Hillcroft College originated as a private house built in 1877 for Wilberforce Bryant. In 1884 he set aside part of his estate for a meeting room and theatre, calling it The Gables. It had substantial grounds, part of which lie to the south-west and form the public park, The Woods. The College, founded in 1919 to provide education for working women, purchased the freehold and 6 acres of land in 1925 and moved here in 1926. The theatre was later sold when the college needed more space and the former winter garden was built over for a new hall.
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The house was originally built in 1877 for Wilberforce Bryant of Bryant and May. It was designed by Sir Rowland Plumbe and its style was heavily influenced by Norman Shaw (the builder was T J Meesom of Twickenham). It stood in substantial grounds, part of which lie to the south-west and now form the public park, The Woods (q.v.). In 1836 William Bryant (an inventor?) and Francis May (a grocer) had set up a business together that grew to be successful. When Bryant died in 1874 he passed on the business to his four sons; the eldest, Wilberforce, invested in new equipment and opened a factory in the East End of London, which became the most famous match company. He bought property in Surbiton, then a fashionable country retreat, demolishing the existing house in order to build his new one. By 1880 his brother Arthur had also settled nearby at Oak Hill Lodge in Oak Hill Grove. Wilberforce, a Christian and a teetotaller, organised coffee taverns in the area. In 1884 he set aside part of his estate for a meeting room and theatre, calling it The Gables, which 'any useful or religious body' could use for free, and The Gables Theatre became quite famous. Wilberforce left Surbiton in 1888. Arthur had died in 1884 but his widow lived at Oak Hill Lodge until 1903, the house now converted to prestigious offices called The Sanctuary.
In the late C19th the estate was owned by Sir Alfred Cooper and during the Boer War the house was used as a military hospital, the grounds open to patients. After the war Herbert Bovet purchased the estate and the theatre reverted to its former uses. In 1925 the estate was purchased by the Residential College for Working Women, which had been established in 1920 as a charity to provide study opportunities for working women of limited education, with no academic qualifications required for entry and no age barrier. It was first based in Beckenham, Kent and a larger house was now required to provide the necessary accommodation for students and staff. The asking price for the Surbiton property was £14,000, which included a house capable of accommodating 28 students, nearly 6 acres of land and a theatre. It was supported in the first two years by Thomas Wall, of ice cream fame, who lived locally and on his advice an offer of £10,000 was made and accepted. The college moved here in November 1926 and became known as Hillcroft College. The site of Ashby House, now an old people's home, was once part of the grounds.
The theatre, which occupied a prime position opposite Surbiton Station, was sold off in 1935 in order to raise funds to keep the college going and was subsequently demolished and flats built on the site. With the proceeds the college was able to build a new hall, for which the former winter garden was demolished. The gardens at one time included a rockery and rose garden, as well as a croquet lawn. Although formal gardens no longer exist, the college is set in pleasant grounds.
Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999; information display in college. See The Building News, May 18 1879 p488; article by June Sampson, 'Majesty of Mansion made from Matches', 13 May 1977. History on Hillcroft College website.