Lost Houses of Dulwich: John Ruskin’s house on Denmark Hill

By Alison South

In this year of the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth, there are many events and writings which have celebrated his life and times, his works and impact. For almost 50 years of that life, from 1823 to 1872, John Ruskin was associated with two local houses, 28 Herne Hill and 163 Denmark Hill. The Denmark Hill house, which subsequently came to be known as Ruskin Manor, was leased from the Dulwich Estates Governors by his father in 1842 and relinquished by John 30 years later in 1872.

While much has been written about John Ruskin’s life during the family’s occupancy, the house however, was built in 1794, almost fifty years earlier, and was demolished in 1947 over 150 years later. The Ruskin tenure is therefore just part of of its story. Access to the leases in the Dulwich College Archives has enabled us to investigate the other occupants and to understand a little of their lives.

There were eight families who leased the property pre and post Ruskin; Watson, Belcher, Gibson, Liddiard and Ewbank preceded them and Druce and Wilson followed. The leases before 1842 were all held for 10 years or less and those from the Ruskin period onwards were held for around 30 years. It was not a cheap house to acquire and everyone who leased the house was comfortably established and aged at least 40 years, most were over 50.

William Wood Watson a wealthy landowner and stockbroker was responsible for building the house in 1794 on a piece of land of over 6 acres on the south side of the road between Dulwich and Camberwell. The area had recently become fashionable and a row of substantial mansions were built along the north side of the ridge of Denmark Hill.

Wilson agreed to expend £1000 on the house and other buildings, and the lease of 1805 includes a plan showing the dwelling house and stables, kitchen garden, pasture and pleasure grounds and meadow. The lease was extended from the original 21 years to 84 years soon afterwards under an Act of Parliament obtained by the Estate to encourage new building. Several large houses on prime sites with extensive views were built on the south side overlooking the valley of Dulwich about this time including Casino House, Denmark Hill House and probably the adjacent property later occupied by Sir Henry Bessemer. The house was tenanted in 1807 and William Watson moved to Knightsbridge. He died in 1817 aged 61; the inscription on his burial vault at Burwash, Sussex refers to his residence at ‘Dulwich Hill’ as Denmark Hill was often referred to.

Andrew Belcher of Throgmorton Street was the next leaseholder, for five years from 1812. The assignment of the lease cost £7,350 (equivalent to about £500,000 today). He was nearly 50 when he arrived in England with his wife and several children. It is almost certain that he was from the prominent family from Nova Scotia, Canada where his father Jonathan, was lieutenant governor and chief justice.

A daughter, Eleanor, was born at Demark Hill in 1813. One of the sons, Edward, joined the Royal Navy upon arrival in England and he was later to become Admiral Sir Edward Belcher. He had a varied but somewhat controversial career in the RN; one of his later expeditions was to search for Sir John Franklin in the Canadian Arctic.

The trade directories from 1813 and 1814 indicate that Andrew Belcher was a merchant operating from 29 Throgmorton Street at premises already occupied by a James Brymer. This may have been a relative of Alexander Brymer who was the dominant influence in Andrew Belcher’s formative years. At this time, Throgmorton Street was mainly occupied by stockbrokers, solicitors and merchants. In 1816, Belcher moved his business premises to Lime Street where several wine and brandy merchants, ship agents and numerous manufacturers also occupied premises.

The family moved on to live in Clarence Lodge in Roehampton. Andrew Belcher’s business interests whilst wide-reaching were far from successful. He was affected by the recession of 1826 and returned to Nova Scotia. He ultimately died almost destitute in Boulogne in 1841.

Robert Gibson ‘late of Calcutta’ was the leaseholder from 1817, aged 57. He paid £6,000 to Andrew Belcher for the lease. He appears to have spent most of his working life in India, where he was described as a ‘tailor and habit maker’ and as a ‘tailor to the Ecclesiastical Registrar’. His two daughters were born in Calcutta in 1798 and 1811 and he may also have married there.

During the time he was resident in theq2swe., ouse, Robert Gibson had business premises at 26 Lombard Street. He prepared his Will in London in 1820 at which time his son, also Robert, was living with him in Denmark Hill. Robert senior died in Calcutta in 1823 and is buried there. His widow, Ann continued to lease the house until 1826.

The lease was next assigned to John William Liddiard from 1826. He was born in London in 1778, married Maria in 1803 and had five daughters born between 1805 and 1817.

The Schedule, which forms part of the lease, is an early version of the fixtures and fittings list seen in current house sale and purchase transactions. It tells us that the upper floor rooms had stoves and roller blinds, brass finger plates and handle bell pulls. The hall had a ‘fine large bronze figure on carved pedestal’ and the library a ‘range of Japanned Library book cases’. Outside, the Pleasure Ground had two alcove summer houses with seats, there were ‘mellon frames’ and a green house.

Liddiard was a linen-draper and rented premises at 61 Friday Street in London for many years, although later trade directories, covering the 1826-1836 period when the Denmark Hill house was leased, describe Liddiard & Nephew as calico-printers.

Liddiard moved out of the Denmark Hill house in 1836 and he later became the first person to occupy Leigham House in Streatham in 1842 where he spent his retirement, dying there at the age of 80 in 1858.

The final leaseholder before John James Ruskin was Henry Ewbank, described simply as a merchant, of Idol Lane who had the lease from 1836 until 1842. At the time of the 1841 census, Henry Ewbank, born in York, was in his early 50s and living in Denmark Hill with his wife American-born wife Lydia Ball Lucas and their family. They had five servants living with them in the house, and the gardener and his family were resident too, probably in the lodge. They had at least six children, three of whom were born in Denmark Hill.

Over twenty years earlier Ewbank was living in Charleston, South Carolina and was a partner in a business with Jonathan Lucas and James Cordes owning rice mills; both Ewbank and Cordes would later marry Lucas’s daughters. The businesses brought great wealth, owning plantations, mills and slaves. In 1822, the year before the three men left for England, there was a serious slave revolt in Charleston which culminated in the execution of many slaves. Businesses were established in London owning rice mills and warehouses. In 1832 Jonathan Lucas died, but Ewbank and Cordes continued their collaboration and in 1836, their mill on the Grand Surrey Canal burnt down

In addition to the rice milling business, Ewbank and Cordes developed the ‘Ewbank’ nail which was manufactured in Newport; these nails were widely exported, particularly to Australia. The manufacturing business was operational at the time Henry Ewbank lived in Denmark Hill, and he continued his involvement until the early 1850s. He died in Tonbridge in 1859.

It is totally ironic that the 21st birthday present John James Ruskin gave to his precocious son in 1840 was Turner’s painting, ‘The Slave Ship’ which the young Ruskin had much admired. It was hung in the hall of 163 Denmark Hill when the Ruskins moved into the house from nearby 28 Herne Hill in 1842.

John James Ruskin was a wine merchant, and the house into which the family moved was larger than their house on Herne Hill with more room for entertaining, servants’ quarters and a growing collection of paintings, especially by J M W Turner. There were only thirty-two years left on the lease and so the cost was far less than thirty years earlier (£4,800 as against £7,350). When he died in 1867, it was assigned to his son as the beneficiary of his will. John Ruskin left five years later and the residue of the lease was assigned for just £1000. The Ruskins had held the lease for longer than anyone else up to then.

Ruskin had mixed feelings about his time on Denmark Hill. He liked the position, in the 1860s still “quite in the country” after coming up from Champion Hill. In his autobiography Praeterita Ruskin describes the grounds of Denmark Hill: “The house on Denmark Hill... stood in command of seven acres of healthy ground (a patch of local gravel there overlying the London clay); half of it in meadow sloping to the sunrise, the rest prudently and pleasantly divided into an upper and lower kitchen garden; a fruitful bit of orchard, and chance inlets and outlets of woodwalk, opening to the sunny path by the field, which was gladdened on its other side in springtime by flushes of almond and double peach blossom”. He found it “a quiet place to walk in all the year round”.

His mother delighted in managing the small farm, with its cows, pigs and hens. He was particularly fond of the view to the south-east from his bedroom window at sunrise, a view which he often painted in watercolour. However, he also said he was not happy there, “never at ease in a fine house”, and regretted the building developments around him. The Crystal Palace “a cucumber frame between two chimneys” opened in 1854, the same year as his difficult marriage was annulled; and the houses being built on Sydenham Hill destroyed the view from his window; Dulwich was declining, he said, its fields becoming “black, cindery, infinitely small”. Offered a house on Lake Coniston, he moved as soon as his mother had died.

The next occupant of 163 Denmark Hill was Walter William Druce, a distiller with J S Smith, Druce & Co, who operated from the Phoenix Distillery, Mile End. The original company was founded in 1785 and produced gin and dealt in other spirits and cordials. The company went out of business in 1908 although its liquidation did not affect Walter Druce who left the enormous sum of £205,000 at the time of his death three years earlier.

He and his wife Florence had married in 1870 and their three sons and a daughter were all born between 1872- 77, probably in the house. Their youngest son, Norman Frank Druce (1875-1954) distinguished himself at Cambridge in playing cricket and on the strength of his university performances was selected to tour Australia in the Ashes test match 1897/98. He scored a total of 252 runs in five innings. Norman Druce also played for Surrey and made 66 first class appearances.

William Wilson leased the property in 1909 and with his wife Laura Mary Wilson had been in discussion with the Estates Governors from 1907, wishing to establish a ‘high-class boarding establishment’. With such large houses in Dulwich being more difficult to let owing to the encroachment of terraced housing throughout the area, the Estate probably had little choice but to consent, however reluctant they might have been to such a proposal. William was born locally in Camberwell in about 1861 and Laura was from Poplar and a year younger, they had two children. William is described on the lease as a Life Insurance

To prepare 163 Denmark Hill for its new purpose, an annexe of two floors was built in the walled kitchen garden with 17 bedrooms on each floor and the stables were converted into bedrooms. The 1911 census indicates that in addition to the Wilsons and their son, there were 54 boarders and 21 staff in residence at the house. The boarders were from a wide age range, occupations and nationalities. There were three children aged 8 or under, six widows (some with their adult children), clerks, engineers, merchants, civil servants, medics, salesmen amongst others. Most boarders were British, but there were also Russians, Italians, Germans, an Australian, a Dane, an American and a Swiss. Amongst the staff were two German waiters, a Dutch waiter and a Swiss cook. The hotel had a golf professional by this time. One reason for residing at the boarding house has recently come to light, it was a place of refuge while a divorce case took place,

The Wilsons expanded their portfolio of boarding houses, taking a lease on 161 in 1911, and 167 (which was already a hotel) in 1918. In 1922, they added 165 and in 1923 the leases on the 4 properties were consolidated, though it appears that there were two hotels and a tennis club on the site; 161 was the Ruskin Manor Tennis Club, 163 the Ruskin Manor Residential Hotel and 165 and 167 were together the Bessemer Grange Residential Hotel.

In 1946 the Ruskin Manor estate was the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Order. The site was acquired by the London County Council to go some way to house some of the thousands of Londoners made homeless by the bombing of London in WW2. With the compensation from the order Dulwich College was able to press ahead with its plans to rebuild the war-damaged science block.

The author wishes to thank Bernard Nurse for his help with the John Ruskin section of this article.