Royal Watermen’s Almshouses

The Royal Watermen’s Almshouses were built in 1840 to a design by George Porter. James Dudin Brown donated the land. There are 46 almshouses in all.

Their mid-Victorian splendor is partially hidden behind high ornate iron railings on the high street, although some open on to Penge Lane behind small cottage gardens. There is the three-sided design of the period: blocks of housing surrounding a central garden or recreation area.

The former central chapel has attractive leaded windows and is topped by the blue and gold clock and a wind vane. In the central garden there are lawns and flowerbeds with a tall central marble obelisk and a long high wall with gargoyle statues atop. One of the gargoyles (heraldic beasts) inspired the Penge Heritage Trail logo.

DDP10N View of the Watermen and Lightermen’s Almshouses in Penge, Kent, 1842. Artist: WF Starling

The quirkiness of this Tudor revival masterpiece seems to anticipate the weirdness of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland by twenty five years. A White Rabbit just might go scuttling by. They are unique in Britain and are locally and nationally-listed buildings since 1973. Although very compact inside, they do have access to a communal garden area which was a Victorian ideal.

Historic England has this to say:  ‘These Almshouses were for aged watermen and lightermen and were built in 1839-4. The architect was George Porter. The ground was given by James Dudin Brown. They form 3 sides of a courtyard. 2 storeys. White brick. In the centre of the main block are 2 square towers of 4 storeys each with ogee-shaped lead. Between is a crow-stepped gable containing a royal cartouche and below an oriel window of 2 tiers of 5 lights on the first floor and a 4 centred archway on the ground floor. On each side of this central feature the centre block has 7 windows and 2 gables. The side blocks at right angles have 13 windows and 5 gables each. Projecting cloister to the whole. A balustrade completes the 4th side with 3 entrances flanked by brick piers surmounted by heraldic beasts.’

The almshouses were built in the days when Penge was a rural hamlet surrounded by Penge Common. The adjoining St John’s church was built a few years later, as wer the magnificent King William IV cottages. All three projects witnessed the Victorian philanthropic concern for the poor and the marginalized. And all three are splendid examples of mid-Victorian architecture. Some are nationally and locally-listed buildings.

The watermen ferried people across the Thames during the Victorian era when there was only one bridge. The lightermen were pilots of small boats who delivered goods from larger ships to the banks of the river. Ornate fish emblems fashioned in iron can be seen on the beautiful cast iron and wood water pump inside the grounds. Similar fish emblems in ironwork can be seen along the banks of the Thames at Westminster.

The residents moved out in 1973 to bungalows in Hastings. The alms-houses are now privately-owned. Unique in this country, they are one of the glories of Britain, let alone Penge.