Farming in Dulwich, which had provided income for the Priory of Bermondsey for 400 years and for almost as long for Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, was virtually over by the outbreak of the First World War. Its decline was slow and its demise was finally brought about by the efficiency of home milk deliveries by the new giant dairy companies which sprang up with the introduction of bottling plants and homogenised milk and the use of milk trains for nation-wide distribution..
As has been argued recently in this Journal, the decline of farming happily coincided with the arrival of the 5 day working week which allowed the new found leisure time to be spent on sporting activities in Dulwich’s former farm fields. Clubs sprang up for cricket, tennis, football, golf and athletics. Paternalistic employers rented fields for sports grounds, former students at Alleyn’s and Dulwich College formed Old Boys Clubs for games and one large-scale enterprise, the cycle stadium (Velodrome) was created.
In the eighteenth century Alleyn’s College had encouraged its tenant farmers to take a scientific approach to husbandry and crop rotation. Farmers were advised to ‘marl’ their land - to add carbonate of lime to the clay soil to break it down to improve drainage. When, towards the end of that century, wheat prices rose because of a series of failed harvests and a little later by a naval blockade caused by the Napoleonic War, the College required farmers taking out new leases on farmland to turn the land over to tillage which, while benefitting the nation’s wellbeing, also attracted a higher rental than that used for pasture.
Another development towards increasing productivity by improving Dulwich’s clay soil occurred around the same time when a number of local farmers bought large quantities of broken china and smashed clay pipes from London’s dust collectors and after reducing the size of the fragments even further, ploughed it in to lighten the soil and so improve the drainage. Do not be surprised if you unearth fragments of this early form of re-cycling in your garden.
By the closing decades of the nineteenth century cheap imported wheat was delivering body blows to British farming and London’s farms were either turned over to housing or existed for the provision of fresh milk, the fattening up of cattle for the market and pasture for horses. East Dulwich’s Friern Farm was completely built over within a generation from its sale in 1865.
The increasing demand for recreational space led directly to the creation of parks and Dulwich Park which was opened in 1890 was one of the last inner London parks to be laid out. Its 72 acres were largely taken from Dulwich Court Farm. Nevertheless, in 1897 Alleyn’s College still had 53 fields leased out on its estate.
Court Farm was probably the oldest of Dulwich’s farms and its history is well documented from the early seventeenth century. At one time it comprised some 300 acres of land. Indeed, it was probably very ancient, being the seat of the medieval manor court which gave it its name. By 1896 it was still leasing fields for its dairy herd where Dekker, Desenfans, Druce and Dovercourt roads now stand. Known as the Five Fields they included a field named Brownings which was bounded by Court Lane and newly opened Calton Avenue. The farmer, Mr Low also leased Plough field and he complained that the field, which had a public footpath cutting across it (now built up as Eynella Road) was useless as a pasture as it was used as a playground by children from East Dulwich. He protested to the Dulwich Estate that he would only lease the field if the footpath was fenced in, to which the Estate agreed. To make up for some of the loss of his land taken to form Dulwich Park Mr Low also leased four fields on the south side of Dulwich Common comprising 42 acres.
By the turn of the nineteenth century it was getting increasingly difficult for the Dulwich Estate to get a good return on farmland. At the end of the eighteenth century it could demand £4 an acre for pasture or £10 an acre for land put under the plough. By 1901 fields next to Cox’s Walk could only be leased for £2.15 an acre. The size of Court Farm continued to shrink in the early twentieth century as many of its fields were built on. The houses in these new roads branching out of Court Lane were laid along within existing field boundaries and residents can find old field boundary trees and hedges across their back gardens. The farm continued to pasture cows for local dairies on a remaining strip of land in Court Lane adjacent to the farm which was finally built on in the 1920’s.
Dulwich Wood Farm developed rather differently as farming began to fade away in Dulwich. Situated at the top of Grange Lane and adjoining Dulwich Woods, Dulwich Wood Farm still relied on a 30’ well to supply drinking water in 1884. When this well became polluted and the water unfit for drinking, the farm was connected to the main water supply some half mile distant in College Road at the Dulwich Estate’s expense. Mr Ward, the farmer, was a long standing and respected tenant and there was probably a family connection with Ward’s the butcher’s in Dulwich Village which had a slaughter house at the rear of its premises (now the site of Park Motors).
Mr Ward was succeeded at his farm by Albert Cullen who had the misfortune to suffer severe losses in 1893 when a long drought led to the failure of his hay crop. No rain fell between 4th March and 15th May and in the period May-June only 30% of average rain fell. To pay his rent and to attempt to make up his losses Farmer Cullen let some of his fields to local golfing enthusiasts for play. There had already been a request to the Dulwich Estate in 1887 from some leading local figures for a golf course but the Estate had pointed out that Mr Ward had recently expended £400 on cow sheds and farm buildings and it declined to take any action. Now, while it still required Cullen to stop his ad hoc arrangement and to dismantle the shed he had provided for the golfers, it did, in the following year, sanction the sub-letting by Mr Cullen of four of his fields comprising 42 acres, to two interested golf clubs who agreed to amalgamate to form the Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Club. Cullen was permitted to retain the hay crop from the golf course and to graze sheep there. The golfers were not allowed to play on Sundays and no alcohol was permitted to be served. The Dulwich Estate also insisted that local residents were to have preference to be elected members.
Dulwich Wood Farm itself was now reduced to 20 acres and in 1903 Albert Cullen assigned his farm to James Bacon of the Elder Road Dairy. Bacon was a long established local cow keeper and grazed his cattle in what today is known as Long Meadow or Bell Meadow but was then called French’s Fields after another cow keeper, Thomas French, a dairyman from Croxted Road who also leased the fields. French’s dairy still exists, an attractive building, now converted into housing it stands on Gipsy Hill between Woodland Road and Cawnpore Street. By the 1920’s Dulwich Wood Farm had been totally absorbed into the golf course and the farm buildings are now covered by the South London Scout Centre.
At Potash Farm, which stood in the field now occupied by the Old Alleynian Club on the south side of Dulwich Common, money had also been expended on new farm buildings in the early 1880’s. The farm was run by the Woodhams family. They leased a block of 6 fields, some now used as sports fields and others are incorporated into the golf course. They also leased a four acre field on the north side of Dulwich Common which is now Southwark Sports Ground. Unlike some of the other local farms, Potash Farm ran its own milk round, serving customers along the Common and on Sydenham Hill, supplying fresh milk drawn from churns from the back of a farm cart.
There were three farms in Burbage Road at the turn of the nineteenth century. Parsons Farm had cow sheds and a slaughter house and adjoined the former Lower School (Alleyn’s) field next to the old Grammar School. Henry Parsons leased the surrounding fields which are now used as sports fields. He had acquired the cowsheds from Henry Lassam who was also the village baker and was something of an entrepreneur. In 1887 the premises were inspected by the Dulwich Estate following a complaint but pronounced the farm to be in perfect order. Henry Parsons lived at Bell Cottage in College Road which was then divided into two dwellings. Further down Burbage Road were six small fields amounting to a total of eight acres adjoining the newly built bicycle stadium run by the London County Athletic Club. Today these fields are now covered by houses on the east side of Burbage Road and by part of the Velodrome site. In one of the fields was a collection of farm buildings known as the Half Moon Dairy Farm. Mr J Hammond, the cow keeper made a number of complaints to the neighbouring cycle stadium claiming that spectators were standing on the roofs of his cowsheds watching the events and damaging his property. Hammond had his own retail dairy premises in Half Moon Lane. In 1903 Hammond sold his dairy business to Mr John Philips.
Directly across Burbage Road a farm track ran alongside the railway viaduct (Giant Arches Road) to what was simply named The Farm. This farm had been run for many years towards the end of the nineteenth century by a Mr Mayhew. By the 1890’s Mayhew obviously saw that there was little future in farming and increasingly let his fields for sporting activities. The Dulwich Cricket Club (formerly the Aeolians) which had played since 1867 at the cricket ground behind The Greyhound inn in the Village, relocated to The Farm in Burbage Road when the old Greyhound was demolished. The club used former field number 694, a 4 acre pasture, for cricket. In 1903 Mayhew took a short lease on two acres of land adjoining Turney Road earmarked for future housing and let it to several tennis clubs. On the opposite side of Turney Road a George Crutcher similarly leased 4 acres of future housing land and developed it for sports purposes.
In 1905 Mr Mayhew offered to take the vacant farm fields in Green Lane which had previously been leased to Henry Bessemer for his Model Farm and where he had kept a herd of Alderney cattle. Mayhew later assigned these fields to a Mr A F Hirschell for athletic purposes. Adjoining the railway line from North Dulwich Station, the fields were acquired by JAGS in 1912 and were partly used by Dr Lillian Clarke for her practical lessons in botany and where she planted a wood, created a country lane and developed examples of British habitat such as a peat bog and a pebble beach. These features, including the Natural Order beds are still maintained by the school.
In Gallery Road another Model Farm was created by Sir Evan Spicer at ‘Belair’. Spicer continued to employ a cowman and maintained a small herd to supply his household with fresh milk into the 1920’s. This farm was housed in very old farm buildings where the car park now stands.