The Durrells and Dulwich
Including Gerald, His Family and Other Animals
Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) was well known for his conservation work, his zoo on Jersey, and his many books describing his life with animals. Most notable of these is My Family and Other Animals (1956), about his childhood years on the Greek island of Corfu, which was dramatised recently in the TV series The Durrells (2016-19).
However, less well known is that, prior to this, when the Durrell family first came to Britain from their original home in India, they lived for a number of years in Dulwich and nearby Upper Norwood, and that Gerald's older brother Leslie spent two years at Dulwich College.
Gerald's father, Lawrence Samuel Durrell (1884-1928), was born in India of British parents and became the chief engineer of the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (or 'Toy Train'), which was featured in the TV series Great Indian Railways. Then, in 1920, he left to found his own company, Durrell & Co, in Jamshedpur (an industrial boomtown in the state of Bihar), which was involved with the construction of the famous Tata Iron & Steel Works and other projects. It was in Jamshedpur that Gerald was born, on 7 January 1925. His mother, Louisa Florence Dixie (1886-1964), was the daughter of the head clerk and accountant of the Ganges Canal Foundry.
When Gerald's oldest brother, Lawrence George Durrell ('Larry', 1912-90) - later a diplomat and writer best known for his series of novels, The Alexandria Quartet - reached the age of 11, his parents decided to send him to a boarding-school in England. As a result, in April 1923, before Gerald was born, he came to London with his parents and younger siblings, Leslie (1918-83) and Margaret (Margo, 1919-2007). It was the first time any of them had set foot in Britain.
According to Gordon Bowker in Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell (1996), the whole family stayed in Dulwich: Disembarking at Tilbury on 27 April 1923, they stayed for a while at a London hotel, then found lodgings in East Dulwich, at 36 Hillsborough Road, a large suburban house, backing on to the playing fields of Alleyn's School. The house may well have been that of a relative of R.C.Dyson, Lawrence Samuel's former supervisor on the NW Railway. Edith Dyson became their landlady, and, when Louisa returned to India, she became the guardian of the two boys. No. 36 was situated at the Thorncombe Road end of Hillsborough (now Hillsboro) Road, but was demolished to make way for the Alleyn's Junior School in 1992.
While in Dulwich they visited Lawrence's relatives, the Rickwoods, who lived on Dulwich Common. Then, before they returned to India with Margo in September 1923, his parents sent Larry to a school in Tunbridge Wells (where they also had relations) for a year. However, it is not clear where they sent Leslie. As Bowker says: 'Whatever schooling the two boys had for their first year in England it could not have amounted to much, possibly a local day-school in Dulwich or some tutoring at home, though [Larry] remembered his guardian Mrs Dyson as kind but ignorant'.
In September the following year, Larry was enrolled at St Olave's & St Saviour's Grammar School ('St Oggs'), near London Bridge. Larry was then still lodging with Mrs Dyson in Dulwich and travelling to school each day by train to London Bridge from East Dulwich station. In Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (1998), Professor Ian S. MacNiven quotes Larry's later descriptions of Dulwich at that time: 'A few streets from Mrs Dyson's stood Dulwich College, which was “a fair candidate for the wildest nineteenth-century building in the whole of London”, with “a crazy Dostoveskian gleam in its eye”. In nearby Dulwich Park Larry would note a “cold toy lake” that was home to “a few bedraggled swans'.
At about the same time Leslie was enrolled at Caldicott Prep School, which was then situated in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
Then in the spring of 1926 Louisa, Margo and the one year-old Gerald returned to London. As Lawrence Durrell was planning to leave India for good and settle in Dulwich, Louisa bought a large house with a garden at 43 Alleyn Park in West Dulwich. It was almost opposite Dulwich College Preparatory School (now Dulwich Prep London) where, by coincidence, half a century later, Hugh Bonneville - narrator of the 2010 audiobook version of My Family and Other Animals - would be a pupil.
Later in 1926 Lawrence came to Dulwich to inspect the house and enrol Larry in a new school - St Edmund's School in Canterbury. He returned to India in September that year and moved his business to Lahore, where he set up another new home. Louisa took the younger children to join him there in 1927 and it was in Lahore that Gerald first set foot inside a zoo. As he later recalled: 'It was a magic place. Having been there once, nothing could keep me away.'
In their absence, according to the 1928 edition of Kelly's Directory of Dulwich, the house in Alleyn Park was occupied by 'R.H.Blaker'. This is presumably their relative Richard Henry Blaker ISO (1866-1940) who had been Assistant Secretary in the Indian Government's Department of Education. His son, Brigadier Eric Henry Blaker MC had been to Dulwich College, and other members of the family - Percy Stanley Blaker and his wife Mamie - lived nearby in Norwood (see below).
Early in 1928, Lawrence Durrell became seriously ill and was moved to a hospital in the nearby hill-station of Dalhousie where in April he died, aged 43, of a suspected brain tumour. After the probate was granted on his will in July, Louisa and the younger children caught a train to Bombay where they took a ship to England.
Back at 43 Alleyn Park, Louisa's cousin Prue (known as Aunt Prue), who lived nearby, came to help them settle back in and suggested that Louisa should employ a manservant. According to Michael Haag's The Durrells of Corfu (2017), 'Eventually, Stone was hired, a polite man in his fifties, who polished the silver and cooked simple meals.'
Aunt Prue also suggested that they buy a guard-dog. The result was an enormous bull mastiff ('about the size of a Trafalgar Square lion', Gerald later recalled), named Prince, who was stationed in the sitting-room at night to ward off any intruders. However, they did not reckon with ghosts. One night Prince refused to go into the sitting-room and growled, hackles raised, at an apparently empty armchair. Louisa, confused, asked Gerald what he could see. The little boy replied that he could see his father sitting in the chair, smoking, and wearing his smoking-jacket. However, the ghost soon departed and the dog entered the room without a murmur. Prince himself would also depart before long after attacking a number of small dogs in the area. He was sent away to a farm in the country where, as Gerald later said: 'he could pick on something more his size, liked a bullock. I wept passionately at our parting and gave him a bag of peppermints to remember me by.'
During their last two years in Alleyn Park, Gerald and his mother were mostly alone as the other children were away at boarding schools - Leslie at Caldicott Prep School, Margo at Malvern Girls College in Worcestershire and Larry (who had left St Edmund's in December 1927) with a coach in Cambridgeshire, trying to pass his university entrance exams.
As a result, towards the end of 1929 Louisa began to feel that the house was too big. She thus let it and moved a mile and half south to Upper Norwood, near the Crystal Palace. Here they rented a serviced garden flat at No.10 Queen's Court, an annexe behind the imposing Queen's Hotel in Church Road. The hotel was the home of her relative Aunt Fan (Fanny Hughes), mother of 'Aunt Prue'.
Gerald loved the flat because it had a side entrance which opened on to the garden and (to his mother's horror) brought in every kind of insect and animal he could catch. Larry, however, who had by then briefly rejoined the family (having given up the idea of university in favour of becoming a writer), detested it. In The Black Book (1938), he described it (as the Regina Hotel) as being full of chain-smoking old colonials and having 'mouldering corridors' and 'mouse-chawed wainscoting'. He also hated the area: 'Larry wandered disconsolately about Upper Norwood and Dulwich. Everything seemed grey: the buildings, the rain, the faces. The Crystal Palace “glittered” with “grimy glass” in the “sooty darkness” and its towers were “two black phalloi” ' (MacNiven, p.72). Britain for him was 'Pudding Island'.
Meanwhile, though, Larry had become friendly with a second cousin, the novelist Richard Sidney Blaker (1893-1940), who would become best known for his First World War novel Medal Without Bar (1930). Blaker, who was also born and brought up in India, had come to England in 1909 and was then living nearby with his Uncle Stanley and Aunt Mamie. His novel Scabby Dichson (1928) had recently been published and some commentators have suggested that Larry's own first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), which he claimed he wrote between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was still living in Dulwich and Norwood, borrows from Blaker's book.
It was also at this time that he became friendly with Cecil Jeffries, who later published Larry's first collection of poetry, Quaint Fragments (1931), written between the ages of 16 and 19 when the family lived in the Dulwich/Norwood area.
Louisa, however, was increasingly on her own with Gerald: Larry hung out in bars in Soho, and Leslie and Margo were still at their boarding-schools. So when Louisa's friends at the hotel, the Brown family, moved to Bournemouth in Dorset (where Louisa already had family) in March 1930 she decided to go there too. As a result, early in 1931 they moved to Berridge House, a large Victorian mansion in Parkstone.
In September 1931 Leslie left Caldicott Prep School to go to Dulwich College. According to Calista Lucy, the College's archivist: 'He was a boarder in Elm Lawn, which was then one of our boarding houses, and is now the (head)Master's house. He spent his whole time at Dulwich in the Middle Form.'
Two of his contemporaries were the future war heroes Noel and Jack Agazarian who lived with their parents in Alleyn Park (at No.21). Jack was an SOE agent in the Second World War, while Noel became a Battle of Britain fighter ace and close friend of Richard Hillary (author of The Last Enemy) - his Spitfire hangs in the Imperial War Museum. In 1923 (when the Durrells first arrived in Dulwich), their mother bought a First World War Sopwith Pup biplane from a Croydon auction for £5 and installed it in their back garden!
Louisa eventually sold the house in Alleyn Park in 1932 and in December 1933 Leslie was removed from Dulwich College after it became evident that he was being bullied and joined the rest of the family in Dorset.
This, then, ought to be the end of the Durrell link to Dulwich, but in fact it has lasted long after the 1930s, right up to the present day. In 2009 the 'Year 9 Entrance and Scholarship Examination: English' for Dulwich College featured texts from My Family and Other Animals. Two years later a portrait of Gerald Durrell was included (alongside those of David Attenborough, Peter Scott, Charles Darwin, Patrick Moore and others) in local artist Marlon Brown's 'Wall of Heroes' mural outside West Dulwich station. Then in 2017, Dulwich College hosted the first two days of the three-day 'Conservation Optimism Summit' organised jointly by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at the University of Oxford, the Zoological Society of London and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. The conference brought together environmentalists from all over the world and culminated on Earth Day (Saturday 22 April 2017), with a public event at the London Zoo.
Added to which, John Lovering, a Gornor of Dulwich College and Chairman of Dulwich College Enterprises, is also a Trustee of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. And last but not least, Nick Breeze - grandson of Margo Durrell and hence Gerald and Lawrence Durrell's great-nephew, currently lives in the area.
An English Heritage Blue Plaque will be erected on 43 Alleyn Park in 2020.