Inventory Site Record

Watermen's Square

Watermen's Square (Bromley)

Brief Description

Formerly ornate gardens for the Royal Free Watermen and Lightermen's Almshouses, founded in 1839 for retired Watermen and their wives and widows. The almshouses opened in 1841 and remained in Penge until 1973 when the residents moved to Hastings. The property was acquired by the GLC and then sold for conversion into private housing. Part of the grounds remain in private ownership while the area to the south is now public gardens. The formal garden has a monument to local landowner John Dudin Brown, a freeman of the Company of Watermen, whose donation of 2 acres of land and 50 guineas led to the foundation.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Royal Free Watermen and Lightermen’s Almshouses
Site location:
Beckenham Road/High Street, Penge
SE20 7EL
Type of site:
Public Gardens
Open to public?
Opening times:
public garden open 7.30am weekdays/9am Sat/Sun/BHs - half hour after dusk
Special conditions:
Disabled access
Public transport:
Rail: Penge East, Kent House. London Overground: Penge West. Bus 194, 227, 352, 358. Tram in Beckenham Road

The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/07/2008
Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news.

Full Site Description

The land here, once part of Penge Common and known as Billet Field, adjacent to the Old Crooked Billet Inn, was given for the Royal Free Watermen and Lightermen’s Almshouses by local landowner John Dudin Brown of Sydenham, a freeman of the Company of Watermen, who was to become president of the Almshouses. His donation of 2 acres and 50 guineas is recorded on 24 January 1839, with a further £2000 raised within a month of this. Queen Adelaide, wife of William IV, agreed to become patroness on 26 June 1839 and donated 100 guineas; other donations were collected through the Royal Free Watermen and Lightermen’s Committee that was set up and eventually, by 29 June 1841, £10,500 had been collected of the estimated £13,000 needed. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert later become patrons following the death of Queen Adelaide, and made a donation of £100 on 4 August 1847. In 1839 fourteen plans by different architects had been exhibited to the Committee by the surveyor, and of the four that went forward, those of architect George Porter from Bermondsey were finally selected on 16 May. Porter's almshouses, described as ‘the most prominent building in Penge’ appear to be his most prestigious commission. His assistant was SS Teulon who built for the Dyers' Company in King Henry's Walk, Islington (since demolished). The foundation stone was laid by Sir Chapman Marshall, Lord Mayor of London. In June, Mr Hill of Lewisham paid for the brickwork and oak fencing to enclose the land, to be completed by 12 August. There were initially 30 houses, with 11 additional ones built with money donated by Dudin Brown, whose daughter was responsible for a small philanthropic development nearby, St John's Cottages (q.v.). Twenty-four tenders were received to build the first 30 almshouses and the contract for £7310 was given to Mr Harrison & Son of Bermondsey.

In June 1840 the committee resolved to build an additional 7 houses to front onto Penge Lane, which would hide the backs of the original almshouses from the street. These additional almshouses and lodge, and an extra 2 houses, were eventually built by Mr Harding in 1841, after two earlier contractors had gone bankrupt. In July 1840 a Mr Robins was contracted to supply and fix railings, gates and lamps for £470, and Mr Harrison submitted an estimate for £594 10s for a dwarf boundary wall. The Almshouses were built for 'Poor, Aged, Decayed, and Maimed Free Watermen and Lightermen of the river Thames, and their Wives and Widows'; they opened in 1841 with 76 candidates, 34 of whom were married couples, 10 single men and 32 widows. The buildings, in white Suffolk brick, are on three sides of a courtyard, originally with colonnades and glass roofs. Water was supplied from wells in the yards, with two pumps and three spouts; the pumps remain in the northeast and northwest corners. Each house had three rooms and there were paved walks with ornamental dwarf walling along the open end of the quadrangle, with three openings and heraldic beasts. In October 1841 there were plans for the space between the backs of the two rows of houses 'to be paved in Yorkshire stone with proper channel stones in the centre and the Terrace walk in front be in like manner, with squared edges laid in cement. The gravel would be continued underneath the committee Hall with Yorkshire paving on either side close to the Building and a curb of granite'. The contract for the two pumps and their alteration was £102 in 1841; ironwork was ordered from Messrs Kennard & Co, which was erected in December 1841, at which time 28 of the houses were occupied.

According to the Almshouse Minute Books 1838-58, in March 1841 a Mr Buchanan, landscape and garden decorator, was paid £310 with upkeep for the first year and a promise of replacement shrubs and plants for two years, the total being £384 including extra work. Subsequently, from January 1851, Mr Wood, one of the residents, was paid as the gardener at £21 a year, raised to £30 in July 1856. The wall at the back of the housing was built in 1855 to replace a fence in poor condition and at the same time the gravel paths were cleaned at an extra cost of £12. All the paths were re-gravelled, the level raised and returfed, flowerbeds dug and replanted at a cost of £60 around the monument to John Dudin Brown. This grey granite obelisk was in the centre of the quadrangle, erected in 1855 by the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company in his memory, Committee-member Mr Young was reported as saying that in future 'the grounds should not get in their late condition and that it was desirable that the Gardener who had charge of the grounds should take them in keeping'. By November 1870 Mr Haynes had become the gardener and paid £30 a year, increasing to £40 in 1889; the accounts list 50 loads of manure, 200 shrubs, gravel removed and a 2nd layer of new at a cost of £36, with '200 plants 50/- from Mr Haynes' in 1890. By 1892 the gardener was N. Lucy.

A memorial to World War I was erected on the wall of the lodge. The 1935 aerial photograph shows minimal tree cover but pollarded sycamores along the south and east boundaries, also the original houses on the north side. In 1971 the curtilage was modified when a new housing estate was built behind; there was a recommendation that the garden to the south, abutting Penge High Street, should be made into a public amenity with access through the two south gates. In 1973 the almshouse residents were moved to new bungalows in Hastings, and, after local pressure to stop redevelopment led by Sir John Betjeman, the GLC bought the property and sold it on to private developers and the almshouses were converted as private homes. In 1975 it received a European Architectural Heritage Year Award.

The garden comprises a simple grassed area between railings on the street and strap work walled paved terrace walk with one or two trees; the brick gate piers are decorated with heraldic beasts. The formal gardens within the railings are well laid out and planted with shrubs, box, holly, laurel and a Lebanon cedar.

Sources consulted:

B Cherry & N Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England, London 2: South' (1983, reprint 1999) p191; H. Colvin, 'A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840', 1978, p653; Ideal Homes: Suburbia in Focus website; Chloe Hague, Bromley and Hayes News Shopper, 1.12.1999; Philippa Stockley, Evening Standard Homes and Properties Section, 16/4/2003; History of Almshouses of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, GLC Dept of Architecture & Civic Design (nd); P M Sampson, Social Provision in the 19th century for the Members of the Co. of Watermen & Lightermen with special reference to Almshouses at Penge, 1974; Plans for Somersby Estate, GLC, 1971 (LMA); Illustrated London News 1844.

LPGT Volunteer Research by Kristina Taylor, 2005

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ354703 (535425,170393)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
LB Bromley and private owners
Site management:
LB B Parks Dept
George Porter (architect of almshouses)
Listed structures:
LBII: Almshouses, Lodges, Monument to Dudin Brown
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Penge High Street
Tree Preservation Order:
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Other LA designation:

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