Hillcroft College is based in a rather handsome Victorian villa on South Bank. This page gives a history of the building, which was formerly a private residence called The Gables.
Wilberforce Bryant, of the matchstick company Bryant and May's Matches, purchased a house on South Bank (where a Mr Murchison had lived) and replaced it with the Victorian mansion The Gables. The Gables was designed by the architect Roland Plumbe FRIBA in 1876. Roland Plumbe also designed and built a house for Wilberforce's brother Frederick, the Woodlands Park at Stoke d'Abernon. The Gables was completed in 1877 and Bryant lived there with his wife Margaret, daughter Leila and 8 servants. Bryant could build such a grand house because of his background and position within Bryant and May's Matches.
About Bryant and May's Matchstick Company and the Matchgirls' Strike
William Bryant and Francis May, the famous match manufacturers, went in to business in 1839. Both were Quakers. They operated out of Tooley Street, Southwark, and Philpot Lane, Fenchurch Street. Involvement in the match business began with an arrangement with fellow Quaker Johan Lundström and Carl Lundström, match manufacturers of Jönköping, Sweden. Bryant and May distributed Swedish matches and initially they sent ink and headless uncut wax vestas to the Lundströms.
Bryant's and May's involvement with match making seems to have been initiated by the inability of the Lundström's factory to meet a growing demand in Britain for safety matches. A British patent for these, based on J.E. Lundström's specification was taken out by Francis May in 1855. The Fairfield Works at Bow, formerly belonging to the British Sperm Candle Co., was leased to William Bryant in 1861. Initially this factory produced safety matches using Swedish splints, whilst Bryant & May continued to import Lundström strike anywhere matches and were still importing some as late as 1902.
William Bryant gave up personal management of his Plymouth affairs in 1862 and in the following year his son, Wilberforce Bryant, joined the partnership as manager of the Bow factory. Francis May withdrew from the business c. 1868. The business which the Bryant sons, Wilberforce, Arthur, and twins Frederick and Theodore, inherited was based at the factory in Fairfield Road, where new machinery was installed which was to result in a considerable increase in match production. On the death of his father William Bryant in 1874, Wilberforce became a senior partner in the firm at the age of 37. Later, Wilberforce Bryant became the longest serving Chairman of the Company, from 1884 until his death in 1906.
In 1888 the matchgirls' strike took place. Working class women planned and organised the strike at Bryant and May's East London factory. It involved 1,400 workers, mostly young women, walking out of the Bow factory. The strike was organised by the matchwomen, who were pursuing grievances about their working conditions. The strike was a first step toward the general trade unionism that was to come. When the strike happened, Bryant and May were at the peak of their power and influence - they were a household name and a key fixture of the British import and export market.
By the late 1870s Bryant and May's Matches was becoming ever more successful. Wilberforce pursued a policy of greater mechanisation for the company, and the company was exporting all over the world. In turn, Wilberforce Bryant attained greater social status and personal fortune, so much so that he eventually became a close associate of many political figures and could influence government legislation. The growth of the company enabled him to build the Victorian villa The Gables in Surbiton, which was renowned at the time for being 'Queen of the Suburbs'. It also reflects that Bryant wished for his home to reflect his growing aspirations and wealth.
The Gables was built on South Bank by Surbiton Station, and so was only a convenient train journey away from Bow. The house was built on a slope, so if you go up the main staircase on to the first floor and walk down the corridor, the rooms at the end of the hall are back on the ground floor. Many visitors still comment that the view of the chimneys reminds them of Hampton Court. The main chimney outside is inscribed with '1877 M.L.B', for Margaret Bryant (Margaret is not recorded as having a middle name - so the 'L' possibly stands for Leila).
The coachman, with his wife and three children, lived above the stables separate from the other servants. The rest of the servants' quarters were arranged in to one male and two female areas.
The Gables still retains many of its original features, and Margaret Bryant's interest in birds, flowers and astrology is still evident in the stained glass windows and pargetting. There are stained glass windows depicting scenes from nature, wooden doors with beautiful handles and locks, and you can still see engravings on the outside of the building, just under the roof (though they are now all painted white). The imposing fireplace in the hall was removed not long after the College moved in - the founding mothers thought it too grand. The house has an in-built large double door safe with intricate Chubb locks. This is where the family kept their silver, and the safe is still sitting there today.
The Bryants and Surbiton
It seems that both Wilberforce and his brother Frederick rejected the Quaker religion and converted to Anglicanism, possibly because at the time Quakers suffered from discrimination and being a Quaker would have impeded the Bryants' efforts to become part of the British elite. However, Wilberforce appears to have retained some Quaker qualities.
Wilberforce, who was teetotal, was keen to provide ways in which people could use their leisure time and be entertained without alcohol. He established two coffee taverns in Surbiton, The Spread Eagle on Brighton Road and The Anchor on Ewell Road. In 1884 a theatre was built in the grounds of his house, at the bottom of the garden fronting on to Glenbuck Road (opposite Surbiton Station). There's even a story that a tunnel was built under the gardens that connected the theatre to the house. The Bryants lent out the theatre for charitable and social purposes.
The next owner of The Gables, Alfred and Marion Cooper, were both members of the local Genesta AmDram Club. According to The Surrey Comet 3rd April 1990, Alfred was also one of the best magicians in the country. So it is reasonable to assume that they made use of the theatre as well. Alfred Cooper also turned the theatre in to the Gables Hospital from 1899 to 1901.
The 1909-1910 Finance Act Census described the private theatre as 'practically useless'. Nevertheless, the next owners of The Gables, Herbert and Elizabeth Boret, put the theatre back to its original use. In the theatre Elizabeth Boret performed for troops at concerts during the First World War. Local repertory companies continued to hire the space to practice and put on productions until Hillcroft College sold off the building and the chunk of land it sits on to raise funds. The site was redeveloped and it is now Glenbuck Court.
Interestingly, a few decades later (c. 1970-1980s) the world of acting was brought back to the area - Harris Films Ltd was based at Glenbuck House on Glenbuck Road. The company went in to liquidation in 1986, was saved by the British Film Institute and re-launched as Glenbuck Films Ltd. By the late 1980s they had moved away from Surbiton.
The next families of The Gables
In 1887 the Bryants purchased the Stoke Park estate in Buckinghamshire. Evidently Wilberforce's stature and wealth had grown considerably and he felt an even grander setting was needed for his family. Wilberforce and Margaret Bryant spent thousands renovating the new estate. In 1888 the family moved out of The Gables and in to Stoke Park, where they entertained extensively.
By the time of the 1891 census the Cooper family had moved in to The Gables. Alfred Cooper, Chair of tea merchants Messrs Ridgway Ltd and Chairman and Proprietor of the Gardner Gun & Engineering Company, lived there with his wife Marion, daughter Madeline and sons Reginald and Frederick. They employed 8 servants.
By the time of the 1901 census The Gables was empty apart from a handful of servants. By 1911 the Boret family had moved in to The Gables. Herbert Boret, a shipbroker, lived there with his wife Elizabeth, 3 daughters, 3 sons and 5 servants. Their granddaughter Betty de Fries also lived with them for a number of years. Betty’s friend Pat (whose oral history has been recorded) also remembers stories about the house that Betty told her.
The Residential College of Working Women (now called Hillcroft College) purchased the freehold and 6 acres of land in 1925 and moved in 1926. It became home to women of all ages who came to attend courses and gain skills and qualifications that they, for various reasons, had not previously been able to achieve. Today, the College still opens up pathways - to greater self-confidence, to University or a new job - that would otherwise remain closed to so many women. It is one of the more interesting ironies that a building which now houses these students was built from the proceeds of the labour of matchgirls and female workers at the Bryant and May's Matches' East London factory.