Colby Road lies off Gipsy Hill in Upper Norwood. It was built in the late 1860s following the arrival of the railways and is said to be named for the Rev. Edmund Colby, a schoolmaster of Dulwich College in 1645. Many of the houses were built by R J May of Pond House.
Maps and Land Ownership
Building of the street
FREEHOLD HOUSES to be LET or SOLD, in a first rate healthy situation, Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, near the Crystal Palace, At rents of £32, £36, £40 & £50. Fitted with every convenience
Significant Street Buildings
Given its proximity, Crystal Palace played a large role in the lives of many of Colby Road’s residents, both as a place of work and also as a place to spend their leisure time. Many residents worked at the Crystal Palace, either as ticket-sellers like William Jerome or William Rogers, shop assistants like Minnie Jerome, or waitresses like Helena Joslin. There were also a large number of ‘fancy’, or gift, shop workers including Thomas Moore, Mary Coppard, her brother Charles Coppard, Mary Ray, Ethel Middleton, her sister Eleanor Middleton, Joseph Hazel and Isabella Buttery. There were also artisans who found employment there, like Harry King who was a bazaar fitter, and Alfred Bool, an art modeller and plasterer. Walter Louis Vincent George Bernasconi, a scenic artist, later became resident artist at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and worked on the River Caves water ride (still operational today) and the much-loved walk-through Noah’s Ark, amongst others.
The Musicians of Colby Road
Musicians who earned their living playing at the Crystal Palace found Colby Road a very convenient place to live. The Crystal Palace concert space was immense (twice the size of St Paul’s Cathedral), so the orchestra was commensurately large. The famous August Manns had a vision for music at the Palace which led to the hugely popular Saturday afternoon classical music concerts. By the 1880s audience numbers were topping 20,000 and the stage could hold over 300 performers. Manns maintained a large resident orchestra which gave the musicians stability and allowed them to forgo the often-peripatetic nature of their profession and put down roots. Thus, many of Colby Road’s residents earned their living by playing at the concerts but also by teaching music. Samuel West was a professor of music as well as the Palace’s music librarian and he also played the cornet in the orchestra. His daughter Clara was a vocalist and music teacher. Sebastian Sauer was a conductor, Robert Hopke Reed was a music professor and played cello in the orchestra. He was from a family of musicians: his father was conductor at the Haymarket theatre. William Welsh was an organist. Walter Leversuch and his sister Julia were musicians and singers. Noel Morel was a singer who came from France to sing at the Crystal Palace and also played the double bass in the orchestra. Heinrich Krause was a professor of music and principal viola player. Even the governesses in Colby Road described themselves as ‘musical’ in the Census. That these musicians lived in the same road as waitresses and shop assistants tells us something of their income and perceived social standing. Certainly, at that time membership of the Crystal Palace orchestra carried nothing like the professional or social status of the Philharmonic.
Frederick and Alice Cooper lived in Colby Road with their four sons. After Frederick’s early death at the age of 35, Alice married Henry Gordon Poland, a Lloyd’s underwriter. Their son, Eric Thirkell Cooper was a war poet. Alice lost two sons in WW1: Harold Roy, her son with Frederick, died in 1917 and Eric Henry Poland, her son with Henry, in 1916.
Eric Thirkell Cooper was born in Beckenham on 17 August 1886, the eldest of four sons born to Frederick and Alice Ada Cooper. His father was from Sherborne in Dorset and was a salesman working on commission. Soon after Eric was born the family moved to Colby Road in Dulwich. In 1894 his father Frederick died at only thirty-five years of age and a year later his mother married Henry Gordon Poland, a Lloyd’s underwriter. He attended St Winifred’s boarding school in Coulsdon with his three brothers Cecil, Harold and Frank and his stepbrother, Eric H Poland, the son of his mother’s second husband. After school he became a Lloyd’s insurance broker and boarded at Towercliffe, Bournemouth.
In 1912 Eric married Muriel Mary Sanderson, the daughter of a naval lieutenant and they set up home in Woldingham, Surrey. They had a daughter, Mary Ruth Thirkell Cooper in June 1913 and a son, Michael Roy Thirkell Cooper in September 1917.
In World War One he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1/2nd (City of London) Battalion (Royal Fusiliers). He embarked from Southampton in September 1914 and after a period in Malta arrived in Armentières in February 1915 where his battalion were deployed to the trenches immediately. By April 1915 Cooper was sent home to Queen Alexandra’s military hospital on Millbank, suffering from ‘debility’. He was in fact declared permanently unfit for overseas service but, probably because of the casualties suffered at the Somme, he was sent back to France where he was later made a captain. In December 1916 he was again evacuated to England and given two months sick leave by an army medical board based at King’s. He was not sent overseas again but spent the remainder of the war on ‘light duties’ with the 4th Cyclist Brigade and the 5th (Reserve) Battalion Royal Fusiliers.
Cooper was also a war poet. He published two collections of poems written while in the trenches: Soliloquies of a Subaltern somewhere in France in 1915 and Tommies of the Line, and other Poems in 1918. They were well received at the time and praised in the Spectator for their ‘cheerfulness, kindliness and good comradeship’ and because they ‘rang true’. The Sketch commented that ‘no man has any business to write such a neat prayer when the Germans are doing their best to interrupt him’.
In 1916 the composer John Ireland (1879-1962) set three of Cooper’s poems to music for voice and piano. Two Songswas a pair of poems from Soliloquies of a Subaltern. The first, Blind, is a prayer from a blind soldier. The second poem, The Cost, was written in memory of 2nd Lt Francis Rolleston, a comrade of Cooper’s who was killed in action at Armentières. Ireland’s third composition was for Lines to a Garrison Churchyard. The Musical Times thought these songs were shot through with asperity but also possessing ‘a great emotional driving-power’. In the same year, the English composer Cyril Scott (1879-1970) also published a setting of Cooper’s Lines to a Garrison Churchyard.
Lines to a Garrison Churchyard by Eric Thirkell Cooper
A churchyard by a roadside bend,
Forgotten and unkept,
Bestrewn with gravestones, end to end,
Where stricken hearts have wept.
The scarlet of the gallant dead
Though hid beneath the turf,
Is born again in poppies red
That nod towards the surf.
O little silent waiting place
That looks towards the sea,
Within your crowded little space,
Lies all that’s dear to me.
Cooper was demobilised at Crystal Palace in 1919 with the rank of Major, receiving a gratuity of £320 and a pension. In March 1920 he bought the Lee Abbey hotel in Lynton, Devon. With a capital of £750 he began lavishly refurbishing the hotel, spending over £17,000, including £8,000 on structural alterations and £8,000 on furniture; he also bought on hire purchase. He had two loans or gifts of £2,000 from his stepfather but no other resources and he did not take a single paying guest until 1921. His friend Captain Campbell kept the books because Cooper said he did not have a head for figures. He was declared bankrupt.
In December 1918 Muriel was granted a judgement at the High Court for desertion and for the restitution of conjugal rights which was served on him on the 8th of January 1919. He was also accused of ‘frequent’ adultery with one Lexy Campbell (Alexandrina Emily Campbell) which had taken place at Ross’ Hotel, Parkgate Dublin between the 19th and the 28th of January 1918. Eric and Lexy had a daughter called Jill, born in Erpingham, Norfolk in 1923. The following year, Cooper, Alexandrina, Jill and another daughter, Erica, emigrated to Malta. Cooper gave his age as 34 on the passenger manifest though he was actually 38 and Alexandrina gave her name as Mrs Cooper though they were not married. In 1925 his daughter Rosemary Thirkell Cooper was born. By 1927 Eric was back in England, living in London and in 1928 he married Alexandrina Campbell in Kensington. Muriel had emigrated to South Africa with Michael Roy and Mary Ruth.
Cooper was discharged from his first bankruptcy in 1929 but in 1934 was again declared bankrupt and went on the run. Although the official creditors knew he had been an insurance manager ‘lately of Brunswick Square’, they were ‘unable to ascertain his present address’. He died in 1960 on the Isle of Wight.
George Birnie Mackenzie (1872-1952) went to Dulwich College and joined the army straight from school. By 1914 he was a major, commanding the 2nd Siege Battery in the British Expeditionary Force, the first siege battery to open fire in WW1. At the beginning of the war, with little transport, motorised or horse, the army marched on its boots. When his soldiers arrived in St Omer after a hundred-mile march from Aisne, Mackenzie found that his men’s boots were in a deplorable condition, so he personally bought up all the boots in the village for them.
In October 1914 he was put in charge of the first super heavy 9.2in howitzer to be deployed at the front. Given the nickname ‘Mother’, the gun was difficult to operate which was why it was given to Mackenzie, as he had been involved in its testing in Wales only a few months before. It was designed to be as light as possible so that it could be towed by horses but this meant that to fire it meant weighing it down with nine tons of earth in a time-consuming and repetitive operation. Transporting it by tractor created large clouds of smoke, giving away the gun’s location. Nonetheless Mackenzie got it working and it was used extensively.
By the end of the war Mackenzie was a lieutenant colonel (and acting Brigadier-General). He died in 1953 having been awarded the CB, CMG, DSO and in France the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.
Colby Road and WW2
Colby Road suffered during the Blitz, particularly between October 1940 and June 1941. One only has to look at the proximity of the railway line to realise why this area was so heavily bombed. The London Country Council’s bomb damage maps show a quarter of Colby Road as totally destroyed, with a large part of the remainder of the road seriously damaged. After the war it took some time for repairs to property to be completed. A walk along Colby Road today shows post-war houses filling in the gaps where the Victorian houses were