Writing in 1909, local historian Tom Morris, called Beech House ‘one of the oldest houses in Dulwich’. It stood on the site of Nos 24-30 Dulwich Village, just north of the Dulwich Hamlet School and opposite St Barnabas Village Hall. The first mention of the house was in 1768, in a letter about lopping trees from Thomas Hewitt, the tenant. Hewitt was the brother-in-law of Richard Randell, organist of Christ Church between 1763-82, whose diaries are held in the Dulwich College Archive. They confirm that in the Summer of 1772 he helped his relative with five days of hay-making.
A subsequent a lease dated 1789 to Mrs M Bowles refers to the property as a ‘capital dwelling house’ and as being built by Len Bowles ‘on premises formerly Patmore's’. The next lease, dated 1798, was to John Rix who, in August 1793, had married Miss Sally Hewitt of ‘the Parish of Dulwich’ at St Georges’ Hanover Square – presumably Thomas Hewitt’s daughter. Rix was the Accountant General in the Excise Office, an important civil servant responsible for advising on levels of taxation. Originally from East Dereham Norfolk he still owned a country house there. Presumably he relocated to Dulwich on his marriage to live in his new wife’s old family house but he did not live very long to enjoy it as he died in 1802. His wife remained in the house until her death in 1810.
An advertisement in the Morning Advertiser of August 1809 from the auctioneers Messrs Griffith, Hopkins & Co under the heading of ‘Desirable House with Coach House and Stabling in Dulwich’ described the house as
‘very pleasantly situated near the Long Pond at Dulwich, containing six bedrooms, a dining room, two parlours, kitchen and wash house, a yard, garden, coach house, and stabling. The term 20 years, at a ground rent of only £9 per annum. Immediate possession may be had. May be viewed, and particulars obtained on the premises or at the Greyhound Inn.’
We do not know whether the house was actually sold as it is not until 1818 that another lease was signed. William Raincock (1766-1832) was the new tenant. He was a member of a family, several of whom who worked for the East India Company. Al least two were captains but he remained on dry land and was, from 1810, the Freight Accountant and Clerk to the Committee of Private Trade – the job involved monitoring and controlling the amount of private trade the captains of the ships were allowed to do. He must have known another important East India Company man, and nearby resident in Herne Hill, James Horsbrugh FRS (1762-1836), Hydrographer to the Company and Inspector of commanders’ and officers’ journals – his grave is in the Dulwich Burial Ground.
On Raincock’s death the house was up for sale again:
‘Dulwich, Surrey, five miles from London - Household furniture, fine-toned piano-forte by Broadwood and Son, choice old wines, China and glass, a capital Hunter, equal to 20 stone, three Alderney cows, a Heifer, Hay, Greenhouse plants, and other Effects - by Mr Burrell on the premises, the beginning of Dulwich, this day Nov 5, and the following day at 12 - by order of the Executor of William Raincock Esq. deceased’.
It was then acquired by Samuel Jones, a well-known manufacturing chemist, and he signed a new 21 year lease the following year. Advertisements for his ‘JONES COUGH BALSAM - for whooping cough, asthma, consumption, shortness of breath prepared by Samuel Jones, Dulwich, and sold by . . . . . . every respectable chemist and medicine vendor throughout the kingdom’. were commonplace at the time. His real claim to fame though was as one of the inventors of an early type of match, the promethean. In fact, Jones was not the inventor but the commercial exploiter - the original inventor neglected to file a patent. The contemporary ‘Spectator’ waxed lyrical about ‘JONES PROMETHIANS - The advantages the Prometheus possess over all other instantaneous lights, are their extreme simplicity and durability, as neither time nor climate can impair their original quality. They are composed of a small glass bulb hermetically sealed, containing about a quarter of a drop of sulphuric acid, encompasses by a composition of the chlorite of potash, enclosed in wax papers or wax tapers; the latter will burn sufficiently long for sealing two or three letters. The PROMETHEANS being pleasant to use, and never failing in their purpose, they are rendered nearly as cheap as the common Lucifers. To be had at all respectable chemists etc or at the manufactory, 201 Strand.’
Named after Prometheus, who according to Greek legend, stole fire from the gods, the match comprised a vial of sulphuric acid wrapped in paper impregnated with sulphur, sugar and KClO3. The vial was crushed to release the acid which then ignited the treated paper. In fact, most users crushed the vial with their teeth. It was soon superseded by better (and safer) matches but it was certainly used by Charles Darwin - in Chapter 3 of ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ he says that "I carried with me some promethean matches, which I ignited by biting; it was thought so wonderful that a man should strike fire with his teeth, that it was usual to collect the whole family to see it." Local historian Tom Morris said that the matches were manufactured at the house in Dulwich but that is unlikely as the promethean, understandably, was quite short lived.
Jones died in 1835 and the house was sold yet again though the next lease is not till 1843, to Thomas Stevens, of whom we know nothing. He remained for 7 years and then assigned the lease in 1850 to Thomas Ingleby Miller, at £95 per annum. Miller was a successful solicitor who had been heavily involved in the promotion of new railways at the high point of rail development between 1845-47. He was solicitor to the Port of Wisbech, Peterborough, Birmingham and Midland Counties Union Railway, the Oxford, Whitney, Cheltenham and Gloucester Independent Railway, and the North Western Trunk Railway – which originally ran from Crewe direct to Gloucester. Miller sent several of his sons to Dulwich College and, in April 1867, he took advantage of the Estate’s need to take some of his land to construct Turney Road to do substantial works on the house and to negotiate a longer lease. He renewed his lease again in 1880 and remained in the house until his death in 1895.
The next occupier was William Silver Foord - in the 1901 census he described his occupation as a mechanical engineer. In 1911, although aged 70, he noted his occupation as engineer printing machines, which was more accurate. In fact, he was a director of Dryden & Foord, printing machine manufacturers in Lambeth. The firm’s main business was in ‘perfecting machines’ - these enabled newspapers to be printed on both sides at the same time. In the late Nineteenth Century this was a considerable advance although, to todays’ eyes, the machines look very crude.
In June 1912 Foord sold his lease to Henry Francis Eaton JP. He was a retired Australian civil servant living at that time at 95 Parliament Hill Mansions, Lissenden Gardens, in Highgate. Born in East Bridgeford, Nottinghamshire, he had emigrated to Australia in 1853 to go gold prospecting but, deciding very quickly that there was little future in it for him, he became a clerk in the office of the Colonial Storekeeper in Melbourne. He was transferred to the Civil Commissariat in February 1854 (where he inspected the accounts of all the principal goldfields) and was appointed Accountant of the State of Victoria Government Stores in 1855. He moved to the Treasury in 1865, and, after nearly 25 years working his way up, he became the Under-Treasurer of Victoria (permanent head of the Treasury). He was also Chairman of the Victoria Police Superannuation Board, a Justice of the Peace, and a captain (retired) of the Victorian Volunteer Artillery.
Why he retired back to England, and particularly to Dulwich, is unclear, as there was no family connection. He died later that year but his wife and daughter remained in the house, now called Warrigul – presumably after the town in Victoria where they had lived. His daughter, Irene Cecil Davy Eaton MB BS DPH, was a doctor and one of the first woman doctors to be appointed as a medical officer in the new Department of Health created after WW1. Unfortunately, she was also not in good health and died suddenly in 1920 from cardiac failure, at the age of 37. Her mother asked to be relived of the lease and, after generously agreeing to allow her to pay off the dilapidations in instalments, the Estate took back the land between the house and the school. They let a plot almost immediately to an architect, Stuart Bowers, to build his own house at No 24. The remainder of the land up to the school was taken by local builders Messrs Williams and Nos 26-38 Dulwich Village (also designed by Bowers) were completed by January 1922. The same month Mrs Eaton finished her payments and the old house was put up for sale as a development site and sold to another local builder, Mr H Wilmott. By July 1923 he had built six more houses (Nos 12-22) and Mr Wilmott himself initially lived at No.18 which he named Warrigul after the original house.