Sometimes, you get lucky. Such was the case when I tried to discover the age of my Victorian house. I found, quite by chance, that the two families who lived in it and the one next door in 1881, at the time of the Census, had intriguing pasts.
Aside from being neighbours, their family stories were very different. However, each was equally fascinating. Simple "Google" searches pulled up references dating back to the 16th century, Burke's Peerage, the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club, country estates - even, to Cromwell.
For two "characterful", but fairly modest, semi-detached early Victorian houses, these discoveries were surprising.
1863 - Rydal Cottage and Grasmere Cottage... in splendid isolation
First, the houses. The initial surprise was that they were amongst the oldest Victorian houses in the Village. The houses sit right in the heart of Dulwich Village, forming part of the longer Gilkes Crescent and located just behind St. Barnabas Parish Hall. But I discovered that, when built, they sat in "splendid isolation", on the outskirts of the Village, in a small curved road known as Elms Road.
They were built in 1863 by local builder, John William Sawyer, shown in the 1861 Census as employing 70 men and 3 boys. He tendered for the job to build 16 cottages on a field, known as "Russell's Field", in 1862. Two pairs of semi-detached houses on the corner were built first, of which one pair was "Rydal Cottage" and "Grasmere Cottage" (names reflective of the Victorian obsession with the Lake District).
Dulwich College archives still have the original lease and the minutes relating to the building works. Two things caught my attention. First, both Rydal Cottage and Grasmere Cottage were leased by the same person - John Goodall - under an 84 year lease signed in 1864, but back-dated to 1863. John Goodall features later in this piece. Secondly, the original plans and elevations for the cottages on which the tender was based were drawn up by the Dulwich Surveyor at the time: Charles Barry Junior. However, although Barry approved the final buildings, it is not clear whether, ultimately, they were to his design. J.W. Sawyer asked if he could build larger houses on the corner plot and "..that the cost of each cottage be £120, and that each of the two houses on the corner plots £300...".
For the next 20 or so years, the two houses and the other cottages, would remain nestled right on the very furthest edge of the extent of Dulwich Village at the time. A village which looked very different from today's….
1867: A contemporary viewpoint
What was Dulwich Village like? In 1867, an eloquent local contemporary writer described Dulwich Village in Macmillan's Magazine. The writer was none other than John Goodall, of Rydal Cottage and Grasmere Cottage, who wrote, in "Dulwich College: The Story of a Foundation":
"..The village of Dulwich occupies a central position on the College lands. It lies in the bottom of the valley between the ridge on which rests the Crystal Palace and the less lofty ridge midway between Sydenham Hill and the Thames. It is so shut in by near hills, or by lofty trees, in all directions, that its horizon is nowhere more distant than a mile or two. It is among the most rural and primitive of all the many charming suburban places within a radial distance of eight or ten miles from London. It has resisted change..... In the past year some orchard-ground and a piece of wilderness which had once been gardens in the rear of the old College have become the scene of building operations. New College buildings on a most extensive scale are now being raised, and have already attained such a height and size as to form a conspicuous object in the landscape as viewed from the rail between Dulwich and Sydenham Hill stations. But, despite present activity, and the progress of the past ten years or so, Dulwich still exhibits a unique individuality, a quaint, staid aspect, a rusticity of appearance throughout its highways and byways....."
The 1870s: Some change in Dulwich, but not much...
John Goodall mentioned, in his 1867 article, that there had probably only been, on average, one house built per year since 1800. Building would gradually increase, once the railway arrived, but it would be very slow. Only a few extra houses and cottages were built over the next 15 years, despite the completion of North Dulwich railway station in 1866/68.
By 3 April 1881, the day of the Census, the Village was largely unchanged.
Let us meet the residents living in the two houses on that day ……
Walking up Elms Road, we would find two families. In Rydal Cottage, we find a family of five: John Goodall, and his wife, Frances (56 and 50, respectively) plus their three sons, Martin (26), Thomas (24) and Arthur (11).
In Grasmere Cottage, are newer neighbours, who have been there at least three years: Edgar and Jane Prescott (42 and 40, respectively) and their six children, Henry, Edward, Edgar, Herbert, Nelly and Isabel (ranging from 15 to 3 years old). The Prescotts also have the luxury of two live-in servants, Jane Mason and Elizabeth Jelley.
Research suggests that the house on the right, as you face it, is Rydal Cottage; on the left, Grasmere Cottage.
As well as sharing an adjoining wall, the families have a few shared experiences, including the ultimate tragedy of losing a child. In addition, the sons from each family attended Dulwich College and John Goodall was even an Assistant Master at Dulwich Grammar School in 1842. Both families seem, also, to have been fairly "well-connected".