Wednesday, November 23, 2011

John Betjeman and Lewisham Town Hall

The current Lewisham Town Hall in Catford (above) was built in the late 1960s to replace an older building on the same site. The older Lewisham Town Hall, designed in a Gothic Revival style by the architect George Elkington, was built in 1875 and was a grand affair:
The Town Hall was joined in 1887 by Saint Laurence's Church (to the left of the Town Hall in the following picture).

It actually ceased to be the Town Hall in 1932, when a new Town Hall building was officially opened by the Duke of York (Times, 23 June 1932). That building, which still stands as the Broadway Theatre, was designed to complement the old Town Hall, hence some of its gothic details.

The old Town Hall and the Church were both demolished in 1968, the former despite a campaign to save it that involved, among others, the poet John Betjeman:

'At the age of 13, William Norton, the son of a police sergeant and a Post Office worker, wrote to John Betjeman warning him of the impending destruction of Lewisham’s Victorian Gothic town hall. In no time Betjeman put William on to the recently founded Victorian Society, urged him to organise a petition, wrote him several long letters alerting him to other fine churches in Lewisham and Catford and then turned up at the town hall to be photographed with the boy. Despite all this, Lewisham town hall was demolished. It was still 1961, after all. England still slept. Betjeman at the same time was vainly battling to save the Euston Arch and the great glass rotunda of the Coal Exchange. Who else would have turned aside from those gruelling national campaigns to help an obscure schoolboy in one of London’s dimmest quarters to try and save a grimy town hall by George Elkington (no, I hadn’t heard of him either — his town hall in Bermondsey has been demolished too)? [Ferdinant Mount, Review of Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter by Bevis Hillier, Spectator, 13 Novemeber 2004).

Betjeman spoke of the campaign in a television interview, and is pictured below with William Norton outside the Town Hall:

Wonder what William Norton did when he grew up? If you're out there Willliam, it would be interesting to hear your memories of that time.

Two First World War Stories

While researching this post, I came across two local stories from the First World War, both rather sad and involving women workers in or around Lewisham Town Hall:

'Woman Omnibus Conductor Killed: Louisa Rushen, aged 22, a woman omnibus conductor, employed on one of the South London services, in walking round the front of her omnibus on Sunday night near the Lewisham Town Hall, was knocked down by a passing motor-car. Miss Rushen, whose home was at Fort Cottages, Westerham, Kent, died in the Miller Hospital’ (Times, 25 January 1916)

'German’s Daughter Sentenced: At Greenwich Police Court yesterday Emma Ada Clements, 23, clerk, was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment without hard labour for stealing a small sum of money from a cloak-room at Lewisham Town Hall, where she was employed as a temporary clerk. It was stated that her real names was Klemm, and that she was the daughter of an unnaturalized German, and that she had twice, when applying for work in Government departments, stated that her parents were British-born' (Times 29 November 1917).


Mary said...

Didn't know about that - interesting though.
I have recently discovered that the first meeting of the Greenwich Society was attended by that other great (and televisual) architectural commentator of the 1960s, Ian Nairn.
(where Greenwich leads........)

However, briefly picking up on the poor conductress killed nearby. First - the Miller Hospital - then in Greenwich High Road - another institution well worth looking at.
But it was her address I noticed - Fort Cottages. The cottages are still there and are the remains of one of the many military sites and defensive which dotted (and I guess still dot) the North Downs. That's another subject well worth looking at. If you try and look at the cottages now you will find them on an unmade road off Westerham Hill - lots of 'private road' notices and a general air of 'go away' - very very posh now, and no signs of anything as common as a bus!

. said...

My friend Mark commented on this on Facebook:

'I have very clear childhood memories of the old town hall - we used to go to Catford a lot on the bus and I can recall that the clock in the bell tower used to strike! St Lawrence Church was a grim old place, never went inside but somehow the red brick made the place forbidding and unwelcoming.

Opposite the buildings, on Rushey Green, I wonder whether anyone remembers Robert Ewell or Youwell, the huge drapers' shop - the object of fascination there was to sit on a high wooden chair by the counter and gaze at the mechanical overhead wire system for sending money round the shop to a high-up cashiers desk!'

Tamsin said...

"Come to my emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires" - but you need to imagine Richard Burton's voice at his most Welsh.

Newham still has its gothic town hall - looks wonderful in autumn sunlight.

Agree, though about red-brick churches. Always seem slighty sinister, from Carlisle Cathedral (although that is red stone) downwards.

TMB said...

"Come to my emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires" - but you need to imagine Richard Burton's voice at his most Welsh.

Newham still has its gothic town hall - looks wonderful in autumn sunlight.

Agree, though about red-brick churches. Always seem slighty sinister, from Carlisle Cathedral (although that is red stone) downwards.

Anonymous said...

As s choirboy at St Laurence, and with a big bunch of keys and my friend Brian, we unlocked the door to the bell tower and climbed the stairs. Inches deep in pigeon droppings and dead birds we crossed a timber bridge and accessed the bells. What a view! Only later did we find out that access to the tower was forbidden due to death watch beetle and woodworm.

Seraphim (William) Newman-Norton said...

I was interested to read your account of the campaign I waged in 1961 to save the old Lewisham town hall at Catford, which gained the support of John Betjeman and the Victorian Society.

Rather bizarrely, having demolished the building, in 1971 the London Borough of Lewisham published a well illustrated commemorative book, "The Town Hall Lewisham 1875-1968".

Plans to redevelop the site went back to 1949 but because of financial constraints didn't actually begin until 1959. My campaign, however, caused a delay and the Council admitted that, "The prospect of the total removal of this old, distinctive and well-known edifice from the local scene provoked some opposition and delayed the making of vital decisions on the plans." Your report is actually inaccurate in saying that it ceased to be the Town Hall in 1932 when the public halls extensions were opened in 1932 as it was in full use right up to the beginning of demolition, which began on 6 August 1968.

I stayed in touch with Sir John for several years and was also involved in the Victorian Society's campaign campaign to save the Doric Arch at Euston station. Those were not good times for conservation but it is heartening to see how many of the badly designed buildings from the 1960s have now been swept away themselves. Sir John's concerns were not simply nostalgic, but he was concerned with the whole effect of poor urban planning and his suspicion about supporting something simply because it was "modern" was enlightened.

As for me, I went on to become a schoolmaster, teaching history & english at Catford Boys' School (now also demolished) and as Head of English at Eaglesfield School on Shooter's Hill. I was also ordained as a non-stipendiary priest in the Orthodox Church and now am the bishop of the British Orthodox Church, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

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. said...

Good to hear from you William, I was hoping that you would stumble across this at some point.

My confusion over the dates arose from reading a report about the opening of the 'new Town Hall' in 1932. From what you are saying I assume that the Town Hall functions were split between the old and new buildings up until 1968, rather than transferred from the former to the latter in 1932.

Good to hear too about your later work in Lewisham (including memories of teaching David Sylvian at Catford Boys). As for the orthodox tradition in the Lewisham area, maybe that's a whole other subject, but you may be interested in this little nugget:

LYT said...

I am in wonder at your blog! It's just what I've been looking for. We, at lewisham youth theatre are starting research & development of our new community project "Catford Tales" and would really like to hear from Catfordians to capture thier memories, images & experiences. We have been to the local archive & were blown away by Catfords buildings only a few decades ago & as we work with young people, were really interested to see Williams protest & would love to share it with our Senior Youth Theatre in January '14 if that's okay. We are really keen to record peoples memories. If you would like to share more please let us know. Many thanks Helen