The area around Old Road in Lee was one of the three original parts of Lee – a three centred village, the other concentrations being around the original St Margaret’s Church and Lee Green. Old Road at various stages was ‘home’ to some of the largest houses in the district, the first two of which were at least partially funded through slavery – Lee Place, the Manor House, The Firs, Cedar House (which was at the top of what is now Aislabie Road) and Lee House (roughly where the Lee Centre is now). The final one that still remains is Pentland House, known for a while in the second half of the 19th century as Foclallt House – shown in the mid 1860s surveyed Ordnance Survey map below (1).
It is a Grade II listed building which was built at the end of the 17th century, probably by a John Smith on land bought from the Boones of Lee Place – on the opposite side of Lee Road. It predated the adjacent Manor House by about a decade and is probably the oldest inhabited building in Lewisham.
It seems that the house stayed in the ownership of the Smith family for about 170 years – the commonness of the name though, may have hidden some elements of the past. Around 100 years after the house was built its occupant was Matthew Smith, who became Mayor of the Tower of London in 1793.
It seems that Matthew Smith moved out at the beginning of the century, and let the house, initially to Sir Thomas Baring whilst his father, Sir Francis, lived next door at the Manor House. Pentland House was then home to a ladies boarding school which taught ‘French language and manners’. It was run by William Grimani who was probably a Hugenot refugee. He was one of the signatories of the Lee Petition in 1814 – one of part of a campaign begun to insert a clause in the treaty with France to make France abolish their slave trade, which had been reintroduced by Napoleon.
Matthew Smith died in 1812 and his son, also Matthew, inherited the house; he was a navy Captain with a less than distinguished record – his vessel was sunk after hitting a rock and he was court martialled and dismissed from the service in relation to an incident in 1794. While he appealed and was re-instated, he never commanded a ship again.
Matthew Smith did not extent the lease of Pentland House to Grimani beyond 1822 moving in himself and making major alterations. The building was extended to the east, almost to the boundary with the Manor House, probably adding the Doric porch at around the same time. It seems that rather than repairing the external brickwork on original house, the entire structure was rendered.
Lee Place was demolished and sold after its last tenant Benjamin Aislabie moved out in 1824, Smith bought one of the lots, the land opposite – now surrounded by the newer part of Old Road, Market Terrace on Lee High Road and the western side of Bankwell Road. It had been used as a kitchen garden but seems to have been converted into an orchard (as the Ordnance Survey map above shows).
Matthew Smith appears to have moved to Richmond before his death and let Pentland House to another naval family Admiral Sir George Martin, whose wife, Ann, was sister of Rev. George Lock, then Rector of Lee. The couple were there, along with two servants, when the census enumerators first visited Lee in 1841. Ann died a year later and it seems that Sir George moved to central London – he died in Berkeley Square in 1847.
When Matthew Smith died in 1844, he left the house to his nephew Colonel Bellingham J. Smith. He was still there in the 1851 census where he was described as a ‘fund holder’, aged 60 – the other occupants were his wife Priscilla and four servants.
While Bellingham Smith sold up in 1856, it was another Smith that bought the house – the unrelated John T Smith, a retired Colonial Marine Engineer who lived there with his wife Maria Sarah with 10 children living at home in 1861 and 6 in 1871. It was a family that had moved around the Empire a lot with children born in India, the East Indies and South Africa before arriving in Lee where one of their children was born in 1859. Living in one of the larger houses in the area they clearly had standards to maintain – there were 9 servants in 1861, a complement that had grown by 2 in 1871.
It seems to have been John Smith that changed its name to Foclallt House, it is referred to as this in electoral registers in the 1860s. Where this name came from isn’t clear though; it is a Welsh word although the only definitive reference elsewhere is to a farm of that name near Tregarron.
The house was sold on to Robert Whyte in the early 1870s; the Whytes were already in Lee in the 1860s, living at 126 Lee Park in 186. Robert Whyte’s father was described as a Colonial Merchant. By the time Robert (snr) died in 1869 the family was living further down Lee Road at 20. Where Robert was listed as the head of household in 1871. During the 1870s they moved to Old Road, returning the Pentland to the House name.
Whyte, according to F W Hart, the Victorian historian of Lee, ‘modernised the interior and improved the whole for domestic and personal convenience, so as to render it available for the requirements of the present age.’ By 1881 he had married Ruth (nee Jay) and they already had 4 children and 6 live-in servants, he was listed as a ‘General Merchant’ in the census. In 1891 there were more children and more servants. Whyte and his extended family remained at Pentland House until around 1911 – they were listed there in that year’s Kelly’s Directory. In 1912 there was no mention of the house but in 1913 it was listed as ‘Hostel (Goldmsiths College) for Women attending the Training Department at the College.’
There were occasional adverts for staff in The Times – in 1926 there was an advertisement for a kitchen maid and housemaid offering ‘wages £26 : good holidays and outings : might suit sisters’ (2) and a decade later ‘a lady to assist the Housekeeper’ (3).
The house remained a student hall into the 21st century when it seems to have been sold by Goldsmiths. It then went through a variant to the hall – basic bedsits with shared cooking facilities before being refurbished around 2016 to effectively become a backpackers hostel – with prices starting from as little as £16.20 (September 2018) a night in a shared dormitory, with breakfast for a further £3. At the time of writing there were very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor and regular complaints about noise from neighbours, particularly in Manor Lane Terrace and Manor Lane.
- The map is via the National Library of Scotland on a Creative Commons
- The Times (London, England), Friday, Mar 26, 1926; pg. 3; Issue 44230
- The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Sep 16, 1936; pg. 3; Issue 47481
Census and related data is via Find My Past
Kelly’s Directory information is via Lewisham Archives