Those who visit Dulwich Park today are unlikely to know much about the individual after whom the Francis Peek Centre is named; and little will they realise how apt the memorial is. Without the efforts of this Victorian businessman and philanthropist, it is doubtful whether Dulwich Park, as we know it today, would have come into being. Francis Peek was born in in 1833 in London, where his father had moved to from Devon to start a firm importing tea. .Shortly afterwards the family moved to the burgeoning port of Liverpool and, as a young man, Francis was sent to the Far East to learn the rudiments of the world tea trade. Such was his aptitude for the business that, during the 1850s, he took over management of the company, then called Peek, Winch and Co.
The company flourished but, after marrying Lydia Hicks Meigh in 1855, Peek decided to relocate to London, which had increasingly become the hub of the world tea trade. He built a family house, Roby, in Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham and it was here that their family were brought up. The 1881 census shows that, living at Roby in that year were Francis and Lydia (left, with daughter Mary in a portrait by James Sant), their son and three daughters, a butler, a footman, a cook, two lady's maids, a kitchen maid, a laundress, a laundrymaid, two gardeners and two coachmen.
Peek, Winch went into direct competition with the other tea wholesale businesses in London, notably Peek Bros, another large tea trading business which had been started by Peek's uncle and was by this time owned by his cousin Henry (whose father incidentally also started the biscuit company Peek Frean). In the early 1860s, both companies were in the top four tea wholesalers in the world as the British taste for tea expanded rapidly, encouraged by the contemporary view that it both provided an alternative to alcohol and that tea-making ensured that water was boiled before drinking. By the mid 1870s Peek, Winch had a capital of nearly half a million pounds, enabling Francis Peek, as its senior partner, to draw an income of several thousand pounds a year.
With his business interests running smoothly, Francis Peek was gradually able to spend an increasing amount of his time, energy and fortune on the religious and charitable issues that were his overriding personal interest, including education, Poor Law matters and recreational facilities for the less well off.
Both cousins, Francis and Henry, were members of the Commons Preservation Society (CPS) and both considered the availability of open spaces near London's newly built-up areas, where residents without gardens could take their families for fresh air and exercise, vitally important. Henry Peek, soon to be an MP and baronet, was closely involved in the struggle to preserve Wimbledon Common from enclosure and development. Meanwhile, in the rapidly developing suburbs of South East London, Francis had come to realise that, once land was sold for development, there would be little chance of retaining any of it for amenity space. Thus it was that in 1872, the CPS wrote to the governors of Dulwich College to tell them that Peek had offered the considerable sum of £7,500 towards laying out and maintaining a new public park if they would consider providing the land. The Alleyn Bequest estate was very extensive; however, the governors turned down the request on the basis that such a grant did not fall within the remit of what was, after all, an educational charity. Francis Peek, however, was not prepared to take no for an answer and continued to urge the Governors to reconsider. In 1882 he stood, and was elected, as a Governor of the College Estate (by now distinct from the College School).
The new board of Governors was bitterly divided on the issue but Francis Peek proved a most tenacious advocate for the park in a struggle that involved a broad array of bodies from local residents to church interests, the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), the press, the Charity Commissioners and sub-committees of both Houses of Parliament, among others. Through all the machinations in this very long and involved process, Francis Peek held firm and, indeed, at the large public meetings held during 1884 and 1885, the Park was promoted as “the idea of Mr Francis Peek”. Ultimately, in 1885, the Governors gave their agreement and in July the necessary Bill gained parliamentary approval. The land in question was granted to the MBW “for ever” and the park was formally opened in June 1890.
With the issue of the Park still ongoing, Francis Peek turned his attention to another area about which he felt strongly: the provision of elementary education in London. He was a strong supporter of the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which required parents in London to have their children schooled between the ages of 5 and 13 and established The London School Board (LSB) as the local education authority for London. The Board was run by elected members from all the parliamentary boroughs of London and Peek stood successfully in the elections of 1873 as one of the members representing the City of London. The LSB proved very successful: by the end of the 1880s the Board was providing school places for more than 350,000 children and had built over four hundred schools across London, the quality of which was often superior to that of private or charity schools.
Each morning, his journey to the City took Francis Peek from Upper Sydenham station on the (now defunct) Crystal Palace to Nunhead branch line (recorded, somewhat incongruously, by Pissarro in a painting of 1871) and travelled thence on the LC&DR line through the sprawling new suburbs of Denmark Park and Peckham Rye.The plot sizes of these new estates, laid out by the British Land Company in the 1870s, were generally some 20 feet wide which provided for a good-sized family house, usually of two stories, with a small front garden. The suburbs were not affluent; better-off white-collar households (with a typical annual income of around £200 a year and a live-in maid) comprised only around a quarter of households in the area and by 1881, indeed, a quarter of all houses in the area were in divided occupation. Moreover, there were no extras of the kind to be found in the wealthier suburbs, such as elegant squares, open spaces or places of worship. On his daily commute, Peek noticed that there was little provision in the way of churches for a population that had risen by around 75,000 in a decade. The problem was that even a fairly modest permanent mission church cost around £5,000 to build, whilst a more architecturally distinguished church (for a parish of around 5,000 people) would cost around £15,000, excluding vestries, a tower or a vicarage.
Over the following ten years, therefore, Peek personally funded the construction of four substantial churches plus ancillary buildings, in areas of South London where places of worship were in short supply. Emmanuel Church, East Dulwich was built in 1877 (the first vicar being the Rev. Evan Rae); Holy Trinity, Upper Norwood built in 1879 (Rev. Samuel Whitfield Daukes); St Saviour's, Denmark Park in 1881 (Rev. Joseph Stephenson) and St Clement's, East Dulwich in 1885 (Rev. Harnett Ellison Jennings).
In addition to these activities, Peek found the time to write a number of books on both socio-political and religious topics (his best known was Social wreckage: Our laws and our Poor 1879). In the same period, he gave public talks on subjects he felt strongly about to bodies as diverse as the Camberwell C of E Young Men's Society and the Charity Organisation Society. He also gave money to a wide range of causes, some more mainstream such as local hospitals, the establishment of working men's clubs and housing provision for the poor but some essentially practical in nature such as the provision of boots and shoes for school pupils whose parents could not afford them. He was also chairman of the Howard Association (later the Howard League for Penal Reform) and was the first treasurer of the National Vigilance Association, recently set up to counter some of the darker trends in urban crime so well documented in the novels of Charles Dickens.
During these years his family tea business continued to flourish. In 1895 Peek, Winch & Co. and Peek Bros amalgamated under the name Peek Brothers and Winch Ltd and became the largest tea wholesalers in the world, with Francis Peek as its first chairman. The headquarters of the company was Peek House, 20 Eastcheap; the frieze over its main entrance still depicts the camel train used as a trademark for the company's “Camel” brand of tea and represents the three staples of the company's business by the late 19th century - tea, coffee and spices.
Peek continued to take a close interest in his charitable interests (including Dulwich Park) during his final decade and continued to support the construction of new churches (including St Barnabas, Dulwich and St Silas's Nunhead) while continuing to write on social and religious topics: his last book was published in 1897. He died two years later in 1899, aged of 66, at his seaside house in Margate.
The Times described him in his obituary as “one of the best types of London citizen”. The local advertiser wrote “How many of our societies for the amelioration of the poor and destitute classes will miss his generous gifts and his ever-ready sympathy. Moreover, how often leading workers sought his counsel in matters of difficulty, and thanked God for his ripened judgement and his wise and cautious advice.” The Norwood News wrote: “His was one of the best-known names in Norwood and he was held in the highest esteem by those who enjoyed the privilege of his friendship, and in the best sense he was one of the most publicly-spirited men of his day although he did not court personal fame. Francis Peek was a man full of the love of souls.” The park he envisaged for Dulwich is one of his most enduring legacies and we can be sure that he would be enormously pleased to know that it is today enjoyed by so many from all walks of life.