black and white photo of a house with trees

The triangular field bounded by Sydenham Rise, London Road and the lower part of Sydenham Hill is now a popular local playground but, until the early 1950s, it was an agricultural small holding, with an old house called ‘the Chalet’ at the top of the site. Contemporary reports and old photographs show that it was an old stable or farm building roughly converted into a dwelling with bedrooms in the old lofts. Most of the house was timber framed, with lathe and plaster external walls, on a brick base. Its drains were apparently connected to the main sewer but it had no electric light.

During WWII the tenant was a Mr A G Calder. He paid a rent of £6 7s per annum to the Dulwich Estate and used the property mainly for pig breeding (he owned a boar) but he also apparently kept poultry, ducks, geese, horses, goats and sheep on the land.

In May 1943 Lewisham Council wrote to the Estate Governors telling them that it was intending to take about 60% of the site, just under 2.5 acres, to use as allotments under the 1939 Defence (General) Regulations Act. In response, Austin Vernon, the Estate Architect & Surveyor, visited the site and noted that there had been some war damage to the house, which had been partly made good, but that it needed repointing and painting. There were also a large number of sheds and hovels in the grounds - to house the various animals, and that the grounds immediately surrounding the house were very untidy and covered with litter and rubbish. The perimeter fence was in poor condition and there was a large bomb crater in the middle of the meadow lower down the hill - he added that he had been told that there were two other craters that had been filled in. He was instructed to draw up a ‘Schedule of Repair’ for the tenant and, at the same time the Estate Manager suggested to Lewisham Council that it might prefer to take more of the site – which it did.

In March 1944 there was a report that £279, the agreed figure for repairs on the house, had not been paid and that Mr Calder had left - as he was no longer replying to letters. By May the Manager was negotiating with a Miss Ida M Paul to take a 60 year lease on the house - at £30 per annum with a premium of £500, to convert it into a guest house by adding rooms and bathrooms - £1000 to be spent on alterations and improvements within 5 years. Austin Vernon reported that the plans included an independent building, with 6 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, and that the old house would be used for reception and dining rooms. Owing to the problems of obtaining building materials during the War the new building was to be built of cheap fletton bricks with a flat concrete roof - he thought that the proposed elevation was unattractive and out of keeping with the old house. He noted that it would be very prominent from the main London Road and called the proposal an ‘eyesore on the landscape’. In his opinion, the scheme as presented was undesirable and the Governors would be ill advised to accept it in its current form - they agreed, and nothing more was heard of the scheme.

In June 1944 it was one of the local sites briefly considered for temporary government buildings but it was rejected because of the allotments. In January 1945 Lewisham Council suggested that, when the war ended, they would take over the site for housing but, after some discussion the Manager persuaded it not to. In May the Estate let the site to a Mr Langue for £90 per annum.

The following month the Governors discussed the possibility of using the site for a new development of almshouses. The almshouses in the Old College had been bomb damaged, as had Southwark’s own almshouses at Hamilton Road, West Norwood. The idea was to accommodate 100 old people, 84 from Southwark and 16 from Dulwich. The meeting thought it an ideal site, with its frontages to three roads, and the development could have had flats or houses, complete with other facilities “including a Superintendant’s house, chapel, hospital, boiler houses, laundry, bowling green, gardens and walks for the occupiers”. The proposal was for the Governors to donate the land and Southwark to pay the building cost. All agreed it was a good idea but there was no money and nothing came of it.

Everything went quiet until March 1947 when Mrs Langue told the Estate that her husband had left her and the Estate woke up to the fact that there was outstanding rent. The arrears amounted to £45. Mrs Langue promised to pay these off as well as the current rent but she proved unable to do so. The Manager recommended that the Estate seek repossession as, not only was there a rent problem, but Mrs Langue had allowed the land to be used as ‘a shoot for debris’ or, in modern terms, fly tipping. She had been asked to stop but had not done so. The Manager also took advice from Counsel whose opinion was that she was not a contractural tenant and there would be a possibility of obtaining vacant possession on the grounds that the husband had abandoned the premises.

The Estate was even more keen to gain vacant possession after July 1948 when the London County Council Valuer and Director of Housing wrote a letter advising it that the LCC were considering an extension to the Horniman Gardens by acquiring the ‘Chalet’ site. The Manager and LCC Valuer agreed to a 99 year lease - the Council suggesting £25 per annum. After much discussion the Manager managed to raise this to £105 per annum with the LCC having the right to repair the existing ‘Chalet ‘building, now in a very bad state of repair, or to demolish it and erect a superintendant’s or gate keeper’s lodge.

In September 1949 the Dulwich Estate took Mr Langue to the County Court. Mr Langue appeared and defended the action - the court agreed that he was the contractural tenant and gave the Governors possession unless he paid the £51 9s 4d plus the court costs before 12th October. The court agreed that Mrs Langue had no tenancy status and she should quit unless the money was paid. No money was paid.

In October 1950 the LCC decided that they did not want to be responsible for rebuilding the ‘Chalet’ in any form and threatened to acquire the site compulsorily under the 1906 Open Spaces Act. The Governors agreed to the LCC demands. Final negotiations took place in March 1951 when the outstanding point was the Governors’ requirement that there should be no games played on the site on Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. The LCC would not agree and the Estate finally agreed to an amendment which allowed games after 9am on Sundays and normal working hours on all other days. The agreement was signed on the 28th April 1951 and the ‘Chalet’ was demolished shortly afterwards. The Horniman Play Park was subsequently opened.

The LCC designed the children’s play park along the lines of Scandinavian play parks. The grassy mounds are still visible. However, an essential element of such play parks was the necessity that they were supervised. Staffing costs would later interfere with this concept and that area of the park fell into disuse. In the last couple of years, with the opening of a café, the creation of a sand pit and new equipment the whole park has taken on a new lease of life. The Dulwich Society planted a number of trees close to the site of ‘The Chalet’ but they failed through a lack of rain. Lewisham Council is now to replace these trees at its own expense.

Ian McInnes