By Jan Welch
The vendors of the Dulwich house we were buying told us all the usual things: how to work the burglar alarm, the renovations they had carried out and the vagaries of the plumbing. We heard about the previous owners, and they mentioned - just a suggestion - that the Durrell family might have lived in the house many years before.
I added this to my list and thought no more of it until 1999, when Douglas Botting’s biography of the zoologist Gerald Durrell mentioned our address. A few years later I was looking out of a window and was intrigued to see a man in the street outside, looking up at the house and making notes. This was another biographer, Michael Haag, who also mentioned the address. Neither depiction of the house was positive, with both mentioning ghosts (not a problem we have yet encountered in our 23 years here).
Gerald Durrell’s books were some of my childhood favourites and our son, who went to Dulwich Prep opposite the house, was similarly happy to find My Family and Other Animals on his reading list. We thought that future youngsters attending this and other local schools might also enjoy the connection. This book had clearly enjoyed continuing popularity, being filmed in 1987 and again in 2005 even before the more recent popularity of The Durrells ITV series. Gerald’s brother Lawrence Durrell was of course also a distinguished author, though his popularity seemed to be eclipsed by that of his younger sibling.
How does one go about exploring whether a blue plaque might be a possibility? Wikipedia, as so often, was illuminating, covering the different plaque schemes and their designs, colours, and administration. The original blue plaque scheme was established in 1867, making it the oldest in the world, and run by English Heritage since 1986. Wikipedia described the selection process, with about a third of proposals being approved in principle and then about three years for these to reach the top of the shortlist.
The English Heritage website helpfully contained more information and details of the criteria: the proposed recipient must have died at least 20 years ago, to help ensure that the decision is made with ‘a sufficient degree of hindsight’. In addition, as plaques are also about the associated buildings, a plaque is only installed where a structure has survived in recognisable form. In our case the house must look very similar to how it did when owned by the Durrells in the 1920s, though the ‘grim, dripping, choking laurel hedge’ cited by Haag seems to have metamorphosed into privet in the meantime.
In 2015, 20 years after Gerald Durrell died, I contacted English Heritage to propose a plaque for both brothers; subsequently we were pleased to hear that Gerald had been shortlisted for commemoration. The Panel, however, noted Lawrence Durrell’s individual achievements but did not feel that his historical significance was on a par with that required.
Following short-listing, the next stage was to consider the biographical evidence as well as that relating to the actual address, and this was carried out by an appointed historian in 2017. In 2018 we were advised that the plaque to Gerald Durrrell had been approved, and this was followed by EH obtaining agreement from the Dulwich Estate. In 2019 we were sent mock-ups of how the plaque would look on the front of the house, and the wording to review.
In 2020 the actual plaque was commissioned - ours was made in Wales in a careful process taking three months - and arrangements made for an unveiling ceremony. Cathy Power, the indefatigable English Heritage Blue Plaques Manager, had thoughtfully arranged for a line-up of presenters reflecting different aspects of Durrell’s life, and including actors from The Durrells, and we had planned to invite neighbours and representatives from Dulwich institutions including local schools. And then came Covid-19.
As I wrote the above, the plaque was being installed as quietly as setting a 19inch wide ceramic circle 2 inches deep into brickwork will allow. The contractors were expert, and told me that they had installed 170 of them in 16 years. They kindly allowed me to take photos of the process and then insisted on posing me with the plaque on our front steps. The photo is memorable: I was very alarmed indeed at the prospect of dropping such a large, heavy, precious object.
In the month since the plaque was installed it has been a pleasure to see the response. While a few groups of Durrell devotees have clearly made special journeys to view and photograph it, the main impact has been on passers-by. A couple will walk past, one will spot the plaque and call back their partner, and they walk on with smiles. A couple of Prep boys applauded and called their friends to see. Parents and grandparents point it out to their families. It is very clear how affectionately Gerald Durrell is remembered, and we feel privileged to be able to host this commemoration of him.
The Blue Plaque for Gerald Durrell was installed at 43 Alleyn Park by English Heritage on the 17th September 2020