Tag Archives: James Watt

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

The Firs – A Country House of Lee

From the early 17th century Lee became ‘home’ to a small number of large houses for the extremely wealthy.  Several still remain – two on Old Road, the Manor House (now library) and Pentland House – used for student and other housing, along with The Cedars on Belmont Hill.  Several were lost to Lewisham’s development – notably, Lee Place – which was covered on the blog last year, and what latterly was referred to as Dacre House.

The Firs was a large early Georgian house, on the corner of Old Road and Manor Lane Terrace, like Lee Place, it is long gone but its presence is still visible in the post-demolition street patterns in the area, particularly the on the western side of Old Road in Roads such as Abernethy and Lochaber.

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The Firs was a large red-brick house was a  built around 1700 as the ‘town’ residence for the Papillion’s, a prominent Huguenot banking family who had prior to that lived in Norton Folgate in Spitalfields as well as having a country house in Acrise, near Folkestone.  Three generations of Papillion’s lived at The Firs over the next century – the first two owners Phillip, who died in 1736 aged 80, and David who lived until 1762 were MPs for Dover.  The final owner, another David, passed away in 1809, when The Firs was sold.

The house had a series of owners after the Papillion’s sold the house in 1809.  Notable amongst these was, General Edward Paget who had been second in command to the Duke of Wellington for a while in the Peninsula War, before becoming Governor of Ceylon and then Governor of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

The Firs was later home to the Sladens, who were described as ‘hospitable at home, also charitable to the poor of Lee’ – their family tomb is in the old churchyard at St Margaret’s Lee and is listed – Joseph lived at The Firs until 1855, when the house was sold.

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The last owner was John Wingfield Larking (1801- 1891), who probably moved in after the Sladens – he was certainly on the electoral register by 1862.  Wingfield Larking was a member of a wealthy Kent family who had been a merchant in Egypt and British consul in Alexandria between 1838 and 1841.

One of the more interesting features of the latter years of The Firs happened in 1884 when Wingfield Larking appointed a young Thomas Sanders, who had been working as a gardener at the Palace of Versailles, to look after the grounds.  Sanders created a winter garden and a series of large conservatories at The Firs.  The winter gardens became well known and a trio of pictures were painted by Arthur William Head.

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For Sanders, The Firs was a stepping stone and he moved on to edit Amateur Gardener in 1887.  Sanders settled in Ladywell and became a Councillor for Lewisham Park in 1912 – his story in interesting enough to do a post in its own right at some stage.   His gardens only lasted a few years longer – Wingfield Larking died in 1891.

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The area changed rapidly after Wingfield Larking died; The Firs was sold and by 1894, OS maps show  the first homes on Lochaber Road and Lee High Road had already been completed on the former estate, and the housing on the western side of Old Road, Abernethy, Murillo and Rembrandt Roads would soon follow.

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So who were the builders? The Scottish Lochaber and Abernethy Road names could have links with Cameron Corbett, who named all of his roads in both his Eltham and Hither Green/Catford borders estates after Scottish towns and areas. Similarly, it could have been one of his builders James Watt who was of Aberdonian and Orcadian descent.

A more likely answer though is the local building firm, the Siderys – there is a glazed panel above the door of 51 Murillo Road, on the corner of Rembrandt Road noting the base the fourth generation within the building trade.

The earliest was William Sidery, who was born in 1771 and died in 1825; the second generation of builders was also William Sidery, who had been born in Lee in 1803 and by the 1851 census was a master bricklayer employing 8 men; his son, predictably, also William (born in 1836) was apprenticed to his father. By 1861, William was listed as a builder at Grove Place on Lee High Road (just below Eastdown Park). He remained there until his death in 1876 – which seems to be noted on the side of the building (sadly partially hidden by a modern drainpipe).

William (1836) was listed in 1881 in Grove Place with 8 children with Elizabeth, including three sons William (1862) and John Sutton (1863) listed as carpenters and Charles (1864), a painter. In the 1891 census William was listed as a bricklayer living in st Mary’s Villas on Pascoe Road; he was to die the following year before The Firs estate was sold. The adult sons had all moved out by that point. Elizabeth, the widow of William (1836) moved into 72 Murillo Road where she remained until her death in 1908.

It isn’t clear where John was living in 1891, but by 1901 was living at 51 Murillo Road and listed as a house decorator with Mary who he had married in 1886 and two children. John died in with Mary passing away in early 1939. Their son Sydney is listed in the 1939 Register as living next door at 53, although this isn’t that clear on the register itself and could easily be at 51.

While it is possible that the Siderys built the estate, for a firm of this size a development of a couple of hundred homes may have been beyond their range, although much will depend on the extent to which work was subcontracted. They may just have worked on the estate.

Picture Credits

The three pictures by Arthur William Head (a view of the house, the Fernery and the Winter Garden) are owned by LB Lewisham and are accessible via the Local History and Archives Centre, but have been made available through the BBC’s Your Paintings site; images and data associated with the works may be reproduced for non-commercial research and private study purposes.  Non Commercial research includes blogs such as this.

The black and white picture is photographed from the information board on Brandram Road, opposite St Margaret’s church.

Census and related data comes via Find My Past