Looking south from the top floor of our house in Overhill Road you can clearly see, on the crest of the opposite hill, the bandstand of the Horniman Museum. Rather less visible, in the valley below and a little to the east – and slightly obscured by foliage in the summer months - is the roof of the childhood home of the writer C.S.Forester, best known for his series of ‘Hornblower’ naval novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. An English Heritage Blue Plaque records that he lived at No.58 Underhill Road. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of his death in 1966.
Forester was born Cecil Louis Troughton Smith in a top-floor flat on the Shoubra Road, Cairo, Egypt, on 27 August 1899. He was the third son and fifth child of George Foster Smith MBE (1863-1947), a London-trained English teacher working at a British-style public school in the city who had moved to Egypt shortly after the birth of his first child in 1889. He was later Professor of the Normal School for Teachers in Cairo and wrote Talks With the Children (1904) - an English primer for Egyptian students - and other educational books. He received a number of awards for his work including an MBE in 1920. His mother was Sarah Medhurst Troughton (1867-1949), also a teacher.
After 15 years in Egypt, Forester’s mother and her five children moved back to London in 1901 and lived at 37 Shenley Road, on the border of Camberwell and Peckham, near George Smith’s brother Harry (also a teacher). The children’s father remained in Cairo, but regularly returned on leave. In Shenley Road Cecil was looked after at first by the family’s maid, then, in 1902 ‘a week after my third birthday, I went to school’ as he recalled in his memoir, Long Before Forty, written while he lived in Dulwich but not published until after his death.
Cecil followed his older siblings to the nearby London County Council primary, Lyndhurst Grove School (which was, by coincidence, the first school of my wife). It was while Cecil was at Lyndhurst Grove School that he managed to buy ‘three penn’orth of gunpowder’ from a local shop, poured it into a wood-lined socket for holding a clothes-line post in a school friend’s back garden, replaced the post and lit a home-made fuse. Describing ‘The Big Bang’ mine later he said: ‘Underneath that clothes-line post was about as much powder as was used to charge a thirty-two pounder in Nelson’s day.’ There was an almighty explosion, the post was blown into a garden two doors away, numerous windows in the neighbourhood were shattered and a policeman arrived...
While at Lyndhurst Grove School, Cecil also won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School. However, the offer was withdrawn when it was discovered that by then his father was earning too much. Instead he attended Alleyn’s School as a fee-paying student like his oldest brother Geoffrey. As there was only one vacancy at the time he entered (aged 11), he joined the fourth form with boys of 13 and 14. Here, needless to say, he was bullied as a ‘skinny bespectacled shrimp’ by some of the boys until he began to grow rapidly (five inches a year for four years) and took up boxing.
Cecil walked to Alleyn’s, later recalling, ‘In those days Green Lane, Dulwich, [now Green Dale] really was a lane – we walked along it twice a day to and from school – and down one side ran a little stream, brown with iron, one of the mineral springs which once nearly made the district a popular watering place. To dam that ditch was a usual pastime...’
Cecil met his first wife when he was at Alleyn’s, at the age of 13. She was 10-year old Kathleen (Kitty) Belcher, then at James Allen’s Girls’ School (and later a teacher of gymnastics), who was the younger sister of his Alleyn’s school friend, Frank Belcher. Their father, George Joseph Belcher, was himself a schoolteacher and they lived in Hawarden Grove, Herne Hill. (According to Cecil’s son, John, Cecil also got a girl expelled from JAGS when he asked Kitty to pass on a letter to her and it was opened by a teacher: ‘Whatever the note said, it was apparently not serious enough to have the boy who wrote it expelled from his boys’ school, but it was sufficient to send the girl to whom it was addressed away from her girls’ school.’
Cecil claimed that he learnt to read from studying his brothers’ bound volumes of Chums comic, especially its adventure serials by Samuel Walkey. Other early reading included Henty, Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, W.M.Thackeray and Dickens (‘whose work I found I disliked intensely’). He and his brothers also had long battles with lead soldiers and paper battleships representing the navy of Nelson’s time.
In 1914, Cecil, his older brother Hugh, their two sisters and their mother were still living in Shenley Road (Geoffrey was then abroad). However, by 1915 Hugh had joined up as a machine-gun officer and Cecil, his mother and two sisters moved to 58 Underhill Road, East Dulwich. Then, with financial assistance from Geoffrey (who had made a lot of money as the Medical Officer of a Shell Oil base at the port of Res Gamsah on the Red Sea, and later Borneo), Cecil entered the sixth form of Dulwich College as a boarder in September 1915.
At school he played cricket and rugby and served in the Officer Training Corps but was deemed unfit for military service in the First World War as he had a weak heart. Instead, still living at home with his mother and two sisters (later just his sister Marjorie), he left Dulwich College and in October 1917 began to train at Guy’s Medical School (following in the footsteps of his brother Geoffrey and cousin Harry) and wrote humorous articles for the hospital’s Gazette. However, having discovered he was unsuited to the career he left in his third year.
In 1920, when his father returned to Dulwich on leave, Cecil told his family that he had decided to become a writer. His father gave him six months to live at home without paying room and board to get him started and, as Cecil’s son John says, ‘except for one trip to France, Cecil did not leave home until late 1927’.
He immediately set about writing 6000 words a day for a fortnight. A friend, Gladys Roberts, typed up the manuscript and suggested his pseudonym should be Cecil Forester (possibly after Mrs Cecil Forrester, a character in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four), which he changed to C.S.Forester, and it was sent off to a publisher. After it had been rejected by a number of publishing houses he wrote another novel in six weeks which was eventually published by Methuen as The Paid Piper (1924). Though Forester claimed that this book was largely written in Free Libraries (such as Dulwich Library) his son says that he actually did most of his writing in Underhill Road. He started his third book while the first two were still doing the rounds of publishers. It was set during the Napoleonic Wars (as the Hornblower series would be later) and was called A Pawn Amongst Kings. After being rejected by three publishers it was accepted by Methuen in 1924 and was his first published book
However, he was by now very short of money. He thus took a casual job selling carpets at the Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia, worked as a male escort (dance and dinner partner only) for wealthy ladies and sold poetry to some magazines. Methuen then commissioned him to write, in two months, a non-fiction book about Napoleon (Napoleon and His Court, 1924) which was well reviewed and led to another book, about the Empress Josephine.
The Josephine book introduced Cecil to the British Library and also to the typewriter: ‘By the time I had finished the eighty thousand words of Josephine I was almost a competent typist.’ Another novel (the crime thriller Payment Deferred) was then rejected by Methuen for whom he produced two more ‘hack biographies’. To make extra money he also wrote articles for the Goldsmith’s Journal, guidebooks for the Pullman company, edited the memoirs of an old Greek millionaire who lived in Forest Hill, tutored the son of a neighbour and worked as a professional bridge-player.
In 1925 he also worked briefly as a copywriter for the Imperial Advertising Agency (he was sacked after a month) and the following year (1926) set up his own short-lived company, Brady & Smith, selling advertising space in newspapers with a former colleague from the IAA. Then eventually, having been rejected by Methuen, Collins, Heinemann and Jonathan Cape, Payment Deferred – which is set in south London - was published by John Lane (Bodley Head) in 1926, a week before the General Strike which ‘almost killed it dead’. The book was a critical success and in the 1930s theatre and film versions appeared starring Charles Laughton. On 13 May 1931 (shortly before Forester left Dulwich) the cartoonist W.K.Haselden even drew two illustrations (featuring Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester and Paul Longuet) to accompany its review of the original production at the St James’s Theatre.
Meanwhile his father had returned from Egypt for good in 1924 and settled down at 58 Underhill Road for the remaining 23 years of his life. On 3 August 1926, having broken off an engagement to a local girl, Cecil married his first wife, Kitty Belcher. Later, backed by his publishers, he bought a 15-foot-long dinghy (a ‘ridiculous little motor boat’) named Annie Marble after the heroine in Payment Deferred. He and his wife then spent 11 weeks boating in France and later Germany, which would lead to the books The Voyage of the ‘Annie Marble’ (1929) and The ‘Annie Marble’ in Germany (1930).
It was in 1927, while he was preparing for these trips, that Forester bought three bound volumes (18 issues in all) of the monthly Naval Chronicle (1790-1820) for his library on the small boat, and it was after studying these that the Hornblower series began. The name itself (he claimed that Horatio came from Hamlet, not Nelson) may have been inspired when he visited Alleyn’s School in 1922 for the unveiling of the memorial boards in Christ’s Chapel to those who had fallen in the Great War (he was a keen member of the Alleyn Old Boys’ Club). One of the names was Private Edward S. Hornblower, who was one of the oldest members of the school to have died during the war (he was 43). Cecil may also have seen the name on a war memorial in the old St Barnabas’ Church (destroyed by fire in 1992).
Around this time he wrote Long Before Forty, at the end of which he meditates on his uncertain future with his wife and motorboat before they set off on their journey along ‘the more dangerous half of the Loire’. From the autumn of 1928 to the spring of 1929 Cecil and Kitty lived in the attic of 58 Underhill Road. Their first son John was born in the house on 7 October 1929, shortly after their return from Germany (John would later himself attend Alleyn’s School). That same year Cecil published his last and best biography, Nelson (1929), and the novel, Brown on Resolution (1929), his first naval story, which was also the only one of his books to be filmed twice (the first version starred John Mills in one of his earliest films).
In the autumn of 1930 Cecil, Kitty and John then moved into a little flat with a tiny walled garden on the lower front of Gothic Lodge, situated on the corner of Mount Adon Park and Lordship Lane.
During this period he published his second crime thriller, Plain Murder (1930), which, with Payment Deferred, was praised by the Guardian in 2011: ‘These two short novels establish Forester as the improbable pioneer of a very English form of noir crime fiction – domestic, darkly ironic and as hard as a hanging judge.’ He also published his first play, U-97 (1931), and Death to the French (1932) - the last book which appeared while he was living in Dulwich (it was published in September 1932). A novel of the Napoleonic wars, Death to the French directly influenced Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books (its hero, Matthew Dodd, even appears in Sharpe’s Escape).
Forester and his family moved to 36 Longton Avenue, Upper Sydenham, at the end of 1932 where Forester would write The African Queen (1935) and the Hornblower series, beginning with The Happy Return (1937). In all, he published nearly 20 books (almost a third of his total output) while in Dulwich – biographies, crime thrillers, travel books, historical fiction, drama, verse and short stories.
In an article for Holiday magazine in 1955, Forester acknowledged the influence of his early years in Dulwich and Peckham on his work:
No writer ever quite escapes his own childhood I have gone back to that part of London again and again in my books for events, for people, for stories, for tiny details, for settings and houses and furniture. When we left Peckham, we moved to a house in Dulwich; halfway between these two homes Mr William Marble of my Payment Deferred later buried a corpse in his back garden, and not far from there Randall (of The River of Time) spent his married life. It was while I wandered along those same quiet streets much later on, in the 1920s, that plots formed in my mind; Rifleman Dodd went through his adventures one evening as I walked along Court Lane, and The Gun played its part in the Peninsular War in Spain as a result of watching workmen removing a fallen tree down towards Herne Hill. These books were written in all sorts of odd places in the world, but that was where they had their start.