When he designed Gloucester Circus, architect Michael Searles was really only warming up. Admittedly, units weren’t exactly selling like Mrs Miggins’s pies but that didn’t really bother Searles – he’d already set his sights on another piece of land, the site of a massive house. It was part of the Wricklemarsh Estate – on the edge of Blackheath – and Searles was busy chatting up the guy who was buying it, one John Cator, whom I’ll talk about another day. Another potential buyer who came to have a look round, apparently, was Clive of India but in the end, Cator nabbed it.
The Paragon (Searles was not one for subtlety when it came to titles) was to be a row of fourteen houses (seven pairs,) but instead of boring old terraces, he fancied joining them up with little Tuscan-colonnaded conceits (Coadestone, actually – I promise I will get onto Coadestone one day…) which housed the entrances, thus leaving the main buildings to enjoy gigantic arched windows for the best view – both looking in and out. To make it all look nice and neat, he put a lodge-house at either end.
Because he also took the financial risk, Searles had to make a bit more effort at selling The Paragon, so he made sure they were ‘substantially-built.’ He managed to flog the lot off by 1805 but it had taken him 13 years to finish them due to a few, ahem, financial embarrassments. Once they were nearly finished, though, people snapped up accommodation which not only could include large, modern interiors including Gentlemen’s rooms, eight bedrooms, servants quarters and water closets, but were also only a cough and a spit from what is now the A2 but at the time would have afforded them a speedy trip to enjoy the splendours of London.
Searles must be a bit of a hero of the current developers at the Millennium Village. They do much the same today as he did two hundred years ago – sell an empty shell, which the purchasers model to their own wishes. Ok – he did it with bricks & mortar, they do with sliding metal walls, but the idea’s much the same.
Although most of The Paragon’s residents were city businessmen, it attracted all sorts of intriguing residents – from two Lord Mayors of London to another (far more interesting) couple. They were both women, but one dressed as a man. It’s said that they came from Gloucester Circus and the ‘lady’ half of the pair informed everyone she was going to marry a Lord. She gadded about all over town buying lovely things for her trousseau – everything from trinkets and baubles to clothes and furniture and was the darling of all the merchants – for about ten minutes. After she ran up £ 20,000-worth of debts, the pair scarpered, never to be seen again.
There’s one thing about the Victorians – they just couldn’t resist dickering. Sundry dodgy ‘embellishments’ were added over the next hundred years or so, few of which, apparently, added much charm (of course the 1970s got their own back, adding ‘improvements’ of their own to Victorian buildings. What goes around comes around…) The Paragon started the 20th Century in a rather sad state as boarding houses.
A lot of the gaudy Victorian additions were quietly lost by Charles Bernard Brown when the Luftwaffe gave him the opportunity to restore The Paragon to its original beauty by bombing the poor place to buggery. Brown’s is not a name people conjure readily today – but the guy deserves a medal for standing up for what could have just ended up as another demolition site back in the 1950s.
The houses today are divided up into flats and consistently go for staggering sums when they come up for sale. I’ve never seen the back of them, but I’ll wager they no longer come with nine acres of land each, vegetable gardens, fishponds, dairies, coach houses and stabling. As long as I don’t see them, though, I can at least dream that someone in Blackheath still keeps cows in their back garden. The private road outside, with its little white-painted fences and cute lamp posts plus the leafy-green that surrounds it, is, I believe, paid for in what cannot be insignificant service charges (or maybe they share the chores – “ok, whose turn is it to mow the lawn this week, then…?”)
The Paragon is one of the truly sumptuous parts of Blackheath – and fitting tribute to a local architect whose work is dotted around the area, and still much-loved.