Tag Archives: James Watt Catford builder

James Watt – The Builder of 5,000 Catford Homes

The development of the Corbett Estate on the borders of Hither Green and Catford has been covered several times by Running Past; firstly, looking at North Park Farm – whose sale was to allow the development of the estate, early in the development a walk with one of Charles Booth’s researchers in 1899  and a small section of the estate that was built by Frederick Taylor.  Corbett subcontracted most of the building work and probably the most important of the builders that he used was an already well-established Catford contractor – James Watt.  Watt has been mentioned briefly in relation to the short lived Lee Picture Palace which he ran and probably built.  However, he is worth a post in his own right.

Watt was Aberdonian by birth, born in 1857 his family moved to Stromness in the Orkneys by the 1861 census – his father was a farmer of a relatively small holding, just 25 acres.  Nothing is known of his early years, although by 1876 he was working in Hackney. He was certainly in Lewisham by 1887 as he married Emily from Brighton and in 1889 as his son James Henry was born then.  He initially worked as a foreman for another firm before setting up his own firm.

By the time the census enumerators called in the spring of 1891 he was living in Wildfell Road in Catford.  Also there was his brother, George who was listed as a joiner.  George was to stay around Lewisham, in 1911, for example, working as a builder’s foreman, perhaps working for James.

The house he was living in was one that the firm built, almost certainly the house on the corner of Scrooby Street (above right), where his firm also built houses.  The houses on Wildfell Road, from the outside at least, are arguably one of the most attractive terraces in Catford (see photo below) with some lovely detail (above left).  At the time of writing (July 2017) one of the small two bedroom houses was on sale for a fraction under £400,000.

Watt’s firm also built homes on Brookdale Road, along with Aitken and Barmeston Roads , further south,  off Bromley Road. He also built some of the houses on Canadian Avenue (formerly Berlin Avenue) – including ‘Kenilworth’ in 1901.  It isn’t always easy to tell exactly which houses he built – unlike the similar sized firm in Lee, W J Scudamore, there weren’t obvious patterns in the design.

By 1901 James Watt was at 4 Bromley Road (above), possibly a home built by the firm, although this isn’t certain. While he was a non-conformist, the house was next to St Laurence’s Vicarage – it was to be opposite his estate office and yard, probably the former Sangley Hall – see map below, on a Creative Commons from the National Library of Scotland)

4 Bromley Road was also convenient for the development of the Sangley Farm estate for the Forsters.  No doubt at some stage Running Past will cover the farm, whose buildings were on the corner of what is now Bargery Road.  It included streets like Penerley and Culverley Roads and was very much housing for the Edwardian middle classes and was developed on a piecemeal basis between 1902 and the 1920s.  It isn’t clear which homes he built on the estate but it undoubtedly some of those photographed below in the previously mentioned streets.

As noted before, Watt built around a third of Corbett Estate too.  The only definite location for the firms work as in Fordel Road, where 38 lbs of lead piping was stolen from an unfinished house (1).   However, it is quite possible that Watt’s firm built roads like Minard and Braidwood Roads pictured below (source for both eBay July 2016).

The firm had interests in land over a large swathe of south east London, it isn’t clear as to what they built and what they may have acquired to privately rent, but it certainly included buying 217 Westcombe Hill, Blackheath, acquired in 1918; Land and buildings, Morden Grange; 107 Lewisham Road in 1923 along with several houses in Ravensbourne Road in Catford.

Watt continued to build homes in the area in the 1920s – including homes along Bromley Road, while 115 (below, built in 1922) is definitely one of the firm’s, many others in the area are similar too – so, no doubt were built by Watt.  Like another local builders that Running Past has covered, W J Scudamore, Watt expanded his area of operation in the interwar period buying sites in Orpington in 1928 and Croydon in 1930.

Not only was Watt a builder, but he was a pioneer of popular entertainment in the area. The first time that Running Past ‘came across’ Watt was when he built and initially ran Lee Picture Palace on the corner of Lee High Road and Bankwell Road.  It was one of many cinemas he owned. He opened his first cinema in 1909 – the Electric in Catford (now retirement flats on Sangley Road and marked on the map above), but went onto own around 25 cinemas and ice rinks over the years – mainly in south London, but extending as far as Tottenham, Paddington, Belvedere and Wandsworth. These included the cinema almost opposite his home – initially called Central Hall Picture House (like most in his chain) but later the Plaza, ABC and Cannon (it is now a church) – pictured below on a Creative Commons via Cinema Treasures.  As the map above shows, Catford was also home to one of his skating rinks, next door to the cinema.

James Watt died in 1932, a very wealthy man – his estate was worth in excess of £618,000 (2). His wife, Emily, died later same year.  It has been suggested that the firm had built 5-6,000 homes in and around Catford by the time he died.

The business seems to have been taken over by his older son, James Henry – who took over the family home at 4 Bromley Road, he was living there in 1939, listed as a Director and company Secretary of Building Trades Companies.  However, it seems that times were hard as he was sharing with another family.

It is not clear what happened to James Henry, the 1939 Register is the last definitive mention on-line of him.  It is clear that the younger brother, Horace (born in 1899) who had spent time in the nascent Flying Corps during and after World War 1, and was later a director of a Catford Haulage company, seems to have taken control after World War Two.  He bought a house in early 1948 in 7, Charsley Road, but later that year was to sell a large part of the business, then known as James Watt (Estates) Ltd. (3)

The firm continued until 1957 when it was wound up, it was still based at Central Parade on Bromley Road. Horace was still alive at that point, he was retired and living in West London and was listed on a passenger ship heading for South Africa the following year.

Notes

  1. Kentish Mercury 23 December 1898
  2. The Scotsman 22 July 1932
  3. The Times (London, England), Monday, Mar 29, 1948; pg. 2; Issue 51031

Census and 1939 Register data is via Find My Past

Frederick Taylor – A Corbett Estate Builder

Running Past has ‘visited’ the Corbett Estate a couple of times before – firstly, looking at North Park Farm – whose sale was to allow the development of the estate, and early in the development a walk with one of Charles Booth’s researchers in 1899.  This post relates to a period a few years later in the development and was ‘triggered’ by an advert for the sale of newly built houses on the Corbett Estate that periodically appears on social media.

So where is the row of houses?  Well it certainly isn’t the 171 Wellmeadow Road of the advert (see two photos down) – they are larger semi-detached houses than those pictured above.  The shape of the roof at the right is unusual, and, from a couple of runs up or down almost every street on the estate (with a tiny bit of help from Streetview), it seems to appear on just a small number of roads – there are certainly a few houses at the southern end Ardfillan Road but the bay is wider there with two front-facing windows and the pointed roofs further down the advert are absent; at the northern end of the same road, the houses are again much wider, with two front-facing windows in the bay; a stretch of the terrace towards the northern end of Balloch Road is much closer, the property sizes seem right, but, again, the pointed roofs are missing.  However, the road in between, Birkhall Road, has the perfect match on its eastern side with the right mix on the neighbouring houses along with the rendering on the flank wall.  While there is no house to the right in the advertisement – this was probably just a later phase of the development.

The advert never seems to appear with a date; however, it would certainly be sometime after 1901 as 171 Wellmeadow was not occupied at that point according to the census, however, it probably wasn’t long after, as building work on the street started in 1904 (1) .

There had been considerable  price rises on the estate since we last ‘visited’ the Corbett Estate in 1899 with Charles Booth’s researcher, Ernest Alves, at that point the three bedroom houses were around £252, perhaps 5 or 6 years later, the advert prices them at £290.  Rents of £26 a year were only a £1 more than in 1899 though.  The houses advertised were more expensive than the similar houses being developed in Lee by the builders WJ Scudamore which were being sold for £265 around the same era.  The differences are minuscule compared with current prices – one of the houses in the photograph sold for just under £500,000 in 2015.

So which of the other streets on the estate did Frederick Taylor’s firm build?  The only certainty is the terrace in the photograph, however, it is very noticeable that the streets around Birkhall Road – the two mentioned above plus Ardoch Road, where the unusual gables are also present, have much less homogeneity than other streets on the Corbett Estate so maybe this ‘block’ was the area constructed by Frederick Taylor.

Frederick Taylor was certainly not the only builder to work on the Corbett Estate – as was noted in an earlier post, much of the work was sub-contracted by Corbett, whom Booth described as ‘speculator in chief‘; Running Past has covered one of the other sub-contractors, James Watt, who built a lot of homes elsewhere in Catford in his own right, along with running a chain of cinemas.  Another was John Lawrence, of whom little is known other than his name cropped up in a legal dispute between Cameron Corbett and the Borough Council relating to unpaid building control fees (2).

So who was Frederick Taylor?  He was certainly living at 171 Wellmeadow Road (above) when the census enumerators traipsed through the nearly completed Corbett estate in 1911 – the family had been living in Lambeth where he was listed as a builder a decade earlier.  He was then 49 and from Camberwell; he was married to Charlotte from Chelsea, with three children the youngest of whom was born in Lewisham in 1907.  There was an 11 year gap back to the middle child who had been born in Dulwich. Sadly Frederick was not to live much longer, he passed away in 1914; the family seems to have moved to Eltham Road in Lee just before his death.

The 1914 Kelly’s Directory lists a builder, Frederick Taylor, at 152 Muirkirk Road (below), this may have been the same man, as Kelly’s Directories always seemed a year or two behind reality, or it could of course have been his son, also Frederick, carrying on the business.  There was no mention though in the next available directory in 1917 though.

As for the architect, Ernest Hider, he had been born in Lee in 1871, and stayed in the area until his 20s – he was a Surveyors Clerk in 1891.  By the time the houses in Birkhall Road were being built he had moved away, the 1911 census had him listed in Clacton and seems to have been an active mason.  By the time the 1939 Register was drawn up he was in the Surrey commuter belt, where he died in 1960.

Notes

  1. Godfrey Smith (1997) ‘Hither Green: the Forgotten Hamlet : Including the Corbett Estate’ p42
  2. The Times (London, England), Monday, May 06, 1901; pg. 14; Issue 36447.

Census and 1939 Register data is via Find My Past

Kelly’s Post Office Directory data from University of Leicester 

If I have unintentionally breached your copyright on the ‘featured’ image (like several others) please do let me know and I will happily properly credit the image,

A Victorian Walk Around the Corbett Estate

A month or two ago it was noted in another post on Running Past, that there had ‘probably never been a single sale of land around Hither Green and Lee that has been more significant than the sale of North Park Farm by the Earl of St Germans in 1895 as it allowed for the development of was initially known as the St Germans estate, now generally known as the Corbett estate.’ This post picks up the story a few years after the sale after development was well under way, but far from being completed.

We return on 15 November 1899 in the company of one of Charles Booth’s investigators, Ernest Aves (there is a biography of Aves here)and PC Lloyds from Ladywell Police Station, who lived locally in Harvard Road.  The walk gives a fascinating insight into the early days of the estate.120px-charles_booth_by_george_frederic_watts  Charles Booth (picture Creative Commons), the centenary of whose death is on November 23, 2016, conducted an ‘Inquiry into Life and Labour in London’ between 1886 and 1903 – for much of the city he produced wonderfully detailed maps coloured on the basis of income and the social class of its inhabitants.  His assessment was based on walks carried out either himself or through a team of social investigators, often with clergymen or the police, listening, observing what he saw and talking to people he met on the road.  Sadly, no map seems to be available for most of the walk but below is an extract which includes the most southerly part of Hither Green that seems to have been mapped – available from London School of Economics as a Creative Commons.

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booth

Albert Lloyds was about 35 and has been in the police for 11 years all of which has been in Lewisham, Booth feels that he is unlikely to get promotion due to his lack of education, he had five children in 1899.  By the 1901 census Albert Lloyds, from Newchurch in Kent, was still living at 35 Harvard Road, with his wife Ellen and 7 children in a two bedroom house.

Corbett was described as ‘speculator in chief’ but was subletting much of the work, the contractors included James Watt, whom Running Past has already covered.  The estate is described as being mainly for the ‘lower middle class’ and two styles predominated – ‘a small single fronted house letting at about £25 and a somewhat larger double-fronted house letting at £36 to £38.‘  The larger houses in Brownhill Road attracted a rent of £60.  These were presumably monthly rentals.  But there were lower, weekly, rents around ‘working class’ Sandhurst Road.

Aves seemed almost surprised that ‘many of the houses throughout the estate are said to be owned by their occupiers‘. Sale prices, on a leasehold basis a year earlier in 1898 had been £379 to £470 for the largest six bedroom homes; £298 – £353 for four bedroom homes and £215 to £252 for the 3/4 bedroom homes.  The smallest 3 bedroom homes on the estate were not offered for sales until 1903 (1).  The biggest of these are now fetching over £1 million, as was noted in a recent post in Clare’s Diary.

Duncrievie Road
His starting point was where we had left the estate a few years earlier in a post about the farm that came before the estate – North Park.  The original farm, occupied for years by William Fry, had gone, but houses occupied by the Sheppards were still there.  Eliot Lodge (below), at the corner of Hither Green Lane, was still occupied by Samuel Sheppard and the other, the former house of Edward Sheppard, was occupied by the Chief Agent for the estate, Robert Pettigrew who was from Edinburgh – it was referred to as North Park House in the 1901 census.  Both were given the second highest rating by Aves/Booth – red – ‘Middle class.  Well to do.’  Oddly Pettigrew wasn’t always in this trade, he’d been a storekeeper in 1881, but may have come across Corbett whilst the latter was developing in Ilford – he returned to Essex after he retired.

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Springbank Road
While some of the shops had been built, but certainly not all and only two or three let – this was perhaps not surprising, while the road was laid out, the houses were yet to be built.  The bustling parade of a decade later (see below – source eBay September 2016) was yet to come.

springbank

The only houses were the other remnants of North Park farm, the ‘pink’ (Fairly comfortable.  Good ordinary earnings) former farm cottages at the corner of Hither Green Lane.
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Wellmeadow and Broadfield Roads
The northern parts of the road, closer to the station, had already been built as had the ‘large Weslyan Chapel building’ (covered a while ago in Running Past) but south of Brownhill Road it was still under construction.

HG Church

Source – eBay February 2016

The pattern was the same with Broadfield Road (wrongly mentioned at Brookfield). Aves referred to the streets as a ‘pink barred’, this is a slight variant on some of his earlier definitions – in correspondence, this seems to mean ‘high class labour – fairly comfortable good ordinary earnings’

Brownhill Road
This was oddly described as ‘the swell road of the estate’ – many of the larger houses had already been built and were ‘red’ with a few of the pink barred blocks of houses constructed.

Ardgowan, Torridon, Arngask and Fordel Roads
Ardgowan Road, north of Brownhill Road, had been completed by the time Lloyds showed the estate to Aves, but to the south, construction was still ongoing; the opposite seemed to be the case with Torridon Road. Arngask and Fordel Roads were both completed, but Aves merely seemed to pass by noting the same pink barred colouring of the other two streets.

torridon-1910-l-wiki

Torridon Road from a decade or so later via Lewisham Archives on a Creative Commons

Glenfarg and Sandhurst Roads
These were described as ‘the two working class streets’  they were largely built, unlike much of the rest of the burgeoning estate, to rent on a weekly basis and these were the slightly lower graded pink (without barred element).

Aves with his interest in poverty lingered here longer, seemingly mainly on Sandhurst  Road –

‘most occupied by a decent class, but many on the down-grade.  Two families (per house) frequent, and even in passing many signs of deterioration observable.’

Many living in these streets were employed on the estate and would be expected to leave when the work was finished.  Given the estates position in then suburbia, Corbett presumably felt that to get the workers, he needed to build houses for them first – there seemed to be no philanthropy here, just business necessities.  Certainly, Smith noted that these houses were much later coming onto the market (2).

Maybe influenced by his companion, Aves noted that

The street (Sandhurst) is not getting a good name, and disorder and drunkenness are not uncommon, in spite of the absence of licensed houses in the intermediate neighbourhood.

Booth still felt the road to be mainly pink, but, apart from the shops of Sandhurst Market, that it would be turning ‘purple’ (‘Mixed. Some comfortable others poor.’)

It took another eleven years for the the building work to be completed with homes on Verdant Lane and Duncrievie Road being finished in 1910 (3).  The difference between 1894 and 1914 is enormous as the maps below show (both maps on a Creative Commons from the National Library of Scotland).

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At some stage in the not too distant future we will pick up the story of the estate just before World War 2, to see whether the predictions of Aves and Booth proved to be correct.

Notes

  1. Godfrey Smith (1997) ‘Hither Green: the Forgotten Hamlet : Including the Corbett Estate’ p40
  2. ibid p40
  3. ibid p42

Census and related data comes from Find My Past.

Lee Picture Palace – A Short-lived Lee High Road Cinema

I have mentioned the Lee Picture Palace several times in passing, including the later usage of the site and the demolition of the large early 18th century house behind it, Lee Place. However, a comment on the latter post made me think about a specific piece on it.

The Lee Picture Palace opened on 26th April 1910 on the corner of Lee High Road and Bankwell Road, which had been built a few years earlier. Its owner and operator was James Watt, initially he didn’t have a Cinematograph licence to operate and was fined, getting the licence a month later. Watt was a major builder of homes in the Catford area too – there is another post on him which focuses on this, as well as on his family’s history.

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It had a capacity of 552 and there were both stalls and a small circle.

There is some confusion as to the architect, the London Film Project, implies it was Norfolk & Prior who were also locally responsible for the Park Cinema on Hither Green Lane (Carpet Corner as of February 2015 but with plans to turn into flats) the Electric Picture Palace on Sangley Road and what finally became the ABC in Catford.

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Source – London Film Review

However, Cinema Treasures, suggests that it was the renowned cinema and theatre architect E. A. (Edward Albert) Stone. Stone was responsible for a large number of major projects including the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, which after it finished as a cinema became my favourite medium-sized music venue, but was sadly demolished as part of the Cross Rail development; what is now called the O2 Academy Brixton; what became the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End.

It could be that both were involved though, as it would have been quite early in Stone’s illustrious career and the same combination was certainly used at what became the ABC in Catford.

Little is known about the films shown at the cinema – although pre-opening publicity suggested “Motoring Pictures”– a silent incarnation of Top Gear perhaps? Although, this might be a typesetting error and be the more mundane “moving pictures”.

In 1911 it may have shown British films like A Touch of Nature and A Burglar for One Night, and it would have almost certainly shown some British Pathé News reels such as for the coronation of George V.

While only educated guesses are possible about the films that played to the audiences at the cinema, there would not have been any Sunday showings – Watt was a devout Baptist would not let his cinemas open on a Sunday.

It is known that various sound systems were tried at the cinema including Vivaphone which attempted to synchronise sound and picture.

It was re-named Central Hall Picture Palace on 10th January 1916, a brand used by James Watt across several cinemas. It was requisitioned by the Ministry of Munitions on 5th May 1917 and was converted into a munitions factory. It never re-opened as a cinema, and after World War I ended in 1918, it was converted into retail use.

Later it became a car salesroom, Wittalls – there is a ghost sign for this on the opposite side of Bankwell Road which was covered in an earlier post. It became a caravan salesroom in 1981, which continued until at least 1987, then Penfold’s opened it as a Vauxhall showroom.

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Soon after Penfold’s departure (creative commons Ken Roe)

The building was demolished in 2008, and a medical centre with flats above was built on the site – the Zinc Building.

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In its latter years at least there was a snooker club above the showroom, amongst its regulars, before it closed down in the early 2000s, was Ian Woodley, who was the first winner of a £1m game show prize on British TV on Chris Evans’ TFI Friday.

As well as being a fairly large scale builder, Watt was a pioneer of popular entertainment in the area – Lee Picture Palace was one of many cinemas he owned. He opened his first cinema in 1909 – the Electric in Catford (now retirement flats on Sangley Road), but went onto own around 25 cinemas and ice rinks over the years – mainly in south London, but extending as far as Tottenham, Belvedere and Wandsworth.

Despite its current lack of a mainstream cinema, Lewisham has had dozens in the past – there is an excellent blog on them which maps them and has information on most of them.