Ask me a Question

Why "Fitzhugh", "Morville", "Gernigan", "St Quentin", "Skipsea", "Woodham"?

Why such strange names for tower blocks in the middle of Wandsworth Common?

In this view, the blocks remind me (and perhaps the people who built and named them) of chess pieces towering over the green Common — perhaps knights?

(Click on image to enlarge)

"Off Trinity Road, just S of the railway on the edge of the common and close to the Royal Patriotic schools, the FITZHUGH ESTATE, 1953-5 by the LCC (job architect Oliver Cox), an extreme example of the Roehampton principle of retaining the maximum amount of trees and views; five eleven-storey point blocks of Alton East type, i.e. of the humane, pre-brutalist period, no low buildings at all."

[B. Cherry and N. Pevsner, London 2:South, p.705.]

The short answer . . . 

The Fitzhugh Estate's blocks are so mid-20th-century in shape, structure and materials, but their names are all associated with the 16th-century founders of Emanuel School (next door). Four of the names — Fitzhugh, Morville, Gernigan, St Quentin — are among the ancestral families of Gregory Fiennes (10th Baron Dacre) and his wife Lady Anne (nee Sackville), benefactors of Emanuel Hospital in Westminster in 1594.

The other two names — Skipsea and Woodhall — are Dacre-owned manors in the East Riding of Yorkshire that "the first Herbert de St. Quentin received from William the Conqueror".

But how on earth did these modest but undoubtedly "modern" skyscrapers acquire such names?

Here is Gregory Fiennes's Coat of Arms:

Source: EuropeanHeraldry: House of Dacre, annotated by PB. More information on Gregory Fiennes's Coat of Arms.

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Emanuel School's Coat of Arms

Spot the similarity:

The cover of The History of Emanuel School 1594-1964, C.W. Scott-Giles and Bernard V. Slater (1935, revised and supplemented 1948, 1966, 1977).

The ultimate inspiration for the Fitzhugh names may be Wilfred Scott-Giles, who had been a pupil at Emanuel (1902-1911). He wrote the first edition of the school's history in the 1930s. An established writer on heraldry — he was Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary — his best-known book was The Romance of Heraldry (1929).

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Greg Fiennes, with his mum


Hans Eworth, Mary Neville, Lady Dacre, and her son Gregory Fiennes, 10th Baron Dacre, 1559. (I have not been able to find a portrait of Greg's wife Anne (Sackville) Dacre.)

National Portrait Gallery: Mary Neville and Gregory Fiennes.

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But the real question is why a Labour-led London County Council chose such old-school names for tower blocks built for working-class people shortly after World War Two? What could possibly account for the choice of such little-known Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor names?

The original intended name had been the Victoria Estate — but this new estate was intended to have nothing in common with the "old-fashioned" social order of fifty years earlier. (Indeed, many of its new inhabitants had probably spent their lives in dilapidated insanitary 19th-century slums.) A complete break was being signalled.

I suspect the answer partly lies in the belief that the 1950s would inaugurate a "New Elizabethan Age" as socially, economically and culturally dynamic as the 16th-century one — a 25-year-old Elizabeth II had become queen in in 1952 and crowned in 1953, while the estate was being built. A local association with the Fiennes-Dacre-Sackville families, who had flourished under Elizabeth I, was perhaps just the ticket.

1954 – The LCC has a "change of mind"

According to the Norwood News, 17 Dec 1954, "The [London County Council] have changed their mind" about what to call the estate. Originally named the "Victoria Estate" it was changed to "Fitzhugh Estate" quite late in its development. This and the five blocks were to be named after ancestral families and estates of the founders of nearby Emanuel School.

Norwood News, 17 Dec 1954.

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By the way, Emanuel School was not fee-paying in the 1950s – it was in effect a grammar school funded by a "Direct Grant" from Government on the understanding that it would admit boys of all classes. Pupils were recruited chiefly from local state primary schools based on their results in competitive 11+ exams.

Why these names?

The Fitzhugh Estate was built by E & A Wates, a local company (based in Streatham) with expertise in building innovative structures in concrete — for example they had a major wartime contract for sections of Mulberry harbour, made for the 1944 Normandy landings. The three sons of the company's founder, Edward Wates, studied at Emanuel during and after WWI, and went on to expand the company hugely after WWII. One of these sons, Ronald (a future managing director of Wates), was a member of Wandsworth Borough Council (1937-46) and London County Council (1949-52), when the Fitzhugh Estate was being planned.

— Wikipedia: Wates group

— Wates: History.

— Streatham Society: The Wates Family of Streatham [excellent article by John Moreton].

Perhaps it was the Wates brothers themselves who come up with these names?

It's not impossible. Indeed, it seems pretty likely. Victorian builders often chose names for their developments, subject to confirmation by e.g. the Metropolitan Board of Works or its successor LCC. For all I know, the Wates brothers were keen on heraldry. And after all they probably knew the work of C.W. Scott-Giles (Emanuel, 1902-11), Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, whose original History of Emanuel School (published 1935) contained a great deal of detailed genealogical and heraldic information.

Also, Henry P. Maskell's Recollections of Emanuel School (1904), containing extensive heraldic notes, was reissued with a supplement in 1947, only a few years before work began on the Estate.

But why these names ("Fitzhugh" et al)? And not, say, the better-known Dacre, or Fiennes, or Staveley? Were they perhaps too obviously connected with Emanuel?

If they had read Maskell, they would also have seen the following:

They [the Fiennes family] had property in all kinds of places in the fifteenth century, including part of the Manor of Clapham within sight of the present Emanuel School. This particular estate was acquired by the marriage of Ingelram de Fiennes with Sybil de Tingrie, daughter of Pharamuse of Boulogne, and great niece of Maud, the Queen of Stephen. This Ingelram was slain at the siege of Acre in 1190. His widow gave a hide of land in Balham to the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, and hence we get the name of Tooting Bec [my emphasis].

See also passages from the Victoria County History on how the Fiennes family (acquired and lost) land in Tooting Bec and Clapham — and indeed how Tooting Bec got its name (but that's another story).

Now all we have to do is find where this estate ("part of the Manor of Clapham within sight of the present Emanuel School") was situated. I haven't a clue. Was this (in fact or in the builders' belief) the land on which the Fitzhugh Estate was being built? Or was it sufficient to just vaguely connect the place with nearby Tooting Bec &emdash; since Trinity Road ran past the houses in that direction, towards the Wates family's homes in Streatham?

Let me know what you think of my argument — and above all feel free to correct or add to it.

Philip Boys

August 2021

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