In 1886 the Estates Governors – established only three years earlier to manage Alleyn’s foundation’s properties in Dulwich and elsewhere – donated to the newly created London County Council about 72 acres in central Dulwich to form a public park. They asked in return only that some memorial to Edward Alleyn be erected in it. To this request Lord Rosebery, Chairman of the L.C.C., is alleged to have replied that he "doubted if the Council would entertain such unpardonable extravagance, but that it might consider putting up some stone, some very cheap stone which would not materially affect the rates, in honour of this great occasion". There is no memorial to Alleyn in the Park, but one of the entrances to it, at the south-east corner, is called the Rosebery Gate.
This apparent generosity on the part of the Estate Governors may not have been so remarkable as at first appears. Keen to avoid the overcrowding of houses which was becoming a feature of neighbouring parts of south London, a ‘green lung’ for the local inhabitants fitted well with their plans for more leisurely and refined development of the area. Whatever their motives, the resulting ‘Dulwich Park’, the 1884 design for which by Charles Barry junior (Architect to the Governors) is reproduced here, is happily still with us today.
The land on which the Park was constructed, was, in 1896, divided by a watercourse originating in the Sydenham hills, and flowing from the south-east corner of the Park to Herne Hill and beyond, crossing College Road just south of the Old College – the Dulwich Picture Gallery has been built over part of it. The only evidence of it now visible above ground is the ornamental boating lake which incorporates it in the centre of the Park, and the short stretch of water immediately west of the lake. (The one to the east, shown on Barry’s plan, was in the event filled in.) To the south of that watercourse were fields which in medieval times were called Dickriddings and Annesfields which we will consider in the next Journal. To the north of it was the remnant of Court Farm, comprising fields formerly called Hanger
Hill, the Long Field (or The Seven Acres), Haythorne Field, and Haythorne Shott, all part of what had formerly been Dulwich Court Farm, straddling the present Court Lane.
Dulwich Court Farm
From 1127 the Priory of St Saviour, Bermondsey, later (from 1399) Bermondsey Abbey, held the manor of Dulwich, and there can be little doubt that the farmhouse known as Dulwich Court and the land attached to it, which centuries later would form much of Dulwich Park, were treated as the Abbey’s demesne land, on which all the villagers other than free tenants would be required to work for a specified number of days in the year in order to produce food for the Abbey’s refectory. Occasionally, when the Priory was more in need of funds than of food, it could and would lease out or mortgage the property, and we know of at least one such transaction in 1357, when Thomas Dolsaly, a London Citizen and Pepperer and sometime lord of the manors of Peckham and Bretynghurst, was granted a lease of the manor of Dulwich for his lifetime (which ended in August 1370).
Similarly, in May 1530 a lease of the whole manor of Dulwich was granted by Bermondsey Abbey – which perhaps, as far as the future of institutions such as itself was concerned, could already see the writing on the wall, and was keen to convert its wealth from land to money – to John Scott of Camberwell, a Baron of the Exchequer, for 50 years from Michaelmas 1531. Scott died in 1532, and the manor lease passed first to his son, also John Scott (died 1558), then to his grandson, also John Scott, who in 1561 granted a sub-lease of only “the manor house of Dulwich” and the 129 acres of “demayne” land on either side of Court Lane that went with it, Woodseare, Dulwiche Courte hill (30 acres), Heythorne feilde (26 acres), Dyckryddens (4 acres), Hanger Hill (15 acres), the Six Acres, and Horse crofte (4 acres), to Walter Dove and John Dove, for the remaining 20 years of the head-lease. A conjectural plan of where these fields (and others relevant to Dulwich Park) were is shown overleaf.
The first mention of Dulwich Court by name was in February 1602, when Francis Calton, by then lord of the manor, mortgaged “Dulwich Corte”, Hall place, and a few other houses in Dulwich. In October 1605 Calton (by then Sir Francis), joined with his mortgagees in selling those properties to Edward Alleyn. “Dulwich Courte” is described as being lately in the occupation of Phillipp Mitchell, now in that of William George, and a list of ‘Anuell Rents’ made for Alleyn at the same time estimated it at 100 acres of land and another 15 acres of woods, worth in all £53 a year. Seven months later, on 8th May 1606, Calton contracted to sell the whole manor to Alleyn, and the “capital messuage or mansion house called Dulwich Court” heads the list of properties within the manor.
It seems that the farm was shortly afterwards temporarily split between different tenants, and indeed Alleyn himself may have lived at Dulwich Court for a time, perhaps while his apartments in the newly-built College were being prepared in 1615/16 – there is an undated letter in the Dulwich archives, from whom we do not know, addressed “To my verye lovinge frende Mr Allin at his houste dullige courte".
In March 1627 the College leased to William Nicholas a messuage called Dulwich Court, with barns etc. and fifteen parcels comprising Great Woodsires, two closes, a close and lane, the Horse Close, the Orchard and Pightell [a pightle was just a small enclosure] behind the barn, Hanger hill, the Long Field, Hamonds Copice (divided), Hathorne feilds, the lane leading to the house, a parcel taken from Hathorne feilds, and Hathorne Shott, 129 acres in all, at £58 1s p.a., £20 of which was remitted in the second year for building work which Nicholas was obliged to carry out. Dulwich Court Farm, apart from the other part of Hamonds Coppice which was let at will to Richard Peare (tenant of a house on the site of the former Harvester pub at the junction of Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common), was whole again.
William Nicholas assigned his lease of Dulwich Court Farm to James Nelham in 1630. Leases of the house and farm – always for 21 years, in accordance with the College Statutes – were granted to Nicholas Hunt (1640), Henry Stonestreet (1660), Michael Webb (1661), his widow Elizabeth (1681), and Captain Edward Le Neve (1694, 1700 and 1717). By 1717 the annual rent had increased to £94, and three years later it rose again, to £100. Few if any of these tenants actually lived at the property – Hunt was described as ‘London gentleman’, Stonestreet as ‘London Clothworker’, Webb as ‘London Mercer’, and Le Neve as ‘gentleman of St Anne’s Westminster’ – and all are likely either to have employed caretaker farmers or to have sublet all or part of the premises. We know from a Terrier of June 1668 that the whole farm was then occupied by Mrs Bethiah Downer (widow of Thomas Downer, a Dulwich yeoman), paying her immediate landlord £84 a year, and she may in turn have had her own sub-tenant or -tenants, and they theirs in their turn. As suggested earlier, Dulwich Court was apparently large enough to contain two households, and both Mrs Webb and Capt. Le Neve granted sub-leases of a 'moiety' (i.e. half) of the whole property to different tenants, one of whom was himself directed to procure one or more under-tenants "fitly qualified for the serving and bearing of offices in the parish of Dulwich". In December 1681 Mrs Webb sub-let the south and south-west half of Dulwich Court, with Great Orchard, fields of 4 acres, 7 acres, 3 acres, and 11 acres, and Heythorn Feild (14 acres) to Grevil Lewis, landlord of ‘The Bell’ Inn, at £37 p.a. By the 1720’s the half of the farm had passed to the Budder family and by 1743 Robert Budder had acquired the other half as well.
In 1743 the whole farm was leased to Budder alone. When he died his widow Mary successfully applied for a new lease in 1764, after pointing out that her husband's family had been College tenants (although not only of Dulwich Court Farm) for nearly 150 years, and that she was now a widow with one child. By 1784 she had died and the College decided that it was time to take stock of what to do with the farm, by now occupied by Nathaniel Randall as Mrs Budder’s sub-tenant. The College Surveyor, John Dugleby, recommended that hundreds of elm trees be planted on the farm, and that bearing in mind its “beautiful situation for building” that it be divided in three (to include, presciently, “a pleasure ground”). Accordingly, at the College Audit Meetings in September 1784 and March 1785 it was resolved to grant new leases to Edward Browne, Thomas Coleman and Thomas Griffith of respectively five fields (later known colloquially as ‘The Five Fields’), six fields of meadow and arable, and four fields (with the farmhouse, barn, stable, etc.), all being part of Dulwich Court Farm. There were further requirements to plant elm trees.
The three leases were duly granted. Browne’s five fields lay behind his dwelling house (now 105 Dulwich Village) Griffith’s lease was of the farmhouse, barn, stable, etc., and four fields in all. Coleman’s lease has not survived, but we know from another source that the four fields comprised in it, being the remainder of the old farm, comprised 51acres in all. That gives a total acreage for Dulwich Court Farm at the time of its dissolution of some 123 acres
Southwark Local Studies Library holds a lease plan, reproduced below, showing what was left of Dulwich Court Farm, renamed simply Court Farm, when a lease of it was granted to William Johnson (Cowkeeper and Farmer, of Kent Street Southwark) in September 1814,
Court Farm was to suffer further depredations because of the growing population and consequent demand for building land. From 1842 it was occupied by Colonel Constable, who had been Johnson’s “caretaker”, having been his ploughman. Constable eventually handed the farm over to one of his sons – Joseph, according to one souce, but William according to all others – and became one of the College's first out-door pensioners (receiving 10 shillings a week), dying in 1877 reputedly aged 96 (but actually 86, if the 1841 Census is right). He is buried in Nunhead Cemetery.
November 1878 saw the last lease of Court Farm granted to William E. Constable, before it was surrendered in order to make way for the Dulwich Park. Writing in 1953, D. V. Allport reported that Court Farm was "only demolished in quite recent years. Many residents in Dulwich will remember the elm-lined hedgerows which bordered the old lane, the deep ruts and the mud of Stygian blackness which formed its surface in winter time ...".