We have covered Penfold’s Motors on several occasions, most recently in relation to their showroom on Burnt Ash Road. They were a family firm that evolved from Victorian carting to the sale of 21st century cars, but in the latter decades they have left an indelible mark on the Lee landscape through the development and sales of the land they had previously used.
This first part will look at the origins of the firm in Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham up until just after the First World War; the second part focusing on the years after until the firm was finally wound up in 2016.
The family links to the haulage and carting trade seem to go back to Walter George Penfold who was born in Deptford in 1852, his father was a ‘dust collector’ in 1861 – in more modern parlance a refuse collector or bin man – a typical picture of Victorian dust collectors is below. The family was living in Knotts Terrace, a small street that once ran off Tanners Hill. Walter (1852) was the youngest of six children at home.
Walter (1852) was working as a builder’s labourer in 1871 living with his widowed mother and an older sister, still in Knotts Terrace. By 1881 though he had married Amelia (nee Gosling) were living in Charles Street in Deptford working as a coal porter, this was presumably working on the nearby Thames waterfront. They had two children, imaginatively Amelia (1878) and Walter Henry (1879). Like Knotts Place, the street is no longer there, it is at the northerly end of Margaret McMillan Park (pictured below).
A decade later, in 1891, the family was in Ffinch Street, off Deptford High Street, and Walter (1852) and Amelia now had six children, with Walter listed as a Carman – generally a driver of a horse and cart, although it could be the hire or any combination of driver, horse and cart. This was the beginning of the business that was to eventually become motor traders. It was a small house, close to the railway which survived the Blitz but not post war slum clearance, it is now a neglected bit of ground with several seemingly abandoned cars dumped on it.
By 1893 they had a yard at Greenwich Wharf (at the end of Pelton Street) and successfully tendered for providing an unspecified number of carts, horses and drivers for the local authority (1). The Wharf was lost to housing a few years ago, having been a behind corrugated iron fencing for years before that.
By 1901 the family had moved to 64 Banning Street in Greenwich, Walter George (1852) was listed as a Cartage Contractor with Walter Henry (1879) and Arthur (1881) listed in the census as a Contractors Journeyman, Carman.
Banning Street was built in various stages during the nineteenth century and like other streets between the river and Blackwall Lane was ‘infilled with small workshops …. all sorts of “back street” industries in among the houses.’ The Penfold house and yard were towards the northern end of the street. Little changed in later decades – it was still marked as a ‘transport yard’ just after World War 2. In the last decade or so, the urban landscape of that area has completely altered – it is a block of flats, aimed at very different sorts of households than the Penfolds were in 1901 with a local supermarket below.
The younger Walter was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in late 1902 and fined 10/- or 7 days in prison (2).
The yard at 64 Banning Street wasn’t the only premises that the rapidly expanding firm was operating from. A trawl through Kelly’s Directories finds several other locations; notable amongst these was Clarendon Yard, 12a Lee High Road, which they used from around 1904. It was down a narrow alley next to the Sultan (now Nando’s), crossing a bridge over the Quaggy – it is the small gap between two buildings just before the Coal Office on the right of the photograph.
Penfolds also had depots at
- Brayards Road railway arches in Peckham and Christchurch Street in Greenwich from 1907;
- Creek Street (also known as Copperas Street) in Deptford from 1910; and
- A site in Sydenham from 1911.
While William George Penfold (1852) was to remain at Banning Street in 1911; Albert had moved out and was a Wharfinger (an owner of a wharf), contractor and carman who was an employer. He was living at 4 Creek St (Copperas Street) Deptford – this may well have been the base previously used by his father’s firm or the firm had been split. The likely site was being developed when the ‘fieldwork’ was done during lockdown, the hoardings had some rather poignant artwork painted by Sam Kerridge at the time.
William Henry Penfold (1879) listed as living at 4 Clarendon Rise, just around the corner from the Clarendon Yard depot in 1911. He had married Frances Overy in Lewisham in 1906 and the census listed his trade as a Cartage Contractors son, assisting in the business. They had two sons Walter Albert (9 April 1907) and Albert William (1909). The house still stands.
One of the organisations that the now father and son business supplied horses to was the Borough of Lewisham, they had been doing this since around the time the Borough was formed in 1900. In 1918 there was a court case, heard at the Old Bailey where the father and son were accused of conspiring with a council official to overcharge the council by falsifying records to the tune of £774 (3) worth around £37,000 in 2020 terms. Had they been found guilty this would probably have been the end of the story, they weren’t though (4).
Walter George (1852) died in 1923, still living in Banning Street, he had a large estate of nearly £19,000 left to his widow Amelia and two former employees; presumably the ownership of the business had been transferred to Walter (1879) by this stage.
One issue worth exploring at this point was grazing – a business that uses a large number of horses needs land to graze them. Lewisham was towards the edge of the city in the early part of the 20th century – there were farms such as, Horn Park and Burnt Ash just beyond Lee Green. There was also some grazing on the Greenwich Peninsula too (see note from Mary Mills). However, it is possible that they rented land at The Cedars from around World War 2 (5) which was north of the railway, they were to buy it along with the stables in the 1920s (6).
The land bought included a pair of ornamental lakes, constructed by damming Upper Kid Brook before the railway took over its valley in 1849. A bridge connecting it to the house, from what is now Belmont Grove, was built at the same time as the railway (7). The lakes were filled in – the easterly one between the wars and the westerly one soon after the Second World War.
We’ll leave the firm at this point – returning after World War One when they switched from horses to motor vehicles. This seems to have been the same for many local transport businesses, including Thomas Tilling at 36 Old Road (and several other locations) and Pickfords at Lee Lodge and Manor Park Parade.
- Woolwich Gazette 07 April 1893
- Kentish Independent 05 December 1902
- Westminster Gazette 28 October 1918
- Pall Mall Gazette 27 November 1918
- As we will see later they bought parts of the Cedars estate from the late 1920s, I am sure I have seen earlier newspaper references to earlier rental, although have been unable to locate them
- Neil Rhind (forthcoming) Blackheath and Its Envions Volume 3
- John Coulter & Barry Olley (1995) Images of London – Lewisham p40
- The picture of dust cart is from A Victorian Dictionary via the fascinating Victorian London website
- The photograph from Lee Bridge towards Clarendon Yard Is part of the collection of Lewisham Archives and is their copyright and used with their permission
- Kelly’s Directory data is via a combination of the University of Leicester on-line records, Lewisham and Southwark Archives
- Census and related data comes via Find My Past (subscription required)
- Many thanks to Neil Rhind for sending me a pre-publication draft of the Lee part of his forthcoming third volume and allowing me to quote from it here.
Finally, if there have been any errors in telling the story of the firm, they are entirely mine. My only defence is that the history of the family has been somewhat confusing as they seem to have used a very narrow range of names for male offspring – Walter, Arthur, Henry and William, although mainly the first two. Census and other data does not always pick up second names and birth years which amongst cousins were similar; Kelly’s Directories often only referred toinitials.