A History of Brockley - Part 9: Hilly Fields and Prendergast

This is the ninth part of Darrell Spurgeon's history of Brockley (click on the History tag for the series).

Hilly Fields. This large grassed mound reaches a height of 175 ft, with quite steep sides, and provides fantastic panoramic views on all sides, though some views towards Central and East London are blocked by tall trees, particularly in the summer.

Hilly Fields was acquired as a public park by the London County Council in 1896, after a local campaign (in which the housing reformer Octavia Hill played an important role) to preserve it from future development; by this time the school which dominates it was already there. West Kent Grammar School was built on a high point in 1885; the school is now Prendergast Hilly Fields College.

A path into Hilly Fields from the south end of Tyrwhitt Road passes on the left the Francis Drake Bowls Club, founded 1906. The club-house was rebuilt in 1947 after war damage. Note the magnificent and exotic gate, with swirling leaves around human silhouettes, and showing the words ‘Francis Drake Bowls Club 1906’; it was crafted by Heather Burrell 2008. The pathway continues with views west over Hilly Fields, past an enclosed but accessible garden, to Vicars Hill.

Near the top, to the east of the school, are the Hilly Fields Stones, a millennium stone circle and sundial created by The Brockley Society (project manager Polly Ionides) in 2000. The monument comprises 12 great granite boulders from Mount Struie, near Scotsburn (to the north of Inverness), which form an ellipse around a flat centre of Caithness flagstone, quarried at Watten, near Wick (in the far north-east of Scotland). The central flagstone is carved with the Roman numerals MM and a cross aligned with the cardinal compass points. Two tall standing stones, called St Norbert’s Gate, formed by cutting one Caithness flagstone down the middle, lead into the stone circle from the east. The granite is over 400 million years old, and the flagstone over 350 million years old. The stone circle is also a sundial, with the viewer’s shadow acting as a gnomon.

Prendergast Hilly Fields College, formerly called Prendergast School, occupies a high point almost in the centre of and dominating Hilly Fields. It is part of the Leathersellers Federation of Schools (see also Crofton Park, Prendergast Ladywell Fields College).

The school was built as West Kent Grammar School in 1885. The building was acquired by the London County Council in 1907 to become Brockley County School. Large and prominent extensions were built on the site in 1914 and 1921; an annexe to the south on Adelaide Avenue was added in the 1960s. Brockley County School closed in 1983, and the buildings became Hilly Fields Sixth Form Centre. The site was taken over in 1995 by Prendergast School, moving here from Catford, and in the next few years there were further extensions to the annexe on Adelaide Avenue.

Prendergast School (originally known as Lewisham Grammar School for Girls) was founded in 1890 at Rushey Green, Catford, under the will of Dr Joseph Prendergast, who had been Headmaster of Colfe’s Grammar School (for Boys), Lewisham. The original site for Colfe’s had been provided in 1634 by the Leathersellers, a City of London livery company; the Leathersellers provided the original site for Prendergast School in 1890, and funded its move to this location in 1995. The school became known as Lewisham Prendergast School in 1927, Prendergast School in 1951, and Prendergast Hilly Fields College in 2008. See also Crofton Park, Prendergast Ladywell Fields College.

The original building on the hill, built to the design of Charles Evans in 1885, faces north, and remains the most attractive part of the complex. It is an asymmetrical red brick building in Queen Anne style with Jacobean overtones. The grand entrance projects to the right, classical and pedimented with a balustraded top to the storey above; to its left is a distinctive group of stepped staircase windows. At either end are projecting gabled bays, and on the roof is an octagonal wooden bell turret.

Extensions to the south of 1914 and 1921 are larger and more dominant, in similar red brick and sympathetic, though rather more formal. But note the assembly hall to the east, added to the original building in 1914, with its great traceried east window; its interior is fascinating.

The interior is of special interest because of the murals and stained glass in the Assembly Hall. If you have a special interest in viewing these, contact the College by post or phone on 020-8690 3710 to request an appointment.

A staircase of 1914 leads from the entrance hall down to the Assembly Hall. Its interior has a hammerbeam roof and a gallery at the west end; it contains a remarkable series of murals of 1933-36, largely based on Aesop’s fables, as well as fine stained glass of 1890.

The murals are in large panels, raised six feet above the floor, three on the north wall and two on the south wall, and there are more murals on and under the gallery. The artists were students of William Rothenstein at the Royal College of Art, and the style picturesque, idealised and romantic, much influenced by Stanley Spencer. The panels on the north wall are: Fortune and the Boy at the Well by Cyril Mahoney, Joy and Sorrow by Cyril Mahoney, and The Country Girl and the Milk Pail by Evelyn Dunbar. The panels on the south wall are: The Bird Catcher and the Skylark by Mildred Eldridge, and The King and two Shepherds by Violet Martin. Along the front of the gallery is a long mural Hilly Fields by Evelyn Dunbar, featuring Hilly Fields with the school in the centre, allegorical figures at either end (one holding a plan of the school and the other a plan of Hilly Fields), and two panels above with schoolboys in rugby kit and school uniform. Under the gallery, the lunettes and spandrels are covered in murals by Evelyn Dunbar, and the ceiling in murals by Cyril Mahoney, the central one including trompe l'oeil plasterwork and roundels of bonneted figures.

Also in the hall are four tall illuminated stained glass panels of 1890 brought from the old Prendergast School at Catford - on the north wall male allegorical figures representing Art and Science, and on the south wall female allegorical figures representing Music and Dancing.

The school is accessed from Adelaide Avenue at the southern edge of Hilly Fields by Eastern Road. Going up the hill, at the boundary of the school site, are two low green gates incorporating street scenes and foliage, designed by pupils from the school and crafted by Heather Burrell c2006. Beyond, and on a sloping site to the right, is Hilly Fields Wood, a small nature reserve, normally open to the public.