Court Lane Gardens is considered to be one of the prime areas to live in in Dulwich but it’s unique aspect, the houses set back behind a tree lined open space, was not the original plan, and came about more by accident than design. The builder, Arthur Bendall, was one of the more successful Edwardian developers in Dulwich (he built his own large house at ‘Roxburgh’, No 124 Court Lane). His first development was in Turney Road and he moved to Court Lane in 1903 to build the 44 house Desenfans Road development (Field 603) next to the Estate’s own ‘working-class’ housing on Dekker Road. He followed on with the nine pairs of semi-detached houses on the south-west side of Court Lane (Nos 2-36) - built along the backs of the gardens of the large houses in Dulwich Village. He was probably too busy to bother bidding for the Druce Road site (Field 604) which went to a rival builder, Gale Branson, but he was in a prime position for the next site to be developed. In October 1907 he made an offer to take approximately 500 foot of frontage further along Court Lane on both sides, plus part of the site of the old Eastlands House that had been taken back by the Estate to form the southern section of Dovercourt Road.
The details of the development were agreed quickly and a building agreement covering both the Court lane and Dovercourt Road developments was signed in December, the houses on the south-west side of Court Lane were to be valued at £750, on the north-east they were to be £650, and in Dovercourt Road, £600. Shortly afterwards it appears that a member of the Estate’s Board was driving up Court Lane and noticed that the south-west part of the site had three rather good rows of trees on it. He suggested to the Estate Manager that Mr Bendall be asked to push the frontage of his planed houses back a bit in order to retain them, and access the house off a separate ‘carriage drive’ - similar to College Gardens next to the Picture Gallery. Mr Bendall, about to start work, was extremely unhappy and wrote to the Estate saying that although ‘he himself is a lover of tree, he finds that the majority of persons who offer to take houses of the class he is building have a strong objection to trees in front of them and frequently ask for their removal. Many owners complain of the constant expense of clearing leaves from gutters and also damage to the properties from the overflowing of gutters.’
Since the building agreement had already been signed, the Estate were not in no position to force Mr Bendall to do what they wanted so, in the end, they had to agree a compromise where he would push the frontage back to save the trees, and they would build the new access road at its cost and maintain it ‘in perpetuity’. Mr Bendall was still not particularly keen but, after several meetings, he finally accepted that it was the only way forward. At the same time, he persuaded the Estate to increase the value of the houses on the south-west side to £850. The final plans were agreed in April 1908 and work on the road started soon afterwards. The LCC approved the name ‘Court Lane Gardens’ for the new access road in May 1909 and the first houses, Nos 3, 4, 5 and 6 were reported as being ready for occupation on the 10th June. Nos 1 and 2 followed on two weeks later. Most of the leases were taken up by the builder for him to rent out rather than sold to individual purchasers.
The original building agreement included a requirement that the grassed area with the trees should have an unclimbable iron fence on the Court Lane frontage with the traditional posts and bars behind it along the access road. In April 1922 the Surveyor reported that it had been found impossible to keep the ‘plantation’ in front of these houses in good order and he had extended the unclimbable fence all the way round and placed a gate in the centre, to allow the occupiers of the 22 houses access. But this was Dulwich, and the next meeting saw the Chairman saying that he had received letters from several residents objecting to the railings. A year earlier the residents had been up in arms to object to plans to run buses, and possibly trams, along Court Lane. It took until the early 1970s before the P4 started running along the road.
The houses managed to avoid any damage in WW1, though a raid in the early hours of 6th December 1917 saw bombs dropped nearby in the park - by Rosbery Lodge and near the cafe - luckily the latter failed to explode. In WW2, Nos 8 and 9 were destroyed by bombing in the autumn of 1941 but the most serious impact on the road took place at 5.06pm on the afternoon of 6th January 1945 when a V2 rocket landed opposite, on the corner of Dovercourt Road and Court Lane. Unlike the V1 doodlebugs, there was no warning as the engine cut out, just the whip cracking sound of the V2 rocket’s blast wave followed instantaneously by an enormous explosion and a deafening roar. The crater was nearly 70 feet wide and circa 25 feet deep, and 13 of the houses in Court Lane were largely demolished, along with three in Dovercourt Road. All the houses in Court Lane Gardens suffered serious blast damage as did many others nearby. Under the heading of ‘War Damage’, the Estate Minutes noted the Surveyor’s rather low-key report saying ‘I have to report further damage caused by rocket bomb as follows - damage to Court Lane, Court Lane Gardens, Dovercourt Road, Druce Road, Eastlands Crescent, Desenfans Road, Dekker Road, Dulwich Village and the neighbourhood generally’.
The damaged houses were repaired under the War Damage Commission, and only Nos 8 and 9, had to be completely rebuilt. The architect for their reconstruction was Selwyn B Porteous ARIBA, a local architect who practised from his home in Underhill Road. He also rebuilt bomb damaged houses in Burbage Road and the Dulwich Estate Minutes have copies of two letters which give an interesting insight into Austin Vernon, the Estate Architect’s views on how it should be done. Porteous wrote to him saying “I should be obliged if you would give some advice on the general question of design in regard to houses demolished by enemy action……. it would appear to me a pity to slavishly repeat, brick for brick and stone for stone, the somewhat old fashioned and ‘Edwardian’ features of Court Lane Gardens yet uniformity may be considered a more important consideration”. Vernon, a traditionalist, responded pleasantly but firmly “I am proposing to advise the Governors to take each case on its merits and not make a general decision which might allow incongruous buildings to arise and destroy the general harmony.... In the case of Court Lane Gardens, where houses are all similar, the elevations of the new houses should be generally in keeping with the remainder and of similar design but not necessarily brick by brick. I do not want to see a pair of ‘unfriendly’ houses placed in the middle of a uniform crescent’
The Ministry of Supply had taken the ‘plantation’ railings away to help the war effort in 1941 so, in December 1946, the Estate greed to install a chestnut spike fence pending the availability of a replacement metal fence. The Estate had also put up a seat on the pavement on Court Lane - and received a letter of complaint, dated July 1953, from the Camberwell Borough Council saying that the seat had ‘proved a source of obstruction to blind persons using the footway’ The Council suggested the creation of a small inset into the garden on which the seat could be placed. The Estate agreed but made the Council do the work and pay a nominal rent of 1s. It remains today, along with another at the other end, also the location of the Dulwich Society’s 50th Anniversary Memorial Plaque for the V2 explosion across the road.
One of the features of the houses which has now completely disappeared is the 1950s and 60s penchant for converting one of the front rooms into garages. When Nos 8 & 9 were rebuilt with integral garages, the Surveyor noted that this was a positive development and, shortly afterwards, in June 1954, the first conversion of an existing house, No 18, took place. Over the next ten years, nearly half the houses were converted. Work on No 15 was agreed in April 1955, No 12 in July 59, No 10 in February 61, No 16 in March and No 13 in April the same year. No 5 followed in July 63 and No 20 in December 63.