MORE THOUGHTS ON THE PENN SITE
by Richard Cheffins
In the March 2003 issue of Greenwich Industrial History (Vol. 6, No. 2), it is twice stated wrongly that the Engine Works of John Penn and Sons were on Blackheath Hill (on p.9 ‘…the old John Penn site (Wickes site Blackheath Hill)…’ and in the heading on the back page (p.12) ‘Remains of Penn’s Works at Blackheath Hill’). This repeats the error of Peter Trigg in the October 1999 issue (Vol.2, No.5), which I corrected in April 2000 (Vol.3, No.3). Blackheath Hill would have been far too steep to have been negotiated by horse-drawn wagons, heavy-laden with marine engines, and Blackheath Road is presumably intended. Indeed, later on p.9, reference is made to the ‘… marine engineering works established in Blackheath Road in 1825 by John Penn.’ Even this is questionable on two counts.
The business was founded in 1799 by John Penn Snr. John Penn Jnr made his first marine engine in 1825 though it is probable that this did not become the principal work of the firm until he took over from his father in 1843. Until 1861, the Works had no entrance, indeed no frontage at all, on Blackheath Road. The Works originally occupied land at the rear of properties in Blackheath Road accessed from Bath (or Cold Bath) Street renamed John Penn Street in 1873/75. This remained the main entrance even after the Works expanded and is clearly shown on the sketch-plan reprinted on p.12. The Penns originally leased or rented the site of their Works from the Holwell (or Rand) Charity and in 1861 they purchased the whole of its estate in Greenwich for the sum of £21,500. This enabled them to expand considerably their original Works east of Ditch Alley, to acquire an even larger site west of it, and to acquire frontages on both Blackheath Road and Lewisham Road.
None of this invalidates the point made by the Greenwich Conservation Group about any surviving relics of the Penn Works. However, I think George Arthur is unwise to dismiss 10 Lewisham Road as not being part of the Penn Works. The matter is complicated. Before the expansion of the Engine Works, the Penn family occupied the corner property in Blackheath Road the garden of which ran the whole length of Lewisham Road as far as the present John Penn Street (see my article in Vol.3, No.3). At that time there were no houses at all fronting that stretch of Lewisham Road, at least not on that side of the road. The Simms (Poor Law Commissioners’) map of c. 1838 shows the corner site of Blackheath Road to be vacant; the Tithe map of 1844 and the undated Holwell estate map that I referred to in my previous article both show a building on the Blackheath Road corner, the latter identifying the Penn family as occupiers. All three show a single property occupying the whole length of that stretch of Lewisham Road and show a couple of out-buildings at the rear (John Penn Street end) which the Holwell estate map identifies as ‘sheds’ and which occupy the site of the future No.10.
There are no further large-scale maps of the area, so far as I know, for over 20 years. By the time of the Ordnance Survey maps (25’’ and 5”) of 1867, the situation had changed. The corner house and its garden now occupied only 40% of its former length and the sheds had gone; the rest was taken up by five houses fronting Lewisham Road, four single-fronted houses and a double-fronted one which correspond exactly with the present Nos. 2-8, evens, and No. 10 (the present No. 2a and the so-called Studio 2a are very recent and correspond to the garden plot of the corner house). The boundaries of the Holwell estate in this area were Blackheath Road and Lewisham Road and so, whether the row of five houses (Nos. 2-10, evens, Lewisham Road) were built before or after 1861 (certainly before 1867), the properties belonged to John Penn and Sons from that date.
But belonging to the firm and being part of the Engine Works are not the same thing and one is hampered in resolving which is the case by the deficiencies of the reprinted sketch-plan. This is only that - a sketch plan, more than adequate, no doubt, for its purpose but not exactly to scale, especially along Lewisham Road. By a mixture of pacing the street and using a ruler with the 5” O.S. map, I estimate the total length of that stretch of Lewisham Road to be approximately 63 yds or 189 ft and the frontage of No.10 to be about 32 ft or a shade less (about 1/6th of the whole). However, as Mr Arthur states, No.10 is not quite on the corner. I estimate the waste ground between it and John Penn Street to be rather less than he does - perhaps 17 ft. If this and No.10 are taken together, they occupy a little over a quarter of the street front which corresponds well enough with the sketch plan.
Certainly the added dotted ‘site of No 10’ there has been displaced too far northward, it is shown near enough in the middle of the block whereas the real No. 10 is near the corner with John Penn Street, if not actually on it.
There are further complications. What I have called the waste ground at the side of No.10 (part of the Wickes loading area) is screened from Lewisham Road by a modern wall set back somewhat and with an angle in it. This alignment has remained unchanged for at least 165 years. What is less clear is whether there was ever a building on this constricted site (because John Penn Street forms an obtuse angle with Lewisham Road, such a building would be wedge-shaped with its narrow front facing the latter). Even the largest Ordnance Survey maps are not entirely clear on this point and I had hoped to clarify the matter by reference to Goad’s Insurance Plans (c.1893) for the area at a splendid 1:480 scale and indicating the number of storeys of buildings and their roofing material. Sadly though several local industries are included (the Norfolk Brewery, Holland’s Distillery, Robinson’s and Mumford’s Mills, Trenchard’s Saw mills, Corder & Haycraft’s Maltings, the London Tramway Co’s Granary and Fodder Mill, and Merryweather’s, in Deptford Bridge and Greenwich (High) Road), Penn’s Engine Works and anything in Blackheath Road are conspicuously absent.
Whether or not there was a building to the south of No.10 and, on the balance of probability, I think there was, it is reasonably clear that there was a footpath, with an entrance where the angle of the present wall is, which went down the side of No.10 (or between it and the adjacent building), behind it and then under an arch in a range of buildings at right angle to John Penn Street (fairly obviously the building marked ‘O O O O’ on the sketch plan). The description of Robert Smiles quoted by Mr Arthur - ‘… from [this entrance] the natural contour of the ground dips by a rather steep incline. Passing through the outer door and down it a few steps a hall is reached, with on each side a range of well lit offices …’ sounds more like a footpath than a corridor.
That leaves the question was No.10 Lewisham Road part of the offices for the Engine Works? Houses in both Blackheath Road and Lewisham Road owned by Penn but not part of the Works are not outlined but simply indicated as ‘shops and houses’. The inference is that any building that is outlined is part of the Works. I interpret what is shown in the angle of John Penn Street and Lewisham Road, not as a corridor in the middle of one building, but a footpath between two, both outlined on the plan and therefore, by inference, both part of the Works and the right-hand one of which is No.10. The evidence is circumstantial and not completely conclusive (the two buildings were in reality more asymmetrical than shown and the path more crooked) but, unlike Mr Arthur, I think No.10 is a surviving part of the Penn Engine Works, though not, perhaps, part of its industrial heritage.
This article first appeared in the GIHS Newsletter May 2003