Lesser Known London-Grove Hill Estate

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Site of Grove Hill Estate (Grove Hill Road and Camberwell Grove)

At the beginning of the 19th century, there lived at Grove Hill Dr. John Lettsom, one of the most extraordinary men of his day. As a Quaker physician he was most successful, realizing sometimes as much as £12,000 a year. He was as liberal and philanthropic as he was wealthy. At Grove Hill, he entertained some of the most eminen tliterati of his time. He used to sign his prescriptions “I. Lettsom.” This signature occasioned the following epigram:

“When any patients call in haste,

I physics, bleeds, and sweats ’em;

If after that they choose to die,

Why, what cares I?

I let’s ’em.”

Dr. John Coakley Lettsom was the son of a West Indian planter, and was born in the year 1744. Having completed his education in England, he was apprenticed to a Yorkshire apothecary. He afterwards returned to the West Indies, and settled as a medical practitioner at Tortola. After about five or six months, he again found his way into Europe. In 1769, he was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and in the following year elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Dr. Lettsom’s rise in his profession was rapid; but whilst realizing a handsome fortune, he was not forgetful of the wants of his needy brethren, and the poorer order of clergy and struggling literary men received from him not only gratuitous advice, but substantial aid; whilst his contributions to charitable institutions placed him in the front rank of earnest and practical philanthropists. Dr. Lettsom deserves also to be remembered as the original proprietor of the sea-bathing Infirmary at Margate, which dates from 1792 or thereabouts. Numerous anecdotes have been published about the celebrated physician, but the following will sufficiently illustrate his proverbial generosity, which we tell on the authority of Mr. Blanch:—”As he was travelling on one occasion in the neighborhood of London, a highwayman stopped his carriage; but from the awkward and constrained manner of the intruder, the doctor correctly imagined the young man was somewhat of a novice in his new vocation, and that he was an outlaw more from necessity than from choice; and so it turned out. The doctor interested himself in his behalf, and eventually obtained him a commission in the army. On one of his benevolent excursions, the doctor found his way into the squalid garret of a poor woman who had seen better days. With the language and deportment of a lady, she begged the physician to give her a prescription. After inquiring carefully into her case, he wrote on a slip of paper to the overseers of the parish: ‘A shilling per diem for Mrs. Moreton. Money, not physic, will cure her.'” Unhappily, though Dr. Lettsom had been successful in his profession, his later years were darkened with adversity.

Dr. Lettsom’s house is called by Priscilla Wakefield, in 1809, “an elegant villa.” She is at the pains of describing it as follows:—”The front is adorned with emblematical figures of Flora and the Seasons. One of the chief ornaments of the house is a noble library, in which are tastefully disposed the busts of many distinguished literary characters. The gardens and pleasure-grounds are laid out in a pleasing manner, and display a variety of statues and models of ancient temples. That of the Sibyls is on the model of one at Tivoli, and is supported on the trunks of eighteen oak-trees, around which are entwined ivy, virgin’s bower, honeysuckle, and other climbing shrubs.”

The author of “The British Traveller,” in describing the parish in 1819, makes no mention of anybody or anything in Camberwell further than this, that it contained the residence of the “late famous Dr. Lettsom.” The house is described in Manning and Bray’s “History of Surrey” as “standing on a considerable eminence, rising gradually for about three-quarters of a mile from the village of Camberwell, and passing through an avenue of elms retaining the name of Camberwell Grove.”

After Lettsom sold the estate, it began to be built over for housing, initially from 1819 by William Whitten.From 1840, the house was used as a girls’ school called Pelican House, but it was later demolished by railway engineer William Chadwick who bought Lettsom’s mansion in the 1890s. A small portion of the estate survived and was saved from further development by the Lettsom Gardens Association in 1980. Lettsom Gardens is a haven for nature with grassland and two areas of woodland that have a number of trees including mulberries possibly descended from those planted by Dr Lettsom. Adjacent are Camberwell Gardens Guild allotments.

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