Corner House - by Patrick Darby

Until its demolition in about 1934, what is now the ornamental garden opposite the Mill Pond at the junction of College Road and Dulwich Common had at least one house on it, known in its latter days as ‘Corner House’ (officially 52 College Road).

We can trace the history of this property back to 13th April 1329, when Alan Gerarde of Dylewyssch sold to Roger and Matilda Berlyng two parcels of land, one of which was a tenement adjoining Eststrete (now College Road) on the east, and pasture called Dylewyssch Wode on the south, inherited by Alan from his father Hugh Gerarde. We can trace all the links in the subsequent chain of ownership (to be found in my book ‘The Houses In-Between’, published in 2000) down to Edward Alleyn, who bought it (with other properties fronting Dulwich Common) from Sir Edmund Bowyer in 1609.

In September 1616 Edward Alleyn leased the property to Edmond Rogers, Dulwich tailor. However, Rogers left within months, and Alleyn evidently had trouble finding a new tenant. A letter survives from his land agent, Robert Earle, dated June 1617, complaining about the behaviour of another Dulwich resident, Richard Stoughton, whom Earle called “that Apysshe Jack” (i.e. ‘jackanapes’), in giving potential tenants misleading information about the property.

There is then a gap in the records until after Edward Alleyn’s death in 1626. Perhaps the property stayed vacant, as the College Accounts record that it remained in the hands of the Warden until 1638 when it was leased to Charles Cox.

Cox was succeeded by Thomas Cranwell in 1675, Cranwell by Andrew Daniell in 1710, and in 1737 Daniell’s Executor, George Bowen, Dulwich Farmer, was granted a lease of the house, land behind it (formerly ‘The Pits’, now part of 48 College Road) and various fields across the Common, provided he spent £100 on the house and barns. In December 1774 Bowen’s renewed lease was, following his death, assigned to Josephus Jeffries. By the end of September 1776 his widow had assigned the lease to Maurice Suckling.

At that time Captain Suckling was Comptroller of the Royal Navy, having had a long and distinguished naval career, captaining in succession the Dread-nought, the Lancaster, the Raisonnable and the Triumph, against the Spanish and the French. Of even greater interest to us is that he was the favourite uncle, and mentor, of Horatio, later Admiral Lord Nelson. Suckling’s tenancy only lasted six months, and one wonders why he took it at all. Could it have been to provide a quiet retreat, but within reasonable distance of Greenwich, for his then 18-year-old nephew (at that time studying for his lieutenant’s examination and recuperating from a serious bout of malaria)? An intriguing thought.

Writing in 1909, Tom Morris, whose parents and grandparents had also been born in the Village, claimed that in “about the year 1785” (old Tom was never very precise, or for that matter accurate) what became ‘Corner House’ was “a small farm house kept by an old lady, who sold sweets and cakes”. The unidentified ‘old lady’ may have been a sub-tenant of Henry Spencer, who took over the lease from Capt. Suckling in 1777. Fleetwood Bury succeeded to ‘Corner House’ and the adjoining property ‘Howlettes Meade’ in 1792, occupying the former himself. By 1795 (when ‘Corner House’ is so named for the first time), Bury had spent between £3,000 and £4,000 on both properties, and was granted two new leases, one of which he assigned to James Bartlett. In 1798 Bartlett was granted his own lease of ‘Corner House’, and built a semi-detached pair of houses on the site, both facing the Common. The most easterly flank wall was only a foot or two from the road, and with the roots of the burgeoning zelkova eating into its foundations, structural problems must soon have made it obvious that there was room for only one house on the site, preferably as far from the tree as possible.

By 1825 the site was leased to the newly married 22-year-old Thomas Devas, of Herne Hill, on condition that he laid out £1,000 on erecting one new dwellinghouse, to replace the previous two. With the Devas family on Census Night 1841 were three female servants, a manservant, and the exotically named Marcello Nugent, although how he fitted into the household isn’t explained. Mrs Devas was the former Louisa Hennings, daughter of the lessee of ‘Toksowa’ (now the site of the Dulwich Gate development on the south side of Dulwich Common). By 1848 she had inherited ‘Toksowa’ from her father, and the family moved there from ‘Corner House’. Her husband assigned his lease of ‘Corner House’ to John Druce, apparently without the requisite notice of assignment being given to the College, although Druce, as the College’s Solicitor, could hardly serve notice on himself!

John Druce lived at ‘Corner House’ with his wife, their five daughters, a nephew, and four female staff. The lease passed, in or before 1870, to his widow Ellen, who continued to live there with her spinster daughters Caroline, Ellinor and Margaret, and (in 1871) a cook, a parlour-maid, two house-maids, and a page. On Ellen’s death, c.1883, her Will gave her daughter Caroline a life interest in the premises. Miss Druce (as she was invariably referred to - never as Miss Caroline Druce) remained in occupation until her death in 1911, aged 80. The Estates Governors told her Executors that they would be released from their obligations on, inter alia, paying the £225 cost of “making good” (which evidently involved underpinning the foundations to halt subsidence, again probably caused by the zelkova’s roots.)

In 1913 Charles Clavell Hore was granted a fourteen-year lease of ‘Corner House’ at £75 a year, and was to be allowed £300 towards the underpinning costs and putting the premises into repair generally. Clavell Hore’s builder could not have done a very good job, or the property’s structural problems were insoluble, for following his death the Estates Governors resolved in 1926 (throwing, as it turned out, good money after bad) to authorise the expenditure of £800 on repairing and modernising the premises.

Later in 1926 the Estates Governors granted a 21-year lease of ‘Corner House’ to Mrs Mary Russell Otway, the wife of Loftus Hastings Otway “at present residing at 45 South Croxted Road, Dulwich, Gentleman”. The Lessee was relieved from liability “for any repairs which may be rendered necessary by settlement in the main walls of the said dwellinghouse and building”, which suggests that subsidence was still a real cause for concern. Mrs Otway gave notice to end the lease on 24th June 1934, and later her Solicitor wrote offering to settle the Governors’ by now habitual claim for dilapidations by payment of £150, which the Board accepted. Mr and Mrs Otway, with their son and his wife, then emigrated to New Zealand, to be near the family of Mrs Otway junior (née May).

The house must have been demolished shortly afterwards. In ‘Dulwich Discovered’ (1966), my father claimed that in “its last derelict days” ‘Corner House’ afforded shelter to ‘Old Strawberry', the crossing-sweeper, with his naval peaked cap and his club-foot, and his inevitable “Come on you boys, you’ll be late for school!”, but when ‘Old Strawberry’ (real name David Champion) died in 1922 Clavell Hore was still in occupation, so perhaps he meant a tramp known as ‘Paper Jack’, who resided in the Otways’ stable until he was evicted by the Estates Governors.

Trees, like houses, must eventually pass into history. When the giant zelkova finally goes, and an archaeological excavation in its former shadow becomes possible, perhaps some evidence of the human occupation of the site over at least 605 years will be uncovered.