By Ian Mcinnes
Everyone knows Pond Cottages, the quaint row of small houses facing the millpond that you pass when heading south along College Road towards the Tollgate. And most will know that the large building at the end of the road is Dulwich College’s PE Centre, a modern building opened in 1967. What many people will not know, however, is that it was not the first building on the site - it replaced an earlier structure, known as the ‘Covered Courts’, which looked rather like an aircraft hangar. Long forgotten, probably justifiably, it loomed over this part of Dulwich for over 50 years.
It opened on 10 April 1911 as a commercial tennis club, with three indoor courts and a large seating gallery for spectators. Contemporary newspaper reports noted that construction had only taken thirteen weeks, that 100 tons of steel had been used, and that it had cost £6800. A huge gas lighting installation, apparently based on principles “used in the King of Sweden’s’ court in Stockholm”, meant that play was possible “at any hour of the day or night”. The official opening included several display matches, one between Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Dora Boothby. How good it actually was might be debatable as the couple met again at Wimbledon in June - and Mrs Lambert won 6–0, 6–0!
During World War 1 it was used as an ambulance station, and it received a direct hit in one of the rare German heavy bomber raids, killing the caretaker and a child. Although it was primarily intended to be a club for local residents (Hiram Maxim was the first club secretary), it was also used for competitions such as the annual London – Paris match. This event was played here for over 20 years from 1912-14 and 1919-39 - the French winning most of the time. There are many newspaper reports of these and other competitions - like the Surrey County Youth Championships, but perhaps the most unusual one was about Bunny Austin, the last Briton to be in a Wimbledon final before Andy Murray. A March 1933 headline said ‘Austin changes into tennis shorts: halt in final set of match’, and it described an ‘amazing scene in the London v Paris lawn tennis match at Dulwich today’. After losing the fourth set at 2-6, Austin apparently walked cross to the side of the court and asked an onlooker to go to the dressing room and find a pair of shorts in his bag. He then changed into them and came out for the fifth set - which he won. After the match he was quoted as saying ‘I will never play in long trousers again, they are most uncomfortable and shorts are obviously the things to wear, I will wear shorts in future.’ And the following year he wore them at Wimbledon, the first man to do so.
By the 1930s the Courts were an integral part of the nearby Toksawa Hotel’s offer of ‘country house’ hotel accommodation near the Centre of London, with adjoining sports facilities (they also offered golf at the Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Club). Their brochure said ‘Here, independent of the time or the weather, Tennis played on a hard wood floor is at its fastest and thrilling best. Three full size tennis courts occupy the floor space: there is a gallery with accommodation for 1000 spectators. Continuous tennis is provided, the glass roof affords a steady light by day; by night the Courts are scientifically illuminated by 90,000 candle power high pressure gas. Professional players and a staff of ball girls are always in attendance.’
Early in WW2 the building was sublet to Messrs Convoys Ltd, for storage purposes, but in 1941 it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works as a supply depot for the distribution of catering and other equipment to the armed forces. It was de-requisitioned in 1947, having not been looked after very well. The dilapidations report listed damage to the walls, the roof and roof glazing, the guttering, and the metal windows. The wooden floor was also so badly decayed that it had to be replaced. The Estate pursued the Ministry for compensation – with some success.
At the same time, it rejected an approach from the Surrey Lawn Tennis Association to take over the building and, later in the year, let it to Dulwich College as a sports hall on a temporary licence at a rent of £50 per annum. There are rumours that it was used as one of the additional venues for the 1948 London Olympic Games but there is no actual record – and tennis was not an Olympic sport at the time. The College took out a longer lease in 1950 with the proviso that, in due course, it would be rebuilt.
Old Alleynians of a certain age will probably recall, in bad moments, the hot summer days when the old ‘Covered Courts’ were used for G.C.E examinations. One of them wrote to the Society some years ago saying “The gym (as it was in those days) was run by Wally Cromey and his assistant Ted Day. It was also used as the examination hall and was uncomfortably hot when the sun shone during the O Level exams in the summer. When it rained I remember Ted Day padding around in his plimsolls putting buckets out to collect drips from the leaking glass roof panels. Patrick Spencer, an OA and former Dulwich Society Secretary, confirmed the heat generated by the glazed roof and that the boys “all stripped off to our waists before even we had looked at the examination paper”.
On the last day of term, the whole school congregated there for assembly and Ronald Groves (headmaster 1954-66) addressed the school and said farewell to the leavers. The school captain read I Corinthians 13. II “When I was a child I spake as a child. . . . etc”. The building then reverberated to the hymn “Now thank we all our God” - an emotional occasion for many.
It was finally demolished to allow the construction of the current sports hall in 1966. The Summer 1966 edition of the ‘Dulwich Villager’ reported ‘It is doubtful if many people will mourn the passing of what was probably the ugliest building in Dulwich. The old covered tennis courts, which for generations marred the would-be artist’s view of the eastern aspect of the Pond and its adjacent cottages on Dulwich Common, is no more. In its stead will rise a new structure which it is earnestly hoped will be more pleasing’.