For most of the nineteenth-century, a few large houses, gardens and pastures occupied the southern side of Denmark Hill and Herne Hill. Part of this area comes under the Dulwich Estate but none of the older houses here survive today. However, one remnant of the fine gardens that belonged to Casino House, the earliest and most distinguished architect designed property, can be still seen in Sunray Gardens.
Casino House was on Herne Hill, just opposite the present Poplar Walk and had attached to it about 16 acres of land south of Red Post Hill. The name derives from Casina, Italian for a small villa, and was described around 1800 shortly after being built, as being on Dulwich Hill. Herne Hill at that time was a new name applying to the few houses on the Brixton side of the road. The house was built for Richard Shawe, a wealthy lawyer, who had successfully defended Warren Hastings, the former Governor-General of Bengal, on corruption charges in a case that lasted seven years. Shawe was well paid for this and also acquired a considerable fortune by marrying well. His tomb is the largest in the Old Burial Ground, Dulwich Village.
About 1797, Shawe acquired the lease of one of the best plots available from the Dulwich College Estate. It was near the main road and had fine views over the valley towards the hills on the south and east. Access to London had been improved with the completion of Westminster Bridge in 1750 and Blackfriars Bridge in 1769. Doctors recommended living south of the Thames because they said the air was purer with prevailing winds blowing from the south-west most of the time. As a result the road from Camberwell to Norwood was gradually being developed in the second half of the eighteenth-century and by the end houses had reached close to Red Post Hill.
Shawe had sufficient wealth to employ one of the leading architects, John Nash to design his new house. Nash had just returned to London from Wales and established a substantial country house practice with Humphry Repton. Nash received the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), remodelled the Royal Pavilion at Brighton for him, and planned the development of one of London’s most distinctive areas, the Crown Estate from Regent’s Park to St James’s Park via Regent Street. Repton also enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales, and, through his commissions from members of the landed society and his writings, was the most influential landscape gardener of the period. Casino House was one of four commissions that Nash and Repton worked on together in 1797, Repton claiming that he was consulted by Nash on the ‘situation and appendages’ [the grounds]. Drawings of Nash’s designs for the house were exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year, and copies of some are now in the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The house was erected at the highest point of the hill and must have been built by 1800 as a contemporary, James Dalloway describes it then ‘as a new style of country house, by combining the advantages of an English arrangement, with the beauty of a Palladian plan’. Dalloway was referring to the striking classical design, influenced by the Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose birth 500 years ago has been celebrated by an exhibition at the Royal Academy this year. At the back, Nash designed a domed centrepiece with low wings and windows acting as patio doors opening onto the gardens. However, this section only contained four rooms, so he also provided a two-storey block to provide the accommodation with a grand entrance at the front facing the road.
An illustration of the house and description of the grounds was published in 1804 with special mention being made of the lake at the lowest part of the grounds, now the main feature of Sunray Gardens. Repton was credited with converting the former pits, from which brick earth had been extracted, into an ornamental canal and fishpond. His design curved the lake through the grounds with an island at each end to give the impression that it continued along the valley. Apparently his plan was to continue it towards Camberwell, but it proved impossible to put this into effect. It has been suggested that Repton’s concept influenced Nash later when he incorporated Regent’s Canal into Regent’s Park. The idea was not so far fetched as it might sound: Sir Henry Bessemer created an ornamental lake in his grounds nearby in the 1860s.
The kitchen garden and hothouses were placed next to the house, and the Head Gardener, James Brown, proved an innovator in finding ways to force on fruit in the British climate. About 1820, he contributed two articles to the Horticultural Society (now the Royal Horticultural Society) on his success in forcing pineapples, vines and peaches using steam heating and a specially designed roof at Casino House.
Richard Shawe died in 1816 and according to his original will left his wife the use of the ‘mansion house at Dulwich Hill…which I have at great expense erected’. However his later codicil makes it clear that she did not want to live there ‘having unequivocally declared that she will not live in the country after my death’. Security may have been an issue. Highwaymen seem to have frequented the road to London and, in the days before a police force, local residents including Shawe decided to subscribe towards a mounted patrol. In 1812, ‘on account of the extraordinary dangers to which the public are now exposed’, they agreed to provide an additional horse-patrol to improve security on the road from Camberwell to Dulwich. A great coat, hat, cutlass and a pair of pistols were purchased for the patrolman.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Dulwich Estate was able to find tenants for the house. One of the most famous occupiers is thought to have been Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother and former King of Spain, who stayed briefly in England in the 1830s. For about forty years from 1839, Casino House was leased by the wealthy silk merchant, William Stone and his son, William Henry Stone. The latter was a keen gardener, and allowed the Surrey Floricultural Society, based in South London to hold its annual flower shows in the grounds. These continued there in the 1880s after he had left.
The last resident, William Gover, director of an insurance company, died in 1894 and the Estates Governors found that no-one could be found to take on such a large property. They turned down the only offer received, which was for a large development of ‘small class property’. The garden rooms and grounds were still able to be used for at least one charity event. Over three days in 1902, a Coronation Bazaar and Garden Fete was held there to raise funds for the newly built Wesleyan Methodist Church on the corner of Half Moon Lane and Beckwith Road (Wesley Court is now on the site). A Ladies v Gentlemen cricket match was held in the gardens in which twenty-two ladies played against eleven gentlemen, who had to bat, bowl and field with the left hand. The result is not recorded.
In 1906 it was decided to demolish the house. The late Victorian and Edwardian housing boom was coming to an end; and the First World War put a stop to most house building. Temporary uses of the site were allowed - an allotment society in the former nursery, grazing in the paddocks and experimental fish farming in the lake. In 1920, the Dulwich Estates Governors agreed to lease the property to Camberwell Borough Council for public housing designed on garden city principles. With the land on the other side of Red Post Hill, it was incorporated within the Sunray Estate and developed as ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ between 1920 and 1922.
One of the requirements of the Governors was that the lake and land around it (amounting to about 4_ acres) should be preserved as open space with free public access. The Council agreed to this at the time, but a few years later the Borough Engineer proposed filling in the lake to remove the danger to children. Legal action to preserve it had to be threatened before a compromise was approved. The eastern end of the lake was drained to create a playground, a fence erected around it and the water level reduced in depth. The last remains of Nash and Repton’s design of two centuries ago have therefore been retained to create one of the most attractive, if smallest, parks in the area. Sunray Gardens make a significant contribution to the character of the Sunray Estate which is shortly to be designated a conservation area.
Joyce Bellamy, ‘Humphry Repton and ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ in London Gardener 4, 1998-9, pp28-32.
J Hassell, Views of noblemen and gentleman’s seats, 1804-5
Herne Hill Society, Herne Hill Hill Heritage Trail, 2003
Herne Hill Personalities, 2006