b&w image of a large mansion in the background with trees in the foreground and people taking tea on the lawn in the midground

Breakspeare House was situated in the triangle of land between Sydenham Hill station, the railway line in the cutting below and College Road. The extension of the railway from Herne Hill to Bromley in 1863 opened up the possibility of development in this area by providing faster access to central London. The house, completed in 1873, was occupied by two wealthy families until the Second World War, after which it was converted for use as a School of Nursing, and then demolished in 1963 to make way for the present Breakspeare Court.

The first occupier was Walter Lazenby (c1835-1910), a sauce and pickle manufacturer. He was the head of the long established firm of wine merchants, which traded as E. Lazenby and Sons. What had been a small business employing twenty to forty employees expanded under his direction to manage a large factory in Bermondsey making bottled sauces and employing several hundreds. The company was absorbed into Crosse and Blackwell in the 1920s.

In 1873, Lazenby was granted an eighty-four year lease on the land, stabling and detached house. It was designed by Beck and Lee, architects of 33 Finsbury Circus, whose plans were approved by the Dulwich College Surveyor, Charles Barry Jnr. in 1871. Beck and Lee are best known today for the blocks of flats they built for Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, such as the Waterlow Buildings in Bethnal Green. The house in College Road was large and detached, about 40 feet square, on a sloping site with three storeys above ground level at the front and a basement which led into the garden at the back. When the Lazenby family moved there from Clapham it consisted of just Walter and his wife Charlotte and their two children. By the time of the 1881 census there were five children living there with five unmarried female servants aged between 17 and 52. The Lazenby family fortunes were growing as fast as the family and later in 1881 they moved to an even bigger house, Castlebar, 44 Sydenham Hill, now used as an old people’s home. Five sons and five daughters attended Walter’s funeral at St. Stephen’s Church in 1910. Why the house was called Breakspeare is not known. Most places with this name derive from Nicholas Breakspeare, who lived in the 12th century and was the only Englishman to become pope, as Adrian IV; but no Catholic connection with the family has been traced.

The next occupiers were Hermann Fortlage and his family who occupied it for nearly 60 years. Fortlage was described in the census as a colonial merchant, but was more specifically involved in the sugar trade as were many Germans in England. He was a partner in the firm of A. Tesdorpf & Co, 147 Fenchurch Street, whose global business is illustrated by the case of Harrison v Fortlage heard in the US Supreme Court in 1896. The issue concerned a cargo of sugar shipped from the Philippines to Philadelphia, which took nine months instead of the usual three. The vessel had to be repaired after being hit by another in Port Said and also met exceptionally rough weather during the Atlantic crossing. The American importers refused to pay for the cargo, but lost their case.

Hermann Fortlage and his wife were both born in Germany, but became naturalized British citizens, which was fortunate as they were not interned during the First World War. In the 1870s, they lived on Champion Hill, an area favoured by wealthy German families such as the Beneckes on Denmark Hill who were related to the composer Felix Mendelssohn, and the Kleinworts, merchant bankers who lived in The Platanes, now student accommodation for King’s College London. A German Protestant Church was built for the community in Windsor Walk attended by the Fortlages. In 1875, when living on Champion Hill and shortly after the birth of their second child, Mrs Fortlage advertised in The Times for an experienced house and parlour maid and also “Good Cook wanted, age between 25 and 35. Must be thoroughly respectable and clean, and understand refined cooking”. Later, after the arrival of their third child, she advertised again from Champion Hill in 1880 for: “Under Nurse wanted at once - a strong active girl of 17, plain needlework required”.

They must have been looking for somewhere larger at the time because the following year, the census records them at Haighlands, Alleyn Park with their children, nurse, a 19 year old under nurse, a 59 year old cook, a housemaid, a garden boy from East Dulwich, (the only servant to have been born locally) and the wife’s mother. Perhaps they were waiting for Breakspeare House to become vacant, while Lazenby was building Castlebar, as Breakspeare was assigned to them in May 1881. Five Westendarp grandchildren were staying in Breakspeare at the time of the 1911 census, and the eldest son Alfred had joined the Territorial Army serving in the field against the German forces with the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1918. After Hermann died in 1920, his widow, Cecile, continued to live in the house sharing it with Henry Ronnefeldt. Her daughters all married into Anglo-German families and she moved to north Wales at the beginning of the Second World War, dying in 1942.

Mrs Fortlage had rented the upper part of the house to Camberwell Borough Council to store furniture from bombed out areas, leaving a caretaker in the basement. The lease was surrendered by her executors in 1943 and the period of private interest in the property came to an end. After the war, Camberwell requisitioned it for housing purposes and carried out war damage repairs but decided eventually not to use it, releasing the property back to the Estate Governors in 1947.

There was no demand from private buyers for large houses in Dulwich at this time and Breakspeare then entered its final phase in institutional use. Negotiations began with the Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley, which had just merged and were looking for premises in Dulwich for nurses’ homes and training purposes. The Ministry of Health was granted a 21 year lease for Breakspeare and other properties in Dulwich Wood Avenue dating from December 1948 and conversion began. In Breakspeare, five bedrooms and a bathroom were provided on each of the top two floors, a classroom, demonstration room, sitting room and office were on the ground floor with a dining room, kitchen and library in the basement. About forty students a year carried out their training there in the 1950s and a hospital coach linked all the sites. During this period the school had a reputation for innovative approaches under the principal tutor, Annie Altschul (1919-2001), who wrote a highly influential textbook Psychiatric Nursing whilst there. She described their activities in the hospital Gazette for June 1956:

Breakspeare House [is] a large, old, somewhat draughty but very comfortable and attractive house in College Road. The large amount of luggage unloaded there from time to time would make one believe Breakspeare House is a holiday residence. On the contrary, it is the Nurses’ Training School; the place where serious and concentrated study takes place. Only Miss Atherton’s (the Warden) deliciously prepared food and Mr. Wilcox’s prize show of flowers help to maintain the illusion of a holiday resort.

The school moved to Dulwich Wood Avenue in 1960 and a few years later to the Maudsley. In February 1961 the Estate negotiated with the Ministry of Health to secure the return of Breakspeare and in June 1962, Russell Vernon, the Estate Architect recommended the redevelopment of the Breakspeare site with flats and maisonettes but work did not actually start until April 1964 - the old house being demolished in the autumn of 1963. The contract was awarded to the small firm of Taylor, Phillips & Co who had just completed Baird Gardens and a few years later built 46-52 Alleyn Park.

The replacement scheme provided four flats and eight maisonettes in a block on the north of the site and a block of sixteen garages with three ‘mews’ flats over in the south. Both were set at right angles to College Road facing a large landscaped open area. Work on the site was slow, initially because of bad weather, but most units were complete by the end of 1965 and the present Breakspeare Court replaced the former Breakspeare House.