John Penn and Widow Smith Almshouses

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Greenwich South St

I wanted a picture of these with the fabulous blossom that’s in full bloom outside at the moment, but I made special trips twice and each time it was either too dark or bloomin’ raining, and the pics in my collection are just not good enough. Then Benedict came to my rescue, rushing out this morning to capture in its finest moment this fab, almost Tudor-looking building with its royal-iced decorations and pretty little garden. Thanks Ben…

I’m talking about them today because David’s been asking about them – he sent me a google earth link asking what they were and, to be honest, they’re slightly easier to deal with than the other question he’s asked (don’t worry David – I’m onto it…) It’s interesting to note from that aerial view that they appear to be a bit fur-coat-and-no-knickers – all front, and virtually no back. I’d appreciate it if any of you know what the rear of the place is like…

The Penn Family was one of the big Victorian clans of Greenwich. They were engineers – making cranes and treadmills to start with (not the sort you get in gyms – these were early ‘generators’ powered by slaves or convicts) but moving on to marine engines under the leadership of John Penn Jr, popularising the rise of the propeller. He even, apparently, perfected the compact oscillating engine – one or two of which are still used now.

They were very sociable. John Penn himself was the first president of the West Kent Microscopical Society, which doesn’t seem to exist now, which somehow seems a shame, and he and his wife liked to hold large soirees at their house, The Cedars (not the one in Westcombe Park; this one was on Belmont Hill.)

Three years after John Penn’s death, in 1884, his widow commissioned George Smith, who had already built Greenwich and Blackheath railway stations, to design some memorial almshouses in Greenwich South St. It was Smith’s last major work and he clearly decided to use up all the ideas he still had left. There are parapets, arches, big chimneys – you name it, these cute little houses have got it.


Fifty odd years later, in 1930, a mysterious lady known only as Widow Smith was building some almshouses of her own, over in East Greenwich. I find it utterly amazing that this is not that long ago, and yet virtually nothing’s known about her (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – I’m still marvelling that after much less time the secretive Amanda Hinge and unfindable Helena Pare Lydia Mott have so totally gone to ground…) and, if Mr Hitler had had his way, she would have been totally forgotten. Her almshouses were bombed to buggery in WWII, and even John Penn’s delicious confection in South St was badly hurt. The two charities merged to repair the one mendable set of buildings, giving them their present name.

For more about John Penn, check the Greenwich Industrial History’s site, where I also read about the fate of Cold Bath Street, which someone was asking me about recently (to my embarrassment I can’t remember who.) It’s now called John Penn St…

BTW Does anyone know the story of that sad-looking dark brick building next door? It looks very unloved – but could be stunning. Any clues?


2 Comments to “John Penn and Widow Smith Almshouses”

  1. stan says:

    The old dark building was formerly the old vicarage.It is now being developed into flats.If you are still interested I will send you some pics of the back of Penns Almshouses.

  2. I’d love it Stan! Cheers!

    TGP