On the street where you live - Acacia Grove
By Ian McInnes
By the end of the eighteenth century Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, widely called Dulwich College, was short of the funds needed to carry out repairs to its buildings, especially the west wing. To try and improve the situation it sponsored the Dulwich College Building Act of 1808. This permitted it to amend some of Edward Alleyn’s original restrictive statutes and allow both further building on the Estate and the potential to extend the length of leases from the original 21 to 84 years. However, until the 1850s, and despite its continuing serious financial position, it took no real opportunity to capitalise on these changes and continued to restrict development to just a few large houses on Dulwich Common.
The reforming of the College by Act of Parliament in 1857 brought in appointed governors to replace the existing management of its affairs. Three events exercised the minds of the new Governors, who had a brief to build new schools but were short of the funds with which to do it to. The first was the construction from 1853 of the Crystal Palace at the top of Sydenham Hill. This unleashed considerable development pressure in the south of the Estate which was further exacerbated by the second event, the arrival of the railways from 1858 onwards - there was now an easy way for potential new residents to reach their jobs in central London. The third was the construction of the New College from 1866-1870 (paid for by the money the Estate received from the railway companies to build the new tracks across its land) - the New College was far larger than before and needed a considerable number of pupils to make it pay.
By the mid 1860s the College had sanctioned the building of a number of large houses in College Road and Dulwich Wood Avenue, and word must have got out that they would be receptive to the development of smaller properties - in the right location. The west side of the Estate, on the Lambeth Border and beyond the new railway line, was such a location and, in September 1866, it entered into a building agreement with a Mr Thomas Jewell for “a plot of ground on the east side of Croxted Road, intended to be divided into two pieces by a new road”. It bordered Croxted Road on the west, copyhold field 395 to the south (later to be developed as Ildersly Grove) and the Alleyn’s Head in the south-east corner (where Majestic Wine now stands). The agreement obliged Mr Jewell to fence in the land and construct a new road and to build 28 smaller (but substantial) houses, 14 on each side of the new road, at a cost of £200 each. They were to be semi-detached; four pairs were to be built by Christmas 1866, and the whole project finished by September 1869. The ground rent was to be £66 1s 8d for 84 years from 1865. The road was to be called Acacia Grove.
The concept of small houses obviously caused the Governors some problems as, at the same meeting, they agreed that Mr Jewell would be required to lease the houses in pairs “since the collection of such small rents entails great trouble and consequent expense on the Governors.” Each semi-detached pair was leased to one tenant who then sublet the other house to their own subtenant.
The road and houses are shown on the 1876 Estate Map and there was no further mention of the road until April 1924 when the Surveyor reported that, following the Manger’s instructions, he had carried out a survey of the structural condition of the houses (the leases had about 25 years left). He noted that “In past days there have been settlements in most of the house fronts owing to the somewhat unsatisfactory construction of the wide French casement windows, but in every case these have been repaired. Generally the houses are in good repair; the roofs, external pointing, and external painting being in good condition. I hardly think there should be sufficient justification for serving notices to repair.”
Later that year, in September, Mr H T Holman, head lessee of Nos 5 & 6 Acacia Grove, and his under-lessee, Mr G W C Atkins, made an application to split the lease on the properties into two and to extend it for another 80 years. The Manager reported that the houses had been redecorated and were in a very fair state of repair, and that the usual scale premium would mean a cost of £133 0s 8d per house with an increased annual ground rent of £10. He then rejected the application because “only the main tenant can apply for a new lease”.
In October the Surveyor had another look at the properties – clearly a somewhat more detailed survey than his inspection in April, as his report was very different – it is clear that he had not actually entered the houses earlier. He confirmed that schedules of ‘want of repair’ should be served. His estimate of the approximate cost of repairs was £100. The Estate would not even discuss the matter of a new lease until the remedial work was completed. No 5 was signed off in September and No 6 in February 1926 and the new leases were agreed shortly afterwards
The neighbours obviously talked to one another and a similar application for splitting the lease on Nos. 19 & 20 Acacia Grove was made one month later in February 1925. The Manager reported that the leaseholder, a Miss Annie Gertrude Hastings, wanted to dispose of the properties “but is hampered because any one tenant would be liable for the rent on both houses”. The Estate agreed to change the leases and charge a ground rent of 10s 6d on each house (from £1 1s on both). Later in the year Mrs G M Erikson & Mr H C A Best at Nos. 9 & 10 and Mr H W Tozer & Mr J W Morley at Nos. 23 & 24 did the same.
Acacia Grove did not fare well in WW2 – in 1941 a large bomb badly damaged Nos 23-28 and the adjacent houses at 20 & 22 Croxted Road. They proved to be un-repairable and were all demolished in November 1943. In December 1945 Nos. 1and 5 were requisitioned by Camberwell Borough Council and in July 1946 the Camberwell Town Clerk wrote to the Governors saying that they wished to redevelop the bomb site as council housing. His letter said “the committee feel that this site would be eminently suitable for housing purposes and are proposing to submit the same to the London County Council for their observations.”
The Estate indicated their general approval to the purchase and Camberwell wrote again on 1st October 1946 requesting information on the possible terms. The Manager was asked to go and see the Town Clerk and see the proposed layout as “the form of development has a distinct bearing upon the rental value of the Building Lease.” The actual Compulsory Purchase Notice was served on 3rd July 1947 and, although the Estate objected at the subsequent public enquiry on 21st October, this was only procedural - to make sure that they obtained a fair price for the site (they received £3000). The compulsory purchase order was confirmed in February 1948 and the site developed over the next three years.
On the other side of the road, where the houses had not been so badly damaged, the Estate re-let Nos. 15 & 16 to teachers at the College for £70 per annum. The Manager noted that “These premises which are now in course of renovation by the Council’s contractors were offered to Mr W Darby, an assistant college master, on a yearly tenancy. Mr Darby asks for electric light to be installed and I have received an estimate for this work for £39 10s.” (William Darby was chairman of the Dulwich Society in 1968 and author of ‘Dulwich Discovered’ and ‘Dulwich – a place in history’)
In February 1949 the Manager noted that “I recently had occasion to write to both of these tenants drawing attention to a breach of the stipulations of their agreements in respect of the occupation of the premises.” Mr Darby had taken a student boarder and had asked for alterations to be carried out to the attic rooms in order that he could take other boarders. Mr Hillier (No 15) had sublet the top floor of his house as well. The Estate subsequently received a letter form the Clerk of the Governors of the College pointing out the serious problem they had at that time with boarding accommodation and asking the Governors to be helpful. They finally agreed to the changes.