The Changing Face of Norwood

Published 1960

One hundred and thirty years spans little more than two generations but in that time there have been many changes in Beulah Hill. As the Dark Ages recede before settled cultivation and the gradual accumulation of records, Beulah Hill appears as part of the dense woodland which once covered the greater part of England. As the population of each settlement increased, so gradually the woods were cleared, and Beulah Hill was no exception. Almost within living memory green fields served as rich pasture for the meat and milk London required. Below the surface lies thick clay and there have been few arable crops, but watching the never-ending stream of cars and buses it is difficult even to visualise the calm quiet of hedgerow and browsing cattle. There was a time when London seemed very far away and the idea of nothing but endless streets and houses from the Thames to Upper Norwood would have seemed absurd, but in the 18th and 19th centuries London grew as no city had ever grown before. Roads improved, travel became easier, and the first houses other than farm buildings appeared on what was to become the street known as Beulah Hill.

In Regency times, ‘Innisfail’, ‘The Sycamores’, and ‘The Yews’ were all erected and parts of ‘The Priory’ date back to earlier times. Apart from these four houses, all grouped together, nothing appeared until the Beulah Spa itself became fashionable. In 1831, one of England’s most prominent architects, Decimus Burton, responsible for much of Tunbridge Wells, endless country houses, and the elegant screen at Hyde Park Corner, laid out the whole of the gardens around the Beulah Spa and designed the Beulah Spa Hotel. The lower half of Grange road was called Decimus Burton Road in his honour until the 1850’s and the lodge at the entrance to the Beulah Spa grounds, now called Tivoli Lodge, was known as Barton Lodge in 1855, an obvious mis-spelling of Burton Lodge. From its style and the fact that the Beulah Spa and Gardens were Burton’s work, it seemed definite that the charming little lodge and the much mutilated gardens are all that remain of Burton’s planning. The Beulah Spa Hotel many people remember was demolished about 1935 and owed little to Burton since it was largely reconstructed in 1859 at a cost of £1,040.

In 1836 T.W. Atkinson, well known in his time as a provincial church architect and designer of country villas, erected a crescent at Beulah Spa. Three of these houses remain much as he built them (Nos. 47, 59 and 61). Where Nos. 49 and 51 now stand were two more of his charming houses which were demolished between the wars, and Little Menlo was almost completely reconstructed by Ernest Newton in 1888, although parts of the original villa can still be detected. No. 57 was altered in 1864 by Sextus Dyball, whose heavy hand still determines much of the road’s character. All Saints’ Church was built by James Savage, 1827-29, to serve the growing neighbourhood of Upper Norwood, but apart from a few cottages between the Church and what is now the Rectangle, there was nothing but fields on Beulah Hill. In the 1850’s, The Rectangle was the Beulah Hill Beer Shop and its style places it as an earlier building, probably a public house in the 1830’s serving those visitors to the Spa requiring something stronger than mineral waters. In 1876 it was renamed The Rectangle, and its rather incongruous castellated entrance was probably added then.

Eight of the houses on the perimeter of the Spa grounds were created to satisfy the demand for prosperous villas for the rich upper middle classes. Solid and impressive they stand as massive evidence of the days when servants were cheap and money bought a great a deal. They were built between 1859 and 64, and cost from £1,000 and £2,000. Opposite the Spa Hotel stand four villas of the same period: those with 4 bedrooms and 3 reception rooms cost only £450 each! The 1870’s and ‘80’s saw a continued demand for large family dwellings and the road was largely completed by the end of this period. St. Joseph’s College was originally a private mansion, built on the site of an earlier building, and designed on a princely scale in 1883 by George Highton for Mr. E. J. Fry at a cost of £5,389: a magnificent sum for those days. Most of the additional buildings were added in 1913 onwards.

Those who find the recent changes in the road, and indeed the district, rather overwhelming, should remember that the process has been continuous for the last 130 years. Building and demolition have gone on almost without interruption, and as the social climate changes, so inevitably must the houses. The sheer solidity of much Victorian building however preserves for us intact a rather impractical remnant from the past, and at night when the cars are in the garages and much that is new lies concealed in shadow, the silhouettes of our Victorian builders can still hold back history in the imagination, and speak of more than a hundred years ago.

(The above was contributed to the fourth issue of The Norwood Review in 1960. It serves as a reminder of what was, and what might have been).

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