Monday, 26 September 2016

Simple Church - Great Provenance

I’ve lived in my corner of south London, Streatham Hill to be exact, for 10 years now and one of the pleasing architectural aspects of this typical late Victorian red-brick residential development is St Thomas's Church on Telford Avenue. It isn’t too ostentatious in the new Edwardian style, but certainly gives a satisfying full stop when your eye scans the terraced bricks and mortar around you.

St Thomas Church, Telford Avenue (Ellen Leslie 2016)
St Thomas Church, Telford Avenue (Ellen Leslie 2016)

St Thomas’s was completed in 1901 and opened by the Lord Mayor of London. The aisles and baptistry added in 1905 and the chancel in 1926-27. The church has recently undergone a huge refurbishment, escaping the fate of being redeveloped into flats, and now continues to be have weekly services. With the refurbished exterior it certainly has a brighter and more optimistic appearance these days with the addition of community space and the outside area being landscaped. In all the years I’ve lived here though, what I hadn’t appreciated was the provenance of its architects. Taking a close look at the foundation stone it shows the architects were Sidney R J Smith (1858-1913) and church architect Spencer W Grant (1879-1914).

Sidney R J Smith

Foundation Stone (Ellen Leslie 2016)

Tate Britain (

Smith is most well-known for his long association with Henry Tate, the sugar magnate. Tate (1819-1899) lived close to Streatham Common at the imposing Park Hill. With Tate financing the project, Smith designed the 'National Gallery of British Art' at Millbank (now Tate Britain) on the north side of the Thames in 1897. But before that, through Tate’s own philanthropy and his chairmanship of the Lambeth library commissioners, Smith also designed the Tate Free Library in 1887 (now the South Lambeth Library), the Durning Library in Kennington in 1889 (funded by Jemima Durning), the Streatham Library in 1890 and Brixton Oval Library in 1893.

Smith’s libraries have been described in Pevsner’s Buildings of England as ‘enjoyable examples of minor late Victorian municipal showmanship’ and the Durning as being ‘in an elaborate polychromic Gothic, with arches of varies size, a gable and a tower.’  It is eye catching and is always pleasing to stop and look at when passing through Kennington.

South Lambeth Library (

Streatham Library (

Brixton Oval Library (

Durning Library, Kennington (Ellen Leslie 2016)

The church in Telford Avenue is in the emerging Edwardian design displaying cleaner lines, which is closer to the young Grant’s style, but both men are credited with its design.  One more construction by Smith though does bear a resemblance to St Thomas's, namely Henry Tate's own mausoleum in West Norward cemetery completed in 1899. It is also likely that at this later stage of Smith’s career it was his professional standing in Lambeth that made his involvement in the church’s design and construction more significant.

Tate Mausoleum (

This belated discovery at the end of my street certainly shows that a little digging can reveal a whole different story to what was initially assumed. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A Decade to Remember. Ten Years as a Buildings Historian

January 2016 marks a big milestone for me. 10 years ago this month I was commissioned to research my first historic building. At the time I was still studying for the Post Graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings at the Architectural Association. Research techniques learned on the course seemed to play to my strengths and so a fellow student recommended me to try out with the firm of conservation architects she worked for.

The house I researched was an 1820s London townhouse by James Burton (father of Decimus). This was an assignment that would now take me just a few days but as a research rookie took over a month to complete; I was learning on the job! Luckily, that assignment wasn’t urgent … which is a rarity in this business. I wasn't going to be paid for this 'try out' but they were so pleased with the results that I was. Since then, I have carried on working on a freelance basis for that firm as well as working with other architects, property professionals and private home owners.

In these last 10 years I have researched over 250 historic buildings all over the country from mansions to terraced houses. I have uncovered the social and structural history of Georgian town houses and Victorian vicarages,  17th century farmhouses, 18th century manor houses, railway stations and viaducts, fire stations, cinemas and theatres, an art deco synagogue, 15th century Wealden hall houses, 18th century orangeries and even war memorials.

What I love about this work is you never stop learning. British history and particularly its architecture is so vast and rich. With the advance in technology access to sources has doubled; which means double the work but also double the results!

It’s been an amazing decade and here’s to the next 10 years!

Some of the houses I have researched since 2006

Sunday, 19 April 2015

What's in a Name?

Apethorpe 'Palace' © English Heritage

In the continuing effort to conserve and hold on to our built past, it is sometimes worth stopping and asking ourselves what should be preserved? As I have said in previous blogs, our historic buildings can't remain in aspic. Sometimes we need to be pragmatic and accept new buildings, new vistas, and even new towns! Somehow, some way, we carefully move forward holding onto the past but attending to the present.

However, there is an aspect of our heritage that does not need to change to keep up with modern times. It is something that doesn’t get in the way of the present. It doesn’t cost anything to maintain and most significantly links us directly to our past and our heritage.

I am talking about place names. The origin of these can stretch back centuries even millennia. Today modern England is full of ancient names for cities, towns, villages, streets and alley ways. These names root us in our history, whether that is Roman, Saxon, Norman or later. Sometimes names have changed in the last 1000 years, but this has been through social evolution, common usage over the long slow passage of time.

With this in mind, I am surprised that English Heritage, our national champion in protecting our built past has allowed one of our most historically important buildings to have a cosmetic change of name. 

Apethorpe Hall has been renamed Apethorpe Palace. No reason for this change appears to have been given. It has just been presented as a fait accompli in the listing description. There is only one other non-royal residence in England with the title “Palace” and that is Blenheim Palace. The difference is that that early 18th century house was always called a Palace. That is its original historical legacy.

The East Courtyard © Ellen Leslie
South Range © Ellen Leslie
View from the East Courtyard © Ellen Leslie
Apethorpe Hall is a beautiful Grade I manor house with origins that go back to the 15th century. In my opinion one of the most impressive houses England can boast about, and England has many. Its long history is full of highs and lows, from being the residence of the future Elizabeth I, the weekend retreat for King James I, later becoming an approved school in the 1970s and finally being rescued by government compulsory purchase. It was however, never called Apethorpe Palace, even during its days as a royal residence. 

The new owner is Frenchman Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten. Apparently he is very sympathetic to the house’s history and says “Our vision for Apethorpe is to help this house regain the place in British history that it deserves." I think that is heartening, even laudable. But by changing the name, in a stroke you deny its past. If the name Apethorpe Hall was good enough for King James, it should be good enough for Baron von Pfetten and certainly English Heritage.