The Norwood Society

Charles John Letts

Charles John Letts was the grandson of John Letts, printer, stationer and bookbinder of 92 Royal Exchange. John Letts’ son, Thomas Letts, father of Charles, was apprenticed in the 1790’s to the bookbinding trade and the publication of diaries, bills, due books and almanacs. It was he who formed the firm Letts, Son & Co. Ltd. with a factory at New Cross. By 1850 he had bought Clare Lodge, 27 Perry Hill, Catford, and moved later to Granville Park, Blackheath, where he died in 1873. Charles was Manager for a time of Letts, Son & Co. before it closed.

In 1881 Charles founded a new firm, Charles Letts & Co. with very limited capital and premises but nevertheless made a profit, modest at first, but increasing with the years and much economy on the part of the staff of four. His two sons joined the firm, Harry Vaughan in 1888 and Herman Ashworth by 1891. Harry did much of the traveller’s work. At first they published diaries only but as the production of diaries increased with the bookbinding at Bankside and leather work in Marshalsea Road, it was decided to amalgamate the three processes under one roof at Diary House, Borough Road in 1934, although the Borough Road offices are no longer occupied by Letts.

Charles Letts was born in London in 1836; he married Sarah Ashworth from Rochdale, Lancs. His eldest son Harry was born in 1868, Herman in 1870 and Charles Hubert in 1872. They were then living in Farnborough Villa, Jews Walk, Sydenham. Their daughter Alice, also called Daisy, was born in 1873 in Balham. Later the family moved to 9 St James’ Road, Hatcham, living there for about 5 years. By 1880, about the same time as Charles John began trading as Charles Letts & Co., they had moved to Westfield, 132 Selhurst Road, South Norwood, near Heavers Farm. Although the house is no longer there, it must have been in an attractive position, being on the edge of the fields of the Farm. The new estate built there still backs on to the open land of the South Norwood & Selhurst allotments. About 1895 they moved to Oakhurst, 21 Ross Road, South Norwood, now re-numbered 59, a fine, large house on the corner of Canham Road. This is another attractive area high up on the South Norwood Hills and close to Grangewood Park, notable for its oak trees and its view over the North Downs and Croydon. He stayed there for about 11 years, when Charles moved again about 1900, this time to Springfield House, Avenue Road, South Norwood, where he died in 1912. This is near the open countryside area of South Norwood Park and Lake. The original has been demolished. Charles’ brother, Thomas Alton Letts, lived at 4 Breakspear Road, Lewisham in the 1960-70’s, and later went out to the U.S.A. where he lived in New York.

Charles was a Churchwarden of St. Mark’s Church, South Norwood in the 1880’s and 1890’s and later of Holy Innocents’ Church from 1895. The Vicar of St. Mark’s, Rev. E Knollys, had been in touch with the Ecclesiastical Commission with a view to obtaining a grant of land and some funds towards the erection of a new Church to ease the pressure on it. He was assisted by the Committee of which Charles Letts and Alan Chambre were most active members. After much correspondence by the Committee, a plot of land was donated and a grant towards the building was obtained. First a temporary iron Church was erected in 1888 in Selhurst Road. The same Committee appealed to the Commission for a further grant of land on which to build a permanent Church – many letters were written by the Vicar and the Churchwardens to the Ecclesiastical Commission with this object in view. Finally the land was given with a donation, and after the plans were approved by the Commission and much fund-raising done, the foundation stone of Holy Innocents’ Church was laid in 1893. The architects, Bodley and Garner, of Grays Inn, designed the Church in late English Decorated Style to be built in Bath stone. The Church was finished in 1895. The elegant Victorian building is still standing, although it is affected by the fumes of traffic in busy Selhurst Road; it has been cleaned and is now listed.

In another letter to the Ecclesiastical Commission written by the same Church Committee, Charles Letts and Alan Chambre in 1888 appealed for a grant of a lease for a small plot of land in the poorest part of the parish (of St. Mark’s) for the erection of a parochial Mission Hall. A suitable position for a hall was on land belonging to the Commission near Carmichael Road. The Society on whose behalf the appeal was being made relied solely on voluntary subscriptions and they had received offers of funds, and also collected money sufficient to build a substantial brick hall. In 1895 the land was granted and the St. George’s Mission Hall was built and opened in 1898, and all expenses paid by 1901. The building lasted many years and has only recently (1994) been demolished. Although it was not used as a Mission Hall since about 1936 but converted into a small factory, it had stood for nearly a hundred years. Holy Innocents’ Church has survived for over one hundred years.

The firm of Charles Letts & Co. Ltd. now operates from Thornybank Industrial Estate, Dalkeith, Midlothian, and celebrates its 200 anniversary this year (1996) so altogether, quite a historical year!

Further study produced some interesting details about Charles’ house in Sydenham. The 1867 directory shows that he occupied Farnborough Villa, Jews Walk; on one side is Farnborough House and on the other side is Grove House. In the 1872 directory Charles Letts is shown as living at the Grove, Upper Sydenham, the Grove being another name for Jews Walk. The 1885 directory shows the houses numbered as well as having names. No. 2 Jews Walk is named Farnborough Cottage – presumably the same as Farnborough Villa, although not now occupied by C. Letts. Next door is No. 4 Grove House, followed by No. 6 called Osborne House. The Congregational Church is situated between No. 2 Farnborough Villa and Farnborough House on the corner of Jews Walk; the Church was built in 1854. The 1896 Ordnance Survey Map confirms the position of these buildings with Farnborough House on the corner of High Street and Jews Walk, the garden and out-buildings facing Jews Walk; the Church is next followed by three detached houses and then the turning of Longton Grove intersecting Jews Walk.

The 1871 Census shows Charles Letts as a Stationer, London-born, aged 31, his wife Sarah also the same age, from Rochdale, Lancs; unfortunately she died young when only 36 years old, in 1876. They had two little boys, Henry Vaughan aged three and Norman Ashworth aged one year. Also residing with them was Charles’ brother-in-law, Edward Ashworth (Sarah’s brother) aged 18, listed as a stationer’s assistant, three servants – a cook, housemaid and nurse. Their house appears as Farnborough Villa, ‘The Grove ‘; the house next door is Grove House.

No.2 was built in 1840, a square-shaped early Victorian pleasant classic-styled building with a grey slate roof; No. 4 was built slightly later in 1850. All have white-stuccoed walls, and are still standing. It seems therefore that No. 2 was Charles’ house and he and his family lived there from about 1867 to 1872.

Looking at that row now, the early Farnborough House has been restored, although part has been demolished and all the stables, outbuildings etc., have gone: it is a hostel for young people. The Congregational Church has been demolished and a new one-storey building has replaced it called the Grove Centre, and belongs to the United Reformed Church. No.2 next-door also is owned by the Church. It is well kept and in good condition and used as offices by the Church, and a children’s play group meet there in a large room on the ground floor. So the house that was formerly Farnborough Villa is now called Grove Centre House. Before the Church took over the building in 1954 it was called ‘Hebron’. Next door, No. 4, was Grove House, is now Whitehead House, also in a good state of preservation and is used by old people., No. 6, formerly Osborne House, is in a sad state of dereliction and all boarded up (but restored in 1998).

The Letts family had moved from Jews Walk by 1873 and about 1875/6 was living at 98 St. James Road, Hatcham. Then about 1881 the family moved to South Norwood. The 1881 Census shows Charles Letts residing at Westfield, Selhurst Road, aged 40, Stationer, of London Middx. He had now remarried, in 1878, Eliza Petrie aged 38 from Rochdale, Lancs. His sons Harry, Norman and Charles aged 13, 11 and 9, respectively, are scholars and born in Sydenham. Alice L, his daughter aged 8 was born in Balham, and was also at school There was also a staff of one cook and a housemaid.

In the 1891 Census Charles is now 51 years old and Eliza is aged 48. Henry Vaughan is now aged 23 and Herman Ashworth aged 21, and both are stationers in their father’s firm. Charles Hubert, their youngest brother, is aged 19 and is an artist. The youngest member of the family is Alice L (Daisy) the only daughter aged 18. They are living at home at 132 Selhurst Road, together with two servants.

After leaving Westfield Charles resided at Oakhurst, Ross road, South Norwood. It was while he was there that he lost Lizzie, his second wife; she died in 1899. It must have been a year of mixed feelings as his second son had decided to get married in September. Norman Letts married Miss Evelyn Jennie Mather, Fairlawn, Whitworth, South Norwood at Holy Innocents’ Church. The wedding was fully reported in the local newspaper and by all accounts was a very pretty wedding: the Church was crowded and everybody was carrying bouquets, and the ladies wore smart costumes. The bride had five bridesmaids and two train-bearers and all the wedding party wore pretty ivory-coloured satin dresses. The best man was Bertie Letts. Both families had connections with the Church and it was a popular wedding. The Vicar spoke of Mr.Letts, the Bridegroom’s father, and how he had suffered trials and sorrows so it must have been of special interest to see his son now married.

The year after in December 1900, Charles Letts organised the Old Folks Dinner which he had started about 1893, to which he and others privately subscribed. After a very good dinner and entertainment, speeches were made. One was the news that Mr. Letts was giving up his position as Churchwarden of Holy Innocents which was regretted as he had held it for a number of years. The more cheerful news was that the Boer War, which had caused much worry, was nearly at an end. Those present at the party were able to congratulate him on an event which was to take place shortly, namely his approaching marriage, in January 1901, to Miss Helena Tidy, who came from a local family.

The announcement in the Norwood News says: ‘On the 15th inst. at St. Paul’s, Wilton Place, S.W., by the Rev. James Baden Powell, M.A., Charles J. Letts of Springfield, South Norwood to Helena, youngest daughter of the late John Tidy of Coney Hall, West Wickham, and Mrs Tidy of Dingwall Road. The ceremony was a quiet one.’. After getting married Charles and his wife lived at Springfield, Avenue Road, South Norwood. He was semi-retired, keeping up some of his work for the Church but spending more time abroad. He did come home in the Winter of 1912, having experienced serious heart trouble but by the Summer collapsed and died. He was buried alongside Sarah and Lizzie in the countrified Churchyard of St. John’s Shirley, just a few miles from South Norwood. After her husband’s death Helena does not appear to have lived at Springfield so perhaps she moved from the district.

There is an entry in the local Ward’s Directory which shows Charles Letts living at 18 Devonshire Road, South Norwood, from about 1913 to the 1930’s; perhaps he was the artist son of Charles John Letts? The Norwood News gave the following good summary of the life and death of Charles:

Thomas Letts was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, the stone is listed grade 2.

Continuing down Canham road from the corner of Ross Road there is a row of 1930’s houses built in the grounds of 59 Ross Road. Situated at the end of the row and at the corner of Wrights Road is a cottage called Oakhurst Lodge. The house was part of the stables and buildings of Oakhurst and built by Wright the builder in 1883: the date appears on the wall. The stables and cottage at Oakhurst Lodge was occupied (1987) by Christopher Fifield, the author, musician and conductor of the Lambeth Orchestra and musical director since 1982.

Norwood News Sat. June 15th 1912. By courtesy of the Daily Graphic.

Death of Mr. C.J.Letts.

With startling suddenness the death took place on Tuesday 11th June in London of Mr. Charles J. Letts, a gentleman who for about 30 years occupied a prominent and honourable position in South Norwood. The deceased was largely identified with Church matters, his business aptitude and knowledge of finance being invaluable at a time when Church extension was in the air. He was Churchwarden when the Rev. Erskine Knollys was appointed to the living of South Norwood. He entered very thoroughly into the question of the providing of a temporary Church in Selhurst Road, the forerunner of the permanent Church of Holy Innocents.

In the building of Holy Innocents Mr. Letts had the lion’s share of the responsibility, and his devotion to the cause entitles him to have his name ever affectionately spoken of in the history of Holy Innocents. He gave the handsome pulpit as an In Memoriam gift and also presented the lectern. Mr. Letts thoroughly understood Church doctrine and practice and kept himself in close touch with all that was moving in Church life and thought. In regard to Church extension in South Norwood he was the man of the times and, looking backward, it is very doubtful, but for Mr. Letts’ personal activities, Holy Innocents would have been built. He organised many fetes and other means of raising money, and the day of opening of Holy Innocents was a proud moment of his life.

Mr. Letts was Churchwarden with Mr. Rowsell Senior in the late Rev. W. Longden’s Vicariate and took a strong line in inducing Mr. Longden to exchange with the Rev. W. Erskine Knollys. Mr. W. Goodwin afterwards became co-warden with Mr. Letts in 1890. Mr. Letts resigned for a time but came back again, and in 1904 was People’s Warden for five years with Mr. Goodwin.

Mr. Letts was for some years on the old Croydon School Board and also served on the Croydon Council. Whilst a Councillor he built ‘Springfield’ in Avenue Road, although he lived abroad a great deal. The overseers regarded Springfield as unoccupied and struck Mr. Letts’ name off the municipal roll. He thus became disqualified to vote at the Council and was very unwilling to resign, but eventually did so when it was represented to him that South Norwood by this action was a member short.

Mr. Letts instituted the Old Folks’ Dinner, still continued. He had been thrice married and the two wives who predeceased him are buried at Shirley. It was a coincidence that upon the death of his second wife, the remains of the first were brought from their resting-place and were re-interred at Shirley, shortly before the funeral of the second Mrs. Letts. Subsequently Mr. Letts married a Miss Tidy of South Norwood. Of late years Mr Letts has not been very much in South Norwood, spending much of his time in the South of France where we believe he also identified himself with Church matters. His name will always be a cherished memory in the district, and occupy a prominent place in its history, and that of a good and useful citizen honoured by all.

Mr. Letts, who was in his 72nd year, leaves a widow, three sons and a daughter to mourn his loss. The funeral takes place at two 0’clock today (Saturday) at Shirley. Mr. Letts had, it appeared, just recovered from a somewhat serious illness in Cannes, and had been advised by the doctor to return to England. Since his return to London, for a change he had as a recreation resorted to his old hobby of artistic leather-embossing, and it was whilst engaged in this work on Tuesday that he was seized with fainting fit, which had a fatal termination before medical assistance could be summoned.

Mr. Letts was a grandson of John Letts, the originator of the printed diary. The latter’s business was founded in the reign of George III at a shop in the royal Exchange where the business is still carried on. About ten years ago a factory was established at Southwark. Among other celebrated who used the earlier publications of the firm were Livingstone and Stanley.

The Croydon Advertiser reported Charles’ Death rather more concisely with a reference to his activities in the Croydon Council.

Croydon Advertiser – Saturday, 15th June 1912

The death occurred on Tuesday from heart disease of Mr. C.J. Letts, for many years a resident of Springfield House, Norwood Park, formerly a member of Croydon Town Council, who was a member of the well-known firm of diary publishers. For many years the deceased had wintered abroad and this led to his severance from the organisation at South Norwood every January of the Old folks’ Dinner – an event which he started many years ago. The deceased was elected a member of Town Council on 22nd June 1900 when Mr. J. Smith, one of the original members, resigned. Mr. Letts only sat for two years.

He was an uncompromising Churchman and for many years acted as Churchwarden at St. Mark’s. The pulpit at Holy Innocents was a gift from him in memory of his first wife.

The diary publishing was started in the reign of George III by John Letts, grandfather of the deceased who was a senior partner. Operations were originally carried on in the old Royal Exchange. It would seem that the diaries of Mr. Letts have been favourites with travellers. D. Livingstone, H. Stanley and Bishop Harrington, and others have recorded their journeys published by this firm. They are proprietors of several patents connected with special forms of diary.

The funeral takes place this afternoon at Shirley Churchyard.

D. Betty Griffin

The Norwood Review Edition #187.