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Bromley College is the oldest building in Bromley and today provides sheltered accommodation for retired Anglican clergy, their spouses, widows, widowers and unmarried daughters. Bromley College was founded under the will of Dr John Warner, Bishop of Rochester, who returned to Bromley Palace, now demolished, at the Restoration and died there in 1666. He left £8,500 to provide a 'hospital or almshouses for twenty poor widows of orthodox and loyal clergy men in a position near to Rochester cathedral'. He also instructed that his own manor of Swayton in Lincolnshire should provide £450 annually for pensions of £20 to be paid to the widows and a stipend of £50 to the Chaplain. An Act of Parliament of 1670 authorised the executors to build anywhere in the diocese and a site was soon found near the Bishops Palace in Bromley. The red-brick almshouses were built in 1670-72 around a quadrangle; in addition to the long frontage providing 20 houses facing the road, there were two slightly bigger dwellings for the Treasurer and Chaplain that formed the 2 wings. The architect was probably Captain Richard Ryder, an associate of Christopher Wren. The first twenty widows arrived in 1672. There was also a chapel provided but this was replaced in 1701 by a new one consecrated by Bishop Spratt (Bishop of Rochester from 1684-1713). The Wren Gates on the west frontage comprise a pair of rusticated stone piers with caps in the form of a mitre (one replaced) and although dated 1665 (?66) they are believed to have been erected in 1720.
Among people of note associated with Bromley College are Henry Compton, Bishop of London, who was one of the first Trustees; Sir John Morden was first Treasurer and went on to found Morden College (q.v.) in Blackheath; Dean Jonathan Swift visited his cousin Thomas who used a room in the Treasurer’s house from 1735-1750. John Evelyn (1620-1706) was a friend of Bishop Thomas Spratt and was believed to have visited the College and given the three mulberry trees that still exist in the grounds and nearby, now poor skinny specimens. However there are other theories about the origin of these mulberries: they may not have been planted until 1720 and would have been from Evelyn's grandson Sir John Evelyn’s nursery at Wotton. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the mulberries may have been part of the improvements to grounds in the 1820s by the new Chaplain Revd Thomas Scott and not gifts from John Evelyn.
A second quadrangle to provide accommodation for 20 more widows, similar in design to the first, was completed in 1805; the architect was Thomas Hardwick. It was initiated by Zachary Pearce, then Bishop of Rochester, and building commencing in 1794. Money had been left by William Pearce, the Bishop’s brother, and by Mrs Bettinson in 1782 and 1788. After 1821 the Chaplain Revd Thomas Scott and the Trustees bought land to the east of the College to prevent building, leasing it as nurseries until it was bought by Bromley Council after WWII (in the 1970s?) and the County Court built. In 1821 Thomas Scott, a member of the Horticultural Society, had also initiated changes in the grounds, having the elms on the north and south lawn removed along with the rookery, and replacing them with 4 great cedars, a gift from Magdalen College Oxford. The wood was sold and the money used to lay out grass plots and gravel walks. Comment at the time was that the College grounds looked like a 'modern tea-garden at a country inn' (Craig).
Sheppard’s College, designed by Joseph Shoppee of Uxbridge, was built in 1840 on the north eastern side of the grounds to house five daughters of widows, who had up till then been thrown out of the College when their mothers died. The money for building came from Mrs Sheppard (nee Routh), sister of the President of Magdalen College Oxford, who left £7,650. As more capacity was needed, a new chapel was erected on the foundations of the old in 1863, built by Waring and Blake in Decorated style. To mark the Jubilee of King George V in 1935 a number of trees were planted including prunus, double cherry, broom and a pear tree; a few remnants remain in poor condition. A tennis court was laid out on the south lawn and in the 1920s a photograph shows the tennis club tea in the New Quad.
In the grounds are a variety of herbs, originally planted over the years by the widows, which include feverfew, lungwort, coltsfoot, foxglove, pennithorne, celandine, elder and nightshade. The College suffered little damage in WWII, except for 2 bombs falling in the adjoining nursery garden, the land owned by the College but never part of the curtilage that was later sold to Bromley Council for the County Court and a small park. In the 1970s and 1980s reconstructions and improvements were made to the houses, including the making of common rooms, an improved laundry and an archive room. 30 dead elms were removed under the reconstruction of the 1970s but according to the gardener their suckers still come up in the borders; an engraving of 1720 shows avenues of elm trees.
On 3 May 1977 The Queen Mother attended a re-dedication ceremony at the College and planted one of two Trees of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissimus) in the Chaplain’s Garden. The summerhouse on the south lawn was restored in 2004 with money from Barclays Bank. In 2005 a new appeal has been launched to raise money for further repairs and improvement, with the support of English Heritage and LB Bromley.
The site is bounded largely by red-brick walls, in some places stone-capped, and in addition to the Wren Gate it has entrances through the Vehicle Gate, probably late C19th, and the Slip Gate. Buildings found within the grounds include a round brick Dovecote in the Chaplain's Garden, an air raid shelter on the East Wall, the Bog House also on the East Wall now used as the garden store, C19th Vergery at the Vehicle Gate, and 2 wooden summer houses on the south lawn and north lawn (the latter in disrepair). Next to the Dovecote and in front of Sheppard’s College are cast iron lamps, and there are pumps in the north-west corner of the Old Quad and remains in the shrubbery near Sheppard's College. Paths are concrete and brick from the Slip Gate to the drive; York stone from Wren Gate to steps; gravel vehicle paths; woodland walks have earth and the north lawn edge has stone steps and path. Specimen trees in the grounds today include 3 mulberry trees (1 on the Council-owned land to east of the College), 2 white magnolias on the south border, 2 white magnolia on the west lawns, remains of the ‘Jubilee of King George V’ planting on the north shrubbery, remains of the old Robinia Pseudoacacia in the north-west corner. Commemorative trees planted in the gardens include a Cedar Atlanticus on the north lawn planted in 1977 for Major General Norman; 3 Cedar of Lebanon on the north lawn; 2 Cedar of Lebanon on the south lawn; remains of a London Plane planted for the Duke of Wellington (?) on the north boundary (30 year old shoot from base); Beech on west border planted in 1978 to commemorate JTP Aylward; 2 Ailanthus in Chaplain’s Garden planted by The Queen Mother in 1977. There are also a number of commemorative seats and benches around the grounds and in quadrangles.
Margaret Craig, The Widows at Bromley College A History & Notes (2002); Yvonne Gough, A Short Guide to Bromley & Sheppard’s Colleges (Collegians, 2004); Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner Buildings of England London 2: South (Penguin, 1983); ELS Horsburgh, Bromley (LB Bromley, 1980); Almshouses Gazette No.102, September 1977; Charles White, Hospitals & Almshouses of London (London General Omnibus Co Ltd, 1920).
LPGT Volunteer Research by Kristina Taylor, 2005