Campaign seeks viable long-term future for Winter Garden: urges Greenwich Council to use independent heritage experts to advise
The Save Avery Hill Campaign is urging Greenwich Council to use experts to find a sustainable future for the Winter Gardens, Mansion and other listed buildings.
Last year, the Save Avery Hill Campaign - formed in 2014 - submitted their full response to Greenwich Council's formal public consultation on the future of Avery Hill Winter Gardens and Mansion (see below: Summary of public meeting - Monday 21 October). There was widespread concern amongst the 100 or so attendees at plans to build a 1,100 student Harris Academy opposite the existing Crown Woods Academy, given the site's historic, architectural and community heritage value.
Campaign demonstrations in Avery Hill Park in 2017 and 2018, a well-attended public meeting held in October 2019 and two petitions of over 4,000 signatures further confirmed that Eltham residents are keen to safeguard the Winter Garden and Mansion as a community and cultural asset for future generations.
Two heritage lottery bids for the site had previously been fully drafted then dropped by current owners, the University of Greenwich - who opted to sell the site instead. Historic England describes Winter Garden's current condition as poor...slow decay; no solution agreed.
'The University has agreed with the council to hand over a substantial amount of money from the sale price to pay for a full restoration of the Winter Garden. But the campaign is concerned over its ongoing viability, how it can be run to achieve maximum utility for the community and its reunification with the listed Mansion.
Greenwich Council's involvement in Avery Hill's future is now essential in finding a practical use for the site in keeping with its architectural and cultural significance. A conservation status application was filed in January 2020, which will offer the site some protection as a heritage asset.
Inside Avery Hill mansion and winter gardens - a gem of Victorian heritage worth fighting to keep public...
In January and February this year, Eltham residents were given a glimpse of Victorian magnate John North's “amazingly sumptuous” legacy before it is sold off, facing an uncertain future.
Stepping around antiques from a once opulent drawing room - now a bare senior common room - Will Robley, Greenwich University's archivist, traced the rise and fall of the mansion and winter garden's fortunes – which reflect those of its owner, the Victorian magnate, John Thomas North (1842-96) and his family.
Colonel North - a 'Chilian Monte Cristo'
Known as the “King of Nitrates”, Colonel John Thomas North started out as an apprentice near Leeds. Working as a boiler mechanic in Chile, North exported nitrate fertilisers extracted from bird droppings. Profiting from unstable markets and the Pacific War he established effective monopolies in the nitrate, waterways and freight industries. He amassed a fortune as an entrepreneur, investor and property speculator in Chile and Peru, in Welsh coalmines and later in King Leopold II's Congo Free State's rubber concession. A controversial figure, he was both admired and maligned, as this Vanity Fair caricature suggests. The New York Times, observing his extraordinary rise to wealth, described him as a 'Chilian Monte Cristo.
Returning to England, North purchased Avery Hill and employed the renowned architect Thomas Cutler in 1888 to renovate the mansion as befitted his new status, lavishing millions of pounds in today's money. North commissioned centrally heated stables, kennels for his dogs, Turkish baths, a baronial hall, a statue gallery and marble staircase, and even an underground tunnel leading to a strongroom for his sizeable jewellery collection. He later dismissed and sued Cutler for overspending by some £35,000 but lost the case - then employed Cutler's assistant to finish the job.
Sadly, the Turkish baths, marble staircase, the entire East Wing and several gardens were permanently damaged by incendiary bombs in the 1940s, roof leakage and subsequent neglect. The gentlemen's lavatories in marble and Burmantofts faience (glazed terracotta, below) did survive, thanks to London County Council's reluctance to fork out for a refit. See an image of the Turkish baths.
The Winter Garden, "the best survival in London of such Victorian extravaganzas”
Canary date palm - the oldest in the country
The 100 square foot botanical garden and conservatory – the largest in the country outside Kew Gardens - was originally conceived to hide the unsightly 40 foot walls of the ballroom - and took eight years to build. Its main materials are iron and steel. The fernery, original peach house and vine houses no longer exist. But In true Victorian style, the botanic gardens contained a wealth of are and exotic plants and trees collected from overseas, some of which survive today.
Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian, describes the winter garden as "amazingly sumptuous" and "flanked by fernery and conservatory, the best survival in London of such Victorian extravaganzas".
The mansion becomes the first secular ladies' teacher training college in the country At the Colonel's sudden death in 1896 at age 54, the house was immediately put on the market but failed to sell. It was owned by a psychiatrist for a short while, before being purchased by London County Council together with the park. In 1906, Avery Hill College of Education became the very first non-denominational ladies' teacher training college in the country, with 90 trainees. The first headmistress lasted barely three months!
Help us to save and restore Avery Hill mansion and winter gardens
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Over 100 people attended the Save Avery Hill Winter Garden (SAHWG) public meeting on Monday 21 October, expressing the depth of their interest in, and concern for, the future of the Winter Garden and the wider Mansion site. Below is a summary of the main points made at that meeting under the three headings we used in our response to the Council's consultation exercise.
1) Saving the Winter Garden
The meeting welcomed the considerable progress made since the last public meeting held in July 2017. The Council is well advanced in its negotiations to take back ownership of the Winter Garden, and you have been eminently successful in persuading the University of Greenwich to make a significant financial contribution to support its restoration and development. The meeting received positively the news that the Council is committed to working with local residents and community groups, as well as experts, in bringing the heritage assets back into sustainable use and in developing a plan of action to maximise their potential. The meeting felt that the success of the Winter Garden in the future would be determined by its impact and utility as a historical, cultural, recreational, educational and events asset. Members of the audience argued for community representation, alongside appropriate experts, on a Winter Garden-specific trust, if that were to be the vehicle for future governance and management.
2) Links with the Historic Mansion Site
The meeting pressed the need for a physical and integrated connection between the Winter Garden and the listed parts of the Mansion site, allowing public access to, and community use of, their proud heritage. This linkage would need to transcend the impending split in ownership between the Winter Garden, on the one hand, and the Mansion site, on the other, with the implications of that split for future planning and management. The meeting recognised the imperative for Save Avery Hill to be involved in the maximum level of pre-application consultation, both with the DfE and the Council, so that the case for the Winter Garden's linkage with the listed features of the Mansion site is presented and addressed at the earliest possible stage.
3) Impact of a school on historic heritage of the Mansion site and integrity of the park Local residents expressed deep apprehension about the impact of increased traffic, inevitably caused by the location of the new school, on local parking conditions (the problems are currently massive, with one school already located in the immediate vicinity). The meeting raised the potential problem of access to Avery Hill park, given that the main access road from Bexley Road cuts directly through the space to be developed by the school. Those present argued that the design and construction of the school should be in harmony with the historic buildings and the ambience of the site. The meeting articulated its misgivings over frequent or daily usage of quality heritage assets by young students and the inevitable damage to these over time. Save Avery Hill and local residents look forward to working closely with the Council on the way forward.