31 Penrose Street - Walworth's Victorian Sorting Office

The former puropse-built Postmen’s Office (Sorting Office) is located on the corner of Penrose Street and Penrose Grove (formally known as Cottage Grove). It was built in 1897 and designed by Sir Henry Tanner of HM Office of Works.

Documentary evidence (held at the British Postal Museum & Archives) suggests that the Department’s original intention had been to acquire the site opposite at Nos 36 & 38, but research at the time revealed these plots had once held a chapel and an associated burial site and, in light of the 'Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884', the plans were subsequently abandoned. Attention was turned to the site opposite and Nos 25-31 were successfully purchased from a Mr Charles Wastell (meat salesman) in September 1896 for the sum of £1900.

Historic Title Deed for No 31

Documents suggest that discussion was held between the London Postal Service, The London County Council and The Office of Works as to the appropriate height and footprint of the Office. These letters are perhaps interesting in their own right in hinting at some of the tensions which existed between the Post Office and the Office of Works over who should have creative control over the Department's architecture (see J. Osley: Built for Service, 2010 and R. Hradsky in Living Leisure & Law, 2010). In February 1897, Henry Tanner, then the Government's head architect for Post Offices, supplied the designs (right down to the size of the bolts in the trusses) which were approved and had a build cost which was estimated at £2600.

Design Drawings by Henry Tanner

Design Drawings by Henry Tanner 

In 1912, the Post Office identified a need for increased space at the Penrose Street Office to deal with the extra volume of mail to deal with during the Christmas period. Plans for a temporary corrugated iron annex extension were subsequently supplied by John Rutherford of the Office of Works (though these were met with criticism for being too costly). 

In 1944 the building seems to have suffered some bomb damage; as captured by a photo in the BPMA archives showing the interior (and correlated by the LCC's Bomb Damage Maps). This appears to have been minor; causing some damage to the lath and plaster ceilings and breaking some window panes and lighting fixtures. It's possible that the decorative cupola style lanterns shown in Tanner's drawings were lost at this point (had they ever been built at all).

Bomb Damage in 1944

The building is in an attractive and accomplished Victorian gothic style, of red brick with stone dressings and mullioned windows to the principal elevation, which features a crenelated parapet. The stone moulding at plinth level was articulated to accommodate a post box (now missing) and the corners of the doorcase feature the 'VR' royal cipher. The glazed-brick plinth returns along the Penrose Grove elevation which is of 5 bays with simple pilasters. There is an attached enclosed yard and a later brick annex extension off the main building. Historic photo of bomb damaged interior suggests a wood block flooring 

According to Robert Hradsky, writing in Chapter 8 of Living, Leisure & Law (2010): "the output of the Office was to become far more eclectic under Henry Tanner (1849-1935), who in 1884 replaced Williams as head architect for post offices. Some of Tanner’s earlier designs were in a Gothic Revival style akin to the work of Alfred Waterhouse, such as Commercial Street, Halifax (1886), though he came to prefer an English or Northern Renaissance style, used both on the smaller scale, as at High Street, Croydon (c.1894, Fig. 8)12 or Dame Alice Street, Bedford (c.1897),13 and on a large scale, as at Bradford (c.1887, Fig. 9), Leeds (1892-6) and Nottingham (1895-8). These palatial facilities, often symmetrically grouped with a lively skyline, placed the Post Office at the very heart of civic life. Though post offices became more eclectic stylistically under Tanner in line with national trends, his chief concern was with technical improvements regarding planning and construction.

 

Whilst there is a good number of Purpose Built Post Offices already listed, and some of these have integrated sorting offices attached, there does not seem to be many examples of stand alone purpose-built Sorting Offices which are listed (the two examples found being Kings Avenue in Enfield of 1904 and Leighton Road in Camden of 1903; both are later than the office at Penrose Street). Arguably purpose-built Sorting Offices, such as that at Penrose Street, should be treated as a related, but distinct, building type from Post Offices; being more functional in purpose and not having the public-facing service requirements of Post Offices. 

Within the local context, the building can be seen as one of an assemblage of Civic Buildings, sharing a similar approach to style and materials. Examples include the Manor Place Baths (grade II listed); the Coroner's Court Flats (corner of Occupation Row, unlisted); The former Newington Vestry Hall (grade II listed); The Library (grade II listed) and The Walworth Clinic (grade II listed).

 

 

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