Tag Archives: Ladywell

The Ravensbourne Athletic Club Of Ladywell and Lee

On the northern side of Eltham Road, just to the east of Lee Green, there is an elegant early 20th century building that is now part of the 1950s Borough of Woolwich (now Royal Greenwich) development of Ravens Way. The neighbouring council blocks were carefully designed to blend in with the former club, so it is easy to miss.  It started its life as a residential clubhouse for Ravensbourne Athletic Club and has an interesting story.

The early mentions of the club come from the 1870s, with the club seeming to have been formed around 1871.    But to understand the Club and its building on Eltham Road, we need to understand the origins.  It was the sports club for Cook, Son & Co. which had been formed in 1819 and was one of the largest English wholesale clothing traders and drapers of the late 19th century and early 20th century.  By the 1870s they were based in St Paul’s Church Yard in the City.  It’s head by this stage was Sir Francis Cook and by the end of the century he was one of the three richest men in the country; he had large estates in both Richmond and Sintra, just outside Lisbon in Portugal.

Cook, Son and Co. concentrated on warehousing and distribution rather than manufacturing the clothing themselves.  It sold directly to the small outfitters than still predominated the sector – this may have included the Campion family who had shops near Lee Green, on Lee High Road, Catford and Forest Hill, a ghost sign for whom is still visible in Catford (see below)  Cook, Son and Co. used the railway system for commercial traveller visits.

Ravensbourne Athletic was formed in 1871, taking its name from the location.  It is one I am sure readers will immediately recognise; their fields were described as being ‘truly rural’ and in the ‘picturesque vale of Ladywell’ (1).  It never seems to have appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, but was noted as being around 3 minutes from the station (2).  The 400 yard track at the edge of their cricket pitch was described as being at the bottom of the hill (3) so it may have been around the current locations of Chudleigh Road or perhaps Marsala Road – the latter was later home to the Edwardian professional marathon champion – Charlie Gardiner.

The 1878 sports day was referred to as their 8th Annual Meeting, it had a full range of track and field events – almost all were handicapped, which was common in the era (4) as we saw with the career of Harry Hutchens who ended up living at the other end of Ladywell Fields in Catford.  He wouldn’t have been welcome here though as he was a professional sprinter, probably the finest Victorian one.  Back to the Annual Meeting, while some races were internal affairs, some were open to local clubs such as Blackheath Harriers who were then based at the Green Man in Blackheath.  Current athletic inhabitants of Ladywell Fields, Kent AC, weren’t formed until a few years later.

 In 1883 the Annual Meeting had moved to the cinder track of Stamford Bridge (lpictured above in 1909 via Wikipedia Commons) and it was noticeable that reports seemed to be dominated by several Harriers clubs all of which are still in existence Ranlegh, Highgate and South London as well as Blackheath.  The numbers watching though were reported as being down, particularly women (5).

The reasons for the move to Stamford Bridge probably lay in the development potential of the land in Ladywell, London was expanding and as was seen with the short lived velodrome in Catford, it saw lots of suburban sports facilities disappear.  Press reports noted that the club had been ‘driven out’ of Ladywell; so it may be a short lease had come to an end (6).

The move to Stamford Bridge was a temporary one though, it seems that by 1884 they were in Lee, while the massive clubhouse was almost 30 years away, their Annual Meeting was to be held on what is now Weigall Road Playing Fields.  The ‘ground’ was described as ‘prettily situated’  and had a ‘very fair turf course.’ The Club had taken a 21 year lease out and the 1884 ‘Sports’ saw the usual fayre of Club and open races (7).

The location of their new base was field next to the Quaggy, it had been home to annual horse races 50 years before, but was to become a series of cricket and sports grounds.  It happened in a similar way around the Pool and Ravensbourne flood plains in Beckenham – as covered with the Oxo Sports Ground a while ago. Being on a flood plain, in wetter winters, fixtures will have no doubt been lost to waterlogged pitches – something that happened in the winter of 2019/20 too.

The annual sports were clearly a major social event for the company.  There were several photographs from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News for 1896, including ones of the son of the owner, F W Cook, and Sir George Pragnall who was a senior Royal servant. More interesting, perhaps, are the race start photographs which show a little more of the area – particularly the children’s race which includes the rear of houses on Eltham Road (8).

A couple of years earlier the Penny Illustrated Paper covered the event, which like many of the era included bicycle races – the ‘scratch’ race is shown in the photograph below – the start line was next to Weigall Road, with the pairs of gables of the houses clearly visible behind one of the pavilions and marquees (9).

While the Annual Sports brought out those in charge of the company, the rest of the year it was a busy club with dozens of activities going on including cricket, cycling, athletics, football, tennis, billiards, swimming, shooting and a library.  Teams and individuals representing Ravensbourne, nicknamed the Ravens, won a total of 135 championships in 1910 and it retained the Houston Challenge Trophy for Athletic preeminence in the City, which it had held  since 1894 (10).

It’s not clear why the club, which had 1,200 members, decided to both build a residential clubhouse and build such a large one with around 200 rooms, after all they had managed for 40 years without one.  The sports ground at the rear had three pavilions by 1893 but a gap on Eltham Road remained which was presumably owned or leased by the Club to provide access to the playing fields.  At some point around 1912 a decision was made to develop this gap into a clubhouse.  The the building work happened over the next two years  at a cost of around £20,000 which was donated by Sir Frederick Cook (11).

The newly constructed building was offered to the War Office at the end of July 1914 for use in the war (12) that had already started although Britain did not join until a few days later.  The offer was taken up and the building used for army billeting (13).

The block appears to have remained much the same as it was when it was built, certainly the exterior all looks original. However, a temporary structure may have been added at the back either around or during World War 2 when it also seems to have been requisitioned.

Back to the sport, the 1937 edition of the ‘Sports’ saw, perhaps, its most notable participant – the ‘Mighty Atom’, Sydney Wooderson, who comfortably won the  open mile scratch race in 4:20.6 (14). It was to be a summer of success for Wooderson, who took the mile World Record at the end of August in 4:06.6 at Motspur Park in south west London (15).

In the 1950s, the clubhouse and the houses around it were acquired by the Borough of Woolwich for council housing.  The rest of the homes were designed to merge in well with the former clubhouse which was converted into flats.  A new street was created behind, parallel to Lee High Road, which retains a subtle link to the Ravensbourne Athletic – using the club nickname, ‘Ravens’ in  Ravens Way, the former clubhouse is 130-184. The playing fields were opened up to the public, accessed from Weigall Road.

As for Cook, Son & Co., it merged with a not dissimilar firm, S & J Watts & Co, who were based in Manchester, in 1960 to form Cook & Watts.  The life of the new company was a very short one though as like many in the textile and clothing sector it was taken over by Courtaulds later in 1960.

And finally, at the front of the building is a delightful, small obelisk.  It’s history seems lost but, it bears the words ‘The shadows will lie behind you if you walk towards the light’ carved into the four faces of the obelisk.  The phrase and several variants have been attributed to a wide range of sources including Walt Whitman, another person called Whitman, along with the Victorian poet Charles Swain and a Maori proverb.  However, there  is nothing obvious to link to either the Club or its corporate owners.

 

Notes

  1. South London Chronicle 29 August 1874
  2. Cricket 03 August 1882
  3. South London Chronicle 29 August 1874
  4. The Referee 18 August 1878
  5. Sporting Gazette 25 August 1883 
  6. The Referee 20 July 1884
  7. ibid
  8. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 04 July 1896 – the pictures linked to this are from there too
  9. Penny Illustrated Paper 14 July 1894
  10. Sporting Life 24 February 1911
  11. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 03 August 1914
  12. ibid
  13. John Coulter (1997) Britain in Old Photographs: Lewisham & Deptford, A Third Selection p116
  14. Sunday Mirror 04 July 1937
  15. Sunday Mirror 29 August 1937

 

 

Preparation for World War Two – Going Underground

At the time of the anniversary of evacuation Running Past, started to look at some of the preparations for war on the ‘Home Front’ with Lewisham children being evacuated to Kent then Surrey.  We return now to some of the preparations that were made to try to keep the civilian population that remained in Lewisham as safe as possible from the air attacks that were expected soon after war broke out – looking here at air raid shelters.

In theory, planning had started just after World War 1 with the setting up of the Air Raid Precautions Committee in 1924.  As regular readers of Running Past will recall, there had been devastating air raids during World War 1 on both Glenview Road in Hither Green with a Zeppelin attack (above), and with a Gotha airplane attack on Sydenham Road which also bombed the area around Staplehurst Road and Hither Green Station. However, little progress had been made because of the apparently irreconcilable conflict between the need to send the public underground for shelter from air attack but the need to keep them above ground for in the event of gas attacks.  The latter had been expected as a result of gas attacks during World War 1.

During the Munich Crisis of September 1938 the Government instructed local authorities to start building trench air raid shelters with precast concrete walls which were then covered.  They became a permanent feature in the lead up to war.

There were a series of public shelters in Lewisham High Street under the planted area that ran down most of the market (see above from a couple of decades before World War 2) – they had to cope with day time raids when the town centre would be busy (1). One of these was to be hit by a V-1 flying bomb in July 1944. There were also large public shelters opposite Lewisham Hospital and in the grounds of Robertson’s Golden Shred works on Bromley Road (2).

Running Past covered a couple of the Lee shelters that were located in Manor House Gardens – one in the Ice House, and the other seemingly under the grass almost next to it – the likely outline appeared in the drought of 2018.  A third was under the lawn in front of Manor House Library was mentioned in passing in the Lewisham ARP log (3).

A large one was also constructed in the grounds of Merchant Taylors’ almshouses (above), although it isn’t clear whether this was just for the inhabitants of the almshouses or for wider use.  There is a ‘ghost sign’ on the external wall to the almshouses on the corner of Brandram and Lee High Roads – although it has faded and it isn’t certain whether it is pointing to Manor House Gardens or the almshouses.

Some local streets also had communal shelters too – one is shown at the back of a photograph of a VE Day street party in Taunton Road in Lee.

The public shelters were not bomb-proof and many people were killed in direct hits – this included one on the Albion Way shelter in Lewisham where 41 people died on 11 September 1940.  There was another street air raid shelter in the next road – Mercia Grove.  Memories of which were included on the BBC website around the 50th anniversary of VE Day – which was described

At the bottom of the stairs there were four bays. Each bay had a wooden slatted seat at either side, along its length. …We soon made the shelter comfortable, with rugs for the floor and a paraffin stove for warmth and to boil a kettle. We slept on the floor and on the benches. After a while, bunks were installed. These served as seats during the day when it was a public shelter and at night we were issued shelter tickets and a designated bunk number. .. Soon there was a sink installed and a small portable oven, for which we paid a small rental fee. When the blitz was at its height we went down at 6.30 after the evening meal, until the all clear, or until it was time to get ready to go to work the next day. On the long summer evenings (double British summertime) we played gramophone records in the street and danced to the music, when all was quiet, no Jerry’s above.

Other locations too were used as air raid shelters, including underneath railway arches, such as those in Ladywell which, like its Lee counterparts, had a painted sign showing the way to it which still survives above it.

Below, a probably more permanent one than was possible under the arches in Ladywell is pictured from elsewhere in SE London. There were also railway arch shelters at Plough Bridge (sheltering 40, close to Lewisham Station); Morley Road (95) and Catford Hill (105) (4).

 

Elsewhere in London tube stations were used, but this clearly wasn’t an option in south east London. Initially cellars and basements of larger houses, churches and factories were also used but their use brought with it dangers of collapse of the building above with heavy masonry or machinery coming through from higher floors.   A few buildings built just ahead of World War Two were built with air raid shelters, such as one in East Sheen, covered in the excellent Flickering Lamps blog.

One of the stranger public shelters used by Lee and Hither Green residents involved catching a train to Chislehurst to shelter in the caves; even when London had been free of attacks for a couple of months in July 1941, 2,000 still sheltered there every night (5).

Not all air raid shelters were communal ones, it wasn’t always feasible for people to quickly get to the public ones, so individual household ones were developed – Anderson shelters (below) which were external and the internal Morrison ones.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson, who was the Government Minister responsible for air-raid precautions prior to the outbreak of World War II.  They were made from 14 galvanised steel panels bolted together and were 1.8 m high, 2 metres long and 1.4 metres wide, and were buried 1.2 metres deep and then covered with 40 centimetres of soil.  They ‘housed’ six and were issued free to all householders who earned less than £5 a week, which was most people in areas such as Lewisham; those with a higher income were charged £7 for them.  In Lewisham around 23,000 were issued – so about 192,000 could be accommodated (6).

Running Past visited a partially fictional Anderson shelter on the Brockley/New Cross borders when looking at one of the early works of one of Lewisham’s best known authors – David Lodge’s Out of The Shelter.

While they performed well apart from dealing with direct hits, as they were buried in the ground they tended to be cold and damp, not the place to spend lots of consecutive nights – something common at the height of the German Bombing campaign.  The level of waterlogging led some Lewisham families to go back to the original advice and hide under the stairs.

My former next door neighbours  Jack (actually George) and Doris had an Anderson Shelter in their garden which was still dug into its original place by his first wife’s parents; while the soil covering of the roof was removed, they used it as a shed until they died in the late 1990s.  This was not uncommon – while local authorities collected the shelters as scrap many hung on to them, with several memories of playing in them in and around Lewisham into the 1960s.

Morrison Shelters were indoor shelters which, in theory at least, could be used as tables between air raids.  They were named after the Minister of Home Security at the time that they were first issued – Herbert Morrison, who was to become Labour MP for Lewisham South in the 1945 General Election.

Pictured below, they were effectively a cage 2 metres, by 1.2 metres and 0.75 metres high with a steel plate top and mesh sides. They had to be assembled IKEA-like by the household, with tools supplied.  Like the Anderson Shelters, they were provided free to low income households.  Around 500,000 were distributed during the Blitz with a further 100,000 ahead of V-1 attacks.  They were much more effective than the Anderson Shelters in preventing protecting households even withstanding some direct hits.

In posts in the not too distant future we will look at other World War 2 preparations on the Home Front – gas masks, warning sirens, the Women’s Voluntary Services and the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens.

Notes

  1. Lewis Blake (1995) How We Went To War – Deptford & Lewisham 1939 – 1945 p41
  2. ibid p42
  3. The ARP log for Lewisham is a fragile document that lists (virtually) all the attacks, property by property, raid by raid – we will come back to this in future posts.
  4. Blake op cit p43
  5. ibid p43
  6. ibid p41

 

Picture credits

 

 

The Four Spectres of the Victorian Poor

In 19th century London the four spectres of old age, accident, sickness and unemployment haunted the poor, for it led, almost inevitably, to applications for the Poor Law, and in many areas this meant the workhouse. While many have disappeared under bulldozers, often to make way for new hospitals a few of the old buildings remain.

There are two within a few hundred metres at opposite sides of Ladywell Fields on my regular runs along Waterlink Way. The Poor Law Unions that ran them were Lewisham and Bermondsey (St Olave) were unusual in that they provided mainly ‘outdoor’ relief – money, food, clothing or goods, given to alleviate poverty without the requirement that the recipient enter an institution.

On the western side of the Ravensbourne are the remains of the workhouse infirmary of the St Olave’s (Bermondsey) Union Board of Guardians.

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Opened in 1900 it had 812 beds for the elderly poor and infirm. It was later to have a variety of uses – a WW1 military hospital and what seems to have been a quite large scale children’s home.

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Much of the site has been cleared for housing, but the gatehouse, admin blocks (which are used by Lewisham Council) and magnificent water tower all remain.

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