Most roads in Dulwich reveal their history in the fabric of their buildings and College Road is no exception. A narrative of Dulwich unfolds as you walk south along the road passing the old College, the Picture Gallery, Georgian houses and Victorian villas, Barry’s new College, the railway station and more modern architecture. However, there was a side-road of which the only trace remaining of its former heritage is a Victorian letter box set into the wall. The 1970s development known as College Gardens replaced an imposing set of eight semi-detached houses which were set back from College Road behind a small grove of trees. Built for the confident middle classes then colonising Dulwich, these were large residences with twelve proper rooms and a 50’ frontage. Originally called Manor Place, its name was changed to College Gardens on the houses’ completion.

The builder was W J Mitchell of Loughborough Junction and in 1865 he secured an agreement to build on what was formerly the Master’s garden, adjacent to the Picture Gallery. While he was building College Gardens, Mitchell acquired an existing building, blacksmith’s and plumbing business from Henry Goodman Adams and occupied what would henceforth be named Mitchell’s Yard in the middle of the Village. In time this yard would be redeveloped as Mitchell’s Place.

College Gardens lasted less than a century but during that time housed the hopes and fears, thoughts and feelings of a host of families, many of whom, just like families today, moved to Dulwich for the schools, the green spaces and the proximity to London. Though they had settled in a quiet corner of suburban London, many of the residents had travelled extensively across the world and there was some homogeneity in their livelihoods. They grew up to create wealth as merchants and to teach the younger generations while also fighting for their country.

Henry Kent bought the first house available and moved in with his wife, Anna, and their servants. He described himself as a retired coal merchant but he had also been an auditor for companies such as the London General Omnibus Company and a property developer, building many houses in West London, in the area between Warwick Road and West Cromwell Road. He built versions of Prince Albert’s ‘model dwellings’ to house the workers from the neighbouring canal (which later became the railway). These model dwellings had been exhibited at the Great Exhibition but were a world away from the well-appointed brand new mansions in College Gardens. Kent was extremely successful, amassing a five-figure fortune.

John Wrangham had been a chemist but became a leather merchant, setting up a firm with his brother in Cowcross St. Wrangham diversified from selling leather into making boots and shoes and his factory at 64-69 Cowcross Street survived until WW2 when it was bombed. In Victorian times the area was full of slaughterhouses and other connected trades such as soap making and catgut factories for violin strings and Wrangham must have been very happy to make the journey back to leafy Dulwich each evening, though there was no Thameslink from Farringdon to Herne Hill in his day. He had two daughters and two sons, the boys went to Dulwich College as did his grandsons, one of whom won an MC in 1918.

Peter Hazeon was the ‘secretary of a foreign railway’ and a import/export merchant who had tried his luck in Shanghai before transferring to Mexico and Argentina. He ran out of luck in Mexico too when in 1858 General Garza tried to extract loans by force from British and American merchants. His case was raised in the House of Commons and The Times published correspondence illustrating the attempts to seek restitution. Hazeon was ‘dragged from his house by brute force’ and marched to the barracks ‘like a vagabond in the pouring rain’ despite the protestations of the British Consul. He was forced to hand over £1,400 as a ‘loan’ and he had 500 (unspecified) bales seized in Tampico port. The Foreign Office lamented the ‘disturbed state of public affairs’ in Mexico which hindered them assisting Mr Hazeon but assured his brother that Lord Malmesbury was doing all he could to seek redress. It is not clear whether Mr Hazeon was reimbursed but the case attracted publicity over several years. He died in 1906 after ‘years of suffering’, leaving an estate of over £9,000.

Another merchant, Frankfurt-born John Henry Jost, also sent two sons to Dulwich College. Charles sadly died aged just 16 just two months after he left school. Clarence married and moved to Argentina but returned to England before travelling to Australia to work as a financial agent. There he was involved in the bringing to Australia a replica of ‘The Light of the World’, a celebrated painting by Holman Hunt. This painting caused pandemonium when it was exhibited in Sydney. It was said that a staggering 300,000 people went to view it (which equates to 11,000 daily) and hundreds of extra police officers had to be drafted in to control the crowds.

Thomas Nowill was a cutlery and silver manufacturer from Sheffield and descended from a long line of cutlers dating back to at least 1700. His factory was still in Sheffield but his office was in Hatton Garden. His firm produced canteens of cutlery which began to be used in the late 18th century and meant that guests no longer had to bring their own cutlery to dinner. Nowill won a prize at the Great Exhibition for ‘knives for the Levant trade’.

The tea dealer, Samuel Cheshire, was a partner in the tea broking firm of Stenning, Inskipp, based in Mincing Lane, at that time the centre of the world tea trade. Stenning, Inskipp were involved in the change in consumption from Chinese to Indian tea. Previously the East India Company and the tea merchants bought tea from China in exchange for opium grown in India but when the Chinese began to grow their own opium the tea merchants decided to start growing tea themselves in India. After a few false starts Indian tea was even more appealing to British tastebuds than the tea in China and Stenning, Inskipp was well placed to take advantage of the change in demand. Samuel Cheshire retired a rich man but died eight years later, aged 80. His sons followed their father into the family business. Harley became a tea planter in Dooars in the Himalayas and retired aged 51. Leslie went to Chile where he married a local girl.

Typical of many of the confident, adventurous Victorians who lived in these big houses was Captain Joseph Wells. He had joined the family firm of East India merchants before becoming an officer with the East India Company’s navy, then called the Bombay Marine, spending a large part of his life in India but he took a lease in College Gardens in 1866. He sent his sons to Dulwich College and they followed him into the family firm. Possibly he was away when his house was burgled in 1882 by Jonathan Lowe, a ‘determined looking fellow’ who was charged with stealing a gold watch, a concertina, several pairs of boots and other items.

The Wells family were unlucky: in 1887 they were burgled again. This time Thomas Morrell was charged with ‘burglariously’ breaking in and stealing a box, salad bowl, teapot and cake basket from Mrs Wells, ‘value £8’ and a jacket belonging to Ethel Clements, the cook. Reginald, Mrs Wells’ son, had been woken by his sister at around 5am, when she heard noises downstairs. He took a loaded revolver and seeing broken glass in the hall, fired his gun and ran outside where a man was climbing a wall holding a box. On Wells telling the man to drop the box or he would shoot, the man dropped the box but escaped with the cook’s jacket. Luckily a police constable was walking his beat by Dulwich College when he saw the defendant with a bundle under his arm and heard Mr Wells shouting ‘Stop thief!’. Both Mr Wells and the policeman gave chase but the man (bizarrely) took off his shoes and jumped over a gate, dropping his bundle which proved to be Ethel’s jacket but escaping into Dulwich Park. He was later picked out of a line-up at Dulwich police station and taken into custody.

Sir Robert Kennaway Douglas was the first Keeper of the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts at the British Museum (now British Library) and had also been Consul of China. He and his wife, Rachel, needed a house the size of the ones in College Gardens to house his family of six sons and two daughters although interestingly, they did not have a large household retinue. In fact, most of the houses had just a cook and a housemaid living in (though they probably had ‘dailies’ and outdoor servants such as gardeners) while those with young families also had a nursemaid. The son of a vicar from Devon, Douglas had been a solitary, sickly child. In 1855, aged 17 he was sent to New Zealand to be a sheep farmer but the climate did not agree with him and he returned after two years. In 1858, having studied Chinese for just a year, he went to China as an interpreter in the diplomatic service where he spent six years witnessing such moments in history as the anti-Christian riots, the Taiping rebellion and the sacking of the Summer Palace.

However, his health was suffering so he looked around for a job back home. His knowledge of China fitted him for a job in the newly created department of Chinese at the British Museum and he took on the task of bringing together all the Chinese books and manuscripts which were dispersed throughout the Museum’s collections and he produced the first catalogue while also publishing translations and more than a dozen general books on China. He also taught himself Japanese, consequently when the Museum merged various departments, he was ideally placed to become the first head of department for Oriental materials.. His reputation as a formidable scholar notwithstanding, he also became known in Japan for his support for Minagata Kumagusu, a pioneer ecologist. Kumagusu, the first non-European to contribute to Nature magazine, frequently clashed with other scholars in the Museum’s Round Reading Room, variously accusing them of racial prejudice or of being too noisy. Eventually, the Trustees banned him from the Museum and Kumagusu was only allowed to continue studying there when Douglas took responsibility for him and let him read books in Douglas’s own office. Douglas introduced him to Dr Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the republic of China; Douglas and Sun had become fast friends through their mutual dislike of the ruling regime in China, a dislike that Douglas rather incautiously demonstrated when ‘Prince’ Tokugawa had asked to rent a room in his house: Douglas refused. Douglas stayed at the British Museum for more than 40 years, lived in College Gardens for nearly 30 years, sent his sons to Dulwich College and became a Governor of the College too. In 1903 he was knighted and retired to Devon where he died in 1913 at the age of 75.

Built just as Dulwich emerged from its rural isolation, College Gardens typified the confidence of the industrious middle class. The merchant and the administrator lived side by side with the scholar and the clergyman, all benefitting from the increased scale of commerce and the systems needed to regulate and run it. Their brand new houses in College Gardens telegraphed their social aspirations, how strange to think that within a century not a single house would still be standing.