Dulwich Mid-Century Oasis 

by Paul Davis, Ian McInnes and Catherine Samy. 

Reviewed by Brian Green

Sunday afternoons in Dulwich in the 1960’s and early 1970’s were enlivened by the frequent invitations to ‘go over’ the showhouses on the newly built Wates estates throughout Dulwich. Visitors were greeted by light, bright and inviting homes, decorated and furnished in the latest styles and complete with under-floor heating, attractive fitted wardrobes and cupboards. At first the novel arrangement of the town house layout introduced by the Dulwich Estate’s appointed Surveyor, Russell Vernon, principal of Austin Vernon and Partners, of the living space being on the first floor with a garage and utility room on the ground floor surprised those potential purchasers unused to the concept of the piano nobile, but the often ‘wow factor’ of the bright living room with either a great view over London or a window opening onto the more immediate woodland setting quickly drew approval. As now, the design proved popular with young professionals just starting their families.

Dulwich Mid-Century Oasis covers the rebuilding of Dulwich by the Estate after WW2 in great detail in this a stylish production. It is filled with beautiful photographs of all of the 31 developments carried out by the Austin Vernon Partnership and largely built by the firm of Wates, whose owner, Neil Wates, during the years of construction, was a local resident.

The modern colour photographs demonstrate how well the various estates have worn over the past sixty years and highlight the skill of the landscape architects, Derek Lovejoy & Associates in protecting mature trees and installing imaginative planting schemes. Alongside these are the original black and white pictures of the interiors and exteriors of the newly built homes, advertisements and plans.

Full credit is given to Austin Vernon’s team of skilled architects led by Russell Vernon and responsible for the designs: Victor Knight, Malcolm Pringle, Harvey Borkum and Manfred Bresgen. Dulwich College’s ‘brutalist’ inspired Christison Hall designed by Manfred Bresgen and perhaps one of Dulwich’s most iconic buildings of the period. Is also highlighted Specific features which identify the architectural partnership’s skill are included in the book like the introduction of attractive and unusual copper-covered pyramidical roofs in some of the estates in College Road and Croxted Road and the general variety of harmonious designs on each of the projects.

The book also clearly demonstrates the success of The Dulwich Plan to save as much open space as possible yet still to meet the government’s post-war housing density requirement by providing a mix of high-rise flats and townhouses set in small estates. In gaining approval for the plan, the Dulwich Estate was able to fend off considerable pressure from Camberwell Borough Council to build over much of Dulwich with local authority housing. Apart from the Bessemer and Kingswood estates, the majority of council housing was distributed on the periphery of the Estate where its impact is less obvious. 

Privately published 202 pages limp covers £25.

Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London

by Jon Newman and Laurence Marsh.

Reviewed by Bernard Nurse.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most influential of Victorian writers. The son of a prosperous sherry merchant, his early life was spent in Herne Hill. For almost twenty years from 1823, when he was four years of age, he lived at 28 Herne Hill on the Lambeth side of the road; the house has been demolished since but a plaque marks the approximate site. In 1842 the family moved across the road to 168 Denmark Hill, a far grander house with extensive grounds; it survived until absorbed into Camberwell Council’s Denmark Hill Estate in 1947. He eventually left the area to live in Brantwood, a house near Coniston in the Lake District.

Two local authors, Lambeth archivist Jon Newman and Laurence Marsh, Vice-Chairman of the Herne Hill Society have taken on the challenge of describing how Ruskin’s early years in the area influenced his ideas, writings and love of nature. As Jon Newman points out in the introduction to Sunset over Herne Hill, his work helped to inspire the revival of Gothic architecture in Britain, the preservation of historic buildings and by arguing for a return to craft traditions informed the later Arts and Crafts Movement. 

The cover picture titled Sunset at Herne Hill through the Smoke of London was painted in 1876 from the attic of Ruskin’s childhood home also shows his abilities as an artist although he saw himself more as a critic. He described it as “one of the last pure sunsets above the smoke of industrial London”, perceptively noticing the effects of climate change. 

Ruskin approved of some changes, for example, he was pleased to see that the “meagre” first St. Paul’s Church on Herne Hill, mostly destroyed by fire, was replaced by the present church which he described as “one of the loveliest in the country”. In general, he disliked change, and the authors outline clearly the impact some of the later developments which particularly annoyed him. One example was the railways, which came uncomfortably close to his home bringing destruction in the wake of their construction; another was the huge growth in suburban housing on former countryside, however inevitable given the rapid increase in London’s population. He also hated the Crystal Palace, which was immensely successful at advertising Britain’s manufacturing prowess to the world. However, in Ruskin eyes, it was factory produced, ruined his view by dominating the skyline and attracted roughs who roared at the cows they passed on the way to visit it. 

The book makes an important contribution to the extensive literature on Ruskin in a detailed, well-researched and attractively illustrated book; it can be recommended to anyone interested in the history of the local area as well as the life of one of its most notable residents.

Published by The Herne Hill Society in association with Backwater Books. Paperback, £14.50, paperback 160 pages


The Wood that Built London: A human history of the Great North Wood,

by C.J Schueler 

Reviewed by David Natzier

“Sculpted by human activity over more than a thousand years, the woods are the oldest fixed artefact we have in this part of South London”. 

This wide-ranging book by local resident Christopher Schueler about the Great North Wood which once covered the higher ground between New Cross and Croydon will appeal to any Dulwich resident with an interest in the wider local area, and particularly to all who enjoy walking in Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Woods, or up Low Cross Lane for a pint at the Wood House. There is now a ‘Great North Wood ‘ pub by West Norwood station. The Great North Wood, first named by an 18th century German cartographer, was “north” from the perspective of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s estate office in Croydon, the largest single proprietor. Not much remains; Schueler provides a brief catalogue of these remaining bits of woodland with two outline maps which taken together demonstrate what we have lost.

Reading the book will surely tempt those able to do so -it tempted me – to go further afield than Dulwich, to explore Upper Norwood’s remaining woodlands and wooded parks. Biggin Wood on the western slope below Beulah was new to me, as were Grangewood Park and Beaulieu Heights. The nature reserves alongside the railway cutting from New Cross Gate, while not normally open, were a further revelation. 

The book is full of fascinating details on the old woodland and its natural and economic life. The dominant trees were sessile oak and hornbeam, suited to the clay soil. From early times this was not wild woodland but what Schueler calls “tree farms”: coppices carefully managed to produce a crop every ten or so years of wood used for charcoal production – the colliers who made Croydon famous – and everything else imaginable, serving blacksmiths and brickworks and bakeries, and providing bark for Bermondsey’s tanneries. There were supposed to be twelve large “standard” trees per acre to be harvested for timber to build London and to build ships. Until enclosure, locals could keep pigs in the woods and gather brushwood. It seems to have been the switch to coal brought by sea from Newcastle which eventually reduced the profits to be made from coppicing and led to much of the woodland being grubbed up for pastoral agriculture and then for residential use.

What survives are not just the patches of woodland, nurtured by so many dedicated local friends groups, and the associated flora and fauna – Schueler provides wonderful historic and recent lists of fungi and plants and insects – but also a wealth of place names: such as Forest Hill, Ling’s Coppice, Kingswood, Woodsyre, Lapsewood and of course what local historian John Coulter teasingly called “the Norwoods”. I learned that White Horse Wood now gone was named not for a horse but for a 14th century notable Walter Whitehorse, the first Black Rod! The book is full of such intriguing insights and discoveries. 

Schueler has also painstakingly assembled some fascinating accounts of how the local parishes and forest officers sought to define their boundaries by beating the bounds between these woodlands, relying not just on significant trees such as the Vicar’s Oak but also regularly renewed marks on significant trees. It was not easy: the border between Croydon and Penge caused much dissent and confusion because of the thick woodland it was necessary to tramp through, searching for a particular marker tree or ditch.

But perhaps the most immediately instructive chapters for all members of the Society are those dealing with the recent past. Schueler sets out how from the 1960s the Dulwich Estate gradually built over some of the remaining woodlands under their control. The Dulwich Society gets a mention as having been founded in 1964 partly in response to the Peckarmans Wood development Attempts to build on what is now the Sydenham Hill Wood were thwarted in the 1980s despite what the Dulwich Society Newsletter called the Estate’s “bone-headed intransigence”, and the Wood was passed to the London Wildlife Trust as its first nature reserve. The salvation of Dulwich Upper Wood on Farquhar Road also followed protest against planned destructive development. Schuler includes a full account of the recent and unresolved controversy over the Cox’s Walk footbridge oaks. The story is not finished here or elsewhere: in recent years the inaccessible Convent Wood in Upper Norwood has been nibbled away at. 

The recent rediscovery and marketing of the Great North Wood brand, helped by a 2017 Lottery grant, will hopefully make it easier to protect local woodland from further assaults. 

Published by The Sandstone Press hardback £19.95

A History of James Allen’s Girls’ School

by Corrine Barton

Reviewed by Phillipa Tudor

Some school histories are so dry as to be almost unreadable. Others veer towards extended publicity brochures. Corrine Barton’s History of James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) avoids both and is a carefully researched historical study enlightened by pupil and staff reflections, and enlivened by well-chosen illustrations. She had two great advantages: the first is her 30 years’ experience teaching at JAGS; the second is that JAGS has so many strengths that the success stories ring true.

Starting with a chapter recounting the school’s beginnings, and ending with one entitled “The Future”, this book is structured thematically, with chapters on buildings, headmistresses, classrooms, labs, fields – a particularly appreciated feature in a city school – music, “stage screen & canvas”, “beyond the classroom” and “the JAGS community”. The result is refreshingly readable, although a timeline of key dates would be helpful, and a series of infographics illustrating pupil and teacher numbers and subjects taught between 1741 and 2021 could be an interesting project.

1741 was the foundation date for James Allen’s Reading School, which was pioneering in including girls as well as boys. Arithmetic was added to the boys’ curriculum in 1817, but girls were still taught only “to read and sew”, and the Free School did not become girls only until 1842. The Dulwich College Act 1857 was a further significant milestone, providing for the replacement of the former College and Grammar School by the Upper and Lower Schools of Dulwich College. Section 115 of this 115-section Act provided that the school founded by James Allen in 1741 should be known as Dulwich Girls’ School, and for its endowment. Fees (2d a week) were introduced in 1864 and a purpose-built school (now the site of Dulwich Hamlet Junior School) opened in 1867, with an expanded curriculum. The nationwide changes of the Endowed Schools Act 1869 and the Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 (it was the latter which made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and 10) had a significant impact on Dulwich schools. The name James Allen’s Girls’ School was used for the first time in 1878, it started to benefit from part of the College’s endowment income in 1882, and moved to its new and lasting home in East Dulwich Grove in 1886, with 141 pupils.

JAGS thereafter mostly flourished, led by only 11 headmistresses since 1886. Challenges have always abounded, most recently COVID-19 and Everyone’s Invited, but JAGS remained open through both World Wars, although pupil numbers fell from 400 in 1939 to 130 in 1940, quickly bouncing back. Science and maths became enduring strengths, with JAGS acquiring the first purpose-built school science lab in the country in 1902. The wider curriculum is truly wide, and community engagement rich and varied, contributing to an essential focus on diversity and inclusion. Of the many outstanding alumnae cited, actress Lucy Boynton and Olympic runner Katie Snowden were in the same year group. This wealth of opportunity and talent gives JAGS pupils the greatest gift of all, to be themselves.

Corrine Barton, A History of James Allen’s Girls’ School (Published by James Allen’s Girls’ School 2021, 132 pages, £20.)

Two Hundred Years of Dulwich Radicalism 

by Duncan Bowie 

Reviewed by Brian Green

It is a coincidence that Duncan Bowie’s new book – Two Hundred Years of Dulwich Radicalism is published in the 250th anniversary year of the Dulwich Club. The Dulwich Club, formed in 1772 out of the great and the good of the locality campaigned vigorously in Dulwich to rally support for the British monarchy in the face of the French Revolution, going as far later to suggest an Army of Defence be raised in Dulwich. Nothing in Duncan Bowie’s latest book would suggest that such a similar response is necessary.

Duncan Bowie’s well-researched book provides a detailed introduction to many aspects of local politics, an enthusiasm not shared today by the electorate which has a historic dismal voting record in local elections. It also has detailed vignettes of sixty Dulwich radicals, stretching from campaigners for birth control like Annie Besant to the cause of anti-slavery led locally by John and Alice Harris, from housing reformers like John Ruskin to advocacy of women’s suffrage promoted by local headmistress Mary Alger. Dulwich Radicals is a good read, and it is surprising that so many political clubs and societies blossomed in the streets and halls of Dulwich and East Dulwich. 

The addresses where the sixty radicals lived is recorded; so today’s Dulwich residents can search out their own particular road’s political history. Some of the people named achieved greatness and fame, others disgrace and ruin. Among the latter are John Beckett, the Labour MP for Peckham who became a Fascist and William Joyce’s right hand man in the creation of British Nazism; until he reminded himself that his wife was Jewish, or Wilfred Vernon, Dulwich’s immediate post WW2 MP who later was revealed as a Soviet spy. 

One of the inclusions is Edward Upward, who taught me English at Alleyn’s. A mild man, distinguished author and poet and friend and co-writer of Christopher Isherwood, correctly portrayed by Bowie as one not to foist his political values on impressionable schoolboys.

Bowie reserves a chapter for the pantheon of local heroes – among them, Sam King born in Jamaica and an Empire Windrush emigrant who rose to become Mayor of Southwark, William Wood who came to spend ‘a few years’ preaching in Britain and became the Church of England’s first black bishop. And, of course Tessa Jowell, who, despite her shortcomings pointed out by Duncan Bowie, of continuing to support the invasion of Iraq even after the report of the Chilcot Inquiry and her controversial introduction of super casinos as Culture Minister more than redeemed herself by her championship for the London 2012 Olympics and as someone who gave dedicated service to her Dulwich constituency. Sam Silkin would, in the view of many Dulwich residents, also be placed in the Local Heroes chapter. It was he, who, as Dulwich’s MP steered the Leasehold Reform Bill through Parliament thus enabling most Dulwich Society members to buy the freehold of their homes; instead, Sam joins his father Lewis and brother John in the rather less exciting Post War Labour assemblage.

But where is the arch-radical of them all in this fascinating book ? There is no sign of Margaret Thatcher, Dulwich resident and radical reformer of trade-unions, the monetary system and the instigator of right-to-buy, within its illuminating pages. 

Published by Community Language 232 pages softback £10

Mrs Gustav Holst: An Equal Partner?

by Philippa Tudor

‘Why …is there no account – anywhere of the influence of Isobel, Gustav’s wife?’ asks Holst scholar Raymond Head. ‘Without her support, Holst might never have composed at all.’

Philippa Tudor’s book fills that gap. Using an extensive range of sources. Including letters and recorded conversations with those who knew Isobel and her family, it uncovers the role Isobel played as the wife of one of Britain’s most popular composers and the mother of their composer daughter Imogen Holst. It reveals Isobel’s and Gustav’s activities in the Hammersmith Socialist Society in the period surrounding the death of its founder, William Morris as well as Isobel’s role in running their homes on a shoe-string budget, in both Barnes and Thaxted. She volunteered in both World Wars, driving ambulances in the first, and enjoyed many friendships including with Gustav’s best friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. Gustav Holst only briefly used an agent, which meant that Isobel acted on his behalf at times. Even her husband had to say “I don’t see why you shouldn’t have some of the honour and glory.” Dr Philippa Tudor’s well-researched book means that Isobel Holst is no longer one of history’s forgotten wives.

Mrs Gustav Holst – An Equal Partner by Philippa Tudor is published by Circcaldy Gregory Press paperback 144 pages illustrated £14.99