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20th November 2013

Historic Asylum Railing Unearthed

We have identified the origin of some fabulous Georgian cast iron gateposts and railings, boldly cast with distinctive “anthemia” – the honeysuckle motif invented by the ancients and favoured by the Georgians. The gateposts and their accompanying railings were once a well-known landmark on one of London’s busiest thoroughfares: The Old Kent Road. They are rare survivors from their era and their provenance is also noteworthy:

The Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Children, built  c.1806.

Asylum Anthemia Gatepost Panel
Asylum Anthemia Gatepost Panel



Leaving the clamour of Elephant & Castle behind there’s a brief respite as, finally released from the traffic along the New Kent Road and heading eastward, you’re up onto the single lane flyover that sweeps you over the Bricklayer’s Arms roundabout and down to the next lights. Then you’re on the Old Kent Road proper.

This ancient highway – originally part of the Roman “Watling Street”, later known as “The Kent Road”, was lined with market gardens and tilled fields punctuated with inns, hamlets and windmills all the way to Dover. The first toll-gate stood just where the flyover ends today at a hostelry known as St Thomas a Becket’s Watering Hole.

By the end of the 18th Century, ribbon developments were working their way eastwards. Many of the new buildings going-up were grand villas set in their own grounds as well as some notable merchants and grand asylums – the huge Asylum for Victuallers was one, The Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Children was another.

Asylum for Deaf & Dumb Children, Old Kent Road
Asylum for Deaf & Dumb Children, Old Kent Road

An early 19th Century commentator, Miss Priscilla Wakefield, in her “Perambulations,” published in 1809, commences one of her “letters” as follows:—

“We continued our excursions into the county of Kent, stopping on the Kent Road to view a handsome building now erecting for the Asylum for poor Deaf and Dumb Children, an unfortunate class of persons, too long overlooked, or ineffectually commiserated among us. The applicants becoming so numerous that not one half of them could be admitted, it was resolved to extend the plan. A new subscription was set on foot for the purpose, and the present building was raised, without encroaching on the former funds of the institution.”

She was standing right where the flyover descends onto the Old Kent Road today. She would have peered through the then freshly painted railings that we now have with us at LASSCO.

Victorian Map showing the Asylum on Kent Road
Victorian Map showing the Asylum on Kent Road

The handsome brick-built villa had five bays to the three-storey centre and five to each of the arcaded wings. It was built to the designs of Thomas Swithin (d.1816). The Duke of Gloucester laid the foundation stone in 1806. It enabled the Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Children to move from its premises round the corner in Fort Place, Bermondsey where it had been founded in 1792 by Rev. John Townsend of Jamaica Road Chapel, and by the Rev. H. C. Mason, then curate of Bermondsey. Both of their names are perpetuated by Townsend Street and Mason Street, on either side of the Asylum. The street names are still there but the Asylum is long gone (the school itself de-camped to Margate – now in its 220th year it is known as the “Royal School for Deaf Children” .

Asylum for Deaf & Dumb Children, Old Kent Road
Asylum for Deaf & Dumb Children, Old Kent Road, nb earlier fenestration

The Asylum was one of the earliest, and became the most influential, institutions in this country dedicated to the care and education of deaf children. In 1819 the school was extended. Around it the population was still booming. By the time Swithin’s Asylum building was demolished, in 1886, Bermondsey was completely transformed from the respectable verdant suburb it had been.

Engraving c.1816, I.C. Varrell for "Walks Through London" showing Anthemia gateposts, lantern brackets & railing
Engraving c.1816, I.C. Varrell for “Walks Through London”

A new London railway terminus, “Bermondsey” had arrived, almost opposite the Asylum but was very short-lived, being usurped by London Bridge. It became a goods terminus after only two years. The Grand Surrey Canal was cut through to the East in 1807 and dense swathes of back-to-backs were rapidly un-furled across the fields without even a park. Biscuit and jam factories were built to the south, a huge gas-works in the middle and the skinners and tanners of the noxious leather industry to the north. Workers crammed in to the terraces. Bermondsey became one of the most densely populated boroughs in Europe. The river-side slums of Jacob’s Creek were notorious enough for Dickens to set Oliver Twist within its dark and dangerous alleys and creeks. With the serious over-crowding Charles Booth recorded in his Survey of 1900 that the Bermondsey streets were primarily comprised of terraces housing either the “Vicious & Semi-Criminal”, or the “Very Poor”.

Detail of Varrell engraving showing Anthemia gateposts
Detail of Varrell engraving showing Anthemia gateposts

Surprisingly, the handsome railings and decorative gate-posts curving along the frontage of the Asylum, containing its mature gardens amidst the din, survived the demolition of the main Georgian building in 1868. The gateposts had distinctive honeysuckle flower heads, neatly stacked down each side of the square piers. Each was crowned with a lantern – a chair-iron to support it of four curving square section bars, tapering upwards from a crisply engineered Greek-key scroll. They might have looked a touch incongruous in front of the new school that went up in its place.

They were still there in the spring of 1935 when Victor Watson, MD of Waddington’s and his secretary Marjorie Phillips, down from Leeds, scouted around London deciding on appropriate street names for their new anglicised “Monopoly” board game: Mayfair would be the prestige street – Old Kent Road was selected for the cheapest rent on the board. The street had become the byword for poverty.

Anthemion - detail of the Asylum gatepost ironwork.
Anthemion – detail of the Asylum gatepost ironwork.

They even survived the War effort, somehow escaping the railing pogroms in the 1940’s when so many London squares were needlessly relieved of their railings.  The area, in “Bomb Alley”, had suffered badly at the hands of the Luftwaffe and particularly the V2, but the railings remained. They are remarked upon in the Survey of London in 1955. Even the town planners left them standing as the back to backs were flattened leaving the Old Kent Road running through a de-populated hinterland.

It was in 1970 with the building of the concrete flyover – that sweeps you from New to Old Kent Road – that finally saw to the railings’ demise. The ironwork, discovered by LASSCO in a Shropshire warehouse, still bears the paint and grime of nearly two centuries in Bermondsey.

There’s talk of demolishing the flyover. Perhaps the handsome iron gateposts of The Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Children might return to their spot on the Old Kent Road? It would be fitting. They’re not Any old Iron. They can be viewed at LASSCO Three Pigeons (click here to see them in our inventory and here to see the gate pier lantern brackets).

Joseph Watson, head of the Asylum for many years & Author of "Instruction for the Deaf and Dumb" in 1809
Joseph Watson, head of the Asylum for many years & Author of “Instruction for the Deaf and Dumb” in 1809
Asylum gate pier lantern brackets
Asylum gate pier lantern brackets