Dulwich Hill House was one of several large houses with extensive grounds on Denmark Hill and Herne Hill whose wealthy neighbours in the nineteenth century would have included the inventor, Sir Henry Bessemer, to the north and the lawyer, Richard Shawe, in Casino House to the south. The property would have enjoyed fine views from the ridge between the top of Red Post Hill and the later Sunray Avenue, which cut through its grounds. Built at the expense of David Gordon and his brother Adam, it was completed by 1800 (the same year as Casino House) with a lodge, coach house and stables in 22 acres of gardens and fields. A lease for 63 plus 21 years was granted from that date by Dulwich College for a ground rent of £130 a year. It was given the name, Dulwich Hill House, towards the end of the 19th century.
The leaseholder, David Gordon (1753-1831) started his working life as a banker but left to start up his own business with Adam and his brother-in-law, John Biddulph. The firm invested in shipping and owned a large metal working operation at Deptford Green which specialised in iron founding and anchor making. It rapidly expanded during the Napoleonic wars, taking over the Bedlington Ironworks in Durham in 1809 and a few years later acquiring Dudman’s large ship-building and repairing dockyard in Grove Street, Deptford. The best known of the ships built there was the paddle steamer Enterprize, the first vessel with a steam engine to make the passage to India. Launched in 1825, the wooden vessel was hardly sea-worthy but eventually reached Calcutta after 112 days under sail and steam. More significant in the history of marine engineering was the Gordons’ trial of the first screw propeller the year before on a nearby lake - probably the one in what is now Sunray Gardens. This was invented by one of their employees, John Swan, but not developed for practical use until ten years later by another Dulwich resident, Sir Francis Pettit Smith (1808-74) of Fountain Lodge, Sydenham Hill (see DSJ Summer 2005).
David Gordon unexpectedly inherited from his brother the title of 14th Laird of Abergeldy on Deeside in 1819 and his eldest son Charles became more closely involved in managing the Deptford businesses, arranging the trial of the screw propeller in Dulwich. Dr George Birkbeck, one of the founders of the London Mechanics Institute later renamed Birkbeck College, witnessed the event and reported in the London Mechanics Register (22 January 1825) that the “experiment [took place] on a sheet of water in the grounds of Charles Gordon Esq. of Dulwich Hill”. Charles died in 1826 at the age of 36 and David’s youngest son, Adam took a more active role. Both invested heavily in speculative projects. Charles was one of the directors of the United Mexican Mining Association, a ‘bubble company’ which failed spectacularly and also the Canada Company established to sell land to settlers in Upper Canada, although this was eventually successful. Adam invested in risky railway companies as well as the Deptford Pier and Improvement Company which proved a colossal failure. John Biddulph junior who, like his father, was a partner in the firm wrote in his diary for 1831 that when he left the company in 1829, ‘Mr Gordon had at least £150,000 of property (worth about £15 million today), now he has nothing to live on...How miserably have his sons managed’. The Deptford docks suffered a major fire in 1838 which destroyed the deeds to the Dulwich house and their business records, Adam died six months later and the family withdrew from shipbuilding and ironworking shortly afterwards.
David Gordon died in 1831 and in 1834 the residue of his lease was sold to William Tetlow Hibbert (1792-1881), another director of the Canada Company whose family gave their name to Hibbert Township in Ontario. The family firm were chiefly West India merchants involved with the shipping, insurance and distribution of colonial commodities, especially sugar. They owned slaves through the plantations in Jamaica in which they invested and received compensation when slavery was abolished in the West Indies in 1833. William’s sisters erected an almshouse in Wandsworth in memory of their father, which is still administered by the Hibbert Trust founded by their cousin.
William Hibbert moved to Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park in 1850 and the 34 years left on the lease was sold for £2,000 to Matthew Attwood (1779-1851) a banker who also had a strong interest in shipping as chairman of the General Steam Navigation Company. He devoted the last thirty years of his life to politics, first elected in 1820 as Conservative MP for the rotten borough of Callington in Cornwall, where he won the seat with only 51 votes. However he died eighteen months after acquiring the property and his son Mathias Wolverley Attwood (1808-65), took it over, succeeding his father in the family bank until it was sold to Barclays in 1863 and succeeding him also as chairman of the company. He represented Greenwich as MP for a short while before retiring from public life because of ill health. His uncle, Benjamin (1794-1874) took over the lease after his death in 1865, and inherited a considerable fortune of nearly £900,000 from his nephew, much of which had come from the sale of the bank. Benjamin had been one of the founders of the General Steam Navigation Company, was connected with several other prosperous concerns and was wealthy enough on his own account, so he decided to give away much of his inherited wealth anonymously. Relations and their dependents received just under half, and charities, particularly London hospitals, were sent about £475,000 in £1000 cheques. Attwood was known as ‘the secret millionaire’ when his generosity was discovered after his death in 1875. He preferred to live in his house in Cheshunt but kept possession of the Dulwich house.
There were only a few years remaining on the lease when he died and the next leaseholder, Thomas Lynn Bristowe (1833-92), was granted a new lease by the Dulwich Estate. He was a stockbroker who moved there from a house on the opposite side of the road and lived in Dulwich Hill House between about 1875 and 1885. During this time it was numbered 169 Denmark Hill. Bristowe was the first MP for the Norwood Division of Lambeth, and is remembered locally for leading the campaign which led to the London County Council purchasing the Brockwell Estate for a public park. The opening ceremony in 1892 was overshadowed by tragedy when he suffered a heart attack on the steps of Brockwell Hall and died. Bristowe’s stone bust, which was on the drinking fountain erected in his memory, can be seen in the entrance hall; it had been saved, restored and installed there in 2012 on the anniversary of his death in 1892.
A few months before Bristowe died, he had applied for permission for Mrs Burnett, who ran a high class ladies’ school on Denmark Hill, to use no 169 for the same purpose. Although the governors recommended acceptance no further action seems to have been taken and more interest was shown in the extensive land attached. By then the future of the large houses in the area was very uncertain, as the wealthy preferred to live further out of London. In 1894, the Dulwich Estate accepted an offer from the newly formed Red Post Hill Land Company to build fifty houses on the land with an option to demolish the old property. It was taken down within the next three years, and only the gatehouse known as Hillcrest Lodge was kept, surviving until about 1961. Sunray Avenue was laid across the grounds to provide access to the new development, but in the event only a few houses were built and the rest of the site remained open until after the First World War.