Regency authors in need of a respectable residence for any of their upper middle class characters might want to consider settling them in The Paragon, an elegant crescent of semi-detached Georgian town houses situated southeast of the center of London. It was a relatively new development, and had strict covenants in place to ensure that its respectable residents would not be troubled by unseemly activity on the property. Even so, there had been quite a scandal which had played out at No. 3 only a few years before the Regency began.
A brief survey of The Paragon, Blackheath . .
Blackheath has a long and storied history. Its name derives from the Old English for dark colored heath land, though it was inhabited long before that period. Wat Tyler rallied his troops there in 1381, as did Jack Cade in 1450. It was almost certainly the site of mass graves of plague victims during the dark time known as the Black Death. The heath itself was plagued by highwaymen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But as the eighteenth century came to a close, most of the highwaymen had been driven out of the area and it was ripe for development.
Probably in 1783, John Cator, the wealthy Quaker MP, landowner and timber importer, purchased the Wricklemarsh estate and mansion house in Blackheath, at auction, from the heirs of Sir Gregory Page. Upon the death of his father, Sir Gregory had become one of the wealthiest men in all Britain. His father had purchased a great deal of stock in the South Sea Company. Upon his death, in May of 1720, his executors sold off all of his stock in order to settle his estate. It just so happened that they ordered the sale at the very peak of the stock’s value. Thus, young Sir Gregory suffered no loss when the South Sea bubble burst, and began life a very wealthy gentleman. The fine Palladian mansion house on the property had been built by Sir Gregory, in the mid-1770s, at a cost estimated to have been in excess of £100,000. Despite that, Cator owned a number of other fine properties and had no plans to reside at the Wricklemarsh estate. He initially tried to find a tenant for Wricklemarsh House, negotiating with the War Office, which was interested in converting it into a training school. However, those negotiations eventually fell through and Cator could find no other tenants for the great house.
By 1787, the grand Page mansion was being demolished, gradually, in order to salvage most of its important architectural elements and any reusable building materials. Cator made a little over £14,000 through the sale of the architectural elements and other buildings materials salvaged from Wricklemarsh House. Since he paid about £22,500 for the entire estate, with the sale of the salvaged materials from the mansion house, in the end, the property only cost him about £8500. While the mansion was undergoing its slow demolition, Cator was working with surveyors to subdivide the approximately 250-acre estate into smaller parcels, each of which he intended to lease for separate development. London was growing quickly at this time and there was an increasing need for good housing for the burgeoning middle and upper middle classes within a reasonable proximity of the metropolis. In fact, many people considered London, with all the chimney smoke and filth in the streets, to be exceedingly unhealthy. Even after the war with France began, Cator went forward with his development plans because, though Blackheath was east of London, it was at a high enough elevation and far enough south to escape the bulk of the foul air carried along by the prevailing winds which blew across the city. He realized that there would be any number of affluent people eager for a residence free from the stench and noise of the city centre, but close enough to be within easy reach for business or entertainment.
One the first building leases which Cator granted was in 1794, to the architect, Michael Searles, who had a reputation for designing and building high quality structures. He had also already had some success in designing and building attractive housing terraces. For the Rolls family, Searles had recently designed an elegant crescent of Georgian houses set back from New Kent Road, which was called The Paragon. It would seem that Cator not only liked Searles’ classical residential designs, but he also liked the name, "Paragon." It unequivocally designated his new housing development to be one of outstanding quality, perfect for his target market of upper middle class tenants seeking a fine home in a healthy location. There were to be fourteen houses in this new crescent. Actually, there were seven pairs of houses, two to a block, semi-detached, with each two-house block linked to its neighbor by a gracefully curving colonnade. The crescent of houses would be fronted by a private roadway and a semi-circular garden reserved for the common use of the residents.
The house blocks were of a simple symmetrical exterior design, the facades were four bays wide, having a basement, ground floor, two upper floors and an attic. The front entrance to each house was situated next to the house block, in the single-storey colonnade. The original columns for these colonnades had simple Tuscan capitals and were made of strong and durable Coade Stone. The rear of each house block had a bow window extending from the ground floor to the floor above. The rear wall of the uppermost floor and the attic were flat, with sash windows. There were private gardens at the rear of each house, enclosed by brick walls in the early nineteenth century. But those gardens varied in size due to the constraints of the property. Houses 1 through 8 had gardens large enough to include space for a carriage house and stables at the back of the garden. However, Houses 9 to 14 had progressively smaller gardens which could not accommodate amenities for horses and carriages. Any residents of those properties who kept horses or carriages would have had to stable them elsewhere. There were a couple of stables in the vicinity during the Regency which those residents many have patronized. A private carriage road ran along the back of The Paragon property, but did not extend to the block for Houses 13 and 14. Those two houses had no rear access. It is believed that a private well was sunk in each of the gardens at the rear of The Paragon, thus providing each house with convenient access to fresh water.
The majority of the expense in this development project fell on Searles, as he was both architect and managing builder. He had leased the land from Cator and he was responsible for ensuring the houses were constructed to his designs. In order to keep his costs down, he did what many other builders had done in such circumstances, he built only the "shell" of each house. These shells included the foundation, basement, external walls, floors, staircases, windows and the roof. The new householder would have the responsibility of arranging for the finish and decoration of the interior to suit his own needs and tastes. Thus, though all of the houses were uniform in appearance on the exterior, and the basic floor plans were similar, there were many variations in the interior of each house.
By 1799, some of the shell house blocks were completed and they were quickly leased by tenants eager to live in the new houses. The Paragon was easily accessible by road from London, but, because it was just south of Greenwich, it was also readily accessible by water via the River Thames, making it very convenient to London, but free of the unpleasant aspects of the metropolis. By 1800, the interiors of some of them had been finished and the early house holders were taking up residence in The Paragon, even though construction continued further down the crescent. In order to ensure his new development met the expectations of his respectable, upper middle class tenants, John Cator included a covenant in his leases for these houses which imposed certain restrictions which essentially excluded any activity beyond domestic residence. According to the early nineteenth-century leases for The Paragon, "Nobody was to exercise the art mystery trade or business of a school master or mistress tallow chandler bagnio keeper [brothel keeper] butcher fishmonger etc." Operating a laundry, cobbler’s shop, or haberdashery were all forbidden, as was coppering, carpentry and every other trade or craft in which people of the time might engage.
Unfortunately for John Cator, one of the first leases for a house in The Paragon was not to one of the upright, comfortably circumstanced, middle-class residents he had hoped to attract. In the spring of 1800, the Misses Eliza Frances Robertson and Charlotte Sharpe were granted a lease for House No. 3. They appeared to be two very proper single ladies who wished to share a house. Miss Robertson and Miss Sharpe had run a school for girls together for a few years and it was assumed they were ready to retire. Miss Robertson let it be known, to just a few people, that she was the sole heir to a fine estate in Scotland, Faskally. The estate’s deceased owner was one George Robertson, and she let people assume that she was a member of his family, though in actual fact, all they had in common was a last name. Eliza Robertson had had a hard life and had been involved in a number of swindles from a very young age. Though few of them had been successful, she had managed to elude the authorities by moving from place to place when she thought they were closing in. But once she acquired the lease on No. 3 The Paragon, she seemed to loose all grasp on reality. She ordered lavish and extravagant furnishings on credit, on the strength of her imagined coming inheritance, to fit up the shell of the new house she would share with Miss Sharpe. What some of the other residents of The Paragon had begun to suspect was that Charlotte was not just Eliza’s friend, but her lover.
The women moved into No. 3 in October of 1800 and by the New Year, things began to go wrong. Several tradesmen began to demand payment of their bills, and Eliza had run out of stories to keep them at bay. By early February, Charlotte urged her to flee and Eliza slipped away to London to stay with a friend. Charlotte joined her a few days later, leaving her sister-in-law as caretaker of No. 3. But within a few days, once Charlotte’s brother learned what was going on, he arranged to have the contents of No. 3 sold at auction in order to try to pay off at least some of the debts. Meanwhile, Eliza and Charlotte had gone to Ipswich, then, near the end of March 1801, they sought refuge in Huntingdon. But all was in vain, since one carpenter, a Mr. Martyr, had relentlessly pursued them on behalf of all of the other Blackheath tradesmen they had defrauded. Because Eliza had signed all of the tradesmen’s bills, she alone was arrested for debt in Huntingdon. Her outstanding debts were in excess of £15,000, a staggering amount at that time. She was eventually transferred to the Fleet prison in London. There, she lived out her days writing books of poetry and an autobiography to justify her actions. The income she got from her book sales was enough to allow her to live with some comforts in the Fleet. But she died there, in June of 1805, at the age of thirty-two.
By 1807, all fourteen of the houses in The Paragon in Blackheath were fitted up and leased to more respectable tenants than the Misses Robertson and Sharpe. When the Regency began in 1811, The Paragon was a well-established housing development in Blackheath, and was home to an interesting mix of residents. In the 1970s, a Mr. W. Bonwitt wrote a guidebook on the history of The Paragon, and Paragon House, which stands nearby. In The History of The Paragon, Paragon House and their Residents, he included a list of all the known tenants of each house from the first lease though at least the middle of the twentieth century. However, he did this with some difficulty, since about half of The Paragon stood in the borough of Greenwich, while the other half stood in the borough of Lewisham. In particular, the boundary between Greenwich and Lewisham ran diagonally through House No. 7, from north-east to south-west. A couple of the old stone boundary markers can still be seen in the grounds of The Paragon even today. As Mr. Bonwitt reported, while the rate books and other records for Greenwich were mostly intact, many of those from Lewisham were destroyed during World War II. Therefore, he did his best to piece together a list of residents of The Paragon from any available records.
For those Regency authors who might like to settle one or more of their characters in a house in The Paragon, Blackheath, and would like to know who their neighbors might have been, below I provide Mr. Bonwitt’s list of residents for each house though the end of the Regency:
House No. 1
1800 – 1801 William Thompson
1801 – 1808 Henry Waddington
1809 – 1819 Edward Curling
1820 – 1829 Charles Banks
House No. 2
1800 – 1808 Thomas Barnard
1809 – 1821 Rev. Dr. J. R. Jenkins
House No. 3
1800 – 1801 Misses Charlotte Sharpe and Eliza Frances Robertson
1802 – 1805 H. Smithers
1806 – 1808 George Eliott
1809 – 1811 J. or William Barr(e)
1812 – 1818 John Hayes
1819 – 1821 John Stockwell
House No. 4
1800 – 1810 Samuel Wad(d)esdon
1811 – 1829 Lancelot Loat, b. 1770, d. 8 January 1841 at Lee. Sand and Gravel Merchant, land developer and speculator. Commissioner of Land Tax for the Liberty of Kidbrooke; Trustee of the New Cross Road Turnpike Trust in 1817, Guardian of the Poor for the Hundred of Blackheath in 1817.
House No. 5
1801 – 1803 Joseph Spark(e)s
1804 Lady Burnaby
1805 Mr. Gouland or Golding
1806 – 1808 Henry Abbott
1809 – 1826 Charles Lewis Muller
House No. 6
1804 – 1811 William Descamps or Deschamps
1813 – 1825 Henry Goodwin
House No. 7
1800 – 1806 unfinished
1807 – 1822 Isaac Warner, Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike Road Trust to 1817.
House No. 8
(No Land Tax paid prior to 1825)
1817 George Bromwell, Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike Road Trust in 1817. (May have lived at No. 9 The Paragon)
House No. 9
(No Land Tax paid prior to 1825, but George Bromwell may have lived in No. 8 in 1817)
House No. 10
1803 – 1823 Charles Rivington Broughton, Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike Road Trust in 1817.
House No. 11
1798 – 1802 Alexander Stupart
1803 – 1824 William Geddes
House No. 12
1799 – 1824 Mr. Bernard
House No. 13
1807 – 1825 William Ashmead(e)
House No. 14
1794 – 1795 Michael Searles
1796 – 1802 Michael Searles (building lease)
It is important to keep in mind that houses 8 though 14 were on the Lewisham side of The Paragon, and thus, the information on the residents of those houses may not be completely accurate. For those cases where the dates precede 1800, it is possible that some residents had acquired leases in advance of construction. Based on other available records, it does not appear that anyone occupied any of the houses in The Paragon before 1800, though the architect and building manager, Michael Searles, may have set up his office, or even limited living quarters, in No. 14 during construction.
Though The Paragon in Blackheath was badly damaged during World War II, it was repaired and renovated and it still stands to this day, on the edge of Greenwich Park. Though some alterations were made to The Paragon, mostly to the backs of the houses, it still looks much as it did during the Regency on the front facade. From the late 1940s into the 1950s, The Paragon was fully restored and converted to flats, a purpose which it serves to this day. Views of its appearance today, with a few earlier images mixed in, can be found by a search on the phrase "the paragon blackheath london" in Google Images.
Dear Regency Authors, should you have a need for a respectable house for some of your characters in an upcoming romance, perhaps The Paragon, Blackheath might fit the bill. Particularly if those characters are seeking a healthy location outside of the metropolis and cannot afford the high cost of a house in Mayfair. Perhaps one of your characters is a bit of a health nut, or a hypochondriac, and is unwilling or afraid to reside in central London. It is important to remember that during the Regency, and for several decades thereafter, The Paragon was a respectable set of houses intended for respectable, middle class people who were quite financially comfortable. It would not be a good idea to stash a gentleman’s mistress there, however, as the neighbors would be sure to talk. Or, will you settle your characters in House No. 7? How will they deal with a house that straddles the border of two boroughs? You may have noticed that more than one resident of The Paragon during the Regency was a Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike Road Trust. Turnpike Trusts were established by Parliament to maintain certain toll roads. Perhaps you might like to make one of your characters a fellow member of the same turnpike trust? Will the members all be honest gentlemen, or might one or more of them be mishandling their responsibilities? There are any number of possibilities for a Regency story set all, or in part, at The Paragon, Blackheath.