“Nothing to see here! Why don’t you take them somewhere interesting! ” yelled a local Eltham resident as he passed my tour group, cradling his can of Fosters at just gone 11.30am.
We were standing in Well Hall Pleasaunce, a delightful park opposite Eltham Station and no doubt our friendly local thought that the red brick Tudor Barn which stands in the park was no more than an ordinary pub/restaurant. In fact, this 16th century survivor was an outbuilding on the estate belonging to William Roper, husband of Margaret , the beloved daughter of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More. More would have been a regular visitor here before his sojourn in the Tower of London.
Sadly, Well Hall was demolished in 1733 after purchase by Sir Gregory Page a wealthy member of the South Sea Company and friend of King George II. He built a new house on the site and it was this building, also called Well Hall, which became the home of acclaimed children’s author Edith Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland in 1899. For 23 years the Blands lived here and it was at Well Hall that Edith wrote most of her popular books including “The Railway Children”, “The Treasure Seekers” and “The Phoenix and the Carpet”
Although well known as a children’s author, Edith had another less well publicised role as a founder member of the socialist Fabian Society. The Blands were an unconventional couple. After an unsuccessful business venture collapsed, Hubert relied on Edith’s writing to support the family. Her journalism, reviews and novels helped to maintain a household which included Hubert and Edith’s three children plus two children that Hubert fathered with his mistress Alice Hoatson. Alice joined the household as a governess. However, it would be a mistake to think of Edith as the hard done by and long suffering wife. She had her share of affairs, including a rumoured liaison with fellow Fabian Society member George Bernard Shaw. There are lovely descriptions of the tall and imposing chain smoking Edith holding court at Well Hall surrounded by eager young male admirers. She loved parlour games and musical evenings.
Life at Well Hall was lively but not without its drawbacks. The house was rather dilapidated with constant structural problems including a collapsing staircase and gutters which overflowed causing flooding. Tragedy struck when Edith’s youngest son, Fabian, died at 15 from complications during a routine operation to remove adenoids. As the Blands aged, Hubert’s eyesight failed and Edith’s literary output was on the wane. This led to a period of financial hardship during which Edith and Alice could be found in Well Hall road selling flowers from a stall.
When Hubert died in 1914 Edith remarried. This time her choice of husband was the rather less intellectual Tommy Tucker, marine engineer and Captain of the Woolwich Ferry. Some of their friends were aghast at the idea of Edith marrying below her class but she was happy although not prosperous. Edith and Tommy found Well Hall too expensive to maintain and moved to a more humble dwelling in Kent.
Well Hall was demolised in the 1930s to make way for Well Hall Pleasaunce, On its site are wooden sculptures by artist Reece Ingram of three fantasy creatures from Nesbit’s book, surrounded by the public park that “Fosters Man” found so uninteresting. If he’d stayed to listen to the story of Edith would he have have changed his mind?