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