THE WISSMANN FAMILY
Rudolf Wissmann was a naturalised German whose son, John, became Dulwich's first fatality of WW1 when he died on the Western Front.
Ludwig Wilhelm Rudolf Wissmann (known as Rudolf) was born in 1855 in Hanover, 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 as a lieutenant. 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.
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, for example 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 (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!’.
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.