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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The Old House on Camberwell Green

The following account is from Ye Parish of Camerwell by WH Blanch, published in 1877


In the early part of the seventeenth century, so says tradition, there occurred in Camberwell one of the most remarkable incidents on record.  The house in which it is said to have taken place was the fine old mansion which, until about [1850] occupied a prominent position on the south side of Camberwell Green, and known for many years as the OLD HOUSE ON THE GREEN.  Our illustration, which is certainly of a most weird character, should already have prepared the reader for the following narrative, for it must candidly be confessed that if the appeance of the house as it originally stood did not suggest the story, the story that is now current would certainly have inspired an artist to picture such a house.


In the foreground is a mysterious pond over which the trees seem to mourn and moan in a manner which would delight the heart of Miss Braddon.  The house itself was a fine specimen of a country mansion, and stood alone in its grandeur, as though it had found its was to Camberwell by mistake, so different was it to the surrounding buildings.  Its manificent hall was adorned with frescoes on walls and ceiling by the famour artist Sir James Thornhill,and the noble oak staircase was of great width, and beautifully carved.  The dining and drawing-rooms were of unusual proportions, and elbarately worked medallions and other decorations were profusely arrayed.  Tradition fixes this spot as the resident of Sir Christopher Wren, aparently without any authority, although local nomenclature has come to the rescue of tradition by naming the road which now occupies the site of this ancient structure as Wren Road.


About the year 1600, this residence was occupied by a wealthy merchant and his lady, whose matrimonial life was rendered miserable by the fierce jealousy of the husband.  The lady who was the subject of so much jealousy is described as a person of wonderful charms and spotless innocence, which, however, were no protection against the baseless accusations of an infuriated husband.


“She had jewels and rings and a thousand smart things; was lovely and young with a rather sharp tongue”


and therefore bickerings and quarerellings were of daily occurrence.  On one winter’s evening a coach was seen to draw up in the forecourt of this fine old mansion, into which a lady entered and instructions were given to the driver to hurry with all expedition to one of the river ferries, where he was paid and discharged.  The occupant of the coach was understood to be the lady of the house, who was never heard of afterwards.


The inconsolable husband made every effort to discover the fate of his wife, and for a season the Old House on the Green was filled with greief uncontrollable and unavailing sighs.  Its noble rooms were deserted and their wealthy owner betook himself to other scenes where he hoped to forget his sad and unaccountable loss.  Years of travel worked wonders, and once again did the occupant of the old mansion revisit the scene of bygone days, not this time as a man overwhelmed with grief, but as a lover bent on new conquests.  During his travels he became enamoured of a wealthy and beautiful heiress, who was t bring back to his noble roooms the happy scenes of his early married life.


All went merry as a marriage bell.  His friends clustered around him with warm congratulations on his return and his coming good fortune.  A banquet of more than ordinary magnificence was prepared, and never within the walls of this stately mansion were preparations made on so large a scale as on that which was to celebrate the return of the former disconsolate husband.  The guests were assembled and laughter rang throughout the ancient halls, but sadness, unaccountable to the guests, was depicted on the countenance of the host, who was noticed to give incoherent orders to his servants.  Just as the dinner was about to be served, the master of the house was seen to disappear and many were the conjectures at his prolonged absence.


At length a pistol shot affrighted the assembled guests with its sharp ring, and all rushed to discover its terible import.  In the bedroom was seen the frightful and mutilated body of the host lifeless on the floor.  The speechless horror of the guests who had deserted a well ordered dinner table and rushing to and fro and the attendance bewilderment and consternation may be filled in by the reader.  On the table was found a written confession of the fact that the departure of his wife – the murder and final disposal of the unhappy victim – were his own acts, and that the “lady” who was supposed to have left the house of her own accord never to return was his own butler, dressed in female attire, according to a preconceived plan between the butler and himself, while in fact he had murdered his own wife and buried her in the basement of the house.  This portion of the kitchen he blocked up with a brick wall in order to escape detection.  An addendum was made to this confession, to the effect that on entering his bedroom after leaving the dinner table he saw the ghost of his late wife which filled him with horror and prompted him to commit suicide.  


The statement of course is only traditional but so strongly was it impressed upon the minds of a family of the name of Westmoreland subseuently residing in the house, that one of the sons induced his father to allow the brick partition in the basement to be broken through with a view to elucidate the mystery.  Although no corpse was found there, a narrow strip of room was discovered with a floor similar to that of the kitchen, from which the entrance was effected, leading reasonably to the inference that the kitchen was at one time larger, and that a walled partition had been erected for some unknown purpose.





The Old House on Camberwell Green 2