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History of Kirkdale Institute

After the decision to end adult education classes at the Kirkdale Institute earlier this year it seemed vital that this important building should be recognised and protected. An application for listing was sent to English Heritage and in September we learnt that the Minister for Heritage had agreed that the building should be listed Grade 2.

The origins of the Kirkdale Institute can be traced back to 1853,
a year before the Crystal Palace opened on Sydenham Hill. Sir
Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace and designer of
the park, and John Scott Russell, who was also closely involved
with the Crystal Palace and had just moved from his cottage in
Charlecote Grove to be nearer to the new building, discussed
the need for an institution for “working men” and their families
in Sydenham, who had neither the money nor the free time to
take full advantage of what the Crystal Palace would soon be

In 1858, four years after the Crystal Palace opened, a
meeting was held where it was agreed to build a lecture hall in
Sydenham along the lines of the Mechanics’ Institutes. These
institutes were intended as “self-improving working men’s adult
education colleges”, often funded by wealthy, liberally inclined
local people. The institutes offered free lectures on arts, science
and technical subjects and might also include a library and a
newspaper reading room. Occasionally there was also a school
for their children.

A suitable site was bought with the help of a loan from
Robert Harrild, of Round Hill, and Sir Joseph Paxton agreed
to produce plans for the building. Unfortunately funds were
not sufficient to follow his rather grand designs, and they were
modified by Henry Dawson.

proposed lecture hall 1859

Sydenham Society member Cecily Foulger has a print that
has been in her family for many, many years (see footnote).
It was produced in the late 1850s as part of the fund-raising
campaign for the institute. It is probable that the print shows
the building as originally conceived by Paxton. Henry Dawson’s
modifications meant that the side towers were not built,
and the building was not so deep. However, the present
central block was built largely to Paxton’s original design, and
survives intact. The arrangement of the windows with the
polychromatic brickwork can still be seen although much of the
brickwork has since been covered with roughcast.

The foundation stone was laid on 12 October 1859 by
Alderman David Wire, Lord Mayor of London, who lived at
Stone House, Lewisham Way and 15 months later, on 15
January 1861, the building was officially opened by Sir Joseph
who was appointed its first president and a trustee. Other
trustees included John Scott Russell and Sir George Grove.
Since its opening, the Kirkdale Institute has been used
almost continuously for community and educational purposes
for people of all ages. From 1861 it housed the Sydenham
Working Men’s Institution with a reading room, a library,
evening classes and a lecture hall. The English Heritage report
specifically mentions the unaltered first floor lecture hall as
giving a clear indication of the institution’s original purpose.

During the 1890s the Institute housed the Sydenham and
Forest Hill Art School. After World War One the Sydenham
Liberal and Radical Workingmen’s Club met in the building
and by 1925 it housed an Evening Institute offering instruction
in technical, commercial and domestic subjects, a role that it
continued to fulfil until earlier this year.


For a few years between 1894 and the opening of the
library at Bell Green in 1901 the Kirkdale Institute housed
Sydenham’s first Public Library.The building also contributed
greatly to the education of younger people. In January 1861
the British School, which had been founded near the Golden Lion
in 1851, moved into the new building. A girls’ school opened a
couple of months later on the first floor.British Schools were
nondenominational,set up as an alternative to the National
Schools such as St Bart’s and Holy Trinity which were
strongly Anglican. This, too, reflects the liberal views
of those involved with the Kirkdale Institute. In 1876 the
School Board for London became responsible for the British School,
and it was renamed Sydenham Central School for Boys. In 1904 the
LCC took over responsibility for the school and it became the
Sydenham County Secondary School for Girls (and, for a while,
Shackleton Girls School). In 1917 the school moved to new premises
in Dartmouth Road to become today’s Sydenham School.

The LCC enlarged the building in 1904 with large wings
at each side, a single storey extension and entrance porch
across the front of the building, hiding the lower part of the
original windows which still survive behind the extension. I had
wondered whether this might have detracted from the original

However, a year or so ago I was contacted by Alan Calder
who was writing a book on the architect William Flockhart. He
asked whether I knew of a “Technical Institute” in Sydenham
designed by Flockhart around 1904. The Kirkdale institute
seemed a possibility so I sent him pictures and information. He
wrote back excitedly: “… this extension to the Kirkdale Institute
is a typical Flockhart commission for the LCC and this must
be it.” Flockhart was an important architect with several listed
buildings to his name. English Heritage commented that “the
work was carried out with remarkable sensitivity to the original
structure” and is “a very early instance of an Arts and Crafts
LCC school”. So my misgivings were misplaced.

The Kirkdale Institute is an important, perhaps unique,
building not only for successfully combining the work of two
major architects but for providing a variety of opportunities for
education and study for all local people for 150 years. There
are few, if any, similar institutions that have provided such
services for so long and it would be good if the Kirkdale Institute
could continue, in some way, to do so.

Steve Grindlay

Footnote: I was surprised and delighted to learn how deeply rooted in
Sydenham’s history Cecily’s family has been. By the mid-1850s her
great-grandfather Charles Fenner (1834-1912) and his two brothers
were living in Sydenham. Charles was a carpenter and builder living
in Crystal Crescent (now the Wells Park Road end of Halifax Street).
His brother William was also a carpenter living in Willow Walk (now
Willow Way) while brother George was a carpenter who also ran the
Hanover Arms, on the corner of Halifax Street and Wells Park Road,
between about 1851 and 1855. Living so close to the site on which
the new Kirkdale Institute was soon to be built it seems highly likely
one, if not all, of Cecily’s ancestors worked on the building. This would
explain how the drawing of Paxton’s original vision of the Kirkdale
Institute came into Cecily’s family and why it has remained as a
cherished item of family memorabilia for over 150 years