Clapham Park, the dream of Thomas Cubitt
Except for some isolated farms, like Bleak Hall Farm, eighteenth-century maps show no development between the back of Brixton Hill and the houses facing the South side of Clapham Common. From London, this area was only accessible to the upper-middle class that could afford the coach commute. During the early nineteenth century, Thomas Cubitt saw this barrier as an opportunity. His mission was to convert that barren land into a new upper-class neighbourhood.
Thomas Cubitt, the developer behind Clapham Park
Thomas Cubitt was originally a carpenter, but his entrepreneurial skills made him the most excellent London developer of his time. Cubitt built dense terraces with central private squares from Barnsbury to Bloomsbury and Belgravia. But although still a speculative development, Clapham Park was different. It offered a better quality of life in connection with nature and away from the Big Smoke. Cubitt’s vision for Clapham Park reinforces his innovative attitude.
Cubitt’s work in those other developments certainly brought him to Clapham. His first major work, The London Institution in Finsbury Circus, introduced him to personalities like Henry Thornton and George Hibbert, both merchants and bankers with properties in Clapham. Otherwise, it could have been Crescent Grove. Possibly by Cubitt, these two terraces extend around a private square and behind lodges facing Clapham South Side in the style of those in London.
The major Victorian speculative development in Clapham
In 1825, one year after the works started at Crescent Grove, Cubitt bought the 250 acres of Bleak Hill.[i] In 1827, the builder and his family moved to Cavendish House on Clapham South Side while refurbishing Bridgeman’s mansion. This house, within the Clapham’s Park territory, would be later known as Cubitt’s or Lincoln House. They relocated in 1834 (1832?), where they would stay until 1850 when they moved to Denbies in Dorking (Surrey), where Cubitt died in 1855.[ii]
A significant consideration went into the infrastructure of the speculative development, from forming a new sewage system[iii] to a network of roads. The improvement of Dragmore Lane (now Cavendish Rd) created coach access to Clapham Common. The creation of Clarence Road and Kings Road (now both avenues) connected the area to the main road to London. And Poynder Rd and Queen’s Rd (now part of the South Circular) joined it with Streatham.[iv]
Horse chestnuts, hawthorns and laburnums lined the streets of Clapham Park [v]. Each plot was between half and three acres in size. Each included at least one Italianate villa and a frontal carriage entry and exit. The entry path took most of the at least 100 feet frontage of the plots (30.48m). More extensive properties included greenhouses, stables and other facilities. The exceptional greenery of the area and part of the original layout are still recognisable today.
Cubitt made no allowance for a public space or other services. The only non-residential buildings were the predecessor St James Church in Park Hill (1829) and the new district church, St John’s (1840-2). Moreover, there were nursery grounds to provide for the new planting and a brick field at the end of Lyham Rd (then Pleasant Retreat) for Cubitt’s construction and to sell to subcontractors. Clapham was to cover any other needs.
The locally and listed buildings today in Clapham Park
Cubitt developed only some of the sites as a reference. His buildings established the quality standard for other developers who took ownership of different plots in the area. Some of Cubitt’s buildings still stand. Some are grade II listed buildings: White House (24 Thorton Rd), 58 Thorton Rd and Victoria House (84 Kings Av.). Moreover, the properties in Park Hill with a laurel wreath on the entrance porch, , his signature, may be also by him. This includes numbers 99 and 105, plus the locally listed 111, 115, 119 and 121.
Other survivors from Clapham Park, built by others, are the grade II listed Mosaic Clubhouse (126 Atkins Rd) by William Cooper. The formerly Meaburn and grade II listed by Charles I. Aldin. And outside the Italianate villa style, the grade II listed was originally named Gothic Lodge and Fern Cottage by William Eicke (138 -140 New Park Rd). The only terrace of the development was the grade II listed Park Terrace (209-231 Cavendish Rd) by William Nash.
For more on listed buildings in the area, refer to The Buildings of Clapham by The Clapham Society.
Some of today’s Clapham Park survivors were in fact built following the death of Cubitt. The listed buildings 4, 6 and 14 in Kings Av., and the locally listed number 12 in the same avenue built by Henry Harris in c1860. He lived in Alver Bank, the house locally listed at the end of Northbourne Rd (17 West Rd). And the atmospheric semidetached houses on Northbourne Rd were possibly also by him.
The decline and end of the dream
The economic crisis and the opening of the first passenger railway in London in 1936 brought the end of Cubitt’s dream. The bankruptcy of numerous banks stopped investment, and a new fast and easy access to London’s outskirts made Clapham Park a less desirable location.[vi] Nevertheless, development continued through the 1840s but not without setbacks as builders became bankrupt and the construction of terraces proliferated.
In 1870 the tram horses, which allowed for a higher capacity than the earlier omnibuses, made the area accessible to the lower classes. The model of an isolated house was dead and higher density allowed for further accommodation. The demolition of Thornbury House in the 1880s sets an example of the change in the area. The plot was subdivided for the construction of terraces along Thornbury Rd. The same happened in Rodenhurst Road and the developments around Abbeville Road.
The arrival of the underground in 1900 further increased the population. The upper-class villas were demolished or converted into flats during the interwar period. Incentivised by war damage, decay, and the eagerness for modernity, further demolitions came in the post-war years. The construction of the 1960s South Circular further distorted Cubitt’s idyllic Clapham Park. The area between the South of Clapham Common and Brixton Hill is now broken down into different areas; ‘Abbeville village’, Park Hill, ‘North Balham’… But despite the changes of the last two centuries, Cubitt’s vision contributed to the character of today’s Clapham Park.
[ii] Thomas Cubitt Master Builder by Hermione Hobhouse; Clapham Past
[iii] (available in googlebooks) Old Clapham, Based on a Lecture Delivered in the Year 1885 at the St. Matthews; Church Institution and at the Clapham Hall by John William Grover · 1892
[iv] Thomas Cubitt Master Builder by Hermione Hobhouse
[v] Gillian Clegg, Clapham Past, Historical Publications Ltd,1998