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