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Basil Scruby -The Man Who Made Petts Wood - London Open House Talk

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Patrick Hellicar’s recent illustrated talk on Basil Scruby for PW&DRA as part of London Open House Festival was well attended. He had us all intrigued by how Scruby managed to create Petts Wood, given his butterfly-mind tendency in his business ideas and projects. He was, said Patrick, a risk-taker, a chancer; something of an interwar ‘Del Boy’.

Scruby originated from Harlow, Essex. Born on 9th July 1875, he was the fifth of eight children and his father was a corn merchant. After attending Grammar School in Dunstable, Basil joined his father’s business but soon began his own entrepreneurial ventures, setting up on his own as a corn factor and even running his own bakery. Living at Harlow Mill he enjoyed playing cricket and flirting with girls.

In 1901 he became an agent for Molassine animal feed. But then there followed a series of business failures, including a flooded commercial potato crop, he had to sell his bakery and his Stock Exchange investments plummeted. Declared bankrupt in 1904, aged 28, Scruby owed his creditors over £5,000.

Although these were hardly credentials for becoming a successful housing estate developer, Scruby nevertheless achieved this without having any formal professional qualifications. Describing himself as a house agent and surveyor, he acquired land at Harlow with a vision of developing a garden village modelled on Hampstead Garden Suburb – a self-contained community of low-density houses on generous plots.

In the early1920s Scruby was approached by Adolphus Chudleigh and James Langdon, who owned Town Court Farm, Cornayes and the Ladywood Estate at Petts Wood – 400 acres of mostly poor farming land carved up by two railway lines and ripe for development. Enthused by his Harlow vision, Scruby planned a high-class garden suburb at Petts Wood and set about buying parcels of land from Chudleigh and Langdon, selling them on to speculative builders. Crucially, he also persuaded the Southern Railway to build a new station, for which he contributed £6,000, and it was opened on 9th July 1928. He then established an estate office in Station Square (now Aqua restaurant) from where potential house buyers were driven to visit vacant plots and showhouses.

On the east side of the railway line between Chislehurst and Orpington, Petts Wood began to emerge, laid out in sympathy with the natural contours of the woodland area. Supervised by the notable architect, Leonard Culliford, Scruby’s strict design rules included a preference for the Tudorbethan style, controlled building lines and roof heights, high-quality materials and wide open frontages with lawns, shrubs and trees.

Apart from Petts Wood, Scruby’s array of other business interests included a doll factory which later burnt down. He also invented a block moulding process which enabled bungalows to be built in three weeks, and roll-out parquet flooring. However, Scruby never lost his ambition for building further housing estates and began work on a new seaside town in Kent, opposite Southend, called Allhallows-on-Sea. Sadly, by 1939 the project was bust and abandoned with only a hotel, a handful of shops and 20 houses built.

Scruby died in May 1946 and his funeral included a hymn he had composed himself. Patrick Hellicar researched, found and diligently cleared his overgrown grave at Harlow parish church and showed us pictures of it. Nearer to home, Adolphus Chudleigh, Scruby’s former Town Court Farm business associate, is commemorated with a stained glass window at St Francis of Assisi Church in Petts Wood.

It seems that Scruby was a restless soul, multi-talented and his mind always on the move but never quite the great businessman he aspired to be.

Peter Waymark, author of A History of Petts Wood, recently remarked that while the “inventor” of daylight saving, William Willett, is celebrated by street and park names and a memorial in Petts Wood, Basil Scruby is completely overlooked, with no memorial at all. Perhaps that should be put right!

Mel Wright with Patrick Hellicar

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