Cator Estate

by Neil Rhind and Julian Watson

In April 1783 the well-connected timber merchant, John Cator of Beckenham and Southwark, bought the Blackheath Park and mansion of the late Gregory Page. It was about 110 hectares (275 acres) and comprised a substantial house (Wricklemarsh, of 1723, designed by eminent architect John James [1672 - 1746]), a landscaped park and about 81 hectares (200 acres) of quality agricultural land on its northern and eastern edges. Cator (1723-1806) had no need for the house - his own mansion, Beckenham Place Park, at Beckenham, about five miles distant, was more than adequate. Also, the Page estate had come on the market because it was surplus to family requirements and the house was a white elephant. Cator’s intention was to use the land for a hopefully profitable investment: the price he paid was so small that it was recouped by the sale of the materials of Wricklemarsh, which Cator set about dismantling in the late 1780s. He was later to grant development leases on its north and west fringe of the land where it was contiguous with the open ground of Blackheath, but essentially the bulk of the ground remained in agricultural use for the next 30 years. It was only on the descent of Cator’s estate to his nephew, John Barwell Cator that the residential population of the Park, still known today as the Cator Estate, started to grow.

Wricklemarsh Park - almost certainly the Witenemers in Domesday - had descended through a series of owners to its purchase by John (later Sir John) Morden (1623-1708) in July1669 from the Blount family trustees, in which family Wricklemarsh had been held since the late 16th century. There was a substantial house on the land but by the time it was sold by the Morden trustees, in 1722, it was “in bad repair and untenantable”. Morden remains distinguished today for his great benevolence in establishing a charity from his wealth to provide a College or hospice for elderly merchants, communicants of the Church of England, down on their luck through no fault of their own. The College, at Blackheath, was opened in his lifetime, and flourishes today, supported by considerable land investments, many made in Morden’s time. After the death of his wife Susannah in 1721, the trustees of the charity decided to liquidate the Wricklemarsh estate to provide an investment fund in cash to sustain the College. The sale took time to realise, but when it did the taker was neighbouring landowner and multi-millionaire Gregory Page, made hugely rich from brewing, land and South Sea stock.

The old manor house was torn down and the new - Wricklemarsh House - erected across what is now the junction of Blackheath Park (west to east) with Pond Road (to the north) and Foxes Dale (to the south). These roads marked the principal drives to the mansion, although both were intercut with ornamental waters. Before landscaping and the maturity of avenues of trees the house would have been visible to travellers crossing the Heath. It was huge, cost over £100,000 in construction and fittings and was never occupied fully in Page’s time because, although married (to Martha, died 1767) he was blessed with no issue. Page’s estate passed to his great nephew Sir Gregory Turner (1747-1805), who took the additional name of Page to satisfy the inheritance. He enjoyed a good house of his own at Ambrosden, Oxfordshire, and decided in 1783 to sell Wricklemarsh House. The sales started in April 1783 when the content of the house was dispersed. The house and land were sold for £22,500 plus £90 for timber and a little more for “fittings” – John Cator paid £23,502, less a little for a broken fence.

Cator came into his inheritance aged 35, in 1763, having been born to money and position. His straight business sense increased the family fortunes and earned him the friendship of many of the noted literary, business and political men of the day. His attempt to enter Parliament was a failure and he was unseated for bribery. But he suffered no shame and continued to enjoy the company of people like Samuel Johnson and Mrs Hester Thrale. Initially, he attempted to find a tenant for the Wricklemarsh estate. There was one investigation into its purchase for an army officer training college (for the infantry, to match the nearby engineering college at Woolwich) but the notion was rejected and the army went to Sandhurst instead.

A growing demand for houses for professional men near, but not too near London, encouraged a number of landowners on London’s inner boundary to consider development. Indeed, at Blackheath the Dartmouth family, the Ashburnhams and the trustees of Morden College, had made a modest inroad in this respect. Cator decided that Wricklemarsh could be profitable as agricultural letting, but the land to the north and west of the holding could be more usefully engaged, To that end he granted development leases to architect Michael Searles and builder William Dyer. The result was a string of high quality dwellings, with a distinctive appearance, obviously late Georgian in style, but with attractive additions. They ran from what is now The Paragon on the east to Blackheath Village on the west, embracing South Row and Montpelier Row. These were erected in the years 1794 to 1805. Most survive today to add measurably to the architectural charms of the district, and they have imposed on it a style that has lasted.

The intention behind the schemes planned by Cator and Searles was to attract purchasers for quality dwellings. They were not interested in laying down streets of modest houses, to provide homes for clerks and semi-skilled artisans. They were following the successes of the Dartmouth trustees on the far west side of Blackheath, and the Ashurburnham estate on the north-west edge, on what is now West Grove, and the upper (southern) slope of Crooms Hill, by appealing to the upper middle class. Blackheath had never been the resort of the aristocrat - except in a tiny handful of stately homes: Charlton House, Westcombe Manor, Page’s Wricklemarsh, and Eltham Lodge a little further off to the east, being the only serious examples in the locality by some miles.

Michael Searles’ masterpiece was his scheme for a semi-circular plot on the far south east corner of the Heath and its western spur, marked today as The Paragon and South Row. The Paragon is a 14-house perfect crescent, comprising seven blocks of semi- detached houses, each linked by a single story colonnade and neatened by lodge houses at each end. South Row was a seven-house scheme, plainer than The Paragon but distinguished nonetheless. Two blocks (Paragon House and Bryan House stood like sentinels on the road from the Heath to Wricklemarsh, which is now Pond Road), then two pairs of semi detached three storey houses to be stopped at the end by Colonnade House, a magnificent early 19th century villa. Each house was different internally: Searles would provide the purchaser with a brick shell or carcase; the buyer would then pay for the fitting out according to his taste and means. Despite terrible damage during World War II (1939-1945) the Paragon and Colonnade House survive today (2004) albeit as flats. This was because of public opinion and the brave work of an inspired architect (Charles Bernard Brown [b.1910] who single-handedly salvaged the much-damaged buildings immediately after the last war [1939-1945] and saved them from demolition).

Contractors engaged by Searles for the Paragon may have built Montpelier Row, which was raised in the late 18th century. There is little surviving detail on the leasing arrangements between John Cator and the developers (speculators and builders) and what there is reveals nothing of designers’ names. Nevertheless, the influence of Searles can be seen in what survives of the rear of the terrace - Searles designed a number of the lengthy terraces along the Kent Road into Southwark and was a master of the form. The occupants of Montpelier Row were on a slightly lower social level than Paragon residents and a number of the buildings were taken by school proprietors, notwithstanding Cator’s known lack of enthusiasm for school use on his estate because of the noise generated by children when released from confinement at the end of the day. Boarding schools for a small number of girls would, however, be tolerated.

By the time of John Cator’s death in 1806, his park had been cleared of the great mansion - the materials sold off for a considerable profit, and the colonnades went to his own house at Beckenham (Beckenham Place Park, now a municipal golf course where the portico can be seen to this day) and the Heath frontage developed largely by Searles and his imitators. But there was one exception: Cator granted a lease to a considerable plot marked now by Blackheath Grove, Blackheath Village, and on the south west at the corner of Lee Road with Blackheath Park. A tiny plot just north of the middle Kid brooks in Blackheath village (now the Barclays Bank corner) and perhaps one or two fragments elsewhere completed Cator’s intentions realised within the time he owned Wricklemarsh Park. The remainder of the parkland was let on agricultural leases - London could take all the horticultural produce of the farms within a 30 minute drive to the City, so there would have been no shortage of farmers eager to do deals. Cator’s scheme encouraged other neighbouring landowners to look at Heath frontages for which there was then (and now) a clear demand for houses with unbroken views towards London on one side and the Kent and Surrey hills to the south. The air was clean, the soil well drained and communication was easy. The Lord Eliot (later the Earl of St Germans) exploited his frontage, now named as Eliot Place and Eliot Vale, although his plans for what is now St Germans Place was not to reach maturity until the 1820s, largely because the developer failed to go ahead.

Cator died in February 1806 a widower and without issue. His (substantial) estate would be marked down to his nephews George and Henry on their maturity, to be administered by his brother Joseph (1733-1825). Perhaps because of his age and concern he felt that the nephews should make the important decisions in due course because Joseph did little to change things at Blackheath. He did approve of some small-scale building, mostly two and three storey houses for artisans and people of modest means on Lee Road (the site of the Blackheath Concert Hall and Conservatoire of Music by the 1890s) along the line of what became Blackheath Park. Another sizeable plot - six acres - on the south side of the Park was leased to commercial agent Daniel Crossman Flowerdew, and an impressive three-storey house - The Hall - was built there by 1806. The Sparkes boys died before their majority: Henry in 1818 and George in 1824. As a result the Cator estates at Beckenham and Blackheath passed to Joseph’s son, John Barwell Cator, old John’s nephew and already owner of a substantial estate at Woodbastwick, Norfolk.

It was Barwell Cator (1791-1858) who, with a young man’s flair, exploited the Blackheath estate with style and profit. The rules he then laid down apply today. While some landowners were cramming as many buildings as possible onto their land, Cator was more cautious. Other than the handful of modest houses on Blackheath Park it was not until the mid 1820s that building started in earnest. The houses were substantial, detached properties (many of which survive today, all listed buildings) set in generous gardens. Some boasted coach houses with a residence above and a stable or two. Although there was competition, in Eliot Place and from the 1820s on St Germans Place, there seemed no shortage of takers anxious to settle in the new, but already highly fashionable, suburb of Blackheath. Cator was concerned that his tenants and lessees should be part of an exclusive arrangement. The Blackheath Estate (and, later, the Beckenham development) was laid down as a private scheme, its roads not adopted by the parish, its church - St Michael’s - paid for largely by John Barwell Cator, remained a proprietary chapel until the 1870s. There were no shops, commercial premises nor public houses. Schools were prohibited although there were a number of small establishments tolerated on the public frontages of Lee Road, Montpelier Row and South Row.

This private status remains to this day (2004) although part of the estate is in municipal ownership (Brooklands, Fulthorp Rd, and Ryculf Square). The residents contribute towards their own highway repairs and maintenance schemes through a road owning cooperative which acquired the full equity from the Cator trustees in the 1960s. The development process in the 19th century was restricted largely to Blackheath Park and the land to the north. Pond Road, once the road to the Church, gave space to a run of six attractive two- and three-storied stuccoed villas. Blackheath Park grew on both sides to the towards the east during the 1830s, some of the houses very substantial, each with a dozen bedrooms, outhouses and large gardens requiring professional management. It was this last element that contributed measurably towards the existing attraction of the Blackheath Cator Estate in that landscapers were employed to plan the pleasure grounds, planting mature trees, often-rare imports from companies like Veitch & Co of Chelsea. Most of the villas enjoyed hot houses and conservatories; a few had pineries and vineries. Until the advent of commercial dairies and daily deliveries many of the houses with very large gardens would keep a house cow or two. The properties south of Blackheath Park were few until the 1930s. The Vicar of St Michael’s, Revd. Joseph Fenn (1791-1878) lived in large purpose-built vicarage (Casterbridge), which enjoyed a 19-acre estate, largely laid out as meadowland. Brooklands House, of 1825 and enlarged in the late 1830s, could boast 12 acres and a substantial lagoon fed by another branch of the Kid Brook streams. The Hall, off Blackheath Park, and Park Lodge (Meadowbank) all had pleasure and kitchen gardens 300 yards long reaching the southern road of the main estate: now called Manor Way. Attempts to develop Manor Way went badly wrong in the 1860s and only half a dozen somewhat gaunt buildings went up, proved difficult to let and were often empty. This was partly location - if the occupant did not have a carriage then it was over a mile walk to the Railway Station (Blackheath, opened in July 1849).

What little changes were made in the later 19th-century came in the 1850s with the development of the “New Road” or Morden Road, on the east side and close to Morden College. The Morden Road villas were as equally grand for their time as the earlier schemes on Blackheath Park and Pond Road. They were tall three- and four-storey houses, built in pale yellow brick with stone dressings and much space for servants and carriages. The west side grew up in the mid 1850s and the east side followed soon after. The opportunity was also taken to make up the west side of Pond Road with five monumental mid-Victorian houses all but one of which is now in flats. The Village, which serviced the estate along with all the other building schemes from the 1820s to the 1860s flourished mightily. Although some of the grand houses obtained their supplies from the smarter central London provision merchants, the Village traders could match them for quality and reliability and, the first essential, unlimited credit. Every conceivable need could be met from the Village and many of its traders and professional men were to become extremely rich. The clientele often came a distance, especially from the classier parts of Greenwich, across the Heath and from Lee and Lewisham. Many of the names above the Village shop facades remained until the 1970s and some to the 1990s - shops could boast of staying in the same trade for over 150 years: the Blackheath Village butcher was the first link in the longest chain of retail butchers in the UK and had been established in Blackheath as early as 1801; the fishmonger was to last from 1830 to 1999, and many more. Yet over the last five years of the 20th century the pattern of retail trading changed so dramatically that many of the Blackheath shops had been converted to restaurant use. Most Blackheath people shopped in the big supermarkets nearby, using the Village shops only in emergency. Curiously, there is a new movement towards grocery delivery and the wheel has turned full circle with the major stores delivering daily orders - but these are raised by e-mail on a Web site and not handed in by a servant.

Notwithstanding the continuous rash of intense development that covered Lewisham and Greenwich generally in the period 1880 to 1914, the Cator Estate remained relatively rural. The biggest difference came with the renting of the farm and meadow lands on the south of the estate for sporting purposes. Many of the large companies, especially those in shipping, or manufacturers on the Thames from Blackwall through to beyond Woolwich, provided sporting and recreational facilities to their employees and these were extremely popular through to the 1950s, although allowing for requisition of the grounds during periods of national emergency.

But land pressure and, no doubt, attractive offers, did break the pattern in the early 1930s when three of the larger houses: The Hall, Park Lodge and Brooklands House lost most of their gardens for tennis and sporting clubs. These were, in due course, chipped away for houses of a style popular with builders and mortgage companies - the archetypal 1930s suburban dwelling. The style would continue after the 1939 - 1945 war and by the late 1940s Manor Way north side, Brooklands Park on the west, Foxes Dale and Brookway had lost their rural qualities and had become identikit suburbs of a style to be found around most major towns and cities in England. The War of 1939-1945 bought considerable damage from the Blitz and subsequent flying bomb (V1s) and rocket bombs (the V2). The Paragon was badly damaged, although the gaps were replaced in replica. South Row lost all but Colonnade House and there were various “hits” on Pond Road and Blackheath Park. Post-war redevelopment and the need to house large numbers of London families made homeless by enemy action led to compulsory purchase orders for some of the large empty spaces on the Cator Estate - behind the Paragon and South Row, and the Casterbridge site. These were cleared for municipal dwellings erected largely by the London County Council. The blocks of flats behind the Paragon were designed by Sir Albert Richardson (1880-1964), a distinguished architect and Past President of the Royal Academy. This was on the instructions of the Minister of Housing’s advisers so as to ensure a scheme that would harmonise with the late 18th century character of Blackheath generally. The Casterbridge estate was erected in 1957 and brought with it a municipal primary school - the first on the estate.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary changes came in the mid 1950s when speculators of a more enlighted kind, were able to make offers so substantial that the landowners (the Cator trustees) could hardly refuse. The new builders made one grave mistake: the law then did not then protect from demolition a number of the early Victorian villas on Blackheath Park and at least a dozen went down to the wreckers’ ball and chains. Local hostility was such that, in the end, the planners were obliged to respond conservatively to demolition applications although some buildings did still fall after successful appeals. Plans to rebuild the gaps in South Row were frustrated for financial reasons and a major ultra modern building was erected on the site in 1961. The last serious loss came in the early 1960s and, since then, historic properties in Blackheath attract such a huge premium that it has become uneconomic to redevelop other than by single quality dwellings. The older houses (and a handful of the new) are nearly all now protected by law. The 1950s scheme was the now much applauded Span estates, a style of well-designed small houses appealing to young professional people needing a mortgage, but with good prospects. Many of the little Span estates were built on back lands or on the site of demolished houses, many of them on corner sites which gave the developer a double chance to exploit the land, but which by another coin upset the views on both roads. Since then the Span and municipal estates have matured and combine harmoniously with the more historic elements of the Cator Estate. It is now as fashionable an address as it was at anytime on the last 2000 years although the postman require a little more than Blackheath Park, Kent, on letters to its residents.