Ties of Blood and Friendship: the Complicated Life of Francis Lynn. By Patrick Darby
Reviewed by Jan Piggott
We nourish the imagination with stories about historical characters who frequented an area one knows and loves, together with features of its former landscape and buildings. Before our own Dulwich days: Byron, a mischievous schoolboy at Dr. Glennie’s, dressing up as a highwayman on the South Circular where that derelict Grove Tavern now stands; John Ruskin at the study window of his mansion on Herne Hill, above the mega-store Sainsbury’s (then a small wood where the corncrakes sang), noting the qualities of the sunset, called from his desk by a man-servant who announced its appearance daily, and looking out again in the morning, hoping he would see the Crystal Palace flattened by the wind. Beneath our suburb-scape, the earlier meadows and corn-fields, large villas and grounds, streams and orchards.
Patrick Darby, researching the history of Hall Place (dating from the thirteenth century; demolished in 1882), discovered that four families who occupied or owned it in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century were inter-related by marriage, strangely connected by a fatal duel between two young men near Sheerness in 1678. Francis Lynn (1671-1731) fifty years later was bequeathed the mansion and grounds by the survivor, Samuel Hunter. Lynn’s “best Friend”, Captain Morgan, was a Regimental Agent heavily involved in Jacobite attempts to overthrow the Hanoverian dynasty and whose activities he and Hunter helped to finance.
Patrick Darby is a retired solicitor, zealous for detailed careful research and extraordinarily knowledgeable about Dulwich before 1800. His father William Darby was a famous Classics teacher at the College and also the local historian who published the excellent Dulwich Discovered in 1966 and Dulwich: a Place in History in 1967. Patrick has published histories of Kingswood House (1999 and 2010) and The Houses In-between (on the north side of Dulwich Common) in 2000, published by the Dulwich Society.
This book is something of a new genre: there is a preponderance of very many documents, quoted in detail, from many diverse sources, but strung on the thread of a narrative, proven or surmised, which Darby communicates with gusto. It has thus the appeal of a historical novel - more melancholy than romantic in that Lynn was cheated by Hunter and misjudged his best friend. We learn interesting incidental facts about late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century - political, naval, commercial and social history - and very much detail about property law and litigation. The reader must have a strong digestion for facts, figures and lists; the market price of heifers in 1716 may well interest us, but minor information and lists of tangential names might have been banished into footnotes. There are good maps, prints and portraits. Some prints have been hand-coloured, not a good idea. That of the Old College in 1792 is misleading: the brickwork on the entrance façade is given such a tint as to suggest that it was rendered and painted a pale pink.
The discovery of a diary of Francis Lynn’s in the National Library of Scotland was a great boon. We learn from it that the young Francis was fined sixpence at Westminster for breaking the rule that the schoolboys were expected to converse in Latin; Darby drily remarks that ‘nowadays this might be regarded as child abuse’. Hunter worked in the Royal dockyard at Sheerness and we learn about his work and problems with the Navy Board, where he became a Commissioner, and about Lynn’s time as Secretary to the Royal Africa Company trading in slaves, gold and ivory. As well as West Africa, the story takes us to Trinity College, Cambridge, to properties in the English countryside, and to Paris, Madrid, Barbados and Nova Scotia.
Hall Place stood among 32 acres south of what is today Park Hall Road, with a barn, stables, outhouses and yards. The estate comprised 30 acres of rich pasture, gardens and orchard. There was a moat, gated bridges and three other dwellings. Indoors an Eating Parlour had ‘a neat China Closet adjoining’. Burglaries and the theft by a maid of clothing are recorded. However, it was not the main manor house of the Dulwich estate nor the residence of Edward Alleyn - my own History of Dulwich College (2008) is much at fault in uncritically passing on this legend.
Darby throws new light on the feud between Samuel Hunter and the formidable Scottish Schoolmaster Fellow of the College, James Hume. Incidental vignettes of those days include Lynn being laid up for a month after falling from a Dulwich stile, and the quarrel of the Lynns with a neighbour on the Common who spoke ‘Billingsgate’ spite about their friend William Morgan with ‘a great deal of female Sawciness’. The documentary evidence about the main characters is naturally rather heavily circumstantial in spite of a few lively letters. Even so, all lovers of Dulwich will want to possess this wonderful piece of research.
The subsequent history of Hall Place was followed up by an excellent article by Bernard Nurse in the Dulwich Society Journal for December 2012.
Ties of Blood and Marriage is available from Amazon and on Kindle