by Rosemary Warhurst and Brian Green
With the fierce debate over hunting with dogs receiving so much attention, Rosemary Warhurst and Brian Green look back on Dulwich's history of hunting.
When considering hunting in the medieval period, the first question that must be asked is; was Dulwich subject to the harsh forest law of the time? Large tracts of land in England, including villages, were declared royal forest and within these areas the forest law protected deer so that they were plentiful for the king to enjoy his hunting. There were severe penalties for offences such as cutting down a branch or a tree or killing a deer.
What evidence do we have? One hundred acres in the parish of Camberwell (which included Dulwich) in the twelfth century were described as being "out of the forest". The word forest was a legal term, meaning the royal forest. Later these same acres became the manor of Friern which lay in East Dulwich to the east of Lordship Lane.
Dulwich was in Surrey. Parts of south Surrey were freed from Forest Law in 1190 after certain knights paid Richard I two hundred marks. Other parts were still under forest law when Henry III ordered a perambulation in 1248.
There is a tradition that King John was so delighted with a stag he caught near the village of Peckham (also in Camberwell parish) that he gave Peckham the right to have an annual fair. This legend may recall an actual event and indicate that the parish of Camberwell was still within the King's forest during the reign of John (1199-1216).
Towards the end of the thirteenth century because of population growth and the need to bring more land into cultivation, Dulwich was probably no longer in the Forest and hunting by its inhabitants was permissible. One spring day in 1277, a knight, Sir Henry de Dilewysshe was hunting in the parish of Camberwell with his son William and his greyhounds. They went into a field called Purteclense and then into Dryvelherst Wood. There they separated. The barking of their dogs attracted the attention of a certain Stephen Gulafre who was reported as hating Henry. A fight ensued between Stephen and the men with him and Sir Henry. In the course of the fight Stephen was killed. Henry fled and his son William followed him. Both Henry and William were outlawed but William surrendered. He was imprisoned in Newgate and pleaded not guilty at his trial. We don't know the verdict.
The names Purteclense and Dryvelherst are interesting. The English Place Name Society is not able to give a secure meaning for them but in Purteclense the second element could be Old English hlinc meaning ridge or bank. In Dryvelherst the first element might be thry-fealde, meaning three-fold, such as in three parishes overlapping. In the south of Dulwich is the ridge of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. At this ridge the three parishes of Camberwell, Lewisham and Penge met. Could Dryvelherst wood have been there? We know that Purteclense was near Lewisham because it was initially stated that Stephen had been killed in Lewisham but the court found he had died in Camberwell.
It was the environment for game in the parishes south of the Thames that concerned Queen Mary and her husband, Philip of Spain in February 1556. They issued a proclamation citing "the great decay of their highnesses game". They wrote not about deer but about the smaller animals; the hare, pheasant, partridge, mallard and 'herne' (heron). The environment had deteriorated for these animals possibly because of need for more arable land which had caused woodland to be felled The proclamation to the inhabitants living in parishes between Camberwell (which then included Dulwich) and Woolwich, stated that they were forbidden to hunt or hawk in these parishes. They demanded that the inhabitants should not "practise any means of destroying the said game but study all means to increase and maintain the same" for the enjoyment of their majesties "when they be disposed to hawk or hunt there". This proclamation from Mary and Philip implies that people had been accustomed to hunt and hawk in Dulwich in parts of the sixteenth century.
A century later, Charles II arranged for four stags to be placed in a park at Addington for him to enjoy hunting and unfortunately they escaped. A royal warrant was issued to protect the stags and it instructed the people in nearby villages, including Dulwich, not to attempt to hunt them with crossbow or guns or any other weapon. Anyone hunting the stags would suffer an "exemplary" punishment.
There is every reason to believe that hunting by Dulwich inhabitants continued unabated although documentary evidence is slight. It can be no coincidence nevertheless that the principal inn in the Village was named the Greyhound or that another was called the Fox under the Hill. We do know that there was a pack named the Old Surrey Foxhounds who had kennels on the east side of what was once called Dog Kennel Lane (now Hill) and that this hunt moved to Shirley when houses replaced the open fields of East Dulwich. According to an early Dulwich historian (D.H. Allport) the white walled huntsman's cottage stood on the other side of the lane until 1906.
What was to facilitate hunting in Dulwich was the enclosure of Dulwich Common in 1808 which followed on from the removal of common rights from leases in 1787 caused by pressure from better-off residents to prevent access, probably from local gipsies. However, fencing off the Common would be an expensive operation and the College agreed to lease it in 1812 to Thomas Lett who offered to lay it out with plantations, single trees and clumps. There were to be no internal fences or divisions across the Common other than ditches and with the opportunity this scheme offered to hunting, Lett's plan was welcomed.
Joseph Romilly, a Cambridge academic, lived at the family home at The Willows, Dulwich Common (still standing) during his vacations between 1820-1837 and kept a detailed diary. In 1831 he went with his sister and nephew to watch a stag hunt which started at the Beulah Spa, Upper Norwood, then a fashionable resort. He writes..."George and his Dad were of the party: Margaret and I were nearly rode over by the hunt near the turnpike (Toll Gate). The hunt galloped over the Common by our house."
From other evidence it appears that the stag was sometimes released at the start of the hunt at the Beulah Spa because on one occasion a stag was caught in the yard of The Greyhound in the Village, placed in a box cart and released on the following Saturday's hunt. On that occasion the resilient animal made for the Millpond, where it swam across, chased by hounds and outran the field in the direction of Croydon!
There is no doubt about the enthusiasm for hunting in and around Dulwich in the early nineteenth century. Even a kangaroo hunt was staged but this resulted in the animal bounding for the hills on being released and that was the last that was seen of it! The last College Warden, R.W. Allen, kept sporting dogs and hunted in Dulwich with his steward and bailiff.
Even the less wealthy enjoyed hunting. According to Thomas Morris who wrote about his life in the Village when he was nearly eighty in 1909 noted that some of the shopkeepers kept beagles for hunting hares and rabbits and on occasions held a competition for the best dog. This started at the bottom of Court Lane when a dead rabbit would be dragged on a length of string by a good runner. After 10 - 15 minutes the dogs would be released to follow the scent. Once again the hunt finished on the Common.
Growing urbanisation after the arrival of railways in Dulwich ended both hunting and the presence of foxes. There was great excitement in 1947 when the ancestor of the now prolific Dulwich urban fox was again seen after an absence of almost a century.