The owner of the famous estate agents Field and Sons, on Borough High Street – one of the oldest Southwark businesses – has died aged 86.
Duncan Field was the last member of his family to run the agency, which was started in 1804.
In 1875, the Field family bought 54 Borough High Street and the business has been based there ever since, despite changing hands in recent years.
At the time no one else wanted the building because of its association with a famous murder. That year, Henry Wainright, whose brother rented 54 Borough High Street at the time, brought the dismembered body of his mistress there from Whitechapel by cab.
He had murdered and dismembered her body a year prior, and had been hoping to bury her in the cellar, but he was arrested and later hanged at Newgate Prison.
Duncan’s daughter Vanessa told us: “It was big news in Victorian England. Dad always said they got the building very cheap.”
Duncan started working at the agency in 1963 when he was 26. In 1977, he took over the company. Anyone who visited the office would remember its original features – which were reportedly very important to him. “Dad was a huge lover of history and he was all about preserving it,” Vanessa said.
Reminiscing on her father’s fun yet eccentric ways, she said he used to carry a cane ‘with a sword in it.’ “Once there was a burglar and Dad chased him across the roof of the office and the thief managed to get away, luckily.”
During his time as a valuer, he was known for backing small business owners in the face of big corporations.
Vanessa commented: “We will remember him for being a true champion for the underdog. When the Jubilee Line was extended in Southwark he represented the small property owners to get the valuation they deserved.”
A ‘highly respected’ pillar of commercial real estate, a few of the most notable deals Duncan brokered included the Menier Chocolate Factory and Sam Wanamaker’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank.
Vanessa said on the latter: “He was a great friend of Sam’s and was heavily involved in getting the land for the theatre.”
Another of his daughters, Anyta, said: “He had studied estate management at Cambridge and then went to Manchester to expand his knowledge.”
But it seems his knowledge of buildings went far beyond the book.
Vanessa said an employee once told her that if they went to visit an old building to value, Duncan would go up to the old bricks and sniff them, much to everyone’s confusion. “He could tell exactly what the building used to be by the smell of the bricks,” she explained.
He was a recipient of Freedom of the City, an honour, for being a member of the livery company, Dyers.
Vanessa continued: “He used to love doing the swan tagging” referring to the annual ceremony where mute swans on the River Thames are rounded up, caught, ringed, and then released.
Duncan carried on his family tradition of also being active in the community and he contributed a lot of his time to the Southwark Chamber of Commerce, organising numerous road show meetings to help startup businesses in the borough, as well as working with United St. George the Martyr Charity and the Surrey Dispensary Charity.
In 1999, Duncan sold the business but continued to work as a consultant for years after, sharing his wealth of knowledge with the new owners and staff. He retired in 2005.
He continued to live upstairs in a bedsit, having dinner at The Bunch of Grapes pub in the evenings, until 2014 when he moved to Sussex full-time.
Nigel Gouldsmith, director at Field and Sons today, told us Duncan was a ‘tough negotiator’ and commented that the borough had lost ‘an absolute figurehead.’
“I can remember the first time I walked into his office and it was like stepping back in time,” he said. “There was paperwork everywhere.
Nigel continued: “His knowledge of the area was utterly encyclopedic. He probably didn’t even need to know where his paperwork was because it was all in his head.”
“When Duncan would walk in with his big bushy beard – younger agents might have thought he would be easy to walk over at first but he was the opposite.
“He was the absolute Don of the Southwark market.”
Nigel commented that in 2015, the business was briefly sold to Dexters. But then around a year later Nigel and Ben Locke acquired the Field and Sons commercial business back and kept the name.
In light of Duncan’s passing, Nigel added: “We’re very proud to continue that name – he was very happy that we kept it.”
Simon Hughes, former MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, said: “Duncan was a larger-than-life character, based in one of the historic business buildings in Borough High Street, fount of all knowledge about properties and their history in Bermondsey and Southwark and a great contributor to our Chamber of Commerce and greater respect for our business community.
“I was very grateful for his friendship and robust advice over many decades.”
Duncan leaves behind his wife, Shirley, his brother, Brian, his sisters Trisha and Mary, his children Richard, Anyta, Vanessa and Katie, four step-children, Kate, Alex, Buzz, and Gavin, and all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His funeral is to be held on Thursday 25 January, 12pm, Wealden Crematorium. Horam, East Sussex, TN21 OFX. Afterwards at the Wellshurst Golf Club, at BN27 4EE.
Anyone wishing to attend should contact his brother at email@example.com