The Lost Houses of Dulwich - Toksowa - A name never understood
by Tony Korris
Among the old houses of Dulwich none had quite the mixed usage and diverse fortunes of this one. For the best part of two hundred years, being frequently changed and expanded in its physical shape and subject to unexpected development in its function, it survived until late in the 20th century. This essay is an attempt to capture the history of this building and some of its many residents.
The house stood on the south side of Dulwich Common road, immediately to the east of the Mill Pond and the College sports hall, and is now largely occupied by the gated community of Hambledon Place. Its origins date back to the re-ordering of land and buildings at the end of the 18th century in the era of enclosure as the College estate sought to capitalise on parts of the “ancient meadows” to further subsidise the then small educational and welfare provision of Edward Alleyn’s bequest. This needed to be ratified by private Act of Parliament enabling longer leases to be established to encourage development. The first of these relating to what became Toksowa was in 1789, eventually listed retrospectively in the Schedule to the Dulwich College Act of 1808.
These were essentially several tranches of land of which the relevant one was leased to Charles Frederick Hennings in 1803 covering upwards of 22 acres. It needs to be said that the system of leases and sub leases which developed made the parcelling out of land a complex and often changing process during this period. The Corporation of the College had transferred 5 acres to a mason for the construction of a “good and substantial messuage and dwelling house….to cost at least £500”.
The property was leased in October 1796 to George van der Neunberg, a Merchant Taylor of St Michael Cornhill, one of the many City figures, often of German background who figure in the records of Dulwich. Nothing further is known of him but in 1803 the lease passed to John Prestwidge (of Mincing Lane) with additional fields. He proved to be highly dissatisfied with the quality of the premises which he made clear to the Governors, fulminating “that the persons who built this house did great injustice to your estate and from the imperfection of its building I perceive it every day more dangerous to live in.” The college offered no remedy to him so Prestwidge demolished the property, rebuilding on a grander scale at his own expense with the encouragement of a large extension to his lease from the Corporation and this he assigned to his daughter Matilda on his death.
I am indebted to Patrick Derby (“The Houses In-Between”, 2000) for his charting of the next transition in occupation. On Matilda’s death it reverted to Charles Henning and on his demise in the mid 1840’s to his daughter Charlotte. She had married another local prominent figure Thomas Devas and had been living at 52 College Rd, the ‘Corner House’, (which even then had the zelkova tree in its front grounds which would far outlast the house itself). So, on her father’s death in 1848, the couple moved to the more substantial premises nearby, known locally as ‘the Devas house’. It was reported that Thomas also practically rebuilt the house. He had a distinguished local record as the Surveyor/Solicitor for the College and continued to occupy the property till his death in 1860. Thereafter, following a lengthy period of legal administration complicated by the death of the executor, the property went on the open market in 1868 and was sold at Tokenhouse Yard in the City, near to the Bank of England.
We are fortunate enough to have access to the documents advertising the sale which give a fuller picture of how a mid-century estate was described, making allowances for an element of Victorian hype of a more orotund flavour than now applies.
“A most convenient Family Residence of Handsome Elevation in the Italian style of Architecture, replete with every convenience for a Gentleman’s Establishment” What it actually consisted of was a considerable three storey property with “commodious” accommodation for a large family with a plentiful provision of servants, internal and external, with a Servants Hall. A “lofty paved entrance hall and Ionic columns and portico…..An excellent billiard room gave onto the Pleasure Grounds with superior and well-arranged stabling, two kitchen gardens, a peach house and vinery together 92ft in length.” With a continuation of “rich park-like meadow” and land to the south, it now amounted to nearly 67 acres in total. Sadly the eventual sale price is not recorded.
The new owner was another city merchant of German ancestry who had moved with his family from New York, Hermann Loehnis. His wife, formerly Henrietta Brandt had been born in Archangel, Russia and part of her family was already established in Denmark Hill at Elmswood. They had two sons and four daughters. Presumably these joint factors help to explain their settling in Dulwich as both sons attended Dulwich College. Before the move Hermann had joined the family firm, Wm. Brandt’s Sons & Co. as a director. This was a merchant bank at this time dealing exclusively with Russia.
This brings us to the vexed issue of the name given to the house by the newcomers. It appears in the Ordinance Survey of 1870 as Toksowa, There has been much speculation as to the origin of the name but never any resolution. There is no Japanese connection and, contrary to some local belief, it never functioned as their embassy. The word appears to have no meaning in any language at all so the significance may be entirely idiosyncratic or have some personal link now beyond recall.
For my own part I shall offer an alternative possibility. There was a German Protestant church, opened in 1855, in what was then known as Windsor Rd, Denmark Hill, which was a response to the significant community in the surrounding area. The Brandt family was Lutheran and, being of Russian origin, it may well therefore be of significance that there is a district of the St Petersburg region called Toxowa, evidently a beauty spot, which is referred to in documents of the period, pointing to its Lutheran connections. This cannot be proven but, for the exchange of a single letter and having the same pronunciation, it just might constitute a perhaps sentimental link from the past. For a family growing up in Archangel, not a great distance away in Russian terms and likely linked to a specific expatriate religious community in northwest Russia, it seems a workable hypothesis. In any event the name stuck and would go on identifying the house for nearly a hundred years.
The Loehnis family link to the property matched the sons’ educational needs, the older one, also Hermann, became a barrister and was admitted to the Inner Temple; the other, Charles Augustus, died at the age of 20 in Bonn in 1881. This may well have influenced the outcome. The father withdrew his capital from the family firm and they transferred to Berlin and Bonn at the end of the 1870’s. There is no clear trace of the early subsequent occupation of the house from then. Perhaps there was some local activity to bring about a new tenant, but the 1881 census records Gardener in Charge with his family. Anyway, by 1887 the house and estate were up for sale again. It is therefore possible to make some direct comparisons with twenty years earlier.
The first thing to be noted is that the house yet again has changed, “the larger portion of which has been entirely rebuilt by the Vendor.” There had clearly been some further upgrading in the house facilities, with “a suite of noble Reception rooms comprising a Library, Lofty Ball or Entertainment Room.” The property now boasts “a gas supply throughout” there are now five servants’ bedrooms, a separate cottage for the gardener and expanded stabling for six horses. It was coming to its peak as an opulent family residence as the Edwardian era came closer. The estate itself however is much smaller having reduced from 67 to just over 22 acres, a significant development for the future and reflecting societal change. Land was being required for other purposes, of which the driving force was increased population growth and recreational demand in the area. The College Governors were beginning to respond to this over subsequent years.
The new owner in 1889 was Thomas John Edward, also a barrister, probably reflecting that the holdings were now professional rather than trade in origin. He lived with his wife Elizabeth, five older children and four indoor servants. The new century found another family, the new head, John Kyffin “living on his own means” with his largely grown-up children and a new army of servants, sometimes described as ‘domestics’. Adjoining fields were being granted for the Alleynian Rugby Ground and Camberwell Grammar School Athletic ground. The other significant pressure was the demand, both local and national, for golfing facilities. This was beginning to result in the formation of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club, built around the neighbouring Dulwich Wood Farm, “that rural retreat which has for years past been actively discovered by the popular press as the only surviving farmstead in London and actually only five miles from Charing Cross”. Gradually over these years the course grew, absorbing by 1907 several meadows from Toksowa to make a full 18 hole course by 1911. Even today the 16th hole, looking down from the clubhouse towards where the old house was, is still called the ‘Toksowa hole’.
The fact that the last owner was reported as having financial difficulties could only mean that the property’s days as a private estate were drawing to a close. The crucial development came in 1910. A group of City merchants evidently decided that the reduced estate offered commercial opportunities. At a rent of £222 10s. per annum, Messrs. Carlill, Collins and Spurway took out a 42 year lease with the intention of offering a “high class boarding establishment” on the estate, but crucially including a patch of nearly five acres where the College Sports Hall now stands. Thus was born the Toksowa Hotel. It was vested in a new company called White Lodge Ltd, presumably describing the appearance of the rear of the property as it appears in contemporary photographs. With permission for an ambitious project of additions and alterations being obtained from the Governors, an adjoining building with 53 bedrooms and bathroom accommodation was developed. The tariff was to be £2 2s per week for a single room and £4 4s for a double. Each room had a fixed slot meter for electric or gas light and heat. For guest visitors lunch was 1/6, afternoon tea 6d, and dinner 2/6. The 1911 census shows Mr. Carlill installed as Hotel Proprietor and a tally of seven servants, though he had a separate residence nearby at Ruskin Manor, Denmark Hill.
On the additional land to the west a “Covered Tennis Courts Club” was to be established. Following on the golfing developments, there was the intention of responding to the increased popularity of lawn tennis during the winter season. It was intended that this facility would be a rival to the Queen’s Club, now described as “enormously overcrowded.” When constructed (162ft by 136ft) it was accordingly promoted as ‘the Largest Covered Courts in the World’. This considerable claim referred to ‘3 full size courts plus gallery accommodation for a thousand spectators and by night scientifically illuminated by 90,000 candle power high pressure gas.’
The Club was to be managed by a “committee of gentlemen who are well known throughout the lawn tennis world, a guarantee [the Governors’ reported] that the club will be composed of members of good social position and will be properly conducted….It will bring in a number of people from the Home Counties to play in Dulwich and will therefore make the district better and more widely known”. The subscriptions were to be 4 guineas for gentlemen and 2 for ladies.
Toksowa’s advertising also included golfing facilities as by 1912, having leased meadow land adjoining College Rd to create a two-field wide strip south of Pond Cottages to the Tollgate, which was set up with 9 holes. This had the considerable advantage over the adjacent Dulwich and Sydenham Club of enabling its residents to play on Sunday afternoons, a privilege denied to its larger neighbour. Toksowa thus became a significant business enterprise, the owners having spent £7,000 for the Covered Courts and £9,000 for the housing additions.
Although set up quite quickly, by 1912 the business was to suffer some early disruption. The impact of the First War doubtless began to affect its trade and by 1916 the Courts were requested by the Red Cross to store temporarily some of their ‘motor ambulances at once as the War Office requires at least 50 cars to be stored ready for any emergency’. This was quickly agreed for the duration of the war. The following year the Courts suffered damage from German aircraft and by May 1918 ‘immediate approval’ was granted by the College, prior to the Governors’ consideration, for the erection of a temporary building to accommodate more ambulances ‘in view of the impending German offensive” It was completed by the end of the year. The Hotel itself continued to be profitable, applying in 1924 for a dancing license, the following year for a garage block for 10 guests, and in 1929 for permission to build ‘a comfortably furnished lounge for the use of tennis players,” implying that outdoor courts also were once again thriving.
One continuing problem recorded was the name of the hotel. In 1932 the Hotel Director wrote to the Governors that “prospective clients often gain the impression from the name Toksowa that the hotel is run with the hope of attracting foreigners, whereas in fact the majority of their guests are British subjects, also that the name is always difficult to understand on the telephone, and requesting to change the name to White Lodge.” This was not agreed and so the name remained a source of confusion and misunderstanding, and somewhat ironical in the light of what was to happen in a few years. Through the 1930’s there were further attempts to develop the tennis facilities with squash courts and hard tennis courts, the hope being to modernise the facilities and extend the licence for another 50 years. The Governors felt there were some positive aspects of the plan. The College architect commented that he “has no happy regard for the Covered Courts as they now exist… they are now ugly and incongruous in this beautiful setting and in such proximity to the heart of the Foundation.” But they were not the only ugly development of the period!
In 1936 a new manager emerged at Toksowa, Stewart Cole, and it is at this point that the story merges in briefly with that portrayed by Brian Green as part of his recent account ‘The Hotel at Spy Corner’ ( Spring 2012 Journal.172). to which reference should be made for the full sinister story. Under Cole’s aegis a number of associates of his, including his successor as manager, Albin Schmidt and his wife Rene, (probably German agents masquerading as Czech refugees), and miscellaneous unsavoury others involved in espionage and membership of the National Socialist League, were under the observation of MI5. This lasted throughout the Second World War and continued for a period afterwards.
Of course the War affected the ability to run the business successfully. The Covered Courts were again closed and eventually requisitioned by the Government for other usage. Although as late as1944 efforts to renovate and revitalise the recreational side were still being made, further war damage was sustained. But the game really was up.
In a world of post war austerity and shorn of some of its sporting assets, the business languishing, the lease soon to expire, it was the end of the road for Toksowa as such.
But, perhaps surprisingly, a new lease of life began in 1948.when the house was leased to King’s College Hospital as a Nurses home. After 80 years bearing its name it became Hambledon House. It was named after the title conferred on the family of W.H. Smith after his death as a senior figure in Lord Salisbury’s government, and referred to the village close by his country home near Henley. The reason was that the 2nd Viscount had been, as well as running the family business, the Chairman and leading figure of the Hospital at its original site off the Strand. Indeed he had paid for the new location in Denmark Hill and presided over its transfer there. His son, the 3rd Viscount, continued in this role after his father’s death and he died the same year the Nurses home opened, so the naming doubtless reflected the debt owed by the Hospital to the continued philanthropic work of the family.
Although held on a ‘peppercorn’ rent (£330 p.a. later reduced to £260), KCH found it difficult to maintain the land and additional buildings, and this as well as post war development elsewhere, prefigured the eventual end of the building’s use. In the meantime it functioned in this role with a Warden and resident Matron in charge, with transport to the hospital provided for the nurses. There was a touch of the old house in the staging of regular dances there to which younger men from the nearby Golf Club and 6th Formers from the College were invited. However the College was keen to regain the Covered Courts building for its own usage as an examinations hall and with the Estates Governors’ support this was achieved in the mid 1960’s pending its eventual translation to the current Sports Hall.
The arrangement came to an end in 1972 and the building was vacated. Later there were further attempts by Guys Hospital in 1974 for the same usage given evident concerns over their ability to offer services “unless we can attract staff to work in our part of London”. Delays by the Ministry of Health seem to have marked this period and still later there was a curious reversal in which King’s College considered taking it over for a students’ hostel. However it all came to nothing and decades of institutional usage doubtless meant that major expenditure for refurbishment would be required. In the meantime the property continued to deteriorate.
The decision to turn it over for commercial development came about subsequently in the 1980’s with the demolition and rebuilding of the site by Barratt Homes as a gated estate. During the later 1980’s one of the new homes, number 11, was sold to Margaret and Denis Thatcher who had been looking for a future home since selling their previous Chelsea residence. It was little visited during her premiership but, when she fairly speedily required a new address after her enforced resignation in 1991, it was a providential bolthole. Her characterisation of the move provided the press with a headline for the day, “John Major has moved to No10 and we have moved to No 11.”
Suddenly the area had a new focus. The requirements of continuing high-level security protection for the ex-Premier meant that a police surveillance area at the top of the north block of Dulwich College was created, though it was apparently little used. But it may be surmised that Denis was not too unhappy at the turn of events, allowing him ready access to the adjoining Golf Club to which his “old Cortina” was often seen to visit. He also utilised his experience as a rugby referee on the College playing fields. However the inconveniences of travel into London as an ordinary citizen perhaps became irksome and it was not long before the Thatchers disappeared to the metropolitan conveniences of Belgravia.
This has been an attempt to capture the whole experience from the 1790’s to the 1990’s of a single much-altered property site which saw a remarkable progress from elegant residential usage, through hotel and recreational purposes, to subsequent health authority, and back to modern residential living. An extremely varied and unlikely history.
Sources include Southwark Archives Library, Lambeth Minet Library, and the Dulwich College Archives. My thanks also to Patrick Darby, family descendants of earlier occupiers, especially Peter Brandt, and Alan Poole of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club.