The Further History of Champion Hill
By Brian Green and Ian McInnes
As the article on Champion Hill in the last issue of the Journal made clear; Champion Hill has had a long and interesting history but by reason of its separation from the rest of Dulwich by acres of open land and indirect road access, it developed as a separate entity. Some of the area we call Champion Hill was within the manor of Dulwich (now The Dulwich Estate), some was not. Old boundary markers are to be found on Champion Hill and in the playing fields to the east of Greendale.
Greendale is one of Dulwich’s old ‘green roads’, indeed it preserves a rural appearance even today. It still provides an easy access for pedestrians and cyclists to Camberwell but in earlier days, before it was a tarmac surface it could become a muddy rutted lane where coach wheels could sink deeply. It is little wonder that in the early seventeenth century Edward Alleyn was able to claim that in winter, the 2 mile journey to the parish church of St Giles’ was too hazardous for himself and his household and he was thereby permitted to build a chapel in Dulwich. Part of the campaign against development of the Greendale playing fields is the wish to preserve the rural character of this area.
The triangular field in front of the pub which serves as a garden has always been an open space. It is on the extremity of the manor of Dulwich and is reputed to be one of the three sites in Dulwich for the burial of plague victims. As those who died in the Great Plague of London in 1665 are accounted for in the burial register of Christ’s Chapel, it is possible, if the tradition is true, that the victims died in the earlier manifestation jn the mid 14th century, called the Black Death. In that plague between a half and a third of the population are thought to have died.
Beside the Triangle, on Denmark Hill, there was once a small shelter for members of the Dulwich Patrol, an unofficial security force established in 1788 by the wealthy local residents of the area to combat the frequent hold-ups by footpads and highwaymen on the poorly-lit route into Dulwich. In 1812, with crime in the area rising still further, the residents subscribed even more, to provide the members of the patrol with horses and cutlasses and pistols for use in the dangerous, dark, winter months. A similar police ‘box’ existed against the wall of the College in what was then the hamlet of Dulwich.
A further example of the residents’ co-operation and wish to maintain the exclusivity of Champion Hill was the presence of gates at its entry points which were manned by gatekeepers paid by the powerful residents’ association to keep out hoi polloi. The association remained in existence until World War 2.
One entrepreneur who attempted to cash in on this affluent area in the second half of the eighteenth century was named Luke Lightfoot. Luke Lightfoot (1720-1789) grew up in the family business in the sculpture trades in Old Town, Mile End. The Lightfoots had been active in the decorative trades as painters, stainers and carvers since the seventeenth century. His father, Theophilus Lightfoot, who was a noted carver, kept up with trends in architecture by subscribing to a copy of John James’ translation of Charles Perrault’s ‘A Treatise on the the five orders of columns in Architecture’ . So influential to him was his father, who died in 1741, that Luke named his own son Theophilus after him and a tradition began, which continues today, of naming alternate generations Theophilus. The present day Theo lives in Tasmania.
Luke Lightfoot became the most skilled carver of his day. His business prospered and he moved to Blackman Street, Southwark (now named Borough High Street) around 1765. He was a master carver certainly at the age of 29. He was also a net-worker, making friends and acquaintances of other skilled men who would become the craftsmen who built and decorated England’s stately homes. The 1760’s were his busy years and he introduced half a dozen craftsmen into apprenticeships in the Drapers’ Company, one of the great livery companies, membership of which would provide the opportunities for connections between client and craftsman.
He was a great friend of William Marlow (1740-1813), an artist noted for his paintings of England’s great houses and scenes of London. A fellow craftsman in Blackman Street, Moses Waite a stonemason became Luke’s business partner in some of his ventures. In 1759, they built several Dulwich houses together, including Woodlawn (105 Dulwich Village).
Waite had also, through his cousin Ezra, connections with the New England building trade, principally Charleston, South Carolina, where Ezra Waite provided the carving for the Brewton and Somers’ houses. In England, Luke Lightfoot, who also presented himself as an architect, was engaged by the 2nd Earl Verney who had succeeded to his title in 1752 and began an ambitious scheme to rebuild the family seat at Claydon, Buckinghamshire. Lord Verney engaged Luke Lightfoot in 1757 as master builder, surveyor, mason and carver. During the next ten years Lightfoot continued to work on Claydon, including carrying out the remarkable carving in the Chinese Room. Chinoiserie, of which Lightfoot was perhaps England’s greatest exponent in carving, was very fashionable from the middle of the eighteenth century, its popularity confirmed by the large number of books published on the subject at the time.
It all ended in tears however, when, in 1768 Lord Verney brought in the architect Thomas Robinson to design the central rotunda and north wing of the rising building. Relations between Robinson and Luke Lightfoot became poisonous and Robinson accused Lightfoot of gross neglect and failing to supply materials for which he had been paid. Lord Verney, anxious to avoid publicity asked Robinson to call on Lightfoot at his premises in Southwark in order to reach an agreement instead of resorting to the courts. Robinson’s opinion of Lightfoot was “an Ignorant Knave, with no small spice of madness in his composition”. The affair did reach the courts however, and in 1771, Verney, not demanding the entire sum owed him by Lightfoot, instead settled for damages of £10,000, about a third of the amount Robinson claimed Lightfoot had misappropriated. Lightfoot raised this sum by assigning several leases to his lordship and £2500 from a bequest from a planter in Jamaica. An earlier Lightfoot, Philip Lightfoot was the vested government agent in Virginia and appears to have owned a plantation in Jamaica from which Luke enjoyed some benefit.
In Dulwich, Luke Lightfoot made another disastrous move. In the same year that the contract at Claydon ended in 1768, he built Denmark Hall on the site of what is now The Fox on the Hill. He advertised it as “A place of entertainment”. It was said to have one of the largest rooms in England, measuring allegedly 100’ x 30’ . What Lightfoot had set out to create was an Assembly Room, a feature of Georgian life which was enjoying widespread popularity and where it catered for dancing, music, cards and socialising. Unfortunately he misjudged the market; the Dulwich Assembly which met at the Greyhound and catered for local society was too well established and the new venture never caught the imagination of the smart set who preferred more fashionable venues such as Mrs Cornelly’s Assembly Room in Soho.
Eventually it was Luke’s son Theophilus, whose trade was described as a carpenter, but more likely to have been a builder, who converted Denmark Hall with its famous long room into a more pedestrian tea garden and housing. Luke had continued his career after his twin disasters, in the more modest capacity of a ‘licensed victualler’. His son was a partner in this business which also had premises in Lambeth. His housekeeper, Mary Mowman lived with him as he entered old age. His son Theophilus William Lightfoot was still living at the former Denmark Hall in 1795 and named his own son Luke after his father in turn. A later Theophilus Lightfoot sailed for Tasmania in 1838, where his descendants remain.
Fox on the Hill
The large Dutch gabled pub, the Fox on the Hill, dates from the 1950s. It replaced the old Fox under the Hill which had stood towards the corner of Denmark Hill and Champion Park since the eighteenth century. During World War 2 the old pub was bombed and the adjacent, single storey building converted into a temporary pub, its interior decorated with an amazing display of Zulu shields and weapons. Charringtons Brewery, the licensees, approached the Dulwich Estate for a new site in late 1945, and a report in the July 1946 Board Minutes confirmed that negotiations had taken place on a site taking in the ‘Denmark Hill triangle’ and nos. 149, 151 and 153 Denmark Hill. The Estate Manager noted that the ‘Triangle’ had been let to the Ashford Steam laundry until 1944 and was now empty; adding that No 149 had suffered major bomb damage, and was probably unrepairable, while Nos 151 and 153 had been let short term to a Mr A Yeates who was running a wholesale pottery and glass business from there. No 153 had formerly been a hostel for Crippled and Invalid Women Workers -who had left in 1940. Although they were keen to return he was not interested in giving them a new lease if a new pub was in prospect.
Negotiations continued over the next two years and a building agreement was signed in 1948. Charringtons were required to complete “a detached licensed Public House, with full catering facilities etc, the site of the ‘Triangle’ Denmark Hill to be used as a Tea garden and Car Park.” The cost was to be not less than £20,000. The London County Council granted planning consent in 1949 but insisted that Redholme, the old house next door, be included. Built in 1885 by the well-known Victorian architect John Belcher RA (1841-1913), it was let at the time to a Mrs Manlove who used it as a boarding house for female students at Kings College Hospital.
Building license legislation was still in force and by 1952 it was clear that Charringtons were unlikely to obtain permission to build the pub any time soon. They were still using the temporary Fox under the Hill but they decided that Redholme might make a better pub in the short term and applied for the Governors’ consent to adapt it. In their letter to the Governors the brewery emphasised the importance of establishing trade on the site and the Governors agreed.
Redholme continued to act as the temporary pub through the 1950s. Even though building license legislation was repealed in November 1954, it was only in July 1958 that Charringtons decided to proceed with construction. In that month Mr Sidney C Clarke FRIBA, Charringtons’ Chief Architect submitted the final drawings for approval. The agreed accommodation included a public bar, saloon bar, saloon lounge and a restaurant suitable for use as a ball room on the ground floor, along with kitchen and staff accommodation on the upper floors. The Architect and Surveyor reported that “the premises are brick built with a red tiled roof . . . . Ample parking is provided for parking cars approached from the private road. A small garden is arranged at the side.”
Why the Dutch gable at the front? There is no obvious Dutch connection with the area and the answer lies with Austin Vernon, the Estate Architect and Surveyor at the time. He used to holiday in Holland and liked to incorporate Dutch gables in his houses where the client would let him - see Nos 9 and 14 Frank Dixon Way. Presumably Sidney Clarke thought incorporating one would ensure agreement to his plans more quickly. The completed pub opened in 1959 and is now a JD Wetherspoons.
Redholme was severely damaged in the storm of 1987, when the three tall chimney stacks were blown down and large areas of the roof tiles were dislodged. Two of the stacks were rebuilt to a reduced height. The house was listed Grade II in 1988, and was converted into flats c1999 for use by the pub’s staff.
Kings College Hall & the ‘Platanes’
Kings College Hall on Denmark Hill was formerly the grounds of the ‘Platanes’, a large house built in 1882 for George Egmont Bieber, a City merchant and prominent member of the Champion Hill area’s German community - the name derives from the German name for plane tree. The house was purchased in 1890 by the banker Herman Kleinwort, but the family moved to Belgravia in 1908 as the social status of the area declined. After failing to find a buyer for the house, and having been refused permission by the Dulwich Estate to change its use into a hotel or nursing home, Kleinwort donated the property to King's College Hospital in 1910.
In 1915 The Platanes, was requisitioned by the War Office for use as an extension of the Maudsley Military Hospital, the neurological section of the Fourth London General Hospital established at Kings College Hospital. The Maudsley Military Hospital provided accommodation for 400 servicemen and N.C.O.s suffering from war neuroses and shell-shock, while The Platanes was used to house officers. It had 44 beds. The building remained in use after the war until 1920.
It became a student hall of residence for the hospital's medical school in 1913 and, from 1923, for King's College, when wings were added on the north and south sides. After World War II the grounds were amalgamated with those of another large house to the south, ‘Danehurst’, which also became a hall of residence. The latter was demolished in the 1970s.
Kings built a series of student residence blocks in the grounds during the 1960s designed by architects Troup & Steel who also were also responsible for the ‘brutalist’ additions to the main campus by Somerset House (and the former Sir James Black Laboratories in Half Moon Lane, now the Judith Kerr free School). These have now been replaced by new buildings reflecting the higher standards of accommodation required by today’s students - all en-suite study bedrooms, designed in a cluster flat format, with students sharing common kitchen, dining and living spaces.
Planned around three distinct courtyard spaces, each with their own character and identity, the new development provides space for 714 students (an increase of just over 200), in 4 blocks, ranging from four to five stories. The ‘Platanes’ itself was listed Grade II in October 2009 just as work started - although the intention always was to retain it and use it for student communal areas and social spaces.
The first students arrived in October 2014 but the development has not been popular with local residents concerned over the potential increase in parking problems and noise.
Winner of a Civic Trust commendation in 1970, this interesting town house development was designed in 1964 by architect Peter Moiret. The 2 acre site was a disused garden partially screened from the road by trees. The layout was designed to be inward-looking, turning its back on the surrounding property so as to create its own atmosphere and character.
House frontages are a standard width but the basic structure and the placing of services gave the first owners a range of options including a choice of location for the kitchen either on the ground or first floors. External finishes consist of dark facing bricks and white painted horizontal boarding. Communal planted areas were to be taken over and maintained by the future residents association.
The Further History of Champion Hill by Brian Green and Ian McInnes
The Further History of Champion Hill