Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Heaton's Folly, located on the Peckham/Nunhead border, was demolished many, many years ago. It was built, as the name suggests, by a Mr Heaton who was described as a "very peculiar but well intentioned man", no doubt because he built what was probably perceived as a very odd building to give work to a large number of unemployed men.
At the end of the 19th century, the building was described as having been located in the grounds then occupied by St Mary's College. This most likely refers to St Mary's Primary School, shown on the ordnance survey map of 1874 fronting onto Albert (now Consort) Road and called St Mary Magdalene's School (National Boys, Girls and Infants). The school is still on the same plot of land though located slightly to the north and just a short distance away from Heaton Road and from the site of where the Heaton's Arms once stood, demolished in the 1990s to make way for flats.
The building incorporated a crenulated tower which gave rise to a frequent misconception that the building was of a religious nature. Daniel Lysons described Heaton's Folly in 1792 in the first volume of The Environs of London:
"On the right side of the path leading from Peckham to Nunhead, appears this building, environed with wood. It has a singular appearance, and certainly was the effect of a whim. Various tales are related of its founder; but the most feasible appears his desire of giving employment to a number of artificers during a severe dearth. It is related that he employed five hundred persons in this building, and adding to the grounds; which is by no means improbable, as, on entering the premises, a very extensive piece of water appears, embanked by the properties taken from its bosom. In the centre of it is an island, well cultivated; indeed, the whole ground is now so luxuriantly spread, that I much doubt if such another spot, within a considerable distance from the metropolis, can boast such a variety and significance. The whole is within a fence; and, time having assisted the maturity of the coppice, you are, to appearance, enjoying the effects of a small lake in the centre of a wood. Motives the most laudable, as before observed, induced the founder of this sequestered spot to give bread to many half-starved and wretched families; and, to use the phrase of our immortal Shakespeare, 'It is like the dew from heaven, and doubly blesses.' If from appearance we are to judge of the phrase, it thrives indeed; and what was meant as assistance to a neighbouring poor, and stragglers, wretched and forlorn, is now, with all propriety, the Paradise of Peckham."