The Dulwich Society Journal for Summer 2020.
By Bernard Nurse
The grounds of Bessemer House were described by the historian of Camberwell, William Blanch as “the most charming spot within the hamlet” of Dulwich. They were laid out after Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) acquired the lease of the house in 1863, and remained until the house, estate and The Grange next door were compulsorily purchased by Camberwell Borough Council in 1947 to create the council’s Denmark Hill Estate. The house had a long history of occupation by a series of wealthy and influential residents and, with its neighbours, as a residential hotel in later years.
The two houses, 165 Denmark Hill and the house immediately to the south, number 167 were built between 1850 and 1852 on the site of a single house with extensive grounds which was demolished two years earlier. The older house and land had been acquired by two City merchants who lived locally. William Boutcher (1795-1883) was a partner in the Bermondsey firm of Boutcher, Mortimer & Co., who were said to be one of the largest importers of American leather. His partner in the purchase, Thomas Shepperson (1808-1857), was a linen draper with premises in Cheapside occupied by the firm of Allin and Shepperson. Boutcher built number 165 and lived there with his wife, daughter, a cook, two housemaids, a kitchen maid and general servant according to the 1861 census. Shepperson lived at number 167 with his wife, but when he died in 1857 his widow moved to a house on Herne Hill. Their son Allin (1826-1891), a leather merchant like Boutcher, was occupying the house in 1861 with his wife, four children and five servants.
Both houses were described by the Dulwich Estate as “good and substantial” but 165 was larger, on three floors, and grander, with classical features and more land attached to it. This was the one that the highly successful inventor and engineer, Sir Henry Bessemer leased in 1863. Shortly afterwards he rented the house next door for his daughter, Elizabeth and her husband, William Wright, the chief clerk at Trinity House, the organization responsible for maintaining lighthouses. Wright’s house was called Cartmel House at this point and was mock Tudor in design with two floors.
By this time Bessemer had made a considerable fortune from his inventions and was able to spare no expense in developing his estate. In the 1870’s, Blanch wrote that the house he acquired ten years earlier was ‘less pretentious and imposing in size and ornamentation than it is at present’; so he may have added the tower, parapet and grand porch. The most distinctive feature was the large conservatory built on the side of the house; this was designed by Bessemer, assisted by the Estate architects, Banks and Barry who were responsible for the new Dulwich College a few years later. It was heated from a crypt below and highly decorated with marble, mosaics and mirrors with designs based on the Alhambra palace, Granada.. Above was a 40 foot high dome glazed with stained glass; in the central space beneath was a marble basin filled with specimen plants and the whole could be brightly illuminated at night by 80 gas burners in Roman lamps. In front of the house was a lawn, graced with deer, next to it was a number of greenhouses for growing plants such as vines, peaches, oranges, orchids, ferns and rare plants. Bessemer gradually acquired more land so that the estate eventually extended to 40 acres, stretching from Denmark Hill on the west to Green Lane on the east and as far as the railway line approaching North Dulwich station on the south east.
Blanch considered the view from the marble terrace at the rear of the house as “perhaps unsurpassed around the metropolis”, in the distance stretching across from Forest Hill, Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace to Tulse Hill. In the foreground, sloping down the hill, Bessemer introduced a kitchen garden, a model farm with a meadow for cattle, and a large lake. The earth from the lake was used to create a spectacular grotto with one room representing a Moorish palace and another a natural cavern in which exotic ferns of great size hung from rugged pillars. Two buildings in the grounds reflected Bessemer’s scientific interests. He suffered from seasickness and tried to design a vessel with stabilisers; it was not a success but a model of the steamship Bessemer was erected in the grounds. He also experimented with designing a large telescope in a revolving observatory and was still working on the lens at the time of his death in 1898. He lived in the house with his wife and household which consisted of himself and his wife, a butler, cook, two maids, gardener and coachman.
William Wright, his family and household lived at number 167 for over 40 years, during which time it gained its name as The Grange. In 1871, it included his wife, their two surviving children as well as four servants and two coachmen living above the stables. Twenty years later, their children had left but their granddaughter had moved in and the household included a butler as well as cook, kitchen maid and two housemaids. William Wright died in 1908, the lease was assigned by Shepperson’s successor to Edwin Henry Bartlett and the property began its use as a residential hotel. Initially there were just two boarders, both teachers from Northumberland, apparently sisters, one retired; the cook came from Norway and the porter from Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Bessemer House continued in private occupation after the death of Sir Henry, leased from 1899 by the fur and skin merchant Arthur Felix Hirschel (1853-1913). He was born in Germany, but became a naturalised British citizen in 1892, when he was living in Hampstead. Hirschel was a partner in the firm of Hirschel and Meyer, based in Leipzig but with offices throughout the world, including London, Paris, Moscow and Shanghai. The firm had an extensive international trade dealing in seal skins and ermine among other products. He lived at number 165 with his wife and a large household of seven servants; they had no children. The land off Green Lane which Sir Henry Bessemer had also leased for his model farm with its herd of Alderney cattle was assigned to Hirschel “for athletic purposes”. A number of tennis clubs were established there. Adjoining the railway line from North Dulwich Station, the fields were acquired by JAGS in 1912 and were partly used by the botany teacher, Dr Lillian Clarke for practical lessons in the subject and was where she planted a wood, created a country lane and developed examples of British habitat such as a peat bog and a pebble beach. These features, including the Natural Order beds are still maintained by the school.
Hirschel and his wife moved back to Hampstead shortly before he died in 1913, and the lease was assigned to another wealthy businessman, Sir William Vestey from 1909 to 1922. William and his brother, Edmund, made their fortunes by pioneering the use of refrigeration to preserve foodstuffs. They eventually acquired the largest refrigerated fleet in the world, forming the basis of the Blue Star Line, and owned over 2,000 butcher’s shops as well as many cattle ranches in Argentina. William was created a baronet in 1913 for his part in making cheap food more widely available. During World War I, he allowed Bessemer House to be used as a soldier’s convalescent hospital. However, encouraged by his second wife who had worked during the war at Kingswood House, he took a lease on this property in 1919, and they occupied it a few years later. Unfortunately Bessemer House appears to have suffered during its occupation by soldiers and Vestey’s subsequent neglect. When he tried to sell the lease, the Estate Governors took legal action against him for breaching covenants to keep the house in good repair.
165 Denmark Hill then joined 167 as a residential hotel, and in 1923 became part of the group run by William Wilson and his wife Laura and which included numbers 161 and 163, John Ruskin’s former house. Vestey agreed to pay the Governors £1750 (equivalent to about £100,000 today) and legal fees, Mrs Wilson agreed spend no less than £2,000 (over £120,000 today) on repairs and alterations and was granted a new lease for all four properties for 30 years from June 1922 for a ground rent of £800 a year (just under £50,000 today). They were run as separate units: two hotels, Bessemer Grange and Ruskin Manor possessed 200 rooms with gas fires and sports facilities that included a nine-hole golf course on 40 acres of land, and a tennis club with thirteen courts.
Both buildings were damaged during World War 2. According to the Camberwell Golden Jubilee booklet of 1950, over 14,000 homes in the borough had been either destroyed or badly damaged and all except a few hundred out of the 40,000 total had suffered some damage, so there was desperate need for new housing locally. In 1947, the buildings were compulsorily purchased by Camberwell Borough Council and demolished to make way for the Denmark Hill Estate. At the time of its opening the estate was the council's biggest scheme, providing 682 homes. It was unusual in being built on the site of some of the largest houses in the area rather than on low quality housing. The Bessemer House conservatory stood on what is now the Basingdon Way circle while Bessemer Grange was situated between Basingdon Way and the Tayside Court flats. Hillcrest Lodge, near what is now the junction of Sunray Avenue and Denmark Hill, and served The Grange, was not demolished until 1961. An old oak tree in the playground of Bessemer Grange Primary School is the only survivor of the trees planted in the grounds of Bessemer House.
It is not only the number if patents registered by Sir Henry Bessemer of his inventions over his lifetime, but the sheer variety of his work. Some 129 patents were registered in his lifetime and although he notionally retired in 1870, seven years after moving to Denmark Hill, he continued to register a wide variety of inventions and adaptions. The patents registered when he first was a resident were in connection with his pig iron converter processes for iron and steel manufacture and the apparatus and presses used, however in 1864 he was registering patents for projectiles and ordnance and in complete contrast, that of grindstones and artificial stone. In 1869 he registered yet another patent on the conversion of molten pig iron to malleable iron and steel. It was an intensive year for him and a further six patents connected with this process were registered.
His well-documented experience of suffering from seasickness led to his first patent for the construction of vessels designed to avoid the condition and are referred to in the article above. However, the subject clearly obsessed Bessemer and further patents in connection with solving of seasickness through the construction of vessels with gyroscopically suspended saloons in order to alleviate the problem continued to intrigue him for several more years. Ships’ alarms were another subject of his patenting.
Quite a different study produced yet another patent in 1871 when Bessemer’s interest turned to the asphalting of pavements and the following year, probably stimulated by his desire to build in his grounds at Denmark Hill an observatory with a gigantic telescope, a patent for the manufacture of reflecting lenses. His continuing enthusiasm involving vessels led to other aspects of marine engineering and for machinery to facilitate the loading of ships. His final patent, registered in 1883 for was machinery to load railway rolling stock
Sources: Patricia Jenkyns, The Story of Henry Bessemer, revised edition, Herne Hill Society, 2013; William H. Blanch, Ye Parish of Camerwell, 1875; Brian Green, “ Farming in Dulwich”, Dulwich Society Journal, Summer 2012, Paul Bessemer provided valuable assistance and Sharon O’Connor kindly assisted by researching census returns, directories etc.
By Philippa Tudor
At the end of the 1920 summer term Gustav Holst left his post at James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) after 16 years of teaching class singing there. Although he was no longer on the payroll, JAGS retained a special place in his heart. He returned on a number of occasions, endearing himself to his audience by referring to JAGS as “home”, and on Whit Monday 1926 JAGS gardens were Holst’s chosen venue for the première of his first choral ballet, The Golden Goose. As well as rewarding his former pupils by making good use of the bundles of music manuscript paper which they presented to him as a leaving gift, before he stopped formally teaching at JAGS Holst organised one of the three-day Whitsun festivals which he regarded as amongst the highlights of his own music making, and indeed of his life.
The Dulwich Whitsun Festival was held at a time when its participants needed something to celebrate. Thousands of men from Dulwich and nearby Camberwell had enlisted to serve their country in the Great War. Hundreds were killed, some not as a direct result of war but from the sudden and devastating Spanish Flu which swept Europe in successive deadly waves in 1918 and 1919. The 800 or so beds in the Southwark Union Poor Law Infirmary on East Dulwich Grove, just down the road from JAGS, had been requisitioned for use as a war hospital, and over the next four years between 14 and 15 thousand wounded soldiers were tended to there. In June 2019, as Holst was returning safely from his own war-related service with the YMCA, the mostly elderly civilian occupants of the Infirmary were returning to their institutional home. Dulwich schools had remained open throughout the war one way or another, and by May 1920 Dulwich village had regained much of its semi-rural tranquillity.
JAGS was the young Gustavus von Holst’s first teaching post, which he started in 1904, the year after his honeymoon. His daughter Imogen later explained how “he came back to England without a penny in the world, but with the firm conviction that it was time to give up the trombone and that he would spend his life composing”. Life was hard for the struggling composer and his wife, and they barely made ends meet through the ingenuity of Holst’s wife Isobel making clothes for her friends, which she was good at, and music-copying, which the surviving evidence suggests she was not. Just in the nick of time Holst’s great friend from the Royal College of Music Ralph Vaughan Williams suggested that he should replace him at JAGS. After a term’s probation Holst had proved his worth and was taken on on a permanent basis.
Teaching in Dulwich was never convenient for Holst. Arriving in time to play the piano for Friday morning assembly before a full day’s teaching involved an early start from his home in West London. The maid who joined the small von Holst household after the birth of daughter Imogen in 1907 “… couldn’t bear to have to call him on the mornings when he taught at Dulwich, as it seemed hard that anyone who always looked so tired should have to go to work so very early. She would compromise between duty and inclination by tapping as lightly as possible at the door, and whispering hoarsely: ‘Ere’s yer ot water, sir. Poor man.’”
The conditions for teaching music at JAGS were not ideal - in contrast to those at one of his subsequent major teaching appointments at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where in 1913 a new music wing was opened, complete with a sound-proof room built to Holst’s demanding specification. Singing classes at JAGS were held in what is now the Holst Hall, as Mary Nash (JAGS 1918-1924) recalled:
“During the day we went, form by form, into the Dining Hall, with the form rooms on either side in use for normal lessons. The room on the right hand side of the hall was called the “shutter classroom”, that shutter not completely blocking the all-day singing, as I remember when it was our form room!, and there was always a certain amount of traffic through the Hall, and the dinner tables being set out, also people crossing the gallery - so hardly the ideal setting.”
The fact that Holst stuck it out for so long is an indication of his deep affection for his JAGS pupils. So too was the music he wrote for them, which includes some of his most beautiful choral works. In 1905 Holst collaborated with the headmistress on a series of tableaux based on Tennyson’s poem “The Princess”. His songs were to become some of his first serious music to be published, and are still frequently performed across the world. He turned the vicissitudes of the physical space in which he had to teach into an advantage, using for the first time an echo chorus in “The splendour falls”. One of his pupils described “the choir singing and walking off along a corridor and shutting themselves in a far-off room getting softer and softer - leaving the audience straining their ears for the last note.” Holst was later to use a similar technique in his most famous composition, The Planets Suite.
Throughout his time teaching at Dulwich, however, Holst’s future fame was far from apparent. In public life he was painfully shy, but he soon became a popular teacher. In 1910 the School Inspectors reported: the “large classes [usually two forms together] are managed with extraordinary skill by the Master, who contrives to teach them not only Singing but a good deal of the technique of the subject”. The younger girls sang with “an alertness and precision of attack which are very uncommon even with very much older children”.
Holst deprecated the music usually served up at girls’ schools. He enjoyed teaching precision in part-singing by getting his pupils to sing rounds such as the Dargason faster and faster. One current Dulwich resident recalls his mother simply describing his lessons as “fun”. Another early published work (1908) was Holst’s edition of Michael Este’s 17th madrigal “How merrily we live”, which was one of his favourite pieces at JAGS, and which quickly entered the repertoire for singing competitions. As well as working their way through the National Song Book, Holst’s JAGS pupils sang Orlando di Lasso’s “Adoremus Te”, Victoria’s “Duo Seraphim”, and the four Brahms part-songs for female voices, horn and strings. When he started teaching at JAGS there was no school orchestra, so for the Brahms performance Holst enlisted Adolf Borsdorf, probably the best horn player at the time, and the founder of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Holst, like Borsdorf, suffered from the anti-German sentiment rampant during the First World War, despite the fact in Holst’s case that his ancestors were not in fact German. Repeatedly turned down for war service, unlike Vaughan Williams, and unlike his wife, who became a volunteer ambulance driver, Holst was frustrated by the fact that his contribution was limited to leading his adult pupils in singing in underground shelters to raise morale. On 31 May 1916, when the plans for the Battle of the Somme were underway, the Prime Minister announced the postponement of the traditional Whitsun holiday in munitions areas. Holst’s response was to organise the first of three annual Whitsun festivals at his home town of Thaxted in Essex, which he and its participants experienced as “a feast - an orgy” of music-making.
In 1918 Holst was finally accepted for war-related service with the YMCA in Salonica. As well as his always poor health his surname - von Holst - had been viewed as a barrier to service. Former JAGS pupil May Moore, recounting second-hand memories by her friends, later remembered “being told that when Mr Holst, like many other people with German-sounding names, changed his name by deed poll, the school was told that they must be very careful to call him Mr Holst and not Mr Von Holst.”
Whilst he was absent abroad the JAGS brownies were encouraged to write to Holst, and some of his picture postcard replies are now treasured in the JAGS archives. When making plans for his arrival back in England at the end of June 1919 Holst prioritised early visits to St Paul’s Girls’ School and JAGS. He was certainly enthusiastically greeted at the latter, writing to his friend Whittaker: “I’m having a wild time. My clothes were nearly torn off by 350 small people at my Dulwich school yesterday.”
But Holst’s absence from the weekly grind had also provided time for reflection about the next phase of his career. Whilst reluctant to abandon teaching, he also wanted to cut back on the time spent commuting so as to spend more of the week in Thaxted, and thus to have more time to compose. By 1919 he had already composed several of his best-known works, including The Planets Suite and The Hymn of Jesus. He spent the late summer of 1919 writing his beautiful Ode to Death in memory of musicians who had been killed in the war. He also composed his Festival Te Deum for chorus and orchestra, and, as his notebook records in brackets, he “revised old things for press”. The Hymn of Jesus was published in 1919 and when Holst conducted its first public performance in March 1920 it was such an overwhelming success that there were calls from the audience for a repeat performance there and then. Overwhelmed himself by the acclaim to which he never became accustomed, Holst walked out into the street whilst the applause continued. Although the even more popular Planets Suite did not receive its first complete performance until the end of 1920, unbeknownst to his pupils in Dulwich and elsewhere their teacher was about to become a musical celebrity.
Thus is was that JAGS teachers wrote in the School Magazine after his untimely death in 1934, having decided to cut back on his school teaching commitments:
“Holst wanted the James Allen’s girls to share, for once, at least, such a wonderful experience, so with the permission of the Dulwich College authorities the Whitsuntide Festival of 1920 was held in the Old College Chapel and its garden … He wanted them to have every chance of enjoying music, for he believed with Bach that ‘the aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation.’ ”
Moving the Whitsun Festival from Thaxted, where the parish church is exceptionally large and uncluttered, to Dulwich involved careful organisation. Fortunately this means that Holst’s Dulwich festival is particularly well documented, with several pages of pencil notes in his pocket notebooks detailing his plans as they evolved. A contingent of his pupils at Morley College for working men and women in Waterloo were to “come Sat wet or fine”. The venue was Christ’s Chapel and its gardens, and Holst mapped out how to arrange the choir both inside and out. He noted down the number of places in the chapel, reckoning on seven in each stall, with the basses spread out. Outside he spread the choir members across one of the sides of the quadrangle.
Holst’s notes document how he built up the three-day programme, and administrative details, from arranging for music copying, to counting the copies of scores, deputing someone to fetch the music on the Saturday morning (“Dulcie see to it?)”. From an early stage of his planning a masque arranged by his 13-year-old daughter Imogen was to be included, despite the fact that she was never a pupil at JAGS. That involved him correcting the proofs of her dances, arranging for a suitable location for its performance, briefing his daughter, and ensuring the “girl singers put away music stands etc.” before it.
The link with Thaxted was provided by borrowing its famous Bach banner, to be carried in procession, as well as incorporating some of the music performed in previous Thaxted Whitsun festivals. This included Bach’s Sleepers Wake and several settings by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. The Dulwich festival was particularly rich in first performances, with Holst’s own Short Festival Te Deum sung with an orchestral accompaniment and dedicated to Morley College. Holst’s manuscript amendments to the typescript programme show that he had intended Bach’s Soul array thyself - one of his favourite cantatas - to take the place of the second hymn at the first service on the Saturday, but in the event all three hymns were those he had composed or arranged himself - A Festival Chime, Turn Back O Man and Let all mortal flesh keep silence. To Holst’s delight his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams participated in the Festival for the first time, bringing with him the manuscript for the first performance of the Kyrie from his Mass in G Minor, dedicated to “Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers”. Imogen Holst’s own composition for her dancing masque was another first performance, subsequently repeated at her school at Eothen, and now preserved with her archive at the Britten-Pears Foundation.
Musicians from all three of Holst’s main teaching commitments were to come together for three days of rehearsal, liturgy and music-making. As at Thaxted, those involved came from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School, but in 1920 there were fewer of the latter, and JAGS pupils were added to the mix.
Before the first Thaxted Festival Holst had deliberated over the dress code for the musicians, who at Thaxted included some of the local factory workers, and Holst was always careful to ensure that poverty was not a barrier to participation. Having first thought of white - appropriate for Whitsun and the standard “best dress” for girls in the early 20th century - he alighted on the much cheaper solution of achieving a measure of uniformity for the female singers by his wife Isobel making veils in the colour chosen by the wearer for a shilling each. The colourful veils were retained for the Dulwich Festival, but this time the girls wore their white dresses. Years later Catherine Fairbairns, who left JAGS in 1927, so would have been quite young in 1920, recalled “going with my mother to buy a few yards of colourful chiffon. We could choose whatever colour we liked. I chose orange. We then wore them as veils at a gathering in the Chaplain’s garden and danced around in front of the audience. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what all this was about!”
Fortunately, several other more formal accounts of the great weekend were preserved, including in the annual magazines of all three of the participating organisations. The July 1920 edition of the St Paul’s Girls’ School magazine The Paulina provides one of the most complete contemporary accounts:
“For some of us the Whitsun Holiday of 1920 will be among the most memorable we have ever spent. I mean for those who took part in the Musical Festival at Dulwich. This Festival has been held for many Whitsuntides, but never before near enough to London to make it possible for a general invitation to be extended to Paulinas. So for most people it was a new and completely thrilling experience. But only a small number of those taking part were Paulinas; the rest were members of Mr. Holst’s choir and orchestra at Morley College - including several Old Paulinas - and girls from the James Allen School. Saturday afternoon was spent in rehearsing, and for those who hold that “a bad rehearsal is a good performance,” the rehearsal was entirely satisfactory” On Sunday the real thing began; morning service was at 10.30, beginning with a procession, at the head of which was carried a banner bearing this inscription; “The aim of Music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation.” The service took place in the quadrangle of Old Dulwich College, with the choir and orchestra on one side of the path leading to the Chapel, and the congregation on the other.
It was very hot, so hot that the sun nearly melted the varnish off our instruments; but what matter? We were making music. After morning service the choir adjourned to the Chapel, where we sang, unaccompanied, sixteenth century music during the Communion Service. This was the most beautiful music we ever sang, and our only wish that we could do more of it and still more. Our labours concluded, we hurried off to the James Allen School for our well-earned lunch. We (Paulinas) picnicked in the girls’ cookery kitchen, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
On Sunday afternoon we went over to the Infirmary, where we repeated a great deal of the music of the morning for the benefit of those who were unable to come and hear it for themselves. After an interval for tea, we went back to the College for evening service. The spirit of the Festival seemed to have spread right through Dulwich; it almost felt quite natural to be walking through the streets attired in white dresses and veils, even on Bank Holiday people used to ask us as we went by if we were “singing up at the College again this evening,” and the size of the congregation both on Sunday and Monday showed that our efforts were appreciated. Anyone might come into the Quadrangle or the Chaplain’s Garden (where the Mystery Play and several other things were performed on Whit Monday evening), for as long as he or she liked; and it was no unusual thing to see tennis parties, arrayed in “whites,” sitting on the grass listening for half an hour or so in the interval of playing tennis.
As well as glossing over the important details of what music was actually performed - information supplied by the programme with Holst’s own corrections - the Paulina review omitted to mention the important participation of both Holst, as principal conductor and organiser, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Former JAGS pupil Dorothy Callard, who had progressed from being a naughty pupil to playing strings in the Morley Orchestra, was about 22 at the time. She later recalled the significance of the “Informal Music in Chapel” on the Sunday evening:
“The most exciting thing that happened was, that whilst we were eating our lunch in the chaplain’s garden, Mr Holst came to me and said Uncle Ralph is writing us a Communion service for our festivals. He has brought the Kyrie with him this morning. Now you borrow my fountain pen and go into the vestry and make eight single voice copies and we’ll try it through. So I did. Twelve of us went up into the chapel gallery, with Mr. Holst perched on the corner of the balustrade, and Ralph Vaughan Williams on the organ seat …”
The Monday morning was a repeat of the previous day - Holst often liked his musicians to perform things more than once. The afternoon and evening were more relaxed - rehearsing, some of the group having a guided tour of the Picture Gallery, sacred music by Holst’s professional friends in the Chapel and then, from 6-8 pm, music in the Chaplain’s garden. Starting with folksongs with orchestra “to be sung by everyone”, the programme moved on to Haydn’s London Symphony (Holst corrected the typescript reference to the London Symphony Orchestra), three unspecified madrigals and then, before the “concluding informal Music in the Chapel”, a mystery play on the unseasonal Christmas theme of the adoration of the shepherds.
As for Gustav Holst himself, he had no regrets at having held the Festival in Dulwich rather than Thaxted. To him Whitsun was “as wonderful as ever.” He wrote to the future vicar of Thaxted, Jack Putterill: “I don’t sympathise with your wish to have the first Whitsun or the first anything else over again. What I enjoy in life is the breaking out of the same Spirit in new Forms. Surely that is the great thing in life.”
In March 2020 Morley College choirs were starting to rehearse for the celebration of the centenary of Holst’s Whitsun Festival in Dulwich, with a repertoire based on his typescript programme, when another pandemic cast its long shadow across the world. At the time of writing, if the celebration planned for 28 June 2020 proves impossible the intention is to mark this major event in the musical history of Dulwich in 1921.
NOTE: All illustrations are copyright by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the National Picture Gallery and reproduced in this Journal with permission. The quotation from Holst’s letter to Jack Putterill is reproduced with thanks to his daughter, Sylvia Heath.
By Sharon O’Connor
Built in 1819 and demolished less than a century later, Carlton House was a huge Georgian villa on the Dulwich side of Herne Hill, where Casino Avenue and Danecroft Road stand now.
Its first residents were Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861) and his family, and the house was known simply as ‘Herne Hill’. Bicknell, a partner in the leading whale oil merchants Langton & Bicknell, was the Charles Saatchi of his day. The Athenaeum named him one of the top four collectors of contemporary British art of his day and his collection included Turner, Gainsborough and Landseer. His house was always open to artists and connoisseurs including John Ruskin, who lived just across the road; Brian Green has covered the story of the Herne Hill art set in his article on Stephen Poyntz Denning (Journal Winter 2014). Bicknell lived here with the second, third and fourth of his wives. The Bicknell sons who grew up at the house included Henry Sanford, art collector and son-in-law of the artist David Roberts; Herman, a surgeon, traveller and Orientalist; Sidney, a soldier and writer; and Clarence, a botanist, archaeologist and artist.
The house itself was impressive. Clarence Bicknell’s biographer, Valerie Lester, described it as having ‘the air of a prosperous Late Regency matron: imposing, bosomy, pale and stucco-fronted’. Less than five miles from London yet surrounded by the rural splendour of woods and meadows, the villas on Herne Hill were huge and those atop the hill commanded views for miles around.
Royal Academicians and men of note were royally entertained at dinner parties of around two dozen guests, including Turner, whom Bicknell had talent-spotted before even Ruskin, buying his paintings while he was still unknown. The old drawing room in the centre of the house had walls lined with mahogany (to keep out the damp) and then covered with white and gold rococo panelling. It was then used to display watercolours but instead of framing the paintings, Bicknell set them into the wall panels; he even used Turner’s Rivers of France to decorate the door panels. In another drawing room were hung other Turner masterpieces including Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio which Bicknell bought from the Royal Academy in 1841 for 250 guineas. In 2006 it sold for over £20 million, a record for a British painting.
Carlton House effectively functioned as a gallery with open house for artists, family and friends to view the paintings and Bicknell’s other collections of books, musical instruments, telescopes and microscopes.
When his next-door neighbour, a very cantankerous man named Prior died in 1851, Bicknell bought his property and added it to his, extending the house and adding a large conservatory, creating more space for his ever-growing art collection. Five years later he added a billiard room.
In 1858, when his former partner, Mr Langton, died, Bicknell bought his meadows and part of his gardens, bringing Carlton House’s grounds to around twelve acres. By then he had also bought most of the houses along Herne Hill, owning almost everything on both sides of the road from Red Post Hill to St Paul’s church. Not that there were many houses at that time: Sidney wrote that ‘from the veranda at Herne Hill, as far as the Norwood range of hills bounding the horizon, dense woods and meadow foreground filled the view, no houses were visible, and it was constantly a matter of surprise to the artist visitors, that London should be only 5 miles instead of 100 distant’.
Bicknell died in 1861 and the house was sold two years later, leaving an estate of around £500,000. His house and grounds together with two smaller residences sold for over £14,000. Sidney was scathing about the next resident of the house: ‘Mr Nicholson pulled down the centre of the house … and rebuilt it in the worst taste, christening it Carlton House’.
Edward Chambers Nicholson (1827-1890), was a chemist and dye manufacturer. He was born in Lincoln and after the death of his mother was sent to live with an aunt in Uxbridge where he went to school. In 1845, aged eighteen, he enrolled as one of the first students at the Royal College of Chemistry on Oxford St and after five years there, two as a research assistant, he left to investigate the chemistry of ironmaking in South Wales. Following a move to Aberdare in Scotland, he contracted typhoid fever, forcing a return to London. In 1853 he married Louisa Stephens and, with two fellow college students, he set up Simpson, Maule and Nicholson, a chemical manufacturing company based in Walworth. Nicholson led their research and development work and it was said that ‘in him was united the genius of the manufacturer and the habits of a scientific investigator’. One of his most important discoveries was a method of making magenta dye and in 1862 the firm produced the world-famous 'Nicholson's blue' dye, named after him.
By 1865 the firm were the largest producers of coal tar colours in Britain. They outgrew the original premises in Walworth and moved to the purpose-built Atlas Dye Works at Hackney Wick. A number of other companies began using his magenta dye process so Nicholson decided to sue. Unfortunately, his patents were badly drafted and after three years of long and costly litigation a House of Lords judgement declared they were invalid. Others could then go ahead with magenta dye manufacture and the resulting competition brought about a 95% collapse in dye prices. Nicholson however, was still a very rich man and in 1868, aged only 41 he retired from the business. He never lost his interest in chemistry though, he continued to subscribe to periodicals and journals, acted as Steward at Imperial College dinners and continued his research work, registering new patents up until 1870.
Nicholson died at Carlton House in 1890, leaving an estate of £146,000. The house was sold at this stage: the 1890 Solicitors’ Journal advertised Carlton House together with Frankfurt Villa and Horns Lodge. However, Nicholson’s wife Louisa and son John both continued to live there until Louisa died in 1898 after a long and painful illness. The contents of the house were then sold by Messrs Broad & Wiltshire and included two pianos, three Chubb safes, 200 iron hurdles, three cows and a calf.
In 1901 Sir Henry George Smallman (1854-1923) moved into the house with his large family. Smallman was the son of Hammelton Luff and Henry Gowlett Smallman, publican and large-scale builder in Wandsworth, Brixton Hill and East Dulwich who also built the Gowlett Arms in Gowlett Road.
In 1880, Smallman, then a solicitor had married Louisa, eldest daughter of Richard Strong, JP, governor of Dulwich College and MP for Camberwell North. They had six sons and three daughters. Like so many in Dulwich, Smallman was very much involved in the City of London’s administration. He was an alderman from 1898-1906 and a sheriff in 1905 He was knighted in 1906.
Henry and Louisa lived at Carlton House with all nine of their children and to look after them they had a butler and cook (a husband and wife team), a nurse, four maids and a groom. One son, Henry Richard George Strong Smallman, known as Harry, qualified as an architect and surveyor in 1904, and designed the Electric Cinema in Epsom and the Gaiety Cinema in Poplar. He was also responsible for the redesign of many London pubs. In 1905 the Smallmans moved to Beckenham,
Dulwich and Herne Hill had become less fashionable as increasing public transport meant that the area changed from being a rural wealthy retreat, marked as ‘upper middle and upper classes, wealthy’ on English social reformer Charles Booth’s ‘poverty map’, to a middle-class enclave. Large houses were demolished to make way for residential roads and Carlton House was no exception. However, the Dulwich Estate’s qualitative control meant that incoming residents were still described as ‘comfortable or well-to-do’, though Booth says they were not ‘natural churchgoers’ and spent their Saturdays bicycling, playing tennis and ‘indulging in music and dancing’. On Sundays ‘they rose after midday and strolled in Brockwell Park’. In 1903 an auction was held to sell off Carlton House’s building materials ‘to clear the site for new roads’.