The Lost Houses of Dulwich - Ryecotes Mead

By Bernard Nurse with additional research by Ian McInnes

Ryecotes was demolished in 1967 to make way for the present development of Ryecotes Mead. It had been one of the large houses with extensive grounds on the Dulwich Estate which attracted wealthy business men. Its occupiers included William Young, the historian of Dulwich College, Sir Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun and  Sir William Lane Mitchell, MP for Streatham. In more recent times, it has been better known as the temporary club house which the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club used after their original clubhouse was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.

Rycotes was rebuilt and extended several times since the 18th century, but fortunately the leases survive in Dulwich College Archives to record the changes. These show that two houses built earlier in the 18th century were converted into one and rebuilt in 1787 by Henry William Atkinson (1753-1834). One had been occupied by the local surgeon, but with the arrival of Atkinson the properties were transformed into a far grander building. Atkinson was a moneyer of the Royal Mint then in the Tower of London and one of those responsible for the ensuring the quality of the coinage. By the time of his death he had held this position for 64 years, during thirteen of which he had been the provost or most senior official. He first took out a lease in 1783, but with a growing family of four sons and four daughters clearly needed more space. The children are listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry which notes that one son died at sea and two were knighted. His long marriage was commemorated by a medal on the occasion of their golden wedding in 1830, when ‘they were surrounded by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and relation’.

The schedule of fixtures provides considerable detail about the size and layout of the new house. There was a nursery, maid’s garret, man’s room, footman’s room, powdering room, several bedrooms, a drawing room with veined marble chimney piece, only one water closet ‘fitted with seats and flaps’, a butler’s pantry, kitchen, laundry, washhouse and beer cellar. The house was constructed with bricks and slates and had parapet walls coped with stone. Outside was a small farmyard with stable, cowhouse, pigsties, corn room, tool house, coal and wood houses. The grounds included a kitchen garden, pleasure grounds and meadow. The front part of this building survived until 1967 and can be seen in photographs taken prior to demolition.

It appears that William Atkinson did not live in the house very long and at the time of his death he was living in the Royal Mint opened in 1810. He assigned his lease in 1798 to John Bowles, a local magistrate. The number of burglaries in the neighbourhood at the time was a matter of great concern. Blanch’s history of Camberwell records that Bowles was thanked in 1816 for helping to establish a patrol of constables ‘whereby many criminal persons have been in the course of a few nights apprehended’. By 1821 his widow had taken over the lease and it was assigned to a succession of city merchants and stockbrokers, who made no substantial changes to the property until purchased by William Young in 1858. William Young (1825-1896) was an insurance broker, the son of a Glasgow merchant who became deputy chairman of Lloyd’s. After his death, the Edward Alleyn Magazine described him as ‘a fine type of the business Scotchman, clear headed and energetic, and though somewhat brusque in manner, was thoroughly kind-hearted and universally esteemed by all who were brought into contact with him’.

He was appointed a governor of Dulwich College in 1872 and in 1876, in order to meet the demand locally for accommodation for the low paid who provided essential services as gardeners or grooms, he, with others, formed the Dulwich Cottage Company.  The company had a limited capital of £6000 in £10 shares and it retained Charles Barry jnr. to design houses that could be let cheaply but which would harmonise as far as possible with the general character of the locality.  The cottages, set in small gardens, were built between 1879-82 at the bottom of what became Calton Avenue and in Boxall Row (Road).  

Young also spent many years researching for his monumental two volume History of Dulwich College, published in 1889. In it he noted that the college had been granted by its founder ‘lands, woods and waste grounds called Ricotes als Rigates in Dulwich’ among other properties. The land was roughly where the sports grounds are now on the south side of the South Circular going towards Cox’s Walk. Young chose the name ‘Ryecotes’ for his nearby house. In 1864-5 he spent more than £1500 (c. £140,000 today) on repairing and improving it and obtained a new lease of 45 years. From the later photographs, the rear section seems to have been extensively rebuilt. It accommodated himself, his Australian wife, six children and five servants, but in 1883 he moved to Stanhill Court, in Charlwood, Surrey, where he built an even larger house in the Scottish Baronial style, now Stanhill Court Hotel. The photograph of William and his wife, Frances, belonging to his great-granddaughter, Sarah is taken there. Despite moving away, Young remained a Dulwich College Governor until his death in New York in 1896.

None of the residents who followed Young stayed as long, most remaining for between five and ten years. One of the shortest periods was the three years when Sir Hiram Maxim occupied it with his wife and grandson from 1909 to 1912. Maxim moved from Thurlow Lodge, Norwood Road where he had lived most of his working life in London. There he had experimented with his prototype machine gun whose ‘unusual noise created a sensation in the vicinity’ and his ‘Captive Flying Machine’ which was erected at Crystal Palace. However, by the time he moved to Ryecotes at the age of 69, Maxim had become more interested in developing an aeroplane which could drop bombs. In 1911 he registered three patents for a release mechanism with a device to make them explode on or above ground, demonstrating one of them at the new Hendon aerodrome, using bags of flour. Although he accurately predicted the importance of aerial bombing in future warfare, his ideas came to nothing at the time. Maxim agreed to spend at least £200 in repairing Ryecotes, but soon moved to Streatham High Road where he died in 1916.

After the First World War in 1919 a new 21 year lease was granted to William Lane Mitchell (1861-1940), Mayor of Camberwell 1906-8 and Conservative MP for Streatham from 1918 until 1939. His obituary in The Times says he was a well known figure in the frozen food industry and in the early days of refrigeration was established as an importer of frozen rabbits. He was knighted in 1921, and after his first wife died in 1925, he married Sarah Lady Vestey, the widow of Sir Edmund Vestey whose brother William lived nearby at Kingswood House. Both William and Edmund made their fortunes in cold storage, and Lady Sarah Lane Mitchell’s Rolls Royce ‘in need of attention’ has recently been sold. The schedule of fixtures attached to Lane Mitchell’s lease shows how the house had changed internally since the 18th century. There were now nine bedrooms, more bathrooms and toilets, a library and billiards room, conservatories and a lodge with two bedrooms and outside toilet. It was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain: when Lane Mitchell left in 1927, the Estate Surveyor estimated the cost of making good at £710 (about £33,000 today).

The repairs were carried out by the new tenant, Bernard Wilden-Hart, who had been, Professor of English and History in a Japanese University before the First World War, and then employed on military intelligence. He formed a flat and garage out of the stable block, but left in 1930, was declared bankrupt in 1931 and died the following year. In the 1930s, the house was occupied by F J Bryant .  At the end of September 1939, three weeks after war was declared, Mr  Bryant, wrote to the Governors asking for permission to double the poultry area on the site and to grow potatoes on the 2 acres of the garden not covered by the orchard. He said, patriotically that “both would be of service locally” and the Governors agreed.  However his 21 year lease ended not long afterwards - in June 1940  - and the Governors entered into negotiations with the military, a Royal Army Service Corps unit stationed at Highwood Barracks,  Lordship  Lane , who were considering requisitioning Ryecotes.  Nothing came of these negotiations and there remained the matter of dilapidations for which Mr Bryant was responsible.  In the event Bryant was apparently caught up in the Japanese occupation of Singapore and the matter was closed.

The house’s future was saved by a V1 flying bomb that demolished the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf clubhouse at 02:24am on 26th June 1944. The Centenary History of the Golf Club notes that, at an emergency meeting at 7pm the following evening, the Governors agreed to let the Club use Ryecotes as a temporary clubhouse. At the subsequent board meeting on July 8th the Manager confirmed that “the secretary of the Club enquired whether the Club could be given temporary alternative accommodation until such time as the club house could be rebuilt and with the approval of the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman the Club has been allowed the use of ‘Ryecotes’ as a club house.

After being empty for three years and  with the outstanding repairs not being effected, the house was in a poor condition and on the wrong side of  Dulwich Common, which became increasingly hazardous for golfers to cross. Male members used the front entrance, ladies the back and had to have their drinks in the hall.  It would be twenty two years before the club was able to raise sufficient funds for a new clubhouse ‘back up the hill’. In 1966 they left Ryecotes and the old house was demolished the following year.

In April 1966 Russell Vernon, the Estate Architect, had outlined his proposal to develop the 1.45 acre site with 6 houses in a short cul-de-sac – at a density of about 40 persons to the acre. The Governors thought this insufficient and he was instructed to submit a revised scheme for a higher density. A denser scheme comprising a cul-de-sac on the east side of the site with four bungalows and eight ground and first floor flats on the ‘Glenlea’ side. He said the problem was that the site is long and narrow between the development in Frank Dixon Way and the scheduled building of Glenlea. The buildings should not be too high or overlooking will occur.  This consideration was achieved and the following January the development was costed at £100,000 -£110,000 - with an expected ground rent income of £640 per annum.  The Governors debated whether to develop the site themselves but  because of the unsettled state of the property market at the time and their other capital commitments they decided against it.  In the event, a local builder, W J Mitchell & Son was selected.  

In December Russell Vernon recommended that the name of the new road be Ryecotes Mead “for this development as Ryecotes is perhaps the oldest name in Dulwich and it would probably be inappropriate to call it anything else.”  Construction continued through 1968 and the development was complete early in 1969.