Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Sad Demise of Huggens College

Auntie Queenie, my hermaphrodite Aunt who wasn’t really an Aunt at all but a first cousin on my grandfather’s side of the family had very much wanted to be accepted as a resident of Huggens College, or at least that is what she said. Not unexpectedly in the final analysis her application was turned down. My mother said it was because of her unresolved gender, though she didn’t express it quite like that. Great Aunt Martha who lived in Hamerton Road maintained that the place was for more middle class and educated persons who were regular church goers and the indecision about whether she was male or female would not have come into it. My Grandmother said that far be it from her to spread rumour and gossip but if she had been inclined to do so she could tell a story or two about Queenie that would have prevented her ever entering the local fish and chip shop, let alone Huggens College. I wondered what on earth could be so very special about the place, sitting as it did behind what seemed impenetrably high walls. The only people we ever saw coming and going, apart from delivery vans, were elderly ladies carrying shopping baskets or bunches of flowers and walking slowly though purposefully along the High Street.

Until I became friends with Brenda, the oldest daughter of my father’s foreman at the Cement Works, I had never been inside the place but I was increasingly curious as to what might lie behind the rather intimidating exterior. From what I could glimpse of the Gatekeeper’s Lodge, I began to rather fancy living there myself. Once the friendship with Brenda was established I did not have long to wait because her family had a relative in residence who was definitely keen on visitors. It was remarkably easy to become Brenda’s friend because she was not particularly likeable and of a highly nervous disposition which made her mother very anxious about her welfare whilst very much desiring she should make friends with other girls.

Before long we found ourselves visiting her Great Aunt Lavinia together with a basket of vegetables from Brenda’s garden and I was pleased to find that once inside, the place was pleasingly reminiscent of Days Gone By and I felt that we should really be wearing the kind of clothes worn by Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s `The Secret Garden’. I mentioned this to Brenda but she said she’d never read it and asked me why I was whispering. In fact it was a place where whispering came easily, feeling as it did just a little like entering cathedral cloisters. I suggested perhaps playing a game where we pretended to be book characters from long ago but it turned out that Brenda was not really much of a reader and was even dismissive of Enid Blyton which was surprising in 1952 and rather shocked me.

The forty or fifty tidily identical little houses seemed to be built to form a square and they were surrounded by very well kept lawns and gardens. From memory, a further wing faced the river down to which the whole complex gently sloped. There were rows of horse chestnut trees against the walls which I noted would come in very handy should the residents have an urge to play Conkers later on in the year. Though of course this game, mostly favoured by boys was not one that generally involved adults of any age.

Aunt Lavinia looked as if she was expecting us and immediately poured glasses of her home made lemonade which was completely different from any version I had previously experienced and to be honest not entirely to my taste. She was a small plump woman wearing a long muslin dress and a little white lace cap making her very similar in appearance to Great Aunt Martha of Hamerton Road. Her little house, sitting as it did alongside the hustle and bustle of Northfleet High Street, yet clearly quite apart from it, was to my mind rather like a fairy tale cottage. It had an enticing porch entrance into the living room and a kitchen that I believe must have been equipped with a bath because I don’t recall a bath anywhere else. A narrow staircase led up to the bedrooms, the smaller of which our hostess told us was originally intended for maids or companions as so many of the earliest residents preferred not to live alone.

I decided to ask how she came to be living in such a lovely place and if it was totally necessary to be well educated in order to do so. She explained that the cottages were in fact an estate of almshouses, a term that was new to me, and had been built to accommodate genteel ladies of the High Anglican Faith who found themselves in Reduced Circumstances. I didn’t like to ask what she meant by that because it sounded like something I ought to know about so I just listened. She said that one of her mother’s cousins had in fact been a Founder Resident as long ago as 1848 when the College first opened to receive those who had passed the entrance qualifications. Back then each resident was allocated a monthly allowance along with a ton of coal each year. John Huggens the instigator of the idea was a wealthy corn merchant and philanthropist from Sittingbourne and originally the College was going to be built there but try as he might he simply couldn’t get the required permission for the venture no matter how great his financial resources were. It was that misfortune and difficulty that became Northfleet’s gain! He was said by some to be an abrasive man but ultimately became extremely well thought of because he had not only provided homes for the elderly Anglicans but also a chapel with a cottage for the vicar and a croquet lawn for those who enjoyed the game. At the mention of croquet I pricked up my ears because although I had never played the game in my short life and the only thing I knew about the rules was what I had gleaned from Lewis Carroll, it sounded like a splendid opportunity for an extended fantasy that might last for days. It seemed a pity that Brenda was a playmate so lacking in imagination.

Aunt Lavinia went on to say that originally there had been a statue of John Huggens over the entrance gates but that had to be taken down during the war for fear of it falling on someone during the bombing. Later on the gateway itself had been struck by lightning and had to be restored so these days the main gates were only used occasionally and residents and visitors alike were required to enter via one of the smaller entryways in College Road.

She showed us a photograph of John Huggens sitting in an armchair with eight stern looking women around him which she said had been taken when the first cottages were pronounced ready for occupation. Then she showed us another photo of his funeral procession which had apparently been one of the most impressive ever seen in Northfleet or possibly even Gravesend as well with a hearse drawn by six plumed black horses and a young man in front holding a canopy of ostrich feathers. She told us he was buried in St Botolph’s Churchyard and there had been coach after coach of mourners all dressed in black and that after a month or two a Board of Trustees was appointed to run the College. It was said that the Board were not nearly as efficient as Huggens himself had been and the monthly allowance and allocation of coal soon stopped. By the time we were acquainted with all this information about the rather saintly benefactor it had become totally clear to me that my poor Auntie Queenie would never have been an entirely suitable resident and I felt a twinge of regret because it was clear she would have very much enjoyed living in one of the little houses. My brother and I would have definitely appreciated visiting her and perhaps even learning to play croquet whilst she made tea and chatted with our mother.

More than a decade later when attending the first wedding of my young brother I learned from one of the guests that the pretty little almshouses had been rather unwisely built from Kentish Ragstone which was said not to have weathered well but the speaker obviously found that hard to believe saying that it had been used locally for over a thousand years and in fact was the hardest rock in the county. After all neither local churches nor Leeds Castle were in danger of disintegrating were they? It was his belief, the guest said, that there was Much More To It than simple wear and tear of Ragstone. And of course he may well have been right. Nevertheless by 1966 Huggens original College had been largely torn down and a new, smaller complex built in its place with the promise of a brand new chapel but no sign whatsoever of a croquet lawn.

Apparently ten acres of the formerly pristine grounds had been sold to the local council who built flats for pensioners there and named the venture The Wallis Park Estate. In 1969 my mother moved into one of them and with memories of the Huggens College Almshouse still fresh in memory, was excited to do so, leaving 28 York Road behind her without a backward glance. Sadly the move was not a happy one with the delinquent behaviour and vandalism of bored local teenagers almost impossible to put up with. She was more than happy to move on to Pickwick House on the Painters Ash Estate.

At the time I could quite understand the ease with which she left Northfleet. When I had visited her at Wallis Park I found the rapid local changes made it almost impossible to recognize the area as the environs of the old High Street that I had known so well as a child. College Road, Samaritan Grove and Hive Lane all seem to have evaporated along with the myriad of familiar shops and businesses. The last vestige of bygone days was a block of flats called Rayners Court which presumably had been named in honour of the local family of Rayners who had run the hardware store with such fortitude and determination for so many years. It always seemed a great pity to me that the Kentish Ragstone so favoured by John Huggens had weathered quite as badly as it did.

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