The Paragon, Blackheath

No. 3 Paragon, Blackheath. Images of The Paragon are courtesy of 

© Stephen170 /Pictures of

John Cator (1728-1806), who owned the lands on which the Paragon would be built, began selling leases in the early 1790s, and the one for the Paragon and for South Row went to Michael Searles, who had just completed the Paragon along the New Kent Road in Southwark. Other Paragons had previously been built at Richmond and Bath, and later ones would appear in Margate and even Hackney, in North London. The name, as Rhind contends, “came to embrace a regard for the fine quality of construction and craftsmanship as well as crescent now acknowledged as almost the apotheosis of the architectural form generally described as Georgian” (The Paragon 12). The war with France caused many delays in Searle’s development and the Paragon was not completed until 1806 (13). 

Michael Searles (1751-1813), architect for the Paragon, was the son of Michael Searles, Sr (c. 1720-1799), and had been the land surveyor for Morden College in Greenwich, near the land now housing the Paragon. The younger Searles is often considered the “first serious designer-architect who can be identified in Greenwich undertaking modest domestic work” in the late 18th century (The Paragon 16).  By the late 1780s Searles was living along the Old Kent Road in Southwark, and probably met John Dunkin at that time. He was hired to survey property in Bermondsey and to develop Surrey Place, a new development along the Old Kent Road. He was working for Abraham and Samuel Driver, John Rolls, and John Goad, a Quaker. Through them he met many wealthy merchants who began to employ him to build homes for them primarily the period between 1784 and 1793). Rolls was the main person behind the building of the Paragon in Southwark, which led to 12 homes forming the crescent. It was completed in 1788 and Searles lived at No. 2 for a time, with John Rolls living at No. 8 (until 1804), and another architect, George Gwilt (1746-1807) living at the Paragon as well (The Paragon 17). Each house was linked at the ground floor by four Doric columns made in Coade Stone [Eleanor Coade was a member of the Particular Baptist congregation in Battersea]. It was demolished in 1898 to make way for a school (18). Searles next project was the Circus in Greenwich (completed in 1793) and then the Paragon, Blackheath, the result of his meeting John Cator sometime around 1790. During the mid-1790s he continued to work in Southwark, building Surrey Square for the Driver brothers (1792) and many single homes, such as Clare House at East Malling, Kent, and a home for Dr. William Mitford (d. 1797) near Vanbrugh Fields in Greenwich, known then as the Manor House (demolished in 1957) (The Paragon 19). After the completion of the Blackheath Paragon, Searles seems to have built very little of note before his death in 1813. 

 The Paragon, Blackheath, 1812-19

John Hays and his family lived here after his marriage from 1812 until the fall of 1819, when he removed (he apparently suffered some financial setbacks at this time) to Doughty Street, near Russell Square, not far from Mary Hays in Pentonville. Crabb Robinson makes his first call on John Hays at Doughty Street on 7 November 1819, having made many visits to his home at the Paragon the previous seven years. During his time at the Paragon, Mary Hays also visited often (both before and after her return from Bristol) and on occasions her mail was delivered here, with several references to this address appearing in the Eliza Fenwick letters.

According to Neil Rhind, in his valuable work, The Paragon and South Row Blackheath: A triumph in late 18th century unintentional town planning (Blackheath: Bookshop on the Heath, 2012), “the building of quality houses . . . on Maze Hill and in West Grove and Crooms Hill” had begun in the early 18th century … Sir John Vanbrugh’s construction of his mock-medieval village, at the south end of Maze Hill, as well as the subsequent development of that road, had established the district as a desirable one in which to live for those engaged in the professions, manufacturing and commerce” (11).  Rhind later adds, “Sir John Vanbrugh’s mock-medieval village, at the south end of Maze Hill, comprised large, albeit eccentric, houses built originally for his family but later leased by people of comfortable means” (37).  By 1800, Blackheath had become “a nice place in which to reside. There was space for the family and servants, yet it was close enough to the centre of London for its professional and social benefits to be available. It was handy for the industrial belt along the Thames from London Bridge to Woolwich . . . It was the ideal rus in urbe, [38] and Michael Searles, with his Paragon scheme, knew who the likely purchasers would be” (37-38).

The homes in the Paragon were of substantial size. An advertisement for No. 5 in 1841 gives an idea of the nature of the homes, noting that the third floor had four bedrooms, the second floor two large bedrooms, and the first floor four bedrooms, a dressing room and water closet, with the ground floor having an entrance hall leading to the dining room, with two drawing rooms separated by folding doors, a library, a gentleman’s room with a shower/bath, a water closet, and there was a basement with front and back kitchens, larder, servant’s quarters, store room and a walled garden area, a paddock with five acres, a garden cottage, coach house, stable and loft, and some other features as well. Anyone living in such a house was definitely of substantial means at that time, as was John Hays (The Paragon 39). Most of the early inhabitants were members of the mercantile class involved with import and export trade and manufactures and raw materials, and most came from the City (not from Greenwich) (39). Searles himself may have been one of the first inhabitants, leaving his home at No. 2 Paragon for a new home in the Paragon in Blackheath in the fall of 1794 (maybe the same time the Dunkins move into his former residence). By April 1796, however, he appears to moved back to Southwark and was living at Surrey Place (40). Between 1802 and 1805, No. 3 at the Paragon was occupied by Henry Smithers, Henry Keene’s son-in-law and coal merchant and member at Maze Pond (40, 118), the same house John Hays would occupy from 1812 through some time in 1819. It appears No. 3 did not have a coach house or stable (45).  Prior to John Hays moving into No. 3 in 1812, previous residents had been Henry Smithers (1802-05) and William Barr (1776-1840), wharf owner on Symond’s Wharf, Tooley Street, Southwark, 1788-1814 (The Paragon 118). Smithers was a member at the Baptist congregation in Maze Pond and known to the Dunkin and Hays families most likely, for he was the son-in-law of Henry Keene, a prominent member at Maze Pond and figure in South London during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Rhind thinks Hays is John Hayes, bookseller, of 153 Cheapside and later at 252 High Holborn. An infant son, John, died here in February 1817 (119).  

John Hays lived at No. 3 Paragon, Blackheath from 1812 to 1818. His neighbors at that time were Edward Spencer Curling, Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike (at no. 1); the Rev. Dr. Richard Jenkins Runwra Jenkins (fl. 1763-1820) at no. 2; Lancelot Loat (1770-1841), merchant, land developer, Guardian of the Poor, etc, at no. 4; at no. 5, Charles Lewis Muller; at no. 6 was Henry Goodwyn (d. 1824), brewer; at no. 7 was Isaac Warner (1744-1822), Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike; at no. 8 was Sir John Eamer, Lord Mayor of London 1801-1802; no. 9 was a Mr. Irwin; no. 10 was William Ashmead (1771-c. 1841); at no. 11 was George Bramwell (1817-18); at no. 12 was William Geddes (1802-11) and Mr Couzens; at no. 13 was Godfrey Frieze; at no. 14 was Michael Searles (1795-99) but then Charles Rivington Broughton, solicitor, Trustee of the New Cross Turnpike.  Across the way at Paragon House was William Curling, another trustee of the New Cross Turnpike.

At No. 14, a Capt. John Drew appears to have lived from 1826 to 1829; it may be that it was his sister, Sophia Drew of Clifton, Bristol, who married Augustus Applegath (1788-1871) in 1813 (he was the son of Mary Hays's close friend during her youth, Ann Lepard); in 1825, they were living at No. 5 St Germans Place, London (The Paragon 165). Nearby, at No. 2 South Row (also built by Searles), a Rebecca Nightingale (1791-1850) established a boarding school for girls that opened in 1821, taking over the business previously established by Hesther Palmer (1766-1853). Palmer moved to No. 115 Maze Hill in 1820, remaining there until her death in 1853. Nightingale kept the school until 1841. James Burgess lived at No. 3 South Row, 1815-18; he was a corn lighterman and granary keeper in business in Horsleydown Lane, Southwark (186) and would have been known to John Hays. 

For more on The Paragon, see Neil Rhind, Blackheath Village and Environs 1790-1970(Blackheath, London: Wricklemarsh and the Cator Estate, 1983); and Neil Rhind, The Paragon and South Row Blackheath: A triumph in late 18thcentury unintentional town planning (Blackheath: Bookshop on the Heath, 2012).