Our founding family would have made a gripping story for their contemporary neighbour Charles Dickens. Within three generations, they amassed wealth and power, lost it all in scandal, and were gone. Only the legacy of their name and these terraced streets remain.
John Roupell was ambitious, noted for his energy, working to the exclusion of anything else, and astute business deals – he disliked spending money unnecessarily! In 1781, aged 20, he made an advantageous marriage to Catherine Brand, daughter of a wine merchant, at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. Their only child, Richard Palmer Roupell, was born the following year. John’s father had a jewellery business and was a landlord in Holborn, and they are recorded as living in Stonecutter Street, Farringdon.
John bought the freehold of seven acres hereabouts for £8,000 in 1792, a year after Catherine inherited her wealthy aunt’s estate in Essex. Sometime after, the family moved across the first Blackfriars Bridge to live in Cross Street (now Meymott Street).
John traded in metal. He is listed with lead works in the triangle between Bear Lane, Price’s Street and Gravel Lane (now Great Suffolk Street) – where the Bankside Hilton now stands – and an iron foundry in Cornwall Road.
Roupell Street was laid out in about 1824. Initially part of it was known as Navarino Street, after a naval battle in 1827. Theed Street was named after John, and Whittlesey Street after Catherine and Richard.
Construction was not without problems though. In 1829, when 35 buildings were complete, fire destroyed one of the houses and another was badly damaged. John, facing a contract deadlline to finish both, had employed men to work late. A pot of pitch boiled over, starting a blaze, and they were lucky to escape uninjured. Neither house was insured. The insurance company plaques still on the walls of some houses show the lesson was learned.
John Roupell died two days before Christmas in 1835, at the age of 75, and Catherine in 1838. Their gravestone is outside the front of St John’s Church.
By then, as well as our streets, the Roupells had amassed a considerable property empire. Their key asset was 55 acres around Streatham Hill; between 1840 and 1860 it was developed as the prestigious residential area of Roupell Park. There was also land for development in Surrey, Essex and Hampshire.
What John and Catherine Roupell never knew was that they had four grandchildren. Richard Palmer Roupell feared his father and knew he would disapprove of his love for Sarah Crane, a carpenter’s daughter. So, every Sunday, Richard would leave Cross Street to stay overnight with Sarah in Peckham. By 1837, she had given birth to John, William, Sarah and Emma.
Only after Catherine’s death did the couple marry. Richard Palmer built a grand family house on Brixton Hill, but continued to live in Cross Street, only extending his weekend visits by a day. In 1840 they had another son, Richard.
William Roupell – Richard Palmer and Sarah’s second son – helped develop Roupell Park. But his father only gave him £1 a week allowance – insufficient, he felt, for his lifestyle. He borrowed heavily on the strength of a forged letter, supposedly from Richard Palmer, giving him Roupell Park.
When Richard Palmer died at Cross Street in 1856, William found his will in a strongbox. It left the main estates to his 16-year-old brother Richard, as the only legitimate son.
William destroyed the will and forged a replacement, leaving everything to his mother with himself as executor. Subsequently it was easy to get her consent to mortgaging or selling most of the property.
The following year he stood for Parliament and, after spending £6,000 on his campaign, won an unprecedented 9,318 votes to become one of two Liberal MPs for Lambeth. He became a founder member and Major-Commandant of the 19th Corps of Surrey Rifles Volunteers, despite having no miltary experience.
But in 1862, his debtors called in their money. William burned documents and fled to Spain. Richard persuaded him to return, and he was sentenced at the Old Bailey to penal servitude for life.
Released after 14 years, he returned to live with his mother and sister at Aspen House. One by one, the rest of his family died. William reinvented himself as a horticulturalist and was very much involved at nearby Christ Church.
When he died in poverty at the age of 77, more than 300 people attended his funeral and he was buried in the family vault at West Norwood Cemetery. He had become a respected local figure who, it was considered, had atoned for his misdeeds.
He was the last of our Roupells.
John Roupell’s great grandfather Conrad Roupell landed in Britain in 1688. He was a captain in the guard of William, Prince of Orange, the Dutch invader welcomed by English Protestants to become King William III. Conrad is recorded as a native of Hesse-Cassel in Germany. The family name remains common in northern Europe, and there is a River Rupel and town called Rupelmonde in Belgium.
ROUpell (to rhyme with ‘scruple’) or RouPELL (to rhyme with ‘hell’)? You decide!