The Royal Naval Asylum

The Royal Naval Asylum, or the King William IV Cottages, was built in 1848. Queen Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, Dowager Queen to Queen Victoria, decided, after the death of her husband in 1837, to build these almshouses for twelve destitute widows and families of naval officers as a philanthropic gesture. Plans were taken forward in 1847.

Queen Adelaide had been unpopular in civic matters, often meddling in parliamentary affairs, and after several illnesses, miscarriages and bereavement, consolidated a new phase of reaching out to the poor and needy. William, despite other failings, had had a successful career in the Navy. Her considerable fortune meant she could pour money into various projects both at home and abroad. The town Adelaide, in Australia, is named after her.

Adelaide had already donated money towards the cost of the Royal Watermen’s cottages (1841). For the Royal Naval Asylum project she employed Philip Hardwick R.A., the fashionable designer of the Doric Euston Arch, as the architect.

Hardwick (1792-1870) was a designer of railway stations and warehouses. He designed the buildings of St Katharine’s Dock as well as the Birmingham Curzon Street station, the oldest of its kind in Britain. He came from a family which had 150 years involvement in architecture. Generally considered a sound traditional designer, he was a safe choice for civic structures. His work does not have the quirky flamboyance of an architect like George Porter but, if lacking in imaginative elan, there are often well thought-through grandiose qualities.

For the Royal Naval Asylum, he chose to design in the Tudoresque style with tall chimneys and a three-sided structure in red brick surrounding a communal garden. The twelve surviving widows and their families were to lack nothing in comfort. Considering that Penge was still very rural at this time with less than 1000 inhabitants, the setting must have seemed idyllic.

The asylum, now privately owned, is a nationally-listed Grade ll building since 1972. Historic England notes ‘the red brick with diaper pattern of grey headers. Slate roof with groups of octagonal red brick chimneys. Royal Arms of William IV in the centre.’

It is interesting that the post-war Queen Adelaide Court, designed by Edward Armstrong for the Festival of Britain (1951), mimicks the three-sided design and its central gardens as a kind of homage to the thoughtful philanthropy of a bygone age.

Queen Adelaide did not live long after making her marvellous gift to the poor. A Penge legend which persists is that she attended Sunday Eucharist at St John’s Church, entering by a secret stairway to the choir loft, unnoticed and unseen. If it’s true, it must have been her ghost as she died in 1849. St John’s was built in 1850/51.

Listed buildings entry:

British Listed Status The Royal Naval Asylum Penge and Cator Ward

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