The recent refurbishment of Holmehurst, the house on the corner of Burbage Road and Half Moon Lane, was the original spur for this article but, because the house has been in institutional use for the last 60 plus years, there initially appeared to be little to say. Research on the original builder of the house, however, proved to be much more rewarding and provided a story of a prosperous Victorian professional making a major contribution to the development of south London until he was almost brought down by a very modern mistake, forgetting to pay for his rail ticket.

The Dulwich Estate minutes confirm that, between 1874 and 1887, architect Henry Parsons was involved in the development of Holmehurst and five adjacent houses (Nos 48-54). A previous Journal article on Delawyk Crescent, built in the early 1960s on the site of these houses, quoted some 1883 auction particulars from the South London Press about ‘Howlettes’, (No 52). They said that the house had ‘recently erected for his own occupation by the owner, a London architect of repute, in a modified form of Modern Queen Anne style of Architecture.’ Clearly Henry Parsons was this ‘London architect of repute’ but who actually was he?

Born in Isleworth in 1828 he was articled to Thomas Cubitt and later became an assistant to John Thomas, a sculptor who also had a small architectural practice in the country. In 1858, aged 30, he was appointed as the District Surveyor in South Lambeth. Before the London County Council came into being in 1889, the Metropolitan Board of Works (founded in 1855) appointed architects in private practice to the role - their job was to make sure that all buildings built in their particular area complied with the relevant London Building Acts.

Parsons was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) in 1861 so he must have had a reasonably sized practice - which initially it seems, was based on the design for rural churches and vicarages. That he was not performing his District Surveyor duties as he should, presumably because he was travelling around the country, was confirmed in a May 1864 newspaper report about the Metropolitan Board of Works writing to him ‘directing him to reside in the district, and personally to perform the duties of his office’. He must have done so as another press article in September 1868 about residential voter qualification in Lambeth noted that he had successfully demonstrated that his office at 20 Devonshire Road also had a bedroom in which he occasionally slept.

But what of Henry Parsons’ connection with Dulwich? In the 1871 Census he was living at Forest Lodge, Park Lane, Ashstead, in Surrey and was apparently heavily involved in a large land speculation in the 180-acre Copthorne Estate, near Leatherhead. He must have done very well out of it, and it was his share of the proceeds of the sale which probably allowed him to approach the Dulwich Estate in October 1874 offering to take 110 feet of frontage in Half Moon Lane ‘to erect a detached house thereon at a cost of £1500 at the least’. He was clearly optimistic over the area’s potential as, in January 1875, he agreed to take the rest of the frontage westwards (a further 315 feet) which included an older house, Elm Lodge, down to the planned entrance to what is now Burbage Road (but was then the boundary of the Springfield Estate). He agreed to build six houses in total. Whether the first house, ‘The Hawthornes’ (No 54), was intended for his own occupation we do not know, but perhaps he had an unsolicited offer, as he sold it almost immediately to one Charles Miller, a wealthy jeweller.

At the same time, he was also working on the designs of a major project in Brixton, what would become the Bon Marche, arguably one of Britain’s earliest department stores. The building remains largely as he designed it though the main elevations have been rendered and painted. Under the heading of ‘A new Public market at Brixton’, the Builder Magazine of January 1876 reported on the ‘intention being to erect on the site a large and commodious market for the sale of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and every description of provisions, and also for the sale of clothing for men and women, whilst one portion of the market space will be specially set apart for the display and sale of articles of furniture’. His next large project was the Loughborough Hall in Coldharbour Lane - Victorian London had a number of public halls where entertainments such as concerts ,dances and political meetings were held. If you travel into central London via Loughborough Junction you will know it, it lies between the Loughborough Junction Station and the railway line - and is now used as a church by the ‘Celestial Church of Christ’.

As well as his architectural work, Parsons was vice chairman of the local Dulwich Conservative Association and also the quartermaster of the 21st Middlesex Rifles, a City of London based volunteer battalion. His own house, ‘Howlettes’ (No 52) was finished in 1880 although the 1881 Census recorded him as living next door at Elm Lodge. An 1882 directory shows the occupier as his son, the unusually named ‘Maydwell’, a lieutenant in the army. The new houses were large and some of the poorer locals clearly saw opportunities - as a court report in the South London Press of 28 July 1883 showed. Henry Blencowe (16), living in Poplar Walk Road in Loughborough Junction, was charged with being on the premises ‘for the supposed purposes of committing a felony’. The report added that Mr Henry Parsons, architect, residing at the Howlettes, confirmed that his garden had been frequently plundered, even though he had a high fence. He had complained to the police, and the prisoner was caught coming out of the garden, with several others who ran away. In 1884 Parsons moved on, to Hampton Wick, and the new owner of ‘The Howletts’ was Julius Augustus Hewitt, a civil engineer, previously resident in Dulwich Road, Brixton.

Burbage Road was not actually completed until autumn 1886. In January 1887 Parsons complained to the Estate that the delays in its construction had impacted on the timescale for the completion of his houses and that he had lost money as a result. He applied to vary his original agreement and build only three more houses and also assign it to a builder, Charles Bowden. Glengarriff (No 48), and Elm Lodge (No 50), named after the old house on the site, were finished by late 1888 - and not demolished until the 1980s. The 1891 census lists the occupiers as Thomas Helby, a member of the Stock Exchange, and Edwin Edward MacAlpine Woods, at 35 a relatively young (and presumably wealthy) Hemp Flax & Jute Merchant. Woods remained at Elm Lodge for many years but Helby moved on quite quickly, and his successor was Robert J Brinkley, a very successful publican. The owner of the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village when it was rebuilt in 1896, he was also later the owner and/or the proprietor of the Victoria Hotel, Kings Cross, the Salisbury Hotel, Haringey, the Rockingham, Newington Causeway, and the Horns Hotel, Kennington. He clearly made a great deal of money as, when he died in 1907, he left nearly £250,000 - when a large house cost £2,500.

Sydney Bourne (1857-1930), a wealthy newspaper man, was the next owner of Glengariff. His claim to fame was a sporting one - he was the first chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club. A local football enthusiast, he oversaw the building of the club's stadium at Selhurst Park. In 1909 he was quoted on the subject of football club viability and players forming a trade union. He noted that, even then ‘nine out of ... ten clubs ... in England are ... insolvent, and are only kept alive by the personal sacrifices of their directors. If trade unionism is going to step in and interfere in every petty dispute there is not a director who will risk another shilling ... for the sport.’

But back to Henry Parsons. In May 1886 he was unanimously elected chairman of the Hampton Wick Local board where he was described as ‘a gentleman eminently fitted to the post. Mr Parson’s ripe experience as a District Surveyor cannot fail to be of great value to the Board.’ This was the high point of his career. His professional reputation never fully recovered from a court case that September when he was accused of travelling on the Southwestern Railway without a ticket. He was fined 40 shillings and 5 guineas costs on each of two summonses at Lambeth Police Court, mainly because the prosecution said that he had been doing it for several years. If that was not bad enough, the Metropolitan Board of Works then fired him from his position of South Lambeth District Surveyor. He took them to court and won, and was re-instated, convincing the appeal judge that the original verdict was wrong - and it does seem that he just probably forgot to pay once. He continued as District Surveyor until he died aged 74 in 1902 and his last local connection was his involvement with the construction of Hollingbourne Road and Holmdene Avenue in 1891.