Kingswood, as council estates go, is something of a paradox. There can be fewer public housing schemes where so much care and thought has gone into the design as this former gentleman’s estate at the southern end of Dulwich. Over the years it has remained attractive, a feat made easier by the enlightened retention of greensward and mature trees in the original design. Another success is the continued use of the original mansion - Kingswood House, as a focus for the community; its library being an essential anchor for this success. For a couple generations, until the growth of nursery places elsewhere in Dulwich, its council-run nursery was a godsend to astute but cash-strapped middle-class mums who arrived in a column of cars each day. The secondary school, Kingsdale, one of the earliest comprehensives was then less popular with such families. It had its difficulties and its high points. Once a centre of school teaching union militancy, it also, again paradoxically, developed a music department of national importance. Now the school has been totally reinvented, facilities always good are now superb and the economic recession has delivered a more even social mix.
Kingswood - a brief history
An estate was carved, partially out of woodland, at the southern tip of the manor of Dulwich in 1811 when most of the remaining land was let and an ambitious development plan by Dulwich College had been abandoned because of earlier economic woes. The first owner of what was an estate of originally 68 acres behaved like most of his contemporaries by becoming a gentleman farmer. However, this entailed keeping his day job. William Vizard was a successful lawyer, with offices in London, where he acted as Queen Caroline’s legal advisor in her divorce case with King George IV. Vizard, naturally had a large staff to maintain his estate which included a small farm.
During the nineteenth century the estate remained essentially intact and was occupied by a succession of prosperous businessmen owners. It was John Lawson Johnston, who acquired Kingswood in the 1890’s, who transformed the original and more modest Georgian house, into the extraordinary pastiche of the Scottish baronial mansion it is today. As a dietician he specialised in what is today better known as ‘C’ rations for marching troops. However, it was from his invention and skilful marketing of ‘Bovril’ that he amassed his considerable fortune; indeed Kingswood was once known locally as Bovril Castle! Johnston’s enthusiasm for his native Scotland and the failed cause of the Jacobites persuaded him to furnish the interior with displays of Claymores and as well as the actual bed Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have slept in after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden.
Johnston’s tenure of Kingswood was actually very brief and building works on the house and grounds (he also built a mock ‘castle’ where the parade of shops is today), must have occupied a good deal of the time he was actually living there. Happily for us, his extraordinary ‘improvements’ remain and we can still admire the elaborate wooden panelling and restored tapestries in the hall and stairs and the highly decorative fireplaces, said to have been removed from the Palace of St Cloud outside Paris.
Another owner, a brief occupancy as a convalescent hospital for wounded Canadian troops paid for by the Canadian firm of tractor manufacturers, Massey-Harris and then Kingswood Estate passed into the ownership of Sir William Vestey, who in 1922 “stepped out of cold storage into the peerage” when he was,made a lord by Lloyd George. Lord Vestey did not substantially alter Kingswood externally during his ownership which lasted until 1946 although he did make changes inside the house. The Jacobean ceiling in what was once the drawing room, which hides Johnston’s ceiling above it, was one of Vestey’s changes. At the end of World War II Lord Vestey proposed turning Kingswood into a hostel for his employees but London’s housing needs were so great that in 1946 the London County Council announced a compulsory purchase order for Kingswood. It acquired a total of 37 acres of which 30 acres was set aside for housing development and about three and a half acres allocated for schools.
In December 1947 the plans revealed that 748 dwellings would be built, in 3-4 storey flats, and 46 cottages. This came as a great shock to local residents who were only just getting used to the loss of the large Bessemer Estate for council housing at the opposite end of Dulwich. These compulsory purchase orders, followed in rapid succession by other orders for more land on Sydenham Hill, Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common gave the impression that the whole of Dulwich was being built over. Actually the LCC policy was similar to that adopted some eighty years earlier; to keep the centre of the Dulwich Estate as open as possible and to build densely on its periphery.
The Kingswood Estate was one of the last schemes designed by the London County Council Housing and Valuation Department rather than the Architect’s department, and this may go some way to explain its slightly retro 1930s feel. Careful consideration was given to preserving a large number of the fine existing trees and the generously spaced layout was planned around them. The shopping centre and pub (now demolished) were an integral part of the scheme.
When building resumed after WWII the clerk of the council at the LCC had recommended that, to improve efficiency, housing should be designed by members of the Valuation Department, hitherto only responsible for site acquisition and management. Despite opposition from the architectural profession and the LCC staff association, the change was approved. The Chief Architect, and author of the 1943 County of London Plan, J H Forshaw, resigned in protest.
His successor, Robert Matthew, was appointed early in 1946 and he was determined to win the housing programme back. The architects' opposition focused on the monotony of the schemes emerging from the Valuation Department, the reliance of these designs on pre-war models, and the absence of open space or community facilities in completed work (in fairness not a concern at Kingswood). Opposition came to a head in 1948, when the influential architectural critic James Richards complained in a radio broadcast about the LCC's current expedience and ‘sheer bad architecture’. The council's leader, Isaac Hayward, invited other comments. The response was overwhelmingly hostile and, with the support of the LCC's Town Planning Committee, control of future housing was returned to the architects' department in 1949 - their good track record on the design of the Festival of Britain buildings probably being the deciding factor.
The LCC may be credited in making huge efforts to provide as an attractive estate as the money available would allow; although the austerity of the time is reflected in the appearance of many of the individual houses in for example, Bowen Drive and Kingswood Drive, where some of the poor materials used and the consequent land heave have resulted in a great deal of subsidence. Most disappointing of all are the two neat rows of attractively painted but largely shuttered-up shops, victims of both the current economic downturn and the change in personal shopping habits, indeed the Community Police ‘cop shop’ has the appearance of the sheriff’s office in a one horse-town and the Community policeman its lone sheriff. Creative thinking is urgently needed to return this small commercial space to its earlier estate focus.