Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Located just off Peckham Rye Common, The Gardens is a Victorian Square consisting of tall houses that centre around a private railed garden. Today a much sought after place to live, it was built between 1870 to 1880 for the middle classes, newly attracted to the area with the building of the railway that made commuting into the centre of London easier.
Exploring Southwark was recently contacted (November 2016) by a former tenant, who first lived in The Gardens in 1980. She thought the history of the square may be of interest and indeed it is. Her article is reproduced below, with many thanks.
An elderly lady who lived next door told me that the philanthropic owner of the house, whose name I have forgotten, had the ambition of acquiring the entire square with a view to making low-cost flats for people on low incomes but only managed to buy three quarters of it. During World War Two she let empty properties for free to those whose houses had been bombed. She left the square in her will to her grandson and his two sisters who were too young to manage it (he was 9 years old) so it went into the hands of trustees, Mr and Mrs Miller, and became known as Conway Tilt's, later the Tilt Estate Company. The estate extended to some houses in Lordship Lane, Peckham Rye, Barry Road, with holiday lets in a mansion in the Thames Valley.
Mrs Miller let a flat to me in the square for £9 a week in 1980. I was a student, and intended to stay for six months. There was no such thing as a contract, I just moved in the next day. The hall had 1950s wallpaper, original cornice work, remains of gas lighting, a servants' bell and a grandiose, highly polished carved mahogany and wrought iron staircase. All the houses had original features, including decorative ceilings and stained glass windows in bathrooms, etc. Some houses had stucco turret-like oriel windows (still visible) with window seats, or mullion windows with Gothic details. Many houses had wrought iron verandas, balustrades and balconies overlooking large back lawns and trees, and some still have roof gardens. There were two houses with pay-telephone boxes in the hall. These houses were never locked, so that any tenants could go in and use the phones.
Number 48 was originally owned by the father of Mr Austin of Austin's Antiques whose cavernous showroom was at the northern end of Peckham Rye. (The showroom was demolished in 1994 and replaced by a residential development named Austin’s Court.) Mr Austin's son told me that his father was born in the house. People used to ride horses and carriages round the square and many houses were owned by lawyers and doctors. Servants lived in the basement and there are still vestiges of stables in a few driveways. One record notes that there were tennis courts and a croquet lawn in the square.
Unfortunately, when the heir of the former owner was old enough to take over the running of the square (c.1996), he had different ideas, and eventually I and several others were forced out in order to renovate the flats and increase rents considerably. Soon after he sold the entire portfolio for £47m to Grainger plc, a property management company in 2007. I returned to the square in 2010 but I have to leave at the end of this year, again because of developers.
During the early time I was there, many events took place in the central square: fetes, various charity events and parties with marquees, etc. Every year there was a prize for the best kept garden. Mrs Miller and her husband ran the square in the spirit of the original owner's wishes: that it should be for charitable purposes. There was a gardener on hand, a plumber, several workmen, and an electrician who would come out immediately if anything was needed. Mrs Miller also founded and ran a charity from the office at Prospect Place, 152 Peckham Rye, The Janet Trust Fund, which provided a yellow minibus for disabled people in Dulwich and Peckham during the 1970s/1980s in memory of their daughter. When they retired to Devon, they hired the French restaurant, Le Moulin in Lordship Lane near the Dulwich Plough, for a goodbye party and invited all the tenants and workers for an evening of food and wine.
A film crew regularly filmed in the square (including my house) for TV series including London's Burning. At that stage it was one of the most complete unaltered Victorian squares in London. In a real-life drama, a helicopter landed in the square a few years ago to make an emergency rescue of an injured workman who had fallen from scaffolding.
Several people have lived in The Gardens for decades and, with protected tenancies, many pay less than a social rent but houses are now being developed by the current owners. The square is at the heart of a small Conservation Area, but with the loss of original Victorian interiors, gardens and architectural features, it is sad to see so much history being erased.