“The Mysterious Mrs Morris”
Dowanhill Road is named after an area of Glasgow with which Archibald Cameron Corbett, who developed the estate, was very familiar: his family had lived there before moving to London. It was an upmarket suburb in the desirable West End.
The view from Dowanhill across the city of Glasgow
By Ming Yao Chong – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41930527
Dowanhill Road in south London runs east to west from Verdant Lane to Muirkirk Road, starting not far from the northern edge of Hither Green Cemetery; it undulates gently up over the brow of the hill and then descends steeply towards Catford. This road takes you from the valley of the river Quaggy in Hither Green over the watershed just west of Torridon Road and down into the valley of the river Ravensbourne in Catford.
Dowanhill Road under development in 1910
The first houses were Nos 9 to 15, built in 1901 at the Verdant Lane end, and the rest followed in 1903. Although the road is quite long and runs the full width of the Corbett Estate, it contains a relatively small number of houses, because after Nos 15 and 16 the houses face on to the adjoining streets which run off Dowanhill Road at right angles, so that their gardens edge this road. After you cross Torridon Road, the houses face the road again, and after the crest of the hill they run steeply downhill towards Catford. Many of these are reached by climbing steep steps up from the pavement as if the road were in a hollow.
Stylistically many houses have the characteristic human heads or flowers on the keystone above the front door which are typical of the estate. Most are 3 bedroomed single-fronted houses. As you descend the hill the houses become smaller, with the exception of No. 59 which is a three-storey house, the only one of its kind on the estate; it has two entrances, both at the side in Balloch Road.
The Early Residents: details from the 1911 Census
There were 474 people staying in 102 houses at the time of the 1911 census. 94% of households consisted of a married couple, which was slightly higher than the average for the estate, and the average number of children per family was 1.7 compared with the overall average of 2.2. 52% of the residents were female and 42% were children under the age of 21. On average there were 4.65 people living in each house and this is similar to the figures for other streets. Ten people were at No. 33, eight of whom were children, and this was the largest number of people in one house in the street; it is also the house with the greatest number of children. Only one house on the estate had 13 people living there, but many housed between 9 and 11.
74% of the people were born within what is now the Greater London area, and the rest came from all over England, Scotland and Ireland. The only person from further away was born in Belgium. Popular names for women were Mary, Emily, Florence and Sarah, and for men they were William, Charles and George.
The oldest resident of Dowanhill Road was Mrs Morris, a widow aged 80 who lived at No. 90 with her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. She does not reveal her first name in the census return and the word “Mrs” appears instead. Her son-in-law, George Davenport, gives his occupation as “Tin Plate Worker”.
The largest category of people in employment described themselves as clerks, and they worked in a wide variety of different fields, including banking, customs and excise, fur merchants, diamond merchants, commerce, law, insurance, stockbrokers and the railway. Other occupations included printing, domestic servants, dressmaking, millinery, drapery, accounting, commercial travelers, engineers, launderers and tea packers. The most unusual occupation was that of Alexander Forrest, who came from Edinburgh and is described as a Body Builder. This is unlikely to be what we would call his occupation now: instead of building his own muscles he is likely to have been making machinery or cars. Frederick Mason was a wheelwright – someone who makes wooden wheels, which would have been much in demand for the horse-drawn delivery vehicles used by the many shopkeepers who delivered goods to the door.
Census anomalies: house numbering and census returns
Whilst collecting data from the 1911 census, we discovered that there was no census return for some house numbers. This raised the question of whether these houses existed on these plot numbers at the time or whether they were built at a later date. A physical inspection of the streets showed that in most cases these houses do exist and were obviously built at the same time as their neighbours. We can only assume that the census officials found nobody at home when they called, that the house was unoccupied on that day (perhaps in the process of being sold) or that for some reason the details were never entered on the register.
1911 census returns for Dowanhill Road are absent for house Nos 1 to 7 and 2 to 8, and there are no houses with these numbers today: there is no spare land on which to build them. Maybe there was originally but it was used for the houses and gardens in Verdant Lane.
There are other anomalies in Verdant Lane, which is on the edge of the original development, where houses were only built on one side of the road and all have even numbers. This does not, however, explain why the numbers start at No. 4 and that No. 2 has only been built in recent years, set back from the road on land that presumably once formed the gardens of surrounding houses. There are no houses on plot Nos 196 to 200 which are now occupied by the premises of Francis Chappell, undertakers. Plot Nos 130 and 132 are occupied by a car wash, a tyre-seller and lock-ups. None of these plot numbers have census returns in 1911, so we can probably assume that houses were never built on these sites, but we don’t know why.
Further interesting numbering issues are to be found on Hazelbank Road and details of these are in the street profile.