‘Grove House’ was a popular house name at the turn of the nineteenth century. There were two on opposite sides of the northern part of College Road, and as we have read, Dulwich Grove was also sometimes known as The Grove House. The subject of this article, was also on Dulwich Common almost opposite the now derelict Grove Tavern. The ‘grove’, was the tree-lined walk opposite Dr Glennie’s Academy, Dulwich Grove. Dr William Glennie had several brothers and it was one of these, Alexander, who, in 1801, became the leaseholder of the fields on the south side of Dulwich Common opposite the school, agreeing with Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift (now the Dulwich Estate) to take 5 acres at £18 18s per annum.
After a few years Glennie assigned the lease to John Jephson, a City lawyer, who built the house in 1810-11. He lived there until September 1823 and, during the latter part of his time at the house, he became very friendly with Mary, the daughter of the Dulwich windmill keeper, Thomas Kemp. His letter written to her dated 1827 says "I can no longer struggle with a secret that has given me so much torture to keep... What I have to urge, is to ask you if you are disengaged, if not, permit me to offer myself as a candidate, and should I succeed, it would be the happiest moment I ever experienced in my life, as in you I consider all my happiness is centred..." Unfortunately, his proposal was unsuccessful and, later in the year, Mary Kemp eloped with someone else.
On Jephson’s departure, a new 50-year lease on the property was granted to a Mr E W Smith and he assigned it to a Mr H Howard in June 1829. By 1837, when the Camberwell tithe map was published, the lessee was Samuel Waring, the wealthy son of the landlord of the historic ‘Gipsy House’ pub in Gipsy Hill. He owned other properties nearby, including ‘The Oaks’, a large house located roughly opposite the Paxton Hotel (Oaks Avenue off Gipsy Hill is named after it). At this point there is some confusion as the tithe map refers to the property as Grove Cottage - and two newspaper reports record Waring’s wife’s death at Grove Cottage in January 1837 and, exactly five months later, the birth of a grandson. Grove Cottage was a small house actually fronting Dulwich Common and it appears that Waring had let off Grove House itself to be run as a boarding house. This is confirmed by a number of 1839 and 1840 newspaper bankruptcy reports where one Henry Manning is called a ‘boarding house keeper, Grove House, Dulwich, Surrey’. John Young, a ‘Produce manufacturer and Foreign & Colonial agent’, took over the property in 1846 and in the 1851 Census he was living at the house with his wife, three children and three servants; the family were still in residence ten years later.
In October 1868 a wealthy merchant, Milbourne Clark, acquired the five years remaining on the 1823 lease. As well as the house, the property was described as having a coach-house, stable, outhouse, yard and garden, and adjacent fields (presumably sublet for grazing). Milbourne Clark (1811-91) had spent his early adult life as a wine merchant in Jersey (his wife Louisa Hyne came from a prominent island family). By 1851 the family were at 2 John Street, Clerkenwell, but a year later he was bankrupt. There is no mention of him in the 1861 Census, though his wife and family are living in Plymouth - she describing herself as a ‘merchant’s wife’. It is not until the following year that we have a hint as to what he might have been doing when a local Jersey newspaper report on his daughter’s wedding described him as ‘Milbourne Clark Esq, of Iquique, South Peru’ and it appears that Milbourne Clark’s interests there were in the mining of saltpetre (for use in the manufacture of gunpowder) and the construction of the railway to carry the ore to the docks at Antofagasta.
Louisa died in 1864 and we do not know if he was still in Peru at the time - he had certainly returned by 1868 when he took over Grove House. He remarried in 1870, to Emily Susan Herbert, 23 years younger than him, and the 1871 Census described him as a retired merchant, aged 60, living there with his new wife, son William, daughters Mary and Florence, plus two granddaughters, Emily and Edith, a grandson, John, a clerk and four servants. A year earlier he had begun negotiations on a new lease, the Estate Surveyor noting at the time that ‘the buildings are in good order, but there is a large part is old, low, and inconvenient’. The garden and paddock covered 7¾ acres and Milbourne Clark finally agreed a rent of £208 per annum for 21 years.
The new Mrs Clark soon found things to do in the local area. In January 1882 Grove House’s garden provided ‘a choice array of plants and evergreens’ to decorate the stage at the Dulwich Tradesmen’s Ball at St Peter’s Hall, Underhill Road, and in the summer of 1885 two major events were held in Grove House’s extensive gardens. The first was a ‘Fancy fair’ in aid of the completion fund for nearby St Peter’s Church where the South London Press said ‘the congenial signs of a gala day were everywhere present. The railway station seemed aware of it, the church spire itself was not destitute of its display of bunting, and the banners which ‘hung upon the outer walls’ were floating in greater variety upon the inner. Grove House did its loyal best to give the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress a right good welcome.’ The second event took place a month or so later, in aid of St Peter’s Walworth Sunday School. A large number of children, with their teachers, were reported as enjoying themselves on the swings, playing cricket, and riding the donkeys ‘in the meadow of the beautiful grounds of Grove House, Dulwich, by the kind permission of Mr and Mrs Milbourne Clark, both of whom showed not only a personal but a practical interest in the proceedings.’
In the same year the Clarks were active participants in the group of wealthy local residents who set up the new East Dulwich Provident Dispensary which, as the South London Press put it, ‘enable the working classes of East Dulwich to ensure for themselves and their family’s efficient medical attendance and medicine by small weekly subscriptions, aided by voluntary contributions’. Its first president was the local MP, Morgan Howard Esq QC, with Milbourne Clark as the treasurer and his wife as ‘collector’; the secretary was Henry Powell (of Whitefriars Glass fame). After eighteen months they secured an office and clinic at 184 Crystal Palace Road - before then the doctors had seen the patients in their own homes. When Morgan Howard resigned in 1888, Milbourne Clark was elected president in his place. In proposing him, local resident Mr Rand said that ‘Mr & Mrs Milbourne Clark were practically the originators of the institution and that Mr Clark well merited the highest honour that society could bestow’. The dispensary later moved to larger premises in Landells Road.
In July 1888 the Clarks decided to move to Sydenham Hill. For a brief period, a retired Swiss clergyman, Louis Jaques Bourquin and his family, were installed as temporary caretakers but the house was empty when. in September 1892, Mr William Grant Ross, ‘of 261 Oxford Street, Tailor’. Grant Ross had a shop on Oxford Street, and later Regent Street, but he clearly also enjoyed a good time. The Kentish Mercury 4/10/1895 reported on a case of ‘Furious driving’ heard at Greenwich Magistrates Court when Ross and his coachman were summoned for being ‘drunk and furiously driving a horse and trap in the High Road, Lee’. It was late at night and the police witness said that their vehicle collided with a cart and threw them out on to the road. They were both fined.
In 1906 Ross moved to 506 Lordship Lane and, after some fraught negotiations over dilapidations, the lease was assigned to another tailor, called Skinner, on a yearly basis - implying that the house was not in good structural condition. The Skinners were still there early in WW1, as a newspaper report on their daughter Queenie’s marriage confirms, but in 1916 they exercised their right to end the lease early. Skinner’s business had suffered badly in the War and he complained that he was in no condition to pay any dilapidations. After considerable correspondence with the Estate he finally agreed to pay £80. The Estate Surveyor then produced another report which confirmed that the house was in very poor condition. saying ‘it is very old and structurally in a very bad condition on account of severe settlements in numerous places.’
The old house should have been pulled down at that point, but it was to last another 40 years - its saviour, if that’s the right word, being the Camber Lawn Tennis Club. The club had moved to an adjacent site in the early 1920s (where they still are) and agreed to take the old house on as its club house. The club continued in occupation until 1956 when a further Surveyor’s report said that the old house really did have to come down as it was clearly unsafe, with cracks everywhere and bulging walls (it also had a steel prop holding up the front wall). There was a long negotiation with the Tennis Club but agreement was finally reached when the Estate threatened that unless they agreed to let the house go, they would also lose their tennis courts next door. The old house finally came down in the autumn of 1958 just two years short of its 150th anniversary. A replacement was soon built and it remains today.