Castles in the Air, or, The History of Raymond’s Folly

Hoppety Bob and young pupils on an excursion into the country.  Image in Sunday Magazine (1869) page 417.

In what is really a footnote to my recent piece on magic lantern shows—for which click here—I wanted to add a bit more about Hoppety Bob.  But first a reminder.  Bob was the little tailor with the withered leg who was wonderfully kind to the poor neighbourhood children.  According to Richard Rowe, who wrote so touchingly about him, he lived in a rough London slum, in a “short cut from one street to another” known as Raymond’s Folly.  And Raymond’s Folly—and if not the place then certainly the name—is the subject of this post.

I should say at the outset that you will look in vain for a street or a passage or an alley of that name on a map of the time—Rowe was writing in the late 1860s—or indeed of any other time.  Possibly this is because the name was made up.  But Rowe’s description has such power and vigour—as indeed does his characterisation of Bob—that I cannot imagine that the place and the man are entirely fictitious.  At any rate it was in the belief that such a place as the Folly did once exist that I embarked upon what turned out to be a fascinating search with one or two surprises along the way.  

Sir Charles Raymond.  Artist and date unknown.

REAL FOLLY
At the risk of appearing to contradict myself I should point out that there was in fact a Raymond’s Folly, but it was not what I am after, nor was it where I would want it to have been.  This Folly—the real Folly—was a castle.  The builder was a fellow by the name of Sir Charles Raymond, who had at one time sailed with the East India Company.  On retiring from the sea, and already a wealthy man, Raymond amassed sufficient capital as a ship owner and banker to buy a large house in Essex in 1754—Valentines—which he stuffed with exotic goods.  He also bought Highlands, a manor house that stood hard by, and here in 1765 he built a crenellated structure comprising three round towers connected by narrow walls, raised up on a mound, and given the name Cranbrook Castle.  The cost of the project was four hundred and twenty pounds, and it was Raymond’s intention that the castle should be a family mausoleum.  

Cranbrook Castle in Ilford.  © Richard Arnopp/Wanstead Image Archive

In the event the so-called castle was never consecrated—Sir Charles argued with the Bishop of London over the necessary protocol—and it became known as Raymond’s Folly.  One might suppose that the point of its acquired name was principally architectural, and, as garden follies go, it really was a classic, being a curious combination of burial chamber, chapel and refectory.  Later it served Highlands Farm as an outbuilding, and two local labourers, William Austen and Robert Hunter, had obviously found a novel use for it when in 1846 they were caught stealing lead from the roof.  During the Great War it was commandeered by the Admiralty as a lookout position.

The South London Boys’ Brigade photographed by Fred C Palmer at Herne Bay in Kent.

UTOPIAN FOLLY
Curiously enough Raymond’s Folly appears as the title of two books published in quick succession in the mid-1890s.  This was some twenty-five years after Rowe wrote about Hoppety Bob, so we may be looking at no more than coincidence.  But it is worth wandering down this avenue of investigation, even if only to give a full account of the history of this striking name.

The first of the books, by Berman Paul Neuman, was published in 1893 with the subtitle The Story of an Experiment in Utopia.  The eponymous hero was a wealthy barrister, who seeks consolation for the death of his wife and their child in philanthropic work among the young.  His guiding principle was that the children of the urban working-classes, abandoned by mainstream society, were allowed to drift into delinquency.  His answer to this acute problem was to thumb his nose at the existing organisations—the Boys’ Brigade, for example, operated as a sort of juvenile army, to no good effect—by instituting an idealistic system of what we would now call youth clubs.  In order to set up his clubs—four all told—Raymond turned to the Church.  Rudely rebuffed he looked elsewhere, and in the end he accepted the help of a Congregationalist minister.

Photograph of New College Chapel in Swiss Cottage in the late nineteenth century.

Neuman was born in Marylebone in London in 1853.  His father was Russian—apparently of independent means—and his mother English.  He was given a good education, and after studying at London University he qualified as a barrister.  However, his real interest was the education of underprivileged children, and in 1887 he opened a boys’ club at the New College Chapel, a Congregationalist church in Swiss Cottage.  Clearly Raymond the barrister was not entirely an invention!

In fact the parallel goes even further, for Neuman’s enterprise was backed by two wealthy philanthropists, James Mansergh and Corbet Stafford Woodall, who were members of the New College Chapel congregation.  Mansergh was a distinguished civil engineer, a Lancashire man who lived in Hampstead.  Woodall was cut from the same cloth as Mansergh, an engineer from the north west of England—he was a Liverpudlian—with his home in the same part of London.  With their generous support Neuman relocated the club from Swiss Cottage to St John’s Wood.  There, as the Mansergh-Woodall Club, it operated up to the Second World War, when it was requisitioned by the Civil Defence Service, and even served as a mortuary.  After the war the premises saw occasional use as a television studio, and aficionados of early science fiction may be amused to learn that Quatermass and the Pit was rehearsed in the large ground floor hall.  In 1967 the freehold of the building passed to the Boy Scout Trust Corporation, and from that time on it was the headquarters of the 8th St Marylebone “The Diehards” Scout Group.

Portrait of James Mansergh by William Mainwaring Palin.  Dated 1903.

Back to Neuman’s book.  The “Folly” of the title is the utopian club founded by the philanthropic barrister, and, as his name is Charles Raymond, it is highly likely that Neuman knew of Cranbrook Castle.  Even if he lighted upon the old sea-dog’s name by the purest of chances, we can be sure that his “Folly” has an architectural reference.  Curiously enough an old meaning of the word, derived from French, is “a source of delight” and therefore “a favourite abode”, and, as it happens, Raymond’s ideal club is accoutred with such comforts as libraries, reading-rooms and swimming pools.  But it is also worth noting that in the book’s dedication Neuman thanks “J.M. and C.W.”—Mansergh and Woodall—for the generous sponsorship that had “made possible for us a little folly of our own”.  Neuman’s “little folly” would seem to me to be both the meeting-place of the boys’ club, which he was passionately attached to, and the “madness” of such a bold enterprise.  

Statue of Corbet Stafford Woodall.

Well, that enterprise will raise today’s eyebrows.  The use of recreational facilities was not exactly unconditional, and boys were only given access to these if they abided by the educational programme of Raymond’s clubs.  “A comprehensive training of body, mind and character.”  All very laudable, as sentiments go.  But Raymond’s comprehensive training did not blush at doling out corporal punishment, which was offered to young transgressors as an alternative to paying a fine.  “As a general rule,” wrote Neuman, “the better class of boys chose the whacks, and bore them with fortitude.” 

DYSTOPIAN FOLLY
The other Raymond’s Folly—with the punning subtitle Every Man the Architect of his Own Future—was written by a certain E St John Leigh.  The story, which met with very mixed reviews, is the rather unedifying one of a young man whose life falls apart as a result of his foolish choices.  More interesting than the tale itself is Leigh’s choice of title, which cannot be unconnected with that of Neuman’s book.  Neuman published in 1893, Leigh in 1894.  But in subject-matter the two books could not be less related, unless the descent of Leigh’s anti-hero, Raymond Hayles, into the fleshpots of the capital is intended to be an ironic tribute to the spiritual heroics of Neuman’s Charles Raymond. 

Well, I doubt it, as did the author of a paragraph in The Academy in 1895 who saw the coincidence of the titles as an odd form of literary borrowing, or what we would now call plagiarism.  The journalist in question cited another example—a collection of short stories entitled Vignettes and published first by a Geraldine Hodgson and then by an Aubrey Mildmay—and pointed out that both Neuman and Hodgson were published by Thomas Fisher Unwin.  And I can add the further sinister facts that both Leigh and Mildmay were published by Elliot Stock, and that, whereas the former does not appear to have existed, the latter certainly did.  He can be found in the 1891 census, with the full name Aubrey Neville St John Mildmay, which makes me wonder if he and E St John Leigh were in fact one and the same.  And rather shockingly this stealer of titles—this trifler in identities—was a man of the cloth!  Clearly the world of late Victorian letters was a dark and dangerous place. 

Nineteenth-century print of Christ Church in Blackfriars Road.

ROWE’S FOLLY
But to return to Richard Rowe.  The Raymond’s Folly he knew—or had constructed in his imagination—was on the Surrey side of the Thames.  He supposed that this unprepossessing thoroughfare had been named after whoever had built the houses.  No architectural metaphors this time, though.  Only a fool, Rowe observes wryly, would want people to live in such poky dwellings.

Rowe describes the Folly with an unerring eye for detail.  The drunken lout of a labourer with a black eye, his long-suffering wife with a baby at her breast and other half-starved children tugging at her scanty skirts, the clothes drying on drooping lines stretched between the houses, the boozily noisy public houses brightly lit at Christmas—these sharply drawn thumbnails might almost have sprung from the pages of Dickens’s Sketches by Boz.  

A street in a London slum.  Not Raymond’s Folly, alas, but probably very like it.  Image in John Matthias Weylland Round the Tower (1876) between pages 108 and 109.

But did such a place exist?  Was the place real but the name invented, a false identity of the sort that Neuman would employ almost a quarter of a century later?  Or were both place and name invented?  As I said in my introduction, I find it hard to believe that Rowe made it all up: the writing is so true to life. 

If we assume that Raymond’s Folly is an assumed name, we might then want to look for clues in Rowe’s text.  And clues there certainly are.  Bob has memories of Guy’s Hospital and of Christ Church in Blackfriars Road.  He is not far from Cherry Garden Pier in Bermondsey, and he can walk to Greenwich Park.  And in a passage written in a beautifully wistful register he mentions the river, and the ships that plied its lower reaches: 

The Folly ain’t a seafarin’ part, but then it ain’t a quarter o’ an hour’s walk to parts that is.  When it’s fine of a evening, I sometimes hop down to the wharfs an’ the yards.  I like to see the water runnin’ out an’ in.  It makes me think o’ the quiet green country, an’ the pure blue sea; an’ the very mud’s nice to smell.

A sailor looking out over the river from Cherry Garden Pier.  Image in Walter George Bell The Thames from Chelsea to the Nore (1907) plate 10.

How trapped this man must have felt in his brick-bound surroundings, smelling the pure blue sea in the mud of the banks of the Thames!  He could smell the mud of the Colne as well—he came from Colchester—and he thought of his poor mother lying buried in the churchyard on top of Hythe Hill.

Take a map, if you will, and search.  Cross’s would do, or Stanford’s, or Whitbread’s.  They are lovely things, those old maps of London, and they will at least give pleasure, even if they give no answers.  And let us hope that this cramped corner of London—this “dingy wilderness of brick”—is not overlooked for evermore. 

© london-overlooked 2020

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