Above: Bell House photographed from one of the two entrances to the double drive beside College Road.
One of the largest properties built as a private house in Dulwich, the house is over 10,000 square feet in size and is set in two acres of mature private gardens. The house is Grade II* listed on the National Heritage List for England. It was built in 1767 for Thomas Wright (1722-98), who became Sheriff of the City of London in 1779 and Lord Mayor of London in 1785.
Bell House is one of the few large houses that remain in Dulwich. At one time there were many more but houses built for large wealthy families with plenty of servants are not in demand these days. Due to them having large gardens, like Bell House, developers have their greedy eyes set on such properties, thinking how many ‘little boxes’ they can cram into the site and how much profit they can make. What with the bombing during the Second World War and the building of large housing estates afterwards, many of the large houses, of which this is a good example, have been reduced to rubble in the name of progress – and, of course, profit.
Bell House stands beside College Road, towards the northern end, which means it is not far from the actual village centre with its quaint little shops. On its northern side is a large building once used as the coach-house, in the days of horse-drawn, privately owned carriages. It would have had bays for storing the carriage (or carriages). In addition, there would have been stables for the horses and possibly a small part of the building was lived in by the coachman. From the road, the house has a double drive. The main reason for such a drive was because, for a horse-drawn carriage, it was easier for a horse to continue moving forwards when pulling a carriage.
In 1833, Bell House was extended to provide servants’ quarters. Further extensions were made in the 1870s. In 1918 Sir Edwin Lutyens was engaged to carry out further alterations.
Above: A view of the bell turret on the top of the house.
The name of the house is due to an unusual feature for a private house – the bell-turret on top, complete with a bell. The reason for building the house with a bell on the top has never been explained although the bell has been put to good use over the centuries. For example, it is known to have been used as the village fire bell – to warn people of fire in the village – in the days before telephones. Whenever a fire broke out in the village, the bells of Bell House and the Dulwich College chapel were rung to gather help in pumping water for the village fire engine.
Thomas Wright lived at Bell House from 1767 until his death on 7 April 1798. He lived there with his wife Ann. Wright was a member of the Stationers’ Company and he became a printer and paper merchant. He and his brother opened a shop in the chapel building on old London Bridge. The original chapel, at road level on the bridge, served as their shop and below, in what had been the crypt, they used for their warehouse. They made a great amount of money from supplying paper to government departments. Wright’s was very successful in bidding for monopolies, like the right to print and sell almanacks and also printing the Bible, a highly profitable franchise.
While living at Bell House, Wright commuted from his Dulwich residence to his shop on London Bridge which a new idea at that time. In earlier years, it would have been customary to live near his place of work.
So far, we have kept to the facts. That brings us to some interesting stories about the house and its grounds that have been passed down by ‘old-timers’ in Dulwich and are still repeated today. It is not possible to establish whether the information is accurate.
One story goes that the bell was also used to warn travellers, on their way to Penge from Dulwich, of highwaymen on Sydenham Hill. College Road leads up to the high ground where today’s Crystal Palace Parade meets the road called Sydenham Hill. College Road was a known through-route for those who were travelling south to Penge and Penge Common.
Another story relates to the land in front of the house. On the wide side verge of College Road, there is a curious ‘hollow’ in the ground which is unique to Bell House. There is also a splendid large tree growing there. It is said that local shepherds used to sleep at night with their flock in the hollow in front of the house.
The two tales illustrate how countrified Dulwich once was and how people passing through the open countryside would have felt ‘out in the wilds’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether the tales are true or not they certainly make a good story.
Later Uses of the House
After Wright died in 1798, the house was lived in by several families. Dulwich College took over the lease of Bell House in 1926 and it became the official residence of the Master of the College in 1927. During the Second World War, the Master moved out of Bell House to a smaller house.
In 1947 the building became a junior boarding house for about 30 boys attending Dulwich College, aged up to 13 years. There was a housemaster who lived in with his wife and children, a matron and house tutor both of whom also lived in. A tutor who did not live at the house also came to carry out supervising duties. When it first opened, most boys were boarding at the College because their fathers were still serving in the armed forces in some capacity, following the Second World War. There were also College connections with Thailand and South America, so some pupils came from those countries. In 1993 Bell House was returned to private ownership, due to the reduced need for a second junior boarding house.
In the summer of 2016, the house was purchased by an educational charity – the Bell House Dulwich. It offers support outside the mainstream school curriculum, lifelong learning, short courses, exhibitions, talks and musical events. It is also a centre for educational needs such as dyslexia support.
As a final footnote, the two pictures above were taken in 2015 – the year before the charity acquired the property. All the vegetation growing near College Road has now been cleared. The large wall in front of the property has also been taken down and elegant railings have been erected along the line of the old wall. The changes have opened up the aspect of the house from the road but, of course, it now does not look the same as when the house was first built. For that reason, the older pictures have been included above.