By Bernard Nurse
The grounds of Bessemer House were described by the historian of Camberwell, William Blanch as “the most charming spot within the hamlet” of Dulwich. They were laid out after Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) acquired the lease of the house in 1863, and remained until the house, estate and The Grange next door were compulsorily purchased by Camberwell Borough Council in 1947 to create the council’s Denmark Hill Estate. The house had a long history of occupation by a series of wealthy and influential residents and, with its neighbours, as a residential hotel in later years.
The two houses, 165 Denmark Hill and the house immediately to the south, number 167 were built between 1850 and 1852 on the site of a single house with extensive grounds which was demolished two years earlier. The older house and land had been acquired by two City merchants who lived locally. William Boutcher (1795-1883) was a partner in the Bermondsey firm of Boutcher, Mortimer & Co., who were said to be one of the largest importers of American leather. His partner in the purchase, Thomas Shepperson (1808-1857), was a linen draper with premises in Cheapside occupied by the firm of Allin and Shepperson. Boutcher built number 165 and lived there with his wife, daughter, a cook, two housemaids, a kitchen maid and general servant according to the 1861 census. Shepperson lived at number 167 with his wife, but when he died in 1857 his widow moved to a house on Herne Hill. Their son Allin (1826-1891), a leather merchant like Boutcher, was occupying the house in 1861 with his wife, four children and five servants.
Both houses were described by the Dulwich Estate as “good and substantial” but 165 was larger, on three floors, and grander, with classical features and more land attached to it. This was the one that the highly successful inventor and engineer, Sir Henry Bessemer leased in 1863. Shortly afterwards he rented the house next door for his daughter, Elizabeth and her husband, William Wright, the chief clerk at Trinity House, the organization responsible for maintaining lighthouses. Wright’s house was called Cartmel House at this point and was mock Tudor in design with two floors.
By this time Bessemer had made a considerable fortune from his inventions and was able to spare no expense in developing his estate. In the 1870’s, Blanch wrote that the house he acquired ten years earlier was ‘less pretentious and imposing in size and ornamentation than it is at present’; so he may have added the tower, parapet and grand porch. The most distinctive feature was the large conservatory built on the side of the house; this was designed by Bessemer, assisted by the Estate architects, Banks and Barry who were responsible for the new Dulwich College a few years later. It was heated from a crypt below and highly decorated with marble, mosaics and mirrors with designs based on the Alhambra palace, Granada.. Above was a 40 foot high dome glazed with stained glass; in the central space beneath was a marble basin filled with specimen plants and the whole could be brightly illuminated at night by 80 gas burners in Roman lamps. In front of the house was a lawn, graced with deer, next to it was a number of greenhouses for growing plants such as vines, peaches, oranges, orchids, ferns and rare plants. Bessemer gradually acquired more land so that the estate eventually extended to 40 acres, stretching from Denmark Hill on the west to Green Lane on the east and as far as the railway line approaching North Dulwich station on the south east.
Blanch considered the view from the marble terrace at the rear of the house as “perhaps unsurpassed around the metropolis”, in the distance stretching across from Forest Hill, Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace to Tulse Hill. In the foreground, sloping down the hill, Bessemer introduced a kitchen garden, a model farm with a meadow for cattle, and a large lake. The earth from the lake was used to create a spectacular grotto with one room representing a Moorish palace and another a natural cavern in which exotic ferns of great size hung from rugged pillars. Two buildings in the grounds reflected Bessemer’s scientific interests. He suffered from seasickness and tried to design a vessel with stabilisers; it was not a success but a model of the steamship Bessemer was erected in the grounds. He also experimented with designing a large telescope in a revolving observatory and was still working on the lens at the time of his death in 1898. He lived in the house with his wife and household which consisted of himself and his wife, a butler, cook, two maids, gardener and coachman.
William Wright, his family and household lived at number 167 for over 40 years, during which time it gained its name as The Grange. In 1871, it included his wife, their two surviving children as well as four servants and two coachmen living above the stables. Twenty years later, their children had left but their granddaughter had moved in and the household included a butler as well as cook, kitchen maid and two housemaids. William Wright died in 1908, the lease was assigned by Shepperson’s successor to Edwin Henry Bartlett and the property began its use as a residential hotel. Initially there were just two boarders, both teachers from Northumberland, apparently sisters, one retired; the cook came from Norway and the porter from Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Bessemer House continued in private occupation after the death of Sir Henry, leased from 1899 by the fur and skin merchant Arthur Felix Hirschel (1853-1913). He was born in Germany, but became a naturalised British citizen in 1892, when he was living in Hampstead. Hirschel was a partner in the firm of Hirschel and Meyer, based in Leipzig but with offices throughout the world, including London, Paris, Moscow and Shanghai. The firm had an extensive international trade dealing in seal skins and ermine among other products. He lived at number 165 with his wife and a large household of seven servants; they had no children. The land off Green Lane which Sir Henry Bessemer had also leased for his model farm with its herd of Alderney cattle was assigned to Hirschel “for athletic purposes”. A number of tennis clubs were established there. Adjoining the railway line from North Dulwich Station, the fields were acquired by JAGS in 1912 and were partly used by the botany teacher, Dr Lillian Clarke for practical lessons in the subject and was where she planted a wood, created a country lane and developed examples of British habitat such as a peat bog and a pebble beach. These features, including the Natural Order beds are still maintained by the school.
Hirschel and his wife moved back to Hampstead shortly before he died in 1913, and the lease was assigned to another wealthy businessman, Sir William Vestey from 1909 to 1922. William and his brother, Edmund, made their fortunes by pioneering the use of refrigeration to preserve foodstuffs. They eventually acquired the largest refrigerated fleet in the world, forming the basis of the Blue Star Line, and owned over 2,000 butcher’s shops as well as many cattle ranches in Argentina. William was created a baronet in 1913 for his part in making cheap food more widely available. During World War I, he allowed Bessemer House to be used as a soldier’s convalescent hospital. However, encouraged by his second wife who had worked during the war at Kingswood House, he took a lease on this property in 1919, and they occupied it a few years later. Unfortunately Bessemer House appears to have suffered during its occupation by soldiers and Vestey’s subsequent neglect. When he tried to sell the lease, the Estate Governors took legal action against him for breaching covenants to keep the house in good repair.
165 Denmark Hill then joined 167 as a residential hotel, and in 1923 became part of the group run by William Wilson and his wife Laura and which included numbers 161 and 163, John Ruskin’s former house. Vestey agreed to pay the Governors £1750 (equivalent to about £100,000 today) and legal fees, Mrs Wilson agreed spend no less than £2,000 (over £120,000 today) on repairs and alterations and was granted a new lease for all four properties for 30 years from June 1922 for a ground rent of £800 a year (just under £50,000 today). They were run as separate units: two hotels, Bessemer Grange and Ruskin Manor possessed 200 rooms with gas fires and sports facilities that included a nine-hole golf course on 40 acres of land, and a tennis club with thirteen courts.
Both buildings were damaged during World War 2. According to the Camberwell Golden Jubilee booklet of 1950, over 14,000 homes in the borough had been either destroyed or badly damaged and all except a few hundred out of the 40,000 total had suffered some damage, so there was desperate need for new housing locally. In 1947, the buildings were compulsorily purchased by Camberwell Borough Council and demolished to make way for the Denmark Hill Estate. At the time of its opening the estate was the council's biggest scheme, providing 682 homes. It was unusual in being built on the site of some of the largest houses in the area rather than on low quality housing. The Bessemer House conservatory stood on what is now the Basingdon Way circle while Bessemer Grange was situated between Basingdon Way and the Tayside Court flats. Hillcrest Lodge, near what is now the junction of Sunray Avenue and Denmark Hill, and served The Grange, was not demolished until 1961. An old oak tree in the playground of Bessemer Grange Primary School is the only survivor of the trees planted in the grounds of Bessemer House.