The land around the village of Eltham can be traced in ownership and usage back to the Domesday Book, where it was called ‘Eald Ham’ by the Anglo-Saxons. It was in the possession of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and was held for him by Haimo, Sheriff of Kent.
The area of land that is now Avery Hill Park was made up of a number of individual farms and it was not until the early eighteen hundreds that these were combined to make up the estate of ‘Avery Hill’.
The original mansion house on the site, constructed circa 1841, was the family home of James Boyd, a Scot, who had gained his wealth as a sugar refiner. In 1883, following Boyd’s death, John Thomas North, an entrepreneur, rented the mansion, together with 37 acres of land, from Boyd’s widow. North would later purchase the entire estate and add a further 100 acres to it, including the land of Ox Leas and Shepherd Leas woods.
North (born January 30th 1841) was the self-made son of a Yorkshire coal merchant. Widely known as ‘Colonel’ North, he made his fortune by importing nitrate deposits, in the form of bird droppings, into England, from South America. The nitrates in the droppings, which were mined from cliffs, were used as fertiliser. North’s wealth was amassed swiftly, and he became known by many as ‘the Nitrate King’.
North purchased the house from Mrs Boyd in 1888 and, though it was by no means small, decided to enlarge it in order to build, amongst other things, galleries to house his art collection. He commissioned architect T.W. Cutler (who had recently designed an Italianate Exhibition in London) to design and build the house’s improvements. One of the most striking features of the plan was a large domed structure of iron and glass - the Winter Garden [pictured on the front page of this document] - in which North was to house plants from around the world. By the time the house was completed, North had also added a Fernery, a conservatory and an ornate Turkish bath house.
A separate stable block was, like the mansion itself, centrally heated and lit by electricity generated in an engine room to the west of the main building. The final cost for all the improvements to the estate was approximately £200,000.
North lived in his completed house for a little over five years. He died, suddenly, in his office in the City on 5th May 1896. His family almost immediately put the house on the market, but it was two years before they found a buyer (at a price much less than it had cost North to construct). The estate was sold to Alonzo Henry Stocker, MD, who was one of the best-known specialists in ‘lunacy’. However, Stocker never took up residence at Avery Hill and the house remained empty for another eight years.
In 1902 the house was bought, along with twenty-eight acres of parkland, by the London County Council (LCC), for £25,000. The house was refurbished by the LCC as a residential training college for women teachers (the first in London) and this was opened by the LCC’s Education Committee in 1906. It was to become known as ‘Avery Hill College’.
The mansion suffered extensive bomb damage during the Second World War and the Turkish bath house was destroyed. Avery Hill College operated until 1985, when the Inner London Education Authority was abolished. The buildings now form part of the ‘Avery Hill Campus’ of the University of Greenwich, and remain a venue where teachers are trained.
When the parkland was purchased by the LCC in 1902, the Metropolitan Boroughs of Camberwell, Deptford, Greenwich, Lewisham & Woolwich were all invited to share the cost. All having refused, it fell to the LCC to maintain the grounds and gardens as public open space. The name ‘Avery Hill Park’ was adopted.
Initially, part of the gardens was used to supply plants to small parks, whilst another area was reserved for growing specimens for special demonstration. To the west side of the house were three formal, terraced gardens, one containing roses and another fruit trees. Of these, only the rose garden remains. A car park was constructed on the site of the fruit garden. In front of the mansion house there was originally a sloping lawn and large flowerbeds. The greater park area consisted of open meadows, interspersed with trees (much as it is today).
The Greater London Council, formed in 1965, took over the maintenance of Avery Hill Park and this remained the case until its abolition twenty years later, when ownership and maintenance passed to the London Borough of Greenwich (the name of which was changed to the Royal Borough of Greenwich in 2012).