Acacia Grove: Who Lived in a Street Like This?
By Sharon O’Connor
Walking down Acacia Grove today one gets a real sense of a Victorian street. The good sized windows and handsome frontages of the semi detached villas must have been as attractive to their original owners or tenants as they are to us today. The pairs of lions, greyhounds or sphinxes guarding the front porches still say “I’ve arrived” just as they did when they were first sited outside the new houses. I wonder how many children have stroked, patted or ridden on them since then? In Acacia Grove the numbering system works sequentially up the south side of the street and then back down the other side, as was common when street numbering was first introduced in this country and this adds an extra charm to the road.
Of course, there are differences between then and now. Some houses, perhaps lost during the Blitz, have been replaced by flats and one semi has been rebuilt as a match to its neighbour, the only giveaway being the type of brick used. The trees are more mature but nonetheless, tucked away as it is, Acacia Grove can’t have looked too different when its original residents first took possession of their villas in the leafy suburb of Dulwich. These residents were pioneers in a way because in the first 20 years after Acacia Grove was built, while they were settling in and bringing up their families, Dulwich was tripling in size and a large amount of building work would have been going on all around them.
The 1881 Census shows that all the residents of Acacia Grove were British subjects but their birthplaces cover a fairly wide geographical spread. Perhaps surprisingly, less than 40% of them were born in London, with 44% born elsewhere in England. All the home nations are represented, together with France, Italy, Switzerland, Gibraltar, India, Africa and Tasmania.
All the servants living in Acacia Grove at this time were born in England or Wales and most of them had not travelled too far in order to go into service. One third of them were born in London with two thirds born outside London. Of those from London, at least a quarter were born in the parish of Camberwell (it may well be more but some have not specified which part of London they came from). Others were born nearby, eg Brixton, Peckham and Bermondsey. Of those from outside London, over half came from the Home Counties and the rest from the southern half of England. Only one house in the road had no live-in servants. Of the other households, if they had one servant, she (yes, always a she) was described as a general servant. If a household had more than one servant there was usually a cook and a housemaid or a governess and a general servant.
The residents of Acacia Grove had an interesting range of occupations. Among the more usual clerks there was a wine merchant, an iron merchant, an accountant, a bankrupt, barrister, a watchmaker, a flowerpot manufacturer, and a Deputy Commander in Ordnance (retired).
Everybody has a story and the residents of Acacia Grove are no exception. Just a couple of lines in a Kelly’s Directory or a Census record can lead to all kinds of questions. For example, Mr Tanner & Mrs Tanner, he born in Bombay, she in Italy: what brought them to Dulwich? They were not married but brother and sister-in-law. Mrs Tanner’s children lived with them: Louisa also born in Bombay and Edmund born in Croydon. Or Mr and Mrs Hall. Mr Hall was a clerk from Leeds, his wife Susanna born in Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania. How did they meet and come to bring their family of 4 boys (3 clerks and a schoolboy) and a girl (pupil teacher) to Acacia Grove? I also wonder about Arthur Paillard, a young watchmaker born in Switzerland and living with his wife Theresa Maria in Acacia Grove. Could he have been connected to the precision watchmaker firm of E Paillard which was founded in Switzerland in 1814 and is still a going concern today?
Mr Griffin Vyse was born in Cornwall and employed by the Indian Civil Service although in 1881 he was living in Acacia Grove with his wife, Marie, and their servant, Eliza. He wrote many books on Egypt and Afghanistan, at least one of which is still in print and available today: “Egypt: Political, Financial and Strategic”. Sadly, his “An Englishman in a Harem” appears to be out of print. In it he recounts how a group of men gained access to the harem by dressing up as women. Apparently Vyse himself took part and his disguise was so effective that his male companions did not recognize him, and even flirted with him. A story to tell at West Dulwich dinner parties perhaps.
Florence Marzetti Gunnell lived here with her husband Basil. When single she and her sisters lived at Pond House in Village Way and “were such striking beauties that they were (known as) the "Toasts of Dulwich" and Pond House underwent another siege of Sebastopol by an army of young and adoring swains”.
Thomas Charles Pascoe was a sailor in the Royal Navy. He lived in Acacia Grove in 1888 and retired, at his own request in 1907 with the rank of Captain. A striking portrait miniature of him, a watercolour painted on ivory, is in the V&A collection and in it he looks very like George V or Tsar Nicholas II.
Not everyone was content to stay in Dulwich. Harry Windle was born in India but as a teenager he came to live in Acacia Grove with his Irish mother, Anna, and his brothers and sisters who were also born in India. In 1886 he moved to Canada to join a bank there before transferring to San Francisco where he married Elene Austin in 1892. He resigned from the bank to join the Klondike Gold Rush and sadly we don’t know if he was successful or not. However, he ended his days in Canada, leaving his widow and one son in Canada, a daughter living in England and another son in South Africa. One of his sisters, Mary, born in 1870, died a pauper in Ilford Lunatic Asylum in 1901. As a young widow his mother, Anna Windle, had taken in a lodger of the same age as Harry, called Arthur Dyson. Arthur also emigrated to Canada where he became a Mountie. He then moved to South Africa and served in the Constabulary. One wonders whether the two men travelled together or indulged their wanderlust separately.
Henry Dunstan was born in 1841 in Chester. In 1859 he started work at the Woolwich Arsenal as a temporary clerk. He made rapid progress, gaining promotion to Deputy Assistant Superintendent of Stores (the equivalent of the rank of Lieutenant) in 1861. In a letter to Harry’s elder brother Richard later that year, his father wrote: “Harry is wanting to go to Canada and I am using my influence to send him out when I have told him he must be quiet for he is a most impatient fellow, not 21 yet and receiving £160 per annum with periodical increase and rank of Lieutenant”. Harry’s wish was not fulfilled, perhaps due to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and he remained at Woolwich. He married Louisa Ellen Heritage in 1865 in Brighton and four days after the wedding, they sailed to Gibraltar with Harry’s regiment. Three sons were born in Gibraltar.
In 1874, Harry and his family returned to Aldershot in England, where a daughter and a fourth son were born. He retired from the army in 1880 with a pension of £20 per month and this is when he was living with his family, children’s governess and servant in Acacia Grove with at least one son at Dulwich College. Shortly afterwards, he moved to a newly built house in Gipsy Hill, where his wife died in 1883.
Harry maintained an office in the City of London, and became involved with an unsuccessful gold mining venture in South Africa. In 1893 he married Lucy Mary Hollocombe in Kensington. Lucy was born in Rio de Janeiro, and witnesses to the wedding were Lucy’s brother, John, and the French baron Eugene Oppenheim. Baron Oppenheim was also involved at this time in a dubious business venture in South Africa and was jailed by a Belgian court in 1900 for falsifying accounts.
In July 1896, Lucy petitioned for divorce on the grounds of Harry’s adultery with Florence Mary Speight, 30 years his junior. Harry and Florence had a son, Guy Mainwaring, born in 1896 and when Harry’s divorce from Lucy became absolute the following year he married Florence. Harry died in 1903 in Fulham, aged 61.
Lastly, Frederick Robert de Levante was living in Acacia Grove at the outbreak of WW1. He fought on the Western Front in France as a Lance Sergeant in the 21st London Regiment, 1st Surrey Rifles and was killed in action in 1915, winning the Star medal. He has no known grave although he is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial in France and as he was a clerk at the Stock Exchange before signing up he is remembered on the roll of honour there. This roll of honour says he is aged 60 but the only other record I can find for him has his year of birth as 1874 and records his christening in St Andrew’s Peckham in 1878 making him 41 years old when he died. Either way he is no young soldier.