 | Running Past

  8. Pingback: Beating the Bounds of Lee, Part 8 – Blackheath to Lee Green | Running Past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.