Recreating the lost Well Hall House with Edith Nesbit

We are very pleased to share the second in a series of posts by Manchester historian, Andrew Simpson. Here he is going back to his roots and looking at Well Hall House in Eltham, where Edith Nesbit the well-known and much-loved children’s writer lived.

Recreating the lost Well Hall House with Edith Nesbit

Well Hall House has passed out of living memory. It was built in 1733, was home to some Eltham notables and was demolished in 1930. It stood between Well Hall Road and the moat and replaced the Tudor manor house which Sir Gregory Page knocked down to build his fine 18th century house.

But a building which dominated Well Hall, and was known by many seems to have left little trace.  There are a few photographs a handful of maps and the land records of the tithe schedule. Together these show a tall building which ran to three floors, had a wing on each side and was set in an estate of about 33 acres including a front garden, a walled garden to the south, the moat , three ponds, a stream and much meadow and pasture land along with the farm buildings which included the present Tudor Barn.

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A little to the north were Well Hall Cottages which in the 1840’s had been a complex of six properties but by 1911 seem to have become a farmhouse and one cottage. But Well Hall House was sufficiently enclosed that I doubt the cottages proved much of an intrusion, and so within its grounds the occupants of the big house got on with their favoured lives wandering the fourteen rooms and looking out east across the fields and west across their gardens.

Well Hall OS 1858-73

Judging by the photographs I am not sure it was a place that would have caught my fancy.  It was tall and the design fitted that classical style of balance so that what you saw on one side was replicated on the other.

All of which is not much for a house which stood for just under two hundred years, but as these things work there is one other source of information, and that comes from Edith Nesbit, the novelist who lived in the house from the late 19th century into the twentieth. Contained in some of her books are references to Eltham, Well Hall and the house itself.  And of these it is The Red House written in 1902 which provides some wonderful insights into the place.

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The back of Well Hall House from the Paddock and moat, 1909

The book itself is a light account of the lives of a newly married couple who inherit the Red House and choose to live there. In the course of the year that follows Mrs Nesbit describes in some detail the house, its gardens, the nearby cottages with references to the village the parish church and offers up walk on parts for both Woolwich and Blackheath.

But it is the house which draws you in, with its panelled rooms, great hall, vaulted cellars and kitchen still with the equipment which would have been in use through the 18th and 19th centuries.  Added to this there are observations about the rooms which had been much messed about by changing fashion.

Now like all such descriptions I suspect there will be points when the Red House departs from the actuality of the original, but I am confident that there is more that will have been the same than less. This in turn stretched to her descriptions of the gardens, including the walled one, the presence of the railway with its station and embankment and the parish church.

Edith and her husband Hubert had taken on the house and 7 acres of the land. Of course there may be more sources of information sitting in the Greenwich Heritage Centre and in the letters of the people who visited Edith and her husband at Well Hall which included the Webb’s, H.G.Wells and Bernard Shaw but in the meantime the Red House seems to have done the old place proud.

Location; Well Hall, London

Pictures; Well Hall House circa 1909,  from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The Story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers

https://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/recreating-lost-well-hall-house-with.html

http://gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk/bookpages/i001.htm and Well Hall House, from The Edith Nesbit Society, http://www.edithnesbit.co.uk/ map of Well Hall from the OS Map of Kent 1858-74

https://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/

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A little bit of Eltham in the stories of Edith Nesbit

We are really thrilled to be able to share some stories by the very popular historian and writer, Andrew Simpson. Although based in Manchester, Andrew writes here about Edith Nesbit, mostly known for her children’s stories.

A little bit of Eltham in the stories of Edith Nesbit, writer, socialist and resident at Well Hall House

Now I have set myself the task of reading the stories of Edith Nesbit and looking for Eltham. She lived in Well Hall House from the late 19th century into the 20th and those in the know reckon they can spot the references.

I never read her books when I was growing up and have to confess that I only came to know of the Railway Children which is one of her most famous books when the film came out.

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The old Woolwich Road, 1909

So to rectify this omission and to see if the descriptions of the house the children lived in and the countryside they played around matches the Eltham of the late 19th century I shall trawl her books. And before someone mutters, “he clearly needs to get out more,” I reckon it will fulfil a couple of goals.

First it will involve reading  some children’s classics and it will allow me to wander the lanes of Well Hall, and the fields stretching north to the woods and south to the Palace sometime between the 1890s and the 1920s.

And in all of this I shall be aided by the wonderful pictures and descriptions of Eltham from R.R.C.Gregory’s history of Eltham, published in 1909 and still a must for anyone wanting to know the history of the area.*

I doubt that there will always be an exact match and not all of the books will contain any references but perhaps enough to add to what I already know about both her home and the area over a century ago.  And  she was far more than just a little old lady who wrote children’s books.

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Well Hall House, date unknown

Her marriage appears to be what we might today describe as an open one and she adopted two children from her husband’s relationship with another woman who was employed as their house keeper.

She was one of the founder members of the Fabian Society, a member of the Social Democratic Federation and wrote and spoke regularly on socialism. Amongst her friends were H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, all of whom visited the house in Well Hall.

She was also a member of the local Labour Party and it was here she met Tommy Tucker an engineer on the Woolwich Ferry, who she married three years after the death of her husband Hubert.

NesbitEdith Nesbit

All of which fits nicely as like Edith, Hubert and Tommy, I was also a member of the same local Labour Party.

Woolwich Labour Party was formed in 1903.  At that time the Woolwich constituency took in Woolwich and Eltham, and even when it was split between Woolwich East and Woolwich West for the 1918 General Election the Labour Party took the decision to stay as one party. So when I joined in 1966 aged just 16 I was walking with Edith, Hubert and Tommy.

And one of her books has already begun to reveal old Eltham. This is the Red House published in 1902, and named I guess after the home of William Morris.  But as the story unfolds it is clear that the house is Well Hall House.

It was demolished in 1928 after a fire, but the opening chapters recreate the property down to the ivy which covered part of the back,  the gardens and the interior. Now there may be some images of the inside of the place, along with plans and descriptions but at present all I have is the Red House.

But that is an exciting start.

Pictures; The old Woolwich Road, circa 1909,  from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers,http://gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk/bookpages/i001.htm

Well Hall House, from The Edith Nesbit Society,http://www.edithnesbit.co.uk/ and Edith Nesbit from Wikipedia Common

© Andrew Simpson

You can read this post on Andrew’s excellent blog:

https://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/a-little-bit-of-eltham-in-stories-of.html

https://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk

Andrew has written several books on Chorlton-cum-Hardy and the manchester area:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Story-Chorlton-Cum-Hardy/dp/0752489666/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1470942156&sr=8-9&keywords=andrew+simpson+history

and

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=andrew+simpson++peter+topping