There had been a road along the top of Sydenham Hill, at the eastern edge of the Great North Wood, for many years, forming the boundary between Camberwell and Lewisham. The ridge had long been a source of gravel but at Peckamans Wood its extraction no longer became viable and was ended in 1838 and the ground levelled. A site on the corner of Wells Park Road which had also been used for gravel extraction was exhausted before 1830. Of the six houses built on the east side of the road prior to 1850, the last two remaining are No. 16 ‘The Wood’, and No. 18 ‘The Elms’.
The Dulwich Estate was the landowner on the west side of the road and the only house on this side of the road prior to the arrival of the Crystal Place in 1854-54 was ‘Holly Brow’ on the northern corner - originally a cottage connected to an Admiralty signalling station. The arrival of the Crystal Palace at the south end of the road, on the former Penge Place site changed everything.
Most of the construction traffic to the Crystal Palace must have come along Sydenham Hill as, at that time, only Penge Road (now College Road) provided a direct connection to the area from Dulwich – and that had a tollgate on it. The first new building on the Estate land was the pub, the ‘Dulwich Wood House’. It was certainly there in 1861 when the landlord, George Ward, was noted as a "publican" at the "Wood House, Dulwich Wood". The general consensus is that it was constructed between 1857-58 by Francis Fuller and the Crystal Palace Company, and it may have been designed by Charles Barry jnr. However the licence was not granted until 25 March 1867 and there are other records which suggest that it may have been there as early as 1853 – when a man called Augustus Henry Novelli was living on the site. We know that Joseph Paxton spent a lot of his time at the Greyhound Inn in Dulwich Village while he was supervising the construction of the new Crystal Place. Given the number of workers, and the passing traffic, there would have been a demand for refreshment and food and it may be that a beer house, which did not need a licence, was set up on the site very early on.
The various parliamentary bills required to allow the construction of the Crystal Palace to proceed allowed the Crystal Place Company, the owners, to use compulsory purchase powers on the Dulwich Estate. It acquired the land to build Crystal Place Parade at a cost of £12,500, a huge sum for the time.
Further land was let to George Wythes, a house builder and major share holder in the company. His holding went from Crystal Place Parade down the hill towards Dulwich Wood Avenue and formed the ‘Dulwich Wood Estate’. He immediately let it back to the Crystal Palace Company. At the same time the land along Sydenham Hill was let to Francis Fuller, the Managing Director and Surveyor of the Crystal Palace Company, as a private speculation. His original concept for what was to be called the Sydenham Palace Estate included a church and a parsonage, 3 taverns, 2 hotels, and 188 large houses - to be designed by Banks and Barry. Unfortunately he was soon in financial difficulties and the land reverted to the Estate.
Meanwhile the Estate’s charitable side was going through a period of re-organisation and once this was complete, a more proactive management regime came into play. The Estate put a short series of advertisements in the Times, the Daily News and the Builder saying that there were sites for sale. Charles Barry was instructed to deal with it and he was also able to offer places at Dulwich College to the sons of prospective purchasers, now much in demand since the re-organisation, and arrival of the new master, Canon Carver. From 1859 onwards a number of individuals and speculative builders purchased the sites - initially at a rate of 5s par foot run of frontage. The average plot size was between 100 and 125 feet, so it would have cost £25 to £30 to purchase the initial lease. The minimum price of the houses to be constructed was generally £1500.
Two years earlier, in 1857, the Lambeth Water Company had rented a site near the junction of the path down to Penge Road called Rock Hill and had constructed a large water reservoir designed to serve the Forest Hill Area. At the same time the Estate also persuaded Camberwell and Lewisham to straighten Sydenham Hill to provide better building frontages, the Estate Manager describing it as being done on a ‘give and take basis’. Camberwell Vestry were responsible for the maintenance of the road and their largesse did not extend to the provision of mains drainage and sewers were not installed until 1864 when a number of houses were complete and their owners were pressing for action.
One of the first purchasers was the eminent civil and electrical engineer Josiah Latimer Clark. His house, called Birchmount (it was later called Hitherwood), was built on the first site north of the water reservoir. It was a substantial house, as he was a very rich man, and he installed a Pulhamite folly in his garden – the sign of wealth in the area. His son, also a well -known engineer, went to Dulwich College. In the 1920s the house became the International Students Hostel.
No 21 ‘Wavertree’ was originally leased by a Mr H C Brown, probably a builder, but by 1871 it was owned by Robert H Bristowe, a member of the Stock Exchange. He had previously lived at Pond House in Dulwich Village and had been seriously affected by the construction of the railway line by North Dulwich Station. Henry Charteris, a public accountant, lived at No 25, ‘Hazel Dean’ while No 27, ‘Mount Henly’ was first leased by Forest Hill builder John Patterson Waterson. By 1871 the house was owned by Frederick Brady, a zinc manufacturer whose firm employed 250 men and 35 boys.
Buxton Shillitoe, FRICS, owned No 29 ‘Birchmount’. His obituary noted that his professional interest was the study of diseases of the genito –urinary tract, but that he did not contribute much to medical literature. He was apparently an active promoter of the ‘Zittmann’ treatment for the later stages of syphilis – which involved the patient sitting in a high temperature room drinking strong doses of a concoction of sarsaparilla and potassium iodide. His hobby was the study of botany and he was a Fellow of the Linean Society.
Henry Stenning owned No. 31 ‘Moss Grange’, and at No. 33 ‘Edenwood’ was Hamilton Cook – the 1871 census gives no details of their professions. No. 35 ‘Burleigh House’ was owned by Frank Chance who was a ‘physician not practising’, while the house on the corner of Crescent Wood Road, No. 37 ‘Birchwood’ was occupied by Edmund Morris ‘a barrister who did not practice’. His house had been built by a Mr R P Hardy and was larger than most of the others, costing £2500.
As well as sewers, the other facility required by the new residents was a church. There is a note in the Estate minutes of September 1863 to an “influential meeting of residents of Sydenham Hill and other parts of the district” which nominated a committee to confer with the Estate about a suitable site for a church and parsonage. There ideal location was said to be “near the temporary railway station”. St Stephens and its parsonage were completed by 1868 but the reference to the temporary railway station does confirm that there was originally no intention to build a station at Sydenham Hill. Whether it was the residents who persuaded the railway company to build it, or whether it did it of their own volition – perhaps to provide additional access to the Crystal Palace, we can only guess at. Early photographs of the station show a very basic installation with wooden platforms and shelters – nothing like the more substantial buildings at West Dulwich or Penge East.
The Post War redevelopment of Nos. 19-37 Sydenham Hill
(Now 1-5 Rock Hill, Nos 1-32 Woodsyre & Nos 1-23 Crouchman’s Close)
In the aftermath of World War 2 few people were anxious to take up oor retain the onerous leases on the large and often derelict houses along the ridge of Sydenham Hill. Those houses which had been compulsorily occupied by Camberwell Council and let out as flats to homeless tenants who had been bombed-out of their previous homes tended to hold-up the overall redevelopment of the area, partly required by the London County Council.
It was not until February 1956 that the Dulwich Estate Architect and Surveyor, Austin Vernon, could report that he had prepared an outline development plan for all the sites. He added that to obtain the development density required, without building in the woods on the lower part of the gardens, the development would have to take the form of rows of flats along the road frontage. He thought this could be done in a pleasant way, “retaining all the rural amenities of the neighbourhood”.
However, there had been no progress when, late the following year , F O Hayes, the Camberwell Borough Architect, wrote to the Estate with a proposal for a council housing scheme on the site. His scheme consisted of 6 blocks of flats four stories in height with a total of 96 units. His letter envisaged the six blocks forming “a regular rhythmic sequence” across the tip of the hill. Austin Vernon responded quickly, and critically, and informed him that his scheme was unlikely to receive favourable consideration as the densities proposed far exceeded the figures set out on the agreed Dulwich Development Plan.
Hayes had other more pressing priorities and decided not to progress his scheme at this point but the Governors had got the message – if they didn’t do something the Council would. Austin Vernon & Partners spent the summer of 1958 working up a development scheme while the Manager liaised with Wates over an outline building agreement. The scheme was shown to a Board meeting in in November, and agreed in principle, and the Architect was instructed to discuss it with Camberwell Borough Council. At the same time Wates confirmed that they were prepared to deal with the site on the basis of the layout presented and erect a series of 78 small 3 story blocks (containing between 6 and 9 dwellings with flats at ground floor level with maisonettes above). The Architect noted that “advantage is taken of the fall of the ground to construct garages under the terrace gardens to be leased to each flat. The approach to the garages is by a private driveway along the back of the buildings suitably laid out to preserve the trees and woodland amenities.”
Requisitioning of some houses remained a problem and, to try and move things along so in late 1959 the Governors agreed to demolish Hitherwood, No 19 Sydenham Hill. In July 1960 the Manager was instructed to negotiate a building agreement for the site and the Architect was told to review his original proposal for the front elevations and consider re-siting the blocks of flats and maisonettes to create a more open vista between them. However, at that point, Wates’ ideas of the most appropriate development for the site changed and they no longer wanted to build maisonettes and flats. Neil Wates wrote a long letter to the Manager saying that the old scheme would be very difficult and expensive to implement and must be amended. The Governors noted his concerns and instructed Russell Vernon (who replaced his uncle Austin as Estate Architect and Surveyor in the autumn of 1959) to review the site again and revise the siting and layout.
Victor Knight, the partner in charge of design, re- planned the scheme and in December 1960 Russell Vernon was able to say “I have given careful consideration to this development in the light of the criticism of the plan previously considered by the Board and I have produced a revised proposal which I believe meets nearly all the requirements by providing for special houses along Sydenham Hill and presenting less mass of brickwork on the frontage than exists at the moment. The open effect is considerably greater, and will introduce the vistas and views previously suggested.” He noted that the height of the proposed terraces was low compared with the original Victorian properties and that the layout made better use of the steeply sloping site and the existing basements. He was clearly proud of the design and added “These houses will be fairly large by modern standards, and having regard to the difficulties of the site, will be priced at over £8500 each. I believe that, if a development on these lines can be achieved, it will result in a unique contribution being made to the better type of private domestic development in London.” The new layout showed a row of terrace houses and flats along Sydenham Hill with three blocks of tall flats located in the gardens at the south end of the site (now the site of Great Brownings) to maintain the development density. These flats were to be approached from Rockhill by a separate access road.
In June 1961 sketch designs for the 5 houses in Rockhill were ready, the Architect noting “The preparation of suitable designs has been very difficult owing to the exceedingly steep gradients”. In October, the working drawings were approved and work commenced shortly afterwards, the houses being complete by May 62. The design had the main dining room and kitchen at ground floor, a full width living area on the first floor - with a raised study corner, and a generous outside terrace, plus a bedroom and family bathroom, and a master bedroom suite with bathroom and dressing area and two further bedrooms on the second floor. On the Rockhill houses the spandrels under the windows were clad in ceramic tiles designed by a well-known contemporary ceramicist, Michael Caddy Des RCA, who was also responsible for the full height ceramic fire surrounds in the living rooms.
The tiled spandrels proved expensive and later terraces in Woodsyre had a cheaper coloured render (in mauve and purple). Here, the building agreement specified 26 three storey houses with garages, parallel to Sydenham Hill, 12 two storey maisonettes without garages, and 6 flats. The site further down the hill, with its 3 tall blocks of flats was put on hold.
In Woodsyre the site slope was even steeper than Rockhill and this enabled the architects to incorporate a further reception room at lower ground floor level “to provide direct access to the garden”. The living rooms also had stunning views over London to the west as they looked out over the woods below. At the end of September Rusell Vernon reported that there were apparently “sales difficulties of houses within this price range where only one garage can be provided”. At that time lessees were not allowed to park cars on private estate roads after dark, and it seemed that most prospective purchasers had two cars. Wates responded quickly and had the layout adjusted to provide 10 more off-road parking spaces.
In March 1963 the South London Press reported on a short ceremony to celebrate the completion of No. 6 Woodsyre, the 1000th home built by the Estate since the war. The front door key was handed over by the then chairman of the Dulwich College Estates, Mr A Scott, to chartered surveyor Mr Geoffrey Rogers, the new owner. Mr Scott paid tribute to Wates saying “They have carried out our desires in every way possible” he said, adding “It was a difficult site to develop because the ground sloped so steeply”.
In the same month the Architect proposed further changes to the northern end of the site. In the master plan this was to be developed with flats and maisonettes but Wates opted for 12 houses with garages below (Nos. 21-32 Woodsyre). In support of the change Russell Vernon confirmed that this meant an additional £30 per annum ground rent and said “I feel that this is a change for the better, as it is sometimes an advantage to get houses together, rather than to mix them with flats and maisonettes.” The serial 3Z houses used were similar to the Serial 3 houses built previously at Dulwich Wood Park and Sydenham Hill except that they had their garages on the floor below – this meant that they no longer had a garden outside the living room, just a balcony.
The final part of the scheme covering the sites of the former Nos. 33-37 Sydenham Hill was Crouchmans Close. Here Malcolm Pringle took over from Victor Knight and designed a compact cul-de sac of 13 ‘Serial 3’ houses and 10 ‘upside down houses’. The latter were specifically designed for steeper slopes. They had three bedrooms, and a conventional plan and section, but were accessed across an entrance bridge at first floor level. This house type was later used at Giles Coppice and Great Brownings.