In September we read the welcome news that the way is now clear for restoration to begin at the Concrete House at 549 Lordship Lane. My sister Jo Thom and I have taken a keen interest in this house since, earlier this year, we confirmed our belief that the Charles Drake in our family tree (our great–grandfather on our mother’s side) is the same person as the builder of this haunting landmark on the Dulwich landscape.
The broad facts of Drake’s professional career are well known and documented . Originally he worked as manager for Joseph Tall, a builder who developed a system that enabled the walls of a building to be cast in concrete and completed within as little as a week, using a modular framework of shuttering and support. Drake saw that this method could be improved upon, and when Tall refused to take his ideas on board Drake patented his own version of the system and in 1867 founded his rival business, “The Drake Patent Concrete Building Company”. The use of shuttering to create thin concrete walls was by no means new, but Drake’s achievement was to introduce the concept into “polite” architecture. Using his new “patent concrete builder”, he constructed several grand houses for wealthy clients – the best examples being Fernlands Villa, Chertsey (1870, demolished 1955) and Down Hall (1873) near Harlow (now a country house hotel). Our family history also associates him with the Melrose Hydropathic Establishment in the Scottish borders (1869-71, now the Waverley Castle Hotel), and with a building in London for the War Office that would be “fireproof and practically indestructible” – maybe the prototype for later wartime bunkers (it would be interesting to know if it still exists, and where). Few of his smaller scale domestic buildings remain. Our research has turned up some new information on several of his buildings, including the sadly derelict Concrete House in Dulwich, and we hope it may resolve some of the unanswered questions concerning its early history.
In the course of our research we have spoken to several of Drake’s relatives and earlier this year my wife and I met a branch of the family in the United States, where I was delighted to discover a memoir of the Drakes written in the 1960s by his grand–daughter Jean Thompson. The memoir contains much new information compiled from correspondence with Drake’s son Charles Joseph and other sources.
Charles Drake was born on Oct 26th 1839 in Chudleigh, Devon. His family was a scion of the great sea captain’s, though Sir Francis himself left no heirs. Unusually for a Drake, Charles joined not the Royal Navy but the Army, and was reputedly a crack marksman. His army career was however short–lived as he contracted jaundice and received an honourable discharge. In 1863 Drake married an Exeter girl, Eliza Richards, with whom he was to have three children, including Charlie (Charles Joseph), who was later to join the family firm. By 1869 Drake and his family had moved from Devon to Newington, South London and had entered “the concrete business”. The census of April 1871 has them living in Norwood – but before the month was out Drake’s wife Eliza died, probably in childbirth, aged just thirty. He was left with three children under the age of eight.
We know that Drake was responsible for several buildings in Scotland (some as far north as Aberdeen), including, we believe, the Melrose Hydropathic Institute in the Scottish borders. This was designed by the Edinburgh architect James Campbell Walker and is considered to be “pioneering . . . probably the earliest mass concrete construction in Scotland” . It was perhaps through an association with Walker that Drake was to meet the Dunfermline architect and builder Thomas Bonnar, then living at 28 Scotland Street, Edinburgh. In September 1873 Charles Drake married Thomas Bonnar’s eldest daughter Jane Murray Bonnar. After her wedding in Edinburgh Jane moved down to London, and this is where we pick up the story of the Concrete House.
Charles Drake built what is now No. 549 Lordship Lane in 1873. In some publications and documents the house is supposed to have been built as the rectory to St Peter’s Church opposite, designed by Charles Barry Jnr. However there is little evidence to link the two buildings save a closeness of architectural style and a presumption that a church of the stature of St Peter’s would need a parsonage. The truth is, I believe, rather different, and in many ways more interesting. On the certificate of his second marriage Drake stated his address as “The Ferns, Forest Hill, London”. Just before her marriage Jane’s grandfather gave her a bible in which she and Charles recorded the major life events of the family. The first entry, in Jane’s best italic hand, proclaims the birth of their first son, Francis Glenny, on July 18th 1874, at “The Ferns, Lordship Lane, Forest Hill, London”.
These facts do not prove that The Ferns and No. 549 are one and the same house. Thanks to the delineation of the census districts it is possible to make an identification. In 1881 and again in 1891 the enumeration district boundary ran along the west side of Underhill Road, then north-west up Lordship Lane, covering the properties on its north side towards Melford Road. In both censuses the house on the corner of Underhill Road and Lordship Lane is called The Ferns. This is, of course, the location of No. 549, the Concrete House.
So it would appear that, far from being a rectory, the house was built by Drake as a home for himself and his second wife. By the time of the 1881 census the Drakes had moved. The new occupants of The Ferns are listed as Robert Carter, a linen merchant, his wife and two daughters. The 1891 census records it as occupied by Henry Yeo, a leather manufacturer, his wife and family of eight. No vicars, then.
There is one other intriguing piece of information that associates Drake with the Dulwich neighbourhood. Not far from Lordship Lane is another house that is strikingly similar to The Ferns. Gothic Lodge stands on the corner of Idmiston Road and Barston Road, Tulse Hill. It is also made of concrete, and presumably built by Drake. Fortunately it has not suffered the fate of The Ferns: it was restored some twenty years ago and is now a residential care home. The address recorded in the 1871 census for Charles Drake, his first wife Eliza and their three children was Buccleugh Road, Norwood. This road is not found in the London A–Z, having been re-named in the late nineteenth century. Its new name is Idmiston Road. So in 1871 Drake was living on the street where Gothic Lodge now stands, and was probably still living there while he built The Ferns in 1873 for his new bride.
We know from family history how long Drake and his family lived on Lordship Lane and this leads on to an identification of other houses that Drake built that have sadly since disappeared. Referring to The Ferns, Jean Thompson writes that her grandfather “[in] 1873-6 built and lived in a house at Dulwich” and she goes on to mention their later residences in Clapham and Upper Tooting.
The house at Upper Tooting built in 1878-9 was to be the last house that Drake lived in. Known as Briar Bank, it stood at 10 Wandle Road, near Wandsworth Common, and was probably one of the new buildings that Drake referred to in an article in The Builder in which he details a new method of applying colour to concrete to enhance its appearance without the use of stucco. His grand-daughter’s memoir based on correspondence with Drake’s son Charles Joseph supports this:
“[his houses] were all built to show different processes of building with concrete. The last at Upper Tooting was constructed entirely of concrete – walls, floors, staircase, roof, including baths, sinks, and tanks for water supply. Built “in situ” – all in one piece. This was the first building in England in which small reinforcement rods were used, and it was also the first to have exterior walls finished outside with a cement to which a mineral coloring had been added.”
She goes on to write that “by that time the architects and builders were convinced that the Drake monolithic concrete system was all it claimed to be”, but history records rather the reverse to be the case: the architectural establishment came out against the use of concrete as a suitable building material. Partly this was as a result of the hostility of John Ruskin who saw concrete as a dishonest material, especially when it was made to resemble another. There were also doubts about its durability, strength and colour consistency. It was left to others such as Frank Lloyd Wright in America and Auguste Perret in France to develop more fully the potential of the material of which Charles Drake was so passionate an advocate. But Drake did recognise that, while his own use of concrete was conducted within a conventional architectural idiom, a new style would be needed for it to reach its true potential. In a speech in 1874 he said with great foresight: “Much has been written and said lately about the demand for a new style at architecture. May I suggest that this may be found in studying the right architectural treatment of concrete buildings”
Charles Drake died at Briar Bank in 1892 at the early age of 52. The family firm did not outlive him. Charles Joseph had emigrated to Canada in 1887, where he developed a process for manufacturing paving slabs with integral gutters for the sidewalks of its cities. Writing of his departure, Jean Thompson says: “who ran the business after this, I do not know”.
It is a tribute to Drake’s construction system that the Concrete House has withstood the rigours of dereliction and is considered still structurally sound enough to be restored. Along with those who have campaigned so tirelessly for its salvation, we look forward to its new lease of life, maybe bearing its original name, The Ferns, on its distinctive gateposts. And we hope that its freshly restored walls may also bear a blue plaque in honour of its creator and first occupant, stating that “Charles Drake, 1839-1892, pioneer builder in concrete, built this house in 1873 and lived here 1873-1876”.