On The Street Where You Live - Lordship Lane (from Dulwich Common to Sydenham Hill)

By Ian McInnes

Crossing over the junction of Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common from the dilapidated Grove Tavern, the first building you come to is the St Peter’s Church Hall, then the church itself and next to it, and almost hidden behind a row of trees, is the former vicarage. Next, is No 524 Lordship Lane, an award-winning Southwark Council development of old people’s flats built in the early 1970s. Beyond, is Highwood Close, a large housing development dating from 2002-06 and built by Laing Homes, replacing most of the former Highwood Barracks built in 1938-39 (the current Highwood Barracks building is a much smaller building, dating from 2002-04). It is named after the Battle of High Wood, the scene of a major engagement during the Battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916, when the First Bn Surrey Rifles (including many men from Dulwich) attacked a line of German trenches with a huge loss of life. The old barracks itself replaced six large houses built in the 1870s and 80s. Further up the hill were 526-532 Lordship Lane, and the former site of the Lordship Lane Station. All are now covered by social housing built by Southwark Council in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The only building showing on this part of the Dulwich Estate on the 1870 Ordnance Survey map was the Lordship Lane Railway Station which opened on 1st September 1865. It was one of four stations serving the then new Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway which ran from Peckham Rye to the Crystal Palace High Level Station. The railway company was obliged by the Estate to build a picturesquely styled station house, with two steeply-gabled roofs over its red brick and stone, and the adjacent rail bridge over Lordship Lane was required to be elaborately ornamented and carry the Dulwich College coat of arms. The railway had first been discussed with the Estate at the end of 1861, and it is interesting to note that the same week that the Estate Board met to approve the sale of Estate land for the route, 4th January 1862, Messrs Courage, the brewer, also put forward a scheme for a new pub close by. This became the Grove Tavern and it was up and running by the middle of 1863, almost 18 months before the completion of the station. 

St Peter’s Church followed in the early 1870s, planned to serve the growing number of occupiers in the new housing developments on the east side of Lordship Lane on the land that had belonged to Friern Manor Farm. An iron chapel-of-ease had been set up there in 1868 to generate interest and, after sufficient funds were raised, the foundation stone of the main church was laid by wealthy local Sydenham Hill resident, Richard Thornton, on 1st May 1873. Designed by Charles Barry Jnr, the Dulwich Estate Architect, the main part of the church was complete and in use by October 1874, although the official consecration had to wait until 1883 when it was dedicated by the Bishop of Rochester. The construction of the spire and an enlarged chancel followed in 1885 when another wealthy local resident, tea importer Frederick John Horniman, contributed further funds. The church hall, now looking very dilapidated after severe structural problems, dates from the late 1890s, as does the Vicarage. 

The original houses at Nos 524-530 Lordship Lane were built between 1872 and 1875 by James Dines, a builder living nearby in Mount Ash Road on the far side of Sydenham Hill (he had built most of that road as well), while the last two houses, Nos 532 and 534, were constructed in the early 1880s. There were a number of interesting occupants, particularly at Oak Lea, No. 532. Eugene Schwarte, who lived in the house between 1894 and 1913, was a partner in the firm of Schwarte & Hammer, 3 East India Avenue, Leadenhall Street; they called themselves merchants & agents but their business was primarily guns. They imported Mannlicher Schoenauer sporting rifles and Steyr automatic pocket pistols into England and also supplied them to the middle east, particularly Muscat. His son went to Dulwich College but changed his surname, perhaps wisely, from Schwarte to Seymour during WW1. 

Following Eugene Schwarte’s death in 1913, the lease was taken over by a Swiss watch importer, George Dimier, who had moved there from Longton Avenue. He and his family attended St Peter’s Church - in May 1922, his eldest son, Charles George, married the daughter of the incumbent, the Rev Arthur Knott. Dimier was a partner in Dimier Frères & Cie, with London offices at 46 Cannon Street. The company was founded as Georges Dimier SA in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland in the nineteenth century and apparently catered originally for the Chinese market. The loss of this market in the 1860s led to a change in business model and the firm moved away from watch manufacturing to become an importer/exporter. Specifically, they exported Swiss-made, Dimier branded watches and movements to England. In 1868 they opened a London office and, as well as being a successful business, the firm played an important role at the beginning of the twentieth century in the introduction of the first modern wristwatches. In 1903, in both England and Switzerland, they registered a wrist watch case design which had curved fixed metal lugs to attach a one-piece leather strap. During WW1 this type of wrist watch became known as the "trench" or "officers" watch. 

The first tenant at No 534, the aptly named Bridge House because of its proximity to the rail-over bridge, was treasury barrister Frederick Mead. He was later a Metropolitan Police Stipendiary Magistrate and was noted in the local papers reporting his promotion as an ‘active Churchman and Conservative’. In the mid-1890s he sub-let the lease to Alfred W Bush of W J Bush & Co, a well-known London-based firm producing flavourings for foods, essential oils and perfume. The firm had a large export business in the then British Empire and was still in business up to the 1960s. By the mid-1900s, the tenant was Matthew Wallace JP, an iron merchant and, in 1890-91, the first elected mayor of the Borough of Camberwell. He was also the chairman of Camberwell Vestry in 1896 when the Dulwich Library was built - contemporary newspapers report him objecting to the plans on the basis that Dulwich always received better treatment than other parts of the borough. 

By the 1930s the houses were becoming less desirable as the leases ran down. Fortuitously, in April 1937, the Estate received a letter from the Chief Land Agent and Valuer to the War Office offering to take a new 99-year lease on all of the houses in order to build a searchlight station for the Territorial Army. The letter said that they had already agreed the purchase of the leasehold interests of three of the houses, and planned to institute compulsory purchase proceedings against the Alliance Economic Investment Company Ltd, the leaseholders of the remaining empty ones. The Estate minutes confirmed that, as this was a matter of national concern, the Governors would agree to the proposal, but that their agreement should not to be taken as a precedent for other sites. 

Over the next few months, the War Office’s aspirations for the site expanded and by November, the new building was to be the headquarters of the 35th Surrey Rifles Anti-Aircraft Battalion Royal Engineers as well as providing accommodation for the Territorial Army and the Air Force Association of the County of London. The plans included a large two-storey main building containing a drill hall, officers’ and sergeants’ messes, class instruction rooms, and a miniature rifle range. There was also to be an underground boiler house with fuel stores and two separate one-story buildings to house vehicles, petrol and oil. No 524 Lordship was to be retained and used as quarters for staff instructors. The approximate cost of the work was just under £30,000. The Estate agreed the revised buildings with one proviso, that the wall to Cox’s walk be put back a few feet and a grass verge laid down and trees planted to form a screen.

The Crystal Palace High Level line had never been a commercial success. It had been electrified in 1926 but that did little to improve things. It suffered some bomb damage during WW2 and was only reopened in January 1946, but passenger numbers didn't improve, with many trains during the day running almost empty, and the decision was made to close it. The last electric train ran on 18th September 1954 although there was a final steam train the following day. Dismantling the line took some time and was finally completed early in 1957. The bridge across Lordship Lane was removed and the only reminder of the route of the line is the Horniman Museum’s Nature Trail which runs along the top of the old embankment parallel with Wood Vale.