Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Caroline Gardens in Asylum Road is the largest surviving almshouse complex in London and is Grade II listed. The almshouses were built in the early 19th century and, together with the gardens, very pleasing on the eye. Looking from the road through the iron railings it’s possible to see a row of small houses with a central portico supported by ionic columns which is the entrance to the chapel. There is a wing at right angles on either side that form a ‘U’ around a garden, and behind, separated by another garden, are further rows of terraced houses also built to form a ‘U’. There are a total of 175 two-storey houses, mostly with one bedroom.
In February 1827 the Licensed Victuallers held a meeting to gain co-operation from their members for the building of an Asylum “where aged and infirm Licensed Victuallers, when reduced from a state of comfort to misery and want, may be enabled to pass the evening of life in humble but respectable retirement, cheered by the consoling reflection of being rescued from the miseries of a parish poor-house”. The Friendly Society of Licensed Victuallers had been formed in 1794 and already gave financial support to children of deceased members and to members who by age or infirmity had been rendered incapable of providing for themselves. The motion to raise money by donations to build an Asylum, a safe place, for those members who were advanced in age was passed unanimously.
Sufficient money was raised to buy six acres of freehold land just off the Old Kent Road in an area that was mostly open fields or market gardens.
The area was then called Peckham New Town and there had been some limited housing built for the middle classes which had been promoted by the Hill family who owned the land. The Asylum’s patron, the Duke of Sussex, sixth son of George III, laid the foundation stone in May 1828. The central block was soon completed providing 43 homes which were soon occupied and so great was the demand that the south wing was completed in 1831 and the north wing completed in 1833, providing a total of 101 homes.
In 1835 the Society was able to commence the payment of pensions to their residents. By 1877 single people received 8 shillings per week and married couples received 13 shillings. Residents also received a weekly supply of coal, medical attendance, medicine and, when recommended by the medical officer, wine. Applications to live in the asylum were numerous and in the following years further accommodation was built. By 1877 there was a total of 170 dwellings that housed 205 inmates.
During World War II the Licensed Victuallers Benevolent Institution evacuated its tenants to Denham. The Asylum suffered bomb damage and the chapel was gutted though amazingly the stained glass windows survived. The management of the LVBI decided to move the residents permanently to Denham in 1959, also taking the statue of Prince Albert who had become the Asylum’s patron upon the death of the Duke of Sussex. The complete site was purchased by the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1960 and passed to Southwark Council when it was formed in 1965. It was renamed Caroline Gardens in honour of Caroline Sophie Secker who had lived at the Asylum until she died in 1845. Caroline’s claim to fame was that she was the widow of James Secker who had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and is said to have caught Nelson in his arms when he fell from receiving his fatal wound. The almshouses complex remained social housing and accommodation is let to those who are over 50.
The chapel was stabilised after the war and a temporary roof added but, despite various plans, it remained unused until 2010 when it became home to an artist-led organisation and renamed Asylum. It is used as an exhibition, theatre and project space, and can be hired for photographic and film shoots. It is also licensed for weddings which, with the gardens, must provide a lovely setting. The chapel is on the Historic England list of buildings at risk.