On The Street Where You Live - College Road - from the Tollgate to St Stephen’s by Ian McInnes
The Dulwich Tollgate photographed in an idyllic ‘rus in urbe’ setting features in many old postcards. What the pictures don’t show is the large Victorian houses running along the west side of the road which somewhat compromise that setting.
The southernmost section of College Road, between the Tollgate and Sydenham Hill, dates from 1787. Built by John Morgan, Lord of the Manor of Penge, its aim was to provide better access for his cattle and carts between the Penge and Dulwich Commons. First called Locus Lane, then Penge Road, the name was finally changed to College Road in 1870 after the construction of the New College. To stop the new road being damaged by other people’s animals the tollgate was added in 1791.
Prior to the construction of Sydenham Hill Station in 1863, the imposing Woodhouse (later Woodhall) was the only house on the road. St Stephen’s church was built in 1867, along with its large vicarage, St John’s Wood House. The first vicar, Rev John Meek Clark, was extremely wealthy and he contributed towards the cost of what was even then a substantial house. The parish came under the control of Rochester Diocese in 1905 and, when the Rev F Ernest White (Clark’s successor) retired in 1907, the house was felt to be too large, and the lease was sold.
The incoming tenant was James O’Mara, a successful Irish bacon importer and MP - Winston Churchill and he were the youngest MPs in the House of Commons when elected in 1900. The year he moved he changed his allegiance from the Irish Home Rule party to Sinn Fein. He called the house ‘Dunlica’ but he and his family returned to Ireland shortly after the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. His wife Agnes was a suffragette and, in 1913, was Hon Secretary of the Dulwich Branch of the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage.
In 1868 the Dulwich Estate divided the land along the west side of the road, from the new railway station as far as Union Road (now Hunts Slip Road), into potential building sites with 100 foot frontages. Previous issues of the Journal have described the history of the two largest houses built by wealthy owner occupiers, Breakspeare, directly south of the station ticket hall, and Oakfield (later Stonehills). The remainder of the sites were acquired by local builders the first of which was John Waterson Patterson of Forest Hill. He had been building in Crescent Wood Road during the 1860s and leased the site next to Breakspeare in the autumn of 1870. The house he built, Redholme, cost £1500 and was the only house to last into the 1980s when it was demolished to form Dulwich Oaks. Its claim to fame is that it was in the road in front of the site that Camille Pissaro sat when he painted both St Stephens Church and his view over the fields down to Alleyn Park.
The next builder to express an interest was George Paull (of Acacia Cottage, Hamilton Road, West Dulwich), who agreed to take three of the plots next to Oakfield and build three large detached houses to be sold for £2000 each. The first house, ‘Elphinstone Lodge’, was purchased by an East India Merchant, William Nichol, who had a business in Bombay. He remained abroad and the house was rented out to a rich widow, Anna Maria Cronyn. Nicol’s firm had been taken over by a larger firm, Smith Fleming & Company in the mid-1870s but there had clearly been liquidity problems as, in February 1880, the firm, and all the directors, including Nicol, were declared bankrupt. However the 1881 census shows him still living in the house along with his large family and their servants - including a cook, housemaid, parlour maid, kitchen maid etc. Like most of the other residents in the road, generous numbers of domestic staff were an essential prerequisite to the enjoyment of the College Road lifestyle.
Paull’s second house, ‘Moira’ was sold to Charles Champion, a solicitor. His family remained in the house for over sixty years with his two unmarried daughters still living there in the early 1940s. The remainder of the houses to the north, Nos 64 - 80 were all developed by Joseph and Samuel Bowyer. Based in West Hill in Upper Norwood, they had built most of the houses along Dulwich Wood Park and Farquhar Road for the Crystal Palace Company during the 1860s. From 1875 they also had a storage yard and joinery shop on the corner of Pond Cottages - now a very pleasant green space opposite one of the gates to Dulwich College.
Twelve houses was a large project, even for them, and in order to raise money for the construction, they mortgaged each house to Henry Harrild and his wife Anne, the owners of Round Hill House in Sydenham. Henry’s father, Robert (1780-1853) had been an extremely rich man following his invention of ‘composition rollers’ for printing. Prior to this printers used leather ‘ink balls’ to apply ink to blocks of type, a method dating from Caxton’s time. Harrild’s rollers revolutionised both book, and more particularly, newspaper production, and his company rapidly became one of the largest manufacturers of printers in England. Henry was one of three sons, and the only one not to go into the printing business. Presumably he was happy to live on his inheritance and gained some additional income by acting as a mortgagor to local builders.
The Bowyer brothers’ first purchaser at ‘Enfield House’ (No. 80) was Ernest C Delcomyn, a partner in the Hull based firm of corn merchants, Hiort Knudsen & Company. Born in 1828 in Denmark, in 1890 he became the Danish Consul General. His two sons went to Dulwich College; Ernest A (born 1860), was in the first eleven in 1878 and also edited the Old Alleynian. He took over his father’s firm while his brother Louis (born 1863) moved to Florida in the 1890s.
Most of the new lessees were professional men or wealthy businessmen, though there was one wealthy widow, Mrs Ellen Sowler in ‘Melrose Lodge’ (No. 78), who was listed in the census as ‘living on dividends’. A later owner of her house was Julius J Runge, a director of the successful sugar importers Tolme and Runge. He and his firm were the subject of hostile questions in Parliament in WW1 as to why the government was using a German firm to buy sugar for the war effort - it was pointed out that, although he had a German name, he was a naturalised British citizen (he was born in Cuba).
‘Westbourne Lodge’ (No, 76) was bought by Charles B Saunders, an accountant. From 1885 the owner was a retired admiral, Robert Coote who had had a successful naval career commanding HMS Victory, HMS Gibraltar and HMS Arethusa. His final appointment was head of the China Station. His wife Lucy was the daughter of the famous Arctic explorer Admiral Sir William Parry.
Another long standing resident, and also a German, in name at least, was Johannes Conrad im Thurn, director of a general merchant company and a small bank with interests in South America. He had been living in Dulwich for some time - the 1860 plan of Christ’s Chapel shows that he rented a pew there. The most famous member of the family was his grandson, Conrad Donald im Thurn, who was responsible for the publication of the Zinoviev letter in 1924 - the oft quoted reason why the Labour party failed to win that year’s general election. A later owner of the house was E A Rehder, a German name but in fact a solicitor who had been educated, with his two brothers, at Dulwich College.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s several of the houses were sold, with new 80 year leases, to the Alliance Economic Investment Company. By the 1920s the demand for large houses was almost non-existent and most were converted into flats. One of the few houses that remained in single occupation was ‘Arden’ (No. 76). Lewis Silkin, later a Labour MP and the Minister of Town and Country Planning in the 1945-50 Labour administration, bought it from the Hon. Samuel Vestey in March 1924 and negotiated a new 80 year lease at the same time. Later elevated to Lord Silkin of Dulwich, his son Sam was MP for the local area between 1964 and 1983 and lived further up College Road in Great Brownings.
Several of the houses were badly damaged during WW2. Late June and early July 1944 was a particularly bad time in this part of Dulwich. ‘Tollgate House’ (No. 70) was demolished by a direct hit from a V1 at 2:33am on 27 June 1944. The Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club clubhouse had been destroyed the day before and Woodhall House on the other side of the road was hit on 3 July - with Dulwich College being badly damaged a week later.
The 1957 Dulwich Development Plan identified the houses as an area to be redeveloped and, in July 1960, Russell Vernon, the Estate Architect, confirmed that he did not consider the existing old houses on the road worthy of retention and that they should all be demolished.
None of the houses on the west side of the road south of Hunts Slip Road remain, on the east side, only the former ‘Comely Bank’,(now Eller Bank No 87) which is now DUCKS remain. Built in the 1880s for Walter Haggan, a Scottish bank manager, it was named after his wife’s birthplace, Comely Bank in Edinburgh. From the 1940s its large site had been used as a company sports ground, most recently by Johnson Matthey.