The Springfield Estate is now better known as the area bounded by Half Moon Lane, Burbage Rd and the two railway lines. But what was there before? Until the 18th century it was an area of “ancient meadow” within Dulwich Manor and, to judge from Rocque’s 1741-6 map, a marshy area thereby perhaps explaining the name ‘springfield’.

The subsequent development of this corner of Dulwich was a consequence of the trend by wealthy merchants and lawyers to escape from the smoky and congested City, and take advantage of new turnpike roads to build substantial houses in the still rural villages around London. A process of leaseholding and rental arrangements had ensured revenue for the College Estate virtually since Edward Alleyn’s time but such leases were limited to a term of 21 years by statute. In response to pressure by existing and prospective tenants for longer tenure, a private Act of Parliament in 1808 ratified the new and existing holders and permitted leases to be extended by a further 63 years.

 One of the new arrivals was Richard Shawe, a rich lawyer and key figure in the seven year long Warren Hastings trial before the House of Lords,  who won his case in1795. Several years later Shawe would acquire two prime plots, one in 1797 for the Nash-designed Casino House on Herne Hill, and the other in 1803 for a smaller area of 3 acres, roughly adjacent to the Half Moon Tavern and with an annual rental of £28.  In 1806 Shawe married the eldest daughter of his neighbour at this property, a city merchant named Nathaniel Bogle French.  In his Will of 1811 Richard Shawe left  the house which was now called Springfield Cottage, to his wife, because he knew she detested the thought of remaining at Casino after his death.  Whether or not she actually moved to Springfield Cottage when he died in 1816 is unclear.

The Dulwich Manor map of 1806 shows a large swathe of land surrounding Springfield Cottage allotted to Mr Bogle French.  By 1810 it had, through debt, to be relinquished and passed through a number of hands with bankruptcies and the involvement of City financiers. The Indenture ended up with his adjoining neighbour, a stockbroker called John Frederick Schroder, a distant ancestor of the recent German Chancellor. By 1838, 18 acres of paddock had been added to Springfield Cottage’s original 3 acres and a substantial house and lodge are shown on the Camberwell tithe map. Nothing further is recorded till 1842 when it passed to Charles Pierre Devaux who held it till the mid 1850’s.  Devaux’s wealth emanated from investments in railways in Europe and North America.

After such a period of individual turmoil and change, stability was about to be restored. In July 1858 a lease on Springfield for a term of 28 years was granted to John Gregory Crace at an annual rental of £228. A further seven years were granted as a result of his substantial input on repairs and improvements.. Though nothing is known of the original building, it received a major reconstruction from the incoming owners into an Italianate villa with verandah and large conservatory, possibly with the advice of Sir Charles Barry. It also incorporated Gothic features probably deriving from the close professional links existing with Augustus Pugin.  The accompanying photograph of the interior in particular displays a very characteristic example of middle-Victorian opulence of effect by an individual for whom it was the basis of his working life.

It seems appropriate at this point to fill in some background to the Craces.  John Gregory Crace was the fourth generation of the family continuously involved in decoration, originally the now lost world of coach making. The business, by now in Wigmore St., developed into the most significant player in internal decoration and design in England for over 130 years.  The family’s intermarriage with the influential Gregory family on three occasions cemented their place in society and opened up access to powerful patrons and the prominent architects of the period – Wyatt, Holland and Soane. Alongside work on the great houses of Althorp, Carlton and Woburn, the peak of the “Georgian” Craces’ endeavour came with a major role in the Brighton Pavilion and later Windsor Castle with the Prince Regent’s patronage. However it was not just a matter of connections. They displayed an ability, backed by thorough study and research, to adapt to the new styles of each age, whether Rococo, Orientalist, Neo-Classical, Gothic or French Renaissance.

By the Springfield days it was the turn of the “Victorian” Craces working at Chatsworth, Devonshire House, the reconstructed Crystal Palace and the new Houses of Parliament, with extensive working links with Barry and Pugin. It was a remarkable series of commissions and demonstrated again their facility at becoming the natural choice of successive monarchs and the aristocracy. So perhaps it was not surprising that by the late 1850’s there was an attraction in their occupying a country estate away from the fogs and diseases of central London as more in keeping with their elevated status.

Springfield was a spacious home for the family of J.G.Crace, having 11 children in total, of which the 1861 Census shows seven with a household of six servants. It was a home that the eldest son, John Dibblee Crace, remembered with affection. In an autobiographical fragment he recalled an incident: “A stream, the Effra, flowed between the road and the house…..In the spring of 1868 an enormous eel was found in it a few yards below the house. It was speared with a pitchfork and girthed at eight and a half inches weighing over 11 lbs.” Life as a gentleman and “Architectural Decorator” was expansive, with Crace buying a ‘schooner yacht’ and being a founder member of the Photographic Society. But changes were afoot, with the Crystal Palace reconstruction and the arrival of the railways. This meant a major improvement in access to the West End, the family’s letterhead paper becoming ‘Springfield, near Herne Hill Station, Dulwich’.

The Crace business was at its zenith in this period of prestige commissions – Longleat, Grosvenor House, the 1861 International Exhibition, the National Gallery amongst many others. Crace senior retired in the 1880’s, leaving John Dibblee who now lived in Gloucester Place in charge, and died at Springfield in August 1889. The decision was made to relinquish occupation and a proposal for the house to provide a “high class residential club for an influential body of gentlemen” having fallen through, the lease was surrendered in 1893. With no son wanting to take over the business it was sold in 1899, bringing an end to the career of this remarkable dynasty. The Governors sought tenders for larger-scale housing and it passed over to the builder G.A. Young with demolition following in 1895. These latter stages were covered by Ian McInnes in his article in the Journal Winter 2004.

In conclusion this process can be seen to mirror the changes in London’s suburbs over the period; from meadow and agricultural purposes to large estates for the wealthy and successful men of the age and then to the more modest premises of the early 20th century.

(With acknowledgements to the work of Megan Aldrich and sources in the V& A, RIBA, The Minet and Southwark Local History Libraries, and the Dulwich College Archives, with thanks to Ian Bristow and Calista Lucy)