Colby Road lies at Dulwich’s southern edge, linking Gipsy Hill and Dulwich Wood Avenue. It was built in the late 1860s following the arrival of the railways and is said to be named for the Rev. Edmund Colby, a schoolmaster of Dulwich College in 1645. Many of the houses were built by R J May of Pond House, who advertised in the Daily Telegraph in 1871:

FREEHOLD HOUSES to be LET or SOLD, in a first rate healthy situation,
Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, near the Crystal Palace, At rents of £32, £36, £40 & £50.
Fitted with every convenience

The houses were standard Victorian semis and if occupied by a single family the family would have employed a general servant: in 1872 Mrs Eliza Gore advertised for just such a servant for her house in Colby Road. But right from the start these houses were more often in multiple occupation, either as two families sharing, families with lodgers or as boarding houses with bedsits. Lodgers had their own bedroom and possibly also a sitting room and often meals were included. There was a large amount of turnover with residents often staying for just a few years.

The Effect of the Crystal Palace

Given its proximity, Crystal Palace played a large role in the lives of many of Colby Road’s residents, both as a place of work and also as a place to spend their leisure time. Many residents worked at the Crystal Palace, either as ticket-sellers like William Jerome or William Rogers, shop assistants like Minnie Jerome, or waitresses like Helena Joslin. There were also a large number of ‘fancy’, or gift, shop workers including Thomas Moore, Mary Coppard, her brother Charles Coppard, Mary Ray, Ethel Middleton, her sister Eleanor Middleton, Joseph Hazel and Isabella Buttery. There were also artisans who found employment there, like Harry King who was a bazaar fitter, and Alfred Bool, an art modeller and plasterer. Walter Louis Vincent George Bernasconi, a scenic artist at the Crystal Palace, later became the resident artist at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and worked on the River Caves water ride (still operational today) and the much-loved walk-through Noah’s Ark.

The Musicians of Colby Road

Musicians who earned their living playing at the Crystal Palace found Colby Road a very convenient place to live. The Crystal Palace concert space was immense (twice the size of St Paul’s Cathedral), so the orchestra was commensurately large. The famous August Manns had a vision for music at the Palace which led to the hugely popular Saturday afternoon classical music concerts. By the 1880s audience numbers were topping 20,000 and the stage could hold over 300 performers. Manns maintained a large resident orchestra which gave the musicians stability and allowed them to forgo the often-peripatetic nature of their profession and put down roots. Thus, many of Colby Road’s residents earned their living by playing at the concerts but also by teaching music. Samuel West was a professor of music as well as the Palace’s music librarian and he also played the cornet in the orchestra. His daughter Clara was a vocalist and music teacher. Sebastian Sauer was a conductor, Robert Hopke Reed was a music professor and played cello in the orchestra. He was from a family of musicians: his father was conductor at the Haymarket theatre. William Welsh was an organist. Walter Leversuch and his sister Julia were musicians and singers. Noel Morel was a singer who came from France to sing at the Crystal Palace and also played the double bass in the orchestra. Heinrich Krause was a professor of music and principal viola player. Even the governesses in Colby Road described themselves as ‘musical’ in the Census. That these musicians lived in the same road as waitresses and shop assistants tells us something of their income and perceived social standing. Certainly, at that time, membership of the Crystal Palace orchestra carried nothing like the professional or social status of the Philharmonic.

Annie Besant - A Vignette

One of Colby Road’s earliest residents was Annie Besant, the 19th century social reformer. She was a remarkable woman and much of her life story is covered in ‘Who Was Who in Dulwich’. However, her reasons for settling here are intriguing. In 1872 she heard the eloquent sermons of Charles Voysey (father of CFA Voysey), who lived in Dulwich, and began to discuss with him her questioning of her Christian beliefs. Voysey, struck by the ‘unusual appearance and earnestness of this beautiful woman of twenty-five’, befriended her, inviting her to Dulwich where she often stayed with him and his wife. When she refused to attend communion, her clergyman husband ordered her to leave the family home and while divorce was unthinkable, in 1873 they legally separated; her husband had sole custody of their son while Annie had custody of their daughter, Mabel.

Through the Voyseys Besant had met Thomas Scott, a middle-class intellectual who lived in Farquhar Road, and became, like him, a free-thinker and it was to these friends in Dulwich that she looked for help after her separation. In 1874 she wrote to her mother: ‘I found a tiny house in Colby Road, Upper Norwood, near the Scotts, who were more than good to me, and arranged to take it in the spring’. She ‘hurriedly furnished a couple of rooms in the little house, that I might now take my mother into the purer air of Norwood’. Though the house was her ‘little nest’ its upkeep was almost beyond her means: ‘the little house in Colby Road taxed my slender resources heavily and the search for work was not yet successful. I do not know how I should ever have managed but for the help ever at hand, of Mr and Mrs Thomas Scott’.

She had a small allowance from her husband and earned some money writing for Scott but there were often days when the money would not stretch to food for all the household, so Annie spent the day ‘studying’ at the British Museum so as to have ‘dinner in town’, the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. She sold her jewellery and her clothes and clearly considered herself to be on the verge of destitution yet curiously still kept a servant, Mary, who, Besant said, kept the little house so bright and fresh-looking that it was always a pleasure to be in it. The Scotts were assiduous in inviting her to meals at Farquhar Road and if Mrs Scott had not heard from Annie for a couple of days she would visit Colby Road to see what had happened. It was here in Colby Rd that Annie Besant found her public speaking voice: ‘tentatively I took up this keen weapon and have used it ever since’.

Her mother did not live long, dying at Colby Road, ‘worn out, ere old age touched her, by sorrow, poverty and pain’. Besant felt that the rooms of Colby Road were ‘filled with sunshine but unlighted by her presence’. She herself fell ill the following year with a ‘congestion of the lungs’ and in 1874 left Colby Rd for Bayswater.

George Glenny (1793-1874)

The horticulturalist, lived at Paxton Villa, named, appropriately, for Joseph Paxton, the gardener and architect who designed the Crystal Palace. Glenny founded and edited several gardening magazines, was the first person to have a gardening column in a newspaper, wrote many gardening books and won so many silver cups for his own plants that he was able to lay his dinner table for 57 guests with a silver cup at each place setting. However, he was a man of strong views, once described as a ‘horticultural hornet’ and he fell out with most of the gardening establishment, being censured by the council of the Horticultural Society. Glenny spent many years trying to improve the English tulip and, probably as a result of his efforts, the appearance of the English tulip changed dramatically. He died at Paxton Villa in Colby Road in 1874.

Augusta Tweddell

The Tweddell family lived at Athol Lodge. Major Tweddell had served in the Bengal Infantry England, they lived in Colby Road. His daughter, Augusta Kate Tweddell, was born in 1869 in Karachi and married Richmond Trevor Crichton in 1891. Though unrecorded, Augusta was in fact a talented painter of miniatures.

George Birnie Mackenzie (1872-1952) went to Dulwich College and joined the army straight from school. By 1914 he was a major, commanding the 2nd Siege Battery in the British Expeditionary Force, the first siege battery to open fire in WW1. At the beginning of the war, with little transport, motorised or horse, the army marched on its boots. When his soldiers arrived in St Omer after a hundred-mile march from Aisne, Mackenzie found that his men’s boots were in a deplorable condition, so he personally bought up all the boots in the village for them.

In October 1914 he was put in charge of the first super heavy 9.2in howitzer to be deployed at the front. Given the nickname ‘Mother’, the gun was difficult to operate which was why it was given to Mackenzie, as he had been involved in its testing in Wales only a few months before. It was designed to be as light as possible so that it could be towed by horses but this meant that to fire it involved weighing it down with nine tons of earth in a time-consuming and repetitive operation. Transporting it by tractor created large clouds of smoke, giving away the gun’s location. Nonetheless Mackenzie got it working and it was used extensively.

By the end of the war Mackenzie was a lieutenant colonel (and acting Brigadier-General). He died in 1953 having been awarded the CB, CMG, DSO and in France the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Colby Road and WW2

Colby Road suffered badly during the Blitz, particularly between October 1940 and June 1941. One only has to look at the proximity of the railway line to realise why this area was so heavily bombed. The London Country Council’s bomb damage maps show a quarter of Colby Road as totally destroyed, with a large part of the remainder of the road seriously damaged. After the war it took some time for repairs to property to be completed. A walk along Colby Road today shows post-war houses filling in the gaps where the Victorian houses were demolished.