Following on from my earlier post ‘A brief history of park villa estates’, I’ve been devoting a number of blog posts to a park villa I previously had the pleasure of living in on the Crystal Palace Park Estate. When I began researching my previous home back in 2004, it was primarily out of personal interest. I had already cut my teeth as a professional historian but I wasn’t approaching the history of my house for an academic paper (although it did end up becoming one), rather I just felt a really strong fascination with the former residents of Whitethorns – a neo-gothic, red-brick villa on Crystal Palace Park Road, bordering Crystal Palace Park in South London. This location is most famous as the location where the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition was relocated.
Connecting the historical dots, it was a northern merchant family that initially caught my interest. The Whiteheads of Salford brought annuitant aunts, maternal and child bereavement and spinsterhood to the story of Whitethorns. They also brought a tale of affluence and intrepid trading and traveling, journeying from Broughton to Beirut before settling by the Park. Now I’m going to tell you about another chapter in this Victorian villa’s history – a more local tale of family business success and struggle.
In 1881 Whitethorns was a very full house. Head of the household was Thomas Letts, manager of a printer and stationers. He, his wife Catherine and five children between the ages of seven to 14 had made a home of the four-storey house by the park. They had a little help, although not as much as they were used to. They had taken on Joabella Dixon as the cook but retained only one of their previous five domestic servants, housemaid Frances Wrench. Joabella and Frances must have been very busy because in addition to looking after the family of seven, there were also four foreign boarders in residence: Herman Redwith and Rudolph Plundt, both from Germany were East India general merchants; Richard Mayer from Russia was a corn merchant; and Alred Falriner was an Irishman and tea broker.
Perhaps the boarders were necessary in order to pay the rent in what would have been a relatively new house in a highly desirable location. Not that this family were strangers to desirable locations. In the earlier census of 1871 they are to be found residing comfortably on Breakspears Road, Brockley – truly the home of wealthy manufactory owners. Brockley is now a conservation area with houses regularly on sale to the tune of £1.5 million. Back then the Letts had also looked after Catherine’s elderly parents, Dalton and Elizabeth Scott, both in their 70s. Helpfully, this census also gives us some idea of the size of his business as the enumerator noted ‘stationer – employing 100 men, 50 boys and 50 women.’
Clearly Thomas Letts was doing reasonably well in life but perhaps not quite so well as his brother Charles. Younger than Thomas by only a couple of years, Charles was also married and living locally. Until about 1872 he and his family had lived only a five minute stroll away from the Whitethorns and the Crystal Palace Park in Farnborough Villa, Jews Walk (built around 1847 and also referred to as The Grove). Four years later, Charles’ wife Sarah would pass away at just 36 leaving him with young sons aged just three and one. He would remarry just two years later and move to South Norwood on the other side of the Park.
Farnborough villa (Photo taken in 1978)
Thomas and Charles were the grandsons of ‘Honest Jack Letts’ - John Letts (bap. 1772, d. 1851) A printer, stationer and bookbinder, in 1796 John Letts had established his own business in the City of London’s Royal Exchange, largely serving the local merchants and traders. These men needed to record financial transactions, movements of ships through the Port of London and tide tables in a form of diary. This inspired John Letts to create a more general diary in 1812. It was revolutionary as a commercial product because not only did it allow people to record the events of the day, as they long had, but because it included future dates it also enabled them to plan ahead. The first model was very basic but by 1816 he had begun publishing “Letts’s diary or bills owed book and almanack”, the first commercially produced diary. By the 1820s he was producing a whole range of diaries, incorporating in their pages governmental, legal, commercial, and astronomical information. His son, Thomas Letts senior (1803–1873), took over the business in 1835, diversifying into maps and stationary products and establishing a factory at New Cross, South London. He brought the family out of the City to live at Clare Lodge on Perry Hill, Catford. In 1861 he was employing 60 men and living comfortably on Perry Hill with his now stationer sons: Thomas junior (now 26), Charles (21). He had remarried and also living at Clare Lodge was his second wife Emma and their four new children (scholars George, Ernest, Oswald and Annie), along with the cook, housemaid, nurse and nursemaid.
Business was booming and Letts diaries were in demand. According to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Thackeray, in his Roundabout papers, no. 18, first published in the Cornhill Magazine for January 1862, made:
‘Letts’s diary’ the text of a new year sermon. He declared his preference for ‘one of your No. 12 diaries, three shillings cloth boards; silk limp, gilt edges, three and six; French morocco, tuck ditto, four and six’.
In 1870, needing to raise working capital to meet such demand, a limited company was formed, “Letts, Son & Co.” However it struggled to make the expected profit and in 1873, Thomas Letts senior passed away. By 1881 there was a marked scism in family business affairs. Charles broke away from the business and set-up on his own as “Charles Letts & Co”. He did so with very little capital and a modest staff of four. He made great efforts in the press to separate his new venture from Letts, Son & Co.
Returning to Whitethorns, if Letts, Son & Co was struggling, this may also explain the number of boarders found in Thomas Letts’ 1881 household. Perhaps he and family weren’t so much drawn to the wonders of park-living as were having to give their belts a heafty tighten – something they didn’t want to do under the noses of their previous neighbours. The Crystal Palace villas were hardly a huge fall from grace but although still an elevated, green and leafy area with good rail links to central London, the Crystal Palace Company had in many ways built these villas after the boom for houses of this type and size – large and expensive to run. The Park too, not just the houses, had passed its brief heyday and although still popular and pleasant, was failing to make a profit and its uncertain future was regularly discussed in the newspapers. This must have had an impact on the Park’s villas. Middle-class residents moved regularly in search of the better neighbourhood and would have been quick to pick up on such matters.
Another reason for the move from Brockley to Crystal Palace Park Road was probably the factory. With Charles gone and the business struggling, perhaps Thomas couldn’t afford to retain such a refined distance form the day-to-day struggles of the stationary works and needed to shorten his commute to New Cross. In this sense, this chapter in Whitethorns’ history looks like the tale of a middle-class family slipping down the social hierarchy just a little. Certainly, by 1885 and the shareholders increasingly dissatisfied Letts, Sons & Co. Ltd went into liquidation and the copyrights were purchased by Cassell Sons & Co., later sold to Hazell, Watson, and Viney Ltd. Soon after, Thomas Letts junior and family left Whitethorns behind them, packing up and sailing off to America for a new life.
In contrast, Charles’ fortunes were on the rise and his independent stationary business flourished. Within a decade his two sons, Harry and Herman had joined the business, although his third son Charles Hubert Letts became an artist. Charles grew into a prominent and honourable position in the South Norwood community, becoming a churchwarden and sitting on both the Croydon School Board and Croydon Council. Surviving his second wife, eventually he retired to the South of France with his third wife. The firm of Charles Letts & Co. Ltd. now operates from Thornybank Industrial Estate, Dalkeith, Midlothian, and celebrated its 200 anniversary in 1996.
Finally, this house tale is also linked to story of British economic decline in the late nineteenth century and the troubled relationship between commerce and class. The brothers Letts had endured the loss of their mother whilst very young and their father married again very quickly. However, unlike Charles and Thomas, their subsequent step-brothers were not groomed for the business. Like many manufacturing families in British history, as the Letts became more successful they aspired towards a university education for their sons and a professional or even rentier life – away from the dusty, noisy factory and the business of dealing with working men and women. A few years before his death in 1873, Thomas Letts senior and his second wife Emma (who by this time is described as a ‘lady’ in the census) moved away from South London, leaving Charles and Thomas still toiling with the stationary business. Taking their younger children with them, they removed to the fresh sea-air of Hastings. The eldest of these, Edgar, benefitting from his father’s later affluence, did not become a stationer but rather was encouraged in his scholarship and is recorded in the 1871 census as an undergraduate at Oxford. In an interesting north-south connection, by 1881 the Reverend Edgar Letts M.A. is residing in Salford and is a vicar at Manchester Cathedral. I do wonder if Charles Whitehead and family ever attended one of his services before taking up residence at Whitethorns, when Edgar’s brother Thomas left for New York.
You can find out more about the Crystal Palace Park Estate and park villa housing more generally in some of my earlier posts: ‘The beginnings of an obsession’, ‘Brief history of park villa estates‘ and ‘The widower of Whitethorns‘.