By Bernard Nurse

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Grange, the house between the golf course and the tollgate, was the home of a group of ladies brought together by tragic circumstances. Three of them, Helen Atkinson, Arabella Atkinson and Frances Bailey with a visitor, are shown outside the front entrance in a photograph taken about 1896. Helen Atkinson, the young lady on the left, kept this picture with a quantity of papers and other photographs relating to her time in Dulwich and left them to my parents with the contents of her house when she died in 1967. The photographs give the impression of elegantly dressed ladies enjoying a peaceful and idyllic life in a country house. Other evidence throws a different light on the residents’ background, as well as a rare glimpse into the interior of a middle class house of the time.

Helen was the lady next door when I was growing up in Carshalton, but rarely left her room. She lived the life of a recluse in a four bedroomed house which was darkly painted and full of the Victorian furniture that she had brought from Dulwich. She lived with two companions and when they died, my mother looked after her with local help. I knew little of her background until after her death and nothing about her time in Dulwich. The papers give tantalizing clues. A letter from the 3rd Earl Nelson dated 18 May 1863 addressed to Mrs Atkinson gives his condolences on the death of her husband. The 1894 will of Arabella Atkinson leaves her possessions to her granddaughter, Helen Atkinson. The will of William Swaffield Bailey, a retired commander in the Royal Navy, dated 1878 leaves his estate to his wife Frances Magdalene Bailey. A Christmas card in the form of a cut out sailing ship from Helen addressed to Uncle Willie suggests he was still alive around 1890. An undated letter from Harriet hopes that all is well in Yarmouth.

From the evidence in the surviving papers, together with census returns now available up to 1911 and certificates of birth, marriage and death, it is possible to identify the residents of the household and something of their past history. On the night of the census in 1891, they consisted of: Frances M Bailey (head) married, aged 64, living on her own means, born in Weymouth; Arabella Atkinson, aged 67, widow also living on her own means, born in Salisbury, Ethel Vaughan, niece, single, born in Herstmonceux, Sussex; Helen Atkinson, niece, single, aged 13, born in Bristol; two female servants, Harriet Eldridge and Fanny Matthews, and a visitor, Albert Cockcroft, a cousin aged 18.

As women were not entitled to vote then, the only person on the electoral register for the Grange was William Swaffield Bailey, and the Dulwich College lease was assigned to him from 1882 until surrendered by his widow in 1901. The reason why he never lived there is explained by the address on the probate of his will, the Royal Naval Hospital, Great Yarmouth. This was a mental hospital for navy personnel and although the admission registers have not survived, the 1891 census records him there under his initials, B.,W.S., commissioned officer, lunatic. In 1881, he was living in Penge with his wife and servant, Harriet, so it is likely that he was admitted to the hospital soon afterwards having set up his wife in the house in Dulwich. All the invoices for the Grange in Helen’s papers are made out to his wife, Frances. Having retired on half pay and worked for a few years in the City as a broker, William died reasonably well-off, leaving the equivalent of about £400,000 to his widow.

Arabella Atkinson was Frances Bailey’s sister. In 1848, she married a cousin, John Atkinson, a farmer with land in Downton, Wiltshire, the same parish as Trafalgar House, the home of the 3rd Earl Nelson. John was successful, winning a prize for the 100 best breeding ewes ‘ good on tooth’, but died in 1863 at the age of 44 in the last outbreak of cholera to affect Britain, leaving Arabella a widow to bring up four children under 12.

Arabella’s eldest and only daughter, Julia was Helen’s mother. The birth certificate from 1878 reveals that Julia was not married at the time, hence Helen was given her mother’s surname. It also reveals her father as Herbert Henry James, an accountant, and that they were married by the time, two months later, when the birth was registered. A year afterwards Julia died of scarlet fever, a common disease in the nineteenth century for severe cases of which there was no effective cure. Julia’s husband, aged about 22 when his wife died, moved in with his parents in Somerset, never marrying again and not apparently keeping any contact with the Atkinsons. Although no record has been traced of Helen or her grandmother’s whereabouts until 1891, it would seem that Arabella looked after her grandchild and they lived together until the older woman’s death in 1897 when Helen was 19.

The house they moved to in Dulwich was originally a cottage built in the grounds of a farmhouse on Dulwich Common. It had been enlarged and improved a few years earlier to create a spacious property with large garden and outbuildings. There were six bedrooms on the first floor; the dining room, drawing room, morning room, kitchen, servants’ quarters and bicycle room were on the ground floor. At the end of the garden were the greenhouse, vinery and tomato house. The previous farm buildings had been converted to stables, chicken house, coal house and dairy with a 2 bedroom gardener’s cottage. Photographs kept by Helen, unfortunately now much faded, show the Grange with much the same appearance outside as today. Although destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, it was rebuilt in the 1950s as close as possible in style to the Victorian house, but without the veranda.

From the number of religious calendars, tracts and Christmas cards sent to each other the ladies were devout members of the Church of England, and attended Christchurch, Gipsy Hill. Two distant cousins, and the only relatives mentioned in Helen’s will, married into the Deck family of evangelical missionaries active in the South Pacific. Lucy was acknowledged for her kindness in sending food parcels to Helen during the war. They had another interest in common, Norman Deck, the husband of one of her cousins, became a distinguished photographer whose records of South Sea Islanders are now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Helen also was interested in photography and left an album of Surrey street scenes taken around 1905, many of which have been copied for the Historic England Archive.

By then her grandmother had died and the lease of the Grange had been surrendered to the Dulwich Estate after the death of Commander Bailey. Little maintenance appears to have been carried out by Frances as the Estate charged her £285 (about £32,000 today) for repairs which were listed in great detail by the solicitors. They required the property to be completely redecorated inside and out and several areas of defective woodwork, plaster and tiles to be made good. Helen, Frances and at least two other ladies, Miss Mullins and Miss Ford then moved to Folkestone with all the furniture from Dulwich. Valued after Frances’ death in 1905 at £923 (about £100,000 today), the most valuable items were the silver, two large satsuma vases, the overmantel and some of the paintings. Helen’s share was a half, including one of the vases and the overmantel, and despite moving several times after the death of her great aunt brought most of these possessions to her last house in Carshalton.

Financially independent, with shares left to her by Frances, Helen led an active life in her twenties; a keen cyclist and photographer she is shown in one picture with a party enjoying themselves on a boat. However, she kept nothing after 1910 except one suffragette pamphlet, and after the Second World War she was already a recluse. One explanation I was given was that the man she hoped to marry died in Africa. The postcards she kept suggest a different story. The largest group is from a man who served in Africa in the Colonial Civil Service but he became Chief Constable of Nyasaland and did not die until 1943. Peter David Handyside Shute Piers was born in 1869 in Weymouth, where Frances Bailey was also born. His father had died when he was seven and the family moved to Camberwell shortly afterwards. By 1903 he had been posted to British Central Africa, later called Nyasaland and now Malawi. The postcards depict many scenes of the protectorate at the time and he writes affectionately of bringing back gifts and hoping to see Helen and her Aunt Fanny soon, but they cease abruptly in June 1908. Two years later The Times reported the society wedding in Chelsea between Peter Piers and his cousin Rose, the daughter of Sir Eustace Piers.