BELL HOUSE                       

Bell House was built in 1767 for Thomas Wright, at a time of some development in London. London was already the largest city in Europe and its buoyant economy was providing opportunities for many.

In Dulwich Village, other Georgian houses were also going up, with The Laurels and The Hollies being built the same year. Thomas Wright was born on 26th April 1722 and christened at St Andrew, Holborn, a fine Wren church near his family’s home in Red-Lion Square. Despite many reference books claiming him as the son of a Wolverhampton bucklemaker in fact he was the son of Edward Wright, a pastrycook and scavenger (someone paid by the parish to keep the streets clean), and Elizabeth Turvin. His father was from Aldington in Kent though he moved to London where he married at St Olave’s, Southwark in 1712. The family lived in Old North Street, Holborn and little is known about Thomas’s siblings except he had a brother, William, who died in Sevenoaks in 1782

Thomas Wright was a hugely successful master stationer and businessman but his career had very humble beginnings. He started work as a servant in Walkden’s paper and ink warehouse ‘at the Bell on London Bridge, near St Magnus church’. At the beginning of the 18th century servants, both domestic and business, had a close relationship with the family they served and they often all lived together in one social group, as merchants often lived ‘above the shop’. Merchants’ children might serve the families of friends but we do not know if that was the case here. In 1738, on Thomas’s sixteenth birthday Richard Walkden, citizen and stationer, made him an apprentice. Thomas’s father is described as deceased on the indenture and no price is mentioned but Walkden usually charged around £100 for an apprenticeship. Walkden himself had lost his father at a young age and had been apprenticed to his mother, from whom he took over the family business so perhaps the young Thomas had impressed his boss and was given a helping hand with regards to the apprenticeship fee. At any rate, this was the start Thomas needed and he made the most of it. The stationers, with the booksellers, were the wealthiest group in the book trade given the huge increase in printing at this time and they laid the foundations of the modern book trade with many firms such as Blackwells and Boosey & Hawkes still surviving today. Stationer apprentices such as Thomas Wright would have been literate but printer apprentices did not have to be.

His apprenticeship lasted seven years, coinciding with war with Spain and Austria but by the time he had he qualified as a stationer England was at peace. Within a year Thomas had married Ann Gill on 15 November 1746, at the same church as his parents, St Olave’s, Southwark (now Southwark Cathedral). Like Thomas, Ann’s family was from Kent. Her grandmother, Susan Cox, was from Dartford and her grandfather George Gill was from Bexley. Her father, William, was born in Bexley and like Thomas’s father had moved to London where he married his wife, Elizabeth Lawrence, at St Olave’s like the Wrights. One wonders whether the two families knew each other, or were even related, as they both originated in Kent and both had the surname Brooke as a first name in their family. Thomas’s grandmother was Mary Brooke and he went on to name one of his sons James Brooke, while Ann had a brother called Brooke, who died when she was 17 years old. 

By 1748 Wright was a master stationer and in business with his brother-in-law, William Gill on London Bridge in the Chapel of St Thomas à Becket which was converted to secular use during the Reformation and used as a house then a warehouse. It was in the centre of the old London Bridge with a lower chapel in the cellar at (or under) water level and an upper chapel at bridge level. Wright & Gill used the lower level as a paper warehouse and the upper level as a shop. In 1761 the buildings on London Bridge were demolished or remodelled (coincidentally by Sir Robert Taylor, the architect of Bell House) so Wright & Gill had to move offices. The upper storey of the chapel was removed but the cellar was built into the structure of the bridge and so couldn’t be demolished. Wright had a crane added to hoist supplies direct from the river and used it as a paper store which surprisingly was reported to be ‘as safe and dry…as a garret’. Wright & Gill moved to a ‘brick-built’ property at 30 Abchurch Lane near St. Paul's. Brick-built was an important consideration after the great Fire of London and indeed fires were reported twice in Abchurch Lane, though their warehouse was ‘lightly affected’.  Insurance records for the Abchurch Lane premises show that the property was insured for £500, later increased to £2,000, not surprising as paper was very expensive. Wright also had another warehouse at Walnut Tree Alley in Tooley Street which was insured for £300. These amounts must have increased quickly as in 1770 Wright told Oxford University that he had lost ‘over a thousand pounds worth of bibles and prayer books’ in a fire.

Wright’s success in business stemmed from his trade in paper but also from bidding for leases or monopolies for the printing of books. Gill and Wright secured the monopoly of selling almanacs and other annuals, a highly profitable franchise but more rewarding still was the printing of bibles and prayer books. At the time this was largely a cartel comprising the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They sold monopoly leases which carried the right to print all works both in England and the lucrative American market. On Lady Day (25th March) 1765 Wright & Gill bought the right to print religious works for the University of Oxford, following a series of disputes between the previous printer, the Baskett family, and Oxford University. Oxford had claimed Baskett produced books riddled with mistakes. The books were often hilariously inaccurate and include the ‘vinegar bible’, so called because the parable of the vineyard was misprinted as the parable of the vinegar. Baskett publications were called ‘baskets full of errors’ which some people say is the origin of the term ‘basketcase’, though this is now generally accepted to have originated from an offensive WW1 term for soldiers who had lost all their limbs). Baskett employed ‘idle and drunken staff’ and caused many Oxford colleges to purchase their religious books from ‘Cambridge’ (their italics). Wright & Gill bought the rights for £850 p.a. and in addition agreed to indemnify the university against any law suits brought by the notoriously litigious Baskett. Wright & Gill were not printers but paper merchants so they subcontracted the actual work to Oxford printer William Jackson. Since Oxford held the ‘Bible Privilege’, that is the right to print the King James Authorised Version, this arrangement proved highly lucrative to Wright & Gill until the American War of Independence affected their overseas market and this, together with a pending increase in duty on paper, caused Wright to withdraw from the lease, but not before they had printed nearly a hundred different publications. Over a hundred copies of their religious books survive in the British Library alone which is unusual as, though highly popular, relatively few survived since they were very much ‘working copies’, used daily by families or religious institutions and read to destruction. A 1776 Wright & Gill Book of Common Prayer also survives in the Royal Collection. In the renewal negotiations in 1778 Wright offered only £210 p.a, telling the University that the value of the contract was hugely diminished for two reasons. Firstly since the Stationers Company had lost the monopoly to print almanacs they were disinclined to hold back from printing other books. Secondly the Boston Tea Party and the outbreak of war with American colonists had affected trade with the US, where in any case the colonists were now printing their own bibles. Wright & Gill were in fact the last holders of the lease as the University took the printing back in-house, to what became the Oxford University Press. Wright & Gill continued to supply paper to the university press. 

Thomas Wright was not averse to diversifying when the opportunity arose. When supplying books to America he was also happy to ship other client requests such as German flutes, bread-baskets and telescopes, protractors. One such invoice to Henry Knox, the American revolutionary and first US Secretary of War, was for £656, over £42,000 nowadays. This trade also dried up during the harbour blockades of the American Revolution.

Wright & Gill became innocently and indirectly involved in a case of attempted fraud in 1755 when Thomas Wright gave evidence in the case of William Rutherford, aka Smith, aka Wherron. Rutherford had forged a badly written and misspelt note, purporting to be from William Wilmott and addressed to William Wallis, both stationers and business associates of Wright’s. Rutherford wanted to be paid £21. Wright testified that the handwriting was not Wilmott’s:

‘I verily believe it not to be his writing. Mr. Wilmott spells his name with a double t, but this has but one t; and here are a great many mistakes in the spelling; but Mr. Wilmott understands accounts, and spells very well; but as to the writing, it is nothing at all like his writing’.

Rutherford was found guilty of intent to defraud. His sentence was death.

After their marriage, Thomas and Ann set up home near the south side of London Bridge, close to Thomas’s business. They had three children, two sons called Thomas and James Brooke, who both died in infancy and a daughter, Ann, born in 1749. At some stage they looked to move further south, joining the exodus of families from the bustle of the City, which was fast becoming a place of business and manufacture rather than residency. The rapid improvement at this time in roads and the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges to complement London Bridge enabled him to commute to his business much more easily and Dulwich provided an attractive alternative with its country air and spa at Dulwich Wells.

In 1767 Thomas Wright commissioned Sir Robert Taylor to build Bell House in Dulwich.  The previous year he had purchased John Ramsbottom's lease of the premises, which then consisted of a house in a three-acre field called Crutchmans and two ancient cottages at the south end of the property, where Pickwick Cottage is now. In 1767 the College granted him a new lease at £5.10s. p.a., and a year later he was given permission to demolish the two ancient cottages in view of his having spent ‘a very considerable sum on his premises’.  In 1783 he was granted three meadows (12 acres) behind Bell House and the use of the mill pond on Dulwich Common with the ‘right to take fish angling and no other method’.

Having built Bell House and its accompanying coach house, the Wrights continued making improvements to their property, such as enclosing the waste ground in the front (most of these ‘wastes’ still belong to the Dulwich Estate) and planting trees.  On the site of the ‘two ancient cottages’ which he had been permitted to demolish, he built two new ones.  He also played a role in the local community. He was a founder of the Dulwich Quarterly Meeting of residents, which turned into a regular dining club at the Greyhound pub in 1772.  Wright paid for the Minute Book, in which the two stewards at each feast and the members attending have been recorded since 1791.

In the eighteenth century charitable giving was informal with no organised support of the poor outside of the poor laws written in Elizabethan times. Thomas supported local charities, presented a Bible to the Chapel in 1782, and helped to secure a fire engine and a house ‘south of the Pound’ in which to keep it.  For a hundred years, the bells of the Chapel and Bell House were rung whenever a fire broke out in the Village, to summon assistance in pumping up water from Butcher's Pond at the corner of what is now Burbage Road.

In 1769 the Wrights were the victim of theft in their new house at Dulwich, discovered by their coachman, Rubon Cannicot. On 6th December 1769 James Simpson was accused of theft at the Old Bailey. Four days earlier, on Saturday, he had stolen a woollen cloth coat, value twenty shillings, which belonged to Thomas Wright. Rubon Cannicot gave evidence as a witness:

‘I am coachman to Thomas Wright; he lives at Dulwich; our coach was locked up, and the great coat on the coach box. The key was left in the door, on the outside; the yard gate was all fast, and the yard is walled all round; whoever got the coat must get over the wall. I know nothing of the prisoner, I never saw him to my knowledge before I saw him here at the bar, it, (the coat) was missing last Saturday morning’.

Hugh Riley was a dealer in old clothes and old rags and was also a member of the watch, the City of London’s police force. Simpson offered to sell Riley the coat in Cheapside on the Saturday morning about nine o'clock. Riley and Simpson went to Paternoster-row, to a little court that leads to St Paul's churchyard where Riley offered Simpson fourteen shillings for the coat; but would not pay ‘till he sent for a surety’ (ie someone who could vouch that the coat was his to sell). They were in a public house at the time; there was some altercation and Riley and the pub landlord brought Simpson before the lord mayor. The coat was advertised, and Rubon Cannicot, having successfully described the coat ‘before he saw it’ took Riley to Mr Wright. The prisoner’s defence was as follows:

‘My brother was a coachman; I had this coat of him; he was coachman to Mr Hutchinson in Southampton. I offered it to this man; (I) am bricklayer; my brother has been dead some time; I am a Guernsey man’.

The verdict was guilty and the sentence was transportation to the American colonies.

The Dulwich stocks bore the motto: 'It is the sport of a fool to do mischief and to thine own wickedness shall correct thee' and never has a quotation been more true. Simpson must have reflected on his bad luck on that day in 1769 when he stole a coat from a village five or so miles distant from London and then tried to sell it in Paternoster Row, the one place it would be readily recognised, the place where London's booksellers and stationers had their shops and warehouses, and just a stone’s throw from Stationers' Hall in Ave Maria Lane where Thomas Wright, one of its most prominent members, made almost daily journeys. Simpson's further misfortune was to try to sell the coat to someone who, before there was an organised national police force, turned out to be an off-duty member of the City's own law enforcement body.

Thomas Wright took a diligent role in civic affairs in the City of London from 1764. At this time the City was moving forward rapidly and confidently. The Seven Years War had just ended, paving the way for Britain’s global expansion. In 1761 the City’s medieval gates were demolished in an act of symbolic and practical modernisation. Sewers and water mains were laid, streets were paved or cobbled, most for the first time. In 1764 Thomas became a member of the Court of Common Council, the City of London’s council, for Candlewick ward, where his business was situated. In his ward he was responsible for the collection of the coal duty tax, originally levied to support children orphaned by the Great Fire of London but which was now used for other municipal obligations. He became an alderman in 1777, was made a sheriff in 1779 and crowned his public service in November 1785 by becoming Lord Mayor of London. The following is an account of his installation as Sheriff:

Yesterday morning the two new Sheriffs, viz. Aldermen Wright and Pugh, went in their carriages to Stationers Hall, where they breakfasted, and afterwards proceeded with the Master, wardens and Court of assistants of the said Company to Guildhall, where they were sworn into their offices, with the usual formalities. Their chariots were very elegant. The livery of Alderman Wright is a superfine orange-coloured cloth, richly trimmed with silver; Alderman Pugh's is a superfine green cloth, with a rich broad gold lace, and both make a grand appearance as any Sheriffs have for several years. The old and new Sheriffs returned from the Hall to the Paul's-Head Tavern, Cateaton Street when, according of annual custom, the keys of the different jails were delivered to the new Sheriffs, and they were regaled with walnuts and sack by the Keeper of Newgate. After the ceremony at Guildhall, the Sheriffs etc. returned to Stationers Hall where an elegant dinner was provided by Mr. Sheriff Wright. The whole was conducted with the utmost propriety, and was the better attended than any feast given on a similar occasion, there being sixteen Alderman present besides the Sheriffs. A Correspondent has favoured us with the following description of the painting on the new Sheriff's chariot: Mr. Alderman Wright's - 'Liberty, in a fitting posture, with her rod in one hand, and her other on the Roman faces, while a little-winged Genius is presenting her with a code of laws.'.

His Lord Mayor’s Show in November 1785 was particularly splendid; the twelve guildsmen of the Stationers Company insisted on accompanying the procession in their own coaches, instead of on foot (the previous practice). Towards the end of his tenure, in October 1786, George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia, died. As Lord Mayor Thomas Wright proclaimed that for Thomas Sainsbury’s Lord Mayor’s Day the following month no liverymen should ‘walk or stand in the street, or pass in their barges on the water’ The artillery company should not march or fire their guns. There should be no ringing of bells or ‘other outward show of rejoicing’ such as a feast. All of which rather seems to negate the point of a Lord Mayor’s Show, but Thomas had already had his own Lord Mayor’s Day, so perhaps he didn’t mind. A contemporary print shows that his colleagues do not appear to be at all happy with the lack of festivities. In 1786 on the conclusion of his mayoralty he presented to the stationers’ company a large silver tea urn.

The architect of Bell House, Sir Robert Taylor, was also a City dignitary and was a sheriff in 1783, four years after Wright; they undoubtedly knew each other both professionally and socially. They are both depicted in a large oil painting that hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery and shows the inauguration of the 1782 Lord Mayor.

During his time as a master stationer Wright took on many young apprentices for varying sums ranging from £20 for Thomas Jones in 1769 to a whopping £600 in the case of Thomas Kirk in 1765. His partner, William Gill, seems to have taken on only one apprentice, Roger Pettiward in 1769, though he charged a whopping £1,050 for the privilege. While high apprentice premiums were not unknown (Daniel Defoe talks of Levant merchants charging £1,000 in the 1720s) most apprenticeships were bought for much less. These large amounts must surely reflect the success of Wright & Gill’s business and the benefits that would accrue to anyone connected with it. Indeed, when Roger Pettiward died he had rebuilt Finborough Hall in Suffolk and was described as ‘partner in the respectable firm of Wright & Gill’.

Wright & Gill took on a young employee, Richard Dalton, who had come to London from Wigtown, Cumberland. They were so satisfied with him that they later made him a partner in the company. Dalton lived at Camberwell Green. The business was very successful and Wright made such a fortune that it attracted the notice of the press. Newspaper cuttings from 1785, the year he became mayor, talk of his:

‘Property in the 3 per cents, to the amount of near £180,000. The very interest of this sum exceeds the Prince of Wales actual income! And independent of it, Mr. Wright's profits in his trade, as a stationer, are supposed to be very little short of it!’

This may seem be a celebrity-type story of the kind we are familiar with today; it seems unlikely though not impossible that he was making an annual income which would have an equivalent spending power today of upwards of £10 million. However, he had a widespread reputation for ‘great application and frugality’ and taxes were very low then so he could have accumulated a large fortune. In any case his income seems to have been due to his business acumen rather than any inherited wealth or valuable connections. 

Together with his business partner and brother-in-law, William Gill, he was active in several hospital charities which provided for the poor of London and was a governor of St Thomas’s Hospital. He was vice-president of the Middlesex Dispensary and the City Dispensary and president of the City of London Lying-in Hospital.

Thomas Wright died suddenly on 8th April 1798 during a walk in the garden at Bell House. He had an epileptic fit and medical help could not be summoned in time. He was 76 years old. On his death he was described as a ‘truly humble and pious Christian, a faithful and affectionate husband, a most tender and indulgent father, a sincere and generous friend, a very good and kind master and a worthy and benevolent member of society’. William Gill, his close friend, brother-in-law and business partner for over fifty years died within a few weeks of him and his wife Ann died in 1809. All three, together with Ann and William’s sister, Elizabeth Kinkaid, are buried at St Andrews, Wyrardisbury (now Wraysbury) Church, in Buckinghamshire where the Gills had lived. On his death Thomas Wright left a fortune of £400,000, the bulk of which went to his wife and daughter. His will was proved on 21 April 1798 and in it he says:

I give to the masters and keepers or wardens and commonalty of the mystery or art of a stationer of the city of London two thousand pounds, four per cent bank annuities upon trust to pay apply and distribute the yearly dividends and yearly produce thereof upon the first day of January in each year or as soon after as may be, in manner following, that is say ‘the sum of fifty pounds eight shillings, part of such dividends, unto and amongst twenty poor freemen of the said company, not receiving any other pension from the company, in equal shares and proportions at two pounds two shillings each’. To the clerk of the said company for time being the sum of three pounds three shillings, other part of such dividends, for his trouble upon this occasion. And the sum of twenty-six pounds nine shillings, residue of such dividends, in and towards the providing and defraying expense of a dinner for the master, wardens and assistants of the said company upon the day of such distribution’. 

He also left £100 to Wraysbury church to be spent as they saw fit and £50 to the Stationer’s Company for the education of apprentices. Wright & Gill the firm continued and included as partners Gill’s son, Dalton and four brothers named Key who had bought up the vast stock. The eldest Key brother lived on Denmark Hill and was in the commission of the peace for the county of Surrey.

Their daughter Ann inherited everything and in 1811 a new lease of the Bell House property was granted to her at the increased rent of £128 p.a., with the right to channel water from the Mill Pond ‘through the pipe or plug already in the same’ into her own ponds.  However, the College now took over responsibility for the mill pond (which had previously been leased to Thomas Wright). Ann married very late in life in 1813, at the age of 64, four years after her mother died. She married John Willes, the first owner of Belair House, Gallery Road, who had already had the luck to marry another heiress, Rachel Wilcocks, niece of the Bishop of Rochester, and who was himself 78 years old. He was a close family friend who had been the executor to her mother’s will and may have known Thomas Wright via his career as a corn factor: in 1762 Wright had paid £2,500 for the office of corn meter, which gave him the duty paid for the official measuring of corn. They did not live long to enjoy their joint fortunes; Ann died on 27th October 1817, aged 68 and is buried with her parents in Wraysbury. John Willes died in 1818 and has a large tomb in the burial ground in Dulwich. 

Anthony Harding 1762-1851

After Ann Wright’s death Anthony Harding and his family moved from Streatham to live in Bell House. Anthony Harding was born in Hoptown in Derbyshire on New Year’s Day 1762, one of four children of a local farmer. On 12 November 1792, aged 30, he married Frances Ashby, also from Derbyshire and the daughter of one of his business associates. They married by special licence, as did Thomas & Ann Wright. Special licences were issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury and were expensive, a sign of status for the more wealthy and well-connected. In Pride & Prejudice, on hearing of the wealth of Elizabeth’s suitor, Mrs Bennet exclaims ‘A special licence! You must and shall be married by a special licence’. The Hardings had two children, Elizabeth born in 1793 and Frances born in 1795. Anthony’s wife died in 1801 and he did not remarry.

Anthony Harding described himself as a silk mercer but he was actually much more. He became a freeman of the company of musicians by redemption, meaning he paid a fee of forty-six shillings. At this time the musicians’ livery was a kind of general guild open to anyone. The fact that he chose this guild rather than the drapers suggests that perhaps he was not a trained draper or had not undergone an apprenticeship. This makes his later success all the more interesting. Harding, Howell & Co.'s Grand Fashionable Magazine was an 18th-century department store located in Schomberg House at 89 Pall Mall, a grand and fashionable building where Gainsborough had lived and which was later used as the War Office. Opened in 1796, Harding’s could be considered the first modern department store. For the first time women were able to shop on their own, safely and respectably. They did not have to walk along the street in public to visit different shops and so did not need a male chaperone, neither were they tied to buying the limited range of the tradesmen who visited door-to-door. They were free to browse and choose for themselves. These were mostly newly affluent middle-class women, their good fortune buoyed by the Industrial Revolution and they went to the department store to examine the latest fashions and fabrics to buy and pass on to their dressmakers; ready-made clothing for women would not be available for another century. Drapers like Anthony Harding understood both this newly emerging class of women and that shopping could now be a social activity and it is no coincidence that many of London’s famous department stores such as Whiteleys and John Lewis were started by drapers. As the premier shopping street of this nation of shopkeepers, Pall Mall was one of Georgian London’s most fashionable streets and is often mentioned in Jane Austen. It is outside a shop in Pall Mall that Colonel Brandon hears of Willoughby’s engagement in Sense and Sensibility. Indeed, the most frequently mentioned item of shopping in Jane Austen’s letters is fabric for dressmaking and she would undoubtedly have known Harding’s.

To further attract the ‘beneficiaries of the new affluence’ Hardings had a refreshments room on the first floor. The shop was on the ground floor, extending 150 feet from front to back and divided by glass partitions into four departments: firstly furs and fans; secondly silks, muslins, lace and gloves; thirdly jewellery, ornamental articles in ormolu, french clocks and perfumery; fourthly millinery and dresses. There was ‘no article of female attire or decoration, but what may be here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion...the present proprietors have spared neither trouble nor expense to ensure the establishment of a superiority over every other in Europe, and to render it perfectly unique in its kind.’ 

Hardings were innovative in other ways too. London’s place as ‘the greatest and most dynamic city in the Western world was secure’ and just as Thomas Wright had sent goods out to North America so Anthony Harding exported around the world. Although the shop covered only one third of the large, grand Schomberg House, in 1804 Anthony Harding bought the lease for the whole building and let the other two shops. When his shop needed renovating the firm were able to take over one of the others, so minimising the impact on business. In 1817 they advertised for apprentices for lace-makers. They had set up a lace factory and brought over a Flemish woman skilled in making French and Flemish lace who would instruct ‘young women respectably connected and of good conduct’ in the art of lace-making, for a fee of £10. In the same year the firm had to appear in court when Samuel Arnold, an employee stole £74 in cash and £35 in promissory notes from them and was arrested in Bristol, having spent most of the money. He was found guilty but one of the directors, who was also a relative of Anthony Harding, spoke for the firm, saying Arnold had worked for them for seven years, had been entrusted with thousands of pounds and had always ‘acted honourably’ He had recently married and his misconduct was attributed to the malign influence of his new wife. The firm was willing to take him back into their employ. The court report tells of ‘a buzz of applause after this declaration’. The judge directed the firm to take the prisoner back. By this means Harding & Howell may have saved Arnold’s life, as such a theft could be punishable by death.

In December 1819 Harding & Howell moved their business to 9 Regent St, ‘opposite Carlton House’ where they were ‘quite prepared to offer a regular succession of novelty throughout the season’. This idea of novelty was important for the sale of clothes and accessories. Disposable income was increasing and the empire was providing a wider range of goods, so people were beginning to buy new things even when they didn’t need them and it was important to offer new items to ensure customers kept returning to the shop. In an 1834 report from China the correspondent talks of the demand for things ‘pretty, odd and new at Howell’s or Harding’s’. Harding & Howell were obviously highly successful and in the process they secured a Royal Warrant as ‘Silk Mercer by Appointment’ to Queen Victoria. 

Anthony Harding was also involved in charitable enterprises. In 1798 Harding & Howell placed an advertisement in The Times on behalf of the ‘peculiar and distressful circumstances’ of a lieutenant in the East India Company. The ex-soldier was struggling under sickness and poverty while caring for his two infant children and was threatened with ‘the cold and loathsome damp’ of a debtors’ prison. Donations were to be left at Harding & Howell’s on Pall Mall.

On 11 August 1821 Anthony’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Thomas Scholes Withington in Brighton. He was a cotton twist dealer who was born in Manchester and educated at Manchester Grammar School. They moved around the country, no doubt on business connected to the cotton mills in the north of England. Their four eldest children, Alice, Frances, Arthur and Florence were born in Liverpool, the next two, Augusta and Allan, were born in Grasmere in the Lake District while their youngest, Elizabeth, was born at Bell House, where the family lived with Anthony Harding from 1832 onwards. 

In 1832 Harding bought a new lease on Bell House which obligated him to contribute to the cost of lighting Dulwich village. At the same time the two cottages built in the grounds by Thomas Wright were dropped from the lease and rented instead to Samuel J. Nail.  He knocked them into one and after the publication in 1836 of Charles Dickens' 'Pickwick Papers' they became known as 'Pickwick Cottage', although the official name of the property was Trewyn. Joseph Romilly, whose family lived at The Willows on Dulwich Common, records in his diary: ‘2 April 1833. Called with Lucy [his sister] on Mrs Withington at Bell House....civilly received’. Calls were an essential part of social networking. Ladies often had a particular ‘at home’ day where they received callers for tea and cake. People did not stay long and it was not an issue or insult to say you were ‘not at home’, the convention was that the caller would simply leave a card.  All calls and cards had to be returned however and daughters were expected to accompany their mothers once they were old enough.

It was a large household at the time of the 1841 census with Anthony, his daughter Elizabeth and her children Alice, Frances, Florence and Elizabeth. There were six female servants, a man servant, Sophia Hegley.,the children’s governess and George the coachman with his wife, Hannah and their daughter Harriet. There would also have been ‘daily’ servants such as gardeners or perhaps charwomen who did not live in but came to work each day or to help if the family were entertaining. The lives of these figures are even harder to recover than those of the live-in servants as we have no names or particular duties and they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Butlers were at the top of the servant hierarchy and were known by their surname. Cooks were given the courtesy title of ‘Mrs’, parlourmaids were the most senior maids and addressed by their surnames, all other maids by their Christian names. Most of the Harding servants came from London or the home counties as was usual at this time. Often the best way to get a reliable and trustworthy maid was through the recommendation of friends or the church. Later servants would come from farther afield, either travelling with a family when they moved to London, or obliged to leave the countryside because of mechanisation or agricultural depression. The nature of service was also changing. No longer considered part of the family, servants were now exclusively working-class and usually female, with a heavy workload. At this time a large extension was added to Bell House for servants’ quarters. There were also three other people on the census, Thomas and Ann Procter and Caroline Shaw, described as having independent means. They were probably visiting the Hardings and may have been relatives. 

Elizabeth Harding’s husband Thomas Scholes Withington played a significant part in the tragic events of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester when several people were killed and hundreds injured when the cavalry charged a group protesting for parliamentary reform. In 1816 Withington had been elected as a constable for the manor of Manchester, and in 1817 he was elected Borough Reeve, the chief officer of the town and equivalent to mayor elsewhere, a post he held for a year. At the time of the massacre, he was the horseman who carried the request for assistance in keeping the peace from the chairman of magistrates to the commander of the local cavalry. The magistrates, concerned about the large crowd that had gathered to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt in St. Peter’s Fields, decided to arrest Hunt and break up the meeting. Withington ‘read the Riot Act’, the law that had to be read out before an unlawful gathering could be broken up, and the local volunteer forces of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were called upon to help disperse the crowd. The military groups made the fatal mistake of charging from three different directions leaving the crowd nowhere to escape, with the inevitable casualties. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic reference to Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier. In the evening of the massacre the magistrates ordered the pubs to be closed and Withington was employed with others in clearing them. A crowd collected and ‘Mr Withington, anxious to disperse the crowd as mildly as possible, remonstrated with them …but had his coat torn from his back, his waistcoat likewise’. However, Mr Withington stuck ‘firmly and resolutely’ to the task in hand and took into custody Thomas Mellor, the man who had assaulted him by tearing his clothes. Mellor, was held in custody from 16 August until 27 January of the following year when at the trial Withington asked for clemency for him since ‘sufficient punishment’ had been suffered. Mellor was fined 6s 8d and bound over to keep the peace. He was asked to pledge £10 plus £10 from a third party, a hefty punishment given the amount of time he had already spent in prison.

It was said that Withington refused a knighthood but accepted a silver cup (which passed to his son Arthur who emigrated to America).  He was allegedly known as ‘Three Bottle Borough Reeve’ from his ability to drink that amount every evening.  He died young on 30 August 1838, aged 47 and his wife, Elizabeth, died on Christmas Eve 1853. Of their children (Anthony Harding’s grandchildren): Alice married Alfred Eccles, a headmaster; Frances married the Revd Stephen Poyntz Denning (son of the portrait painter and curator of Dulwich Picture Gallery); Florence married Revd Herbert Morse and Elizabeth married the Revd William Henry Holm, headmaster of King Edward's School, Worcester. Allan become an engineer and travelled the world with his family, living in the US and Argentina before settling down as a farmer in Sussex. Arthur Harding Withington followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became a silk mercer. He married Emma Marzetti in 1853 and they emigrated to the US with their 2-year-old son, buying a farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He was very much involved in the life of the church and was church warden for many years before handing the post on to his son. His wife’s sister Louise and her husband William Gowan (whose brother later lived in Bell House) came out from England to join them, buying a neighbouring farm. Arthur died in Baraboo in 1873. His son, Arthur Claude, became a travelling salesman in the US, enjoying ‘a full measure of success’ and also ‘contributing materially to the welfare of Baraboo along civic, educational and moral lines’. He took a full part in the community life of Baraboo, founding the public library and creating a beautiful garden for the town. There is a tablet to his memory in Baraboo Library.  Anthony Harding himself died on 5th August 1851 in his 90th year and was buried at St Leonard’s on Streatham High Road. 

George Widdowson 1804-1872

In October 1852 Elizabeth Withington sold her lease to George Widdowson. He was born in Lincoln on 25 August 1804 the son of William and Elizabeth, William kept the Rein Deer Inn in Lincoln. George was a silversmith and goldsmith, though a retailer rather than a craftsman and by the age of 28 he had founded the highly fashionable Widdowson & Veale at No. 73 Strand.The company made swords and other weapons for the British army and navy, they made orders and decorations for the British court and were goldsmiths and jewellers to the court of Spain. Widdowson had a good eye for publicity. In 1842 on the christening of Queen Victoria’s eldest son (later King Edward VII) Widdowsons gave ‘an immense silver coronet supporting the Prince of Wales feathers’; ‘of a large size’ added the Times report, in case the splendour of the gift had not been clear.

In 1844, by the time George was 40, his business was doing well, as was the economy as a whole. The firm were able to advertise for apprentices, asking a premium of £100. On 11 February 1847 he married Eliza Duffield (nee Boville), the daughter of a wine merchant from Putney. They were married at St Pancras church and the announcement in the Times said they were married by Earl Nelson’s chaplain. John was 43 and Eliza was 50 years old when they married. She lived in Gibralter and had already been widowed when her first husband, John Duffield, died in 1845. They did not have children. 

Business was booming by 1851 when at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition they exhibited (at their own expense) an enormous silver ‘plateau’ with candelabra, dessert stands, dishes, flagons, jugs, coffee pots, teapots, jewellery and an equestrian statue of Wellington. They did the same at the 1862 Exhibition. George was a steward of the Goldsmiths’ Benevolent Institution and the firm made donations to the Charing Cross hospital. George had an older brother, Joseph, living in London at this time but he was a less successful businessman as a goldsmith and jeweller than George. He set up shop at 100 Fleet St and was often advertising rooms to let there, in 1832 he went bankrupt. In 1840 he was confined to Bethlem Hospital, known as Bedlam and now the Imperial War Museum. After the 1834 Poor Law there was a boom in building institutions for those suffering from poverty (workhouses) or mental illness (asylums), though the Victorians often lumped the two together. Over the century from 1800 people housed in asylums rose from a few hundred to 100,000. At first these were peaceful places where it was believed mentally ill people could be cured by ‘moral treatment’ but this changed when it became widely believed that such people were ‘incurable’. Bethlem had a poor reputation at the time George Widdowson’s brother Joseph was confined there, following a fall which ‘caused confusion’ and, said his wife, meant he was ‘likely to set the house on fire’. He told Bethlem he ‘had plenty of money’ and indeed at the time inmates would have paid for their own care. While it might seem strange to us that George would have let his brother be admitted to a place with such a reputation as Bedlam, there was not much choice at the time and in fact Bethlem was a purpose-built state of the art institution, better than many. In any case, Joseph was not there long as he was discharged later that year for ‘being paralytic’. To our ear this might sound as if he was drunk but he had probably been discharged into the care of another institution as he was suffering from ‘general paralysis of the insane’, an illness increasingly recognised in asylums at the time, specifically affecting middle-aged men and caused by syphilis.

Eliza died in April 1861 leaving George a widower with no children, living at Bell House with his unmarried sister Ann and his brother-in-law John Boville, a barrister. John Boville was also a governor of the extraordinarily named Royal Humane Society for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned or Dead. The household employed a footman, coachman, cook, housemaid and lady’s maid. George moved out soon after Eliza’s death into the White House in Dulwich Village. Perhaps Bell House was too big and too full of memories. George Widdowson died at the White House on 10 December 1872 aged 68. He is buried in Norwood cemetery in a Grade II listed tomb. He left around £30,000.

William Peter McAndrew

William Peter McAndrew was born on 25 July 1790 on Lower Thames St, one of eight sons of William McAndrew, originally from Scotland, and his wife Antonia Sykes; they had married at St John’s, Smith Square. At the age of just 18, William McAndrew had started importing fruit from Spain and Portugal and soon opened offices in London and Liverpool, expanding into shipping as well as importing. William’s sons, Robert and William Peter, ran the offices of William McAndrew & Sons in London and Liverpool, respectively. Over time, Robert concentrated on shipping and ship-owning under the name of McAndrew & Co (a company which still exists today) and also became a renowned marine biologist, naturalist and Fellow of the Royal Society. William Peter established McAndrew & Cunningham in Liverpool with John Cunningham and at some stage moved his business to London. 

William Peter McAndrew married Ann Knox Child on 22 February 1816 at St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames St, the church where he and all his siblings were christened. He was 26 years old and Ann was 17; the bride’s relative, Vicesimus Knox, officiated. In the 1830s McAndrew joined a City livery company unconnected with his trade just as Anthony Harding had done, in his case the worshipful company of wheelwrights. He found, like AnthonyHarding and another previous Bell House resident Thomas Wright, that City livery companies offered both excellent networking opportunities and occasions for charitable endeavours: various Lord Mayors noted that McAndrew & Son donated cash ‘for the poor box’.

Before moving to Bell House William Peter lived in Croxted House on Croxted Lane and most of his ten children were born there. Two of his sons, William and John, followed him in to the family firm which by then had become a merchant bank, that is an investment firm rather than an importer, trading money as well as commodities. William in particular inherited his father’s dedication to work and in his spare time was something of an inventor, improving on the machinery for separating cotton fibres from seeds. At some stage the family name began to be spelt MacAndrew, apparently to aid pronunciation in Spain and Portugal. Another son, James Child MacAndrew, started a business in New York. MacAndrews & Forbes was a liquorice manufacturing and exporting company, funded by James’s uncle Robert as a way of adding cargo to his ships on their journeys from Smyrna (now Izmir) where he was trading cotton. It seems likely that William Peter MacAndrew visited Smyrna; as well as his cotton invention he also reported back to the Pharmaceutical Society on the efficacy of resin of scammony, a plant found in this region and used as a purgative. MacAndrews & Forbes is now the holding company for billionaire Ronald Perelman’s empire which includes a number of major companies such as Revlon. 

William Peter MacAndrew worked hard in the family firm and even in 1861, when he was 70 years old, he still described himself as ‘foreign merchant’. In 1859 he and Ann lost their daughter Clara, aged 17 and Ann herself died in 1861. This seems to have prompted a change as in 1862 he sold a large plot of land on Croxted Lane to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and in 1863 he moved to Bell House. The 1871 census describes him as ‘retired’ general merchant at the age of 80. Still living with him were William, Mary Ann, Eliza, Susan and John, all unmarried, together with a butler, cook, housemaid and parlourmaid. Fanny and Harriet, the maids, would have spent hours each day cleaning: the coal fires and gas lamps would have made the house dirty though luckily the newly-built railway was too far away to add to the dirt.

William Peter MacAndrew died on 7 April 1871 and was still described as being of ‘57 King William Street’, his City office and a stone’s throw from where he had been born. His sons, William and John, oversaw the distribution of his estate, he left just under £70,000. One suspects he never stopped working despite the ‘retired’. He is buried with his wife Ann, their son William and their daughter Susan, at St Mary’s Hartfield in Sussex. His son William, who never married and lived with his father at Bell House, died a year later in 1872.  The house was then leased by Charles Cecil Gowan.

Charles Cecil Gowan

Charles Cecil Gowan grew up in Dulwich and lived here almost all his life. On 25 January 1833 he was baptised in Dulwich College chapel and lived at Wood Lawn in Dulwich Village (which still exists) with his father, Philip and mother, Cecilia who were both from Ireland, though Cecilia was born D’Olier and originally from a French Huguenot family. Philip had emigrated to London to make a new life and certainly made a success. He started as an ‘American’ merchant, co-founded the City firm Gowan & Marx and became a member of the London Stock Exchange, specialising in American bonds. A bill of theirs was sent to Thomas Jefferson in 1825. One of the people they invested in was Moncure Robinson who designed a revolutionary locomotive which caused a sensation when it was launched in America; he named the engine Gowan & Marx after his backers. Gowan & Marx made a lot of money but also combined economic opportunity with honourable behaviour. When in 1845 a bond they had offered, investing in the Republic of St Domingo, defaulted, they reimbursed their subscribers in full. They also gave to charity. In 1878 they donated to the Abercarne colliery disaster fund when 268 men lost their lives in an explosion. They also donated large amounts to Guy’s Hospital. Charles Cecil Gowan was the youngest of a family of ten with six brothers and three sisters, many of whom, like him, stayed in Dulwich when they grew up. Coincidentally, while he had been growing up at Wood Lawn further down Dulwich Village, the Withington boys were growing up in Bell House. It seems likely that they knew each other. Charles Gowan’s brother, William, married Arthur Withington’s sister-in-law, Louise, and moved to America to farm.

On 26 January 1860 Charles married Elizabeth Anne Critcliffe from South Molton in Devon. They lived briefly in Sydenham before moving to The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common, a house that still exists today. It seems likely that he was working in the family firm, which had become the City’s principal dealer in US securities. In 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated the news caused the firm to cease trading even though it was widely known to be ‘extremely rich and had assets far beyond its liabilities’  but they were open again a few days later, ‘paying 20s on the pound’, ie full value despite the economic environment. 

As the British empire stretched across the globe from Canada to India, Gowan & Marx were well placed to take advantage of the opportunities opening up and business was good. By 1875 the Gowans were living in Bell House, just down the road from Charles’s childhood home. Charles and Elizabeth now had four daughters and a son and were involved in the local community, funding coal, blankets and Christmas dinner for the poor.

In 1885 the Gowans were one of the major losers of land when Dulwich Park was formed. They lost 13 acres of their garden, roughly where the lake and stream are in the park, though this still left them with three and a half acres for their garden. 

In 1890 Charles was seriously ill but recovered and presented a white alter cloth to the chapel ‘as a thank-offering for recovering from a dangerous illness’. Their daughter Annie presented some paintings to the Reading Room in the Village at the same time. 

The Gowans had a large domestic staff at Bell House to care for them and their family. Their cook Mary Parry came from Devon like Mrs Gowan while their four female servants came from London and the home counties, later they came from further afield as rural poverty brought country girls to London. They were all young girls in their teens or twenties and their jobs as parlourmaids, housemaids and kitchenmaids were likely to be very hard in the big house especially looking after the Gowan girls who were around the same age as them. Many young female servants at this time were moving to factories and department stores as these jobs were less back-breaking and offered more leisure time and independence. Given the growth of the middle-class this meant the demand for maids began to outstrip supply. In the four censuses covering the time Charles Gowan had a house of his own in Dulwich, the four female servants were different each time and this would not have been unusual, they would have left for other jobs or to get married, as a married woman could not continue to work as a maid in a respectable household. Women in Elizabeth Gowan’s position would have spent a large part of their time managing servants and recruitment was a perennial topic of conversation for them. Mrs Gowan always wanted experienced staff – she had no time to train inexperienced girls and her advertisements usually specified ‘must thoroughly understand her duties’. In 1887 she placed an advert for a parlourmaid, specifying that she must be a ‘good waitress, clean plate well and thoroughly understand her duties’. Good cooks in particular were revered and highly prized as it was hot, heavy work. They were sometimes bribed to leave a friend or family’s establishment to come and work for an unscrupulous or desperate mistress.

On 16 December 1895 Charles died at Knowle Hall in Bridgwater, Somerset, a large country mansion he had been renting, leaving £64,000. He was described as ‘formerly of 7 Copthall Court and Bell House Dulwich’. His wife, together with his brothers-in-law James Fraser Hore and Edward Madge Hore were his executors. His wife inherited the furniture and effects at his freehold house on Isle of Wight and the right to occupy it and Bell House for her life. The other executors got £100 apiece. The rest of his estate was left two thirds to his children in equal shares and one third to his wife for her life, then to his children.  Elizabeth Gowan died in 1921, aged 94.

Harman Edgar Tidy (1829-1898)

Harman Edgar Tidy was born in 1829 to Thomas and Elizabeth Tidy, at St Pancras in London. Thomas was a tailor, originally from Tortington in Sussex. Harman had five brothers who all made the law their profession and Harman himself studied at Clifford’s Inn. He married Selina McLean in Marylebone in June 1853, she was 19, he was 24 and they went on to have eight children. Before they moved to Bell House (double check year in Governors minutes) they lived in equal splendour in Chester Terrace, a grand neo-classical crescent in Regent’s Park designed by John Nash with Decimus Burton. 

Harman also had a house called Danes Hill in Bengeo, Hertfordshire but at some stage he changed it for a house in North Stoke, Oxfordshire. Selina died in 1875 but in 1877 Harman married again, to Emma Sarah Robson, nee Dove. Sarah had been married to Christopher Robson (who died in 1867), a barrister at Clifford’s Inn and they had lived in Regent’s Park and at Little Stoke in Oxfordshire so it seems likely that both couples had known each other professionally and socially. Emma was 49 when they married and Harman 48. There were no children from the second marriage though it was said that Harman ‘acted as stepfather to the brood’ from Emma’s first marriage. 

Harman Tidy and his brother Thomas were in business together at 27 Sackville Street, Piccadilly.

On 23 February 1877 at 6pm Tidy was at his desk when Lord Marcus Beresford came into reception asking to see Mr Tidy and calling himself Mr Long. Once he was admitted to Herman’s chambers he declared his real name and said Tidy had accused him of being ‘a deliberate liar’. He demanded an apology otherwise Tidy ‘would not leave the room alive’. He struck Tidy, knocking him to the floor then kicked him. At this point Tidy’s brother and some clerks burst in, Lord Beresford assaulted them too. At the police court his solicitor began by questioning him about his debts and some discounted bills which Lord Beresford had defaulted on, leading to his house being taken possession of but curiously the magistrate disallowed this line of questioning. The solicitor repeatedly tried to ask his own client questions but the magistrate repeatedly intervened. At this point the solicitor said he had no choice but to offer no defence. The magistrate then sent the case to trial. The case went to the Old Bailey before the Solicitor-general where before the trial even started ‘the place was thronged with noblemen and gentlemen’ and Beresford’s defence asked that he should not have to stand in the prisoner’s dock; the judge disagreed. More meat was then put on the bones of the case. When Beresford gained entry to Tidy’s office he slipped the bolt on the door and said ‘Now you [expletive deleted], you don’t leave this room alive’. When Tidy denied called Beresford a liar and turned to get some papers to prove his case, Beresford said ‘Oh you [expletive deleted], you persist in calling me a liar do you?’ whereupon he seized Tidy ‘by the loins’, threw him against an iron box stand and began kicking him. Tidy exclaimed ‘Oh you beastly coward. Let a fellow get up and have a chance with you’. He struggled to his feet but Beresford ‘thrust him into a chair and shouted ‘I’ll break every [expletive deleted] bone in your body unless you write me an apology’, Tidy replied ‘You’ve the wrong man…if you think I’m going to write an apology before I know I’m in the wrong’. Tidy’s brother, Thomas, and a clerk ‘burst in’ and the police were called. Somebody recognised Beresford and said ‘Why it’s Lord Marcus Beresford’. ‘Yes you [expletive deleted], it is’ and ‘hit him a violent blow in the eye’. The policeman then arrested Beresford to which he replied ‘Oh give me in charge if you like. I’ve a man outside who’ll go bail and it will only be a [expletive deleted] fiver in the morning’. Harman Tidy testified that he felt acute pain after the assault and still did. Under cross-examination Tidy explained that he had access to the funds of various gentleman which he then lent out and in this way he had lent Beresford £1,000 which had not been repaid. Tidy agreed that he had used the terms ‘gross and deliberate falsehood’ but said that this was qualified by ‘if Lord Beresford makes any such statement’. The doctor who had tended Tidy after the altercation was then called and said Tidy ‘shrank when touched’ but under cross-examination agreed that he could find no trace of injury. Summing up the Solicitor-general said there could be no doubt that Tidy had been assaulted by Beresford but that the jury might take the view that ‘this was a case in which a person who was a mere moneylender had accused a gentleman of honour and position of having told a falsehood and that he had gone there for the simple purpose of extorting an apology’. The summing up then continued for two hours after which one of the jurors intervened and said ‘they did not want to hear any more about it as they had no desire to be there all night’. The jury retired to consider its verdict and after ten minutes came back: guilty of common assault. Beresford was fined £100, all costs and a £500 bail to keep the peace for one year and to be imprisoned until these were paid. At this point one of the magistrates, Colonel Stanley, ‘who had taken an active part in the proceedings’ immediately offered bail so Beresford was then freed. Beresford was the son of the Marquess of Waterford, ran the stables of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII and was an equerry to both King Edward VII and George V. Vanity Fair magazine described him thus ‘He is a good-looking man who can make himself very agreeable. He has a merry eye’. Beresford was a member of the ‘Marlborough House Set’, the racy group who surrounded the Prince of Wales at his London residence. It was Marcus Beresford’s brother Charles’s affair with Daisy Brooke (also the Prince of Wales’s mistress) which led to Charles arguing with the heir to the throne and pushing him up against a sofa, a gross breach of etiquette. Charles’s wife was also having an affair with Daisy Brook’s husband, Lord Warwick, at the same time and in another Marlborough House Set scandal about the Prince of Wales’s gambling debts, Daisy’s indiscretion led to her being known as ‘Babbling Brook’.

Although we have no census residential data for when the Tidys lived at Bell House we can assume that Harman gathered his extended family around him as he did wherever he lived. When he lived in Chester Terrace his mother and sister lived there too and the house in Bengeo was the home of many Tidys and Robsons. On the 1891 census Harman and Emma had Emma’s daughter also called Emma living with them together with her son. The Tidys did not describe any relative as ‘step’ on the census which is quite a modern way of looking at their family; it may have been a version of a modern ‘blended’ family. Of the older family members, who knew each other but had not grown up together, a Robson son married a Tidy daughter and a Robson daughter married a Tidy son. 

This was a family that produced sons. Harman was one of six sons, he himself had four sons but having buried his first wife he then had the grief of outliving two of them. Edwin was a solicitor and died aged 32 and Sidney was a farmer and died aged 27, both were unmarried. Frank was a stockbroker and married Emma’s daughter Mary, Edgar married Rose May Berridge, fought in the Boer War and was a solicitor; he died in 1923. Of Harman’s daughters, Ada Louise married Emma’s son, Christopher Robson while Lucie Maud married Sydney Worssell Harrington, the son of a corn merchant who lived near the Tidy’s country house in Hertforshire. While Tidys and Robsons intermarrying might seem odd to our eyes we should remember that they were not blood-related and that if their respective father and mother had not married, the matches would have been considered excellent by Victorian standards: the families had known each other, lived close by both in London and in the country and the men were in the same business. 

Harman’s son Frank also had five sons, having married Mary Robson in August 1884, less than two months before their first child was born. They all lived at Bell House and all five sons were successful: Frank was a solicitor, Christopher a farmer and auctioneer in New Zealand, Warwick was an import merchant and won a Military Cross in WW1, Sydney was in insurance and lived in Calcutta and Canada and Lionel was a clerk at the Royal Courts of Justice. Frank himself only just outlived his father, dying the following year; his young sons were aged between six and fifteen

Harman died on 2 February 1898 at Bell House. His executors were his son Edgar and his brother and lifelong business partner Thomas. He left £21,000. His wife Emma lived long enough to see Harman’s grandson Warwick Tidy win his MC before dying in 1917. 

Ludwig Wilhelm Rudolf Wissmann (1855-1923)

Ludwig Wilhelm Rudolf Wissmann was born in 1855 in Hanover, Germany. He became a bank manager and then a stockbroker. In 1879 he married Milley Betsy Fairfield from Lambeth, They may have met through mutual German friends as when Milley was still living at home with her father who was a clerk and her schoolmistress mother, they had friends living with them from Weimar, Germany. The Wissmanns set up home in Lincoln Villa, Barry Road and also lived in Overhill Road in a house they named Sonnenbrink after a hill in Germany, before moving to Bell House in 1900. They had a son John and a daughter Kathleen. The Wissmanns took an active part in local affairs: he was treasurer of the South Diocesan Association for the Care of Friendless Girls and raised funds for a home for them in Camberwell. Mrs Wissmann, though described as being ‘of a severe disposition’, also played her part in the work of local charities. They had a country house near Exeter where Rudolf also took on treasurer duties for local charities.

On the 1911 census Rudolf declared Bell House contained twenty rooms (excluding bathrooms and small rooms like the scullery) and it still required a large staff to look after its residents. As we have seen elsewhere, many of the maids came from London and the home counties though a few of the Wissmann maids also came from Germany. As well as the usual nurse (mainstay of a large middle-class family), cook, parlourmaid and housemaids, the Wissmanns also employed a ‘between’ maid or tweeny. This maid would perform duties across the household, both scullery duties and upstairs cleaning like the other maids as well as waiting on the senior servants. It was one of the most thankless tasks in the hierarchy of domestic service as the tweeny often had to answer to more than one senior servant, eg the housekeeper and the cook, and this could make her (and it was always a her) life very difficult. Her status was low, roughly equivalent to a scullery maid. The Wissmanns also had a sewing maid, Marie Kloosz, who came from Switzerland They had two gardeners who lived with their families in the lodge. Their coach was drawn by two horses and they employed James Farmer, a rather accomplished coachman who, as he swung the coach between the narrow gate posts of Bell House, used to exclaim ‘It takes a real expert to do that!’. He also lived with his family in the Lodge.

In 1913 Rudolf, Milley and Kathleen moved to Great Duryard in Exeter, it later became a hall of residence for Exeter University. Rudolf died in 1923, leaving £70,000 to his widow Milley who herself died in 1938, leaving £15,000

Their son John was born on 23 October 1890. He was educated at Dulwich College Prep and joined Dulwich College with a junior scholarship. He left in 1909 and went straight to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich where he won prizes for his German and qualified as an interpreter. He was also an excellent horseman. He was a very keen soldier and spent his army leave in Belgium learning about the country and its communications as he was convinced of Germany’s intention to invade France through Belgium. On New Year’s Day 1914 he married Gladys Emily Jukes, the daughter of a missionary. Later that year, within three weeks of WW1 being declared, he was fighting in France. He was continually in action, taking part in the retreat from Mons, the first battle of the Marne and the first battle of the Aisne where he was killed in action on 15 September 1914. He was 23 years old and the first fatality from Dulwich. His only child, Joan, was born posthumously in February 1915. His widow founded the John Wissmann Memorial Prize at Dulwich College in his memory for boys who obtained the highest marks in the entrance exams for Woolwich and Sandhurst. In 1915 his father, Rudolf, added his name to a letter to the Times written by a group of naturalised Germans and Austrians, condemning Germany’s military aggression and expressing their loyalty to their adopted country.

John Rudolf Wissmann, died in WW1. CWGC

Their daughter Kathleen was born in 1893 and on 17 October 1933, aged 40, she married Revd Arthur Johnstone, the vicar of Heavitree (near the family’s country house in Exeter, ‘the family having been associated with the area for generations’). The wedding was a grand affair at Exeter Cathedral filled with both invited guests, including European royals, and members of the public. People stood anywhere they could to get a view: on the plinths of statues, on the ledges of walls, even on their chairs to get an uninterrupted view. On leaving the cathedral the bride faced ‘a battery of cameras’. The newspapers carried a detailed description of her dress, her pearls, her diamond sapphire brooch. Instead of a bouquet she carried a prayer book and her niece, Joan, was a bridesmaid. The happy couple honeymooned in the Balearic Islands.

Charlotte Barclay (1871-1923)

Born Charlotte Ernestine de la Poer Horsley Beresford, youngest child of the 3rd Baron Decies, an Anglo-Irish peer and a captain in the 10th Hussars and the Grenadier Guards. Charlotte married Cameron Barclay, a member of the Barclay and Gurney banking family and an officer in the 10th Hussars like her father. They had one daughter, Violet Florence, in 1895. In February 1899 Cameron sued for divorce, on the grounds of Charlotte’s adultery with Sir John Milbank and Guy Chetwyn. The case was postponed due to the second Boer War and resumed in 1902 when the male participants returned to England. The case against Sir John was withdrawn due to lack of evidence so Cameron then wanted to withdraw his petition but reserving the right to serve it again. Charlotte refused, wanting her day in court to prove her innocence publicly. The case against Chetwyn was also dismissed, with costs. It is unclear whether the Barclays did actually divorce later; they never lived together after the court case though Charlotte was always known as the Honourable Charlotte Barclay. She took a lease on Bell House in 1914 but assigned it to Nan Herbert, Baroness Lucas in 1916 and moved to Chelsea. She died in 1923 in France.

Nan Ino Herbert Cooper (1880-1958)

Born in 1880 in Blandford, Dorset, Nan Herbert was a ‘resourceful and fiercely independent’ woman. Nan was said to be an ‘ardent theosophist’, interested in mystical and occult religions. She once gave a house in the New Forest that she had inherited to the ‘Purple Lotus Mother’ of the ‘Universal Brotherhood’ for a theosophist school. She lived for a while in the early 1900s in Cuba where she was director of the Cuba Raja Yoga School, part of a chain of theosophist schools.

After training as a nurse in London in 1914 she took over the setting up and running of her family home, Wrest Park, which her brother had offered as a hospital for the duration of the war. It was one of the first and probably the best run of the country house hospitals. When there was no matron available, Nan took that on too. Wounded soldiers were met at the local railway station and taken straight to the ‘louse house’ then to the wards. Nan operated a strict policy of moving soldiers on to local convalescent homes as soon as possible, in order to make room for the ever-arriving patients. There were three wards, an operating theatre and x-ray room and while Nan ran the hospital with an energetic and disciplined approach there was also room for fun. Nurse Butler, an Irish woman with an eye for a joke, once dressed up as the Duchess of Montrose and fooled the patients when she regally toured the wards asking ‘And how are you my poor fellow and where were you wounded?’. Other activities designed to keep up morale included amateur dramatics, cricket and billiards.

In September 1916 a fire put an end to Wrest Park’s time as a hospital and Nan put it up for sale. This may have been when Nan moved to Bell House, as she took a lease around April 1916, at this time thehouse had a large conservatory on the south side, now gone. In November 1916 her fighter pilot brother, Bron, who had already lost a leg in the Boer War, went missing when his plane was shot down over Germany. Nan, who had been in Cuba when their father died, rushed to her nearest family, cousins in Taplow where they waited for news and Nan was said to be ‘beyond telling good and brave’ and anguished ‘every time a telegram comes or the telephone-bell rings’. It wasn’t until December that they heard he had been shot in the neck but had landed his plane before dying. He was buried in Germany. Nan then succeeded as 10th Baroness Lucas and the 6th Baroness Dingwall, as the titles descended to the female as well as the male line. After the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act female peers was eligible to sit in the House of Lords in their own right, though they had to take the government to court in order to exercise that right. They did not win their case until 1958 so Nan never got the chance to take her seat. She was extremely rich, inheriting a large part of her father’s fortune and also approximately £100,000 from her brother when he died.

In 1917 aged 37 she married Howard Lister Cooper and they lived in Bell House. Their two daughters, Anne Rosemary and Rachel were born there. Her husband, Howard, left from Bell House to fight in WW1. He was mentioned in dispatches and won the Air Force Cross. After the war, like other chatelaines of large houses, Lady Lucas found staffing an issue. In 1919 when advertising for a scullerymaid she took the step of mentioning the wages the person would be paid (few adverts did this at the time). The maid was to be paid between £24-26 p.a. and would report to the chef. Perhaps she hoped this honesty would attract more replies than the usual ‘good wages’.

After the war Nan had part of interior and the stables remodelled by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Coopers left Bell House in 1923 and moved to Sussex Square. Before the war Howard had been training as a motor engineer and was possibly racing cars at Brooklands. After the war he continued in the army and retired as a Lt Col. Nan went on to work as a Land Army girl and in the Women’s Voluntary Service in WW2.

Nan Herbert, English Heritage

Sydney Arthur Victor Fordham (1885-1960

Sydney Fordham was born in Islington in 1885 in a house which now stands within the shadow of the Arsenal Stadium. He came from a long line of bookbinders but began work as a Smithfield meat market clerk. In the part of Islington where he grew up there were many butchers and porters from Smithfield so it could be that he got his start via a friend or relative, as was the way at Smithfield in those days. In 1909 he married Ella Gertrude Parsons in Brighton. Ella was the daughter of George Parsons who kept the Black Horse Inn in Brighton and with her sister Gladys she was a confectioner’s assistant before she married. They set up house together in Elmwood Road before moving to Bell House in 1923 where they rented the Lodge to two families, the Wells in a top flat and the Riches in a lower flat. They had two children, Leslie Sydney Victor and Eileen Ella. Sydney had a butcher shop at 228 Rye Lane where his son later joined him. They left Bell House and moved to Beckenham. Ella died in 1945, Leslie in 1957 and Sydney died in Beckenham in 1960. 

Dulwich College (1926-1992)

In 1926 Bell House was taken over by Dulwich College. Since 1869 the Master had been living in rooms in the new College, designed by Charles Barry Jr but it was agreed that these rooms, unchanged since the College opened, were unfit for purpose. At the time the Master was George Smith and he and his family moved to Bell House. He found the four-acre garden ‘a little overpowering’. Their old quarters were turned in to classrooms. George Smith’s daughter Hilary was born in Bell House and grew up to marry Ronald Groves, Master of the College from 1954-1966.

The next Master was the scientist Walter Reynolds Booth (1891-1963) who moved in to Bell House in 1928 aged 37. He had been a prisoner -of-war in WW1 in a notorious PoW camp in Germany. He was described as ‘a man without fads’. While head of the school he introduced a number of rules such as no cinema in term-time, no upturned collars and no hands in pockets when speaking with a teacher; he later became irritated when the press reported on these rules. His staff at Bell House included a chauffeur/butler, cook, housekeeper, parlour maid, two housemaids, one full-time and one part-time gardener, and a page, though he did suggest economising by buying a goat and cow to keep the grass down. One of the junior servants had the task each morning of stoking the boiler and going down into the cellar to pump water from the well. Booth moved in to Bell House as a bachelor and married soon after. His mother would often come to stay and in good weather she used to sit in the garden. When the sun moved round, casting her into shade, she would ring the little bell beside her chair whereupon a servant would come out and move the chair back into the sun for her.

Booth loved horses and would ride up College Road to watch school games on his horse, cantering around the perimeters of the pitches. He was an extravagant host and would hold pool parties at Bell House where it is said that guests were served from a silver salver carried by a page-boy. He also stood outside the house to take the salute when the cadets marched to the chapel.

In the 1930s Austin Vernon, the Estate architect, made some alterations to Bell House for the College. The school was evacuated during WW2 though the Master lived here until Bell House was so badly damaged by bombs dropped during air raids that he had to move in to the South Block of the College. Bell House was then used as a furniture store. After the war it was proposed the Picture Gallery use it as a temporary display space and store while the Gallery was being rebuilt. The furniture was moved to the small undamaged part of the Gallery in readiness but the plan came to nothing.

In 1941 Christopher Gilkes (1898-1953), whose father had also been Master of the College, was appointed Master and suggested a smaller house might be more appropriate, given the war-time economies which needed to be made by the College. He lived in The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common (where the Gowans had also lived) until Elm Lawn, given to the College by a generous and anonymous old boy of the school, became available. The Master then moved to Elm Lawn and in 1947 Bell House became a boarding house.

Bell House’s first housemaster in 1947 was science teacher E W Tapper, known as Bill to his colleagues but (for reasons unknown) Ernie to the boys. On Coronation Day 1952 the whole house wanted to watch the ceremony on television but there was not enough room to accommodate them. Mr Tapper had the idea of giving a job to those boys waiting to watch and had them digging a hole for an ornamental pond on the south side of the house. They might have been better off digging out the hole in the garden where a WW2 bomb had fallen: no matter how often the gardeners filled the hole and levelled the lawn, the ground would always sink slightly in this area. Bill was a keen gardener himself and kept the kitchen garden immaculate. In the summer his house tutor, Terry Walsh, often came back to his room after being on duty on Sundays to find Tony had left a dish of strawberries or raspberries fresh from the garden and a small jug of cream. He was unable to help though, the day Terry was marking books in his bedroom and a swarm of bees covered the window. A call to the head of biology proved an inspired idea as he turned out to be something of a bee aficionado and came equipped with protective overalls and a ladder. He moved the bees off the window, found the queen, popped her into a sack and when the rest of the swarm had followed her in he took them to a friend in Kent who had an empty hive.

One of the boarders had lost an eye as a baby and had a glass replacement which led inevitably to him being given the nickname Popeye. When the boy joined Bell House Terry Walsh was instructed in how to put the eye in and take it out again. On the boy’s first morning there came a knock at the house tutor’s door and Terry assumed he needed help with his eye. No sir, the boy said, I can’t tie my tie. As he grew the glass eye didn’t and so became loose. The boy used this to his advantage and used to play pranks by dropping the eye and letting it roll it across desks at inopportune moments. 

Bill Tapper went on to work tirelessly for the Science Masters Association and was awarded the OBE. In 1957 he was succeeded by David Verdon Knight who had been a pupil at the College and school captain. In 1942, after Cambridge, he returned to teach at Dulwich, his plan to join the army having been scuppered when it was discovered he was diabetic, a condition not so easily treatable in those days. He was asked to join the school ‘for a term or so’ and stayed for thirty-eight years. He had ‘always longed to have’ the post of housemaster and was delighted to take over ‘one of the most gracious buildings in Dulwich’. He said that the twelve years he spent as housemaster of Bell House were some of the most enjoyable years of his life and his wife, Patricia, also remembers her time as ‘housemistress’ of Bell House as a time of ‘happiness and fulfilment’. 

David and Patricia Knight would hold celebrated New Year’s Eve parties in the ‘garden dorm’ (what was the drawing room in other times) for around seventy people. Members of staff were offered accommodation for the night in the upstairs dorms. Once Patricia and the housemaster, Geoff Waterworth, climbed up onto the roof to ring ‘a few mellow notes’ on the bell which gave the house its name. Knight once had a visitor who told of her childhood at Bell House in the 1870s. This must have been either Alice or Annie Gowan and she told of climbing over the roof of the coach house (which was a groundsman’s cottage in Knight’s time) and also of peeping over the banisters to watch footmen usher in the guests at her parents’ parties. She particularly remembered a small copper beech tree which she pointed out to Knight was now over seventy feet high. This same tree was often climbed by the boarders of Bell House too, and on occasions by Patricia when she wanted to avoid particular people.

During the Asian flu epidemic in 1957 one of the dormitories in Bell House had to be turned into a sick bay, as the school sanatorium was full. The doctor would solemnly progress through the dorm, followed by Matron and Patricia Knight. Following in their wake came Domino, the Knight’s blue-roan spaniel, ‘gathering up as many slippers in his mouth as he could’.  Domino was expelled when he nearly tripped the doctor up. Boarders ate all meals, even breakfast, up at school rather than at Bell House although food for the invalids was brought down from the school but usually given to Domino as it consisted of ‘gristly slices of cold meat and even colder potatoes’. Patricia would supplement rations for the sick boys from her own purse. On Bonfire Night the houses of Frank Dixon Close (which runs along the back boundary of Bell House) used to host a fireworks display. The sick boys were allowed to watch from the windows and everyone else leant over the garden fence as an enormous cardboard box filled with fireworks was ceremoniously carried to the grass circle in the middle of the close. The first firework was lit to the usual oohs and aahs and as it died away one of its sparks fell into the cardboard box and set off all the fireworks at once causing ‘a magnificent Vesuvius-like explosion’. Knight describes it magnificently:

…fiery streaks, whistles, flashed and bangs. Rockets shrieked waist-high above the ground, richocheting off walls and trees; squibs bounded about the place; golden rain showered imperiously upwards while Catherine Wheels swivelled frantically on the ground; Jacks in the Box shot starts into the dark and parachutes hung in the branches above. Children screamed whilst parents picked up their offspring and ran. From the Bell House garden it was a tremendous spectacle, though brief. That no one was hurt was a miracle.

The only casualty that needed medical attention was a Bell house boarder who had been absent-mindedly chewing one of his coat’s large buttons when the violence of the explosion caused him to swallow it. He was slapped on the back, turned upside down then taken to hospital from where he returned with instructions to wait for the button to pass through of its own accord. The button appeared within a few days, to the relief of Matron and of Knight who had not relished telephoning the boy’s parents in Venezuela. In the meantime one of the Frank Dixon Close residents had dashed down to Mr Green’s toy shop in the Village, bought up all the fireworks and taken them back for a show which most of the spectators watched from the safety of their houses. Bell House also hosted Bonfire Night parties when the scouts came to join the boys in building a bonfire and cooking sausages.

Bell House housed around thirty boys and the Knights had warm relationships with them. Patricia would personally give each boy whose birthday fell in term -time a small gift. One boy, who went on to fight in the Falklands Conflict, took time to send him a photograph of Ernest Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia, knowing that Shackleton (also a Dulwich boy) and his epic journey were passions of Knight’s. Not all the boys were so fondly remembered, one boy leaned out of his dormitory window and sprayed weed-killer over Matron’s window-box below. From then on she blamed him for any and every misdemeanour she came across. Another boy, who had a glass eye from a childhood accident, used to wait for Matron to make her dormitory round late at night. He would then take the glass eye out and, shining a torch through it, would slowly move it round above his bed. This horrified her but the boy did not get into too much trouble as Matron had a soft spot for him. She was less forgiving the time he hid a mouse in her handbag. The same boy also discovered a chimney-like shaft accessible from an outside wall of the house. He climbed into it, finding that it went up to the first floor then crossed the space between the ground floor ceiling and the floor of the rooms above. He got stuck and needed some smaller boys sent after him to pull him out. He emerged protesting that he was just about to explore further, despite the rat he encountered, but Knight forbade him from trying again. His father, a thriller writer who also wrote screenplays for some of the James Bond films, agreed with Knight that he was ‘an absolute rascal’. Described as a ‘Just William’ character, this boy returned as an adult to visit Bell House in the late 1960s, immaculately dressed in a suit, bowler hat and tightly-furled umbrella.

The Knight children often had to take second place to the boarders, ‘unfortunate but difficult to avoid’ as the pupils’ parents were usually abroad. That they succeeded in creating a home-from-home for the pupils is illustrated by the eleven-year-old who, in the Sanatorium for a minor illness, decided he preferred to be at home in Bell House so left at 12.45 am, in just his pyjamas with nothing on his feet. The Knight’s children grew up at Bell House, went to Dulwich schools and both had their twenty-first birthday parties at the house. Their son, Roger, also taught at the College and was captain of Surrey cricket and president of the MCC.

There were lots of extra-curricular activities at Bell House. Knight liked the boys to be fit for the annual rugby matches against the other houses so would take them on pre-breakfast runs in Dulwich Park. After the first one or two he realised the boys were much fitter than him so took his bicycle after that. He encouraged them to put on sketches and shows and helped with rehearsal. He arranged for masters such as Alan Morgan, the head of music, to perform for the boys; the musicians on the landing above, with the guests on chairs and the boys on the floor in the hall below. Christmas carols were always sung around the Christmas tree with one of the boys precariously carrying a candle lantern on the end of a pole. Knight also made his own films for the boys’ amusement, recording ordinary life at Bell House such as boys doing their homework or walking down to the chapel on Sundays, interspersed with tricks such as a dorm’s beds being made in a flash, or tiger skin rugs coming to life. He would delight in watching the boys as they watched the film. Outings were arranged, by train to Brighton or by boat to Hampton Court. In the cellar his son Roger had set up a train set and it was used to film elaborate crashes using Knight’s cine camera. Patricia also used the train set to distract homesick boys.

At the end of his time at Bell House Knight was presented with a silver salver inscribed with the name Bell. The Knights moved into Hollybrow, at the top of Sydenham Hill and described by Knight as a ‘mini-Bell’.

Terry Walsh joined Bell House as house tutor in the summer of 1955. The tutor’s room overlooked the carriage drive at the front of the house and he shared use of a ground floor bathroom with Matron. The ‘private side’, the part of the house reserved for the housemaster and his family, was generally out of bounds, unless invited in by the family, and there was a door with a door bell separating the private side from the rest of the house on the first floor. The house tutor, Matron and the boys would use the back stairs and the side door on a day-to-day basis: the front door and main stairs were reserved for the family and parents. David Knight did not like the boys waking to the bell; he preferred to go round each dorm and wake them up himself. The boys washed and dressed then assembled ready for the walk up to school for breakfast; boys were always escorted to and from school at this time. The corridor between the back stairs and the back door was filled with indoor/outdoor shoes, coats, caps, bags. Slippers were also stored here, to be changed into whenever the boys came back to the house. Terry remembers the London smogs when cold weather combined with pollution from coal fires to form a thick mixture of smoke and fog which turned day into night and was thick enough to cause him to lose his way between school buildings. At that time the masters wore stiff white collars which got so filthy that they were given permission to use paper disposable collars instead. These were replaced at lunchtime when they were already black with soot.

There were no weekly boarders at this time and there was school on Saturday morning followed by compulsory games in the afternoon. Boys not playing in a match for the school or their house were expected to support the first team and there was a register taken before and after games to ensure nobody sloped off early. On Sundays the boys had breakfast an hour later following which they all went back to Bell House to get ready for chapel. They would line up in the corridor leading to the back door and file past the house tutor who would check each boy had a prayer book, a clean hankie and a penny for the collection. Some boys had to be reminded that sterling was the only acceptable currency for the chapel collection, lest they were tempted to keep the penny and offload a coin from another country. In the evening there were prayers and the boys took turns to read a lesson which they would choose themselves, though it had to be approved by a master.

In 1969 S J McInley became housemaster and moved in with his wife, son and daughter…….

House tutors were usually young and in return for their free accommodation were given something of a crash course in dealing with energetic young schoolboys and the boys sometimes tested the rules to the limit. A chair just outside the housemaster’s study awaited miscreants and punishments (known as fatigues) such as weeding the drive were handed out for minor misdemeanours. More serious offences were dealt with by corporal punishment and/or a transfer into the ‘naughty’ dorm where the tutor could keep a closer eye. 

Dorms held anything from four to twelve beds. Each boy had a small amount of space to call his own: a chair to hang his clothes, a tuck box and the space under his bed for storage; sports kit and shoes were stored downstairs in the long corridor leading to the side door, trunks in the cellar. Tuesday was laundry day and Friday was pocket money day: boys would line up outside the housemaster’s study to collect their weekly pocket money. It was a less monitored time and boys had a large amount of freedom to move around London or even to travel home alone at the end of term. The freedom even extended to boys arranging their own tickets home from the travel agent in Dulwich Village.

Fagging came to an end during McInley’s tenure……

Boarders would play British bulldog in the large garden, a fairly brutal game with flexible rules involving large numbers of boys and a lot of running around. More civilised games of table tennis and billiards were played in the cellar. 

The TV room had wooden chairs lined up in rows, nothing as comfortable as a sofa, though oddly, down in the cellar was a small room furnished with sofas for the older boys to use.

A J D (Tony) Salter was housemaster in ………….. 

The last housemaster of Bell House was Ian Senior (1987-1992) who lived here with his wife, Astrid, two sons, matron, house tutor and around thirty 7-13 year olds. There was a fair amount of marshalling of boys, as the South Circular stood between the boarding house and the school. Each morning the boys would be woken by the prefect with a handbell. When they were ready two members of staff would take the boys up to school for their breakfast. The boys had to take with them everything they needed for their school day as they were not allowed back in to the boarding house before the end of the school day. At the end of the day they were allowed to come back on their own but at 6pm they were all gathered together again to walk up to school for their supper before being shepherded back to Bell House again. They then did their homework and got their bags ready for the next day. Some boys were more responsible than others and so could be given a little bit more leeway. One boy, who learnt to fly before he could drive, would hire a plane at Biggin Hill and fly himself home to Luxembourg at the end of term.

Weekly boarders would go home for the weekend but termly boarders needed to be entertained and Ian remembers plenty of culturally enriching trips to galleries and museums which, together with sports practice, matches and Saturday morning school lessons, kept most boys out of trouble. The boys had a common room on the ground floor with a large table in the middle and next door there was a television room where the boys could watch Sesame Street after school. In the cellar there was a model railway and a table tennis table while there was a full size snooker table in the hall. One dormitory (for the youngest boys) was on the ground floor and known as the garden dorm, with another three dorms on the first floor named the captain’s dorm, after the house captain,….(check names). The tutor’s dorm, next to the tutor’s bedroom was also known as the naughty dorm.

At Christmas the great and the good of Dulwich were invited to join the boarders for their last meal of the term. These meals were a particularly stressful time for Ian and his staff. They were exhausted from the term just finished, the boys were exuberant at the thought of the holidays to come and the masters had a hard time keeping the boys well-behaved in front of the Dulwich dignitaries. The next day, after chapel, the boys drifted off as their parents or guardians collected them until eventually, towards the end of the afternoon, Ian would notice a hush had descended on Bell House. He would make a tour of the rooms to find the house was now empty save for him and his family. For the next few weeks, with the large house and huge gardens to himself, he felt like ‘a country squire’. He recognised what a ‘great environment’ it was for his own family to grow up in: always playmates to be found, other adults around if needed and the spacious private family quarters if privacy was required. The family had their own living rooms and kitchen on the first floor and the whole of the second floor was for their private use, though Astrid was surprised one day when she came out of her bedroom to find a boy’s mother waiting to give her an Easter egg. Ian and Astrid’s sons, Tom and Edward loved living in the house. When they were very small Ian would spread his academic gown on the floor in a corner of his ground-floor study and Tom would curl up on it and go to sleep while Ian worked. The boys were adopted from Thailand and in the school holidays Bell House provided a wonderful venue for the reunions Ian and Astrid would hold with other families who had also adopted children from Thailand. 

Matron had the job of keeping the boys looking reasonably neat and tidy. Matron organised bath rotas…….. There was a line drawn in the bath to ensure boys did not waste water. She would organise their uniforms and every few weeks she would arrange for a barber to come in who would set up a chair in the Captain’s dorm and give every boy the same haircut: a short back and sides. She also gave flu jabs and dealt with minor ailments while the nurse and doctor at the Sanatorium would deal with more serious illnesses. Matron had a bedsit on the ground floor with a kitchen next door where she would prepare snacks for the boys and treats such as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

In 1992 the Dulwich Estate sold the house to Andrew Cullen who lived here until 2016 when it was bought by the Hanton Educational Trust.




Sir Thomas Wright, Lord Mayor of London 1785 Source: London Metropolitan Archives

John Strype map of London 1720 

  The Enraged Musician, Hogarth, 1741, credit British Museum

The Enraged Musician, Hogarth, 1741, credit British Museum

A drawing of Bell House by Lucinda Rogers, commissioned in 2016