I had not expected to spend fifty years as a shopkeeper in Dulwich Village when I left Alleyn's in 1953, although I was keen on a career in retailing which I began as office boy to the chairman and directors of the Harrods group of department stores, then still in family ownership. National Service in the RAMC followed, after which I left the shores of England to spend a few months working in the main Eaton's store in Toronto.
I entered the family business in the summer of 1957, the result of a message that my father's eyesight was failing. Fortunately his poor sight did not deteriorate further; he would still continued to run one of the family's shops in the Village until 1972, and indeed for several years still put in a day or so a week as a guillotine operator in a printing company; a somewhat dangerous occupation for a short sighted worker!
At the rear of my shop in those days was an extensive printing works owned and run by one Albert Chapman, a character indeed. Albert had left his native Wisbech, where he had learned to become a printer, for Dulwich in the early 1930's. He had bought the shop and printing works from a previous owner (The Art Stationers was then called The College Press and had been a stationers and artists' materials shop since the late 1860's). The shop did not interest him greatly which is how my parents came to buy that part of the business from him in 1947.
Albert was subject to numerous enthusiasms, the pursuit of which invariably relegated his business of printing to a poor second place. He was attracted to botany and became an expert on African Violets, rising to become president of the society established in their name. He was a member of the British Herpetological Society, and an enthusiast for life plaster casting. In the printing works, classical music emanating from stereo-speakers competed with the hum and rattle of flat-bed presses and linotype machines. Buried in the confusion was Albert, invariably engaged in his latest hobby. Poetry was a particular love and his printing works became the HQ of Poetry Commonwealth, an organisation started by two local poets and founders of the Dulwich Poetry Group. The print works' disappearance more or less coincided with Albert's death and the redevelopment at the rear of the row of shops to build the SG Smith garage complex.
Although the Village in 1957 continued to enjoy a timeless atmosphere which still survives today, elsewhere around Dulwich the scene was quite different. The Dulwich Estate had only just begun to embark on its massive house-building programme following the end of World War II and while Frank Dixon Way had been completed, the 'town-house' and the numerous developments by Messrs Wates & Co. graphically recalled in this Newsletter by Ian McInnes, had yet to arrive. Indeed, there was only one estate agency in the Village (today there are five). The more senior of the male office workers still wore bowler hats on their way to work and children carried satchels to school, the boys wearing caps and the girls straw boaters in summer or soft velour hats in winter. Two households still retained their long-serving elderly uniformed maids at their houses in Village Way and Woodwarde Road. I recall being asked by one of my first customers, a delightful elderly lady with a dog on the longest lead I have ever seen, and who had a permanent suite at the Selsdon Park Hotel, what kind of pen would be suitable for her to give to a member of the working class!
Among my fellow shopkeepers a number had seen service in the war. Howard Bartley the greengrocer, who in addition to sporting the regimental tie of the Royal Tank Regiment, also carried on his back the burns he received when his tank caught fire in North Africa. Stanley Legge, the pacifist newsagent and former RAF serviceman continued to pour scorn on Alleyn's celebrated cadet force which he described as akin to the Hitler Youth Movement. At the Crown & Greyhound, Sydney Kitching who had served as a fighter pilot was, with the help of his glamorous wife Dorene, creating a distinctive and pleasant atmosphere in his pub, where, in the large upstairs room the Rotary Club met on Tuesday lunchtimes. A cricket competition was started between two teams drawn from owners and staffs of businesses at either end of the Village, and WJ Mitchell the local builders made a giant wooden spoon as a trophy for this annual competition.
Not all the shopkeepers were paragons of virtue. One had received a substantial fine for publishing obscene books (it was before the arrival of Lady Chatterley's Lover ), another, who ran an antiques shop in the premises now occupied by Harold George Hairdressers, had disappeared with all the antiques people had left for him to sell on commission. An owner of the TV and radio shop was imprisoned for receiving stolen property. Indeed, things were not to change greatly; some years later a local estate agent who showed great promise as an amateur actor received a twelve-month sentence for embezzling his company's profits and a another estate agency manager was sacked for other financial misdemeanours. The highlight of my fellow shopkeepers' failings however is more recent and certainly more innocent. It concerns a particular lady I nicknamed 'The Luscious Linda'. Nothing can compare with the career of Linda; it is the stuff of an improbable TV soap.
Linda was, she said, a former Miss Barbados who had had a fling with Ian Botham on one of his West Indies tours. Her arrival in Dulwich Village in the early 1990's actually came as a bit of light relief. The housing slump had had a knock-on effect on the viability of the Village shops and the arrival of Sainsbury's in Dog Kennel Hill had killed off the butchers (2) , bakers (1), greengrocers (2), off licence (1) , the fishmonger having succumbed somewhat before. Linda's foray into retailing was therefore somewhat refreshing and she began with the renting of part of the former post office as a 'nearly-new' ladies' wear. This was successful and soon she took one of several vacant shops to extend this enterprise, curiously adding a café cum restaurant.
Despite Linda's obvious enthusiasm the economic climate at the time mitigated against her and she became so far behind with her rent and other financial demands that the Dulwich Estate were about to foreclose on her business. Then, to amusement of her fellow shopkeepers she won a cool quarter of a million pounds on the National Lottery. One can only imagine what kind of note she wrote when enclosing her arrears of rent. That was not the end by any means of the Linda saga. Several months later she had a further win, but this time only a modest £20,000! And then, to cap it all, she was approached by Pizza Express who were anxious to get a foothold in the Village and offered £100,000 for the remainder of her lease; a sum she quickly took much to the chagrin of the Estate.
Sadly Linda's tale did not have a happy ending - another attempt at combining coffee, this time with antiques also failed. Vintage cars, extravagant trips to New York and a new house at Hambledon Place quickly blew a hole in Linda's new fortune. A rapid exit back to Barbados and the family home was the last we saw of her. The house was repossessed, the school-fees arrears written off and a little colour went out of the Village for a time.
Then there was John Heller, whose wife Betty owned one of the Village's first boutiques in the 1970's. John was a publisher but also had an acting career and as a character actor was usually cast as an arrogant German officer, invariably sporting a monocle - remember him sharing the spotlight with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in 'Where Eagles Dare'? John was always in charge of the boutique on Saturdays which was Betty's day off, a role which he and his female customers appeared to relish.
Perhaps unexpectedly some of the proprietors had a different persona outside of business hours. The often dour Walter Bartley who owned one of the greengrocers' shops was a splendid ballroom dancer, W F Fordham, whose sons joined him in his electrical business in the 1950's was formerly a professional music-hall turn, Brenda Dawson who ran the memorable Olde Village Tuck Shoppe was a keen bridge player. Wally the newspaper vendor, who had a pitch at North Dulwich Station, was a bookmaker with a pitch at most of the southern racecourses.
The fall-out of the twin attacks on local shops - the supermarkets' virtual monopolisation of food retailing and the economic downturn of the early 1990's created vacant shop premises, which, as the economy eventually recovered, were gradually taken over by estate agents, restaurants, cafés and boutiques. The adoption of the continental custom of the outdoor café has been a very recent phenomenon, certainly too late for Linda's early enterprise and it cannot be entirely down to climate change as the photograph of ice-bound coffee-drinkers shows. What has taken place is that visiting Dulwich Village has become a leisure activity. A coffee, a browse in the shops en route to Dulwich Park or Picture Gallery has become a pleasant all-year round activity.
The Shopping Bag or basket, so many years absent from local shopping expeditions has made a welcome return, thanks to the guilt factor stimulated by the media and the 'Dulwich Going Greener' campaign. The bicycle has made a similar come-back, not, one suspects for environmental reasons but simply that it is easier to park. As a consequence, bike racks have returned after a century's absence from the village street. The art of writing a cheque has disappeared and the 'hole in the wall' has created frustrating problems over the supply of change. The five-pound note, which when I started my career was a large white tissue-like piece of paper the size of a handkerchief is now a tatty little green number of even greater rarity than its 1950's predecessor.
The Swiss au pair has been replaced by her Polish counterpart and domestic born domestic helps have retired to the Costa Blanca. The vacancy thus created has been filled by industrious East Europeans whose back does not ache so regularly as her predecessor and who seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of other such girls who might be available for such work, as well as tips on finding a plumber or electrician of her acquaintance.
Being a shopkeeper in Dulwich continues to be a satisfying and entertaining occupation - perhaps surprising after fifty years.