A Short History of Fawnbrake Avenue

We’ve heard people wondering about the history of our street, so it might be useful to jot down some key dates and developments. Like several other areas of Herne Hill, Fawnbrake Avenue feels outright Edwardian in its architectural language. But it wasn’t all built at the same time. Which makes this post a little longer than our usual ones.

Herne Hill as a small township developed later than, for instance, Brixton. In the mid-Victorian years, much of the prominent domestic housing hereabouts consisted of the generous mansions and villas with generous gardens, occupied by the “carriage trade” gentry leaving central London, dotted along both sides of Denmark Hill and Herne Hill: now, for the most part, replaced by more modern housing. Down in the centre, the railway station arrived in 1862, at first known as “Hernehill” Station and, as in many other places, this was both a stimulus of and a reaction to urban development and population increases.

A glance at an extract from the Ordnance Survey map of 1870 shows the beginning of this phase of local history. Fawnbrake Avenue and similar streets did not yet exist, but some landmarks are already visible: St Paul’s Church and the neighbouring vicarage (now of course Herne Hill School) and the Half Moon Public House. The railway station can also be seen, operated by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway. But many of the other features visible here will later be swept away: notice, if you can spot it, the clearly imposing residence known as The Cedars placed between what will later become Kestrel Avenue and Gubyon Avenue. Otherwise on our side of the slope it’s mainly fields, trees and gardens, many belonging to grand houses which front on to Herne Hill itself.

Skip forward to the next generation of the Ordnance Survey Map, surveyed in 1894/96 and published in 1897. Alongside Herne Hill itself and Denmark Hill (not visible on this extract) the big mansions are still there.

Fawnbrake arrives – just!

But on our patch, Fawnbrake Avenue has now appeared, linked to the main road by Gubyon and Kestrel Avenues. The Cedars is clinging on, though with a diminished garden it seems.

What is noteworthy is that the newly-created Fawnbrake Avenue is very curtailed. It only extends as far as the boundaries of the back gardens at the bottom of the eastern edge of Kestrel Avenue –as far as number 27 in present-day numbering. Today, where this row of houses ends, there is a gap between 27 and 29, and a noticeable change of design in the front facade of the houses.

My amateur research in the Electoral Register confirms that no. 5 Fawnbrake Avenue was definitely inhabited by 1893.

After no. 27 on this first row of houses on the north-west side of Fawnbrake, it’s still green fields.

But visible on our northern fringe is part of the Milkwood Estate developed by the Suburban Village & General Dwellings Company. Here Lowden Road had already been established in the 1870s. The map shows its long terrace of houses (with their short back gardens, as now) completed all the way up to Poplar Walk.

The electric tramway along Milkwood Road is also shown on the map, along with Neville’s Bakery, to be superseded in a later generation by the Milkwood Community Park and an extension of Jessop School.

Filling up the Avenue

The extension of Fawnbrake beyond no. 27 depended, naturally, on someone buying the land and (usually the same person) erecting the houses and extending the street. Property developers and speculators were still seizing opportunities to acquire land to infill. The land for my own house (81) and its two immediate neighbours either side was parcelled up for sale as building lots in 1899.

Who owned the land? Mr Sanders, mostly

Thanks to the meticulous research made by our neighbour Laurence Marsh, who is a notable local historian, and others writing for the Herne Hill Society’s historical collection, we know that the major landowners hereabouts were the Sanders family. In this instance, Robert Arthur Sanders was the landowner, being the great-grandson of Samuel Sanders (see Herne Hill Personalities) who had made his money in timber in the 18th century and bought more than 100 acres on the Lambeth side of Denmark Hill and Herne Hill.

Samuel himself lived in one of the houses he had built on Denmark Hill, in what is now Ruskin Park. As Laurence has established, it was Robert Arthur Sanders (1867-1940), later MP for Bridgwater, who started to sell off building land at the end of the 19th century. Later, Robert Sanders also sold some of his land to the LCC to establish Ruskin Park.

Laurence believes that most of Fawnbrake is built on Sanders land. Laurence’s own house was, and so was mine: I have a copy of the deed of conveyance dated 3 February 1899 whereby Robert Sanders and Isabella Sanders (his wife) sold the plot of land (consisting of land which now houses numbers 79, 81 and 83), to a Mr Arthur Walter Tribe – although the Vendor (the Sanders estate) reserved the right to approve the plans for these houses.

Gubbins vs. Sanders

However that first small original stretch of houses that marked the start of Fawnbrake was not built on Sanders land but on property belonging to the trustees of the Gubbins family, who owned the land on which Gubyon, Kestrel, Cosbycote, Shardcroft, Woodquest and Rollscourt Avenues were also built. When it came to extending the original short stretch of Fawnbrake, there was a legal dispute – perhaps let’s call it a negotiation – between the Gubbins and Sanders trustees which was resolved, as you might expect, by a handsome payment to the Gubbins trustees.

(We should assume, Laurence advises, that the Sanders estate (and no doubt the Gubbins land too) would have been parcelled up and sold to builders/developers under building leases (often for 99 years), which meant that the original owners retained the freehold, taking a ground rent of a few guineas a year. It would have been several generations later, maybe half way through the 20th century, that householders bought the freehold.)

Tribe’s the man

So Mr Tribe was the builder-developer for our little plot: there will have been others for different parcels of land, which will account for the differing styles along the length of the street. Mr Tribe lost little time in getting the houses built, as we know that number 81 at least was first registered to an individual owner in August 1902. Not long after, we hear of controversy about the cost of paving the road, which had to be shared among ratepayers. On that, more on another occasion perhaps.

Thanks again to Laurence’s investigations, we now know, too, that Arthur Walter Tribe was an architect and surveyor, born in Kennington in no great wealth: his father was a bricklayer. He died in 1942, leaving a decent fortune.

The 20th century dawns

So by the turn of the century, our urban landscape, at least in these streets, was edging closer to what we now know. The next decade, running up to the start of the First World War, saw the progressive completion of the Avenue largely as we see it today, roughly when Queen Victoria died (January 1901) and was succeeded by Edward VII. (So our street is a mix of late Victorian and (mainly) early Edwardian architecture.)

The 1913 edition of the Ordnance Survey confirms this milestone. Fawnbrake Avenue is by then in its current condition, missing only the link into Brantwood Road which of course did not appear until the 1920s/30s. As far as I can tell from the Electoral Register, number 71 was occupied by 1901, and number 81 by 1903. The letterbox shown on the map outside nos. 79/81, and bearing the cipher of Edward VII, is still here! Whether house building proceeded unit by unit along the street until the road was complete, or in different plots according to the financial state of the housing market, it is not easy to say without further research.

Note on the map that the electric tramway (between West Norwood and the City) is still visible at this point, coming up Milkwood Road from Loughborough Junction with a little branch running along Lowden Road. The tram system was wound up in the 1950s.

So since Edwardian times, Fawnbrake Avenue’s domestic architecture has seen almost no outward change, though of course the arrival of the motor car has made a difference …

World War II

But we must recall that there was a little interruption from the Luftwaffe whose bombs took out a couple of houses (identifiable by their post-war rebuilds) at nos. 133-135: see this extract from the extraordinary  LCC Bomb Damage Maps. (The next bombs to be released from the same aircraft demolished several houses in Lowden Road, where again the post-war rebuilds are obvious.)

The same map also shows bomb damage at the other end of the street, at numbers 1 and 2, which I hadn’t previously been aware of. If rebuilds and repairs were necessary, they have been carried out to match the pre-existing architecture.

On these maps, incidentally, a building colour-coded black normally means it was totally destroyed; other colours indicate varying degrees of damage and repairability. But by comparison with other areas, elsewhere in London, in Britain and in Germany, our streets escaped lightly.

Narrow escape

Nevertheless if we’d been around on 23 August 1944, we would all have heard a massive explosion when a V-1 flying bomb narrowly missed Milkwood Road but took out properties on the northern section of Shakespeare Road, just across the railway lines. Four houses were demolished and 40 damaged, but miraculously, no lives were lost on this occasion. This was the last of five V-1’s to hit our area in 1944.

Still, over 6,000 people were killed (mainly in and around London) by V-1’s and over 17,000 seriously injured and maimed.


Much more local history is accessible through the publications of the Herne Hill Society including:

Herne Hill Heritage Trail
Herne Hill Personalities
The Milkwood Estate – the Story of a Lambeth Community
A Short History of Herne Hill

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