Red Hill - The Building

by Ralph Gee

[© Ralph Gee, November, 2001]

Much of the history below is conjectural, deserving research in Kent's Local History Archives. Those knowing the building only after the 1956 and later extensions will find its earlier coherence difficult to visualise, particularly with areas subsequently blocked off. The original Jacobean concept, with what I think were Georgian or early Victorian extensions, was a spatially efficient structure, and a tribute to stately but sensible use of a relatively small area. Since there was no limit of land, and the amount of garden walling suggests no shortage of bricks, the original conceiver kept the design to what was wanted, and no more - as if it were to fit the status of its first owner, his resources notwithstanding. Charlton Court, named from the same estate as the home of Charlton Athletic FC, seemed to have more rooms than superficial sight of the exterior suggested, and with traffic areas that used the co-ordinating space very effectively. Nothing was wasted, and I have seen many over-indulgent Victorian urban mansions incapable of housing far fewer and less energetic bodies.

Unfortunately no proper study was ever made of this aspect of its design, and it would be impossible to find another building of similar shape, size and internal design that made it to the middle of this century without drastic modification. Bethlem Hospital bought the property in 1948 but never occupied the building. Shaw bought it in 1954. The property had probably been desolated by the broken inheritances and confused property ownerships following the First World War, and until 1956 nothing was done to it. Thus most of it was completely genuine, and unglamourous. The original official listing of buildings as "Grade II" ignored internal structures, the best guide to how people lived, and its importance is relatively recent, epitomised by the destruction and accurate replenishment of Uppark. The loss of Charlton Court's chimneys, and the post-1956 extended blemishes, make it hard to accept "listing" as a conservation guarantee. Its first unknown architect deserves to be remembered, but his ideas have now no cohesion. They survived for 350 years largely because whoever occupied the building had little money for visible profligacy, and that is typical of the large English country house. I hope Morley Gayton would approve these thoughts, because he taught such principles of historic architecture, and that the beauty of a building is not its looks, but how it works in relation to those looks.

Architects in academic mode stress the function of any building as the keystone of its design, assuming that every new activity begins in a purposive structure. Some conversions are better than buildings designed for specified functions, since any function needs activities identified and priorities assigned before buildings are shaped for them. For example the first railway terminals could not cope with locomotives, and Stephenson kept them outside Euston. The British Library mess now nearby is architect-designed after little consultation with librarians, while the Bloomsbury Reading Room that has worked so well for so long was designed by Pannizzi, a librarian. Sometimes the shape conditions the philosophy of the tenant activity, with vestiges carried into subsequent premises.

An outré library example comes from the design of the new Birmingham Central Library, when the architect asked the staff to select one feature from the old building for retention in the new. They chose a very impractical spiral staircase originally joining the Reference Library to its offices and stacks, more or less what it still does. Left to their own devices, architects may forget to give libraries stacks and staff offices (as a world famous architectural knight at Swiss Cottage), where all the non-open shelf material is stored - and most libraries are like ice-bergs with less than 20% of their stock directly accessible. All that is to argue that had Red Hill not been in Charlton Court, it would not have worked. Before 1956 the building had more influence on our evolved organisation than any abstract social model, but eventually fire-escapes were necessary by law. My generation had too little heat to burn it down - although the loss of the Old Art Room was probably a warning to Shaw.

In 1956 the classroom extensions took the Woodpile and Square Yard, and the new Dining Room stretched the once Butler's Pantry over the chalet space. Until then the building was entirely close to the original Jacobean, possibly excepting the kitchen wing and the bathroom-on-a-pole (cast iron!), with skilfully matched brickwork. I think these were 19th century cluttering luxuries. Aesthetic intuition suggests that the original north side of the house was symmetric, with a central back door and passage past what became the home of the Beeston boiler. It is unlikely that the architect would have designed the mess so visible from the top of the hill to the east, without a barrier of trees, when he planted trees in each of the other three salient points of the compass. My guess is that the original kitchen was separate, commonly done to isolate cooking smells and fire dangers, and the Woodpile wall was part of it. If building the classroom extensions confirmed the level of the Woodpile plot as from earlier foundations, I don't suppose anyone looked.

Since these pieces are intended for Red Hill boys, there is no point in a full architectural description of the building's exterior. My only preface is to remind that the house was neither grandiose nor humble, and the internal efficiency produces a relatively easy "walk-through". In this particular piece I wish to record the rooms as I knew them up to 1953. As a listed building, all of it remains, except for the lost chimneys, and the full yard and containing wall.

The first thing all new boys met was the arched western main door, known to us as the Front Door, although the front of the house faced south. The architect's reason can be guessed on entering into the handsome Main Hall. It may be that the porch (behind Ivor Holland, right), with a small room directly above, was also a later addition. Battered though its decorative arch is, neither it nor the door seem Jacobean, particularly since some fireplaces and other internal features use four-centred arches. The Hall is aligned across the centre of the house, directing the unusual design of the entirety, and large enough, with close access to the kitchen, to have been the first dining hall - inspired by the shape of a mediæval manor. The first door to the right led to our Dance Room, with a large bay window over the terrace, a triangle-spaced oriel about a dozen feet to the right of the porch as depicted, and a marble fireplace. It was panelled to two feet below the ceiling, with plaster escutcheons above. The room was used for the Junior class, and later as the library.

Off the Hall, to the right, is the main feature around which the house hangs: the polished and balustraded Main Staircase, rising clockwise, and lit on the lower stages by a central column of oriel windows, and at the top by a central gable window, laterally matched by end gables. At the bottom of the stairs, below the hall level, is a flagged area we called The Well (reputedly haunted by Mrs Wilson), with a small door to the centre of the Terrace, and a flight of stone steps over the bank, once decorated with stone urns - some of which survived on other external and garden walls. At hall level, a heavy oaken carved (locked) door led into our Dining Room, wherein it was panelled, matching on the floor above another, also kept locked, into the Senior Dormitory. That also, was carved only on the hall side. There should be no doubt that the staircase was the pride of both architect and first owner, and must have been the most expensive part of the original purchase. Having seen humbler staircases in far more stately homes, I think Charlton Court is worth Grade I listing for that alone, but as the law stands it could probably be chopped up for firewood with government blessing.

The left-hand door from the Hall led to the flagstones of the Dark Passage, by the sick dispensary and opposite the Senior Common Room (SCR). The inner end of the Dark Passage was our Piccadilly Circus, with notice board, although in 1947 it was full of lockers later moved to the Square Yard Dorm passage. From here the passage led left to the Kitchen, Sink Room and Back Door; to the Back Stairs; and right, access to our panelled Dining Room through the Butler's Pantry. This was an impractical narrow room, with the original butler's cupboards, probably early or mid-Victorian. Under several layers of paint is now hidden my mural depicting the school in 1953, from which the picture below is taken. The room became the passage to the new Dining Room occupying the chalet area, and its Victorian name forgotten. The room alongside, at the bottom of the Back Stairs, was a 3-4 bed dormitory named after its most senior occupant at the time: Hammond, Sibbett or Leggett in my day, but became the Staff Room. The SCR, a general social area looking into the Square Yard, disappeared in 1956 to become the corridor into the new classroom block.

From my 1953 painting (right), digging deep into memory, I think the set of 4x4 windows on each side of the Main Stairs oriels are blocked. They are not false, as they have leaded panes, but there were certainly no internal windows there. The East Wing, with the kitchen area on the ground floor is at the top right corner, but there is something a little odd. My artistic licence distorts perspective, and loses a bit of the main roof - with the East Attic directly over the chalets, the dark blobs that have not reproduced. At this time there was a vain attempt to repair the tall chimneys, later removed entirely. Apart from the Kitchen, Sink Room, Boiler Room, Bill Wallace's cellar workshop, and Boot Room, that accounts for the downstairs service areas abutting the main building.

The kitchen had its own scullery, pantry and walled yard; an Esse range, cupboards on the inner wall, and a big well-scrubbed table. Altogether a sight familiar to Mrs Beeton, or any user of a typical old English country kitchen. The Boot Room, once a 2-bed dorm, was a small stone building off the Square Yard to the north of the Kitchen, possibly once a buttery or dairy - or even a servant's bed-room.

The remaining important ground-floor area was the panelled Dining Room. This mirrored the Dance Room, except the marbled fireplace on the north wall, with columns to the ceiling, and the papier-mâché trees above the panels. (The Dance Room's fireplace was on its east wall). After the Main Stairs, this was clearly the next ostentation of the original owner, and had he been very wealthy the panels would have been heavy and carved linen-fold, but whatever they had been originally, they passed to us in a variety of woods in somewhat inconsistent state of repair - including stained and polished plywood. There was no panelling except in those two rooms, but if it is original, what about those eight covered windows? Were they blocked because of Window Tax, or was the panelling a Victorian introduction? It did not occur to me then, but both panelling and windows could not have been contemporary with each other.

The centre of all school activities, its floor and panels always kept highly polished, the Dining Room had three major functions apart its eponymous troughing one. During the rest of the day it was the Intermediate classroom, when it was not for the Court or Community Meeting. In the evening it was the social room, mainly quiet games, and retired for the night after Staff Supper. In 1947, when the weather was bitterly cold and anthracite short, the Dining Room stove was the only one allowed to throb. Before 1951 it had five large tables and several benches, but four of the grotty (but very substantial) old tables gave way to small tables and stacking chairs - set up for the Court exactly as the old big tables they replaced. The saved big table was the magnificent mahogany beast, one expansion leaf of which I converted into a cover for the quarter-size billiard table - with hand-tools, spilt blood and much effort.

First floor and attics

At the top of the Back Stairs, and at one time through swing doors, was the Office Dorm; the school office; a staff bedroom, and steep stairs bending left up to the East Attic (geographically correct, North-east). Of the two rooms up there, the left-hand one was invariably that of the French master - mainly because before Ray Exton there was a procession of them. For some three years the right-hand one was mine, shared at various times with Jack Horner, Brian Reeves, Michael Taylor, David Bragg, John Martin, and others forgotten. My painting (above) notwithstanding, its skylight was above the chalet space, and from a roof dormer window could be seen the window high above the Linen Cupboard off the Square Landing. Access to the North Attic (PD's room) was possible by climbing over the intervening pitched roof. East Attic members were selected by Moff, whose room was immediately below, until she moved into the Upper Cottage between the Stables and the Gangplace. One occasionally fascinating aspect of the "Static" was the conductor on the chimney between it and the Top Dorm through which the passage of lightning was not unusual, and very spectacular - although it required a precarious perch on the back of a chair to see it.

To the left of the swing doors at the top of the Back Stairs was the Junior Bathroom, a cubic abutment perched on a cast-iron column over the Back Door corner of the Square Yard. An historic mystery, as the Jacobeans would not have had upstairs bathrooms with running water, nor cast-iron, and such a space could have had no other purpose. The school bell hung on its outside wall, reached through one of its two small windows - but I have a vague memory of my first Community Job, ringing a hand-bell through the frozen school to waken it. In its own way, from outside, that bathroom was quite an attractive feature, and its aspect from the Back Drive must stick in most boys' minds. It was a welcoming sight after a strenuous cycle ride.

Continuing from the stairs, past the Junior Bathroom, turning inwards, on the right was the only indoor bogs (lavatory) for the boys, with a great Victorian wooden seat and knife-graffitied walls. Next to this was the Senior bathroom, with two sinks and a large bath with an external plug-hole stopped off using a leather-capped yard-long pole. No-one walked off with that plug, unless it was to beat hop-pickers with - and I've never since seen a bath of that design. Or that size, either, since it could hold half the football team without discomfort.

The next landmark is a small landing, with Moff's room (later Audrey Davies's) on the left, sandwiched vertically between the East Attic above and Leggett's Room below. By her door was an old and substantial cupboard for cleaning materials, and a chicken-wire rack of tooth-brushes with the register in which the landing-duty Benchmember recorded the cleanliness of bed-bound boys. On many an April 1st this cupboard somehow moved to the right in front of Moff's door, but she got immune to it. Off this landing, to the left past Moff's door, was Rex's Dorm (possibly Rex Hamlin?), directly over the Butler's Pantry, and on the walls of which Vony did his chocolate-box vignettes as a frieze - the school's first mural. This led to the Senior Dorm, over the Dining Room, and the same shape, but unpanelled, and overlooking the eastern end of the Terrace and the chalets. A locked door linked with the Main Staircase, hinting that the Rex's Dorm door was a later addition, since I think the original design had the four main rooms directly accessible from the Main Stairs.

The landing led to another, the Square Landing, the absolute centre of the house if viewed as a cube. From this there were five other points off, the first being onto the Main Staircase, to which I return later. The second door was the Library, over the Dance Room and matching it, but not panelled. The Library overlooked the western side of the Terrace and the ornamental circle by the Main Door. Next to this, and over the porch, was a small dormitory known for years as Dixey's Room until taking another eponymous identity (Chapman). Then the stairway ascending to the right, behind a door, to the North Attic, containing PD's room over the Square Yard Dorm, and the normal access to Shaw's Study. Aound the frame of the landing door David Bragg painted a friendly, but electrifying dragon. I never asked him if it was a comment on the den above. The Study had a peculiar little vestibule with an entry that required bending double, and a step that could pitch you onto Shaw's carpet. It was impossible to greet Shaw eye-to-eye with this Napoleonic advantage he had given himself, but it provided a vaginal ingress to the psychological womb. I wonder if he ever thought of it that way? And did he move after the extension was built?

To the right of the North Attic stair was a passage to the Square Yard Dorm for personal lockers when they were moved from the Dark Passage. To the left was the Staff Bathroom, necessary then because neither the Upper Cottage (the Pollaks) nor Holland's cottage had bathrooms, and at least four other members lived in rooms in the house (Office Passage; East Attic; Bathroom Landing, and the North Attic). The remaining door hid the Linen Cupboard, probably that room's original function. It was naturally lit through a sky-light far above, visible from my East Attic and very vulnerable from there to my stone-gun and Bragg's unconfiscated Webley. I think there was a broom-cupboard on the Square Landing. The final journey from there is up the Main Stairs, and access to the Tuck Cupboard recessed like a priest's hole on the right of the first half-landing; the unused door to Shaw's study, behind the western gable (unused that is until the GCE exams sat in the Top Dorm, when he would bound out and make himself important), and to the Top Dorm, over the Senior Dorm, behind the eastern gable.

Once the initial impact of joining Red Hill had settled, most new boys noticed something sinister about all first and second floor windows. They had iron bars fixed firmly and vertically in them, not there to lock Red Hill boys in, but their disconcerting presence countered Shaw's introductory comforting messages, and many a new boy must have spent his early nights worrying about them. However, they were nothing to do with Red Hill. Less for structural support than keeping people in, very few windows were without them, and with an army of key-armed warders, it would have been a difficult place from which to escape. They should have been removed, although they were a useful formality to ensure that we used doors to get outside, else we would have converted the building into a cubic sieve. I have no evidence of their origin, but had they been essential to us they would surely have been fitted to such attic areas as the Top Dorm? Furthermore there was never any way in which money would have been spent fitting them. They did have one practical function in bracing the leaded panes permanently concaved by strong winds, particularly over the Terrace. There was heavy loss of the glass diamonds through slamming shut, and the resulting holes created nasty draughts. Bill Wallace spent most of his time replacing them, convinced we poked them out on purpose. Not true, Bill. They fell out in our hands.

That completes the internal walk-through, and if this is used with a contemporary plan, the reader has an accurate picture of Charlton Court in 1950, before the extensions were built.

The grounds

Natural features from north to south

Steep Drive Gated at the top, but defunct hinges. Lined with pines and bushes. Art Room to east , and a staff chalet. Rather pleasant metal fences. Trees and grassy plot at bottom left before joining Main Drive. Blocked off by what became Holland's house.

Main gate bushes Immediately south of Payne's orchard. Snowball bushes. One or two large unclimbable trees. Bushes later taken out for car park.

Gangplace origin of name unknown. Waste land past Upper Cottage, north of garden wall and with gate to Back Field. Present swimming pool was once stagnant pond. Once had two gipsy caravans by Stables wall. Level space with sloping cobbled drive suggests it once had buildings, probably byres and pig sheds, as a small farmyard.

Back Field Large ploughed area occupying eastern side of school grounds down to the Dump, and access to the Lower Field.

Upper Cottage Cottage, garages (pre-war conversions?), stables and Harness Room. All suggest parts of a home farm probably once very prosperous, that may have been part of the original estate, or 17th century development. The cottage was used by the Pollaks before MoF. The Harness Room was a regular room for staff (mainly cooks): Brian Smith; Bruno Simon etc.

Alleyway Western edge of Front Drive alongside the road wall. Prominent tree: a plane (Releaso Tree.). Many bushes and small trees, several large unclimbable large trees (no low branches), and a gravestone for a pre-Red Hill dog: "Spot".

Terrace Grass plot below a bank across the front of the house with central steps down onto it, and a stone-walled parapet and ditch (ha-ha) separating it from the Lower Field, that would have been a cattle pasture. May once have been a decorative garden. Prominent trees: Copper beech and sycamore (west); Little and Big firs (east); pine, bay, rhododendron, silver birch (west front); yew (over-hanging east front, by Nutpatch). One green galvanised hut. . It became a tennis court.

Nutpatch East of the Terrace, at the bottom of the Back Field, with hazel trees with some fine cob-nuts (forbidden fruit). Probably another very old area.

Chalets immediately to east of building's east wall, and south of Back Garden wall and gate. Contained six chalets and one hut classroom; and a lawn once used for clock golf, with morello cherry trees to the east.

Central features

Hollands' Cottage curiously sited at corner of Back Garden, top of Back Drive. Probably Georgian or early Victorian. Was it the original farmhouse? . Facing lawn with large sycamore near Main Gate; handsome yew; Japanese cherry tree, gorgeous in flower. It's last Red Hill resident was Phyllis Mills.

Tennis court alongside Front Drive, fenced by criss-cross willow stakes. Poor for purpose from the heavy leaf carpet that had to be shifted each autumn - a task that always inspired PD to keep debtors occupied.

Woodpile dustpatch between tennis court and Back Drive, with criss-cross fencing on west and north edges. Footpath to Main Gate sycamore. Yew hedge between it and Back Drive, tatty at bottom end. Substantial and awkward tree at Square Yard corner. South wall backed bike shed, but may once have had stone urns on the ends, as something else - like a separate kitchen. (See also section on pastimes)

Back Drive From the Stables and Hollands' Cottage (Laboratory corner) to school kitchen, Square Yard and Back Door. High wall on east edge with Back Garden beyond, and fixed fig trees. Bottom of drive, at left, were small outbuildings: bin area; potting shed; outside bogs (lavatories); bootroom.

Square Yard Back of building, joined Back Drive to Front Circle, with arched gate in west wall. Bike and coal sheds. Overlooked by Senior Common Room (ground floor); Square Yard Dorm (first floor), and North Attic. Also below Senior Bathroom, and Junior Bathroom built over Back Door supported by a single fluted metal column at the corner. Man-hole to cellar and a mysterious boulder. Kitchen on east edge.

Below the Terrace (Ha-ha)

Lower Field good acreage. From road at west to bottom of Back Field and Dump, and Sewage pits at east. Pine-lined along road, until Shaw sold them around 1955, and fecund blackberry bushes. The hedgerow was rich in sloes. There was a hawthorn tree below the Nutpatch. Four oaks divided the field across the centre, probably as a landscape venture in the 18th century, when it was a patriotic duty to plant oaks to build warships. Seen from the terrace (east to west) they were: Hollow Oak; Broken Oak (lightning dead); Second Oak; First Oak. Footpath to bottom just in from the line of pines. Oaks at bottom west. Public footpath across, and stiles just north of football pitch at bottom. The field was used by Payne for cows, making it less pleasant in parts. A bull born in it we called Bumphrey, grew into a monster.

Woods to east of Lower Field, beginning wide, with a central man-made ridge, assumed to have been the dam of a 17th century fish farm. The woods narrowed into a strip running down the east edge of the property, and a stream ran through from the sewage tanks (!) eventually into the River Beult at Headcorn, that can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map.