|Avery Hill Winter Gardens||Greenwich|
Avery Hill was a late Victorian Italianate villa built for Colonel John Thomas North in c.1888 with fine gardens and an enormous conservatory where he housed his winter garden. North initially rented the estate and 20 acres of land but by 1891 had expanded it to over 270 ha, which included much of what is now Shooters Hill Woodlands, and it was used partly for shooting and some let for farming. On his death in 1896 the estate was auctioned, much of it eventually purchased by the LCC, part becoming Avery Hill Park. From 1906 the mansion was used as a college of education, Avery Hill College. The well-stocked Winter Garden is open to the public, and to the west are terraced flower gardens.
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Avery Hill, "an amazingly sumptuous" (Pevsner) late Victorian Italianate villa, was an enlargement of an earlier house. It was built for Colonel John Thomas North in c.1888 by T W Cutler, although North later dismissed and sued his architect for overspending by some £35,000. North's mansion had fine gardens and an enormous conservatory (100 feet square), which housed his winter garden. The main domed structure was "flanked by fernery and conservatory, the best survival in London of such Victorian extravaganzas" (Pevsner) and it took 8 years to build. In the eastern conservatory is a fountain with a marble statue of 'Galatea Reclining on a Dolphin', 1882, by Leopoldo Ansiglioni, which depicts the figure and dolphin surrounded by 4 bronze birds and a group of sea turtles.
Colonel North, born in Leeds in 1842, went to Peru and built up his empire in coal, nitrates, water, cement, steel, railways and gold and became dubbed 'The Nitrate King'. He came to Eltham in 1882 and initially rented Avery Hill and 20 acres of land. He demolished the greater part of the old house and built his new mansion and winter gardens, laying out the park and diverting the course of the old road that was originally nearer the house. By 1891 his estate was over 270 ha. and stretched from Shooters Hill to New Eltham taking in large tracts of open land now collectively known as Shooters Hill Woodlands (q.v.) including Oxleas Wood, Shepherdleas Wood, Eltham Park and Eltham Warren. His Avery Hill parkland was used partly for shooting and some was let for farming. R R C Gregory in 'The Story of Royal Eltham' (1909) writes: 'And the name of Colonel North will long be remembered by the parishioners of Eltham. His bountiful hospitality, his thoughtful consideration for his poorer neighbours, especially at Christmas time, when it was his annual custom to provide every cottage with the good things needful for the season's festivity, his generous patronage of local sport, and his readiness to give of his wealth towards the maintenance of local institutions, charitable and otherwise, are memories that will long be associated with his name and with Avery Hill.' He died in 1896 and was buried in the churchyard of Eltham parish church of St John's (q.v.) where 'some 800 wreaths and floral designs, requiring six vehicles for their conveyance, were sent by friends and societies from far and near. The procession was of such dimensions that when the Church was reached the last carriage had not left the keeper's cottage in the Bexley Heath Road'. Every shop and public-house in the village was closed upon the occasion, and the blinds of every house in the High Street were lowered. Among the distinguished visitors at the grave was the Belgian Ambassador, representing the King of the Belgians; while the Khedive of Egypt sent a letter of condolence to Mrs North.'
Following North's death in 1896 the estate was auctioned, much of it eventually purchased in 1902 by London County Council. Part of the parkland became public open space as Avery Hill Park (q.v.). The Greater London Council, who succeeded the London County Council, at one time used 17 acres of the grounds for its central plant nursery, supplying its various parks in London. From 1906 the mansion was taken over for a college of education, and Avery Hill College was the first local authority residential college for women, not admitting men until 1959. In 1985 it became part of Thames Polytechnic and it is now part of the University of Greenwich.
The Winter Garden was damaged in World War II and only re-opened to the public after restoration in 1962. It remains well-stocked with tropical trees and plants and is open to public. In 2010 the Winter Garden re-opened following temporary closure for conservation works, which included cleaning and restoring the statue of Galatea, refurbishing the circular pool, now surrounded by a path, planting aquatic plants in the East House and replanting the conservatory with camellias and exotic plants from Chile, echoing those collected by John North, and restoration of the building's guttering, windows, heating and decoration. West of the Winter Garden are terraced flower gardens and a rose garden.
The site boundary with Bexley Road retains the C19th brick wall within which are specimen trees and shrubs, and two lodges, the West Lodge having a picturesque French chateau-style roof and archway. The West Lodge provides the main entrance to the University of Greenwich, while the East Lodge remains at the entrance to the public park.
Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999, p283; Sue Swales, Meg Game, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Greenwich', Ecology Handbook 10 (London Ecology Unit), 1989; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); K D Clark, 'Greenwich and Woolwich in Old Photographs' (Alan Sutton) 1990. See www.gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk for reproduction of R R C Gregory's 'The Story of Royal Eltham' (1909)