Sydenham Rise - Who Lived in a House Like This?
by Sharon O’Connor

Looking back into the past, some parts of Dulwich have shown a fairly cosmopolitan flavour but the residents of Sydenham Rise were quite a local bunch geographically. Only six of the residents in the 1881 Census were born outside Britain and only four in the 1901 Census. About a third of the residents in 1881 were Londoners and this had risen to over 60% by 1901. The servants had often travelled further to live in Sydenham Rise than their employers: in 1881 they came from thirteen English counties, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland and Prussia compared to seven English counties, Scotland, Australia and Germany for their employers. Perhaps employers preferred servants who didn’t come from the Dulwich area because they feared the young girls might gossip in the neighbourhood, have suitors or even run away back to their families.

Practically everyone who lived in Sydenham Rise in the 1880s was British, just one resident had been naturalised and one cook was Prussian. Twenty years later, in the early part of the 20th Century, the road was even more local and wholly British. Just one servant was born outside England and then only in Scotland. Their employers came from London and just five other counties, although in addition one was born in India and three in Turkey.

Sydenham Rise seen from Horniman Gardens, c 1907. From the left: Nos 9, 11 and 13.

Sydenham Rise was a highly fashionable road and although none survive today, the houses were rather grand and imposing. Unlike smaller Dulwich houses, few of these houses were maintained by just a general servant or maid of all work. Instead, every house had a cook and a housemaid and most had a parlour maid too; life for servants here must have been considerably more sociable as a consequence. Larger families usually had a nurse and often a kitchen maid too. The large proportion of domestic servants, who were usually women, would have made Sydenham Rise a rather female dominated place, especially during the day when the busy husbands were at their City desks. This was typical of well-to-do Victorian suburbs and meant that the working class districts were left rather more male dominated.

The uniformity in birthplace is also reflected in the type of occupation pursued by the residents of Sydenham Rise. In 1881 there are lots of merchants, a barrister, a solicitor, a ship owner and some with a private income. By 1901 the majority are merchants and a couple are retired. This uniformity may not have been a coincidence as some of the residents worked for each other or had offices close together in the City of London and even married each other.

Forest Hill and the surrounding neighbourhood housed a sizeable German community of mostly rich merchants. Mr Adolph Heinrich Gottleib Segnitz was born in Germany in 1856, the son of a prominent German wine merchant whose company still exists today. He worked for Rosing Brothers, a firm of general merchants also from Germany (his employer, Ferdinand Rosing, lived at No 13 Sydenham Rise). Segnitz married Helene Rosing, the boss’s daughter and together they lived at Holly Bank (No 1), just six doors up from her childhood home. He later became a naturalised British subject. While working for Rosings he was involved in building the first ship to fly the flag of the Republic of Panama. The ship was launched at Millwall with great fanfare and was christened with the traditional bottle (perhaps of wine from the family firm) by Adolph’s daughter, Gladys. In a wonderful memoir the Rev Ehrmann describes working at Rosing Brothers before his ordination. As a young clerk in the firm he remembers Mr Segnitz as having “a rather severe nature”. Later, when Mr Ehrmann left to become a clergyman he was given a beautiful gold watch by Mr Segnitz, so perhaps he wasn’t that severe after all. Towards the end of his life Adolph took his wife on a cruise to New York. They sailed on the Kronprinz Wilhelm, a German ship which later went on to sink fifteen ships in WW1 before being seized by the US.

A notable silversmith, John Henry Hill, also lived at No 1. His mark is found on beautifully designed and executed work such as letter openers, bookmarks, card cases and placeholders.

Mr Richard Nevill who lived at No 2, Ashbourne, was a barrister but from a family of Turkish bath proprietors who owned a large number of Turkish Baths in London, including some in the streets where other Sydenham Rise residents worked, such as this one in the City which remarkably has survived the war, the Bishopsgate bomb and redevelopment all around it:

Richard Nevill married a Sarah Tetley of Tetley’s Tea, Forest Hill’s other famous tea merchants. Their parlour maid was born in Switzerland which may or may not have been something to boast about at Sarah’s “at homes”.

Elsmere, No 5 Sydenham Rise

The most distinguished person to live in the road was the artist, William Powell Frith who lived at Ashenhurst, No 7 Sydenham Rise where he offered drawing tuition in his studio. He was described as “the greatest British painter of the social scene since Hogarth” and was the subject of a very interesting article by Brian Green in 2008.

William Powell Frith in his studio at Ashenhurst, 7 Sydenham Rise

The Rosings at No 13, Melrose, were from Germany and Prussia (before their unification into Germany). Ferdinand became a naturalised British subject and lived here with his wife Cornelia and their children, Helene, Arthur and Gustav, their Prussian cook, Marie, and other staff. Arthur went to Dulwich College. The family firm, Rosing Brothers was in Basinghall Street in the City. Described as a general merchant it was, amongst other things, one of London’s largest coffee importers and owned many coffee plantations.

After the Rosings left, Melrose was occupied by Sir Walter Peace, KCMG. He had been living with his wife and daughter in Crouch End next to the Hornsey Wood Tavern so Sydenham Rise must have been a step up the property ladder for him. The son of a music professor he went to the colony of Natal in South Africa aged 23. He rose to become Britain’s first agent-general for Natal but before that he had been a merchant like so many of his neighbours. He was one of the great and the good: an original member of the Board of Trade and a member of the Tariff Reform Commission amongst other appointments. He seems to have been something of a “go to” person for quotes on South Africa and is variously quoted in newspapers of the period. He thought “peace in South Africa can only be accomplished by war … (which) … would not last more than two months … Great Britain must assume absolute control over the whole of South Africa”. In fact the second Boer War lasted about eighteen months and the Chicago Tribune thought that his “outburst” was “a fine example of the sort of thing that would better have been left unsaid”. He later said “I have known the Boers as well as any man. I have lived among them and I have fought them. To exist peacefully so close to them is an utter impossibility”. He was involved in a plan for the resettlement of Norwegians in Natal in 1882 and in his will he set up the Sir Walter Peace Education Trust for Natalians of British descent. He probably met Gandhi and he is mentioned in some of Gandhi’s speeches. In particular, Gandhi refers to Sir Walter’s assertion that Indians are better treated in Natal than anywhere else: “he must have very queer notions of good treatment”.

Sir Walter Peace (1840-1917) who lived at No 13.

The shipowner, George Thompson Henderson lived with his family at No 17, called Springfield. He worked in Leadenhall Street in the shipping firm founded by his grandfather George Thompson which traded as the Aberdeen White Star Line (not to be confused with the White Star Line of Titanic fame). The company owned magnificent sailing ships including Thermopylae arguably the greatest tea clipper of all time. The Cutty Sark was built to compete with her but Thermopylae beat Cutty twice in a race.

Thermopylae, one of the sailing ships owned by George Thompson Henderson.

Despite her fame as a tea clipper Thermopylae more often sailed to Australia, carrying emigrants out and wool back. On her maiden voyage, she sailed to Melbourne in just 60 days, breaking records previously set by steamer ships. Eventually sold to the Portuguese navy and used as target practice she was sunk in 1907. In 2003 divers identified her hulk off the Lisbon coast. Henderson’s father, Sir William Henderson, was himself the son of a farmer who joined the Aberdeen White Star Line, and like, Adolph Segnitz at No 1, married the boss’s daughter and was made senior partner. He became a noted philanthropist.

William Phillips, original member of the London County Council, JP, noted social reformer and philanthropist also lived in Sydenham Rise with his first wife, Fanny, and then following her death from consumption, with his second wife, Emily at St Clair’s, No 19. In 1880 he hosted the meetings of the incipient British peace movement. He fought for Home Rule for Ireland and for aid for the starving cotton workers in Lancashire.

St Clair’s, No 19 Sydenham Rise

St Clair’s was later the home of the Edwards family. Joseph Slatterie Edwards was part of the Edwards Brothers family firm. They were corn merchants in Blackfriars Road but Edwards had also been a tea merchant in the past. He was also something of an inventor and in 1857 filed a patent for “the preparation and novel application of certain foreign fruit…to be used in the manufacture of sugar”.

Henry Churchman Gregory lived at No 19 after the Edwards family. His family moved to Australia when he was a child. In 1846 he joined two of his brothers in exploring the Australian interior where they discovered coal. He was a member of the North Australian Exploring Expedition in 1855 and was considered “the life and soul of the organisation”, being addicted to practical jokes. He must have returned to England at some stage because in 1901 he is living in St Clairs with four servants and his daughter, Elizabeth (who later left a bequest to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia to perpetuate the names of her father and uncles).

Last, but by no means least, not all the houses in Sydenham Rise were grand with cooks and parlour maids. Sydenham Cottage, in between Nos 13 and 15 (Melrose and Durham House respectively) was inhabited by Edmund Pankhurst, a gardener from Kent, his wife and two children.