Being a House Detective: Ash Cottage
by Brigid Gardner
Ash Cottage stands at the bottom of Court Lane, opposite the Old Burial Ground. I have always wondered who built my unassuming house in such a key position, and why. I wanted to know what sort of people had lived here before me and I particularly wanted to know when and why it was divided in two, as it was for many years. With help from many documents and many people I have pieced together most of the story and here it is.
In September 1811 the Rev. Charles Brent Barry (at one time briefly a Fellow of Alleyn's College) was granted a 42 year lease on two fields, totalling 11 acres. These are crucial to much of the story. The larger field, called Brownings, was bounded on three sides by what are today Court Lane, Calton Avenue and part of Woodwarde Road; rather interestingly the fourth side was exactly the same line as currently divides the gardens on the north side of Druce Road from those on the south side of Desenfans. The smaller field's boundary continued that same line and encompassed the houses and gardens the other side of Woodwarde Road and then diverged to include all of what is today Alleyn's running track. Most important for me, the terms of the lease included a 'Covenant to expend the sum of Two Hundred Pounds or upwards in Erecting one Dwelling House on the Ground …. on such place as the College shall appoint.' Whether he had been encouraged to do this bit of building rather against his will, or whether he just changed his mind we cannot tell but a year later the Rev. Brent Barry had disappeared from Dulwich records and Benjamin Fayle had taken on the lease.
Benjamin Fayle was a wealthy entrepreneur. Originally from Ireland, by 1787 he was well established in the City, with interests in many trades and also insurance. He was a member of Lloyds by 1801 and a Freeman of the City in 1817. He owned claypits in Dorset and in 1805 built one of the first railways in England: for the transport of his high quality clay to Poole harbour for shipment to Josiah Wedgwood's pottery. In 1797, he had taken a lease from the College on: 'A messuage, with stables, two small houses next adjoining, and four other houses and a piece of ancient meadow land for 21 years.' The four houses, all let out, were where the shops of Tomlinsons, ex-Oddbins etc. are now. The 'messuage', which was of modest size but with a very large garden and the 'two small houses', which were both let out, stood roughly where 'North House' and 'South House' stand today. The 'ancient meadow', west of Gallery Rd., is now used by the Pelo football charity. Probably Benjamin Fayle, for whom various addresses in the City are also given, only used his Dulwich house as a retreat for weekends.
In 1814 Benjamin Fayle built a cottage in a corner of Brownings field . However, by the end of that same year he too had given up the lease. A Mary Adams, seems to have taken on the smaller field and a Rebecca Tawle had Brownings and was receiving rent for the cottage and garden. By mid-1817 Fayle had also surrendered his 1797 lease on his own house, and vanished abruptly from the Dulwich annals. After briefly belonging to Ely Cordingley during 1817, in March 1818 Brownings field changed hands for the fifth time in seven years, this time to Peter Wynne who had also already taken on Fayle's original property. Two hundred years later it seems impossible to account for this sudden flurry of exchange, but it was a period of wider economic turmoil.
The new tenant, Joshua Thornback, was a wood-dealer, a local man who had been was christened in Christ's Chapel (in 1768), as were all his nine children and some of his grandchildren. Did Fayle build Ash Cottage as a speculation, or did he know his prospective tenant? Certainly there were to be Thornbacks in the house for the next 75 years and, though they were only sub-tenants, they took out leases on additional land and expanded their holdings, throwing interesting light on how Victorian society worked. Joshua, for instance, in 1826 acquired a large field lying east of Court Lane, roughly where Dovercourt Road is now, and by 1833 was also renting out a 'compound' of sheds in his garden (on what is now Calton Avenue roadway) which paid for a good part of his cottage rent. To whom he was actually paying this rent is not entirely clear, however, since Wynne had surrendered his part of the 1811 lease in 1834. Perhaps nobody was clear because, after Joshua's death in 1845, the College granted a new lease to replace that of 1811(not due to expire until 1853).
In 1847 Edward Ray, surgeon and doctor to the College, was granted the complete lease on the two fields, 'with the cottage thereon', at £62 p.a. (3.3% increase after 35 years!) for 12 years to 1859, then extended to 1877. Though still only thirty-two, Ray was a familiar Dulwich figure: from 1839 he had rented the southern end of what is now 105 Dulwich Village and then just recently moved to another grand rented property, Mr Adcock's house (now 97 Dulwich Village). Why he acquired the cottage remains a mystery: he certainly never lived there. Perhaps it enabled him to have some property of his own while living grandly in property he could afford to rent, but not to buy. There is some suggestion that the families were on good terms and perhaps this arrangement suited both parties. John Thornback, Joshua 's eldest son, who took over the house from his younger brother, Richard, in 1851, was doing rather well. He rented a house and field in Half Moon Lane from 1833 to 1851 and in 1846 he rented another 11 acres from the College. He was described in the 1851 census as a 'dairyman employing two men', and by 1856 he was renting (from Sperring, the village butcher) an additional sixteen acres and a slaughter house 'near the college grammar school'.
When John Thornback died in 1865, his daughter, Mary Ann aged 36, was left living in a solid house but with no obvious income and probably little inheritance. Mary Ann, however, was clearly a survivor. As early as 1861, a year after her mother's death, the census lists a 'visitor', Harriet Moore, aged 29, 'a dressmaker'. Ten years later, Harriet is still there dressmaking and things have rapidly moved on. There are two separate households listed: in 'Ash Cottage' (the first time the name is recorded), there are Frank Champion (plumber), his wife, Eliza (dressmaker), three small children and their granny; next door (in the slightly larger half, to the left or north) there are Mary Ann, Harriet, and three boarders (two schoolboys and a builder's apprentice). Eleven people in total.
So that was how the house got divided and how Mary Ann made ends meet very comfortably – a very English solution: simple, pragmatic and unofficial. Indeed in the 1871 census she described herself as a 'dividend holder' and on the Ordnance Survey map of 1870 which rather surprisingly has a list of the great and good (relatively) in Dulwich, she is included within its ranks.
However, Dulwich too had significantly moved on in the 1860s. Alleyn's College of God's Gift, reformed by Act of Parliament in 1857, had overcome its previous resistance to change and made a fortune in selling land to no less than four railways companies. This had realised not only a magnificent new college, but an enormous increase in the value of land now within easy reach of both the City and West End. When Edward Ray's lease came to an end in 1877, the College did not renew it,
'in order to offer a site to the Dulwich Cottage Co. …. for which a large portion of the garden attached to Miss Thornback's cottage was needed ….. she is very anxious to stay in the cottage and would be willing to pay £20 as a yearly tenant'
It is odd that, although maps as early as 1876 clearly showed the de facto division of the house and garden, in 1878 the College seems to be aware of only one cottage and it is not until 1885 that the surveyor reports, in apparent surprise:
'Mr Ray gave up these two cottages in Michaelmas 1878 and the rents have since been paid to the governors, viz: Mrs Champion £18.6.0; Miss Thornback £20.6.8; but this arrangement has not apparently been recorded in the Minutes'.
In 1890 the redoubtable Miss Thornback died, after nearly forty years in what the census now rather clumsily calls 'next Ash Cottage' and in 1901 Mrs Champion next-door followed her. The old village and its agricultural world went too. By the turn of the century the pattern for the new suburb of Dulwich had been laid out and the amazing Edwardian building spree had begun. The Ordnance Survey maps show it all. The village of 1894 is almost exactly the same as that of 1870 except for the newly laid out Park. Though Woodwarde Road. is tentatively marked out, Ash Cottage sits, as ever, in the corner of the large fields that stretch up east of Court Lane. Most of Calton Avenue is still a footpath. Only twenty years later, the 1914 map shows Benjamin Fayle's house, a hundred years old, now densely surrounded with new housing stretching off in all directions.
On Miss Thornback's death, Henry Crofts, a civil service telegrapher, and his wife, Elizabeth, moved into the left hand house. Little else is known about them, apart from the fact that they must have been rather cramped since they had four sons and a daughter and only three smallish bedrooms. Nevertheless they were still there in 1906 but by 1911 Henry and Alice Dyer and their three children had moved in. There were to be Dyers in that part of the house for next fifty years which neatly solved the problem of its name: it simply became Dyer's Cottage. Henry Dyer's letter heading said 'H. Dyer Groundsman and Gardener. Hard or grass courts made or repaired. Horse machine and all tools supplied.' He died in 1929, Alice not until 1960. A grandson, Tony, who had known the house from childhood, applied for the tenancy, but the Dulwich Estate wanted one of their own permanent Estate workmen in the cottage and Tony was obliged to move out. Frank and Caroline Thornton were moved in and stayed until Frank's death in 1984. Only four families had lived in that part of the house in 170 years.
Things were a little more complicated on the other side of the fence. Mrs. Champion's daughter, Eliza, who is listed as the occupant of Ash Cottage in 1906, had no need of the 'iron room' erected in the garden which her mother had used for her dressmaking. Unable to pay arrears of rent, the Estate rather surprisingly accepted the gift of this thirty year old early version of a portacabin extension in lieu. It is not easy to piece together who lived in Ash Cottage over the next decade as the Dulwich electoral lists were lost in a flood. What we do know is that, after nearly forty years' residence, the last Champion had departed by the 1911 census when George and Lizzie Carter and their three children were in the house. They were not there very long, since the occupant from 1913 to 1915 was a certain Thomas Green (his family is unknown since he was the only one eligible to vote).
However, by 1915 things return to form. Martha Wall, whose husband was cowkeeper at Belair and had died in an accident on the farm, was rehoused by the Estates in Ash Cottage. There was to be a Wall living in the house for the next seventy years. Mrs Wall died in 1931 and her daughter, Fanny, in 1943, but her younger son, Harry, lived on, alone, until 1986. Harry Wall was born into the agricultural Dulwich of 1895 on the home farm at Belair (where the carpark and recycling is now), then Evan Spicer's home. Every morning on his way to school at Dulwich Hamlet he drove the cows up Gallery Road to the very same 'ancient meadow' that Benjamin Fayle had once owned; on his way home he drove them back for milking, after sometimes calling in at the corn chandlers (where SG Smith is now) if his father needed something on the farm. As a small boy he went on the two-horse bus (with 26 people on board) to see the fireworks at Crystal Palace, the horses perhaps shoed at the forge which stood opposite Ash Cottage.
By the time the Walls moved in, Ash Cottage was a relic of that bygone rural age, very primitive in its accommodation in comparison with the spankingly modern 'semis' surrounding it. The Estates throughout most of the 19th century had seemed only fitfully aware of its existence, though this had gradually changed after Edward Ray had given up the lease and rent was paid directly to the College. Then, from the first few years of the new century, rent was paid weekly (at about 10/- [50p] a week) instead of annually, implying still closer involvement. That did not mean, however, that anything had been done to modernise the house(s), Indeed, so far had they slipped behind in the rising standards expected after the First World War, that in 1936 the Camberwell Medical Officer of Health declared them 'unfit for human habitation' and the tenants were temporarily moved out.. A new roof (of pantiles, not very appropriate for an English Regency cottage), back extensions to provide WCs, damp courses for the dripping walls and deal wood block flooring (at 6/- [30p] a sq. yd) for the whole ground floor (£22 in total and still excellent) were great improvements. However, it was only in 1953 that Harry Wall got electricity (at his own request and expense and then only lighting and three power sockets.) There is no record of Mrs Dyer getting electricity – probably she couldn't afford it. An enquiry in 1970 (under the Housing Act 1969) shows that Ash Cottage had no hot water, no hand basin, no bath/shower: only a kitchen sink with cold water, and a WC.
And so the years passed. After three years fighting in the First World War, Harry Wall spent a working life at a leather company at London Bridge and gave his heart to the local Boys' Brigade: he was their captain for fifty years and still camping with them in his seventies. By the 1980s, however, change was in the air. Prodded by the Leasehold Reform Act 1967, the Estates was now seeking to sell off most of its vast number of properties. In 1980 they were charging a rent (monthly now) of £8.53 for Ash Cottage; in 1981 they applied for a 'fair rent' of £45 a month and by 1982 this was in place; in 1983 their application was for £60 and they were awarded an increase of £4 every year, rising to £62 in 1986 (an increase of more thn 700% in five years!). It was time for old men to move on. They duly did: Mr Thornton died in 1984, Harry Wall two years later. Mr Thornton's widow was moved to Dekker Rd. and in 1985 1a Court Lane (Dyer's Cottage no more, since it had been decreed in 1939 that all should be numbered) was sold for £62,580. A young couple, Jane and Ian Jones, moved in and by their own labour lovingly modernised their somewhat basic dwelling. 1b was sold in March 1988, in a booming market, for £105,000, to very different people: property developers called Runham. They did a slick job and a year later put a 'charming period cottage with every mod. con.' on the market.
My children used to walk home from school at The Hamlet and imagine themselves living in the ‘Playschool’ house. I too had long been attracted to the house, but it was only when 'Ash Cottage' came onto the market in 1989 that I realised that the building was in fact divided into two houses and only the right hand half was for sale. I bought it nonetheless, let it, and waited for the second half. I was lucky: three years later both halves were mine.
And so it was that, one Friday evening in October 1992, drill and hacksaw in hand, I went into the cupboard-under-the-stairs, cut a hole in the wall and walked into the house next-door. After 120 divided years, Ash Cottage was one house once more - and I was able to walk from my sitting room into my study without climbing a back garden fence. That was exactly twenty years ago. I shall not be able to match the Thornbacks or the Walls and probably not the Dyers or even the Champions for longevity of tenure, but it is good to think that they seem to have liked living here as much as I do.