By Ian McInnes
Built in 1788-90 by Percival North, a successful grocer and tea dealer and partner in the firm of North, Simpson, Graham and Co. (with shops in New Bridge Street and Fleet Street), the Elms was a large house that sat roughly where the Dulwich Riding School is today. Both his partners, Simpson and Graham, also lived locally, in Herne Hill - Simpson’s Alley (now Ruskin Walk) was named after one of them. North died in 1818, aged 86, and was buried in the Dulwich Burial Ground in what is now known as the Graham Family tomb but was originally his - a quote from the transcript of the burial fees register (p 147) tells us that ’Mr North’s Vault (near Mr Palmer’s) in which Mrs Graham was buried April 11 1806, is the same size with Mr Test’s & holds eight persons, Mr North having made it a course of two bricks higher’. The tomb sits on a battered plain stone base, with a flat-arched vault entrance to its west return, and is Grade II listed.
The one member of the Graham family who was not buried in the family vault is North’s other partner, Christopher Graham, who acquired the Elms following North’s wife’s death - he is listed as the tenant in the St Giles Camberwell Tithe Map of 1837 (the freehold was held by the Dulwich Estate) but he actually lived at the Cedars, No 62 Herne Hill. His claim to fame, if it can be called that, was the circumstances of his death. The Times of 11th March 1847 reported on the inquest held at the Prince Regent Inn in Dulwich Road. The first witness, a footman called Henry Keniance, confirmed that over the last few weeks his master had been very ill with lumbago. He added that, on the Monday morning, a female servant came to him saying ‘Master is very bad, and the stuff they have sent him to take almost choked him, as he was 30 minutes in taking it’. He ran up to the bedroom and, seeing that Graham had clearly been given the wrong medicine, told his master’s wife who immediately sent for their doctor, Dr English. Keniance then said that ‘the servant who administered the lotion was in the habit of being called to their bedchamber at all times of the night, and on the present unfortunate occasion she had in haste taken up the wrong bottle.’ Dr English confirmed that he had found Graham in a partial coma, and had used a stomach pump on him. This extracted a large quantity of liniment consisting of laudanum, camphor and ammonia but it was too late, and Graham died about noon.
There is no record of any house sale but the 1841 Census shows a new occupier, 34-year-old James Smith and his family. He was a Manchester warehouseman - a wholesaler of linen and cotton cloth made in the factories surrounding that city. He stayed a relatively short time as, in 1843, there was a new lease to Jonathan Crocker of Crocker, Son & Crocker, who was in much the same business - a wholesaler of cotton, silk and woollen clothing. He had grown up in Hanover Park, Peckham and his brother Albert also lived locally, at Eastlands, a large house in Court Land now replaced by Eastlands Crescent. In the 1851 Census he was at the house with his wife, Sophia (a cousin of wealthy silversmith George Widdowson who moved into Bell House on College Road in 1852), two daughters and a son, along with six servants and a coachman. The family moved to Rose Bank Cottage, a new house in Lordship Lane in 1857 and, by 1871 they were living at 28 Eaton Square, they had moved up in the world. Back at the Elms the new tenant was George Fordham Blow, a currier (literally a person who curries leather). Bermondsey was the centre of London’s leather trade and Fordham Blow had a hit and miss career in it - he was declared bankrupt in both 1835 and 1845. Luckily for him he was related to the owners of the Fordham Brewery in Lewisham and he inherited a large amount of property in St Albans. Only a newspaper report on the marriage of his son, Alfred, an army contractor based in Birmingham, confirms the family’s connection with the house. The next tenant was a prosperous Portuguese & Spanish wine merchant, Francis Cramp. He was also a bank director and he lived there with his wife, five daughters (Eliza, Alice, Ada, Florence & Constance) plus a butler, cook, housemaid, two nurses and a coachman. In April 1863 the Morning Advertiser reported on a burglary at the house - Cramp apparently lost a coromandel wood dressing case containing jewellery valued at £90.
In 1865 a new lease was granted to Thomas Green, a shipper of iron and hardware to North America. He had been living nearby in Thurlow Lodge, on the corner of Alleyn Park, and moved to the Elms following his marriage to Charlotte, the daughter of Albert Crocker of Eastlands - she would have known the house from when her uncle Jonathan lived there. They sadly had a stillborn daughter while living there but stayed until 1874 when the lease was assigned to Lord Mansfield for a premium of £200. William David Murray, the fourth Earl of Mansfield (1806-98), whose seat was Kenwood House in North London, had had a varied political career. Between 1831 and 1840, he was consecutively the MP for Aldborough, Woodstock, Norwich and Perthshire. He succeeded his father, the third earl, in February 1840 and was appointed Knight Order of the Thistle in 1843. He never lived in the house as he had acquired it for one of his many sisters, the unmarried Lady Elizabeth Murray. She was the niece and cousin respectively of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle (of the famous painting and 2013 film ‘Belle’). Dido was born a slave but brought up at Kenwood by her father’s uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield. Lady Elizabeth died in 1880 and the house was then left empty until September 1882 when Lord Mansfield offered to pay the Estate £500 in full and final settlement of the dilapidations.
The Estate minutes confirmed that the house was in a bad state of repair so the Governors took his money and paid W J Mitchell, the main builder in Dulwich Village, to carry out an upgrade - for £200. The work was completed by April 1883 and the house was let shortly afterwards to a new tenant, James Cowie. He was a well-known Scottish farmer with a large land holding in Mains of Haulkerton, near Aberdeen. He did not live in the house for long as he died the following year, 1884, aged 77, after a long illness. His demise was probably not helped by his wayward son who, although a reasonably successful speculator on the Stock Exchange, was frequently in court for refusing to pay his debts - In September 1884 he was sent down for 10 days for not paying £5 12s 6d owed to his tailor. Cowie’s fulsome obituary noted that ‘On the maternal side, Mr Cowie belonged to a family at one time both numerous and influential among the Mearns farmers, and he, on account of his prize essay on the ‘Bothy System’, and other writings, was well-known over a far wider circle than his own county’. He was also a leading antivivisectionist as the later part of his obituary makes clear saying ‘Mr Cowie devoted a large portion of his later years to the cause of anti-vivisection both at home and abroad, and was largely instrumental in mitigating the cruelties of vivisection on the Continent’.
The next tenant was Mrs Charlotte Ormiston, the widow of noted Victorian port engineer Thomas Ormiston, and mother of Thomas Lane Ormiston, the compiler in the 1920s of the Dulwich College Register, 1619-1926. The family had moved from No. 127 Thurlow Park, the large house on the corner with South Croxted Road, now part of Oakfield School. In February 1898 her solicitors wrote to the Estate saying that when she took over the house, she undertook to put it into tenantable repair. The letter noted that the house was a very old one and, although Mrs Ormiston knew that when she moved in, she had only expected to spend about £150 on it. In reality she had had to spend £500 over the years to make it habitable and she asked for an extended term of seven years on her lease, and further help towards the costs. The Estate agreed to the extension and allowed her to continue as a yearly tenant without any liability for external or constructional repairs at a slightly increased annual rent, £85 instead of £70. The Estate minutes noted that the house’s condition was such that there would be considerable difficulty in finding a new tenant. She was still in the house on Census day 1901 but left shortly afterwards.
The house remained empty until October 1905 when Camberwell Borough Council issued a sanitary notice condemning the existing drains. The Estate decided that it was not worth doing the work and the house was finally demolished in July 1909.
The site was turned into allotments which remained until after the Second World War. In the early 1961 it was let to Mr James (Jim) Bellman as a riding school. Dulwich Riding School continues today under the ownership of his daughter.