The History of St. Mary's in Eltham
Eltham's community and resource centre - and the arcade behind it - take their name from the previous occupant, St Mary's Primary School, but the building was not always known by that name. It would appear that a house has stood on the site for hundreds of years - it is known that in 1837 the house was owned by William Stace, when he let it to William Henry Goschen and his family, who are recorded in the 1841 and 1851 census returns, but by 1853 the house is recorded as 'empty'. However, the Goschen family took up residence again in Eltham from 1859 to 1863, and whilst living in Eltham, William's son George became MP for the City of London, and went on to achieve high political office, including the posts of First Lord of the Admiralty and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1900 he was created Viscount Goschen of Hawkhurst.
By 1861 the house was used by William Knightly as a private school for young gentleman, but in 1870 the house, by then known as Torrington Lodge, was bought by Father Cotter of Woolwich for the beginnings of the revival of the Roman Catholic faith in Eltham. The Sisters of Mercy opened an industrial school for girls at the Lodge and a poor school next door.
In 1887 the industrial school moved to larger premises at Croydon, and in 1888 the Bishop of Southwark bought the property and Father Martin superintended the beginnings of a Poor Law School for Catholic workhouse boys, which necessitated the return of the Sisters of Mercy to Eltham. Further re-organisation moved the Poor Law School to Mottingham and St Mary's Convent (as the house was by then known) was converted into a hospital orphanage for Catholic children.
In the mid-1920's plans were being made to convert the buildings into a 'non-provided Catholic day school' at a cost of £6,000. St Mary's School opened on 17th April 1928 with 186 children, administered by the Educational Department of the London County Council. By 1934, following the acquisition of extra space to the rear of St Mary's, the roll had increased to 449, covering all ages.
The entire building was requisitioned by the Civil Defence during the Second World War and became the Headquarters of the Eltham Rescue Service. The school did not return until after the war had ended. When St Thomas More Secondary School opened in 1964 at Footscray Road, St Mary's ceased to be an all-age school, now catering for the 5-11 age range. Finally, in 1984, it moved to larger premises in Glenure Road, Eltham, leaving a site of some considerable size available for redevelopment, with St Mary's Convent, by then a listed building, as the High Street frontage.
The Project for a Community Centre
It was the local community itself which first saw the potential of St Mary's Convent as a community centre. In 1983, a number of local groups had come together to discuss the provision of community facilities and resources in the south of the borough and formed themselves into South Greenwich Forum, meeting monthly for discussion and information exchange. Initial members were residents and tenants associations and grant-aided groups specifically working in the south of the borough. Membership quickly expanded and within a year the Forum was acting as an umbrella organisation of nearly 50 voluntary and community groups and agencies.
The Forum quickly identified the lack of any focal point for the community in the central Eltham area. Therefore, when the St Mary's School site became available for redevelopment, at both planning brief and planning application stages, the Forum successfully opposed office development in favour of full community use.
South Greenwich Forum acted as the initial catalyst for the project, but could never have achieved the provision of the community centre on its own. What grew out of that initial idea was a partnership between the local community, the local authority and the eventual developer, Sainsbury's, who started work on the restoration of the listed building in 1986. They sympathetically restored St Mary's to its former glory, and as the listed building had no 'services', one of the ground floor rooms was converted to provide toilets, space for a kitchen, and a lift to provide access to the first floor for disabled people. A new rear entrance with ramp was added to avoid the use of the front steps.
The partnership between Sainsbury's and the Council resulted in the lease of the building, on a 60-year peppercorn rent to the London Borough of Greenwich. Elegant though the building was, it was unusable until it had been fitted out. Starting in 1987, a small Forum steering group had regular meetings with Greenwich Council officers. The Forum put forward proposals showing how it envisaged the building could best be used, and detailed budgets were drawn up to cover capital outlay to fit the building out, and revenue for staffing and running costs. The Council was able to find basic revenue funding, and the Forum undertook to raise the capital, initially over £20,000 (it finally rose to over £30,000).
The Forum had to look beyond its own member groups - the voluntary sector and community groups exist on tight resources at the very best of times. The 'partnership' widened and national and local trusts and organisations were approached, and the many that generously responded are shown in the fuller history of the building available at St Mary's office.
As funds were raised, work was put in hand. There was a great deal to be done - and here the partnership extended further, with considerable help from the Council's Building and Design Officer. The kitchen was fitted out, one upstairs room was converted into two confidential advice rooms, another converted for media resources, with duplicator, electric stencil cutter, photocopier and Kroy lettering machine installed. Downstairs, the main double room required some alteration, and also needed a wooden floor - here a redundant 'winter floor' from Plumstead Baths was recycled. Everything was been done to maintain the standard of restoration begun by Sainsbury's in conjunction with English Heritage.
The Community Centre was initially managed by Greenwich Council but budget restraints forced the Council to re-think its ability to fully fund community centres. On 1st April 1993, following negotiations with the local community, management responsibility for St Mary's and four local community halls was devolved to a voluntary management committee, elected from community user groups and interested individuals. The new organisation was St Mary's (Eltham) Community Complex Association. Greenwich Council continues to give support in the form of an annual grant towards the running costs. They also maintain the external fabric of the building. The remainder of the funding required to run all five buildings comes from rental income. The Association achieved charitable status in April 1996, and became a company limited by guarantee in June 1999.
The board of trustees is still made up of elected community user group members and other interested local people, to ensure that those who regularly use the community buildings take an active role in how they are managed.