At the end of Pickwick Papers, Dickens describes Samuel Pickwick retiring to Dulwich ‘one of the most pleasant spots near London’. He takes a house with a large garden, and ‘fitted up with every attention to substantial comfort…Everything was so beautiful! The lawn in front, the garden behind, the miniature conservatory, the dining-room, the drawing-room, the bed-rooms, the smoking-room, and above all the study…with a large cheerful window opening upon a pleasant lawn, and commanding a pretty landscape, just dotted here and there with little houses almost hidden by trees’. This text is taken from the first complete edition published in 1837, later revised but only to remove the word ‘just’. Although Dickens’ son is reported to have said that his father had no real house in mind when he was writing the book, the house now numbered 31 College Road has often been associated with Mr Pickwick. By the early twentieth century, the previous name ‘Trewyn’ had been changed to ‘Pickwick Cottage’ and featured on postcards of the time as ‘Pickwick Villa’ or ‘Pickwick House’. A book of photographs of London, called ‘Wonderful London’ published 1926-7 illustrated the house as ‘the home of Mr Pickwick at Dulwich’ on the same page as a picture of the ‘supposed’ Old Curiosity Shop near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, immortalised by Charles Dickens, as if there were no doubts about the former.
By the end of the 19th century, the house did bear some resemblance to Dickens’ description, with an attractive lawn in front, a garden behind, many trees outside and rooms inside that could have been used as he suggested, and a small conservatory. However, when Dickens was writing Pickwick Papers in 1836 and 1837, the house was then two cottages with small gardens, and it was only converted into a single dwelling in the 1840s.The front garden was added later in the nineteenth century and the rear garden extended in the twentieth. The association seems to have come after Dickens’ death in 1870 when his fame was well established and a huge interest developed in anything Dickensian.
The two old cottages are described in a deed of 1790 in Dulwich College Archives as being leased to the occupier of Bell House next door, each consisting of a front and back chamber [upstairs] and a front parlour, kitchen, washhouse and privy [downstairs] . This matches the description of the elderly Tom Morris, who wrote in 1909 that Pickwick Villa had originally been two small four-roomed cottages, with whitewash fronts. The present house incorporates some outer plaster walls of these cottages in the front with some weatherboarding remaining at the back.
In 1832, 21 year leases of what were described as wooden premises were granted to the two occupiers, Christopher Mason, gent and Samuel Nail, merchant at a rent of £12 a year each. They had been renting the properties from the previous leaseholder who occupied Bell House. Tom Morris remembered a man called Mason living there with his daughter. He said he kept cows and sold milk and was one of the parish overseers for Camberwell; then after Mason died his daughter married a gentleman called Nale, who turned the two cottages into one. A different story is given by Sir Alfred Temple, who was assigned the lease in 1926. He says his aunt Sarah married Samuel Nail, an insurance broker at Lloyds; her father, George Temple, lived in London but spent the weekends in Dulwich between 1787 and 1821 when he died and left the place to his daughter. Temple says it was never known as Pickwick Villa in his aunt’s time, and it was many years after her death that he noticed in passing that it had been so called. Morris has clearly confused the two occupants as Selina (Sarah) Temple, not Miss Mason, married Samuel Nail in 1822.
After Dickens had written Pickwick Papers, the two cottages were joined into one by Samuel Nail, who by then was occupying both cottages. In 1840 Dulwich College granted him a new lease, which merged the previous two, on condition that he substantially repaired and improved the property. The rent was low at £24 a year and the period long at 31 years. However, he agreed to convert the two premises into one, erect a small coach house and stable where a shed and pigsty had been, pull down the back part and rebuild in a more substantial manner, spend £150 on the improvements and not allow the front fence to extend beyond the line of the brick wall in front of Bell House. £150 would be about £12,500 today but the work would cost a great deal more. The results can be seen in the front part of the house, with one entrance and staircase, fine panelling in the dining room and rendered walls, although the rear has been considerably altered since the 1840s.
The house and gardens were so attractive that Temple recalls that Queen Victoria on her way to Crystal Palace once asked who lived there and met his aunt. She was there until1865, and the following year Samuel was given a new lease for 21 years to include most of the land in front of the house between it and the road. It is one of the distinctive features that the front garden extends so far out. Most of the other land in front of the houses on this side of the road is grassed over. It belongs to the Dulwich Estate and was previously common land or ‘waste’ belonging to the manor. Samuel Nail was appointed a Governor of Dulwich College in 1858 and seems to have been able to use his position to acquire the land on condition that he kept it in good order as an ornamental enclosure. By the beginning of the next century it was regarded as part of the property and the requirement to keep the fence further back in line with the wall of Bell House was dropped. Nail also managed to negotiate a very reasonable rent of £28-9 shillings, and appealed against an assessment for rates of £35 a year. He must have been very annoyed when the Justices of the Peace raised them to £45 instead.
Samuel Nail died in 1867 and the house was let, acquiring its name of Trewyn by 1871. The census of that year records a young Manchester warehouseman (wholesale merchant in cloth) and his wife living there with their two daughters. By the time of the next census in 1881, Charles Court, a chief examiner in the Post Office occupied the house with his wife. Tom Morris describes him as a retired pensioner and an invalid with a much younger wife, although the census gives their ages then as 61 and 54 and ten years later as 72 and 62. Morris says she kept the cottage and garden in good style ‘which made it a great attraction to the London people who passed by on the way to the Crystal Palace’. She had two horses which she drove herself around the district, the groom riding behind her. A schedule to the lease taken out by Charles Court in 1886 lists the rooms. On the first floor were four rooms and on the ground floor were a dining room, drawing room, larder, pantry, passage, kitchen and scullery. The conservatory had iron piping for hot water and there was a two stall stable. Charles Court died in 1894 and his widow, Elizabeth, assigned the lease to another widow, Ann Trickett of Catford.
It was in the period when the Courts were living there that the association with Pickwick was made. The earliest reference traced is in the 1886 edition of Robert Allbutt’s London Rambler “en zigzag” with Charles Dickens: ‘the house - a white, comfortable looking residence, stands (left) near the station, as we approach [from West Dulwich]; corresponding in style and position with its Pickwickian description’. This was one of many books published after Dickens’ death which coincided with the growth of the rambling movement and increasing interest in his writing. Early ramblers liked to combine their exercise with literary interests. The assertion has been repeated many times since. The 1906 volume of The Dickensian, a journal devoted to Dickens studies published by the newly formed Dickens Fellowship, contains a long article on Pickwick and Dulwich. The author says Mr Pickwick’s house “is still to be found…a neat square white building with a closely secluded garden before and all around it, so that it can but just be seen, peeping from its cosy nest, out into the high road beyond its chain-and-post railing”. The earliest dated references to Pickwick Villa, House or Cottage appear about this time on Edwardian postcards as well as a lease from 1906, although Trewyn is not finally dropped as the official name until the 1920s. The nearby Pickwick Road was also given its name in 1906.
After the Courts left, more land was added to the rear garden but the house gradually fell into a poor state of repair. The Dulwich builder, Ernest Mitchell lived there from at least 1901 to 1912. However, Mitchell lost money trying to exploit his invention for making petrol gas and fell into arrears with the rent so the Estate Governors had to take back the property into their own hands. It was let to a succession of others including from 1918 to 1921, the Hon Maurice Baring, author of the ‘Lonely Lady of Dulwich’. By 1924, the house was described in The Dickensian as ‘then unoccupied and in a very dilapidated condition. The small inscription “Pickwick Villa” on the front garden gate is almost unreadable…No doubt the house will soon be removed to make way for some modern villa’. It appears to have been saved by Evan Cook, the removal contractor from Peckham, who restored it and Sir Alfred Temple, Director of the Guildhall Art Gallery, who acquired the lease in 1926 and moved in to the property which his grandfather had occupied over 100 years before. He was not to enjoy the stay very long as two years later he died.
In 1930, the artist, Henry Hoyland, leased the property and was allowed to build a studio in the garden. Best known for his circus paintings he was friends with the Fittons who lived in Pond Cottage and were the subject of an article in the last Journal and a further one in this issue. Hoyland moved to Leamington during the war, but returned to Dulwich afterwards, his daughter Mabel taking over the lease on his death in 1947 until 1954.
Its charm and associations probably helped to preserve the house in the 1920s, which has been considerably extended and well looked after ever since. Charles Dickens would never have known the house but it remains the sort of property that the fictional Mr Pickwick would have enjoyed in his retirement.
Dulwich College Archives: leases from 1790 to 1947
Census returns: 1861-1901
Southwark Local History Library: photos
The Dickensian: October 1906, April and July 1924, autumn 1986
Robert Allbutt, London rambles “en zigzag” with Charles Dickens 1886
Arthur Hayward, Dickens Encyclopedia 1997
Tom Morris, Multum in Parvo 1909, pp 25-6
Wonderful London 1926-7, p1037
The assistance of the present owners, Sheila and Vic Kullar and Dr Tony Williams, associate editor of The Dickensian is much appreciated.