Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Putney Pest Houses

If you've ever walked around Putney Common over the last few years you might have noticed the old Putney Hospital just off the Lower Richmond Road. It's slightly unusual in that it's a building that seems to have been condemned and boarded up, but never actually demolished, so it sits there like an American Mid-Western Ghost building just waiting for an arty blogger to take a series of atmospheric shots for internet publication.

It closed in 1999 a victim of the drive toward larger hospitals and away from smaller, local provision. I remember it personally from having stitches put in my head after a playground accident at primary school and they did a pretty good job as I recall so no complaints from me on that score...

I was over Putney the other day and took the opportunity for a bit of a look around the hospital site when I noticed a row of small cottages, very reminiscent of alms houses, just to one side. There was a large white plaque in the middle which was crying out for a closer look.
A Very Tempting Plaque Indeed.
 It's quite a large effort and on closer look is obviously one of those that decides to list everyone involved with the project. This in itself could be quite interesting of course - was Mr Charles Lacey connected with the nearby Lacey Road for example? - but the most intriguing part of the inscription was the top section

"Putney Labourer Cottages. Erected on land belonging to the Pest House Charity AD 1862"
Pest House Charity? A Charitable House for Pests? Definitely worth a bit of research I felt so when I had the chance I looked into the whole topic of Pest Houses.

'Pest', it seems, is short for Pestilence. Pest Houses were commonly-owned building on the fringes of villages where those struck down with the plague or other infectious ailments could be re-housed until the illness took its course and they either recovered or died. An early form of quarantine really and in Putney's case I suppose the edges of the common would have been the ideal spot. Close enough to keep an eye on but far enough away from the main body of the population to avoid contagion.

Putney's Pest Houses seem to date from the 17th century and there are two extracts from The Environs of London by Daniel Lysons published in 1792 that give an idea as to their use when the plague hit town
In the year 1625 twenty-five persons died of the plague here; in 1665 seventy-four; and in the ensuing year ten persons only. It may be observed, that its ravages were much less fatal here than at Mortlake, though the parish is more populous, and the communication with London must have been more frequent, Putney being a considerable thoroughfare
Could it be that the effective use of the Putney Pest Houses helped contain the plague? When someone was affected though, there was a standard procedure to put in place
Among the same papers is an order of council, containing the following regulations:—That the houses of such persons as could not conveniently be sent to the pest-houses, should be shut up and guarded by a warden, a red cross being affixed to the door; that if any person who was required to keep within an infected house should go abroad, he should be immediately apprehended and sent to the pest-house, not being suffered to return to his own dwelling; that when a visited house was opened, a white cross should be affixed to the door, with a bill in writing, signifying how long it was since the last person died there; which writing should remain forty days, during which time the goods and rooms should be aired and sumed with brimstone, and other wholesome fumes; that the churchwardens of each parish should take care to cover their churchyards with unslaked lime twelve inches thick, and the like quantity of gravel, to prevent noxious vapours from exhaling; and that the wardens attending visited houses should warn passengers not to approach too near
Wandsworth Bourough Council have an informative document on the Lower Common area of Putney, including some information on the original Pest Houses
Until the mid 19th century, little building took place around the Common, but during times of recurrent plague, temporary wooden structures,known as `pesthouses', were erected to quarantine the sick and removed when the danger had passed. A couple of barns are shown on the east side of the Common in Lane's map of 1636, in the present location of the Cricketers and Spencer Arms pubs, presumably to house agricultural produce. A brick pesthouse built in 1665 lasted until 1860, when it was demolished to make way for the building of cottages in Commondale... These were amongst the earliest permanent development in the area, along with other small workers' cottages on the east side of Putney Common (currently nos.2-4), and Lower Richmond Road (replaced in 1882 by nos.217-235), All Saints School (1852, rebuilt in 1893-6) and later All Saints Church (1870)
A comprehensive list of Administrators and Trustees
The fact that the old brick Pest House building was knocked down in the early 1860s is confirmed by the plaque itself, but the trigger for its removal isn't. What finally caused the removal of the Pest Houses was found in an interesting snippet in The Lancet of 1862 of all places, under the heading "A Relic Of The Plague" where it picks up on a court case that had interesting medical origins.

The Lancet 1862

 As the resolution of the typeface none too clear, to summarise the Lancet article, it seems that Mr John Gray, 'a working man', managed to squat in one of the Pest Houses. At least he 'unlawfully intruded himself' into one of them (which I assume is the same thing) and refused to budge even after being given a month to quit. Although the churchwardens had allowed poor people to live in the houses when there was a lack of plague or pestilence in Putney, Mr Gray really seems to have upset them with his slovenly and unhygienic living arrangements to the point that they feared he might actually start a new outbreak of the fever!
One of the churchwardens who provided a statement to the court was Mr Watlin, and it's probably no surprise to find that he is also on the list of administrators on the later Pest House plaque. Having come to some 'arrangement' with Mr Gray - which must of included his removal from the property - they immediately knocked the old structures down and replaced them with the more attractive and (from the Victorian point of view) more 'useful' row of cottages for labourers that currently occupies the site. I assume that there must have been some financial reward gleaned from the developer somewhere along the line as the local Pest Houses Charity was set up and, in fact, still awards grants of money to local organizations, although the amounts it deals in are pretty small these days and there's not too much pestilence around the common.

One last thought occurred to me. Could there be any historical association between the site of the old Pest Houses and the eventual founding of Putney Hospital on practically the same site? I'd of thought that building anything on the Common would be difficult, but it might just have been made easier if there was proof that it was a continuation of use on land put aside for that purpose in the first place.


Freddles said...

Very interesting. Two comments: Pest = plague: Camus' La Peste usually translated into English as The Plague. And perhaps of more interest, there is a tiny open space off Queen's Road Richmond still called "Pesthouse Common". I wonder if it was the same pest houses or whether Richmond and Putney maintained separate ones? here's a link to Richmond Council's site, which has a bit about it (and elsewhere on their site is some stuff about pest houses).

Thanks for the great site!


kirsten said...

having lived in Putney for a few years now, it is nice to learn a bit more about the area. very much enjoying your blog/collection.

cheap mulberry bags said...

I'm writing a piece on the many and various Guiness Trust buildings to be found around London, and I stumbled upon your piece - lovely pictures!

teresa gray said...

Hi, My great grandparents john & Margaret Mannix lived in one of these cottages for 20/30 years. 8 Saddlers cottages/buildings. Absolutely fab to read all the info that has been found out. I visted and took photos but was unable to find out any more. thank you so much. Teresa

Unknown said...

They're not labourers cottages now. I've worked on a couple of them and they go for upwards of a million pounds. No chance of a working man purchasing or renting a house in Putney any more I'm afraid. Regards, David the Decorator of

David F Beirne said...

They're not labourers cottages now. I've worked on a couple of them and they go for upwards of a million pounds. No chance of a working man purchasing or renting a house in Putney any more I'm afraid. Regards, David the Decorator of