Tag Archives: Ravensbourne Athletic Club

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

 

 

Following the Quaggy – Sutcliffe Park to Lee Green

In previous posts, Running Past has followed the Quaggy from its sources around Locksbottom and then on through Petts Wood, the Hawkwood Estate, Chislehurst and Bickley, through the golf courses of Sundridge Park and on to Chinbrook Meadows.  Most recently, we left he river at on the south side of Eltham Green Bridge, by an old London County Council sign, wondering about how to moor a boat there.

North of the bridge, over Eltham Road, is Sucliffe Park; until the early 20th century the area was farmland, The Quaggy meandered through the fields as the map below shows (on a Creative Commons from the National Library of Scotland).  Woolwich Borough Council acquired the land just after World War 1.  It was named after the then Borough Engineer (1).

The meanders had been removed by the time that the Ordnance Surveyors cartographers visited again in 1938 and encased in concrete – as the map below shows (on a Creative Commons from the National Library of Scotland). The river was completely enclosed at some stage during the post war period, Ken White believed it to be around 1970 (2) although several on Facebook threads thought it was much earlier than this.

The look that remained until the current Millennium was of a flat, featureless park (apart from the athletics track that is home to Cambridge Harriers, whose early history was covered a while ago.  It was reminiscent of a miniature Hackney Marshes (Photo below on a Creative Commons via Restoring Europe’s Rivers wiki)

In Facebook threads on upstream posts, there were lots of memories of playing in the Quaggy and culverts around the Park, seemingly including some of the streams that join the Quaggy – notably Well Hall Stream.

This all changed in 2002. A new meandering channel was created for the Quaggy, close to its pre-1930s course, albeit at a slightly lower level, with the park itself being remodelled to create a flood plain able to store 85,000 m³  with a series of boardwalks, viewing points and a large pond. The old channel was retained for extreme flood situations and flow can be switched to it when the storage in the park is full (above, right photograph).

The park which used to be rarely visited other than for weekend football is now a well-used focal point and reconnecting the community with the river and its natural environment – it is often held up as an excellent example of urban river management. Unlike other parts of the Quaggy’s catchment, it is beginning to be used as a place of play and discovery – children can sometimes be seen jumping across the river, there were reminiscences about doing this in Mottingham, feeding ducks on the pond along with the occasional sightings of fishing nets and buckets.

The Quaggy was originally joined by Well Hall Stream in the park, although when followed a while ago, there was little evidence of any current flow.

The river goes through some complex engineering that can shut off the flows in periods of high water, and re-emerges the other side of Kidbrooke Park Road in the playing fields of John Roan School.  Here too the river has changed, the concrete encasement had continued west of the road, I remember having to scramble down angled concrete to fish out footballs from the river during my sons’ Saturday morning football practice there. 

The Quaggy is theoretically joined by Lower Kid Brook (above) opposite a rather impressive Woolwich Borough marker (below left), or rather it isn’t any more – the flow was probably diverted into the Quaggy three hundred metres to the east in Sutcliffe Park.

Beyond John Roan playing fields, the river is sandwiched between Lyme Farm Road estate, which replaced Victorian housing, and Crofton Albion FC.  It emerges out into the public gaze again at Weigall Road where the 1903 boundary markers from Woolwich had again been busy (above right).

Over the road, to the south, there is another series of playing fields – the first is a public one, Weigall Sports Field which was once home to Ravensbourne Athletic Club’s grass running track.  It was part of a residential club and sports centre for employees of Cook, Son and Co (St Pauls) Ltd. which was a clothing wholesale company – the building faces on to Eltham Road (see above) and was completed in 1912.  Prior to then there were newspaper reports of them being based in Ladywell Fields, hence the name from a different catchment.  The building on Eltham Road was requisitioned for World War 1 billeting but returned to its former use after the War.  It continued as this until after World War Two when it was converted into flats – it is now part of Ravens Way (perhaps a shortening of the club’s name) (3).

Its next door neighbour is the Bowring Group Sports Ground (below), although its days in recreational use are probably numbered as it seems to have been acquired for  a ‘Free’ School.

The northern banks of the Quaggy also used to have playing fields, the just post war Ordnance Survey map shows cricket grounds (on a Creative Commons from National Library of Scotland.) The outlines of the fields are still there and indeed the derelict remains of one the pavilions remains.  The formerly manicured grounds have been largely abandoned and now form part of the Weigall Road flood defence and storage, although the intention has always been dual use.

It isn’t meant to be an accessible area, but fences on Weigall Road and Blackheath Park are always porous enough for the runner of a smaller stature to enter without having to resort to contortions or scaling boundaries.  It the last long section of the river where the Quaggy has a bucolic feel – it probably hasn’t changed much since the fields by the river were used as the venue for the horse racing of the Lee Races in the first half of the 19th century.

The flood defences have a second fence to prevent the fluvial flâneur but in a period of low flow they proved to be of limited deterrent.  Apparently the Weigall Road storage will hold 65,000 m³ of water.

There is/was probably a small tributary joining around here.  There is very boggy ground just south of the derelict pavilion, more standing water in wetter seasons but still pooling in a very dry Spring.  There is an occasionally running stream which forms the boundary between the fields, in recent years I have only seen water there in the very wet winter of 2013/14.

On Facebook pages relating to upstream posts, there are fond memories of playing in and on the banks of the Quaggy in these parts – there still sometime cross river swings with a ducking for those with poor grips, although none have been noticed for a year or two.

Beyond the Weigall Road flood storage area, the Quaggy briefly disappears before being bridged by Meadowcourt Road and then flowing onwards towards Osborne Terrace.  The river is then bridged by Lee Road, there was only a footbridge until as late as the 1860s, as the 1863 published 25″ Ordnance Survey shows (on a Creative Commons via National Library of Scotland). The road bridge was certainly there by the time the cartographers returned in 1893.

This was an area of flooding – Hastead reported depths of 10′ (3 metres) in the 18th century and F H Hart reporting similar depths after the rapid thaw following the bitterly cold 1813/14 winter, there was flooding over a wide area including a lot of Lee Park.  Hart reported flooding being a regular occurrence in the early 19th century with a Bromley farmer drowning in 1830.

There is another Woolwich marker from 1903 by the bridge, only someone has chiselled out – the borough name, perhaps they were going to return and add Greenwich, but they never did.  Next to the bridge there is a pipe with water entering the Quaggy, with a Lewisham Natureman stag ‘grazing’ next to it, this is the diverted Mid Kid Brook.  On the opposite bank, there is a ghost sign for a ‘carver and gilder’ (more here), oddly hidden by the current cafe owners.  We’ll leave the river here for another day.

Notes

  1. Ken White (1999) The Quaggy & Its Tributaries p25
  2. ibid p25
  3. John Coulter (1997) Lewisham and Deptford in Old Photographs: A Third Selection