Greenwich Pest House


Over the weekend, I was reading the appendices to the sizzlingly-titled 1816 Legacies, Gifts, Rents etc., Appertaining to the Church and Poor of the Parish of St Alphege in the County of Kent and was intrigued by a couple of lines I found in the section which grumps, at length, about all the encroachments on sundry church-owned land:

A small encroachment also, on the said Blcakheath, near the Pest-House, containing four perches of land, now in the occupation of Stephen Benning, valued at per ann. 034.

The Pest-House, as aforesaid, erected (as the jurors are informed by King Charles the First on the said waste, called Blackheath, and now employed for the use of the poor; wherefore the jurours have not valued it. 

All those three acres, with a dwelling house and garden, part of a field called Paine’s Field, near the Hobby Stables, now, or late in the tenure of Richard Tookefield, which the said Jurors present to be unjustly concealed from the Crown , and valued at per annum 900.

My first question was ‘what on earth is a pest-house? My second, of course, was ‘where was Greenwich’s very own local version of this repulsive-sounding erection?’

The answer, after I’d stopped imagining all sorts of repellent things, was pretty obvious – it was the place where individuals of the Parish were sent if they were found to be suffering from communicable diseases. In Victorian times there was even a pest-house charity that built almshouses, some of the pretty ones still exist but I’m thinking the Greenwich one would have been much less pretty.

I’m guessing that since it was built by Charles I (probably not with his own fair hands) said communicable disease would have been plague. This in turn made me wonder whether the deceased inhabitants of this grim place might be responsible for the beginnings of whisperings about plague victims being buried on Blackheath. It doesn’t take many retellings to turn a handful of bubonic peasants being quietly disposed of on the Heath into mass graves.

Just a thought.

Whichever, I did actually managed to find an old map with the Pest House marked. It’s pinched from the reverse of the free map that came with Neil Rhind’s The Heath and is reproduced v. badly at the top of this post. The Pest-House itself seems to be a little drawing on the map, but I can’t get the quality up high enough to really see:

I can’t quite work out from this map where this would be now. I’m thinking somewhere around Hyde Vale. Any ideas?

Oh and while I’m cheaply crowd-sourcing, any guesses as to what Hobby Stables were?


I have just had a splendid little email from the ever-reliable Julian Watson, who has forwarded me an article written by Frances Ward, back in 1982. I can’t reproduce it here, but if you want to find it, it’s in the Transactions of the Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society, vol.9 no. 4,.

Julian says:

Accounts for the building of the Pest House in 1635, a particularly bad plague year, are preserved in the GHC…The Pest-House was on the site of the later parish workhouse (1764 I think) in Maidenstone Hill. The entrance to that workhouse, which was superseded by the grim 1840 building on the ‘Heart of Greenwich’ site, was in Blissett Street.

It was made of brick and wood, with two doors, an outer and inner. The outer door was, somewhat scarily, heavily fitted with locks and hinges. No one was getting out of there outside a wooden box.

Frances Ward says there aren’t any records of exactly how many people were ‘cared for’ in the house, but judging from the accounts, she thinks there wouldn’t have been very many at all. Their goods were all burned.

Julian’s also cleared up the Hobby Stables thing.

The Hobby Stables belonged to Greenwich Palace. Hobby Horses were either lively horses or small horses. Thanks to Julian Bowsher we now know that Henry VIII refurbished the ancient and important Old Court House on Ballast Quay for Ann Boleyn so that, before they were married, she was within easy walking distance from the palace (cue Sid James and Barbara Windsor, yak, yak, yak). I assume that the Hobby Stables would then have been reserved for her use as they were just to the south of Old Court. The main royal stables were in the northern end of what is now King William Walk, not far from the river.

the attachments to this post:

Travers Map 1696 pest house
Travers Map 1696 pest house

Travers Map 1696
Travers Map 1696

4 Comments to “Greenwich Pest House”

  1. Otter says:

    If the crossroads to the right of the pesthouse is that at the bottom of Blackheath Hill, then that would put the pesthouse approximately at the fire station on Blissett Street.

  2. Fatty Fatty BumBum says:

    That’s exactly what I was going to say – looks like Blissett street to me too.

  3. Kirsten says:

    Plague is called ‘pest’ in Denmark! :-)

  4. capability bowes says:

    Indeed, there is a character in Russian (or perhaps Polish) fairytales called “the PestMaiden” – a young woman with ghostly pale skin and bright eyes who brings plague to every village she passes through. They would be bloody scary fairytales though.

    I have the vaguest memory that the PestMaiden featured in an episode of Dr. Who once, possibly when Tom Baker was the Doctor.