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At Beckenham Place

January 14, 2017
by the gentle author

An empty villa on a bone-cold January day might not appear an immediately enticing prospect for a visit, yet Beckenham Place in Lewisham contains more than enough wonders to fire the imagination even if they are enshrouded with a melancholy winter gloom at present.

Constructed by John Cator (1728-1806) in the seventeen-seventies as his country house with the proceeds of his timber business, Beckenham Place ceased being a private home at the beginning of the twentieth century. After a sequence of institutional uses, including most recently as a golf club house, it is currently undergoing restoration as artists’ studios while plans are developed to discover how best to dedicate the building to public use.

John Cator took up residence in Robert & James Adam’s Adelphi in the Strand in 1776 and it seems likely the Adam brothers were responsible for the magnificent plasterwork at Beckenham Place, while architect Robert Taylor is the most probable candidate for design of the house. Conceived as a southerly counterpoint to Kenwood House in Hampstead, Cator landscaped the surrounding parkland, planting rare imported species of trees recommended by his acquaintance Carl Linnaeus, creating a lake and diverting the main road. He set out to contrive a country estate in the best possible taste, signalling his arrival in the world and elevating the status of his family. Yet John’s circle of friends included Henry Thrale, Fanny Burney and Samuel Johnson, who all recorded their candid impressions of the man.

“Cator has a rough, manly independence and understanding and does not spoil it by complaisance. He never speaks merely to please and seldom is mistaken in things which he has any right to know” – Samuel Johnson

“He prated so much, yet said so little, and pronounced his words so vulgarly that I found it impossible to keep my countenance” - Fanny Burney

“A purseproud Tradesman coarse in his expressions and vulgar in Manners and Pronunciation; though very intelligent, and full of both money and good sense” – Henry Thrale

When John Cantor’s nephew John Barwell Cantor inherited the estate in 1806, he also inherited his uncle’s social aspiration and brought a huge stone portico salvaged from Wricklemarsh, a nearby ruin, which he installed upon the north side of Beckenham Place without regard to proportion or design. The effect is as incongruous as those neo-Georgian porticos upon the suburban villas which were to surround Beckenham Park when it became a golf course in the twentieth century.

Today the golf course is also history and the bunkers and greens only remain prior to restoration of the landscape, yet the view from the villa over rolling parkland is as august as when it was first built. You could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London.

Occupied by ghosts and the presence of all those who have passed through, Beckenham Place speaks eloquently of the elegant conception of its architect complimented by extraordinary craftsmanship, overlaid with a century of use by an extended family, staff and tenants – and the school children, the sanatorium occupants, the soldiers, the golfers and the others who came after. Even in the depths of winter, it was heartening to see the old villa being prepared for new arrivals and a new life.

Artists & makers’ studios at Beckenham Place are available to rent at £175 a month – contact mansion@beckenhamplace.org or visit www.beckenhamplace.org

“At Beckenham Place, you could easily imagine yourself in a remote shire, even if you are only nine miles from Central London”

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 14, 2017

    A good presentation of Beckenham Place by GA, it has massive potential its strong and robust, upstairs is a bit wonky. The building has stood the test of time. I hope adequate funding is in place to carry the project through, with a good maintenance fund for the next 5-10 years !say. Shoe-string is not healthy. The Place will become cosy and well liked by future users I am sure. Some Gov grants can be available for historic buildings. There must be a car park somewhere. They say a project is only as good as the car park will allow it to be. Best wishes to the Beck Place project people you will win through. Poet John PS It will be interesting to know how this interesting and worth while project develops.

  2. January 14, 2017

    Glad to read the building and park are to restored. London needs its green spaces and cultural corners. A refuge from fast paced urban life. I hope schools can tap into this resource when it is ready and meanwhile the artists move in. Perhaps there will be a place for them when the project is complete.

  3. Lesley T permalink
    January 14, 2017

    Came across Beckenham Place for the first time last week when walking a section of the Capital Ring walk. House and surroundings are indeed reminiscent of Kenwood in North London. Let’s hope it is successfully renovated and used.

  4. Sue M permalink
    January 14, 2017

    What a beautiful building! I hope there will be enough money to restore the whole building. A little gem in our modern concrete jungle.

  5. Stephen Barker permalink
    January 14, 2017

    A splendid building especially the fine plasterwork. I would like to visit and tour the building.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    January 14, 2017

    Greetings from chilly Boston,

    GA, great piece. Love Johnson’s assessment of Cator – “He never speaks merely to please and seldom is mistaken in things which he has any right to know”

    Beckenham Place is a magnificent property. Aren’t those Wedgewood motifs on the fireplaces? I did visit Kenwood House last summer – really a treasure. Maintaining these estates must be so costly. I am glad to see the Beckenham place will be recycled and not destroyed.

  7. Jude permalink
    January 14, 2017

    Pity it went out of residential use! I would love to have lived there :) The ceilings were amazingly beautiful. It needs a fair bit of work doing on it internally and am glad it remains and is being put to good use.

  8. January 14, 2017

    You can check out more of the history of Beckenham Place on the “Friends” website http://www.beckenhamplaceparkfriends.org.uk/. The Cator family very quickly fell out of love with Beckenham Place and it had a succession of tenants from 1829 onwards. The Cator’s never brought any added value to the area, they did not endow any schools, hospitals or alms houses. The closure of the public golf course has been hugely contentious, but it is good the manor house has a tenant, albeit only for 22 months, who is doing a splendid job on a limited budget applying some TLC after decades of neglect by Lewisham Council and their previous intransigence about allowing a community group to take responsibility. Sadly, the council decided to apply for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to change landscape, which will result in felling hundreds of healthy trees, rather than one that will restore the manor house. We continue to wait for a grant for the house.

  9. Ros permalink
    January 14, 2017

    I’d never heard of this place so thanks for publicising it. Terrific photos capturing so many aspects. I especially like the weathercock, bell and carpet juxtaposition. John Cator sounds a bit of a rough diamond.

  10. January 14, 2017

    Sydney and colleagues doing a good job of arresting decay and bringing back into use. Our member David Love has produced an article about plasterwork motifs perhaps installed by the Rose family who worked in the Adam style. Our visitor centre is open 1.30 to 3.30 sunday afternoons in the mansion.

  11. Jenny Kay permalink
    January 16, 2017

    Beautiful photos of a beautiful building, thank you….and it would be great to see the Mansion House out to appropriate use….art,music, ‘salons’ …….I am one of the golfers who used to play at the well loved and busy course, we never had any feeling that Lewisham Council had an integrated vision for the park and house, and sadly the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Parks for People’ scheme imposes a flawed plan to ‘restore’ the dried up lake (no answer as to where water supply will come from) and remove hundreds of trees which are felt to spoil the view. Great that it funds restoration of the Homesteads buildings (destroyed by arson a few years ago) and create some educational facilities etc but it was a missed opportunity to apply for grant funding for the Mansion House. There was a community Trust established to take on the building and golf course as a economically viable entity but Lewisham Council did not support this…what a waste and a shame. It is now listed as an Asset of Community Value at least so hopefully local people and the community trust will have a say in its future.
    Just to add that for the last ten years the golfers only ever used the downstairs cafe and Toiltes etc ……before that we were very occasionally allowed to hold events upstairs for a period of a year or two when an events manger took some interest in the building……that lovely notice board for the Ladies was unknown to those of us who played with the Ladies section, heaven knows where it was hidden! All best wishes for its future, hope it can thrive and be an asset to the local community.

  12. Michael Toivonen permalink
    November 21, 2017

    I have a two volume set of The Guardian by Addison and Steele with bookplates from John Cator’s library. I like to fantasize that Samuel Johnson may have picked them up during a visit to Beckenham Place. I enjoyed seeing the many shots of the interior of Beckenham here and hope its next incarnation as artist’s and makers studios is a success. Those books of mine, once the possessions of a man ” vulgar in Manners and Pronunciation” according to Thrale, whose judgement I learned above, were amongst the two boxes of my books grabbed when fleeing in the we hours as the terrible conflagrations raged in northern California on October 9. 2017 and threatened my home. Luck had it that my home was spared as the flames changed course at the last minute. Having a small collection of rare books made quick work of hard decisions as to what to save: save those things which I am only the temporary guardian of.

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