Now in my eighties, I well remember my return to Dulwich from the south coast with my family in May 1945. For a short period, I was a pupil at Dulwich Hamlet School - before joining Alleyn’s Lower School in September of that year. I also recall some boys at the Hamlet jeering at my then broad Sussex accent - now sadly a rarity in the County.
I was born in a terraced house in Dovercourt Road in 1934 - my elder brother being four years my senior. My father’s office was near Trafalgar Square and he travelled to work by a number 12 bus from Dulwich Library - cars being a rarity in those far off days. It was a comfortable family home - backing onto houses in Beauval Road with an attractive tree-lined rear garden - visited by Dulwich College Estate inspectors from time to time, all houses on the College Estate being leasehold during that period.
By 1940, it was apparent that Dulwich was in the firing line from the Luftwaffe. Night after night, we would take shelter under the stairs to the fearful sound of bombs and anti-aircraft guns. My mother would comfort me by reading aloud Rupert Bear books - and I would correct her if she missed a page. It was at this time that my father decided that we should move out of London. By good chance, well-heeled relatives offered us the use their vacant coastal home at Aldwick Bay, near Bognor Regis. And there we stayed until the end of the War in May 1945. The fact that Bognor was in a ‘restricted area’ where they were expecting an invasion had escaped my parents notice!
One of the highlights in my memory on our return to Dulwich was the huge bonfire to celebrate VE Day. It was held at the junction of Court Lane and Calton Avenue and attracted a massive crowd of onlookers - certainly a night to remember.
Our Dulwich house had suffered in our absence - an incendiary bomb had made its mark - and if hadn’t been for the immediate action of the LCC fire brigade, it would not be standing to this day. My parents had a job on their hands to make the house habitable and look after two young boys - both starting at Alleyn’s - fortunately just a stone’s throw away. Food and clothing were strictly rationed and in short supply and the cost of school kit for two youngsters must have stretched my Dad’s finances. The manager of the Alleyn’s School shop - appropriately named, Mr Belt - had his eye to business. And I recall being fitted with a navy blue raincoat which reached my ankles - with the advice, ‘He will grow into it’!
At the age of eleven, I was into Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ books. Second-hand copies were displayed outside by Mr Salkeld at his book shop in Dulwich Village at a very reasonable price, Salkeld - who resembled TV’s Steptoe berated me for considering such rubbish. But I still delight in following William Brown as my bedtime reading. To me the stories and illustrations by Thomas Henry were a work of genius.
Other memories include visits to Gibbard’s shoe shop - then located at the corner of Calton Avenue and the Village. Here I was fascinated to have my feet x-rayed before a fitting - a practice later condemned on health and safety grounds. And I can still recall the atmosphere inside Rumsey’s the chemist - the smell of expensive soap and the display of Mason Pearson hair brushes and Kent combs - with Mr Rumsey in half-moon specs - sporting an AOB tie. My mother’s prescription - usually called simply, ‘The Tonic’ was delivered to our house in wax sealed white wrapping paper by a small green van. Further along the Village was the Post Office and knitting shop. Here I was encouraged to save. I still have my GPO savings book which shows line upon line of ‘Demand’ - in beautiful handwritten script. So much for money management.
Shopping for my mother was one of my chores - usually on a late Friday afternoon after school.
The Alleyn Farm Dairy at Dulwich Library had a limited stock of iced buns and Lyon’s individual fruit pies - a real treat. And it was a case of first come, first served. On such occasions, I put on my innocent William Brown face in the hope of being lucky. Usually it worked. I then went next door to Val’s the greengrocers for ‘four pounds of King Edward’s - or failing that - Whites’. I just followed my mother’s written instructions - not having a clue what it all meant. Occasionally, I would venture into the Royal Arsenal Co-operative (RACS) for goods - although this was forbidden territory for my Daily Express reading Conservative parents. As a current member of the ‘Followers of Rupert’ - I still have a residual loyalty to the paper also a collection of rare Rupert Annuals. To my mind, another work of genius.
A visit to The Village Dairy - owned by Mr and Mrs Tomsett was an experience not to be forgotten. It was my first encounter with self-service shopping. Mr Tomsett - always wearing a light brown grocery coat - would give instructions from behind the counter. ‘Young man, the Shredded Wheat you will find on the top shelf behind you - just use the ladder’. Or, ‘You will find Golden Syrup on the lower shelf - if you could manage it for me’ - and so on. Another magnet for me was Titterton’s toy shop - next door to Cullen’s - a rather upswept grocers. In the window were Hornby train sets and masses of Dinky toys - far beyond my reach. But just window-shopping was a delight.
Another memory of those days was what I would term, ‘Post Code Snobbery’. Our house in Dovercourt Road was SE 22 and our telephone number ‘Forest Hill’. Not good! To be really Dulwich, one should have been SE21 with a phone number starting ‘Gypsy Hill’. It has plagued me throughout my life, I fear.
Dulwich had suffered a good deal during the War. There were numerous bomb-sites like jagged teeth which scared the landscape. An attractive Georgian house in the Village - demolished. A landmine had fallen on a row of houses at the corner of Dovercourt Road and Court Lane. And Lordship Lane suffered most of all with rows of shops shattered beyond repair. When I watch John Boorman’s iconic film, ‘Hope and Glory’ it brings back memories of my life as a young boy - not only during wartime but in the immediate post War years. I left Dulwich to return to Sussex in 1969 following the death of my Dad in 1965 and afterwards moving with my mother into a small flat in Carson Road, close to West Dulwich Station. On reflection, I’m rather glad to have been born when I was - it was a time of austerity and hardship but also of relative innocence. In short, Happy Days!
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