In November 1915, the Admiralty took possession of a piece of land near JAGS and the old model farm that had belonged to Sir Henry Bessemer. They claimed it was for a searchlight station but in fact they also placed a gun battery there. During WW1 concentric rings of searchlight stations and gun batteries were set up around London, as a defence against Zeppelin attacks. Central stations in places like Hyde Park were ringed by satellite stations in Dulwich, Wandsworth and Richmond with an outer ring in Croydon, Bromley and Morden. Teaching through the raids, Miss Howard, the JAGS Headmistress, said with dry understatement 'the noise of the neighbouring guns was rather alarming'. Following the war's end, most stations were dismantled but the gun battery in Dulwich seems to have lingered for several years.
In January 1920 there were still about a dozen huts plus guns near North Dulwich railway station, in between Red Post Hill and Green Lane (now Greendale). The huts ranged in size from sentry boxes to 80ft long buildings and they still contained engines and dynamos. The War Office seemed in no hurry to clear the site. The Estate offered £100 for the lot and said they would release the War Office from reinstating the ground. The War Office didn't accept, stalemate ensued.
In March Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State for War) spoke about the site in Parliament, saying that due to the difficulty and cost of disposal, the War Office Disposal Board were trying to sell the equipment onsite. The War Office did give back some land, adjacent to the gun and searchlight station, which the Estate promptly let as tennis courts to the United Dairies Sports Club for £50 pa. The Estate then offered to buy four of the huts for £30 with a plan to sell two of them to cover their costs, leaving two in situ to serve as sports pavilions. The Estate eventually paid £125, of which they recovered £106 by selling the largest hut to Alleyn's for £50, two smaller huts for £10 and various shells and loose timber left behind by the War Office. The Estate moved a further two huts (with a value of £70) to the Gallery and Burbage Rd tennis courts, leaving two huts (value '£50 or £60') for the use of the North Dulwich tennis club.
By May, the land had still not been cleared and JAGS were lobbying to use it for sports fields. Lt Col. Hill, who was in charge of the guns, said they still had rather a large amount of stores to divest but if forced to move they would. There were also some buildings left over from Bessemer's Model Farm which would need dealing with but again, nothing happened.
There were still 12 guns, one officer and five men stationed in North Dulwich in July when Sir Frederick Hall, MP for Dulwich, stood up in the House of Commons to ask why they were still there, despite repeated requests from the Dulwich Estate to have the land back, especially as the soldiers were not carrying out any duties. Hall asked Churchill to remove the guns and deploy the men elsewhere. The stalemate now attracted the attention of the national press and both the Times and the Mirror sent journalists and photographers down to Dulwich. Two men from The Times were refused entry to the site but 'in the lane leading to the entrance' the pair could see 'a row of guns encased in canvas covers, a number of huts…an officer and two or three men'. The photographer obtained access to the gun station 'by a back way' (Greendale?) but was chased and forced to give up his photographic plates.
The Daily Mirror had fun with the story, saying the guns were in a 'idyllic retreat' and that neighbouring residents found the guns gave them 'such a sense of comfort on moonlight nights'. The guns were guarded by an artilleryman with 'brightly-polished buttons and a swagger cane. He glanced quickly around the horizon as if looking for hostile aircraft'. The paper continued that the guns 'lay ready to simply pulverise any hostile Bosch planes that came to Dulwich', even though some 'light-hearted young people' were playing tennis opposite the camp (presumably employees of the United Dairies). But, said the Mirror, all the rigorous secrecy of wartime was being maintained. It was a 'hush-hush' camp, unknown to most people, even to the military authorities who denied all knowledge of it, nearly two years after the end of the war. The report concluded that 'all is very quiet on the Dulwich front'. The Yorkshire Post speculated that the War Office had simply forgotten they had 12 guns and six soldiers in North Dulwich, claiming that for over 150 years soldiers had guarded the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and only following a dispute over their accommodation was it discovered that the guard had been set when George II attended the theatre one evening and had never been countermanded.
It wasn't just the newspapers who were having fun. Aron Schmitz, better known as Italo Svevo, an Italian businessman and close friend of James Joyce, joked that 'on the meadows of Dulwich…an anti-aircraft battery continues to function with its sentries and officers, just as if the Huns might still attack the city'.
The War Office finally moved the guns and cleared the site in August 1920. The newspapers couldn't resist one last dig, pondering whether the guns would be sent to the Sahara to watch for messages from Mars, or perhaps detailed to count the stars in the Milky Way.
The transfer of the guns away from Dulwich may have been when this photograph was taken outside Bell House. It shows a large gun in transit, of about the same size as the ones under canvas in the Times photo. The gun appears to have got stuck in the mud, which suggests College Road had yet to be made up as a road.