Setting the Scene
St John’s Deptford, or Deptford New Town, is an excellent example of a working class Victorian suburb. It is unusual in that it was developed largely by one landowner from one estate - but over a long period of time - and because much of the development is largely intact today.
St Johns is in the Deptford area of the London Borough of Lewisham. It forms the thinner western end of the wedge of streets between New Cross Road, Deptford Broadway and Brookmill Road to the north and Lewisham Way to the south. Administratively it sits entirely in the modern Borough of Lewisham but previously was in the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford and before 1900, when the Metropolitan Boroughs were founded, it was under the control of the Greenwich Board of Works and before that in the parish of St Paul Deptford.
Its local government affiliations have hardly influenced its development as a suburb. The crucial factors in development were the role of the estate’s freeholder, the Lucas family, their patronage of the newly established parish of St John and the growth of the town of Deptford.
St John’s is unusual, not so much for its original character, but that it has survived largely intact; only its most northerly portion has been redeveloped. The survival has been due to good estate management and, followingr the estate’s acquisition by Deptford Borough Council in 1964, its later designation as a conservation area.
In 1800, urban or suburban Deptford did not venture south of New Cross Road, but by 1900 the area was entirely urban. In St John’s this process took place gradually over virtually the entire century.
In 1800 the district was pasture and market garden. It was split by only one road, the modern Tanner’s Hill, then called Butt Lane, which was a southerly extension across the Broadway of the line of the High Street. Butt Lane continued across Lewisham Way to its terminus at open land on the modern Upper Brockley Road. There was another road, no more than a lane, called Dog Kennel Row, or Dark Lane, which linked Manor Farm, Brockley with the Broadway. Manor Farm stood on the modern Brakespeares Road between Lewisham College and the railway bridge. Mill Lane (the present Brookmill Road) ran for about 400 yards from its junction with the Broadway, where it terminated at the entrance to the waterworks.
There were two important houses in the area. The most distinctive and individual was Stone House. This still stands and is a large detached property on Lewisham Way built of soft white and grey stone.
It is an eccentric square composition with large curved full height bays on three of its sides and a cupola on the fourth. Stone House was called the Comical House on the 1836 tithe map.
A member of the Gibson family built it in 1771-3. Both George Gibson senior and George Gibson Junior were architects and there is an unresolved debate as to which was responsible for the house. George Junior was also responsible for St Mary’s church Lewisham, to which it has some similarity in fabric, and Woodlands in Mycenae Road, Blackheath, to which it could hardly be more different. Stone House still stands, recently and proudly restored.
The second house was originally called Brunswick House, now Kylefield House, 124 Tanners Hill. By contrast to Stone House it is sadly disfigured and lost amongst later 19th century additions. It was once a detached house set 50 yards back from Lewisham Way by its front garden, with its side immediately on to Tanner’s Hill. The garden was built on from 1850 both on Lewisham Way and down Tanner’s Hill, so today the house is surrounded and devoured by so many Victorian additions as to be barely recognisable.
The other feature in the area was its waterworks, which dates from the early 17th century. It drew water from the River Ravensbourne and later from a series of wells. The earliest surviving buildings date from the mid-19th century.
The Lucas Family
The principal landed freeholder was the Lucas family. They owned the vast majority of land especially in the north and south-east of the area. The parish of St Nicholas Deptford owned one field in which stood a windmill and other minor landowners were the Evelyn family.
The Lucas family were originally from Cumbria but owed their prosperity to business activities in America. They were based in South Carolina where they built and managed water-powered rice mills.
Jonathan Lucas returned to London in 1823 and built the rather austere Lucas Villa on Lewisham Way. This stands next to St John’s church (which was erected in 1854) and was for a time its vicarage. Today the Welsh Presbyterian Church uses Lucas Villa. In the 1830s some members of the Lucas family returned to America, but the estate passed to the hands of another Jonathan Lucas who, through his agent Joseph Peacock of Bloomsbury Square, managed the development.
New Town was principally a suburb of Deptford, not London. It grew in relation to Deptford’s growth and its residents participated in Deptford’s economy. The arrival of railway links to London certainly changed the landscape of the area – two different rail companies built their lines straight through the district - but did not really stimulate, or retard, its growth.
Development 1810 - 1840
The earliest developments, in the period before 1810, were random and haphazard. There were three: a terrace of 10 small houses on the present Albyn Road, the terrace on the south end of the east side of Friendly Street and a group of six large semi-detached houses on Lewisham Way.
The terrace on Albyn Road, which was built in 1795, was called Ormead Row and stood on the south side of the road at the junction with Friendly Street. It is now demolished and their site is part of Friendly Gardens. So the oldest surviving terrace is the one on Friendly Street, which dates from 1806.
The development on Lewisham Way was of a quite different order. It too dates from 1806 and was originally called Brunswick Place. It was three pairs of semi-detached houses with long sloping roofs. They were unsympathetically modified in the 1880s by the addition of red brick shop fronts that utterly destroy their character and obscure them.
The first phase in the systematic development of New Town was in 1805 - 1815 when northern and western portions were rapidly built. By 1815 many roads, such as King Street (now Harton Street), Nile Street (now Vanguard Street) and Spring and Summer Streets off Tanner’s Hill, all to the north and east of Albyn Road and Friendly Street were built. In the 1840s streets of smaller houses were built along and near the southern end of Tanner’s Hill.
Development After 1840
The area farther east along the spine of Albyn Road was developed later, in general from 1850 - 1870, and was of bigger houses. There were two particularly large developments, an imposing terrace of four storey stucco terraces on Lewisham Way, built in the garden of Stone House, and the four storey houses in Cliff Terrace opposite St John’s station. Given their dates (both are of the late 1860s), their size and their proximity to stations these are the only two developments that were obviously influenced by the railway and aimed at London commuters. In contrast there were many streets of flat-fronted, or unusually bow-fronted, terraces such as Strickland Street, Seymour Street (now Admiral Street) and sections of Albyn Road.
The far east end of the estate: Albyn Road beyond St John’s Vale and much of Ashmead Road were built in the later years of the 19th century. At around the same time some of the houses on the earlier streets, such as Lucas Street were demolished and replaced with uniform, larger and better built terraces.
Although the area has a cohesion today this is largely due to its uniform scale and materials. Only subtle differences in detail give a clue as to the long period of development. The estate was not developed to any master plan that determined its layout, but there was a policy of responsible estate and in particular attention was given to important infrastructure such as sewers and roads.
A New Population
St John’s population grew from the low hundreds in 1800 to about 10,000 in 1900. The most useful guide to social standing is occupations, as given in census returns. These show the poorest in the oldest areas and the wealthiest in the newest ones. So, for all of the century, much of Brookmill Road and its courts (including the evocatively named Gutter Buildings) were populated by labourers, beggars and tramps (i.e. itinerant labourers) throughout the period.
The streets immediately to the south such as Ship Street and Nelson Street, however, had more skilled workers in the 1840s, but lost them to newer streets in the periphery of the development as the century went on. Clerks, the archetypal occupation of the aspiring lower middle class, were to be found in Ashmead Road by 1881, and it was only Cliff Terrace and the houses on Lewisham Way that housed those working in the professions.
St John’s population on average lived in less crowded circumstances than Londoners as a whole or other Deptford residents. But the average number of persons per property increased as the 19th century progressed and the most crowded areas, in Mill Lane, were of an above average density. In contrast the most upmarket houses had fewer occupants in larger properties.
Like the rest of London the population growth of New Town was sustained by immigration. The area shows a higher proportion of immigrants in its wealthiest and poorest residents. A high proportion of the poor in Mill Lane were from Ireland, while the professionals came from a wider area of south east England. Those in manual and semi-skilled occupations came from Deptford and surrounding parishes, suggesting St John’s was somewhere to aspire to when one wanted to move up-market, but stay in the same general area.
Although railways came early to south-east London - London’s first railway ran through Deptford - they did not greatly influence St John’s’ development. Although Lewisham station opened in 1849 and New Cross a year later, the area did not have a station of its own until 1871 and two years later had a second. The first was St John’s, between Lewisham and New Cross on the South Eastern Railway’s line, and the second was Lewisham Road on the London, Chatham and Dover’s Greenwich Park Line. The former is still in operation (though St John’s station receive a more restricted service than its neighbours) while the latter closed in 1916.
Churches and St John’s Parish
The Lucas family was behind the most important institution in the area, the parish of St John. As well as providing spiritual care, the parish also provided education and social relief to the area. St John’s parish was established in 1855. The building plot and the finance for the building of the church and its mission hall were provided by John Seymour Spencer Lucas; he also donated Lucas Villa to the parish, so providing it with a vicarage and provided the land for the building of St John’s Schools. The first vicar, Canon C F S Money provided an energy that matched Lucas’ philanthropy. He was vicar from 1855 to 1883. On the spiritual side he established a scripture reading association and a branch of the Church Missionary Society. He established the school and, on the site of the Ebenezer Chapel in King Street, the St John’s Mission Hall, with seating for 500. This at once provided a launch pad for evangelism and place of worship for the poorest in the district and sealed the social exclusivity of the main church.
St John’s School
St John’s School was established in 1855 and was the first to address education needs on a large scale. The church stood the corner of St John’s Road and Seymour Street.
The site and much for the cost of the building came from Lucas. His motivation is likely to have been more than just altruistic as the provision of a school would have been an important asset to the developing estate. The school had a roll of about 900 in 1874 but declined after that date.
St John’s School was threatened by the building of Tanner’s Hill School by the London School Board in 1879. This offered 600 classroom spaces, better teaching and lower fees than St John’s and the latter declined and eventually closed in 1910. The London County Council (LCC) took over the building and built a new school, which it called Ravensbourne School. This building is now used by St Stephen’s Church of England Primary School.
Canon Money also directed his attention to social relief and welfare. The parish had a visiting society, gave financial help, food, clothing or coal to what it considered the deserving poor and started a savings bank. These activities did not deal with the fundamental problems of overcrowding and poor sanitation. These were problems that could only really be dealt with by official bodies. It was not until 1890, after the establishment of the London County Council and the passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act, that reform got under way.
The LCC demolished 50 houses on Mill Lane (Brookmill Road) including eight lodging houses. There was an obligation to rehouse half of those displaced, but this was delayed by a wrangle between the LCC and the Greenwich Board of Works as to the form the housing scheme should take. The result was an obvious compromise, which included the lodging Carrington House (the LCC approach) and Sylva Cottages as favoured by the Board of Works. Both opened in 1903.
The estate remained in private hands through much of the 20th century. It was managed by the company GFW Estates until 1964 when its 400 properties were sold to Deptford Borough Council for £452,635. In the 1970s the Peabody Trust demolished and redeveloped the area enclosed by Albyn Road, Brookmill Road and Friendly Street as the Vanguard Estate.
By virtue of its status as a conservation area the district retains much of its original character. It is still largely residential with few immediately local shops or pubs away from the main roads. The most significant change is that, in common with all of Lewisham Borough, its population now look farther afield than Deptford for their employment and leisure. St John’s has become a true suburb.