On the Street Where You Live - Ruskin Walk (originally Simpsons Alley) by Ian McInnes

Ruskin Walk was previously known as Simpsons Alley and was a wide footpath connecting Herne Hill to Half Moon Lane. The name was changed in 1905, when a large tree at the top of the road was taken down to allow a new road to be constructed - named after John Ruskin who had lived only a short distance away in houses at both Herne Hill and Denmark Hill.

Mr R E Mayo, builder, started work on the construction of houses on the east side of Ruskin Walk in the summer of 1904. This side of the road does not lie on the Dulwich Estate and, at that time, the houses were numbered consecutively up the one side. Early in 1905, however, he fell foul of the London County Council; a letter dated June 1905 accused Mr Mayo “that on numbers 7-12 Ruskin Walk he unlawfully extended from certain buildings certain projections beyond the general line of buildings in a street called or known as Ruskin Walk aforesaid without the permission of the London County Council and contrary to the provision of Section 73 (8) of the London Building Act 1895.”

At that time the London Building Act required any timber used in structures projecting forward of the front wall (eg. balconies or porches) to be made of hardwood (ideally oak) and to be designed to the LCC’s approval. Mr Mayo had to change the construction of the porches on his first houses (where he had used softwood) but he was allowed to keep them on his second tranche (Nos 13-19), which were under construction through 1906/07, as long as he promised to build them correctly out of oak. The problems with the porches were also reflected in the overall quality of the houses - there is a report, dated June 1906, from the Dulwich Estate Governors, who owned the land on the west side of the road, noting that, although the houses had originally sold for £425, on resale they were only getting round £400.

Further up the east side of Ruskin Walk the builder of Nos 19 -25 and 27-31 Ruskin Walk was a Mr F Handford to designs were by surveyor, Mr W Wilkinson. The remaining section of this side of the road (known then as the Bellevue Estate) was not completed until 1924 when developer Mr F Grant, of 46 Grafton Square, Clapham, built 32 houses in Ruskin Walk and Hollingbourne Road plus 6 houses in Herne Hill to the designs of architects Andrews and Peascod - who were later to design Market Row, one of the Brixton Arcades.

The Dulwich Estate received two offers for their land , on the west side of the road in July 1906; one from a Mr Cropp (through Mr W F Russell - another builder on the Estate) and the other from Messrs H J and A H Williams who were already building in Turney Road and Playfield Crescent. In August the Manager reported that Messrs H J and A H Williams, whose office was in Bonham Road, Brixton Hill, had agreed to take 400 feet frontage towards the bottom of the road and to “to erect within two years twenty-one semi-detached houses in accordance with plans to be submitted to and approved by the Governors, to cost not less than £425 each house.” They initially offered agreed a 4s 3d per foot but agreed to raise this to 4s 6d, and build the new road, if they could raise the selling price of the houses to £450.

Things were delayed, however, when the Board of Education became involved. Because of the Estate’s charitable status any development proposals had to be passed by the Board of Education and in a letter in October 1906, Mt Mitcheson, its secretary, expressed considerable doubt whether the Board would approve the agreement with Messrs Williams because they did not like such small houses being built on the site. The Manager explained in detail why the Estate had gone for this price - basically because the houses on the other side of the road (Mr Mayo’s) were selling for less than this price, but the letter responding confirmed that the Board of Education “feel considerable hesitation in sanctioning the erection on this part of the estate of houses of so small value as £450. As intimated to you and Mr King at your interview at this office on 29th November, it is feared that the erection of such houses might have a prejudicial effect on the proper development of the adjoining Estate, especially that portion of it (as yet unbuilt upon) which fronts Half Moon Lane. It should not be forgotten in this connection that the houses belonging to the Estates Governors on the other side of Half Moon Lane are of the value of £1000 upwards.”

The Manager saw Mr Mitcheson again just prior to Christmas and explained the position “very fully” but received no assurances. He was then asked to prepare a more detailed report which seemed to do the job, and the Board of Education finally accepted that Ruskin Walk was more appropriate for cheaper houses.

In retrospect it seems odd that there was such a resistance to smaller houses as only two years earlier there had a been a serious proposal to cover the whole of the Half Moon Lane frontage, from Ruskin Walk westwards, with blocks of flats. In February 1904 the Manager had started negotiations with Mr H G Brace, an architect who had previously designed two larger houses in the area, “to take the whole of the vacant land between Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill & Simpsons Alley, at a rent of £475 per annum, the Governors to construct a road and sewer across the land for which Mr Brace offers to pay additional rent at the rate of 4% of outlay. . . . . . . . .. Mr Brace proposes to erect flats of four floors of attractive design on the Half Moon Lane frontage to be set back at least 50 feet form the footpath and to erect smaller flats or single houses on the remainder of the land.” The Estate Governors were not over keen and on 23rd June the Manager submitted further plans and “also a suggested design for the elevation” and confirmed that the projected total outlay would approximate to £100,000.

The Governors were still not happy and asked the Manager to check whether Mr Brace would erect private dwelling houses instead of flats. Mr Brace said no but did offer to make alterations “to avoid the effect of a long unbroken building” and to “erect buildings of three storeys instead of four as originally intended, and the height of these three-story buildings would approximate that of those on the opposite side of the road.” The Manager then talked about the financial offer noting that “We think that this offer ought to receive the serious attention of the Governors, as it will largely increase the reversionary value of the Estate”

At the next meeting the Manager read a letter from Mr Brace saying that his client wanted a reduced rent if he was going to go ahead with a smaller development - down from £475 to £425. The minutes then note that “The question as to the advisability of allowing the erection of flats on any part of the Estate was discussed at considerable length”. Two Governors, Mr Edwards and Mr Coleman, protested against the erection of flats but were outvoted and the meeting agreed to accept a revised offer of £450 plus the 4% charge on the new road and sewer “to erect on the land, within 5 years, 36 double blocks and one single block of residential flats, and three lodges for superintendents “ and added “that the remainder of the land be laid out as private gardens and private tennis courts for the use of the tenants in accordance with the said plan” In September Mr Brace accepted the terms and advised that his client was “Mr William Moss of Clarence Lodge, Stanley Road, Wimbledon and College Court Mansions, Hammersmith with whom he has had large building transactions which have been successfully carried through.”

In March 1905 the Manager reported that he had received a letter from Mr Brace that the agreement “was under the consideration of Mr Moss’ solicitors but that great many alterations had already been made”. The Manager saw the deal disappearing so asked the Governors that “in view of this statement, and also of the importance of this offer, I have to ask that the Governors will give their officers a free hand in making any concessions with regard to the terms, provided such concessions are not prejudicial to the interest of the Estate.” They agreed and, at the next meeting, noted that “Mr Brace also asks for the option of building houses in Simpsons Alley at £400 if the demand for flats is satisfied on the first phase.” The Governors agreed to this and his other proposal to build houses on the Half Moon lane frontage to a value of £700 “to the east of the new road”.

Things were not going well for the Manager. In July he reported further delays “in consequence of questions raised by the Board of Education as to the gardens and pleasure grounds”, and also further modifications required by Mr Moss. He was instructed to try and settle the draft agreement as quickly as possible.

In October 1905 the Agreement to Lease was finally ready but Mr Moss had changed his mind yet again, probably in response to market conditions (there was a housing slump that year), and asked for further amendments. The Governors had had enough and said no. There was no further correspondence for 9 months but in June 1906 the Manger reported that “as instructed, I duly informed Mr Moss’ solicitors that no further concessions could be made and that I have received a letter from his solicitors stating that their client feels compelled to abandon the matter on the ground that it would be impossible for him to assume the obligations of the building agreement in its present form.”

In the mean time the Manager had not sat still. As outlined earlier, he had already started marketing the land to others and, in July, received an offer from Messrs A H and AJ Williams, albeit for the Ruskin Walk frontage only, and in January 1907, let the rest of the land to Messrs Bass & Blackmore including what are now Nos 28-40 Ruskin Walk.