In 1626 the land which later comprised 'Belair' and its estate consisted of the two separate holdings, one described as "a house and 36 acres" for which John Casinghurst's rent was (when he paid it) £22 p.a., the other "a house and 12 acres" leased at £12 p.a. (according to the Rent Books - the lease itself has not survived) to a Mr Diaper, about whom we know nothing. We are not yet able to link Mr Diaper with any previous known tenant, so 1626 is as far back as we can trace that particular holding.
However, we are more fortunate as regards the second and larger of the two holdings on the site of 'Belair', since the fields comprising it were all indicated by name in the early leases, and some of those names were of great antiquity. 'Spilmans' can be traced back to 1404, in the form 'Spendelmanfeld'. Another, 'Court Mead', is first mentioned in 1471, and a third, 'Gilcott lands', in 1542. These fields, and several others, were included in a lease of Hall Place (the old manor house at the junction of Park Hall Road and South Croxted Road) granted by Francis Calton (then Lord of the Manor) to John Bone, a Camberwell yeoman, in May 1597.
Bone must subsequently have surrendered his lease and been granted a new one, just of Hall Place, for in 1613 we find John and Amy Casinghurst as the lessees of property which included Gilcott lands and Court Mead. This lease must in its turn have been surrendered, and a new one granted to John Casinghurst with other land added, for by 1626 his holding consisted of "a house and 36 acres". He paid no rent for this, however, until 1629, on the specific instructions of Edward Alleyn given some two months before Alleyn's death in November 1626. The reason for this favourable treatment was that Casinghurst, who had fallen on hard times, was one of Alleyn's most trusted servants and indeed witnessed his Will.
The "house and 36 acres" and the other "house and 12 acres" remained separate holdings until 1722, and from the records we can list the tenants of each holding, and the rents that they paid.
First, the smaller of the two holdings. Mr Diaper was succeeded in turn by Henry Hutchinson in 1628 and by Mr Paul Baxter in 1635. In October of that year Baxter was granted a new lease of the premises, described as a 'messuage' [house] with a small cottage adjoining on the north side, and three closes adjoining Croxsted Lane containing 12 acres, rent £12. Baxter assigned this lease to Richard Perry, who was succeeded by his widow Abijah in 1650, and she by her son John Perry in 1679. There is evidence that John Perry remained in occupation of the land even after he assigned his lease in 1681 to John Tillotson, who is described in the new lease granted to him later that same year as "John Tillotson Esquire of St Gregory in London". A document preserved at the College, also dated 1681, refers to him as 'Comptroller to the Archbishop of Canterbury', and gave him permission to fell timber for the repair of his house. However, although the reference is intriguing, this seems unlikely to have been the John Tillotson who was himself to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1691, as the tenant Tillotson was replaced in the Rent Books after 1685 by 'Widow Tillotson'. Nor could it have been Archbishop Tillotson's parents, who were already dead. A possibility is that the future Archbishop purchased the property for the widow of his brother Joshua, who had died in 1678. The widow Tillotson was herself succeeded in 1686 by William Musson, whose Executors assigned the lease in 1709 (by which time the rent had crept up from £12 to £13 p.a.) to a Mr Floyd or Lloyd. He remained as tenant until Michaelmas 1723.
Secondly, the larger holding of "a house and 36 acres". John Casinghurst died in 1634, and was succeeded by Edmund Redman (possibly his son-in-law) whose widow Dionis succeeded him in 1641. In March 1659 she was granted a new lease of the premises, described as a house and adjoining field and lands called the Six Acres, the Three Acres, the Court Mead, the Old Orchard, the Pond Yard, Gilcott lands, little Spilmans and Great Spilmans, apparently totalling 36 acres (the individual acreages are not given). In fact the total was nearer 43½ acres, including about 2½ acres on the east side of Gallery Road. The discrepancy is simply due to inaccurate medieval land measurement, and there are several other proven examples in the Dulwich records. At this point it should be mentioned that the correct acreage of the other holding of "a house and twelve acres" was nearer 13½ acres. Dionis Redman died in 1670, by which date the rent had reached £30 p.a., and for the next 14 years the land was farmed by the Administrator of her estate, Robert West. He sold the lease in 1684 to Robert Edmunds, who almost immediately assigned to Edward Horwood. He was succeeded briefly by a Mr Downes in 1690, but from 1691 to 1721 the tenant was Mr John Van Hattem, whose rent was further increased to £34 p.a.
In September 1720 the College ordered that Van Hattem should have a new lease of his premises, but at not less than £50 p.a. However, at the College Audit Meeting on March 5th 1722 it was reported that he had refused to pay anything like as much, and so instead a lease was ordered to be granted to John Budder (who was in fact Van Hattem's undertenant) at £40 p.a., but excluding the house itself and most of the 2½ acres of adjoining land (apart from a barn) on the east side of Gallery Road which were to be leased to Abraham Jordan. The house which Jordan occupied stood on the site of what is now 'Brightlands'. At the next Audit on September 4 1722, it was ordered that Mr Lloyd's "house and 12 acres", referred to above, should be amalgamated with John Budder's lease of the other "36 acres", at a combined rental of £60 p.a.
The barn on the east side of Gallery Road was dropped from Budder's lease when it was renewed in 1743. That lease is particularly interesting, for not only are the various fields mentioned by name, but a marginal note refers to their individual acreages (though evidently not, unfortunately, in the same order). At the Audit held on March 4 1745 it was agreed that instead of "the 7 acre field next the College back gate" (in other words Great Spilmans), Budder's lease should include Brownings (7¾ acres) opposite the Burial Ground, and the lease was amended accordingly. When one learns that John Budder at this time farmed a considerable area of Dulwich, including the whole of Dulwich Court Farm in Court Lane (adjacent to Brownings), this substitution is not as peculiar as it first appears.
Despite the fact that by the early 1760s he farmed close on 300 acres in Dulwich, the indications are that John Budder was not entirely prosperous. Almost alone among College tenants, he was invariably late in paying his half-yearly rents, which from 1755 totalled the considerable sum of £270 p.a. The crunch seems to have come for him in 1762, when an unusual entry in the College Audit Book records Budder assigning his lease of "the Home Farm in which I dwell to William Waine of Peter Street, Westminster, Chandler". We know that the site of 'Belair' is intended, as Waine is thereafter recorded in the Rent Books as taking over payment of the rent for that property, which continued at £60 p.a. even though Brownings was dropped from the lease at the next renewal, c.1764. We thus finally arrive at one lease of only one house (and a small cottage) and what should, if the ancient descriptions are accurate, be about 38½ acres, but which were in fact 47 acres, later to become the site of 'Belair' and its grounds. The house itself was not where the mansion now is, but was north-west of the junction of Gallery Road and Thurlow Park Road, on the site of the municipal car park.
Waine had evidently decided on a change of occupation, as a document of 1771 (now in the Minet Library) refers to him not as a Chandler but as "William Waine of Dulwich, husbandman". Like Budder (and Casinghurst) before him, he may have taken on more than he could manage, and in late 1771 he assigned his lease (and another of fields on the south side of the Common) to John Willes, Esq., a Corn Factor, of Leman Street, Goodman's Field, Middlesex. This was only after Waine had tried to assign his leases (which were both subject to mortgages) to a certain Charles Cole, but the College, believing Cole to be a speculative builder, had refused licence to assign. In passing, it is worth mentioning that Cole sued the College for damages, and actually won his case, as the refusal was held to be unreasonable.
It appears that Willes, and his first wife Rachel, chose not to live in the old house, but instead moved into Hall Place as under-tenant of William Kay. From there Willes wrote to the College in 1776, and again in early 1781 when he requested permission to build in two of the fields leased from the College, with a lake at the bottom, using the excavated earth to make bricks for the work because of the high price of bricks generally and the inadequate supply locally (a suggestion prompted by the local tilemaker William Oxlade). He promised to spend at least £500 on building, and intended to reside in the old farmhouse pending completion of the works, as he was obliged to leave Hall Place at Michaelmas. As a result, it was ordered at the College Audit Meeting on March 5th 1781 that John Willes should have a new lease of William Waine's old premises, but provided he spent at least £1,000 "on buildings and useful improvements". His rent was to be £92 p.a., not just for 'Belair' (or 'College Place' as Willes was to call it) but for the other land across the Common.
Blanch's History of Camberwell or Camerwell, published in 1875, is full of very interesting information about Dulwich, but unfortunately it is also full of mistakes. About 'Belair' he wrote: "The house was built in 1780 by Mr Robert Adams". There are three errors in this brief statement! One, as you will already have guessed, 'Belair' was certainly not built before 1781, probably not before 1785, and perhaps not completed for a few years after that. And the name of the famous architect brothers, the Adelphi, was not Adams but the good old Scottish name of Adam. And thirdly, it is virtually certain that 'Belair' was not designed by either Robert Adam or his brother.
Dismissing Blanch in this connection, and those who have blindly followed him, let us look at what we know about the building of the house. John Willes' lease was dated from Michaelmas 1785, but the villa, with the adjacent coach-house and stables - still there - may not have been completed by 1785. In a contemporary guide book of the year 1789 ('Edwards Companion from London to Brighthelmstone') we read: "On the right hand side of the road which leads by the west side of the College, at a quarter of a mile from it, Mr John Willes has just erected a pleasant villa called College Place". The word "just" may be significant.
The lease granted to John Willes in 1785 was for 21 years, and he got it renewed in 1806 for another 21 years on his undertaking "to underdrain the land between Dulwich Road" (afterwards named Gallery Road) and "the Sheet of Water" (at the bottom) and "that part of the Pasture Land which is Poachy and Wet". Numerous substantial houses were being built in this area by this time, and in 1808 the College authorities procured an Act of Parliament permitting them to grant leases of 63 years duration, with a possible renewal for a further 21 years, and on the Schedule attached to the Act, among the tenants granted leases for 63 years, was one John Willes, "for a Capital Messuage and Offices, on the West Side of the College in Dulwich, with Cottage or Farmhouse, Canal, Gardens, Pleasure and other Grounds, containing Forty Six Acres Three Roods and Twenty Four Poles". This was the extent of the grounds of 'Belair' until the 1860s, when some 10½ acres were profitably sold by the College to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, where the railway now runs. It was not until John Willes was dead and gone that the name of the property was changed from 'College Place' to 'Belair', by the Ranken family.
John Willes came from a well-to-do family. His elder brother Robert was a landowner in Tillingham, Essex, and there were other wealthy members of the family. John Willes apparently made the beginnings of his own fortune as a corn-factor, and was certainly adept at marrying heiresses. Not one, but two! The first, Rachel Wilcocks, was the niece of the Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster (he had a chance of becoming Archbishop of York, but liked living in London and looking after Westminster Abbey; he was responsible for some of the changes that were made in the the Abbey in the 18th century). Rachel's father was a Surveyor in Rochester. After the death of the only son of Bishop Wilcocks, she inherited the Wilcocks family's considerable property and, very soon afterwards, John Willes married her. They had no children, and when Rachel Willes died in 1812, aged 73, John Willes promptly married Ann Wright, the copyholder of Bell House and Grove House, who was the only surviving child of Alderman Thomas Wright, builder of Bell House, giving Willes control of two of the biggest estates in Dulwich. His second wife died in 1817 aged 68, but he did not long enjoy sole command, as it were, of the two estates, because he died in August of the following year, 1818, in his 84th year.
John Willes was, with his neighbour Thomas Wright of Bell House, a founder of the re-constituted Dulwich Quarterly Meeting, renamed in later days the Dulwich Club 1772, which still meets as a dining club, but twice a year, not quarterly. By his Will he made bequests to many of his servants and to several charities, but the bulk of his fortune was divided among seven relatives, mostly the sons and daughters of his elder brother Robert Willes, and Robert's son, another John Willes, was sole executor of his uncle's Will, and was still corresponding with the long-lived Charles Druce, College Steward and Solicitor, about the settlement many years later; and not until 1841 was over £4000 paid to the residuary beneficiaries to settle the estate.
illes' lease of 'Belair' was assigned, first by his Executor, in 1820, to a Mr George Swan of Fore Street Cripplegate, then in 1826 to a Mr Henry Seymour Montagu, who in 1829 sold the rest of the lease to Mr Charles Ranken, Solicitor of Lincoln's Inn, who was to occupy 'Belair' for the next 30 years. Thanks partly to Joseph Romilly, whose family lived in 'The Willows' on Dulwich Common, we know quite a lot about the Rankens. Here are a few revealing entries from Joseph Romilly's Diary:
20th October 1832: Mrs Ranken took the Colonel [Joseph's brother] and me and Miss Powell to the Beulah Spa [the famous spa in Knight's Hill] to hear the Artillery Band. Here saw the nasty, ugly Countess of Essex drive along the gravel walk to her crimson seat [She had opened the Spa a few years earlier, and had privileges]. The Bishop of London took offence at Mrs Ranken's servant for splashing him, and lodged a complaint with Smith, the proprietor, who stopped us as we were going out.
25 February 1834: Mrs Ranken and Miss Ranken drank tea with us. Mrs R. played a good deal on the piano - indeed Margaret [Joseph's sister] thought a great deal too much.
At Christmas, Joseph and his young nephew George skated on the lake in 'Belair', and Joseph often took visitors on walks round the grounds, after visiting the new Dulwich Gallery up the road.
Now Mrs Cecilia Ranken was, even in her younger days, an excitable, talkative woman. Here is another amusing entry in Joseph's Diary about her:
Lucy [that was Joseph's other sister] and I called on Mrs Ranken and found Mr Giraud there. She had been playing to him, she told me afterwards. She thought it right to do so, as it encouraged him. He had some taste, and was beginning to play the organ a little. High time he should, as he is the new College Organist! Mrs Ranken played for me my favourite, as she calls it, an Air of Haydn I admire. We looked at her portrait by Richmond. Thought it very good, and a very agreeable likeness.
George Richmond was a fashionable portrait painter at that time, who produced very charming if rather flattering portraits of his sitters - there are examples in the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. One wonders where that portrait of Mrs Ranken is, if it still survives.
But there was an unhappy side to life at 'Belair'. There is a record of a cook, convicted (though fortunately not sentenced to death for it) of concealing birth - she put her still-born baby down the privy. The Rankens, too, were not untouched by tragedy. On 2 September 1835 little John Ranken died, and Joseph Romilly notes:
No-one, even Dr Webster, seems to have expected this mournful end.
That was the famous Dr George Webster, who is commemorated by the Memorial Fountain in the Village. Mrs Ranken did not easily forgive Dr Webster's diagnosis. On 19th December that same year, Joseph notes:
Lucy and I called on poor Mrs Ranken, whom we found much out of spirits. I walked with her down to the Village afterwards, having caught her rushing in to the Willcoxes [who lived next to 'Brightlands', on Dulwich Common] to escape from Dr Webster, whom she saw at a distance. She was in a state of great nervous excitation.
Mrs Ranken seems to have become progressively rather sick in mind, as well as in body. In Charles Ranken's Will, and a Codicil to it, both written while his wife was alive, he was already thinking of handing over control of the property to his cousin Mary Ranken, who had come to live with them. Actually Mrs Ranken died before he did, and Mary succeeded to the property anyway. She was quite a character in her own right, and more or less ran the Village, organising Charity Schools, a Penny Bank for the poor, and so on.
But coming back for a moment to Charles Ranken. He clearly did very well at his law practice. He operated firstly at Lincoln's Inn, later on at Gray's Inn, and in 1847 became President of the Law Society. A year before that he bought the Knight's Hill property, 59½ acres, from the heirs of Lord Thurlow, who had died back in 1806, and after his death Ranken's legatees sold this land to the College - a very profitable deal all round, both then and afterwards! In the Census of 1851, the residents of 'Belair' are given as Charles Rankin [sic], Solicitor, born in Bengal, aged 61; his wife Mrs Cecilia Rankin; his cousin Mary; and a young man, George E. Rankin, aged 23. Seven servants were resident in the house, and there were probably more in the farm. When in 1857 the College was completely reformed and reorganised, the old system of Fellows was abolished, and Governors were put in their place. Charles Ranken was one of the two 'outsider' residents, as it were, appointed by the Court of Chancery as Governors, from 1 January 1858. The other was Mr Nail of Pickwick Cottage, who may have been a friend of Charles Dickens. Charles Ranken did not long enjoy this most recent honour; he died later in the year, 1858, and Mary his cousin reigned briefly in his stead.
Mary Ranken by this time had moved to Ealing, and she assigned the remainder of Charles Ranken's lease, in 1859, to one Charles Hutton, a merchant of the City of London. Hutton acquired a 40-year lease of his own in 1866.
Charles William Cookworthy Hutton was born in 1823, the son of a silk and worsted manufacturer who carried on his business in Newgate Street, near St Pauls. Charles was apprenticed to his father at the age of 15, and having served his apprenticeship was admitted to the Freedom and Livery of the Weavers Company in 1845. This was the beginning of a long association with the Weavers, that lasted almost sixty years until his death. He was elected to the Court of Assistants, which was the ruling body of the Weavers, in 1868, and in 1874 was chosen to occupy the highest position in the Company, that of Upper Bailiff.
When Charles Hutton became a weaver in 1845, he described himself as "a fringe manufacturer". He continued to do so for the next ten years, probably until he took over his father's business in about 1856. By the time he moved to 'Belair', he was calling himself a "Berlin Wool Manufacturer and Wholesaler". Berlin wool is a fine wool, rather like worsted, used for fine knitting and also embroidery - it is still used, but for things like tapestries, firescreens, or samplers, rather than cushion covers or table-cloths where one would want a finer thread. The main attribute of Berlin wool is that it is a dyed wool, often in very bright, even garish, colours, but it was very widely used by Victorian ladies until about 1880. In Newgate Street, where Hutton took over his father's business, there were eight other Berlin wool repositories. It was probably switching to the manufacture and sale of such a popular commodity that laid the foundations of Hutton's fortunes.
Hutton had married in 1848 Elizabeth, the daughter of John Winder of Grove Lane, Camberwell. A marriage settlement was arranged for Elizabeth, whereby income from some of her father's property was to be paid to her after his death (which took place in 1868). The young couple lived first in East Dulwich, where the first six of their final quiverful of seven sons and five daughters were born, the remainder being born in the twelve years after their move to 'Belair'. All but one survived infancy, and are recorded in the successive Census records until they grew up and left home (although some remained to the end).
What of 'Belair' during the thirty years of Hutton's tenancy? As mentioned, the size of the estate was already reduced by the time he took over, by the ten acres or so sold to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. This was in fact over a fifth of the estate - 47 acres were down to 36. But there were other physical changes too. The lake used to continue round to the south-east - there was a little bridge, and then a canal and a triangular shaped pond. By the time Hutton took out his lease, that extension to the lake had been filled in, so that in his day it looked much as it does today. But as the size of the estate had diminished, the number of buildings on it and the ground they covered had increased. As far as the house itself was concerned, the original ground plan was a cube. It had been enlarged, perhaps by 1830, certainly by 1860, by the addition of extra rooms on the north and south sides. and the ground plan had been changed from a square to an oblong. Hutton went further: he built an attic floor, and a very large Conservatory that abutted the Drawing Room, on the south side of the building.
When Evan Spicer came to be granted his lease in 1893, 47 separate rooms are listed, and when one considers the size of the house now, which is as it was in Willes' day, it does suggest considerable changes. Some of the major rooms upstairs may have been subdivided, but on the night of the 1871 Census there were actually 23 people sleeping under this roof - Hutton, his wife, and eleven of their children, and ten members of staff (including two nurses, a wet-nurse, a governess and a needle-woman, as well as the usual domestics) - so one can appreciate the need for extra accommodation.
But that was not all. Before and during Hutton's time, sheds and other outbuildings had been going up on the estate. and Hutton in particular, as a good Victorian, was responsible for an extensive range of greenhouses, approximately where the kitchen gardens are now. It must be remembered, of course, that having erected all these buildings a term of the original lease was that they should all be kept in a proper state of repair - it was one thing to erect a building, another to keep it going. When Blanch published his history of Camberwell in 1875, Hutton was probably at the peak of his career. His family was complete, as were his alterations and extensions to 'Belair'. Blanch comments: "Belair has grown into a fine family mansion". He also remarks that "Mr Hutton has for many years occupied a prominent public position". He had been elected Sheriff for London and Middlesex in 1868 and '69, and he was appointed a J.P. in 1872, and sat at the Camberwell Petty Sessions. He supported Dulwich local charities, and then in 1874 was elected Upper Bailiff of the Weavers Company. So all in all things looked pretty good, but in fact it was from about the middle of the 1870s that Hutton's fortunes declined. His large family, the 'improvements' to the house and estate, and discharging his public duties, must all have proved very expensive, and he may well have neglected his business, given the other calls on his time.
Another contributory factor was the decline in popularity of Berlin wool. As mentioned before, it was a dyed wool, and with the rise of William Morris and the Aesthetic Movement there was a much greater preference for natural colours and more subdued tones. The bright, primary shades of Berlin wool would have begun to seem very crude, and it fell into increasing unpopularity from the 1870s. This obviously affected Hutton, because from 1877 onwards he no longer called himself a 'Berlin Wool Manufacturer and Wholesaler', but a 'General Merchant and Warehouseman'. By the early 1880s money was obviously tight. Hutton was in dispute with the Estates Governors over one of his fields adjoining but leased separately from 'Belair'. The Estates Governors wanted to increase the rental, but Hutton refused and surrendered the lease without even paying the last quarter's rent. By 1888 he had actually retired from business - by then he was 65 - although whether the business gave him up or he gave the business up we are not sure. By the late 1880s the dilapidated state of many of the sheds and other out- buildings on the estate was becoming apparent.
By January 1890 things had obviously come to a head for Hutton, and he wrote to the Estates Governors requesting permission to use 'Belair' as a Convalescent Home, which the Estates Governors refused point-blank. Then, during 1890, the history of 'Belair' as a mansion house almost came to a stop. A speculative builder from Chislehurst, with the improbable name of Oliver Cromwell, applied to develop the 35 acres of 'Belair' and an adjoining 32 acres towards Burbage and Turney Roads. He proposed to buy the remainder of Hutton's lease from him, demolish the house, fill in the lake, and on the resulting 67 acres erect between 200 and 250 detached and semi-detached houses, together with access roads, sewers, etc. He made these suggestions in February 1890, and in April 1890 the Estates Governors agreed to them! However, and fortunately for us, they had to obtain the permission of the Charity Commissioners, and the Commissioners were sufficiently dubious about the scheme to appoint a couple of independent Surveyors, both to comment on the suitability of the proposal relating to 'Belair', and at the same time to assess the suitability of the rest of the College's estate for future building projects.
The Surveyors, and as a result the Charity Commissioners, suggested very considerable modifications to Cromwell's proposals. We do not know what they were, but they were probably in the direction of fewer, larger houses, more suited to the area. Whatever their suggestions, Cromwell did not like them, and he withdrew his proposals in November 1890. So Belair was saved from destruction and redevelopment, but poor Hutton was no better off. In fact his situation was getting even worse, because by February 1891 the Estates Governors instituted proceedings to recover possession of 'Belair', because the rent had not been paid. Mercifully this situation did not last for too long, because Hutton, who seems to have had no visible means of support by this time, suggested that he surrender his lease and leave 'Belair', on condition that the Estates Governors did not proceed against him for the dilapidated state of the buildings he was leaving behind. The Estates Governors agreed to this, and by July 1891 Hutton and his family had quit 'Belair', their home for the previous 32 years.
You may wonder what happened to Charles Hutton after so ignominious a departure from Dulwich. It appears that shortly afterwards he moved to Penywern Road in Earl's Court. Whatever the area may be like now, then it was obviously a district suited to respectable gentlefolk living in reduced circumstances. Other inhabitants of Penywern Road in the 1890s included some dowagers and retired Army officers, and so on. It seems that Hutton continued to enjoy good health, both physical and mental, until his death aged 80. He had become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society at the age of 75, and continued to attend the meetings of the Court of Assistants of the Weavers Company right up until his death in 1903. His friends on the Court, some of whom had known him for over 35 years, composed a lengthy tribute to him when he died, extolling "the integrity of his character, the liberality of his views and kindness of his heart", which included the following lines:
The members of this Court desire to express their heartfelt sympathy with Mrs C. W. C. Hutton and her family in the affliction which has bereft them of a husband and father, and has at the same time deprived the members of this Court of an earnest co-worker and a genial colleague.
When the historical talk on which this article was originally based was given at 'Belair' in June 1984, we were lucky enough to have an eyewitness account of the property from the turn of the century from the late Harry Wall, a resident of Dulwich for 89 years. What follows is an edited transcript of Mr Wall's contribution on that occasion:
"My father was engaged by Sir Evan Spicer to be the farm manager of the farm, which was down the bottom, where you saw the rubbish bins just before you got to the wall. There was a house there, where he went to live, and stables for cows, horses, chickens, pigs, ducks, dogs, all sorts of things. He was engaged for about a year to eighteen months before Sir Evan Spicer came here [in 1893], because they were getting the whole place put right.
"The big field over the other side of the lake was a hay field for four or five months of the year, when it used to be cut and stacked, and my father used to do the thatching afterwards. He usually had four or five cows, which were milked every morning and evening, and the milk brought up here and put into big basins in the kitchen. He also had a horse to look after, about sixty to seventy chickens, two dozen ducks, and on the lake here would be about a hundred mallard, a couple of swans, perhaps a few diver ducks, and so on.
"The house we lived in consisted of one big room over the top (our bedroom, which everybody had to share) and down below was the kitchen, a small parlour, and a wash-house. There was no gas or electricity, and everything was done with paraffin oil. All your cooking had to be done on the coal range.
"Sir Evan Spicer was the owner of James Spicer and Sons, which later joined up with Spicer Brothers and became what is now Spicers Ltd. Well, in this house here, was Sir Evan Spicer and his wife and about five or six children - one son, a doctor, was killed on the Alps - and then there was a nanny who had been with them for umpteen years, and about five or six other maids and cooks, etc. Outside, in the little lodge, was the Under-gardener or Hot-house gardener, who looked after the grapevine hothouse, the cactus hothouse, and about three other large greenhouses. In the building there which is now flats, the Coachman lived, and underneath were the horses and the coaches. It was his job to look after them and take Sir Evan or Lady Spicer wherever they wanted. One of his special jobs was take Sir Evan Spicer from here on Sunday mornings, through Dulwich Park, to Emmanuel Church at the corner of Barry Road, and back again afterwards. In the grounds there was a Head Gardener, about four under-gardeners and my father.
"I was there until I was nineteen, when my father had an accident from which he never recovered, and the family moved out, down into Dulwich Village, where I still live.
"Sir Evan was always a good sport. My brother was a better cricketer than what I was, he played for the Hamlet School, but Sir Evan saw us knocking about in the field down there with a cricket bat. He came along and he said: "You want a net for that. I'll get you one". And he went and bought us a cricket net which we put up in the field, where we used to play.
One of my jobs was to see to all the oaks alongside the lake in about September when the acorns fell. We'd fill up about four or five great big bins in the storeroom at the farm with acorns.
"Now, of course, the house doesn't bear looking at, against what it was when Sir Evan Spicer was here! Outside there was the Conservatory, and in that would be, especially in November and December, some beautiful chrysanth-emums, potted up by the gardeners. Then there was the kitchen garden. Right at the back, over near towards the railway, was another special kitchen garden. There were a lot of fruit trees, and I don't think Spicer ever had to buy any vegetables at all. He was able to supply all his own needs. And of course there was the poultry and so on which my father reared.
"The lawn was sacred. No-one was allowed on the lawn unless it was some very special occasion. We had an aviary down the side there with golden and silver pheasants and different things like that. At one time there was a peacock and -hen floating about round the grounds free, and he also had a couple of wallabies, but they weren't here very long - they got lost! I can always remember the peacock. One day it decided to go visiting, and it went to the big house on the corner of Thurlow Park Road and Alleyn Park and got over into the trees up there. It took us about five or six hours to get the beastly thing back!"
With the death of Evan Spicer in 1938, the property was sold again, by auction. War broke out, and the house again fell into decay. It was used as a store by Evan Cook and Co., and the military occupied it for a period.
In 1946 the old Southwark Council took out a lease on the building and its grounds, to be a 'green lung' for the people of the old borough of Southwark. In 1963, the year of the change-over to the London Boroughs, the people of Dulwich obtained access to Belair. Previously the old Metropolitan Borough of Southwark had more or less taken the entire house down to ground level and rebuilt it, retaining the main staircase. The photographs reproduced below and on the next page show how the house looked immediately before its renovation in the early 1960s. The north and south wings and the entrance porch were demolished, and in fact it was found necessary virtually to rebuild the entire structure, retaining only the original staircase and entrance hall. As the demolished sections were not features of the original building, the appearance of 'Belair' after the renovation was much closer to what it was when John Willes built it than at any time before it. The basement of the building was converted into changing rooms for sports activities on the pitches laid out on the grounds adjacent to the railway line. The upper rooms were available for hire for receptions and community use.
In the 1980s Southwark Council incurred further considerable expenditure on 'Belair', particularly in repainting the exterior. Unfortunately, in the 1990s Southwark Council closed up the building, pleading lack of funds, and in its boarded-up and vandalised state it became an eyesore.
Happily, in 1997 the Council leased out the building and after impressive and extensive restoration by the new owner, Gary Cady, it opened as a restaurant, with the second floor converted into a private flat.
We cannot leave 'Belair' without saying something about the persistent 'legend' connecting its lake with the old river Effra. In the various books on the area - Ford, Besant, Hall, Blanch, and a book by Barton on 'The Lost Rivers of London', 'Belair' lake is repeatedly referred to as "the Effra", "where the Effra comes to the surface", "a backwater of the Effra", "a branch of the Effra", and so on. Perhaps the leading debunker of the theory that the lake is part of the Effra was William Darby (in his book 'Dulwich Discovered'), who posed the question: "Why did John Willes, writing in 1781, offer to rent "the field with the lake at the bottom"?"
The study of maps, particularly those showing heights above sea-level, casts rather more light on the subject than the literature. In Roque's Map of 1741 the Effra is marked as starting just beyond what is now the Herne Hill road junction and running down towards the River Thames. This stretch is called "the Shore", which is an old word meaning sewer. Various later maps (e.g. Dewhirst, 1842, delineating the ecclesiastical and parochial districts of the parish of Camberwell) show the course of the Effra and also, as a separate entity, 'Belair' lake.
Particularly revealing are the maps drawn up at the time of the construction of the metropolitan sewers in the 1850s. In the G.L.C. Record Office is the compendium of maps made under the direction of the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1859. These are very large-scale maps - 88 ft to the inch - and show the intended route of the sewer in great detail, as they were produced by engineers who had obviously measured things very precisely, including heights above sea level. The maps also show sections of the open sewer which, by 1859, the Effra had become. Two branches from the Norwood direction joined together just west of the present intersection of Croxted Road and Thurlow Park Road. In its turn the combined open sewer was joined by a ditch coming from the spur of Croxted Lane (the present day part of Thurlow Park Road running east from the intersection and under the railway bridge) at a point just north of the present road intersection, to form the 'Effra Sewer Main Line'. Now the height of the land above sea level where the ditch joins the open sewer is about 98 to 99 feet. The spur of Croxted Lane running east steadily increases in height above sea-level to about 110 feet at its junction with Back Lane (now Gallery Road), which in turn is about 114 feet above sea-level outside 'Belair'.
Much as one dislikes debunking old legends - we would like to think that the Effra flowed through the grounds of 'Belair', that Queen Elizabeth sailed up it on her barge, etc. - there is nothing marked on Bazalgette's Map joining the lake to the much narrower Effra open sewer, and anyway a link between the two along the spur of Croxted Lane and then turning to line up with the lake, as asserted by some authors, would have involved water flowing up-hill! Bazalgette's Maps indicate that there was a stream of some sort, albeit one that had become an open sewer by this time, and it was this which had formerly been called "the Effra", but it could not have been anything to do with 'Belair' lake.