The Wrights Move to Dulwich

After their marriage, Thomas and Ann Wright set up home near London Bridge, close to Thomas’s business. They had three children, though only their daughter Ann survived childhood. They decided to move south, joining the exodus of families from the City which was becoming a place of business and manufacture rather than residency. The rapid improvement in roads and the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges enabled Thomas to commute much more easily and Dulwich, with its country air and spa at Dulwich Wells, provided an attractive alternative to the city. Commuting was a novelty as shown in this poem by Robert Lloyd written in 1757, just ten years before the Wrights moved to Bell House:

Some three or four miles out of town,
(An hour’s ride will bring you down),
He fixes on his choice abode,
Nor half a furlong from the road:
And so convenient does it lay
The stages pass it ev’ry day:
And then so snug, so mighty pretty,
To have a house so near the city!

In 1767 Thomas built Bell House and a year later replaced two ancient cottages nearby with what is now Pickwick Cottage. The eponymous bell is inscribed with the date 1770 so must have been installed a little after the house was built. In 1783 Thomas leased three more fields and the use of the mill pond on Dulwich Common with the ‘right to take fish angling and no other method’. The gardens stretched to what is now the lake in Dulwich Park and also included part of Frank Dixon Close. The Wrights continued making improvements such as planting trees including perhaps the beautiful medlar tree which still stands outside the kitchen window. 

Lease of Bell House showing extent of garden. Source: Dulwich College

Matt rebuilds a wall

If you’ve passed Bell House recently don’t be alarmed. We are not demolishing the beautiful Georgian wall that divides the house from College Road. Part of the wall, damaged in the past, needs repairing and we are taking the opportunity to widen the entrance to allow access for emergency vehicles. Matt is undertaking the repairs and Bell House photographer Sue Robinson has taken a closer look.

DSCF0793 (1).jpg

Matt has carefully dismantled the wall, brick by brick, and given each brick a unique code. This careful system will allow him to reinstate the bricks in their original positions, including the blind arch.


Matt has tried to save as many of the original bricks as possible but unfortunately, due to past repairs with cement mortar, many are unusable. Matt explained that mortar is the sacrificial element in masonry, it should always be weaker than the material it is binding. Cement mortar can trap moisture within the brick, causing crumbling or ‘spalling’.


When Matt begins rebuilding next week (weather permitting), he will be pointing the Georgian bricks with a traditional lime mortar as it allows the brickwork a certain amount of flexibility, helping to protect them from damage. He has sourced some recycled bricks to replace those too damaged to use and will reinstate the wall including the blind arch, so that it has the same integrity as before. Soon the wall will look pretty much as it did originally. Next time you are passing, see if you can see the join.

IMG_1003 (002).JPG

Photographs by Sue Robinson

Thomas Wright, printer and paper merchant

After qualifying as Master Stationer Thomas Wright and his brother-in-law William Gill opened a shop in the chapel of St Thomas à Becket in the centre of the old 12th century London Bridge. It had a lower cellar at (or under) water level which they used as a warehouse and an upper room at bridge level that served as a shop. From here they supplied paper to government departments such as the Board of Longitude which had been set up to solve the problem of finding longitude at sea.

Wright & Gill's first business premises

Wright & Gill's first business premises

Bill for the supply of paper by Wright & Gill to the Board of Longitude, 1775. Source: Cambridge Digital Library

Bill for the supply of paper by Wright & Gill to the Board of Longitude, 1775. Source: Cambridge Digital Library

Thomas Wright’s success also stemmed from bidding for monopolies for the printing of books. He secured the right to print and sell almanacs, a highly profitable franchise. More financially rewarding still was the printing of bibles and prayer books. In 1765 he bought the monopoly to print religious works for Oxford University after the previous printer, the Baskett family, had produced books riddled with mistakes. One book had been called the ‘vinegar bible’ because the parable of the vineyard was misprinted as the parable of the vinegar. Baskett employed ‘idle and drunken staff’ and things got so bad the university had to buy their religious books from Cambridge. Thomas Wright cleverly agreed to protect the risk-averse university against any loss brought by the notoriously litigious Baskett and this helped him win the lease. 

Wright & Gill's first business premises

Since Oxford held the right to print the King James Authorised Version, this proved highly lucrative to Thomas’s firm until the American War of Independence affected their overseas market and an increase in paper costs caused them to withdraw from the lease. Many of their books survive in libraries around the world such as the British Library and the Royal Collection. Wright & Gill were the last leaseholders as the University took the work inhouse and started what became the Oxford University Press.

London Almanac for the year of Christ 1794

Almanacs began to be published annually in London from the 1600s but became wildly popular in the following century, were still produced into Victorian times and survive today in the form of Old Moore’s or Whitaker’s Almanack. However, the very first almanacs were produced in the second millennium BC in the Near East, providing information such as favourable and unfavourable days and how to deal with each of them.

London Almanack 1794 recently acquired for Bell House collection.

London Almanack 1794 recently acquired for Bell House collection.

Early English almanacs were sold either as a broadsheet, the precursor of the modern calendar, or as a pocket almanac like this one. They contained astronomical data such as the number of days of the full moon (useful for travelling in the days before street lighting) and used that data to produce weather forecasts which were vital for both agriculture and commerce (aiding decisions such as the movement of ships). They then began to be aimed at different groups such as farmers who got planting data, or Londoners who received municipal information such as lists of City officials and public holidays, and so they became very important to the economy.

Our example is tiny, at 3cm square it is smaller even than a matchbox. It has a burgundy leather cover with a metal clasp, although the leather flap fastener is missing. There is a metal plate under the fastener with enough space for someone’s initials, though ours is not engraved. Inside there are twenty gilt-edged leaves plus text pasted to the reverse of the front and rear marble endpapers. There is a tiny pocket inside the upper cover. 

Engraved throughout, the title page contains the arms of the livery company of Stationers with a second coat of arms on the reverse of the second leaf with a handwritten note: ‘T.W for E.W’.


The tiny almanac measuring just 3cm square.

The tiny almanac measuring just 3cm square.

The data inside includes a month by month summary of 1794 with festivals and sun/moon rising/setting times. Following this is a fascinating table of kings and queens which describes the Tudor line as ‘The families united’ and the Stuart line as ‘The union of the two crowns’. 

Details of past Lord Mayors and sheriffs follow and here Thomas Wright is represented in both lists. 

Finally we have a list of annual holidays and a table of current coins by weight. It is possible Thomas Wright printed this almanac as Wright and Gill derived a large part of their income from printing almanacs and he was an eminent member of the Stationers’ Company, for whom this almanac was printed, having been their first lord mayor for over thirty years when he was inaugurated in 1785.

Artists at Bell House


13 & 14 May 2017, 11am to 6pm


An exhibition of works on paper by artists who identify as being dyslexic

Curated by Kim Thornton

For the first time Bell House in Dulwich will open its doors to the public to take part in the Dulwich Festival Artists’ Open House showing work by artists who indentify as being dyslexic.  Referencing the history of the house, commissioned in 1767 by Thomas Wright a poor warehouse worker who started his own lucrative publishing business, the works from Lucy Bainbridge, Sophie Eade, Jane Higginbottom, Alice Irwin, Valeriya N-Georg and Lucy Soni will be on paper.

Both Lucy Soni and Alice Irwin throw off the constraints of the structured world drawing on children’s play and everyday chance in their work.  In contrast, Valeriya N-Georg turns to quantum physics to investigate the boundaries between the human body and the inner self.  

Lucy Bainbridge, Jane Higginbottom and Sophie Eade are all creating their own realities through their study of the environment they live in.  Lucy Bainbridge tries to pause time with her softened city prints whilst Sophie Eade eradicates urbanity and words from the magazine pages that purport to extol rural life.  Jane Higginbottom studies the environment and measures time through nature.

Bell House will also host an artist in residence in a doll’s house, The Sophie Croxton Doll House Gallery.  The project is conceived and curated by Sophie Eade and Lucy Soni. who have awarded the Picture This… residency to painter Clare Price.

The origin of the word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the German dys- ‘difficult’ and the Greek word lexis ‘speech’.  Although this difficulty with words that affects reading, spelling and writing, defines the dyslexic learning process, dyslexia is really about information processing.  People with dyslexia have a different way of thinking, often thinking in pictures rather words.  As a result they frequently have strong visual and creative skills. Click to Events for artist details.

Bell House and Dulwich Picture Gallery

Bell House has had associations with the Dulwich Picture Gallery over a long period and there were even plans to store the DPG paintings at the house during the war to protect them from bombing, although in the end other arrangements were made.  Bell House and the Gallery have been part of the Dulwich Estate for many years and the freeholds were owned by the Dulwich Estate from 1767, when Bell House was built, until 1992 when the house was sold to a private owner.

Recently the Dulwich Picture Gallery has been very energetically managed and is in the process or organising a pavilion for the summer of 2017. Bell House supported the planning application for this creative experiment and is enthusiastic about the community involvement that this will bring.

Bell House has another special link with the Gallery as the Deputy Director of the Gallery, Andrew Macdonald, was a boarder at Bell House when it was a junior boarding house for Dulwich College.  He has recently revisited and gave a graphic description of what life was like for a young boy sleeping in the dormitories and walking up to the main school for lessons and sports.

The Picture Gallery has recently appointed a new chair of trustees (Prof Evelyn Welch) and a new director - Jennifer Scott who plans to "develop the gallery as the perfect place for people to experience the inspirational potential of art."  We hope that Bell House will be able to work with the Picture Gallery to develop an appreciation for art and to provide courses that are not easily available elsewhere.   Also, events at Bell House could compliment what the Picture Gallery already does - perhaps concentrating on photography, film and local artists.  Indeed Bell House has recently organised an exhibition of local artists with themes of paper and dyslexia as part of the Dulwich Festival.     

image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery        

The City of London Lying-In Hospital, as Thomas Wright knew it.

The weekly board meetings were held at coffee houses until a purpose-built hospital was erected near Old Street roundabout and each week about a dozen new mothers would be brought before the board (or Court as it was known) to ‘return thanks’ for the benevolence they had been shown. Other mothers attended to be admonished for their bad conduct while staying at the hospital. There is no record of what this bad conduct was but the rules for patients were very strict and they were inpatients for a long time, at least six weeks according to the regulations, though this must often have been shortened as most families would not have been able to do without a mother for so long.

From four days after delivery women needed matron’s permission to lie down on their beds and they were expected to produce needlework for the hospital from three weeks after delivering their child. Women in labour, expectant women and newly-delivered mothers were all in the same ward: when a separate room for labour was suggested it was vetoed in case the patients suspected experiments might be performed on them.

Mortality at all hospitals was high due to the lack of hygiene. ‘Childbed fever’ as post-partum infection was known, was usually caused by the doctors themselves and during the time Thomas was involved the hospital had to be closed temporarily due to rampant infection which must have been difficult given the need for the services the hospital offered. It would not be until the 1850s that simple precautions like handwashing would bring down the numbers of post-natal deaths.

Vermin such as bedbugs and mice were a constant issue, as was alcohol abuse, and as president Thomas had to ban the drinking of porter in the hospital due to its ‘evil effects’. Other issues he had to rule on included the lack of lighting at night - his solution of one candle per ward per night is surprising to us as it must still have been very dark. He also stopped the long-term practice of patients having to buy the nurses tea and sugar, he raised the nurses’ wages to include an allowance so that they could buy their own. Thomas was a generous benefactor: his usual donation of £20 can be seen in the donation lists again and again, when most people were donating around £5 and of course he donated his time and business expertise. Both he and William Gill were later presented with ‘staffs’ and made governors for life, a sign of devoted service to the hospital. 

Source: Wikiwand

When Thomas was president of the hospital one of its senior physicians was Dr Lettsom of Camberwell and it is tempting to suppose they were friends, given that they also lived in south London at a time when there were far fewer houses in the area. Dr Lettsom was involved with the hospital for many years and was a noted philanthropist and a supporter of the abolition of slaves.

Thomas Wright and the City of London Lying-In Hospital

Together with his business partner and brother-in-law, William Gill, Thomas was active in several London hospital charities which provided for the poor of London. He was a governor of St Thomas’s Hospital but the hospital he was most involved in was the City of London Lying-in Hospital, one of the first maternity hospitals in London.

Thomas first became involved with ‘this humane and useful institution’, which provided maternity services for the wives of poor tradesmen, in the 1770s when he joined the board in return for a donation of 10 guineas. He would attend the Sunday baptisms of babies born in the hospital, make donations and attend meetings where the governors would hire staff, sign off on bills and deal with admittance applications: there were always more expectant mothers than beds available.

Charity in the eighteenth century was often moralistic and the hospital was strictly for married women only, single women would not be admitted until 1912. Each governor had the right to nominate patients but all the patients had to prove they were married, were deserving of charity and agree to their new-born being baptised in the hospital chapel.