Meet our community #3: LERA and how the Roupells transformed Waterloo

Waterloo was the last part of central London to build a community.

Centuries after Westminster became the seat of government, Lambeth had its palace, Southwark its theatres and brothels, and the City its teeming streets and alleys, the marshy land here was still used for farming and pleasure gardens.

The catalyst for transformation was John Roupell, a metal merchant turned property entrepreneur. His family built what is now the Roupell Street Conservation Area, but their story is a rollercoaster ride of ambition, near disaster, wealth, power, secrets and fraud.


It crashed to a halt in 1862, when John’s 31-year-old grandson William, MP for Lambeth, was convicted of forgery at the Old Bailey. He’d lost most of the land collected over half a century, and was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Extracts from Judy Harris’ book The Roupells of Lambeth tell how it all started…

Around 1800, John Roupell, his wife Catherine and their son moved south of the river Thames. Little evidence remains to give an accurate picture of the family and the motivation which drove John Roupell to be a man of substance by the time of his death in 1835, however it is pertinent to the story of the Roupells of Lambeth to interpret clues to account for the rapid rise and fall of the family fortunes.

By 1800, John’s second cousin, George Boone Roupell, at 38 a year younger than himself, had settled with his young family in a fine home, Marlborough House, designed by the architect Michael Searles on Kennington Road, a fashionable part of Lambeth. Recently called to the Bar, with chambers in Middle Temple, he was a successful lawyer and well established in society. His family connections were impeccable. By 1808 he had purchased Chartham Park in East Grinstead and by 1816, via his wife’s family, he owned land in Charlton, Kent (now London SE7).

In contrast, John Roupell, although probably fairly wealthy, had grown up in much poorer surroundings, with an ill-educated mother and a father whose sources of income were in trade, probably connected to his father’s jewellery business, and as leaseholder of various rented properties in the Holborn area. Whatever the relationship between the two cousins, they must surely have had knowledge of each other. For a time they had lived near each other and some of their land buying activities showed a marked similarity.

John’s marriage at the age of 20 to Catherine Brand, two years older, at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street on 30th May 1781, seems to have been an advantageous match. Four years later Mary Rebecca, John’s 18-year-old sister, married Catherine’s brother James Brand, a hearth rug manufacturer. Catherine, the daughter of Thomas Brand of Apps Court, Walton-on-Thames, a wine merchant, and his wife Mary, née Woodford, was born on 9th March 1759.

Richard Palmer Roupell, born nine months after his parents’ marriage, was their only child. Both John and Richard Palmer were noted for the energy and time they spent at work, to the exclusion of anything else. They were known for their astute business deals – and their dislike of spending money unnecessarily!

In 1750 a path existed along the line of the present Roupell Street crossing the marshy area from a house on Cornwall Road to Broadwall. This was known as the Halfpenny Hatch from the toll paid for the use of it. By 1779 the land to the north of the famous Curtis’s Botanic Garden had been acquired by the Curtis family. In 1789, because of atmospheric pollution, Curtis moved his garden to Kensington. Subsequently the freehold of the seven acres of land around the Halfpenny Hatch was sold for £3,500. Apparently six months later it was sold for £8,000 to John Roupell, which suggests that he became the landowner around 1792, the year when Catherine received a bequest from her aunt. Was the leap in purchase price an indication of the rapidly rising cost of land, or was it one of John’s less successful deals? How much did Catherine contribute? He continued to collect the toll at least until Roupell Street was laid out.

The first specific reference found to John Roupell in the area is on 21st August 1810 when he began his purchase of land at Brixton Hill. His address was given as Cuper’s Bridge, the riverside area north of Cuper’s Gardens, once a mid-17th century pleasure garden replaced by 1762 with Beaufoy’s Wine and Vinegar factory. The site today is covered by the surrounds of the Waterloo Bridge roundabout adjacent to the Roupell Street area. In 1823 John was recorded paying rates on a house, factory and land in Cornwall Road.

Horwood’s map c1800 shows the distinctive square shot tower, down which molten lead was dropped into a tank of water to form gunshot, a manufactory on the river front and an iron foundry just to the south in Cornwall Road. It has yet to be proved which was the Roupell factory. John was recorded as a lead smelter in 1819, but in Bear Lane, Southwark. Where was he before this? His son Richard was the first Roupell to appear in a trade directory, in 1817, listed as an engine-maker and mill smith. He could well have worked at the iron foundry.

The Bear Lane factory was certainly established before 1820, as John was listed then as a lead smelter of 16 Cross Street and as a smith at 33 Bear Lane. By 1826 he was recorded as an anchor smith of Bear Lane and a lead-ash smelter of Cross Street. Two years later he was listed as a lead smelter of Gravel Lane and a wrought iron manufacturer of Bear Lane. By 1834 these were described as a lead works and an iron foundry. Other premises in the area were acquired over the years, including Glasshouse Yard, Gravel Lane, in 1821, later listed as Dyer’s Buildings, and premises at the junction of the present Ewer and Lavington Streets. Similar listings continued until Richard’s death in 1856.

By the early 1800s the area was rapidly becoming industrialised, with factories polluting the atmosphere and low-class dwellings quickly erected over the former marsh land to house the workers. Many of their employers lived nearby but perhaps had a country home a few miles south on higher ground. The Roupells, however, lived only over the office and by the yard in Cross Street, just a few minutes’ walk across Blackfriars Road to their factory and premises in the triangular patch of land formed by Bear Lane, Gravel Lane (now Great Suffolk Street) and Price’s Street. Their country home, Aspen House, was not built until 1839, after John’s death.

In February 1820 an account of The King v Roupell from the Court of Chancery appeared in The Times newspaper. This concerned John Roupell’s lead manufactory in Price’s Street. Roupell had previously been convicted as a nuisance for showering surrounding properties, gardens and inhabitants, including the night watchman, with arsenic from the smoke issuing from his factory chimney. Despite his offer to heighten the chimney and his assertions that his business would be ruined should he be forced to stop lead-smelting, his plea was rejected and he was instructed to cease. This no doubt explains the subsequent variety of directory entries describing his business. However he was elsewhere usually described as a lead-smelter so perhaps the ban was short-lived.

John’s address was first given in 1819 as Cross Street, now Meymott Street, off Blackfriars Road, just in Southwark. John, Catherine and their son Richard Palmer lived here for the rest of their lives. It is perhaps not difficult to imagine the atmosphere in the small house in Cross Street, containing John’s office and a factory yard at the back, lacking any of the luxuries their increasing wealth could afford.

Possibly influenced by his cousin George Boone Roupell, now the owner of Chartham Park in Kent, John Roupell bought farmland, in what was then Surrey, on Brixton Hill in the parish of Streatham. He and his son appear to have owned both the future Roupell Street and Roupell Park for some twenty years before housing development started around 1825 and 1835 respectively. By 1825 John was 64 and his son 43, so it may safely be assumed that Richard Palmer was the driving force behind the development of the estates.

John’s intention seems to have been to acquire property to rent. That part of his income was so derived is borne out by the fact that he was still landlord of the premises in Shoe Lane and around Cross Street at his death. In 1823 he was recorded as landlord to six tenants in Princes Square (now Cleaver Square?) behind Marlborough House, where his cousin George Boone had lived until 20 years previously. He also paid rates on a house and yard in Broadwall, probably their Cross Street home, as well as the house, factory and land in Cornwall Road. In 1828 he is rated for the house in Cross Street, seven houses in Broadwall and a house and manufactory in Bear Lane.

In about 1824 Roupell Street, Lambeth, was laid out and development started. Small, closely packed terrace houses, dwellings for workers, rapidly appeared, their occupants paying rent to John Roupell. By 1829 the Roupell buildings were listed as 27 houses and 35 buildings.

In June of that year fire entirely destroyed one of the new houses in Roupell Street, and an adjacent house considerably damaged, despite the efforts of officers from the Palladium and West of England fire-offices. An enquiry found that Roupell, contracted to finish both houses within a given time, had employed men to work beyond the usual hours. A pot of pitch boiled over, setting fire to wood, and the workmen were lucky to escape injury. Neither building was insured.

By 1830 two batches of 34 and 37 houses were complete. At John’s death in 1835 there were 73 houses; by 1839 the number had increased to 82. The streets were named after the family: Roupell, John (Theed), Catherine (Whittlesey east) and Richard (Whittlesey west). Because of the abundance of John, Richard and Catherine Streets representing other families in the area, these were changed later in the century to their present names, given in brackets.

Between 1810 and 1819 John Roupell paid a total of about £12,000 for parcels of land from the estate of the late Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Thurlow, who had owned much of the land that is now Brixton Hill, Streatham Hill, Tulse Hill and West Norwood (then on Surrey, now in the London Borough of Lambeth). The Thurlow estate appears to have been difficult to sell because of its large size and its location. Most of it was undulating farm and woodland with panoramic views and it was over four miles from the City, but it was possibly too near and too unfashionable to attract the rich looking for a country home. Although there were some fine old country houses situated in parkland in the area, most of the early 19th century development consisted of large houses lining the main roads. It was not until the 1840s that significant building started, accelerating rapidly a decade later with the coming of the railways.

John Roupell bought the future Roupell Park, Streatham, in lots over a period of nine years. In 1810 he bought land for £550, two small Brixton Hill allotments for £500 and part of the Knight’s Hill estate for £1,916 5s (near Norwood Road/Tulse Hill today). The following year he added property to the north of his land at the top of Brixton Hill, buying two cottages, formerly part of Brixton Hill Farm, and for £1,720 another part of the Knight’s Hill estate. In 1813 he paid rates on two areas of land of some fourteen and eleven acres. These are recorded as being at Water Lane, Brixton Hill, but there is no evidence that they were other than the land at Streatham. In 1818 John paid rates on a barn and land, and Richard Palmer Roupell bought for £5,549 (plus £86 14s for timber) more land in trust for John. The following year John bought for £1,650 several more pieces of land totalling some 30 acres.

John now owned the complete area between the present Brixton/Streatham Hill and Norwood Road, along Christchurch and Palace Roads, the boundary being to the north and south of each, stretching along Leigham Vale and behind Kingsmead Road at the Norwood end, and between Holmewood Road and the bus depot on Streatham Hill. He appears to have leased much of it as farmland. No other transactions occurred during his lifetime apart from two sales of land in 1829: one for the building of the Union Chapel, later the Streatham Hill Congregational Church, and the other for the building of the Royal Asylum and St Anne’s Society, now the site of Pullman Court. Additionally a plot adjacent to the Union Chapel was sold for £595 in 1832 to Edward Day of Clapham, a schoolmaster. It is tempting to suggest that it was Richard Palmer Roupell who influenced his father to sell these sites and thereby pioneer the sale of land for buildings which would add to the prestige of the Roupell name. Estate records show that the Roupells sold land in several areas during this period for the building of a church or a railway, or both, courting references to both God and Mammon!

Their next land purchase was in 1820 when Richard bought the 14 years unexpired lease on five acres off the Wandsworth Road, bounded by the present Hartington Road. By 1824 a variety of building leases had been sold by Richard and between then and 1830, terraced housing appeared along Spring Grove, Place and Terrace and on Simpson and Neptune Streets.

Judging by the business associates names on various documents concerning the Roupells, it is apparent that they were part of a network of influential contacts. By now Richard Palmer Roupell, listed in directories as a gentleman, had met Sarah Crane. How long he had known Sarah is unclear. According to evidence given at William’s trial, Richard Palmer had always lived in dread of his father and did not own to Sarah’s existence because, she being the elder daughter of a carpenter, the marriage would have met with disapproval and he would not have been left any property.

By the time she was pregnant with their first child, Sarah was 29 and Richard Palmer 43. Although there was a 14 year age gap, Sarah was hardly a young girl. Perhaps after a long relationship, when she had anticipated marriage, she had agreed to the liaison after it became apparent that this was unlikely and that she was past the usual marriageable age. It appears that both her parents were by then dead, suggesting that maybe Sarah needed the security Richard Palmer could provide for her.

Sarah, the daughter of Thomas Crane and Sarah (née Harvey) was born on 9th September 1796 in the village of Stoke Ash, Suffolk, off the main Ipswich-Norwich road. The Harveys were local to the area. Sarah’s two sisters, Maria and Leah, were later to live in London. Richard and Sarah’s first child John was born on 5th January 1826. He was baptised at St Pancras Church. He was recorded with the surname left blank but both parents were named. The address given was Clarendon Street (now Grove?), Somers Town. His aunt, Leah Crane, was baptised two years later, at the age of 23, at All Souls Church, Langham Place, her father being recorded as deceased.

By the time William was born on 7th April 1831, the family were living in a small house in Pitt Street, Peckham (now East Surrey Grove). Their father visited his family on Sunday, returning to Cross Street on Monday morning. Sarah was born on 21st October 1833 and baptised at St Giles’s Church, Camberwell. Emma was born on 10th February 1837, but neither she nor William were baptised until after their parents married. William, at his trial, stated that he and his siblings were fearful of their father’s reactions, implying a quick temper and unease in his children’s presence. His involvement in his children’s upbringing must have been minimal, Sarah being the major influence. Eleanor Wallet, later giving evidence, said that the children came to her for schooling.

On 23rd December 1835 John Roupell died, aged 75, and was buried at the newly built St John’s Church, Waterloo, on 2nd January. His address was given as Roupell Street, in Lambeth, not as his home at Cross Street in Southwark. His estate was valued at £25,000, administered in favour of his son, Catherine having renounced her claim. The administrators were their son Richard Palmer, W.Webb, a cheesemonger of Blackfriars Road and G.Comfort, a butcher of Farringdon Market. Death duties of £126 9s 11d were paid. An ironic comparison is the £50,000 debt inherited by Queen Victoria on her accession the following year. On 7th May 1836 Catherine made her will in favour of her son and from 1st June documents show a marked increase in his buying, selling and land development activity.

Land at Stapleford Abbots in Essex is first mentioned at this time, although it had probably belonged to John Roupell at least as long as Roupell Park, as a deed of November 1836 admitting Richard Palmer as his father’s heir implies. Being located near to Catherine’s family, its acquisition was probably through her connections. In December 1836 Richard started negotiations to buy Norbiton Park estate.

On 27th February 1838 Catherine died at Cross Street, aged seventy-eight, and was buried next to her husband in St John’s churchyard. Their tombstone can still be clearly read, giving their ages, dates of death and address ‘Of Roupell Street’. Catherine left £12,000 to her son. Her will was proved in November. The value of bequests was given as £9,054 17s and death duties of £900 10s 11d were paid. Nine days after the will was proved, Richard Palmer Roupell and Sarah Crane were married at St Giles’s Church, Camberwell, on December 6th 1838. Richard Palmer was aged 54, Sarah 42, John 12, William seven, Sarah five and Emma one.

On February 10th 1839, two months after her marriage, Sarah took her children to St George’s Church, Camberwell, where William and Emma were baptised and John and Sarah, already baptised, were received into the church. Understandably this was an important event for Sarah, as she was now a respectably married woman. The same year Richard started building Aspen House on the Roupell Street Estate, and in October he sold land for the building of Christ Church, agreeing to build a road past this to connect Brixton Hill and Upper Tulse Hill. No doubt he was preparing his position in Streatham, although he continued to live in Cross Street until his death in 1856.

By 1840 Sarah and the children had moved from the obscurity of Peckham to Aspen House. Little did their new neighbours know that the first family of Roupell Street hid a secret that was, some 20 years later, to be revealed in national newspapers in one of the major scandals of the century.

© Judy Harris 2001, reproduced by kind permission with thanks from Waterloo Festival.

Read the rest of the story… The Roupells of Lambeth is published by the Streatham Society. Copies are available for £6.60 including post and packing from https://www.streathamsociety.org.uk.

To find out more about the Roupell Street Conservation Area before and after the Roupells – including its role in the world’s first circus, the early residents who built modern London and Phoebe the second hand florist, visit https://www.lera.org.uk.

John and Catherine Roupell’s gravestone can be found at the front of St John’s Church, near the war memorial.

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