The Paragon & South Row, Blackheath
A Triumph in late 18th Century Unintentional Town Planning.
Neil Rhind, Bookshop on the Heath
It’s taken me an age to get round to reviewing this, not least because it’s so bloomin’ heavy (in pretty much every respect). Weighing in at nearly a kilo (926g to be precise) despite the fact that it’s a paperback, it’s just not the sort of volume you shove in a back pocket to read on the tube.
It’s also not the easiest book to find – you won’t get it online (for better or worse, sometimes I can’t help thinking that making something hard to buy online forces people to look in the real world. Of course that’s only useful if you don’t actually have to sell something…) I got my copy at Waterstones at an eye-watering £35, and for that price I was determined to squeeze every last drop of information from every last appendix before talking about it.
Thing is, that this is the sort of book that needs to be on the shelf of a serious Greenwich/Blackheath-ophile. Being a Neil Rhind, it is exhaustive, wide-ranging and, frankly, definitive, like his other volumes on Blackheath and Environs – if it’s not in here, it hasn’t been discovered yet.
It’s not the first book on the Paragon, of course. When I first heard he was writing a book about the Paragon I did wonder what Rhind could add to William Bonwitt’s The History of the Paragon, Paragon House and their Residents (also published by the Bookshop Blackheath) which delves into the lives of the people who lived there and which is a fascinating read. I have always been particularly taken by the rogues and villains – especially the Misses Eliza Robertson and Charlotte Sharp, a pair of swindlers who lived there and who I keep meaning to write about myself.
Neil Rhind has, with a heavy-heart, relegated the pair to one of his (gigantic) appendices as he worries that they’re such a fine story they actually detract from the rest of the tale, and I can see his point. It is a story hungry for attention and could pull other, more gentle tales out of proportion. It also adds grist to my own personal grind of getting the world to read appendices – proving my theory that they usually have the best bits…
In many ways, this work goes in the opposite direction to many modern social history volumes. Most books about famous places in years gone by have been about the fine architecture, omitting the fact that people lived in the palaces the writers expound upon. There’s been a recent trend for modern authors to come along and write a cosy history filling in the biographies of the human aspect, often with rather a lot of speculation shoehorned in. I confess I’m beginning to weary a little of this ‘fluffy’ approach, though of course, I’m as guilty as the next Phantom when a juicy human story comes along…
William Bonwitt had already looked at the people of the Paragon back in the 70s. So what Neil Rhind has done is go back to the actual bricks and mortar. He looks at materials, social background, the area, the big landowners of the day, Michael Searles (the builder) and, of course, the design. I particularly enjoyed the floorplans, and the newspaper ads from the time, expounding on all the marvellous things you could enjoy if you rented there (few people actually owned their homes at the time.)
Although Bonwitt does touch on what happened to the buildings through history, Neil Rhind goes into much more detail, especially on the 20th Century, which saw so much change – in both good and bad ways. Perhaps the fact that information is more easily accessible these days has helped, but it’s still one hell of a task to track down the kind of detail there is here – and he’s found some new stuff that wasn’t even known about in Bonwitt’s day.
At first I wasn’t wild about all the (many) illustrations being grouped together – I am a bit of a sucker for having pictures throughout a book. But I have discovered since reading it that now I’m using it for reference, it’s much easier to find the images I need – no leafing through trying to find the picture I’m after by trying to guess where it comes in the story.
So yes – it’s a big investment, there’s no getting round that. But it’s a solid one (in every respect.) The paper quailty’s high, the print is clear and strong and it’s going to stay in good nick – if only because it’s never going to stray far from your shelf. But it’s more than that – it’s good quality work. Just as I go back to John Bold again and again, and virtually never look at some of the cheap & cheerful tourist histories on my shelf, paying more for specific volumes does work out better value.
I recommend seeking this out – ask for it for a birthday or something. It’s a keeper.
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