July 4, 2014 4:32 pm

London’s Balham: from murder mystery to haven for high-flyers

A look back at a dark and mysterious episode in the history of a neighbourhood now favoured by City bankers and executives

There is no sight at The Priory of one of those blue ceramic plaques that mark out former residences of celebrated politicians, writers, scientists or explorers. Yet for a time this striking gothic villa, once set in acres of parkland, was the most famous home in London. The scandalous shenanigans behind its crenellated walls lifted the skirts of Victorian England.

Charles Delauney Turner Bravo was what contemporaries would have called a cad. His wife was a woman of – if not ill – then of fairly loose repute. In 1876 their turbulent marriage ended in one of the most sensational murder cases of the century. The starched prudery of the age was elbowed aside by public prurience as the nation listened in to lurid tales of drunkenness and debauchery.

The Priory stands on Bedford Hill in south London’s Balham neighbourhood. On the edge of Tooting Bec common, its whitewashed, wedding cake façade is today hemmed in by modern shoebox apartments. The house itself has been split into flats for young professionals. If the grandeur has been lost, the mystery remains. A century-and-a-half after Charles Bravo’s demise, writers and amateur sleuths are as intrigued as ever by the unsolved crime.

The Priory murder©Bill Butcher

The death of the 31-year-old barrister – the result, it was soon discovered, of poisoning with antimony – was protracted and painful. He took two days to die, but offered no clues as to the author of his agonies. The police soon found that they had two too many suspects. A jury inquest was convened in the requisitioned billiards room of the nearby Bedford Hotel. Tales of moneyed decadence filled the front pages.

First on the list of likely assassins was Charles’s wife, Florence. The eldest daughter of a magnate who had made his fortune in Australian gold mines, she was wealthier than her husband. Freed from a violent first marriage by the death of her spouse, she had had a long affair with society physician James Manby Gully before stepping out with Bravo.

Things went badly from the start. Her new husband resented her riches, was physically aggressive and, the inquest heard, subjected her to “degrading sexual acts”. He drank too much, and Victorian wives were often known to administer small amounts of antimony to curb their husbands’ alcoholism. What if Florence had simply upped the dose?

Gully, though, was also a suspect. Florence had fallen pregnant during their affair and her doctor-lover had performed an abortion. Much older than his mistress, the married Gully resented her union with the younger Bravo. With her new husband out of the picture, their affair might have resumed; and, as a doctor, he had easy access to the necessary poison.

Third in line for cross-examination was Florence’s companion and housemaid Mrs Jane Cannon Cox. Bravo had threatened to sack her. A widow with three children, she would have worried about being thrown on to the streets. And, so the police said, she had lied in her first account of events leading up to the murder.

After days of public hearings, the jury declared itself persuaded that Bravo had indeed been “wilfully murdered by the administration of tartar emetic”. Missing, though, was “sufficient evidence to fix the guilt upon any person or persons”. The killer walked free, though Florence and Gully had been thoroughly disgraced. Theories still abound as to what really happened – some have suggested Bravo poisoned himself – but none is entirely convincing.

When The Priory was built in 1822, Balham was largely rural. There were a handful of grand houses, including an estate owned by the Duke of Bedford, some tracts of common land and one or two farms. The adjacent Hyde Farm was noted for the quality of its pigs. Pleasantly rural though it was, this patch of south London was hardly fashionable.

Balham map

A contemporary guide remarked that “Balham has very little antiquity and no history worth speaking about”. Yet it also noted that the housing development, which had begun with the coming of the West of London and Crystal Palace Railway in 1856, was all of an “eminently respectable” character. No wonder the area had “been chosen as a place of residence by the wealthy”.

One of those who saw its potential was Alfred Heaver. He bought large tracts of what had been the Bedford estate from William Cubitt – brother of the famous master builder Thomas. During the 1880s Heaver began building substantial family houses along Ritherdon Road. Within a few years he had laid out a grid of thoroughfares stretching from Bedford Hill to Tooting Bec. Now a conservation area, the Heaver estate has become a favourite for affluent young families.

Victorian builders and speculators were also at work on the north side of the High Road in the open fields and woodland of what had been Balham Farm. Nightingale Lane, connecting the southern edges of Wandsworth and Clapham commons, provided the land for several large detached villas, many with stables and orchards, for wealthy commuters to the finance houses of the City.

George Jennings, the pioneer of the public lavatory, added grand terraced town houses in Endlesham Road, which runs south towards Balham station. Nightingale Square, now among Balham’s smartest enclaves, was laid out in the classic London style. Some of the largest houses – small mansions – were built along Balham Park Road, connecting the High Road to Wandsworth common.

By the mid-1930s the construction of Du Cane Court – a glorious monument to art deco and, at the time, the largest single block of privately owned flats in Europe – seemed to cement Balham as a thriving centre. The Tube had arrived a decade earlier with the extension of the Northern Line from Clapham to Morden; Holdrons department store had pride of place on the High Road.

Then came the war. Balham fell on hard times. By the 1950s grand homes had been turned into rooming houses, serving immigrant workers from Ireland and later the Caribbean. The town centre drifted into decline and before long Balham found itself cruelly lampooned in a BBC broadcast as London’s supposed “gateway to the south”. Bedford Hill became a magnet for street prostitutes, and the cavernous Bedford was best avoided by all but amateur pugilists.

Balham, though, is back. The Lawson boom of the 1980s was followed in the 1990s by the Brown bubble. The bonus-rich financiers of the City looked south. Clapham had been oversold; Balham offered big houses and three commons. The long-demolished Holdron’s site boasted first a Safeway supermarket and, more recently, a Waitrose – its car park now full to overflowing with 4x4s of the sort that have never seen a country track.

The scandalous shenanigans behind The Priory’s crenellated walls lifted the skirts of Victorian England

Toby Turnage, the manager at agents Douglas & Gordon, knows the area as well as anyone (he sold my house in Balham in 2012). He has been selling in south London for more than nine years and in Balham for six. When it comes to the substantial houses, he says, the buyers’ demographic is straightforward – the vast majority of them work in the City. Space, big gardens, private prep schools and first-class transport links are among the obvious attractions.

Turnage says prices for the most desirable properties in Balham Park Road have now reached the £4.5m level. Slightly smaller double-fronted villas in the Nightingale Triangle are approaching the same figure. Jeremy Heywood, the UK cabinet secretary, snapped one up for a bargain million-and-a-bit some years ago. A large terraced home on Endlesham or Ramsden Road would probably sell for a shade under £3m. For those counting the pennies, Turnage says smaller Victorian terraces can still be had for between £1.2m and £1.5m.

On the other side of the high street, the prostitutes have long since departed and The Bedford is a thriving music and comedy venue. A Heaver villa overlooking Tooting Bec common can be bought for about £3m. Along from Balham station, the ubiquitous “pound shop” on the High Road sits opposite an organic supermarket. Progress has occasional downsides: cupcakes and artisan bread have replaced cassavas, yams and sweet potato in Hildreth Street market. Rising rents forced out the cheerful Caribbean music store.

As for the Bravo case, well, it could never have ended happily. Charles was interred among the (gothic) chapels of West Norwood Cemetery. Free again, Florence took to the bottle. Within a couple of years, she too had been poisoned – though this time with alcohol.

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Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator

Illustration by Bill Butcher

Slideshow photographs: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Universal History Archive/Quint Lox Limited; Frantzesco Kangaris

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