John Lettsom at Grove Hill

Two hundred years ago, Grove Hill, a mansion and estate at the top of Camberwell Grove, was widely famed. It was the home, from 1779 to 1810, of the great doctor John Lettsom.

Born in the West Indies, but educated in England, he had grown rich treating patients in the Caribbean and London and had bought part of the manor of Camberwell when it was sold up.

As a Quaker, member of the Religious Society of Friends, Lettsom was noted for his generosity and kindness to poor people and for many far-sighted charitable works. He was also a strong opponent of slavery considering it truly un-natural and un-Christian.

He championed new methods of reviving people who had nearly drowned and vaccination against small-pox, a real plague at the time. He also founded the General Dispensary in London for poor sick people and also a Sea Bathing Hospital at Margate.

He had chosen Grove Hill for his residence because it was near enough to town for his professional duties and it caught the healthy breezes blowing from the south. His large villa had one whole wing for a museum of coins, shells and minerals and a library with six thousand volumes.

Near the house a kitchen garden, and orchard and a greenhouse provided vegetables and fruits including apricots, peaches, grapes, figs, and mulberries. Dr Lettsom was a keen naturalist and his estate had many interesting plants from other lands, all labelled with their Latin and English names.

It also had other attractions, statues like those of ancient Greece and Rome and a Temple of the Sibyls, with a turret that gave wonderful views of the Thames from Lambeth to Limehouse. Clever use was made of original springs which was said to have been the one which fed the original well of the river Camber. It supplied a large brick reservoir which provided piped water for the estate and for a boating lake with a fountain in the middle.

Unfortunately, Lettsom’s generosity meant that by 1810 he had to sell up and leave Grove Hill. The estate was soon built over. The lake and fountain disappeared when the railway came. The villa itself was demolished in the 1890s.


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