Friday, 8 June 2012

Updated: History revisited

Watching the Secret History of Our Streets about Deptford the other evening prompted me to re-publish our 2009 research about the history of the community centre and North Downham. The 1000 leaflets that were produced at the time have long since been taken and (hopefully) read but a pdf remains online - the wonder of the internet age. And this time I can put in links! With overcrowding rife and housebuilding in London at a virtual standstill it seems prescient to reflect on conditions in the 1920s and 30s and to revisit the link between 'slum clearance' and a 'place in the country', as the cottage estate in Downham was described.

The epithet 'slum clearance', so carelessly used and abused to this day, stuck to the residents after the estate was built. As Vic, posting a comment on Downham Online, says:
This was mainly because in those less enlightened times if you came from a big council estate you were automatically grouped with ne'er do wells. Yet, whilst I lived there as a youth I cannot recall any really nasty goings on, but the fact that the estate was classed as a 'slum clearance area, for Deptford, Greenwich and Bermondsey' automatically made it undesirable to those living around the outskirts. As boys we definitely got up to all sorts of mischief, but nothing which affected other people's property.
This myth, perpetuated now around the internet, unfairly lumped residents together into a class of former slum-dwellers and a threat to 'respectable' neighbourhoods. In fact the homes they moved into were comparatively expensive and targeted at working families who could afford them - the council carefully selected tenants who had a good track record of paying rent and a secure job, and who were prepared to abide by the rigorous rules of the tenancy. Average council house rents on homes were 20% or more than the privately rented homes they left, which were often poorly built and maintained and overcrowded, leading for many to chronic health conditions.

The slum clearance programme was carried out in earnest after the main estate was finished in 1930, as councils were required to submit a programme of demolition and rebuilding to eliminate slums from their districts in 1933. The northern extension of the Downham Estate, or North Downham, was part of the London County Council's rebuilding programme.

History of the community centre
In 2009 the Goldsmiths Community Centre, in North Downham, South London, celebrated its seventieth year and it offered a unique opportunity to bring centre users and the local community together to investigate and celebrate its history, purpose and aims as part of the Mayor of London's Story of London festival. The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant which enabled us to host events and develop the centre website, which is constantly evolving and approaching its 50,000th visitor.

Much thought went in to the planning of the largest community centre in London to cater for everyone young and old on the new estate, as it was then. The Goldsmiths Company, the London Council for Social Service and the National Fitness Council worked together to provide a place where local people could learn, keep themselves and their families fit and healthy and enjoy themselves - as long as they didn't want to drink!

The community centre movement

The concept of the community centre arose from the educational settlement movement in the mid 19th century combined with a number of developments and initiatives in the first quarter of the 20th century, which included: 

The universal aims were to improve health, alleviate poverty and provide education and social activities. Social activities and the belief in the role of group and neighbourhood activities were viewed as vitally important in sustaining a vibrant democracy; community facilities had been largely overlooked when the suburban inter-war estates of Becontree, St Helier and the Downham estate itself were built. 

Mrs Queenie Mortimer, a local amateur historian and member of the Downham Reminiscence Group who was born in one of the new houses in 1925, put together a book about Downham, extracts of which can be read on the Downham Originals website - a fascinating glimpse into the past.

In common with the other interwar estates the loneliness, lack of facilities, distance from work and their families and high rents of these new properties led some families to return to their former areas of London which included the Old Kent Road, Bermondsey and Deptford and the idea of the community centre began to bear fruit. 

If you walk along Valeswood Road you can see the first centre to be built on the Downham estate in the early 1930s, now home to the Bromley and Downham Youth Club. Valeswood Road is also the place where the notorious wall was erected in 1926 to prevent the residents of the new estate using Alexandra Crescent as a short cut to Bromley.

The estate
The North Downham estate was planned by the London County Council in 1935 and developed on an area north of Whitefoot Lane, known locally as Perry’s Farm. 16 acres were reserved for an open space, a doctor’s surgery, shops and the community centre, with the remainding land for outdoor recreation. Dickie Eagle recall's Perry's Farm:
Perry's Farm was an area under cultivation initially, it ran from the junction of lower Northover down to the Forsters Memorial park, given to the public as a living memorial to Lord Forsters sons who were killed in WW1. It was an open area where onecould liberate the odd cabbage  cheaper than buying one from Clarks (up the top for 2d )   plus you could pick blackberries and strawberries growing wild. You could even grab the odd Bunny, but I never felt like eating the poor blighters.
In March 1936 the Goldsmiths Company stated that ‘Little has hitherto been done in the way of meeting the need of buildings in which beneficial social activities can take place.‘
The Goldsmiths Company recommended that the sum of £12000 be offered to the London Council of Social Service for the community centre to be built and by October 1937 a site had been identified on the corner of an open space of 15 acres at Whitefoot Lane.


Research at the Goldsmiths Company archives reveals a snobbish paternalism among the people who decided where the centre should be sited. After looking at the Valeswood Road centre ('built of cheap materials') rejecting two sites in Downham and on the borders of Bellingham (one community leader was 'too common') the Whitefoot Lane site was chosen for its proximity to owner occupied houses where the Association would attract a better class of person to sit on the governing body.

A visit to the wonderful London Metropolitan Archives, which can be searched online, produced maps, plans, elevations and specifications for the centre. 

A view from Durham Hill
North Downham and Hither Green Community Association
About 2 dozen families had moved in to the new estate by November 1937. Miss Albery, a social worker who worked for the London Council of Social Service and lived in Longhill Road, helped with the formation of the community association in May 1938.


While the centre was being built the association rented 103 Boundfield Road (now a GP surgery and formerly the tenants’ office) for their meetings. The trust deed was granted to the community association for 99 years at £10 per annum.


Design and construction
When the plans were drawn up the centre was designed to house a concert hall, nursery, a maternity and child welfare clinic, a gymnasium and separate wings for adults and juveniles with individual rooms for games and committee meetings. Each wing had its own canteen. There is a fascinating document in the London Metropolitan Archives about the importance of canteens in community buildings and the social cohesion and health benefits they promote. The concert hall and gymnasium were equipped with sprung floors. The architect was Granville Streatfeild and the builders Messrs. Wates.


The quality of the building was perceived as a major factor in the success of the centre and community association. The centre cost £14,441 to build; the Goldsmiths Company gave £13,500 and the Physical Training Council £2000. The balance was given to the Association for maintenance.


Grand opening 1939
Work on the centre began in April 1938 and was completed by March 1939. The centre opened to the public on 13 March and was officially opened on 11 May 1939. At the official opening there were Gymnastic, Wrestling and Ju-Jitsu Displays and on August Bank Holiday 1939 the first annual flower and vegetable show was held. The amateur dramatic society was formed in the autumn of 1939.
 

It is amazing to think that this large (17000 sq ft) purpose built centre was not only opened four months before the second world war was declared in 1939 but continued to provide activities for everyone throughout, including dancing, comedy shows, the youth club, church meetings and flower and vegetable shows. An outdoor swimming pool was planned on the open space, before war intervened. The Goldsmiths Gardeners’ Society managed 125 allotments on the open space from 1940-1945 and an Air Raid Precautions post was set up in the community centre garden for the duration of the war. 

Until the shops on Boundfield Road were built the first local residents had to walk to Bromley Road and back every day for their shopping. When the shops opened, they included a butcher, greengrocer, wet fish shop, baker and grocer - and wartime rationing meant that they couldn’t overcharge.

Post war
In May 1945 the women’s section of the community centre held a Victory party for 50 local children and their parents. The open space was requisitioned under the Temporary Housing Programme in 1944 and the Excalibur pre-fab estate was built which still stands today. German and Italian prisoners of war, incarcerated in camps at Shooter’s Hill and Beckenham Place Park, assisted with building the pre-fabs and the roads. You can read Max Hentschel's POW story here.
 

By 1952 Forster Park School had been completed and activities at the centre ranged from boys’ and girls’ clubs, faith groups, political party meetings, adult education, women’s and older people’s clubs, to sports, social events and special interest groups as well as the maternity and child welfare clinic. Among the groups who used the centre over the years were: GADS (Goldsmiths Amateur Dramatic Society); Mirror Dinghy Boat Building Club; Goldsmiths Community Players; Spartan Barbell Club; Peckham Wheelers’ Cycle Club; Wine Society; Caged Birds Society and Peggy Spencer’s Formation Dancing Team, who rehearsed in the main hall on Sunday mornings. Members of the common interest groups went on to serve on the committee and develop social and fundraising activities at the centre, shows and pensioners' Christmas parties.

The 1960s, 70s and the Goldsmiths Community Association
The advent of television saw the centre fall into disuse in the mid-1960s and according to local people it became semi-derelict. Ownership of the land was transferred from the GLC to Lewisham Council in 1969 and investment began to be made in the centre and activities for children and young people, including festivals and holiday programmes.

At the same time the North Downham Tenants and Residents Association was formed, with the help of Jack McBain a social worker. In 1972 the committee, to ensure that the names would not be confused, renamed the community association Goldsmiths and later applied for charitable status. During this process the trust deed, which was still in the former name, was overlooked and its importance not uncovered until 2010 when plans for the centre required that the association had title to the centre.

Today
When the Downham Health and Leisure Centre opened in 2007 it spelled the end of child welfare services at the community centre as the health visitors moved to their new home. In 2011 the perimeter fence was augmented by a new green palisade fence. The chain link fence put up in the early 1970s proved too difficult to remove. One year on and the brambles planted at the same time to deter vandals are slowly being eradicated in the community garden! The trust deed is in the final stages of being re-assigned. Plans to refurbish just part of the centre are estimated at £1.4 million and counting. You can see the plans here.

Postscript - the loss of social spaces in the area
Pubs in Lewisham: An evidence base study. Lewisham Council April 2012
The locations of the borough without pubs are found in the south east part of the borough, particularly in Catford South, Whitefoot, Grove Park, Downham and Bellingham wards. This can be explained by a number of housing estates built between the First and Second World Wars funded by central government and constructed under the auspices of the London County Council. The Corbett Estate, the Bellingham Estate, the Forster Estate, the Culverley Estate were developed to help alleviate the chronic shortage of housing in London and provide better housing for those who had lived in slums. The housing in these areas were developed by a social reformer and Scottish MP Archibald Cameron Corbett who had Quaker origins and hence, the Corbett Estate was devoid of public houses.
Between 2001-11 Whitefoot lost its two pubs, Bellingham lost 3 of 4, Catford South lost its only pub and Grove Park and Downham lost one of its two pubs each.