Foots Cray Place
Image credit: Bexley Archives
A medieval house stood on the area now known as Foots Cray Meadows with such an estate mentioned in the Domesday Book from 1086.
The exact location of that building, which became known as Pike Place, is not clear but it appears to have developed from being a farmhouse into a country mansion – and it stood by the River Cray. Around the 1500s, it became the possession of the Walsingham family for six generations.
The most famous of these was Sir Francis Walsingham – principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I for 17 years until his death in 1590. His spy network uncovered a range of attempts to overthrow the monarch, not least the Babington Plot. This was a plan in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, and put Mary, Queen of Scots, her Catholic cousin, on the English throne. It led to Mary's execution.
The Walsinghams sold the estate around 1676. A map from 1683 depicts Pike Place as an Elizabethan E-type house that was in the possession of Joseph Lem.
It was then held by a series of owners before in 1752 Bourchier Cleeve, a pewterer and a writer from London, purchased for £5,450 the land and all that stood on it.
Records state Cleeve initially commissioned influential architect Isaac Ware to build a Palladian-style villa, that became known as Foots Cray Place in 1754. But other research has produced a letter and drawings by Matthew Brettingham the Younger, which indicate the design might be his. There are further suggestions that it is actually the work of Daniel Garrett, with it being built posthumously as he died in 1753.
All three had links to Lord Burlington, who is credited with bringing Palladian architecture to Britain – with its concepts of “symmetry, perspective and the principles of formal classical architecture from ancient Greek and Roman traditions”. This style is distinctive by its huge outer columns with stairways.
With manicured gardens and strategically placed trees surrounding Foots Cray Place, plus its distinctive dome and huge outside staircases, the result was described as being “one of the most elegant houses in England”.
But Cleeve, aged just 45, died in 1760 and the estate was sold in 1772 for £14,500 to Benjamin Harenc, whose family were protestant Huguenot refugees escaping persecution in France. Records show that at the time of this sale, there was a one-arch Palladian bridge over the River Cray. This would be replaced within ten years, as the main crossing point of the water, by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s Five Arch Bridge. Pike Place was demolished in 1777.
Around 1821, Foots Cray Place in its entirety was purchased by Nicholas Vansittart, the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1812 until 1823, when he was then made Lord Bexley. He lived in the manor house until his death in 1850.
One of the following tenants was Sir John Pender, who took out a 21-year lease. He was a pioneer of the transatlantic telegraphic cable and therefore, the beginnings of transatlantic communications, a significant entrepreneur, businessman, JP and MP. He is buried in family plot in All Saints church.
Foots Cray Place remained in his family until it was sold in 1898 to Samuel J Waring, chairman of the furniture manufacturers and antique dealers Waring & Gillow. He was made Lord Waring for his contribution to the First World War effort.
He was Kent County Scouts Commissioner and international jamborees were often held in grounds. Lord Baden Powell came to Foots Cray Place.
The peer died in 1940 and his widow sold the property, plus the grounds, to Kent County Council for use as a museum.
But on October 18, 1949, workmen accidentally started a fire and the building was damaged beyond repair, with the dome collapsing in a molten mass. Only the basement was left more or less intact.
The ruins were demolished and the grounds became part of what is now Foots Cray Meadows. The only traces of the remains are faint outlines of the foundations to the west of the Meadows close to the path from the Rectory Lane car park entrance. There is also an avenue of lime trees to the east of the site that appear to lead to nowhere but they were planted to give a vista from the house down to the lake. The lake, complete with boat house, was used for boating but it was filled in with rubbish by Chislehurst and Sidcup Council.
Bourchier Cleeve arranged for what was known as The Canal. This was fed with water from watercress beds located to the south of All Saints Church.