Bell House was built in 1767 for Thomas Wright, at a time when Dulwich was starting to be built up. London was already the largest city in Europe and its buoyant economy was providing opportunities for many. Other Georgian houses were also being built in Dulwich Village, with The Laurels and The Hollies going up at the same time and many of these Georgian houses survive but Bell House is one of the very finest.
Thomas Wright was born on 26 April 1722 and christened at St Andrew, Holborn, a fine Wren church near his family’s home in Red-Lion Square. John Wesley preached at this church in 1737-8, when Thomas was in his teens. He was the son of Edward Wright, a pastrycook and scavenger (employed by the parish to collect the rubbish and keep the streets clean). Keeping the streets clean was a constant problem in 18th century London and in 1718, two years before Thomas was born, Edward was indicted with other scavengers because they: ‘take no Care to clean ye Streets in the said parish of St Andrew Holborn wch: now lyes in such Condicon that Passengers cannot cross any part of Holborn without being almost to ye Knees in Dirt’.
Thomas’s father was from Aldington in Kent but moved to London and married Elizabeth Turvin at St Olave’s, Southwark in 1712. Edward and Elizabeth had a large family, at least eight children of whom five survived to adulthood and they lived in Red Lion Square, a smart, newly-built suburb between Holborn and Bloomsbury. Edward died in 1726 when Thomas was just four years old.
Thomas Wright 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, and apprentices 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 often served the families of friends but we do not know if that was the case here. In 1738, on Thomas’s sixteenth birthday, his boss, Richard Walkden, citizen and stationer, made him an apprentice. We know Thomas must have been literate as, unlike printer apprentices, stationer apprentices had to be able to read. Thomas’s father is described as deceased on the indenture and a bond of £40 was paid; Walkden charged up to £100 for an apprenticeship as it was the route to a lucrative career. Walkden himself had lost his father at an early age and had been apprenticed to his mother, from whom he took over the family business. The stationers, with the booksellers, were the wealthiest members of the book trade due to the huge increase in printing at this time and the foundations of the modern book trade were laid with many firms such as Blackwells and Boosey & Hawkes still surviving today.
Thomas’s apprenticeship lasted for seven years, coinciding with war with Spain and Austria but England was at peace in 1745 when he finished his apprenticeship, became a freeman of the City of London and was ‘clothed’ as a liveryman of the Stationers’ Company, meaning he had the right to wear the company’s livery and to stand for office. A year later, Thomas married Ann Gill on 15 November 1746, at the same church as his parents, St Olave’s, Southwark.
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. 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 it was her brother James Brooke, Stationer and Sheriff of the City of London, to whom Ann’s brother was apprenticed. Thomas 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.
Thomas Wright’s father is described as both a pastry cook and a scavenger (road cleaner) but he also left Thomas £230 in his will so must have been quite wealthy. Thomas is described as both a ‘warehouse worker’ and he also seems to come from a long lineage published in a book about the gentry in 1818. To modern eyes these two might seem mutually exclusive but it would have been more understandable to people in the eighteenth century. The Wrights might have been members of the landed gentry but the arms were only designated after Thomas’s death when his son-in-law, John Willes, asked for them. If these were his ancestors he would have been descended from ‘second sons’ and from a distant branch of the family, so not inheriting any tangible resources because primogeniture passed all the wealth and land to the eldest son in the main family line. His father Edward was a pastry cook but at the time this was a specialisation that was much in demand so he could have made a lot of money from this trade. A guide to London in 1802 talks of ‘a pastry cook having been known to leave £100,000 to his heirs’ and while this is not Edward Wright it shows that it was not unknown for people to make large sums from what we would consider relatively mundane jobs. So Edward could have made a very good living, certainly enough for him to ‘sub-contract’ out his parish scavenging duty to others, though the responsibility and thus the censure for not discharging it properly would still have rested with him. Similarly, Thomas could have started work in a warehouse with an understanding that he would take an apprenticeship from the master of the firm and thus get his feet on the first rung of the book trade ladder. Thomas does not appear in the registers of any London schools of the time, unlike his brother-in-law who was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School. This does not mean he was uneducated of course, but he may not have been in that ‘middling sort’ strata which sent their sons to London schools like Merchant Taylors or Christs’ Hospital.
London was in a state of flux at this time with the genesis of a consumer society. For the first time people of the middling sort had extra wealth to spend and began buying in order to display their ‘taste’, wealth and gentility. This consumption would have included things like the china needed for the new fashion of tea drinking, clothes for different occasions and would also have included books to display learning and discernment. So printing and bookselling were very much up-and-coming businesses at the time, making the Stationers’ Company a good livery for an ambitious young man to join.
By 1748 Thomas Wright was a master stationer and in business with his brother-in-law, William Gill on the east side of the north end of London Bridge in the old Chapel of St Thomas Becket which had been converted to secular use during the Reformation. It was close to the centre of the old 12th century 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. They had a crane added to hoist supplies direct from the river and used the cellar as a paper store which surprisingly was reported to be ‘as safe and dry…as a garret’.
At this time there would still have been severed heads displayed on the south side of London Bridge. Between 1756 and 1760 the buildings on London Bridge were demolished or remodelled by George Dance and Sir Robert Taylor, both colleagues of Wright on the Court of Common Council. At one time Taylor was thought of as the architect of Bell House. So Wright & Gill had to relocate their business. The upper storey of the chapel was removed but the cellar remained as it was built into the structure of the bridge.
Wright & Gill moved to a ‘brick-built’ property at 30 Abchurch Lane on the north side of London Bridge. Brick-built was an important consideration after the great Fire of London and indeed fires were reported twice in Abchurch Lane, and in one, four houses were completely destroyed with Wright & Gill’s buildings ‘greatly damaged’ and only saved ‘with great difficulty’. Four men died and another four were taken to St Thomas’ Hospital. 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. They also had another warehouse at Walnut Tree Alley in Tooley Street which was insured for £300 and a further property in Paternoster Row insured for £9,000. These amounts must have increased quickly as in January 1770 Thomas Wright lost ‘over a thousand pounds worth of bibles and prayer books’ in a fire which totally consumed their ‘Oxford Warehouse’ in Paternoster Row.
He was closely involved in his livery company, the Stationers, and in 1777 he became its Master. The Stationers’ Company was unusual in that it acted both as a livery company and as a commercial entity in its own right: the ‘English Stock’ which held the monopoly to print almanacs, psalters, catechisms and ABC books. This was extremely lucrative: the ‘Stock’ sold around 400,000 almanacs each year alone and these shares paid a dividend of 12.5% p.a., an exceptional return and more than twice the interest paid on government stock at the time. Thomas was able to leave his share of the English Stock to his wife in his will.
Wright and Gill’s success in business stemmed from selling paper. Among the organisations they supplied with paper were Oxford University in the shape of the Clarendon Printing House even after they stopped printing religious works, and also the Board of Longitude, the government body set up to discover a way of measuring longitude at sea. The Gill family had an interest in paper mills in Kent which would have contributed to their profit margin since they could access paper more cheaply than their competitors. William Gill had taken an apprenticeship in papermaking at Horton Mill in Wraysbury and later owned Sandling paper mill near Maidstone.
But his success also came from printing almanacs, a highly profitable business. More financially rewarding still was the printing of bibles and prayer books, largely a cartel comprising the universities of Oxford and Cambridge who sold monopoly leases carrying the right to print books both for England and the lucrative American market. On Lady Day (25 March) 1765 Wright & Gill bought the right to print religious works for the University of Oxford, following a series of disputes between the university and the previous printers, the Baskett family. Oxford claimed Baskett produced books riddled with mistakes: one misprinted book was called the ‘vinegar bible’, because the parable of the vineyard was misprinted as the parable of the vinegar. Baskett employed ‘idle and drunken staff’ and things got so bad many Oxford colleges had to purchase their religious books from ‘Cambridge’ (their italics). Thomas Wright took charge of the negotiations and paid £850 p.a. and in addition agreed to indemnify the university against any law suits brought by the notoriously litigious Baskett. This amount was Oxford’s largest source of regular income at the time.
Wright & Gill were not printers so when they took control of the Bible press they subcontracted the work to Oxford printer William Jackson. The books were printed on the ground floor of the Clarendon Building while Wright and Gill established ‘large and elegant’ apartments on the first floor above. Their 1769 bible, the King James Authorised Version edited by Benjamin Blaney, has become the standard Oxford text and is still printed today. Since Oxford held the ‘Bible Privilege’, that is the right to print the King James Authorised Version, Wright & Gill’s arrangement proved highly lucrative, especially as the Stationers Company, in order to protect their own monopoly of printing almanacs, agreed to pay them £550 p.a. to ‘forbear’ to print almanacs (Oxford kept the right to print Oxford almanacs). Wright & Gill produced nearly a hundred different imprints and many of their religious books survive which is unusual as they were very much ‘working copies’, used daily by families or religious institutions and read to destruction.
The bibles printed by Wright & Gill for Oxford University after 1769 are one of the forerunners of modern typographical style in their simple format and sparing use of capital letters within the text. At the time many words were capitalised, including nouns but these books ignored this custom and also had simplified spelling, so look much more modern to our eyes. The university also paid extra to have certain books within the bible starting on the right-hand pages and this resulted in extra white space, again unusual at the time but attractive to the eye.
Their 1768 common prayerbook was referred to at the time as ‘beautiful and correct’. Wright and Gill also supplied paper to the university, a good quality ‘thin Royal’.
Trade with America
In the 1778 lease renewal negotiations Wright & Gill offered only £210 p.a., telling the University that the value of the contract was hugely diminished for two reasons. First since the Stationers’ Company had lost the monopoly to print almanacs they were disinclined to make forbearance payments to the firm not to hold back from printing other books, thus jeopardising the monopoly promised to the lease-holders. 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, including the paper to print five hundred copies of Julius Caesar.
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 and the firm also sold into Quebec, Canada with a shipment leaving Deal in Kent on 28 March 1777. One such invoice to Henry Knox, the American revolutionary and first US Secretary of War, was for £656, over £42,000 today. Exporting to America had many potential difficulties. Ships could be delayed or even lost; salt water and paper do not mix well and damp conditions on board ship often resulted in damaged or destroyed books. However, the rewards were potentially lucrative as prices were high and the colonies were to some extent a captive market as they were forbidden to print their own religious books at this time and had to import them from Britain. Wright & Gill supported the king in the war however and in 1778 gave £100 to a fund ‘to support the constitutional authority of Great Britain over her rebellious colonies in America’. 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 Thomas. Rutherford wanted to be paid £21 but Thomas 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.
The Wrights move to Dulwich
After their marriage, Thomas and Ann set up home near the south side of London Bridge, close to Thomas’s business. They had a son called James Brooke, who died in infancy and a daughter, Ann, baptised 7 March 1751 at St Saviours, Southwark, now part of Southwark Cathedral. They decided 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 in roads and the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges enabled Thomas to commute to his business much more easily and Dulwich provided an attractive alternative with its country air and spa at Dulwich Wells. The Wrights had their own coach but there was also a regular stage coach to Dulwich starting from the Pewter Platter pub in Gracechurch St, a stone’s throw from Thomas’s office in Abchurch Lane which would have set him down outside the pubs in Dulwich Village. As the middling sort became more prosperous wives were not needed in the workplace and so began to stay at home as what would be known in Victorian times as ‘the angel in the house’.
In 1766 Thomas Wright purchased John Ramsbottom's lease of what is now Bell House, 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 he knocked down the existing house and built his own. 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’. The bell, which is 17 inches in diameter (43cm) and was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (also responsible for Big Ben and the Liberty Bell), is inscribed with the date 1775 so must have been installed a little after the house was built. In 1783 Thomas 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 out...by 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’ belong to the Dulwich Estate but unusually Bell House owns its own) and planting trees. On the site of the ‘two ancient cottages’ which he had been permitted to demolish, he built two new ones, now incorporated into Pickwick Cottage.
A community-minded man
The Wrights played a role in the local Dulwich community. Other members of the family lived in Dulwich, for example their nephew Francis Gill and his wife Jane later lived at Pond House. They were all very close and Thomas certainly kept an eye on his many relatives and remembered them in his will. The Wrights were sociable and entertained often. Richard Randall was the organist at Christ’s Chapel and a popular guest in Dulwich society, being seen at assemblies, plays and dances and he often mentions the Wrights in his diaries. Randall gave Mrs Wright music lessons and for more than twenty years he was invited to Bell House for meals from breakfast through to supper and he also went with the Wrights to the theatre and other entertainments. In 1772 Wright co-founded (with John Willes amongst others) the Dulwich Quarterly Meeting of residents, which turned into a regular dining club at the Greyhound pub and in 1791 he provided the Minute Book, in which the two stewards at each feast and the members attending were recorded.
In the eighteenth century there was little organised support of the poor outside the Elizabethan poor laws but there was a definite Enlightenment trend to provide for those less well-off, though perhaps with the aim of reforming and also warding off unrest or revolution. Nevertheless, much-needed new resources were available as individuals pledged to newly-formed charities. It was very much up to individuals how much they gave and how often and the Wrights were generous; they gave on a regular and sustained basis while also making one-off donations and in addition Thomas Wright gave various institutions the benefit of his business expertise.
In Dulwich their charity was on an ad hoc basis. In 1799 Ann Wright gave £10 for the relief of relatives of soldiers wounded during ‘our war with Holland’. 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. Thomas Morris described how, when a fire broke out at the bakers on Bonfire Night in around 1847, the ‘Fire Bell’ on top of Bell House was rung with all its might.
Thomas was also involved in charitable endeavours across London as well as giving his time as a justice of the peace. For over twenty years, he and his business partner and brother-in-law William Gill, were active in many London hospital charities which provided for the poor of London. He was a governor of St Thomas’s Hospital and vice-president of the Middlesex Dispensary and the City Dispensary, clinics set up to bring health care to the working poor but the hospital he was most involved in was the City of London Lying-in Hospital, one of the first maternity hospitals in London. Thomas first became involved with ‘this humane and useful institution’, which provided maternity services for the wives of poor tradesmen, in the 1770s and with William Gill he would attend the Sunday baptisms of babies born in the hospital, make donations and attend governor meetings where they would hire staff, sign off on bills and deal with the numbers of women applying for admittance which were always more than they had room for. Charity in the eighteenth century was often moralistic and the hospital was strictly for married women only, single women would not be admitted until 1912. Each governor had the right to nominate patients but all the patients had to prove they were married, were deserving of charity and agreed to their new-born being baptised in the hospital chapel.
The weekly governor meetings were held at local coffee houses until a purpose-built hospital was erected near Old Street roundabout and each week about a dozen new mothers would be brought before the board (or Court as it was known) to ‘return thanks’ for the benevolence they had been shown. Other mothers attended to be admonished for their bad conduct while staying at the hospital. There is no record of what this bad conduct entailed but the rules for patients were very strict and they were inpatients for a long time, at least six weeks according to the regulations, though this must often have been shortened as most families would not have been able to do without a mother for so long. Women were expected to produce needlework for the hospital, though not until three weeks after delivering their child. From four days after delivery they also needed matron’s permission to lie down on their beds. Labouring was done in the same ward with expectant and newly-delivered mothers: when a separate room for labour was suggested it was vetoed in case the patients suspected experiments might be performed on them.
Mortality at all hospitals was high due to the lack of hygiene. ‘Childbed fever’ as post-partum infections were known, was usually caused by the doctors themselves and during the time Thomas was involved the hospital had to be closed temporarily due to rampant infection which must have been a difficult time as there was such a need for the services the hospital offered. It would not be until the 1850s that simple precautions like handwashing would bring down the numbers of post-natal deaths. Vermin such as bedbugs were a constant issue, as was alcohol abuse, and as president Thomas had to ban the drinking of porter in the hospital due to its ‘evil effects’. Other issues he had to rule on included the lack of lighting at night and his solution of one candle per ward per night is surprising to us as it must still have been very dark. He also stopped the long-term practice of patients having to buy the nurses tea and sugar, he raised the nurses’ wages to include an allowance so that they could buy their own. Thomas was a generous benefactor, his usual donation of £20 can be seen in the benefactor lists again and again, when most people were donating around £5. Both he and William Gill were later presented with ‘staffs’, a sign of devoted service to the hospital.
At the same time Thomas was president of the hospital one of its senior physicians was Dr Lettsom of Camberwell. It is tempting to suppose they were friends, given their involvement here and that they were both active in public dispensaries. In addition they both lived in south-east London at a time when there were far fewer houses in this area. Dr Lettsom was involved with the hospital for many years, was a noted philanthropist and was also a supporter of the abolition of the slave trade.
The London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb
Thomas Wright was a benefactor of this, the first free school for deaf children in Britain. Until it opened in 1792, poor British deaf children had no formal education as the only school for the deaf in the whole of Europe was in Paris. Edinburgh and London had private establishments but they were only for those who could afford to pay. The Asylum for Deaf and Dumb Poor Children was founded by two friends: Rev. John Townsend, a minister at the Jamaica Row Congregation Church in Bermondsey, and Rev. Henry Cox Mason, a rector in Bermondsey. Together with Henry Thornton, a philanthropist, and a Mrs Creasy, one of Townsend’s parishioners whose deaf son, John, had benefitted from the private deaf academy in London, the money was raised to set up an asylum near Tower Bridge. Within six months the team had found premises, hired a headmaster and registered their first six pupils. The school was popular with parents of deaf children and also with benefactors and grew quickly. Children learnt to read, write and do arithmetic and unsurprisingly for a school founded by two clergymen, there were morning and evening prayers and two church services on Sunday. Classes ran seven days a week with scripture studied on Sundays and holidays were restricted to a fortnight at Christmas, later extended to a fortnight in the summer too. A letter in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1795 tells of how the children were taught to be useful to themselves, a comfort to their friends and learn ‘what might be valuable to them both here and in the hereafter’.
Thomas gave his money, his time and his business expertise to many charitable organisations of which the following are examples. The Marine Society was formed in 1756 to take in poor boys and prepare them for a life at sea, thus solving the problem of a need for a constant supply of sailors with the issue of young men roaming the streets of London. The Candlewick Ward School (now part of Sir John Cass School) and the Magdalen Hospital for the Reception and Training of Penitent Prostitutes. In 1780 he joined the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) which at that time was mostly engaged in starting charity schools. He was a member of the Patrons of the Anniversary of the Charity Schools from 1778 – 1798. This was an umbrella organisation for benefactors of charity schools. They met at the Queen’s Arms Tavern in Newgate St. They organised an anniversary service at St Paul’s where they collected donations for the schools of which they were treasurers or trustees. He also supported the Philanthropic Society which aimed to ‘rescue from destruction the offspring of the vicious and dishonest’. In the 18th century responsibility for deserted and vagrant children lay with the parish where they were found, provided no other place of settlement could be discovered but this obligation appears to have been widely ignored. The Philanthropic Society was founded in 1788 to protect and reform the offspring of convicted felons or children who had themselves been engaged in criminal practices. The boys were taught printing, book-binding, shoe making, tailoring, rope making and twine spinning. It is tempting to think that Thomas Wright was involved in the printing or book-binding lessons. The girls were trained to be ‘menial servants’; they made their own clothing and shirts for the boys, and washed and mended. When Thomas was involved many of these organisations were based in an area called St George’s Fields in Southwark, a kind of charitable campus which also contained Bethlem, the Magdalen Hospital, a school for the blind and almshouses and an asylum for orphan girls, all of which he supported both with money and time. The Humane Society was also based here and Thomas often gave them donations and was made a governor for life. Originally called the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, it was founded by two doctors in a City coffee house because they were concerned about the number of people being taken for dead and even buried alive. Their aim was to train people in resuscitation techniques to rescue the many people who drowned in the Thames at a time when few people were taught to swim. The Society paid 4 guineas to the rescuer and 1 guinea to anyone who allowed the resuscitation to take place on their property, leading to a widespread fraud whereby two people would share the proceeds when one of them pretended to have drowned while the other pretended to have rescued him.
The Asylum for Orphan Girls
From 1775 onwards, Thomas was also a generous benefactor of this organisation, and he paid an annual sum of at least three guineas; he also left them £100 in his will. In 1758 John Fielding, a London magistrate, social reformer and brother of the author Henry Fielding, wrote of girls deserted on the streets of London and his fear that they would be forced into a life of prostitution. Just as the Magdalen was founded to reclaim prostitutes so the asylum was formed to prevent girls falling into prostitution in the first place. Fielding gathered wealthy patrons to fund a ‘reformatory’ to take in these abandoned girls, raise them ‘free from the prejudices of evil habits’ and train them to work as domestic servants. The orphanages rules for entry were tough, as well as being an orphan, only girls between the ages of nine and twelve were admitted and they must be free from disease or deformity. Non-white girls were also denied entry. Once admitted, the orphans helped pay for their keep by making clothes which were then sold. These rules seem harsh to us but in a society preoccupied with moral issues charitable activity had to go hand-in-hand with a moral commitment from the beneficiary. The donors were motivated by civic spirit but also by Christian morality and Thomas took his place on the board, lending his experience.
Thomas Wright’s charity extended farther than just London. In 1762 Jean Calas, a Huguenot cloth merchant in Toulouse was found guilty of the murder of his son. He was publicly broken on a wheel, strangled then burnt to ashes. Voltaire took up the case and persuaded large parts of European public opinion that anti-Huguenot hysteria had influenced the verdict. Wright and Gill contributed to the fund Voltaire raised for Calas’s wife and family and also Voltaire’s campaign and may even have facilitated the pamphlets Voltaire circulated in London, either by supplying the paper or printing. In 1765 the conviction was reversed.
Theft at Bell House
On Saturday 2 December 1769, the Wrights were the victim of theft in their new house at Dulwich, discovered by their coachman, Rubon Cannicot, aged 32, who lived in the coach house with his wife of one year, Hannah. James Simpson was accused of stealing a woollen cloth coat, value twenty shillings, belonging to Thomas Wright. Rubon Cannicot gave evidence at the Old Bailey:
‘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; the coat was missing last Saturday morning’.
Simpson took the coat straight to Cheapside and offered it to Hugh Riley, a dealer in old clothes and rags. 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 Simpson’s to sell). As well as being a clothes dealer Hugh Riley was also a member of the City of London’s police force and seems to have been suspicious of Simpson. They were in a pub at the time and Riley and the pub landlord took Simpson before the lord mayor. The coat was advertised, and Rubon Cannicot described it to the lord mayor ‘before he saw it’. 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. Mortality to the American colonies was quite low due to the economic value of the prisoners; on arrival they would be indentured for around £10 for the length of their sentence, at which time they were free. Some even returned to England though this became even harder to do after the War of Independence. When the war commenced Britain began transporting prisoners to Australia instead.
At the time the Dulwich stocks bore the motto: 'It is the sport of a fool to do mischief, 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 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’s involvement in the City of London
Thomas Wright took a diligent role in civic affairs in the City of London from 1764 onwards. At this time the City was developing 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 by then used for other municipal obligations such as paving the streets, a project the City began in 1765 and which by 1773 they had completed, paving from Temple Bar to Aldgate. He 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 Aldermen 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.'
Thomas’s 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). The coach Thomas used was the same one used by the Lord Mayor to this day. It transported him to the waterside where he stepped in to the City Barge which was accompanied by all the livery company barges blazing with streamers and pendants. The barge took him to Westminster where he took his oath before returning by barge to Blackfriars and then back in the coach to the Guildhall for ‘a magnificent entertainment’. Thomas’s coachman at this time was Thomas Berry. Berry remained the Wright’s coachman until the alderman’s death in 1798 when he stayed in Dulwich but changed course to be a plumber. His three daughters went on to run a school at Old Blew House on Dulwich Common.
Towards the end of his tenure, in October 1786, George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia, died. As Lord Mayor Thomas Wright proclaimed that for his successor 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. This decree came from the Lord Chamberlain but a contemporary print shows his colleagues do not appear to be at all happy with the lack of festivities. In 1786 on the conclusion of his mayoralty Thomas presented the Stationers’ Company with a large silver tea urn.
A possible architect of Bell House, Sir Robert Taylor, was also a City dignitary and was a sheriff in 1783, four years after Thomas; they undoubtedly knew each other both professionally and socially and are both depicted in a large oil painting that hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery showing the inauguration of the 1782 Lord Mayor.
During his time as a master stationer Thomas Wright took on many young apprentices for varying sums ranging from £20 for Thomas Jones in 1769 to £600 in the case of Thomas Kirk in 1765. His partner, William Gill, seems to have taken on only two apprentices. One was his son, Robert and in 1769 he charged Roger Pettiward £1,050. 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 after his apprenticeship Roger Pettiward became a ‘partner in the respectable firm of Wright & Gill’ and was wealthy enough to rebuild Finborough Hall in Suffolk.
Wright & Gill took on a young employee, Richard Dalton, who had come to London from Wigton, Cumberland and later made him a partner in the company. Dalton lived at Camberwell Green, not far from Thomas. They became great friends and partners and Dalton was an executor of Thomas’s will. Wright & Gill was a very successful company and Thomas made such a fortune that it attracted the notice of the press, though he had a reputation for ‘great application and frugality’ . 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!’
Thomas Wright died suddenly on 8 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 and 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’. He specified in his will that he was to be ‘buried without much expense’. William Gill, his close friend, brother-in-law and business partner for over fifty years had died just two weeks before him. It was said that they never had a dispute or an angry word during a long and prosperous life. His wife Ann died in 1809. All three, together with Ann and William’s sister, Elizabeth Kincaid, are buried at St Andrews, Wyrardisbury (now Wraysbury) Church, in Buckinghamshire where the Gills had lived. Thomas left a fortune of over £300,000, 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 to say ‘the sum of fifty pounds eight shillings, part of such dividends, unto and amongst twenty four 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 £500 to the Lying-In Hospital. When this legacy was announced at the governor’s meeting the board voted to make Thomas’s wife and daughter both governors of the hospital for life, an honorary post. His name was painted on a panel in the chapel. He also left £100 to the poor of Wraysbury parish. He gave the Stationers’ Company £2,000 in trust to distribute the income from it to 24 poor freemen and similarly gave £105 to divide among 20 poor households in Dulwich.
Wright & Gill the firm continued and included as partners Gill’s son, their favoured apprentice Richard Dalton and four brothers named Key who had bought into the firm after Wright’s death.
Thomas’s 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 although the College now took over responsibility for maintenance. The staircase seems to have been replaced in around 1810 so perhaps Ann took the opportunity to update the house when she inherited. Ann married very late in life, at St Mary’s Lambeth, on 27 March 1813, at the age of 64, four years after her mother died. She married John Willes, the 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 Ann’s mother’s will. He may have known Thomas Wright via his career as a corn factor, as in 1762 Thomas had paid £2,500 for the office of corn meter, giving him the duty paid for the official measuring of corn . Willes was also on the board of the Lying-In Hospital when Thomas was President. Ann and John Willes did not live long to enjoy their joint fortunes; Ann died on 27 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. Thomas Wright’s sister Mary had married Nicholas Trice and Ann Wright Willes left all her property to Thomas Trice, aged 17, the grandson of Mary and Nicholas Trice and the son of her cousin James Trice, subject to a life interest in favour of her husband John Willes. It was a condition of the bequest to Thomas Trice that he change his name to Wright, which he duly did. On 8 June 1818 the Prince Regent granted John Willes, on behalf of Thomas Trice, ‘now a minor’, the use of the surname and the arms of Thomas Wright in lieu of his present surname and arms, in compliance with the last will of Ann Wright Willes. John Willes died in August 1818 and in 1820, still technically 'an infant' aged 20 - his guardian Mrs Elizabeth Dennis Denyer, who was John Willes’ executor, had to be with him at the ceremony) - Thomas Trice fulfilled the request of Ann’s will and became Thomas Wright. The Dulwich property she inherited included everything from Oakfield on the College Road/Dulwich Common boundary, to what is now the College gates to Dulwich Park. She also inherited Ilderlsy Grove and a large acreage centred on the shops at West Dulwich, including the odd numbers of Park Hall Road, though this was as-yet unbuilt on. Thomas Trice Wright married Cordelia Willes, the niece of John Willes, Thomas Wright’s son-in-law and they had two daughters, Cordelia (who married the Rev George Martin Bullock) and Ann. In 1827 Thomas Trice Wright asked for a new lease of Bell House, which he said had been occupied by his relatives for a very long time. He was granted the new lease, but with Bell Cottages (now Pickwick Cottage) excluded. In 1847 Cordelia died and two years later Thomas married Sophia Reeves, they had no children and lived in The Grange, Chalfont St Peter, Bucks. The 1854 Terrier named Thomas Wright as tenant of Oakfield. In 1877 Thomas Trice Wright died. His executors sold Oakfield, still occupied by Joseph Harris, to Robert Palmer Tebb, of 83 Lombard Street, London, for £4,500
Anthony Harding 1762-1851
Anthony Harding and his family were next to live in Bell House, moving from Streatham. Anthony Harding was born in Hoptown in Derbyshire on New Year’s Day 1762, one of four children of a member of the local landed gentry. Family tradition says his father ostracised him for having gone into trade but took him back when he had made himself a large fortune, On 12 November 1792, aged 30, he married Frances Cowper Ashby, also born in Derbyshire (in 1754) and possibly a relation of his then boss, Thomas Ashby. They married by special licence in London. Special licences were issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury and were expensive, a sign of status for the more wealthy and well-connected who did not want the ‘vulgarity’ of a public wedding. 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. Mrs Harding died in 1801 and Mr Harding did not remarry.
Anthony Harding, inventor of the department store
Anthony Harding described himself as a silk mercer but he was also an East India merchant. In 1786 he was working for Ashby and Osborne, linen drapers on Holborn Hill or Holborn Bridges, just opposite Ely Place. In 1795 he was still living in Holborn and 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, that is he had not undergone an apprenticeship. This makes his later success all the more impressive. Harding, Howell & Co.'s Grand Fashionable Magazine was located in Schomberg House on Pall Mall, a mansion originally built for one of William III’s generals, where Gainsborough had lived and which was later used as the War Office. Founded in 1789, Harding’s can 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 women were members of the newly-affluent middle-class, their good fortune buoyed by the Industrial Revolution. They went to the department store to shop, to meet their friends and to examine the latest fabrics to pass on to their dressmakers; ready-made clothing for women would not be available for another century. Drapers like Anthony Harding understood this newly emerging class of women and saw 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.
The shops were designed to be as attractive and enticing as possible with large glazed windows, glass chandeliers, tall ceilings from which to hang the fabrics and large glass-fronted cases to display the merchandise.
As the premier shopping street of this nation of shopkeepers, Pall Mall was one of Georgian London’s most fashionable streets and regency ladies came here for the most fashionable textiles. It is often mentioned by Jane Austen and 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. By 1809 Harding’s employed forty people in the store plus countless artisans all over the country supplying them with items for sale. To further attract the ‘beneficiaries of the new affluence’ Harding’s had a refreshments room on the first floor. Harding was said to be a man of ‘vision and vigour and a business genius’ and he redesigned the shop to suit his needs. The shop was on the ground floor, divided by glazed mahogany partitions into five ‘departments’: first furs and fans; secondly silks, muslins, lace and gloves; thirdly jewellery, ornamental articles in ormolu, French clocks and perfumery; fourthly millinery and dresses and lastly textiles, especially chintzes and their accessories. 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’. There was a ‘noble apartment used as a shawl room’.
On the first floor above the ground floor shop were workrooms with forty men and women employed by the firm. On the top floor, reached by Schomberg’s original 1698 painted staircase, was a café known as ‘Mr Cosway’s breakfast room’ where customers met for ‘wines, teas, coffee and sweetmeats’.
Harding possessed a talent for advertising and was especially keen to reassure potential customers (or ‘families of the first rank’ ) that all their furnishing fabrics were made in England but that they could also supply ‘every article of foreign manufacture which there is any possibility of obtaining’. The shop had many royal customers. St James’ Palace was a short walk away and Marlborough House even had a connecting door to the shop. George III had many connections with Harding. He commissioned Harding & Howell’s to design and make the hangings for his bedroom at Kew. He asked Harding to market the cloth produced from the royal flocks of merino sheep grazed at Windsor and King George himself would bring his daughters to visit the shop. Harding would close the shop so that the royal family might browse in private and while the king would take great interest in the goods for sale the princesses loved to go behind the counters. Queen Charlotte asked the store to design particular dress silks for her, which Harding would then cannily market under the name ‘Queen’s silk’. When the Prince of Wales asked them to design a new chintz for his bedroom at Carlton House, Harding’s marketing acumen led him to arrange for a cutting of the fabric to be pasted into every issue of Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts alongside the advertisement of their shop. He also arranged for each entrant in the newly published Debrett’s Peerage to be sent a sample of chintz and reminded of the shop’s royal patronage.
Shops were open much later than they are now, until around ten at night and in 1807 Pall Mall was the first street to be lit by gas which would make the printed chintzes and textiles look particularly ravishing. When a patent was granted for the first permanent green dye for chintz Harding secured the sole selling rights. The fabric was advertised as ‘a discovery never before offered to the public’. Harding also cleverly always suggested possible linings for every fabric, thus potentially doubling sales volumes.
Anthony Harding was 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 exported around the world. Although the shop covered only one third of the large 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 took over another part of the building, so minimising the impact on business. When they saw the demand for lace, they set up their own lace factory. They brought over a Flemish woman skilled in making French and Flemish lace and advertised for apprentice lace-makers. The Flemish expert would instruct ‘young women respectably connected and of good conduct’ in the art of lace-making, for a fee of £10 each. They also sold a hair dye which claimed to be ‘the best Dye in the universe for immediately changing red or grey hair.
Crime and Punishment
Harding was working as a shopman in draper Thomas Ashby’s shop in Holborn, where theft was a common occurrence, as it was for many shops at the time. Most stock was stored behind the counter and the shopman would have to turn his back on the customers, and possibly also climb a ladder or manoeuvre a pole, to retrieve stock, you can see this set-up in the illustration of Harding and Howell’s shop. On the morning of 3 March 1787 Harding was working in the shop, serving two women, Ann Smith and Catherine Johnson. They looked at a lot of calicos and muslins but left without buying anything. Harding suspected they had stolen something as they were ‘stumbling under their petticoats’ and asked his colleague, Henry Die, to bring them back to the shop; they both came back willingly. Henry Die told the Old Bailey court that when they came back they attempted to pull some material from a table and then let the goods drop from under their own petticoats, hoping to mix them up with the dropped material but he caught them in the act. The materials that had been secreted under the women’s dresses: ‘were still warm’ said Harding, though he was scrupulous to say that he himself did not see them take the goods. Catherine Johnson begged to be let go and said it was the first time she had stolen anything. Ann Smith did not beg for herself but repeatedly asked that Johnson be set free and said she would pay 20 shillings for the gown. They were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years. Harding’s own shop was also subject to these ordinary acts of theft such as in 1799 when Mary Wilson was found guilty of stealing some black ribbon, two pair of cotton mittens and a silk handkerchief to the value of 12 shillings in total. She was also sentenced to seven years transportation.
In 1817 an employee, Samuel Arnold, stole £74 in cash and £35 in promissory notes from Harding’s and was arrested in Bristol, having spent most of the money. He was tried at the Old Bailey and 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 could be 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 and 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 advertised that 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, 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. The couple moved around the country, no doubt on business connected to the cotton mills in the north of England. The Withingtons’ 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 from 1832 onwards.
At home at Bell House
In 1832 Anthony bought a new lease on Bell House which obliged him to contribute to the cost of lighting Dulwich village. At the same time the two cottages in the grounds built by Thomas Wright were excluded 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, though 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 rude 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 from when they were old enough until their marriage when they would commence their own round of at-homes.
A full house
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 manservant, Sophia Hegley, the children’s governess and George the coachman, his wife Hannah and their daughter Harriet. There would also have been ‘daily’ servants such as gardeners or ‘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 domestic 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 and 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 acquaintances at 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 at this time. No longer considered part of the family, servants were now exclusively working-class and usually female, with a heavy workload and expected to be neither seen nor heard. At this time a large extension was added to Bell House for servants’ quarters. There were also three other people on the 1841 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 after 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. On 16 August 1819, the day of the massacre, he carried the request for help in keeping the peace from the chairman of magistrates to the commander of the 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 inevitable casualties. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic reference to Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier. After the massacre the magistrates ordered the pubs to be closed and Withington was employed to help clear 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, he stuck ‘firmly and resolutely’ to his task and took Thomas Mellor, the man who had assaulted him by tearing his clothes, into custody. Mellor was held in custody from 16 August until 27 January of the following year. At the trial Withington asked for clemency for Mellor 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 after Harding’s closed). He was allegedly known as ‘Three Bottle Borough Reeve’ from his ability to drink that amount every evening. He died on 30 August 1838, aged 47; his wife, Elizabeth, died on Christmas Eve 1853. Of their children (Anthony’s grandchildren): Alice married Alfred Eccles, a doctor from Tunbridge Wells; Frances married the Revd Stephen Poyntz Denning (son of the portrait painter and curator of Dulwich Picture Gallery); Florence married the Revd Herbert Morse and Elizabeth married the Revd William Henry Helm, headmaster of King Edward's School, Worcester. At first Allan worked at Harding’s with his grandfather but then became 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, worked in his grandfather’s shop 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 involved in the life of the church there and was church warden for many years. 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 as well as being church warden. There is a tablet to his memory in Baraboo Library.
Anthony Harding himself died on 5 August 1851 in his 90th year and was buried in the crypt at St Leonard’s on Streatham High Road. He was said to never get drunk but lost the use of his legs after six bottles or so, and had a special chair made so that the footmen could carry him up to bed. His coffin stood against the wall behind his chair in the dining room in Bell House before his burial. He was said to have been the last man in London to wear a queue (a kind of ponytail or braid often added to Georgian wigs). His shop lasted for a few years after his death but then closed and the building was taken over by the War Office in 1859.
George Widdowson 1804-1872
In October 1852 Elizabeth Withington sold her lease of Bell House to George Widdowson. He had been 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 took over his uncle’s shop. This had already been a successful silversmiths and John Salter, his uncle, had supplied Nelson with many pieces of jewellery including mourning rings still highly collectable today. John Salter had been a close friend of Horatia Nelson, Emma Hamilton and Nelson’s daughter, and he had been godfather to one of her children.
Widdowson developed it into the highly fashionable Widdowson & Veale at No. 73 Strand, on the corner of Adam Street and opposite the Adelphi. Widdowson had a real eye for marketing. He once had a detailed newspaper article dedicated to a proposal he had to make a copy of Aeneas’ shield, as described in Virgil’s Aeneid.
The company made swords and other weapons for the British army and navy, 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) the firm 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, George was 40 and 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 George married Eliza Duffield (nee Boville), the daughter of a Putney wine merchant who had been living in Gibraltar when she was became a widow after John Duffield, her first husband, John Duffield, died. George and Eliza were middle-aged when they married and did not have children.
The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace
Business was booming by 1851 when at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition Widdowson & Veale 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. At the 1852 exhibition the following year they produced a similarly lavish display. George was a steward of the Goldsmiths’ Benevolent Institution and the firm made donations to the then newly-built Charing Cross hospital. George had an older brother, Joseph, living in London at this time but he was a less successful goldsmith and jeweller than George. He set up shop at 100 Fleet St but in 1832 he went bankrupt. In 1840 he was confined to Bethlem Hospital, known as Bedlam (now the Imperial War Museum). After the 1834 Poor Law there had been 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 the number of 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’. Joseph Widdowson had suffered 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 had to pay for their own care. While it might seem strange to us that George would have allowed his brother to be admitted to a place such as Bedlam, there was little 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.
Eliza Widdowson died in April 1861 leaving George a widower with no children. He lived 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. Footmen were often hired ‘by the foot’, that is the taller you were the more you were paid. In 1866 George moved into the White House in Dulwich Village. Perhaps Bell House was too big and too full of memories. George Widdowson died 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 1790-1871
William Peter McAndrew was born on 25 July 1790 on Lower Thames St, the son of William McAndrew, originally from Scotland, and his wife Antonia Sykes. At the age of just 18, William McAndrew senior had begun importing fruit from Spain and Portugal and soon opened offices in London and Liverpool, expanding into shipping. William’s sons, Robert and William Peter, ran the offices in London and Liverpool respectively. In 1854, following a fraternal disagreement said by his son to be the ‘greatest trial’ in Robert’s life, the two brothers split the company in two. 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 then moved the business to London. The two firms were recombined following William Peter’s death.
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 his siblings were christened and where they worshipped. He was 26 years old and Ann was 17; the bride’s relative, the Reverend Vicesimus Knox, essayist and headmaster of Tonbridge School, officiated. In the 1830s William Peter joined the worshipful company of wheelwrights, a City livery company unconnected with his trade but one in which his father had also been a freeman. City livery companies offered excellent networking opportunities and occasions for charitable endeavours: various Lord Mayors noted that McAndrew & Son made cash donations ‘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 into the family firm; William in particular inherited his father’s work ethic 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 went to New York and started MacAndrews & Forbes, a liquorice manufacturing and exporting company, financed 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 also visited Smyrna; as well as his cotton invention he 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 and his sons worked hard in the family firm. Even in 1861 when he was 70 years old, he still described himself as ‘foreign merchant’ of 57 King William Street’, his City office and a stone’s throw from where he had been born. In 1859 he and Ann lost their daughter Clara, aged 17; Ann herself died two years later. The 1871 census describes him as ‘retired’ general merchant at the age of 80. Still living with him in Bell House 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. His sons, William and John, oversaw the distribution of his estate: he left just under £70,000. He is buried with his wife Ann in Nunhead cemetery.
Charles Cecil Gowan 1833-1895
Charles Cecil Gowan was born in 1822, grew up in Dulwich and lived there almost all his life. On 25 January 1833 he was baptised in Dulwich College chapel and as a child he lived at Wood Lawn in Dulwich Village, which still exists. His father, Philip and mother, Cecilia 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 started as an ‘American’ merchant, co-founding the City firm Gowan & Marx and becoming a member of the London Stock Exchange. The firm specialised in American bonds and we know Thomas Jefferson traded with them in the 1820s.
Gowan & Marx financed 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. The Russian ambassador heard about the engine and tried to persuade Robinson to go to Moscow to build locomotives for the Czar. Gowan & Marx were a successful firm but also behaved with exemplary honour. In 1845 they offered a bond investing in the Republic of St Domingo which defaulted. They reimbursed their subscribers in full. They also donated to charity and supported Guy’s Hospital. In 1878 they gave money to the Abercarne colliery disaster fund after 268 men lost their lives in a mine explosion.
Charles Cecil Gowan was the youngest of a family of ten with six brothers and three sisters, many of whom like him continued to live 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. Charles’s brother, William Gowan married Arthur Withington’s sister-in-law, Louise, and moved to America to farm.
On 26 January 1860 Charles Gowan married Elizabeth Anne Critcliffe who was from South Molton in Devon. They lived briefly in Sydenham before moving to The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common, a house that still exists today. Charles Gowan was still 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 Gowan and Marx to cease trading even though it was widely known to be ‘extremely rich and had assets far beyond its liabilities’. It opened again a few days later, ‘paying 20s on the pound’ (ie full value) despite the difficult 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 so in March 1873 the Gowans moved into Bell House, just down the road from Charles Gowan’s childhood home. Charles and Elizabeth now had four daughters, Mary, Francis, Alice and Annie and a son, Frederick. They were very much involved in the local Dulwich community, funding coal, blankets and Christmas dinner for the poor. After Charles Gowan recovered from serious ill health he presented a white altar 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.
In 1885 thirteen acres were taken from the Bell House garden to form Dulwich Park. The garden had extended to roughly where the lake and stream are in the park but the Gowans were still left with three and a half acres for their garden. There was some concern over establishing a park in Dulwich, with local residents worried it might ‘lessen exclusiveness’ and even become a ‘playground of the poorest classes’. When his lease was called in to be adjusted for the loss of land to the park, Charles Gowan took the opportunity to ask for annual leases in case he was unhappy with the effect of the park and wanted to move quickly. The Estate Governors were sympathetic and negotiated his lease on a year-by-year for the next few years.
The servant problem
The Gowans had a large domestic staff to care for them. Their cook Mary Parry came from Devon, like Mrs Gowan, while their four other female servants came from London and the home counties. They were all young girls in their teens or twenties and their jobs as parlourmaids, housemaids and kitchenmaids were likely to be very hard, 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 easier 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 people each time and this would not have been unusual, girls would have left for other jobs or to get married (a married woman could not continue to work as a maid in a respectable household). Women like Elizabeth Gowan would have spent a large part of their day managing servants and recruitment was a perennial topic of conversation. When Mrs Gowan advertised she always asked for experienced staff, she had no time or inclination to train inexperienced girls. 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 highly prized as it was hot, heavy work and skilled cooks were sometimes bribed to leave a friend or family’s establishment to work for an unscrupulous or desperate mistress.
Their son, Frederick, grew up at Bell House and became a stockbroker. In 1909 in Wandsworth he married Sophie Meyer who was from Germany and the following year they emigrated to Canada where he became a stockbroker in Vancouver. On 23 April 1918 he enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force even though he was 54 years old (on his army forms he is described as 5ft 4 in with grey hair). He was discharged as medically unfit in November of the same year. Of their daughters: Mary married William Forbes Gooding, a coffee planter, and moved to Somerset where they had one son, Cecil. Francis and and Annie never married but lived with their mother while in 1915, aged 47, Alice married Edward Ellison Sutton Schuyler, an army captain and governor of HM Prison, Portland. They lived in Hampshire near her mother.
On 16 December 1895 Charles died at Knowle Hall in Bridgwater, Somerset, a large country mansion he had been renting. He was described as ‘formerly of Copthall Court [where his firm was based] and Bell House Dulwich’. He left £64,000 and his wife, together with his brothers-in-law James and Edward Hore were his executors. His wife inherited the furniture and effects at his house on the Isle of Wight and the right to occupy it and Bell House for her life. The other executors got £100 apiece. The bulk of his estate was left to his wife and children. In 1897 Elizabeth Gowan transferred the lease on Bell House to Harman Tidy and with her three unmarried daughters she moved first to Winchester then to Bournemouth.
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 and all six boys made the law their profession, 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. They had a penchant for grand houses. Before they moved to Bell House 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 in Bengeo, Hertfordshire and later a house in North Stoke, Oxfordshire.
Selina died in 1875 and two years later on 5 June 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. Emma was 49 when they married and Harman 48 and they did not have children though Harman ‘acted as stepfather’ to the children from Emma’s first marriage.
Assault in high places
Harman Tidy and his brother Thomas were in business together at 27 Sackville Street, Piccadilly and on 23 February 1877 at 6pm Harman was at his desk when Lord Marcus Talbot de la Poer Beresford, calling himself Mr Long, came into reception asking to see Mr Tidy. Beresford, the son of the Marquess of Waterford, ran the stables of the Prince of Wales. Vanity Fair magazine described him as ‘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 Wale; his brother Charles’s affair with the Prince of Wales’s mistress Daisy Brooke led to Charles arguing with the heir to the throne and manhandling him, a gross breach of etiquette.
Once admitted to Harman’s chambers Beresford declared his real name and said Tidy had accused him of being ‘a deliberate liar’. He demanded an apology otherwise Harman ‘would not leave the room alive’. Beresford knocked Harman to the floor and started kicking him whereupon Thomas Tidy and a clerk burst in. Lord Beresford assaulted them too. Beresford was arrested and in court was questioned about his debts which had led to him losing possession of his house but curiously the magistrate disallowed this line of questioning. Beresford’s solicitor repeatedly tried to ask his own client questions but the magistrate repeatedly intervened to stop him. At this point the solicitor said he had no choice but to offer no defence. The magistrate then sent the case to the Old Bailey to be heard by the Solicitor-general.
Before the trial had even started ‘the place was thronged with noblemen and gentlemen’ and Beresford’s defence said that he should not have to stand in the prisoner’s dock. More mdetails of the case emerged. Having gained entry to Harman’s office, Beresford slipped the bolt on the door and said ‘Now you [expletive deleted], you don’t leave this room alive’. When Harman denied calling 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 Harman ‘by the loins’, threw him against an iron box stand and began kicking him. Harman 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’. Harman replied ‘You’ve the wrong man…if you think I’m going to write an apology before I know I’m in the wrong’. Thomas Tidy and a clerk ‘burst in’ and the police were called. Somebody recognised Beresford and said ‘Why it’s Lord Marcus Beresford’ to which Beresford replied ‘Yes you [expletive deleted], it is’ and ‘hit him a violent blow in the eye’. The policeman then arrested whose response was ‘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’.
Under cross-examination Harman explained that he had access to the funds of various gentleman which he then loaned out and in this way he had loaned Beresford £1,000 which had not been repaid. Harman agreed that he had used the terms ‘gross and deliberate falsehood’. Harman testified that he felt acute pain after the assault and still did, though the doctor who had attended after the altercation was then called and said while Harman ‘shrank when touched’ he could find no trace of injury. Summing up, the Solicitor-general said there could be no doubt Harman had been assaulted by Beresford but that the jury might take the view ‘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 the gentleman had gone there for the simple purpose of extorting an apology’. The summing up then went on for two hours after which one of the jurors intervened saying ‘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 a Colonel Stanley who was in the public gallery immediately offered bail so Beresford was freed. Some of the magistrates remonstrated at the proviso that Beresford should be imprisoned until he could pay but the intervention of Col Stanley rendered this objection moot. In reporting the case the Spectator pointed out that if Beresford had been an ordinary labourer he would have gone straight to prison for such an assault charge and recommended that the magistrates be replaced by ‘a legally educated tribunal’.
Harman Tidy and the Dulwich Estate
Harman drove a hard bargain with the Dulwich Estate when he was negotiating his move to Bell House in 1895. The Estate’s first offer was a rent of £200 pa which was refused by Harman who persuaded the Estate Governors to let him pay £100 pa for seven years. He also reversed, to his benefit, a stipulation they had made about interest payments and succeeded in getting the Estate to pay him 2.5% pa on quarterly payments.
When Harman Tidy rented Bell House it included ‘conservatory, stables, coach house, green houses and outbuildings. The perimeter of the property was described rather idiosyncratically as having a frontage of 226ft 10in, depth N/NW 353ft 8in abutting Bell Cottages, further N depth 171ft 11in abutting Mr Douglas (i.e. Stella House, the first house after the park gates), S/SE depth 154ft 6in, further S depth 507ft 2in, rear depth 402ft 6in abutting Dulwich Park.
Tidy asked for improvements to be made to the house or failing that for a lower rent so that he could do the improvements himself. He wanted to: enlarge the dining room by adding an oriel window, enlarge and refit the stabling, improve the drainage (Victorian Dulwich was notorious for bad plumbing; every time someone moved into Bell House they had to do this), make a bathroom, install a new kitchen range, add a hot and cold water supply and repair the conservatory and the greenhouses. The cost was estimated at £450 but such is the way of these things it finally cost £800. A further £100 had to be spent on the drains and Harman’s solicitor advised the Governors that they should bear this outlay lest Mr Tidy refuse to take the tenancy or sues them. The Governors agreed.
In 1896 Harman Tidy said there was not enough room for his servants and put up two four-roomed bungalow cottages in the garden, one for his gardener and one for his coachman. These are not Pickwick Cottage, Bell Cottage or the Lodge but another structure altogether: ‘of timber, covered externally with patent wire wove material lined inside with match-boarding, on the cart road at the lower end of the grounds at a cost of about £200’. There is probably no surviving evidence of these cottages as they are presumably under Frank Dixon Close.
Although we have no census data for the period 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 but only as son, daughter etc, a modern way of looking at their ‘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.
The Tidys were a family that produced sons. Harman was one of six sons, he himself had four sons but he then had the grief of burying two of them. Edwin was a solicitor and died aged 32 and Sidney was a farmer and died aged 27, both were unmarried. Frank became a stockbroker and married Emma’s daughter Mary, Edgar married Rose May Berridge, fought in the Boer War and then became 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 the matches would have been considered excellent by Victorian standards: the families knew each other and lived near each other both in London and in the country, and they were in the same line of 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 went to Dulwich College. Frank Edgar died age 17; Christopher emigrated to New Zealand and became a farmer and auctioneer, joining the ANZACs in WW1; Warwick Edward was an importer of resin and turpentine, he won a Military Cross in WW1; Sydney Ernest also fought in WW1 and was wounded twice; after the war he went into in the insurance business and travelled the world, living in Calcutta and Canada; finally, Lionel Bertie was a clerk at the Admiralty Registry, which heard maritime cases at the Royal Courts of Justice.
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 son Frank died a year after his father, leaving his own young sons aged between six and fifteen. Harman’s wife Emma died in 1917, living long enough to see Harman’s grandson, Warwick Tidy, win his MC. Warwick himself was badly injured in the war and died in a nursing home in 1923.
Ludwig Wilhelm Rudolf Wissmann 1855-1923
Ludwig Wilhelm Rudolf Wissmann was born in 1855 in Hannover, Germany. He became a bank manager and then a stockbroker for a firm in Hercules Passage, Threadneedle Street. In 1879 he married Milley Betsy Fairfield from Lambeth. They may have met through mutual German friends as when Milley was living at home with her father who was a clerk and her schoolmistress mother, they had German friends living with them. The Wissmanns set up home in Lincoln Villa, Barry Road and also 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 Rudolf born in 1891 and a daughter Kathleen Mary Caroline, born in 1893. The Wissmanns took an active part in local affairs: Rudolf was treasurer of the South Diocesan Association for the Care of Friendless Girls and raised funds for a home in Camberwell and also took on treasurer duties for local charities near their country house in Devon. Mrs Wissmann, though described as being ‘of a severe disposition’ also played her part in the work of Dulwich charities.
Rudolf and Milley’s 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 was an excellent horseman, won prizes for his German and qualified as an interpreter. He was a very keen soldier and spent his army leave in Belgium learning about the country and its communications as he was convinced Germany intended to invade France via 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 (the village rather than the school). 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.
Life in Bell House
In 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 some 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 downstairs scullery duties and upstairs cleaning 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 rented Trewyn (now Pickwick Cottage) to a Mr Taylor. Two gardeners lived with their families in the Lodge as did the coachman, James Farmer, and his family. The coach was drawn by two horses and James was 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!’.
Kathleen Wissmann gets married
On 17 October 1933, aged 40, Kathleen Wissmann married the 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 with guests including European royalty. Members of the public 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 account of the day including descriptions of her dress, her pearls, her diamond sapphire brooch, the prayer book she carried instead of a bouquet and her bridesmaid, her niece, Joan.
In 1913 Rudolf, Milley and Kathleen moved to Great Duryard, later a hall of residence for Exeter University. When he was discussing dilapidations with the Estate he mentioned the temporary cottages that Harman Tidy had erected and never demolished and suggested they be taken in part payment. Although the Estate admitted Rudolf had ‘practically given a new lease of life to an old house’ they would not forego any dilapidation payments. Thomas Marlowe, editor of the Daily Mail, applied to rent Bell House but the Estate refused his offer for being too low. Bell House was then let to Charlotte Barclay. Rudolf died in 1923, leaving £70,000 to Milley who herself died in 1938, leaving £15,000.
Charlotte Barclay 1871-1923
Born Charlotte Ernestine de la Poer Horsley Beresford in 1871, youngest child of the 3rd Baron Decies, an Anglo-Irish peer and a captain in the 10th Hussars and the Grenadier Guards. In 1892 Charlotte married Cameron Barclay, a member of the Barclay banking family and an officer in the 10th Hussars. Among Charlotte’s wedding presents were a diamond tiara, a diamond bangle, a diamond ring, a diamond and sapphire ring, a diamond crescent and a diamond brooch. The Barclays had one daughter, Violet Florence Catherine, in 1895. In February 1899 Cameron sued for divorce, on the grounds of Charlotte’s adultery with Sir John Milbanke 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 abandoned due to lack of evidence whereupon Cameron Barclay wanted to withdraw the divorce petition but retain the right to serve it again. Charlotte refused: she wanted her day in court to prove her innocence publicly. The case went to court and was dismissed, the judge said there was ‘no evidence whatsoever’ of any adultery on Mrs Barclay’s part. It is unclear whether the Barclays did actually divorce; they never lived together again but Charlotte was always known as the Honourable Charlotte Barclay. In 1913 she was living in Kenwood House in north London when she took a lease on Bell House for £180 pa but with a stipulation to make repairs worth around £700. The Estate also agreed to pay Mitchells, the Dulwich builders, £450 for that perennial Dulwich problem: drainage repairs.
Charlotte Barclay must have decided fairly quickly that she did not need another London house because three years later, in April 1916, she advertised Bell House in the Times, describing the twelve-bedroomed house as having ‘every modern convenience combined with old-style charm’. At this time the house had a large conservatory on the south side, now gone. She assigned her lease 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. Once she gave away 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 helped set up and was later director of the Cuba Raja Yoga School, part of a chain of theosophist schools.
When WW1 broke out in 1914 she took over the setting up and running of her family home, Wrest Park, as a hospital for wounded soldiers. It was one of the first and probably the best-run of the country house hospitals. Nan hired twenty nurses, noting in her diary: ‘an assortment of nurses came and went – two or three who drank, one who took drugs, stewardesses who wanted to do war work, and probationers who preferred sharing a chair with a patient to finding an empty one’. When the matron she had chosen proved unsuitable, Nan took that role on too, following basic training in nursing in London. In her diary she wrote: ‘No one had a matron in view, nobody could find one; so finally it was settled I was to step into the post experimentally, and retain it subject to the approval of the medical staff. My dream that night of a huge wave with crest breaking mountains high over my head, expressed my feelings’. 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 were also activities to keep up morale such as amateur dramatics, cricket and billiards. Nurse Butler, an Irish woman with ‘wild blue eyes’ and an impish sense of humour used to dress up as an aristocrat and amuse the patients by regally touring the wards asking, ‘And how are you my poor fellow and where were you wounded?’. Nurse Butler also invented a game called ‘Shooting the Dardanelles’ where ‘one of the wheel-chair men’ had to ‘make his way down the length of the ward, whilst all the bed patients opened fire on him with slippers, pillows or anything else available’ A close family friend, J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame, was inspired by Nan to get involved, spending time with the patients and also becoming a sensitive sounding board when difficulties arose between members of staff. Barrie donated £1,000 to help support the hospital and on his regular visits he organised games and entertainments for the patients. Dr Sidney Beauchamp, another family friend, agreed to act as doctor and over 1,600 injured soldiers were treated.
On 14 September 1916 a serious fire put an end to Wrest Park’s time as a hospital, though all the patients were safely evacuated. This may have been when Nan moved to Bell House, as she took a lease around April 1916. In November 1916 Nan’s pilot brother, Bron, who had already lost a leg in the Boer War, when serving as a correspondent for The Times newspaper, went missing when his plane was shot down over German lines. 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 came or the telephone rang. It wasn’t until December that they heard he had been killed. He was buried in France. Nan then succeeded as the 9th Baroness Lucas and the 5th Baroness Dingwall, as the titles descended in the female as well as the male line. Female peers were not eligible to sit in the House of Lords until after the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act and even then 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 however, extremely wealthy, having inherited a large part of her father’s fortune and over £100,000 from her brother.
In 1917 aged 37 she married Howard Lister Cooper and the couple moved into Bell House. Their two daughters, Anne Rosemary and Rachel were born there. Howard, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, left from Bell House to return to the front line. He was mentioned in dispatches and won the Air Force Cross. After the war, like other chatelaines of large houses, Nan found staffing an issue. In October 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 stating the usual ‘good wages’.
After the war Nan had part of the interior and the stables remodelled by. On 4 May 1918 Sir Edwin Lutyens visited Bell House ‘concerning alterations with Lady Lucas’, and later submitted plans for the ‘elongation of the existing study towards the south and on the upper floor the construction of two bathrooms and a wardrobe room over an existing flat [roof]’. The application also included a proposal for the removal of the existing conservatory situated at the south end of the drawing room. The Estate approved the alterations but declined to allow the removal of the conservatory which they considered to be in good condition and attractive to future tenants. In March 1919 Lutyens applied to enlarge the entrance hall and provide another bathroom on the upper floor. Again the Estate approved the plans. In October Lutyens asked for ‘conversion of the principal portion of the stable block into quarters for married servants’. The plan entailed the formation of two small flats, one on the ground floor and the other on the upper floor with an estimated cost of £1,400. The Estate were happy because ‘there would still be a garage in the unaltered part of the building’. However, two rainwater pipes from the stable roof discharge into the yard of No. 2 Bell Cottages so the Governors approved the plans subject to the water from the stable roof discharging onto Bell House property instead. Lastly, in 1920 Lutyens submitted plans for alterations to the butler’s pantry, enlarging the servants’ hall and forming a new larder at a cost of £374. Lady Lucas also asked for deferred permission to add two new bathrooms and a housemaids’ pantry at a cost of £384. The Governors gave consent.
In 1921 the Estate granted Nan permission to let the house, fully furnished, to Simon Fraser, the 14th Lord Lovat, his wife Laura and their children, including the future MP Sir Hugh Fraser but there is no evidence they ever lived here. The Coopers left Bell House in 1923 though not without a slight altercation with the Estate over dilapidations to Trewyn (what is now Pickwick Cottage and which was evidently still included in the Bell House lease). Lady Lucas wished the dilapidation costs to be nominal as she had spent over £5,000 on Bell House. The Estate were unmoved and insisted on her paying costs of around £600 before she moved to Sussex Square. In the 1939 Register Nan described herself as a member of the Women’s Land Army. She died in 1958.
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 in North London. 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 perhaps he got his start in the trade 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 worked as a confectioner’s assistant before she got married. Sydney and Ella set up house together in Elmwood Road before moving to Bell House in 1924.
At Bell House they rented the Lodge to the families of two of their servants: the Wells in the top flat and the Riches in the lower flat for 15 shillings a week each, as well as letting a bungalow in the garden to the son of the gardener at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The other bungalow was still being let by Lady Lucas. There was also some issue with the fence between Bell House and Trewyn (Pickwick Cottage): the open hurdle fence not being considered satisfactory for a boundary between what were by then two separate houses. The Estate agreed to erect a proper fence, 150ft long, at a cost of £40 with both houses having a liability for its upkeep.
The Fordhams had two children, Leslie Sydney Victor and Eileen Ella. Sydney had a butcher shop at 228 Rye Lane where Leslie later joined him. The Fordhams left Bell House and moved to Beckenham where Ella died in 1945, Leslie in 1957 and Sydney in 1960. The Fordhams may have been friends with the Tidys as Thomas Tidy was an executor to a Fordham will.
Dulwich College Headmaster’s House 1926-1947
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 while their old quarters at the College were turned into classrooms. Smith found the four-acre garden ‘a little overpowering’. The Smiths lived at Bell House for two years before leaving Dulwich when George become Director of Teacher Training at Oxford. A small Scotsman and a disciplinarian, Smith had a love of languages and literature. His daughter Hilary was born in Bell House and grew up to marry Ronald Groves, Master of the College from 1954-1966.
After Smith 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 parties at Bell House where it is said that guests were served from a silver salver carried by a page-boy. He frequently invited masters and their wives to use the swimming-pool, which was then at the rear of the house. He would stand outside the house to take the salute when the cadets marched to the chapel.
Booth hired Mrs Peter Latham, a fresco painter, to paint murals in his bedroom and bathroom. The paintings in the bedroom represent things a head master might do in his holidays: skiing, gardening, walking in the Shropshire countryside, enjoying breakfast in bed and hunting with the Albrighton and also things he might wish for his school: trophies of laurel leaves, mortar boards and canes. The murals covered the walls and threaded in between the windows and fireplace and were painted in bright colours, sky-blue, mimosa-yellow and fresh green. A fountain scene was said to be particularly well-executed. In the bathroom was a Mediterranean coastal scene with umbrella pines and a party of sea-bathers.
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 that he had to move to the South Block of the College. Bell House was then used as a furniture store by George Evan Cook who rented the house in 1941 for £80 p.a. In 1942 Camberwell Borough Council maintained a crop garden on site for the use of Air Raid Personnel. After the war it was proposed the Picture Gallery use Bell House as a temporary display space and store while the Gallery was being rebuilt. The stored furniture was moved to the small undamaged part of the Gallery in readiness and some pictures were restored on site 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 coincidentally 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 after some repairs arising from war damage and some alterations, in 1947 Bell House became a temporary, later permanent, boarding house for around thirty-five boys.
Dulwich College boarding house 1947-1992
In 1947 Bell House opened its doors to around 30 junior boarders, aged up to thirteen years, of Dulwich College. There was a house master who lived in with his wife and children, a matron and house tutor both of whom also lived in, and a ‘live-out’ tutor whoc came to the house to do supervising duties. The house worked well as a boarding house. The original 1767 rooms on the second and third floors served as the housemaster’s family home with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor and four bedrooms above them on the top floor. The housemaster’s study was on the ground floor off the hall and the rest of the house was given over to the boys, at one time there was even a snooker table in the hall. The boys’ common room looked out over the garden and had a table for homework and a table tennis table. There was an adjoining door through to a television room where the boys could watch TV after school and at weekends. In the cellar there was a model railway, a table tennis table and an old sofa. One dormitory (for the nine youngest boys and one older boy) was on the ground floor and known as the garden dorm, with another four dorms on the first floor: the tutor’s, the captain’s, the large front and the small front dorms. The tutor’s dorm, which was next to the tutor’s bedroom and slept four, was also known as the ‘naughty’ dorm.
At first most of the boys were boarding because their fathers were still serving in the armed forces in some capacity, following WW2. There were also College connections with Thailand and South America so some pupils came from those countries.
Bell House’s first housemaster was physics teacher E. W. Tapper, known as Bill to his colleagues but (for reasons unknown) Ernie to the boys. He organised a Sunday evening film show using his own projection equipment and continued to do this even after he had given up being housemaster. On Coronation Day 1953 the whole house wanted to watch the ceremony on television but there was not enough room to accommodate them all at the same time. Bill had the idea of giving those boys waiting to watch the job of digging a hole for an ornamental pond on the south side of the house, they could then take turns watching the small TV and letting off steam digging in the garden. It might have been better to site the pond where a WW2 bomb had fallen in the garden: no matter how often the hole was filled in and the lawn levelled, the ground would always sink slightly in this area.
Most of the garden was lawn, with a wilder part at the end (where Frank Dixon Close is now). There was a kitchen garden to the north side maintained by the family and the College with an enormous greenhouse down the middle and housing every kind of fruit imaginable. Gardening was the responsibility of the house master and Bill Tapper in particular was a keen gardener and kept the kitchen garden immaculate. In the summer his house tutor, Terry Walsh, often came back to his room after duty on Sundays to find a dish of strawberries or raspberries fresh from the garden and a small jug of cream. He was unable to help however, 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 a bee expert 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 beekeeper friend in Kent.
David Smart, who taught geography at the College from 1966-1987, had an allotment in the kitchen garden at Bell House, running the length of the brick wall that divides the kitchen garden from the ornamental one. He built a shed about halfway down the garden where he kept his tools and wheelbarrow and he would wheel his produce home to Roseway in Dulwich Village. At the time the chief College groundsman, Jim Dixon, lived in the Lodge and would grow prize chrysanthemums alongside David’s vegetables. David kept the allotment for about ten years until a change of groundsman led to a new plan for the garden and the allotment could no longer be accommodated.
In the 1950s the boys woke at 7am when they washed in cold baths, later in the 60s the water was warm and the baths were replaced by showers in 1971. They had breakfast in the buttery at school then went back to Bell House before returning to school for assembly at 9am. Evenings were occupied with prep and finished with a bath bun and a quarter pint of milk or hot cocoa on Sundays. At the weekend there were lessons on Saturday morning, sport in the afternoon and more prep at night. Sunday’s routine was chapel in the morning with the afternoon being the only significant free time the boys had during the week though in the 50s and 60s there was compulsory house rugby before free time. And then the treat of Mr Tapper’s film show on Sunday evening. One boarder remembers, ‘What today seems extraordinary is that our shoes were cleaned every night by Mr Roly, inevitably nicknamed Boots’. In the 60s Mr Roly was replaced by Mr Ellis who cleaned the shoes on a bench by the window near the shoe pigeon holes. The pigeon holes are still in place at Bell House as is the walk-in cupboard where matron dispensed the weekly quotas of starched and ironed shirts with detachable collars so stiff they sometime drew blood when they cut into the neck.
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 the boy grew the glass eye didn’t and so became loose. It was used in pranks like being dropped at inopportune moments or being rolled across desks to distract teachers. When Matron made her dormitory round late at night the boy would take the glass eye out and, shining a torch through it, slowly move it round above his bed.
Bill Tapper worked tirelessly for the Science Masters Association and was awarded the OBE. His wife, Barry, gave her time to the Distressed Gentlefolks Association. After ten years at Bell House 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’.
In the holidays David and Patricia Knight would hold celebrated New Year’s Eve parties in the ‘garden dorm’ (what was the drawing room in earlier 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 gives 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 (always known as the groundsman’s cottage) 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 herself when she wanted to avoid particular people.
Sickness at Bell House
During the Asian flu epidemic of 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 Knights’ 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.
A night to remember
On Bonfire Night that year the houses of Frank Dixon Close (which run along the back boundary of Bell House) hosted a joint 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, flashes 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 stars 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 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 to explain the incident. 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. In other years Bell House 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 help them with their ties and their stiff detachable collars. When a boy’s birthday fell in term-time, she would personally give him a small gift. One boy, who went on to fight in the Falklands Conflict, took time to send Knight a photograph of Ernest Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia, knowing that Shackleton (also a Dulwich pupil) 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. After that she blamed him for any and every misdemeanour she came across. She was even less forgiving the time he hid a mouse in her handbag. One boy 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, every inch the responsible adult, immaculately dressed in a suit, bowler hat and with a tightly-furled umbrella.
That the Knights 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 children, Roger and Cheryl, grew up at Bell House and remember the happy times they all had there, including sliding down the banisters and even climbing out of their bedroom windows to explore the roof, much to the consternation of their mother. Their father built a rock garden culminating in a waterfall into the pond outside the study. Roger was responsible for mowing the lawn which took two and a half hours and also for stoking the boiler, always a temperamental machine. They remember their mother ringing a handbell from the first floor to call them in from the garden for meals; they still have the bell. Roger and Cheryl went to Dulwich schools and both had happy birthday parties at the house. Roger went on to teach at Dulwich 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 though after the first one or two he realised the boys were much fitter than him so took his bicycle after that. At Dulwich the boarding house that came top of all sporting activities, house singing and various other competitions was named as ‘Cock House’ and Knight was always delighted when Bell House won this title. Regular activities included trips to Windsor Castle, the Old Vic and Streatham ice rink. Knight encouraged the boys to put on sketches and shows and helped with rehearsals. He arranged for masters such as John Heath, who taught Classics and Music, and Alan Morgan, head of music, to perform for the boys; the musicians on the first-floor landing with piano and other instruments and down in the hall below sat the guests on chairs and the boys on the floor. Christmas carols were always sung around the Christmas tree in the hall 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. Outings were arranged, by train to Brighton or by boat to Hampton Court. Roger had an elaborate model railway which had run around his bedroom, later it was transferred to the cellar and used to film elaborate crashes using Knight’s cine camera. Patricia also used it to distract homesick boys.
At the end of his time at Bell House Knight was presented with a silver salver inscribed with the word Bell. The Knights moved to 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. His salary was £700 p.a. including a £75 p.a. supplement for having done two years National Service and for holding a diploma in education. With bed and board paid a young house tutor had next to no outgoings so the salary was all disposable income. 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 doorbell separating the private side from the rest of the house. The house tutor, Matron, Joe the handyman 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. In the morning 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 got ready then assembled 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 and 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.
At this time 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 breakfast was an hour later than normal, 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.
Christopher Elston was a boarder at Bell House from 1962-65. It was his first time away from his parents who lived in Germany and after an initial spell of homesickness he settled happily into life at Bell House. His bed was in a corner of the garden dorm with a chest of drawers beside it and his tuck box underneath. After a year he moved into an upstairs dorm. Days were full of schoolwork, sport, prep and other activities but there was time for table tennis in the common room. billiards in the room next door and Sunday evening film shows. He fondly remembers David Knight’s treasure hunts around the house and garden: the housemaster’s blue Austin, always parked outside on the drive, furnished a bovine clue connected with its registration number MOO99. Christopher vividly remembers being in the common room doing his prep on 22 November 1963 when a master came in and told the boys that the American president had been assassinated. The radio on the common room mantelpiece was then turned on for the news.
Rules were strictly adhered to in the 60s, one deterrent being the cane which was kept in Mr Knight’s study though it was seldom used, a more usual punishment being an hour’s work in the garden or writing lines. Christopher Elston was proud to be made a monitor in his third year and was one of the last boys to fag for another as the tradition ended during his time at the College. When Christopher was a boarder life at Bell House was very formal. Only surnames were used never first names. Letters home were written on a weekly basis, to be left unsealed on the hall table, for the housemaster to post (and read if he was so minded). Matron was formal and distant, not the motherly figure of later holders if the post. Older boys set a test on College life for new boys after their first term, which they had to pass, on pain of drinking salted orange juice if they failed.
In 1967 John ‘Spud’ McInley, who had been a pupil at Dulwich College and returned to teach French, became housemaster. He had joined the College as a boy in 1939 when Booth was Master and was living in Bell House. He moved in with his wife Alice, son and daughter and Duke the dog. John’s father who had himself been a schoolmaster, also lived with them; he particularly enjoyed going to chapel with the boys on Sundays. Alice worked with Russell Vernon, the Estate architect, and made some changes to the house including the removal of the asbestos partition on the top floor which divided the housemaster’s bedrooms from the rest of the house. It was Alice who chose the yellow stairs and landing carpet which was still in use until very recently and she also designed the cupboards and shelves in the housemaster’s study which, although she did not know Lutyens was involved in the house and in particular in that room, are very similar to cupboards that Lutyens installed in houses in worked on. She would host dinner parties on the landing to take full advantage of the beautiful Venetian window on the first floor.
John ran Bell House in a much more relaxed way than the other boarding houses. His matrons, Mrs Grimwood and Mrs Simmonds, were an integral part of his team and he took a great deal of care over their appointment, knowing they were acting in loco parentis more than anybody. He introduced more homely touches such as replacing the two huge baths with smaller, individual baths and laster with showers. When he stopped being housemaster there was a huge turnout for his leaving party which was organised by Fergus Jamieson, one of his house tutors who had once taken over as house master for a month when McInley had a leave of absence.
Generally speaking, the ‘live-in’ house tutors were young and usually at the start of their careers. Fergus Jamieson started his career in teaching at Dulwich College and was the tutor at Bell House from 1970-75. He remembers his room fondly with its bright sunny aspect over the trees and shrubs of the ha-ha. There was plenty of room with a bed, table, two armchairs by the windows and two built in cupboards. Fergus put up large posters of famous composers. In return for their free accommodation young tutors were given something of a crash course in dealing with energetic young schoolboys; 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 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 Matron had a large laundry room on the ground floor, in what is now the office. There were two cleaning ladies to keep the house in order: in Fergus’s time they were Mrs Grimwood and Mrs Simmonds. Friday was pocket money day: boys would line up outside the housemaster’s study to collect their weekly pocket money. When Fergus Jamieson was house tutor he would be the ‘bank’ for any extra money parents might have left for their sons. If the boys ever needed money above their normal allowance, say for a particular trip or event, they would ask Mr Jamieson. The 1970s were a less monitored time and boys had a large amount of freedom. They would walk between the College and Bell House unsupervised and would move around London or even to travel home alone at the end of term. The freedom even extended to boys buying their own tickets from the travel agent in Dulwich Village. To let off steam 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.
Design & Technology teacher Tony Salter took over as housemaster in 1977, moving in with his wife Judith and daughters Emma and Joanna. He was heavily involved in the school cadet corps and would organise camping trips in the Brecon Beacons. He was also a member of the Territorial Army and helped organise the Lord Mayor’s Show. He was described as a ‘fine soldier whose service to Queen and country will not be forgotten’. In his spare time he was interested in clocks and would spend hours taking them apart and putting them back together in perfect working order.
The last housemaster of Bell House was Ian Senior who moved here with his wife, Astrid and two sons in 1987. Matron, the house tutor and around thirty 7-13 year olds completed the household. 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 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. At Christmas the great and the good of Dulwich were invited to join the boarders for their last meal of 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 were collected by their parents or guardians 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 themselves, Ian felt like ‘a country squire’. He remembers 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 spacious 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 huge 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 while Bill would come up from the College to clean the boys’ boots and shoes. Matron organised bath rotas and there was a line drawn in the bath to ensure boys did not waste water. After rugby the three slipper baths would be filled and boys would jump into each one in turn, the first bath would get rid of most of the mud with the next two being used to get properly clean. Matron would organise their uniforms and every few weeks would arrange for a barber to come in who would set up a chair in one of the dorms 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 dealt with more serious illnesses. Matron had a bedsit on the ground floor with a small kitchen next door where she would prepare snacks for the boys and treats such as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
In 1992 the College briefly considered leasing the house for the new kindergarten (now Dulwich College Kindergarten School or DUCKS) before the Dulwich Estate sold the house to Andrew Cullen who lived here until 2016 when it was bought by the Hanton Educational Trust.