William Nesfield’s plan for the Dulwich Estate, 1858
By Bernard Nurse
In the nineteenth century, the Dulwich College Estate was one of the largest leasehold estates in London concentrated within one area. It included about 1500 acres of land from Denmark Hill in the north to Sydenham in the south and Herne Hill in the west to Lordship Lane in the east. In the 1850s, most land was farmland and housing was largely confined to the village and Dulwich Common. One of the first acts of the new College Governors appointed after the charity had been reformed in 1857 was to ask for a report on the development potential. They were particularly concerned to increase the income in order to pay for new school premises. The task was given to the artist and landscape gardener, William Andrews Nesfield and the recent discovery of his report in Dulwich College Archives throws more light on their policies. The principles which he set out had a marked influence on the way the estate was to be developed in the Victorian period, even if the details turned out to be very different.
Nesfield was probably given the job because he had worked with Sir Charles Barry, Dulwich College’s Architect and Surveyor, on garden layouts for several of his country house projects. He was an interesting choice as a former artist who had turned to landscape gardening and best known for introducing flower beds into public parks and re-introducing formal design into gardening. He regarded landscape gardening as ‘The Art of painting with Nature’s materials’ and was the first person to describe himself as a ‘landscape architect’.
Sir Charles Barry’s son, Charles Barry junior was chosen to succeed his father in April 1858 and he drew up a brief for Nesfield which the governors approved the following month. The two key objectives were to increase the income while keeping the rural character of the estate. Nesfield was therefore asked where building should be allowed and what sort of size and value, how much land should be attached to the houses for gardens or meadow. In addition, he should advise on: which existing roads should be improved and what new roads were desirable; how to treat existing woodland and to recommend any further planting; the site for a new College and in what order his suggestions should be carried out.
Nesfield coloured in his proposals on a printed copy of the very detailed 1852 survey of the estate now in the Dulwich College Archives; and the report explains the thinking behind his ideas. To improve communications, he suggested several new roads including roads approximately on the line of the later Burbage, Townley and South Croxted Roads and Calton Avenue. In laying them out, he said it would be desirable to plant trees along the footpaths like those already in the village. The large area of woodland to the south was ‘the grand feature of the entire scenery… which cannot be excelled’ and was important to be preserved. However, he thought many of the beautiful trees in private grounds would be improved by judicious thinning. He recommended that the new college be erected on a site near that now occupied by Alleyn’s School, because of its ‘healthy’ position on ‘elevated and open ground’, and convenient for resident parents.
It is clear that he saw his brief as to suggest ways of creating an exclusive suburb for the wealthy middle classes who would send their children to the new College. He distinguished three classes of detached villas with between one and twenty acres of land, a fourth class of detached and semi-detached houses with ½ to ¾ acre of land and a fifth class of a few terraces of shops and cottages. He thought it was premature to propose exact sites for individual properties but selected areas with good drainage and placed the largest villas in the best positions. The Governors had already agreed to let plots for detached villas on that part of Sydenham Hill owned by the College. There was a high level of demand for large houses here because of the fine views and proximity to the recently opened Crystal Palace. Nesfield agreed with this policy and also recommended that the College should purchase land on Knight’s Hill to prevent ‘obnoxious’ houses been built on a site which commanded nearly the whole of the estate.
His general conclusion was that it was impossible ‘to deteriorate the rural character’ by his scheme, provided the existing effect of the valley of the estate and the disposition of trees was maintained. He addressed the difficult question of whether this objective was compatible with increasing the income by commenting that his report was made ‘bearing in mind the laudable desire of the Governors to preserve the remarkable beauty of the estate as much as possible, and to consider that even an increase of income must be subservient to this object’ He could have suggested many more building sites if it was just a question ‘of obtaining as much rent as possible’. However, it would be unfair to those who spent money on ‘houses of pretension’ if ‘buildings of an inferior description, more closely packed’ were introduced as depreciation would inevitably follow.
Fifty years earlier, Dulwich College had commissioned a report on the estate from the land agent, William James (1771-1837), best known as a pioneer of railways and in south London for his proposals to drain Lambeth Marsh. James also proposed several new roads and letting the land off them, including the whole of Dulwich Woods, in large plots, just reserving Dulwich Common as open space. It was decided that new roads would be too expensive, but leases for new building were extended to 84 years to encourage development. However, only a limited amount took place, mainly opposite Dulwich Common; and by the 1850s Dulwich was still largely undeveloped.
In contrast, Nesfield’s ideas were accepted by the Governors, at least in principle. The woodland would be preserved and new roads laid out following some of his suggestions. New large houses would be permitted in most areas, but smaller ones only in the village where there were several cottages already or on the outskirts of the estate. As managers of a charity, the College Governors could not raise money to build houses themselves. They needed the co-operation of developers or prospective leaseholders for their plans to take effect, and adverts were placed in newspapers announcing that building plots were available. They did not agree with Nesfield’s suggestion for the location of the new College, because this was too near the edge of the estate. Instead they chose the present site on Dulwich Common where the surrounding land could be kept free from development. At this time they were not aware of the huge windfall that would reach the College as a result of railway companies buying up so much land on the estate in the 1860s.
For a period of about twenty years after this report, the College was able to put it into effect and approved a steady number of new large houses on the south of the estate where demand was greatest. However, by the end of the century houses on this scale were no longer wanted in Dulwich as the wealthy moved further out of London or into the West End, and most were demolished after World War II. Nesfield’s plan remains a remarkable example of a Victorian estate development plan and no other reports by him of this nature have been found. Afterwards he received major commissions designing parks and gardens, but his patrons were wealthy private individuals wanting to keep their space private rather than charities looking to development to increase income.