Just off the Old Kent Road is a large set of almshouses built just under 200 years ago and in the middle is a large and atmospherically decaying chapel building.

Built in the relatively empty countryside in around 1827-33, the almshouses were laid out in a half-square, with the chapel in the centre, and it was known as the Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum, as a respite home for retired pub landlords. Although called an Asylum, that’s for the meaning it had back then, which was more of a sanctuary or escape from daily life – such as almshouses.

The almshouses remained in use until WW2, when the residents were evacuated to Denham, leaving the site empty.

The chapel took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb during WW2 which gutted the entire interior, except for the stained glass windows, which must have been covered in protective panels to have survived. A few of the monuments also survived the fire, but the roof and decoration were all lost.

Nothing else on the estate was hit during WW2, so it’s a remarkable bad fortune that the one and only bomb within a couple of hundred yards hit this specific spot. After the war, the roof was replaced and the undercroft filled in. The almshouses decided to stay in Denham, and the site was sold to Southwark Council in 1960, for use as council housing, which it remains today.

A few attempts to do something with the chapel came to nothing though, until recently when in 2010 Jo Dennis and Dido Hallett started using the space for art projects, exhibitions, theatre productions and shoots. In 2013 they signed a 12-year lease for the building.

Opened for Open House London, unless you attend an event, this was a rare chance to see inside the imposing frontage.

Just before 10am, one of the large wooden doors opened, without a gratifyingly spooky creaking sound alas. They need to lay off the oil for a bit.

What you do get to do is walk in and through a small corridor lined with decaying paint and into a huge square and very empty space. It’s a chapel waiting for the painters to finish decorating.

Except what you see is the result of a devastating fire. The ceiling is post-war repair, and looks it, and dotted around you can see where the brick walls at the rear were damaged, the echoes of a staircase can be seen in the paintwork leading up to a missing gallery.

The altar space still just about has some religious text visible, and the chapel clock struck the hours and the winding sound of the still mechanical works could be clearly heard winding up again.

It’s all just so wonderfully atmospheric, with the stained glass windows shining heavenly above the shattered remains of earthly wartime ruins.

There is funding to stabilise the physical structure, but fortunately, there are no plans to do anything with the interior. They expect to leave it in its currently semi-decayed state, and it’s all the better for it, as Wilton’s Hall has shown, people like it left alone.

If it’s ever built, then the second of the Bakerloo line extension stations will be almost opposite the Chapel, on the corner of Old Kent Road and Asylum Road, and doubtless, that will help to make the Chapel more commercially viable. It’s available to hire now though, and the remnants of confetti on the outside lawn suggested a recent wedding had taken place there.

Although the retired pub landlords have long since moved away, the charity that founded the almshouses is still operating today, as the Licensed Trade Charity.

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One comment
  1. Richard Shearman says:

    I’ve been researching the history of the Asylum for the past couple of years (when able to get into archives). Although the historical summary on the Licensed Trade Charity website mentions evacuation to Denham during WW2, this is not supported in the records as far as I can see. The decision to move there was taken in 1945 after various options for modernising the accommodation at Asylum Rd had been rejected as impractical. Denham was one of three sites considered, the others being at Rickmansworth and Brentwood. Practical and financial constraints meant that full replacement housing was not in place for several years, and for a while the two sites were maintained by the charity for a number of years. The site was as you say finally sold in 1960, to the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell, one of the predecessors of the current London Borough of Southwark.

    You’re quite right to say that the chapel is very atmospheric in its ruined state. One other bomb did fall on the site – a high explosive bomb in December 1940, three months before the incendiary bomb hit the chapel – but fortunately did little damage and caused no casualties.

    I hope to publish something about the Asylum next year.

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