Elderwood: A New Beginning

Published 1983

As presaged in the last Review, Lambeth Council has sold Elderwood to Portland Developments, whose proposals for converting the building and the adjoining lodge to three houses and 32 flats, and constructing a further 22 houses and 14 flats, at the side and rear have received planning approval.

Elderwood, together with its lodge and Norwood House which was once the infirmary, are the remaining parts of a complex of buildings which originated as a workhouse or House Of Industry for the Infant Poor, established there by the Lambeth Vestry in 1810. The old parish workhouse, which stood on the south side of what is now Black Prince Road, Kennington, was overcrowded and unhealthy, so the Vestry decided to move the pauper children to the rural outskirts of the parish.

By 1812, according to Allen’s History of Lambeth (1825), there were about 200 in the House, learning ‘to read, knit, spin and weave cotton and mend their clothes and shoes’. The Norwood Review No. 26 (Spring 1966) quotes an article from the 1840 Chambers Edinburgh Journal eulogising the school and its achievements, and there can be no doubt that for its day it was a particularly advanced institution.

The original site was enlarged and additional buildings constructed over the years and by 1898 Corbet Anderson describes the premises as providing accommodation for upwards of 600 children, plus 200 infants and an infirmary of 100 beds, ‘all being fed, clothed and educated at the cost of the ratepayers of Lambeth’. The boys usually left at 15 to be apprenticed to some useful trade and many joined the ‘Exmouth’ training ship for service in the Navy.

The teaching of brass band instruments was a special feature of the school, which had a fine band which on occasions used to march down the High Street, and many lads went on to join army regimental bands. The girls were trained chiefly for domestic service.

Exactly when the block known as Elderwood was built is not certain. J.B. Wilson, Norwood’s historian, whose family links with Norwood go back to 1830, says it was built in 1815. The usually authoritative Survey of London says it was built in 1849-50 - a Mr. Rogers being the surveyor and Joshua Higgs & Son the contractors. Whatever its birthday, it remains an attractive, two-storey stock brick building with long rows of neatly proportioned windows, and well merits its Grade II listing as a building of special architectural or historic interest. It also forms the heart of the Elderwood Conservation Area.

Elderwood served as the school house for the institution which changed hands as the Lambeth Vestry became the Lambeth Board of Guardians in the 1830’s, and when the Guardians were superseded by the London County Council Public Assistance Department in 1930. The school was evacuated at the outbreak of World War II, and on 12 May 1948 the building was adapted and opened as an old people’s home. The opening ceremony was performed by Mr John Edwards, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health.

When the LCC was abolished in favour of the GLC in 1965, responsibility for the care of the elderly was re-allocated to the London boroughs. The LCC welfare establishments were distributed among the boroughs not, as in the more recent redistribution of GLC housing to the boroughs in which it stood, but as far as possible according to the boroughs’ needs. Thus Elderwood was allocated, not to Lambeth, but to Southwark. This borough embarked on a programme of constructing new, purpose-designed old people’s homes, and eventually had no need for Elderwood, and the last entry in its visit0orsd book records a ‘Closing of Elderwood Party’ in November 1976.

Lambeth bought the premises from Southwark in March 1978, with the intention of converting it to provide self-contained flats for groups of young people with certain communal facilities. Plans were finalised and approved in 1981 but by then no money was available for such a scheme. Attempts were made to find temporary uses of the building to reduce vandalism and deterioration, but without success. Under the Act requiring Councils to register land owned by them which is vacant or derelict, Elderwood became available for disposal.

Outdoor Relief

In front of and to the right of Elderwood as you look at it from Norwood Park, is another interesting building, which was designed by Sidney R. J. Smith (who also designed the Tate Gallery). This was the Outdoor Relief Station, built in 1887, at which the able-bodied poor of Norwood were given vouchers which were exchangeable at certain shops for milk, coal and other essentials. The Relieving Officer and his family lived upstairs. There is said to be, although I have not myself seen it, a stone tablet let into the south wall of the relieving office marking the flood level of the River Effra on 17.7.1890.

Another building, subsequently demolished when Inglewood/Norwood School were built, superseded the Sidney Smith building as the relieving station, which then served as the lodge to Elderwood, and its history merges with that of the larger building. The lodge is architecturally worthy of note and it has been listed.

At right angles to Elderwood and to its left was the hall and other out-buildings, projecting forward almost to the road and extending rearwards at an angle, ending with a block of unlovely post-war flats. There is little of architectural note in this wing but the projecting hall counter-balanced the lodge at the north end and gave a pleasing symmetry to the whole complex. Unfortunately, the hall itself has been badly damaged by fire.

Changes

The new owners intend to demolish the whole of the south wing and to construct a separate terrace of seven houses on the site of the former hall. The lodge, although to be altered internally, will remain virtually unchanged externally. The elevations of the main Elderwood building, facing Elder Road, will also be unchanged, except for the substitution of casement doors for ground floor windows at the north end where they are partially obscured from sight of the road by the lodge.

The interior will be adapted to form houses and flats on the two floors, with access from new doors at the rear. To the rear of Elderwood and parallel with it will be a new ‘E’-shaped block, the spaces between the prongs forming, with the existing Elderwood building, two courtyards. The style of the new block is entirely in keeping with that of Elderwood.

The front railings to Elderwood (which also go back to the House of Industry days and have been retained or restored along the front of the adjoining Wood Vale housing estate) are now hidden by corrugated iron but will be made good. Parking spaces for 75 vehicles is provided at the rear and also regrettably in the forecourt of Elderwood, (but its expanse alleviated by landscaping). The main vehicular entrance will be the present one shared with Norwood School - the increased traffic could be a hazard and the Council have said they will look again at this problem.

The line of trees fronting Elder Road is substantially retained and new tree and shrub planting is planned in the scheme. The overall density of the proposed development complies with Lambeth’s standards, and there is an appropriate mix of family and non-family dwellings.

We can but hope that the development proceeds and after too many years of dereliction and unsightly barricades, Elderwood is restored to serve another span of useful life and continues its rightful place in our relatively small collection of fine buildings in Norwood.

Geoffrey Manning 1983

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