North Cray Place
Image credit: Bexley Archives
North Cray Place sat close to the site of an old Elizabethan manor house, to the east of the River Cray and to one side of St James Church in what is now land occupied by the houses and gardens of The Grove and St James Way.
The manors of North Cray and Ruxley were given by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux.
The land passed through many hands from the 12th century with the Rokesle family owning both manors. They were subsequently inherited by the Poynings and Percys. In 1538, all lands owned by the Percys were passed to Henry VIII. The King granted the North Cray manor to Sir Roger Cholmley, who sold it two years later to Sir Martin Bowes. His family owned it for several generations.
The estate was bought by Jeffrey Hetherington in 1738, with his family being credited for making provision for a huge gateway, which still survives, from St James Church into the Meadows.
A map from 1769 is the earliest record of designed gardens around North Cray Place. An engraving some 10 years later reveals substantial terraced gardens surrounding three-storey building with a tower in each corner.
Thomas Coventry, a cousin to the Earl of Coventry, then inherited the estate in 1778. He added to the substantial house by having the grounds remodelled by renowned English landscape garden Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). That work included the building of the Five Arch Bridge, which is still in existence.
An oval pond surrounded by trees some 50 metres from the main building is one change that may have been created by Brown, but this feature had disappeared on maps during the 19th century.
Around 1823, a new house was built and ten years later the estate was bought by Nicholas Vansittart, who was Chancellor of the exchequer for more than nine years from 1812 before becoming Lord Bexley. His family continued to own the house until the early 20th century.
The purchase from Coventry’s godson of North Cray Place by Vansittart united Foots Cray Place and North Cray Place either side of the River Cray as Vansittart had brought the former in 1821.
Lord Bexley lived at the adjoining Foots Cray Place and leased out North Cray Place to various tenants. A 1854 map reveals North Cray Place and its surrounding land had altered little since it was bought by him.
Upon his death in 1850, the two estates passed to Coleraine Robert Vansittart and, when he died in 1886, to Captain Robert Arnold Vansittart. The house stayed in Vansittart ownership, being leased out to various people during the interim period, until the 1920s.
It was occupied from 1909 by Francis Pease, a retired banker who lived there with his wife and two daughters along with 14 staff.
By 1936, it had been converted into a social club. Sidcup and Chislehurst Urban District Council began negotiations in 1939 for the purchase of land to the north of the house for use as allotments, sports pitches and open space. This was not completed until 1949.
Arms manufacturing giant Vickers-Armstrong took over North Cray Place during the Second World War but it was badly damaged by a German doodle-bug bomb in 1944 and had to be partly demolished, becoming a single-storey building.
The house and grounds were acquired by Sidcup and Chislehurst UDC in 1953. The stable block was demolished in 1959 and the house in 1962.
From 1965, housing was built over the eastern part of the site south of St James Church, while the surviving parkland was reunited with that of Foots Cray Place to become Foots Cray Meadows.
Lancelot Capability Brown’s account book, according to the Kent Gardens Trust research, shows in 1781-82, he was paid £1,300 for work at North Cray, equal to around £280,000 in today’s money.