Continuing the study of Sydenham Hill
By Ian McInnes and Brian Green
When the old Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift was reformed by Act of Parliament in 1857, the newly appointed board of governors, led by the 2nd Duke of Wellington, was required to use the potential income from the Dulwich estate to fund the formation of new schools. To comply with this requirement of the Act, the governors had surveys conducted with the assistance of Charles Barry Jnr, the Board’s surveyor, with a view to develop more housing. There was a conscious effort made to preserve the former common and woods but also to create generous size building plots where houses would not impair the views. One of the earliest examples of this exercise was the laying out of Crescent Wood Road, initially named Wood Crescent Road, along the ridge of Sydenham Hill. This road was constructed very quickly, being completed by 1858. A developer soon came forward in the person of Francis Fuller, managing director and surveyor to the Crystal Palace Company. It was his intention to build on the site as part of his Sydenham Place Estate. He had leased 105 acres of land on the west side of Sydenham Hill from the Dulwich Estate - running from the junction with Westow Hill to Kirkdale.
Work was slow to start, Stanfords’s 1862 map only shows the pub, the Dulwich Wood House, and two large houses, ‘Beltwood’ and ‘The Woodlands’ (both with Sydenham Hill addresses), plus a small number of outhouses and small cottages along the south side of then, Wood Crescent Road. It soon became obvious that Fuller’s aim to develop an exclusive neighbourhood of nearly two hundred large houses (to be designed by Banks and Barry) plus three taverns, two hotels, and a church and a parsonage was going nowhere and instead the land reverted back to the Estate who leased the plots individually.
Although only a fragment of Fuller’s grand scheme was ever realised and he entered bankruptcy, eleven substantial houses were built between 1862 and 1872, on the north side of Crescent Wood Road. Generally speaking, the first occupants were well- off merchants who were conducting trade in the Far East or Russia, together with one of two bankers and lawyers who made up most of the remainder Virtually all employed well-staffed households.
By the 1930’s, the houses were too large for less affluent single families, the cachet of living in the area had long since gone and the houses were mostly let out into flats. During WW2 many were empty and let by the Dulwich Estate to Messrs Evan Cook and Company to store the furniture from bomb damaged or abandoned houses. Some of the houses themselves were bomb damaged, left unrepaired and suffered deterioration.
Of the original houses, only Nos.1 and 3 remain, No. 5 was replaced in the late 1930s by the current house on the site, while the remainder were demolished in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the construction of Peckarmans Wood. (for the story of the development of Peckarmans Wood, see Journal 2008 summer edition online)
‘Lyncombe’, No. 1 Crescent Wood Road:
The first prospective lessee was a Mr J G T Sinclair who lived in Norwood but had been told that his house was likely to be compulsorily purchased and demolished as it was on the projected new rail route. He made an offer on the site in February 1863 at a ground rent of £200 a year and said that he would build a house worth £6000 - which was much larger than the Estate was looking for, they would have been satisfied with a £1500 house on the site. Sinclair was unhappy with the proximity of the pub and said that he would put the house a long way back on the site so he would not be disturbed by its clientele. Although the railway company changed its route he nevertheless decided to pull out.
Interest was then shown by a Mr Thomas Griffiths, perhaps a builder, but the site was finally acquired in 1865 by Henry Gover (1835 - 1895), a well-known City solicitor and educationist. The house, designed by Barry and Banks, dates from 1868, as a plaque over one of the windows confirms. He also had a Pulhamite folly built in the garden and it can still be seen from Low Cross Wood Lane though now heavily overgrown.
Gover was a prominent member of the Methodist Church and, in 1871, was elected a Common Councillor of the City. He was also an elected member of the School Board for London and was known for his opposition to the payment of school fees to denominational schools, although he was in favour of non-sectarian religious teaching in schools. In several of these capacities he mirrored those of his neighbour at ‘Roby’, No 7 Crescent Wood Road - Francis Peek, an Anglican. Peek was a successful tea merchant and was an active figure in Dulwich, being instrumental in the creation of Dulwich Park and the building of three churches, St Saviour’s Coplestone Road, Emmanuel Church South Croxted Road and St Clement’s, Friern Road. ( a full account of Francis Peek will be found in ‘Who was Who in Dulwich’ published by the Dulwich Society).
After Gover, the house’s other most notable resident was Madame Lily Payling. A popular Australian contralto, she was chosen to open the first ever concert broadcast by radio. It took place in The Hague and she sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Newspaper reports of the time said the she was widely heard in France and Belgium but only in coastal towns in England. The Payling Concerts were a feature of the Royal Albert Hall’s programme in the 1920s and 30s and she was a well-known singing teacher. She was quite a wealthy lady; the May 1928 Estate Board meeting minutes noted ‘the present coach house is only 14 feet in depth, and the extension is required for a large car, which Madame Payling is now purchasing’. The extension is still visible today. The house suffered some minor bomb damage in WW2 and was let to Messrs Evan Cook. In 1950 the Estate agreed to convert the house into four flats, one to each floor, and the work was completed at the end of 1953.
No. 3 Crescent Wood Road:
The most famous resident of No. 3 was undoubtedly John Logie Baird, the television pioneer, who leased the house between 1931 and his death in 1946. The Estate gave him special dispensation to construct temporary laboratories in his garden to conduct his experiments but, in the end his system was not used by the BBC, and the first television broadcast in 1936 used an alternative system invented by Marconi. The house was converted into flats in 1950/51 to the designs of architect Lewis Erdi - he later built a house for himself further down across Sydenham Hill in Dome Hill Park.
The first tenant however, was one Lady Stanley de Lusigna who signed an Estate lease in 1863. However, either she had insufficient funds or was a speculator, as she assigned the property to a German merchant called Julius Ohlenschlager in 1866. He built the house we see today and his wife was still living there as late as 1926. The census returns show him as a merchant - but his actual business was importing leather hides from Europe, mainly Germany, and America. His city office was in Shanghai House, Botolph Lane. Julius Ohlenschlager also took advantage of the Estate’s offer of guaranteed access to Dulwich College for the sons of purchasers of properties on the road, both his sons, Julius George and Albert Frederick were pupils there. They later took over their father’s business.
One other interesting point is that this house was the only one to be always known by its number, it never had a name.
‘Eastnor’, No. 5 Crescent Wood Road
John Crompton Nunn, an Australian Merchant - is he, or a son, Frank Nunn, one of the founders of the Dulwich & Sydenham Hill golf club and, later, treasurer and secretary? The household in 1871 included himself and his wife and two children, 3 servants and a coachman (who lived in the stables with his wife)
‘Hazel Bank’, No. 11 Crescent Wood Road
The house was built by the developer J P Waterson and the first occupant was Thomas Betts, a youngish Russian merchant who was born in Scotland who lived there in some style with his wife, 5 children, an 18 year old nephew who appears to be employed by Betts, with a cook, nurse, coachman, groom and 2 maids. The Suffolk born coachman’s family of a wife and four children all lived in.
‘Tyersall’, No. 13 Crescent Wood Road
The house was also built by J P Waterson and lived in by Henry M Simmons - East Indies merchant. He named the house after his place of birth in Yorkshire. In addition to a governess for his 4 children aged 7-12, Simmons also employed a butler, a sixteen year old page, a schoolroom maid, coachman and 3 other maids.
‘Dunearn’, No. 15 Crescent Wood Road
Another Waterson built house, occupied by Alfred Carpenter a banker who seems to have lived alone and looked after by a cook and 2 maids. He was succeeded in the house by John Purvis, another East India merchant.
‘Purbrook’, No. 19 Crescent Wood Road:
The house was also built by local builder John Patterson Waterson of Forest Hill who also built several of the other houses in the road. The first occupant was Dr James Cornwell PhD (1812-1902) an educationalist, who was to play an important part in the development of education in the nineteenth century. He worked for the British and Foreign Schools’ Society, one of the many organisations promoting schools before education became compulsory. Largely supported by Nonconformist families, the organisation founded new schools and helped train new teachers. Cornwell wrote school text books which were far in advance of his time and later became head of the Borough Road Training College, now the South Bank University. He is buried in Norwood Cemetery.
‘Ashmore’, No. 21 Crescent Wood Road:
Ashmore, No. 21, was the smallest house and had the smallest garden and the smallest number of domestic servants - only two.. Situated almost next to the High Level tunnel entrance, its construction was delayed until the tunnel was completed in 1865. Its most famous occupant was Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902), a well-known Victorian landscape artist who lived there from 1895 - to the end of his life. He is best known now for his work in Australia and New Zealand, his painting ‘The Buffalo Ranges’ was the first picture painted in Australia to be bought for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 1864.
Born in St Petersburg to a Swiss father and Russian mother he had come to London in 1851 to work as an illustrator in lithography and water colour. He made some useful royal contacts and was reputed to have designed a fountain at Osborne House. His work was first hung at the Royal Academy in 1852, but shortly afterwards he left for further study in Rome. Family pressures led him to Australia late in 1854 and he took a job as a cartoonist on the newly established Melbourne Punch. He later worked for the Illustrated Australian News.
In 1865 Chevalier visited New Zealand. w with his wife, Caroline, also an artist and equally intrepid, who joined him on travels around the West Coast of the South Island in 1866. This sketch by Nicholas shows the difficulties they experienced; Caroline descends a steep track with her long skirts tucked up, using a stick to prevent herself from sliding.
Chevalier travelled widely and a number of his landscapes were exhibited at Melbourne on his return. In 1869 he joined the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, on HMS Galatea on his voyage back to England via Tahiti, Hawaii, Japan, China, Ceylon and India. The pictures painted during the voyage were exhibited at South Kensington.
In January 1874 Chevalier was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint a picture of the marriage of the Duke of Edinburgh to Princess Mariya Aleksandrovna Romanov. Following this Chevalier made London his base and he was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1887. He died at Ashmore on 15 March 1902.
Caroline Chevalier is notable for her contribution to New Zealand travel writing and for the part she played in furthering the reputation of her husband. She presented many of his New Zealand works to the National Art Gallery in Wellington and on her death she left notes for a short monograph of his life.