by Ian McInnes
The Dulwich Wood Park Estate was one of the Dulwich Estate's most imaginative post -war developments. Built in two phases between the years 1957-63, it received a Civic Trust Award in 1964 and was widely published in the architectural press under the heading of 'Housing for the Professional Classes', presumably to differentiate it from 'housing for the working classes'
The Estate had initially looked at redeveloping the area before the war. By 1945 the large houses on the site were in poor structural condition and were often divided into low grade flats that could only be let on short leases. Camberwell Council, who were under considerable Government pressure to find sites for social housing development, viewed the site as one ideal for compulsory purchase and it was included in the 1951 County of London Development Plan on that basis.
While the Estate accepted that they were going to have to accept some degree of council housing in the area, they felt that the loss of the Kingswood Estate and other sites in Sydenham Hill and Herne Hill was more than their fair share. They put up a strong case to retain the land for their own development and, after several acrimonious meetings with Camberwell and the London County Council during 1952-54, the Estate finally persuaded them to allow them to do so. However, as part of the agreement, they had to accept that the housing density would be much higher than had been normal in Dulwich in the past.
Interestingly, the Estate did not object too hard to the density increase, as they were keen to encourage families into the area in order to provide more children for the foundation schools. The severe pre-war decline in the schools' rolls, brought about largely by the lack of decent affordable housing for young families in the area, had been reversed to some extent by the Dulwich Experiment, where children from the outer London boroughs had been able to come to the schools with their fees paid by their Local Authorities. However, it was clear that this was only a short term solution, and not likely to continue if the Conservative Government lost office.
Russell Vernon of Austin Vernon & Partners, the Estate's architects, prepared a Dulwich Development Plan during 1955-56 which was accepted by the Governors early in 1957. Negotiations with the planning authority, the London County Council had not been easy. The key point, as the Architect said, was 'to decide what form of development could be carried out at the present time by private enterprise, and yet satisfy the authorities'. He noted, almost in exasperation, 'Since I submitted the draft development plan, which you approved, and gave me instructions to proceed further to obtain agreement with the Planning Authority, I have had many conferences and discussions with the planning officers. Many variations to the plan have been examined and improvements made.'
Planning consent for a mixed scheme of houses and flats was achieved in January 1957 at a density of 50 persons to the acre. The original plan showed two phases, the first between Dulwich Wood Avenue and Farquhar Road and the second between Farquhar Road and Dulwich Wood Park, including the gardens of Lowood House and Redbourne House. The second phase also showed a site for a future primary school.
The scheme was then marketed to potential developers and Wates expressed an interest even though the layout and house types were not their normal style. They were already working in the area and had just completed a row of semi-detached houses on the south west side of Dulwich Wood Avenue on the site of Oakfield House. Agreement was reached with them in July 1957 whereby they would develop the site within 3 years on the basis of a total ground rent of £2,409 per annum, the Estate providing the land for free. (At that time, before the advent of the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act, the Estate still gained most of their income from ground rents.)
Phase 1 consisted of seven rows of L shaped 'Serial 2' houses (now known as Oakfield), a row of twelve 'Serial 3' houses accessed from Dulwich Wood Park, and three blocks of flats, Lowood, Knoll and Glenwood Courts. Despite the density the architects were keen to maximise open space and maintain the green leafy character of Dulwich. As the Architect reported in June 1957 'The layout has been prepared to eliminate roadways as far as possible, to preserve the trees and amenities, and keep the grounds in park- like condition without fences. The parkway character of Farquhar Road has been retained by the introduction of three somewhat high blocks of flats which will enable a large area of woodland to be retained'.
The 'Serial 2' Houses had two storeys and had relatively wide frontages. They had 3 bedrooms and an open plan living/dining room with large gardens. Access to the first floor was via an open stair into the dining/living room and was perhaps not ideal for family life as older children could not reach their bedrooms other than via the living area. Garages were in a separate block at the front of the site. It was obvious however that, in commercial terms they were space hungry, and in Phase 2 were replaced by rows of more conventional three storey town houses with integral garages. The rest of Phase 2 was made up of thirty 'Serial 3' houses and four more blocks of flats, Drake, Raleigh, Marlow, and Grenville Courts.
The 'Serial 3' houses were narrower terraces and had 4 bedrooms, the fourth bedroom being in the roof space, and were better planned in that the stair came off the entrance hall. There is also an interesting change of level between the living and dining areas which was nearly lost at the last moment when the Estate, giving final approval to the plans, requested its removal. Wates, or more probably the Architect writing on their behalf, objected strongly 'Not only does it take into account the natural slope of the ground but its retention gives an added sense of space to the living-room and an excellent vista from the dining room at the higher level into the garden'. The Estate relented.
The architects gave much thought to the appearance of the houses and used a range of external claddings which included painted render, tile hanging, timber boarding and cedar shakes. The 'Serial 3' house are the most interesting from a construction view point as they are built of brick cross walls with full width lightweight infill panels/windows in between, some of them prefabricated - prefabrication is of course the buzz word in new housing today!
The landscaping in the development was of high quality and Wates retained Derek Lovejoy, a highly regarded landscape architect at the time, to design it. Public art was also an integral part of the development and Wates paid for both a tiled mural in Knoll Court to the designs of Mr Reginald Brill, the then principal of the Kingston School of Art, and a sculpture called 'Mother and Child' outside Lowood Court by sculptress Patricia Rowland. At the unveiling ceremony Mr Charles Pearce, Chairman of the Governors, described Wates as 'not only builders but benefactors'. The sculpture was removed some years ago after the concrete started to come away and it was hit by a delivery van.
The blocks of flats were quite luxurious for the time and relatively expensive. The sales brochure noted 'the spacious living room is magnificent. Nearly the whole of one wall is taken up by deep continuous windows. The floor is of polished hardwood and, to supplement the space heating there is a radiant fire set in a bookcase and cupboard unit of Afromosia and Sycamore hardwoods. Ample electric points are provided together with plug in connections to master radio and television aerials serving the whole block.
They were also popular, the Wates News of February 1961 reporting 'When Wates Built homes announced that a new block of eight-storey flats at Dulwich was to be released for sale on a certain Saturday morning in January, Mrs S E Channer made up her mind she would have the choice of top flats with the best views over London. So at 6.30 am, while the rest of Dulwich was still asleep, she was camping out at the door of the view flat to stake her claim'. She was not alone and was joined by a Mr Bullock at 7.30. The site foreman brought them tea while they waited for the show flat to open.
The Estate was well pleased with the overall development and at the official opening Mr Pearce, ever the enthusiast, called them 'right royal'. On his way into the flats he had apparently spoken to one of the new residents who was most enthusiastic. Mr Pearce concluded his opening address by saying 'You could not have anything better than this praise from those who have tasted the food and want to thank the cooks'.