The crossroads at the junction of Thurlow Park Road and Croxted Road has been the home of Oakfield School since the early 1880s. Rosemead School, a couple of hundred metres to the west was, from 1878 to WW2, the site of the Dulwich High School for Girls (run by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust) while there were a number of smaller prep and dame schools in the streets nearby, The two largest and best known were the ‘Waldrons’, which opened in 1916 next to the West Dulwich Police Station at 132 Thurlow Park Road, and ‘Thurlow Grange’, its successor school, which occupied No 127, the substantial house on the north side of cross roads. Over the last 130 plus years Oakfield has progressively absorbed all its rivals, apart from Rosemead, and expanded its site to the one we see today.
The two semi-detached houses on the south side of Thurlow Park Road (Nos 126/128), were built in the mid-1860s by Benjamin Colls, a builder from Camberwell, as part of a much larger scheme that went almost as far south as Park Hall Road. His firm was to become better known as Trollope and Colls when it amalgamated with George Trollope & Sons in 1903. No 127, across the road, was developed in 1877-79 by a local builder, James Rodda. He sold it to a prominent civil engineer, Thomas Ormiston, a well-known designer of large scale port facilities, mainly at Bombay in India. He lived here only a few years before his death in 1883. His son, Old Alleynian Thomas Lane Ormiston, is best known as the author of the Dulwich College Register which listed all the pupils and masters who had attended or taught at Dulwich College between 1619 and 1926.
The proximity of the Dulwich High School for Girls may have persuaded a young teacher called Mary Louisa Adams that this was the ideal place to start a small girl’s boarding school to attract girls from out of London who wanted a ‘Metropolitan education’. Her father, Frederic Elisius Adams, rented Nos 126/128 on behalf of his daughter and the school began. Adams himself was an interesting character - born in Camberwell, he had worked as a customs agent for the East India Company at Aden (in what is now the Yemen) where he had married the daughter of a Royal Navy Captain. The couple had returned to London in the late 1850s and he had gone into business as a marble merchant. His daughter was clearly a very ambitious woman and, appreciating the need to promote her school, she advertised for pupils in the London Evening Standard in April that year
‘HIGH CLASS EDUCATION FOR YOUNG LADIES: with home training and comforts-
OAKFIELD, Thurlow Park Road, West Dulwich. Large garden, lawn tennis,
certified mistresses and masters. Pupils prepared for local exams.
She also travelled around the country, an advertisement in the Warwick & Warwickshire Advertiser in November 1887 told the locals that
‘Miss Adams, Principal of a First-Class College for the Daughters of Gentlemen, will be at the
Warwick Arms Hotel, Warwick, Nov 5th, and the Manor House Hotel, Leamington, Nov 7th,
to see Parents desirous of placing their Daughters under her charge. Photographs of House and
Grounds, list of Professors, and high Testimonials will be shown. inclusive terms, 50 to 70 Guineas.’
We even know the names of all her teachers, and what they taught. The Gloucester Journal of July 1888 tells us that Music & Harmony were taught by Miss Webster RAM and Mr F Kiakia FRSM, drawing & painting by Mr Fred Cowie, dancing by Madame Julienne, drill by Sergeant Lewis (hopefully this meant gym rather than military drill!), singing by Madame Conri and Miss Cooke, German by Madame Van der Gobt, French by Mademoiselle Carroll and Latin by Miss Tuck.
Later that year Mary Adams married a solicitor, Horace Addison Davies, four years younger than her, and the 1891 census shows them in residence at No 128 Thurlow Park Road aged 36 and 32, she the Principal of a Ladies College. Living with them are four teachers, 17 scholars & six servants. Following her husband’s death in 1895 she remained at the school for another ten years until she moved to Epsom to set up another school called Garrett’s Hall. She sold Oakfield to Miss Mabel Westhall, who had previously been running a girls’ school in Kingston, and she remained in charge until the early 1930s when it was taken over by Miss Elisabeth Nottcut Green. Her speech at the annual prize giving in 1935 has resonance today; ‘children must have leisure time to read on their own, to think, to make things with their hands, to get out of doors, instead of a ceaseless rush to the pictures or switching on the wireless’.
Meanwhile, over the road, following the death of Thomas Ormiston, No. 127 had been bought by wealthy retired actor, Henry Betty. His father, William Henry West Betty, had been one of the best known and feted young actors in the first few years of the nineteenth century and had made a considerable fortune in a very short time - such that his family never needed to work. He was succeeded by a wealthy Mexican merchant, Henry de Brieba. The 1911 Census noted that he was living on private means but he had other business interests which did not apparently prosper during WW1. Whether or not he committed suicide, or fell out of his bathroom window by accident, we will never know as the inquest jury returned an open verdict.
The next owners, Alfred and Annie Burnard, were frequently reported to be in arrears on the rent and, late in 1926, the lease was up for sale again - with local estate agent, Messrs Marten & Carneby. Their office was under the bridge at West Dulwich station (where Indian restaurant Chadni Raja is now). After rejecting offers to use it as a nursing home, the Dulwich Estate finally leased the property to Miss Lilian Bowditch and her business partner, Miss Eliza Florence Roberts, who were running the ‘Waldrons’ school nearby. The Estate readily agreed to transfer the school use from No 132 to No 127, though there was a slight hitch when it was discovered that Mrs Burnard had let the flat on the first floor for three years on a short-term tenancy to someone else, but the school moved in anyway - and its brass plate was relocated to the main gate. The new school was renamed Thurlow Grange. It prospered until WW2 when, after moving to Bognor Regis to avoid the blitz, it closed down.
In 1941 the site was acquired by William Moffat Livingstone, the new owner of Oakfield School, He had been a teacher at the Dulwich Prep in the late 1930s and when that school evacuated to Wales during WW2, he moved over to Oakfield. Luckily for him, he had recently married into a wealthy local family, the Petherbridges, and it would appear that his father-in-law helped him buy the school. The school’s campus was complete when he finally acquired the adjoining house No 125. in 1957.
Like No 127 it had been built by James Rodda, and had had a number of different owners. The first, in 1881, was local medical practitioner Alexander MacLachan. The next was Dr John Henry Tudsbury(1859-1939) DSc., M.Inst. C.E., Honorary Secretary of The Institute of Civil Engineers, and a noted waterworks engineer. He had travelled to Japan to work on projects for the Imperial Government, and later had an office in Liverpool - he made the first engineering survey of the Mersey Estuary in 1888. He was followed by Harry Powell CBE, of the Whitefriars Glass Company (see Dulwich Society Journal article December 2015).
The houses’ most notable resident was the Rt Hon J H Thomas MP (1874-1949) - the house was bought for him in 1920 for £2000 by his trade union and YouTube has a short film, of him and his wife at the house https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW3vG02NeMM. Born in Newport, Monmouthshire, and originally a railway worker, he become an official of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and in 1913 helped to organise its merger with two smaller railway trade unions to form the National Union of Railwaymen - he was the NUR’s general secretary from 1916 to 1931. He was first elected to Parliament in 1910 as MP for Derby and was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in the Ramsay MacDonald’s 1924 Labour government. He later held several other ministerial posts, the final one of which was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1936 but he was forced to resign from politics when it was revealed in the press that he had been entertained by stock exchange speculators and had dropped heavy hints as to tax changes planned in the budget. For example, while playing golf, he shouted "Tee up!", which was taken as a suggestion that the duties on tea were to rise.