Finding out about 36 Calton Avenue By Sharon O’Connor

Five years ago when we moved to Dulwich I was slightly disappointed to find that the deeds to our house held no information about when it was built, or who had lived in it before the people we bought it from. It would be interesting to look into its history I thought before forgetting all about it and getting on with settling in.  Fast forward to a recent Sunday, when the Picture Gallery hosted a Dulwich House Detectives Day. Maps from the exhibition told the story of the outburst of house building in Dulwich Village between 1906 and 1914; living in Dulwich then must have been like living on a giant building site. My house was erected during this period and I began to think it might be fun to try and track down who had lived in my house during its life.

The talks from the great and the good of Dulwich local history were fascinating and gave me lots of leads as to where to find information. So first thing on Monday morning I visit the temporary HQ of the local history collection in Peckham. Working backwards from today using the Voters’ Lists I build a picture of the families who have lived in my house. Several families live in the house for around 22 years apiece which makes sense as I see children appear on the Electoral Roll as eligible voters and I recognise that it takes around 20 years to bring up a family. I get back as far as 1939 when all of a sudden the house stops being No 36 Calton Avenue and becomes Glenholme. I feel an odd sense of pleasure that someone took the trouble to give the house a name and I begin to wonder: why that particular name? So I stop my researches and look into the name Glenholme. This is a meandering exercise in the sense that I learn nothing about why my particular house was named Glenholme but I do learn that a lot of houses around the country are also named Glenholme and I file it away to come back to another time

So back to my house and I get back as far as 1936 when I see that a William and Louisa Quiney are living in my house. The records at the library cannot help me any further but I do consult a very useful book which tells me that my road had a name change in 1922 when Calton Road moved upmarket to become Calton Avenue. Who was living there then and did they approve of this aspirational name change or was it a nuisance to change all their details?

One of the Dulwich House Detectives was Calista Lucy, Keeper of the Archives at Dulwich College, and an email to her elicits an invitation to visit her at the college to study their collection. Tuesday morning sees me sitting at a large table in the beautiful book-lined Archives of Dulwich College. Mrs Lucy has placed in front of me some of the minutes of the Dulwich Estate for 1914, the year in which my house first appeared on a map. She has also found me some “letter books”, a record of every letter sent out by the Estate. Alas there are no records of incoming letters but it’s possible to interpolate based on these incredibly detailed accounts. In fact, these are not just the history of the Dulwich Estate; they are endlessly fascinating social documents and I am easily sidetracked. I could spend all day here just wandering through the accounts of applications for “motor houses” (garages to you and me), brass plates (the Estate not so keen), and also marvelling at the sheer number of letters addressed to women, often single women. There are lots of stories in these books.

In May 1911 I find that a Miss C E Milner, from Cricklewood in North London offers to buy a plot of land next to the proposed site of the vicarage of St Barnabas. This is the site of my house and it’s clear from the map that the eastern side of Calton Avenue is fairly empty at this stage, with just the church built and several empty plots. Miss Milner plans to build a house costing not less than £750 with a ground rent of £10 10s pa plus £27 for charges to the Governors of the Estate to make up Calton Road as a new street. The Estate’s Surveyor makes a series of criticisms of Miss Milner’s plans. He would like the staircase wider, the entrance porch increased in size, the central bay on the front should be carried up into the roof and ”the wc is impossible”. The windows of the principal bedroom should be bigger and the type of materials used for the front elevation should apply to the other elevations. Despite all these misgivings the Governors accept the offer and a building agreement is signed with the lease beginning from the next quarter day. However this approval is subject to Miss Milner making the changes suggested by the Surveyor.

So I now have a date when my house is built and the first owner but a gap between 1911 and 1936 when a Mr and Mrs Quiney are living there. However Miss Lucy has another card up her sleeve and shows me how to follow the paper trail through the minutes and letter books in order to track this particular transaction.  In June 1911 the Estate Surveyor meets with Miss Milner’s architect, Messrs Treacher & Son and extracts a promise from them to make the changes suggested. Miss Milner is reluctant to carry the bay up into the roof as suggested and the Surveyor does not press the point. The Governors want to inspect the site themselves before agreeing to move forward and this they do at “The Annual View”, where they also look at houses being built in Dovercourt Road amongst others.

It’s difficult for me to piece together what happens next since I’m not experienced at reading these records and also they only tell one side the story: they are records of the Estate’s letters and minutes with no copies of incoming letters. However, the Reverend Nixon, Vicar of St Barnabas writes in July 1911 regarding both Miss Milner’s house and his own vicarage which is proposed for the adjoining site. He has also “approached” various Governors individually. What is the Rev Nixon unhappy about?

We get to November and work appears to have stopped on the house. The architect, Mr Treacher, reports that Miss Milner will not honour his certificate for an advance to the builder. The whole matter is passed to the Estate Solicitor who is told to inform Miss Milner that unless she continues building the Governors will confiscate the property. I am agog to know what has happened. Has she run out of money? Does she not like the changes imposed on her by the Estate? What is an Edwardian spinster doing duelling with the Dulwich Estate in this manner anyway?  The Surveyor takes steps to deny anyone access to the site, then instructs Mr Treacher to complete the building. Mr Treacher invites tenders from three “respectable” firms of builders and accepts a tender to finish building the house at a cost of £486, paid for by the Estate.

On Lady Day (25th March) 1912 a Mr G R Allison enters into an agreement with the Estate for a tenancy of 3 years at Glenholme, “originally erected by Miss Milner”, at a rent of £55 pa. Mr Allison is Superintendent of the Accident Dept of the Northern Assurance Company and he lives in Liverpool but is transferring to head office in London.

The trail goes quiet, presumably the house finally gets built and we hear no more until October 1912 when up pops Miss Milner’s solicitors, Messrs Dallimore, Pilbrow & Co. They note that the Estate have completed the house at their own expense and have subsequently let it. They go on to state that “this action was very disastrous to Miss Milner ... We should be glad therefore if you will consent to transfer the house to her on her paying a reasonable sum to reimburse you”. The Governors reply that they are not prepared to transfer the premises known as Glenholme, Calton Road and have let it to Mr Allison

In July 1913 Mr Allison asks Martin & Co to let Glenholme for him. The Governors write to him telling him that they will consider his tenant and they thank him for drawing attention to the kitchen range and other fireplaces which have given him much trouble. Later the same month they write to Mrs Allison saying they will find a tenant for her but that she must tidy up the garden and cut the grass to make the house more lettable (shades of TV’s House Doctor). In August Mr Allison writes from Aigburgh in Liverpool. He has been transferred back to Liverpool by his firm and he has found a tenant, Mr Quiney of 41 Pickwick Road.

This brings me full circle to my earlier search at the library. Mr Quiney is an iron merchant in Bermondsey and he lives in the house with his large family until his death in 1935. His widow, Louisa, moves out the following year. So by the end of the week I have a full record of all the people who ever lived in my house, a great story of how it came to be built and an increased affection for it as a result. My next quest is to find out more about Miss Milner. Census records tell me she was born in Yorkshire, her father was a wool stapler and she went on to earn her living as a dressmaker but I would love to know how she came to be living in Cricklewood and building a house in Dulwich. I also hope to find out more about the Quiney family who moved from the East End, the Plunketts, the Brynings and the other families who have lived in my house.