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Archive for the ‘Local History’ Category

A guest post by Richard Shearman

Just off the lower reaches of the Old Kent Road lies a harmonious complex of buildings which, though little-known today, for 130 years formed the largest group of almshouses in London, enjoying continuous royal patronage. Known today as Caroline Gardens, this is the former Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum, which was founded in 1827 and remained on this site until 1959. This article tells the story of the asylum’s establishment and building.

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Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum, c 1830.

A Society of Licensed Victuallers had been established in London in 1793, with offices in Fleet Street. It had the objectives of “raising a fund for the relief of decayed members of the trade and their widows, in sickness, old age, want and infirmity, and also to afford some assistance to their fatherless children and orphans.” Operating as a friendly society, with individual subscribers, its activities grew quickly in scope. In 1794 it set up the Morning Advertiser, which is still produced for the trade and is today the second oldest daily newspaper (after the Times) in the UK. The paper originally carried national and foreign news and could be read by customers on licensed premises in much the same way that early newspapers had been in coffee houses. This helped promote the Society’s interests and fund its charitable activities. In 1803 the Society opened the Licensed Victuallers’ School in Kennington Lane for orphans from the trade.

Some in the Society were soon discussing the need to do more to meet the needs of former licensed victuallers who had ceased to work on account of age and infirmity, through an asylum (in other words almshouses). The economic downturn at the end of the Napoleonic Wars gave impetus to a proposal in 1816 by Joseph Proud Hodgson (1782-1837), that an asylum be established. Hodgson, who was commemorated thereafter as the ‘projector’ of the asylum, was not a licensed victualler but a gin rectifier; a characteristic of the asylum throughout its existence was the close co-operation between licensees and their suppliers in promoting its work, with brewers and distillers being major financial donors and facilitating its work in other ways, although it was always run by licensed victuallers.

Evidently it was thought that running almshouses as well as a daily newspaper and a school was more than the Society could easily handle, for nothing happened for ten years. However in September 1826 a group of licensees met at the White Hart Tavern, Abchurch Lane, in the City and resolved to take the matter forward independently and to make a general appeal to the trade for support. Most of those attending this first meeting were from well-established houses in the City and the West End, and were active in the Society. They agreed to broaden membership of the group, while keeping the Society’s trustees and committee involved. Joseph Proud Hodgson was invited to participate but seems to have been happy to remain in the background now that his idea was actu-ally being taken forward. The chair of the first meeting, and subsequently the first President of the Asylum, was William Adams Larby, the licensee during his career of various City pubs including the Old Dr Butler’s Head in Coleman St, and the Sugar Loaf in Great St Helen’s. He chaired further meetings through the winter of 1826/27, culminating in a general meeting of Licensed Victuallers, on 27 February 1827 agreeing to establish an Asylum (the word being used in the general sense of a place of safety) and making arrangements for its governance by 5 trustees and 16 governors. At that stage initial donations had been made by a number of London brewers and distillers, either corporately or personally by the owners. Familiar names appear here including Charrington, Meux, Barclay, Truman. Charles Barclay of Barclay’s Brewery in the Borough was a particular supporter, and the fact that from 1815 he was a Member of Parliament meant that he could give more than just financial assistance.

A number of possible sites were considered for the asylum during the course of 1827, in places as diverse as Camberwell, Stockwell, Holloway and Barnsbury. Eventually a site was identified be-longing to Mr Charles Shard, who had extensive land holdings in Peckham, and was willing to sell the six acre site at a preferential price of £300 per acre if the land was to be used for charitable purposes. There was some argument amongst the trustees and governors, with two trying actively to sabotage the transaction and being asked to resign their offices, but after several disinterested parties had testified to the salubrious nature of the area and the suitability of the site for building, including gas and water being laid on to a short distance away, the purchase was completed. There were already plans for a road (the present Asylum Road) along the front of the property.

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The Entrance Lodge. Image: Richard Shearman.

Henry Rose, of Great Guildford Street in the Borough, was selected as architect. Originally a surveyor, he had moved into designing buildings, although at this stage his architectural output was limited. He had already undertaken some work at the Licensed Victuallers School, for which he was later to design a building which completely replaced the original (it still exists, as a block of flats named Imperial Court), and was Surveyor to the Trustees of Borough Market. Rose was a competent everyday architect, but did not always have an easy relationship with his clients, and his association with the asylum ended acrimoniously in 1852. Even before then other architects had been employed – the brothers Charles and Henry Inwood for the entrance lodges in 1839, and Charles Kemp, an architectural amateur and son of a Chairman of the Asylum, for the Ladies’ Wing in 1848. But it is Rose’s design of the front range of the asylum built between 1828 and 1835, with its central portico and its two projecting wings, containing 100 houses, which establishes the character of the place, and subsequent architects were content to harmonise rather than compete.

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Chapel Front. Image: Richard Shearman.

In parallel, the governors searched for a royal patron. They were advised that King George IV’s brother, the Duke of Sussex would accept the role and be willing to lay the foundation stone with full Masonic honours. He duly did so at a ceremony on 29 May 1828, against the advice of his doctors, although he opted out of the evening dinner which was presided over by Charles Barclay MP. The ceremony did have a masonic character (perhaps not inappropriate to a building project) and concluded with HRH invoking the blessing of “the great Architect of the Universe”. Royal patronage has continued ever since – Prince Philip is Patron of the Asylum’s successor body, the Licensed Trade Charity, and a statue of Prince Albert, who became patron in 1843, was placed in the front court. A continuing masonic association is harder to identify, although freemasonry was quite common amongst publicans. But it’s noteworthy that at the Asylum’s centenary in 1927, a service of commemoration was held at Christ Church, Newgate St which was attended by members of 24 Masonic lodges, in full regalia.

The governors were equally committed to the established church. From the 1830s onward there were proposals for a chapel, and when in 1840 Robert Burton, the incumbent of the new district church of Christ Church in the Old Kent Rd, offered to hold weekly services for the inmates in the committee room, this was readily agreed. Mr Burton was however unhappy when the governors spoke of building a chapel which would also serve as a church for the wider public and be financed by pew rents. He pointed out that this would be detrimental to the finances of his own poor parish and he would be bound to object, and that the Bishop of Winchester, in whose diocese the asylum then was, would then be certain to decline his consent. Following meetings with the Bishop, the simpler course of building a chapel for inmates was agreed upon, and Henry Rose produced designs which were agreed. The chapel was built behind the central portico of the asylum during 1850 and 1851. The building was a success, but led to a final rupture between Henry Rose and the governors because of disputed charges for professional fees and his failure to get specific authorisation for certain items of expenditure, especially the installation of gas lighting.

Clearly the governors were not able to to undertake all the work of the asylum on their own. At the outset a Mr Gill was appointed as Secretary, but in the summer of 1830 he was found to have absconded, and to have defrauded the Asylum of over £200. Thomas Jones was soon appointed as his successor. A solicitor, he was then Secretary to the St Anne’s Society Schools (whose Patron was also the Duke of Sussex) and Clerk to the vestry of St. Stephen’s Coleman Street in the City. He held the post until forced to retire through ill-health in 1864, and pursued the Asylum’s interests with unflagging energy – “The unprecedented zeal of your worthy Secretary is too well known to require a remark from me” was Henry Rose’s rueful comment during his dispute with the governors. In 1850 the Reverend W G Martin was appointed as chaplain, and held the post until his death in 1892. His contribution seems to have been more than just spiritual; he actively promoted music within the asylum, and even represented the governors in court on one occasion. Dr Josiah Blomfield, also appointed in 1850 as Medical Adviser, had an even longer association with the asylum, holding office until 1905.

By the mid-1850s the Asylum was well established, with more than 150 houses accommodating more than 200 people. The next article will look at its history over the next 100 years, its financing, its residents, and how it came to move from Asylum Road.

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Part 2 of this article will be published on this blog in due course. London Historians Members may read it meantime in their Members’ Newletter for January 2022. 

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