Charlton history: The story of High Combe

High Combe

Ever wondered why there’s a blue plaque on the stately-looking house next to Our Lady of Grace School? Charlton Champion historian Peter Bone tells the tale of High Combe, which stands on Charlton Road…

In the 19th century, Charlton Road, between the Village and the Standard was lined with grand houses, mansions and villas. Most were demolished in the late 19th century to make way for new streets, homes and a growing population. The names of some of these lost houses – Eastcombe House, Little Combe, Bramhope Lodge, Springfield and Mascalls – were used to name the new streets that replaced them.

One of these grand houses, originally called High Combe, has survived. It’s now known as 145 Charlton Road, between church and school of Our Lady of Grace, and is now the church’s presbytery,

High Combe was built around 1825 in the fashionable Regency style. It’s a Grade 2 listed building, thanks to the pairs of rounded bay windows at both front and back, the central Doric porch and the original double door with rounded panels and fanlight above. You can read the full details on English Heritage’s website.

The house now looks a little overshadowed and cramped between the church and school, but a map from 1870 shows a grand sweeping drive in front of the house with entrances approximately where the church and school now stand.

There are plans to rebuild the school over the next few years, so let’s hope that the new school will improve the setting of this fine historic house.

The history of High Combe and the people who lived there reflect some of Britain’s economic and military history through the nineteenth century.

One of High Combe’s first residents was General Sir William Congreve (1772 – 1828). Congreve succeeded his father (also called Sir William) as Comptroller of the Royal Military Laboratories at Woolwich where he was responsible for developing new weapons for the British army and navy.

William CongrieveIt was a period when Britain was a dominant military power and had acquired a large empire. As Congreve (pictured right) himself said “England is at war with one half of the world, and has the other half to defend”.

He is best known for inventing the “Congreve Rocket”; rocket powered explosive shells. These were used by British: against the French in the Napoleonic wars, in suppressing a rebellion against British rule of India, and against the USA in the Anglo American war of 1812 – 1814. The line in the American national anthem “And the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air” describes an attack onan American fort by the British navy using Congreve’s rockets.

Congreve was also an MP for Plymouth, banker, entrepreneur, and prolific inventor of mechanical devices. He was a friend of the King George III (mad George) and equerry to the king’s son George, the Prince Regent (think of George in Blackadder III, but much more unpleasant).

Things started to go badly wrong for Congreve in 1826, soon after he married and moved into High Combe. In a time when capitalism was rampant and unregulated, he was accused of fraud in management of one of the many investment companies he formed. Difficult meetings with shareholders and questions in parliament followed and Congreve’s health deteriorated. He died in 1828 in France. He may have been convalescing from his illness, but many claim he was fleeing from angry shareholders. Congreve’s wife re married in 1835 and subsequently lived in the City.

It’s not clear who was at High Combe immediately after Congreve, but by 1851 General Sir George Whitmore (1775 – 1862) and his wife Cordelia were living there. Whitmore was born into an aristocratic family and joined the Army Royal Engineers at the age of 14. His postings over the next 30 years, to Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu and the Caribbean, reflect Britian’s military rivalry with France, Spain and America.

In 1840 Whitmore was appointed Commandant of Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the lived near the Academy at Woolwich Common. I think it’s likely that Whitmore moved to High Combe when he retired. Cordelia Whitmore died in Charlton in 1857 at the age of 70; George died in 1862 aged 84.

An English Heritage blue plaque on the front of the High Combe commemorates its next resident, the eminent civil engineer William Henry Barlow (1812 – 1902). William Barlow was born in Woolwich. His father, Peter Barlow, was Professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, and his older brother Peter Barlow junior (1809 – 1885) was also a civil engineer best known for developing tunnelling technology that was important in building London’s early Underground.

WIlliam Barlow's blue plaque

William Barlow was famous for the design and construction of railways, bridges and iron and steel structures during the golden age of railway building. From 1838 he worked on the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, and became Chief Engineer for the Midland Railway in 1844. He advised Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace about the iron fame of the Palace. Between 1862 and 1869 he oversaw the building of the Midland railway from Bedford to London and designed the layout and construction of St Pancras Station (but not the ornate hotel in front of the station ). He served on the court of enquiry into the 1859 Tay Bridge Disaster, and designed the replacement bridge.

William Barlow retired in 1896 but continued to live in some style at High Coombe. The 1901 census lists 7 house servants living there as well as a coachman and a groom living in at stables in the grounds. The histories of the dozens of servants who worked at High Combe would tell a less glorious story about Britain in the nineteenth century.

William Barlow died at High Combe in November 1902 and his wife Selina Crawford Barlow died there a few months later. High Combe was purchased by a French Catholic Community of Sisters from Bordeaux: the Oblates of Assumption. A small chapel was established in the house, but the population of the area was growing rapidly and congregations grew.

The building of Our Lady Grace church in the grounds of High Combe began in 1905 and was completed in 1911. The sisters started a school in the High Combe stables. Plans were made to build a new school, but these were delayed by World War I, and a new school building opened in 1927.

8 thoughts on “Charlton history: The story of High Combe

  1. Mary August 28, 2013 / 08:47

    That’s great – and Greenwich Industrial History Society would love someone to come to a meeting next year and talk about it. Have been trying to get a speaker on the Barlows for years (are they any connection with the gas-works-building Barlows – I am pretty sure they aren’t). I can also tell you a LOT about Congreve and the early gas industry.

  2. charltonse7 August 28, 2013 / 13:19

    It’s always good to read more about some of the interesting people and places of Charlton. I’m following Mary’s lead and have set up a new website to focus on the local history of Charlton. You can find my first piece – about Jemima Ayley and the spectacular monument to her in Charlton Cemetery – at . There’ll be more stories to follow shortly so keep checking it out.

  3. Chris August 28, 2013 / 18:47

    Thank you. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Peter August 30, 2013 / 20:14

    Hi Mary,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m no expert on the Barlows, I’ve only read summary biographies, so I can’t say whether there is any connection between them and the gas industry.
    best wishes


  5. Mary September 1, 2013 / 14:07

    ok – Peter . I spoke to someone who told me they had been to a talk about the Barlow’s focused on the plaque. I was never told the speakers name, and I hoped it was you, GIHS gets precious few speakers on some of the very important innovators at the Arsenal. Congreve is very interesting – I always understood the late John Smith had written something but not published it.
    Good luck with the Charlton History web site – again always interested. I am supposed to be giving a talk about Charlton industry to the Charlton Society week after next – not sure I know anything about it but do come along.

  6. Peter September 1, 2013 / 17:29

    A biography of Congreve junior was published in 2011 “Commodore Squib” by James Earl, Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Earl quotes an unpublished work by John Smith “The Two Sir William Congreves” at Blackheath Public Library, but he may mean the Greenwich Heritage Centre when it was located at Mycenae House.

  7. Josephine December 28, 2014 / 23:48

    Very interested indeed to discover that William Henry Barlow lived locally, and to read more about the history of this lovely house. Small correction to the info/typo? about the Tay Bridge; the disaster took place not in 1859 but in the words of the wonderful McGonagall, “On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember’d for a very long time…..”

    • Peter January 1, 2015 / 19:20

      Hi Josephine,
      Yes you are correct; 1879 it is.

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