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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Dr. Lettsom's Grove Hill Estate /

Lettsom Gardens

These Coade stone tablets are on the façade of a house in Camberwell Road, a familiar sight for those who travel regularly along the road. They represent Liberality, Plenty and Flora, and were originally installed on the façade of a villa, Grove Hill, situated at the top of what is now Camberwell Grove.  The villa belonged

Lettsom plaque 2 Lettsom Plaque 1

He was born into a Quaker family in the British Virgin Islands in 1744.  Educated in Lancashire, he completed an apprenticeship to an apothecary in Yorkshire which awakened his passion for botany. Moving to London in 1766, he commenced his medical training at St Thomas’ Hospital and met Dr John Fothergill, a successful physician in Bloomsbury, who became his mentor.  Dr Fothergill had a renowned garden at Upton that rivalled the botanic gardens at Kew for the number of rare and valuable plants.  Dr Lettsom’s medical training was interrupted by the death of his father and he returned to the British Virgin Islands where he freed the slaves he inherited from his father.    

Lettsom family Wellcome

He returned to Europe and completed his medical training at Leyden in 1769, married in 1770 and embarked on an illustrious career as a physician.  His achievements and philanthropic acts were many and include the founding of the Aldersgate Dispensary for the benefit of the poor and the first charitable dispensary to be opened in London, founded the Medical Society of London and was a founder-member of the Royal Humane Society.

Dr & Mrs Lettsom with five of their eight children

In 1779 Dr Lettsom purchased a 99 year building lease for an area of land that measured two and a quarter acres located just south of Camberwell, then a rural village set amid fields with some large houses. He described Camberwell society at that time as follows:

 

“In Camberwell village there are few poor inhabitants and not many overgrown fortunes. Among those who may be deemed of the superior class a general equality prevails, both as to exterior appearance and mental cultivation.  They consist chiefly of respectable merchants and tradesmen, and those holding eligible situations in the public offices.”

 

The land Dr Lettsom acquired was a part of the manor of Camberwell which following bankruptcy had been divided and sold to five purchasers. Lettsom was to increase his holding to 10 acres by 1792.  The move to Camberwell gave his growing family more space and a healthier environment, and it gave him the land where he could indulge his love of botany, horticulture and agriculture.  After his mentor Dr Fothergill’s death in 1780, he acquired 2,000 rare plants from Fothergill’s estate at Upton by auction which he transported to Grove Hill and was “ready to water their foliage with tears that are due to the memory of their late possessor.”

Grove Hill was built in 1780 and was reached by travelling uphill along what is now Camberwell Grove but then a gracious avenue lined by tall elms.  The house comprised three storeys with four rooms on each floor. Wings were added a few years later which provided an entrance hall, library and museum, and an adjoining greenhouse.   The front elevation was

Lettsom Wellcome

The garden was a marvel and attracted the greatest admiration, not just for its planting but for its statuary on classical themes.   Lettsom himself wrote a pamphlet describing it. He described the pleasure garden consisting of about one acres enclosed by a brick wall with espaliered fruit trees.  It contained a bowling green and statues of Urania holding a globe and group representing Hygeia repelling the Fates.  The pleasure garden contained two oval flowerbeds, one devoted to shurbs from America and the other to English and European plants.

 

Elsewhere in the garden was a statue representing Contemplation and a tablet on the adjoining wall that showed the Great Pyramid of Egypt and the goddess Isis. There was a kitchen garden, a stovehouse for tender plants, a hothouse and a conservatory topped by a figure of Flora.  Pigs and hens were kept on a small farm and in addition there was an aviary and menagerie.  There was an orchard where trees were interspersed by fruit bushes and a ‘melonary’ where melons ripened.

 

There was an temple of the Sibyls, an observatory encircled by marble busts of figures from antiquity, bee-hives, a canal, a cold bath and a pond.  The canal was fed by water from a spring with Dr Lettson maintained was the well that gave its name to Camberwell.

 

The grounds contained three ornamental cottages, and one still survives at the top of Camberwell Grove.  It has been enlarged and is Grade II listed.  Another of the cottages, Fountain Cottage, was named after a fountain where water spouted from a mermaid’s mouth into four Portland stone basins.  This cottage was demolished in the 1860s to make way for the railway.

 

Dr Lettsom was a hospitable and generous man and his house and garden attracted many visitors. In 1804 he held a fete for 800 guests where tables were shaped into miniature temples arranged with ‘an abundance of every delicacy.’  But sadly Dr Lettsom suffered a reversal not long afterwards.  His biographer Thomas Pettigrew is discreet saying only that “a train of adverse circumstances, originating in the prodigality of his benevolence” obliged Dr Lettsom to sell Grove Hill and move to smaller accommodation in the City of London.  He died in 1815.  

lettsom plaque lettsom Gardens

There is little left today to remind us of this kindly, benevolent man and his cherished house and garden. The garden was built over from the 1840s onwards and his house demolished in the 1890s to make way for four houses in Grove Park, one of which bears a blue plaque in commemoration.   Lettsom Street off Camberwell Grove and a small local authority estate bear his name.  In 1980 Lettsom Gardens at the very southernmost of the Grove Hill estate was formed as a result of a local campaign to save the site from development and contains woodland and grassland areas, allotments and a children’s play area.

 

Source:  Penelope Hunting, Dr John Coakley Lettsom, Plant-Collector of Camberwell in Garden History,Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter, 2006), pp. 221-235

to Dr John Coakley Lettsom, an esteemed physician, botanist and philanthropist.  

decorated with the stone tablets shown above, an iron balustrade and Coade stone balustrades, urns and sphinxes.