Brian Green recalls more stories from his fifty years as a shopkeeper in Dulwich Village.
As my first article suggested, my fellow shopkeepers and my customers have been an endless source of interest and amusement to me in my long career behind the counter of my shop in Dulwich Village. Let me share some more of these memories with you.
In the 1950s, restaurants and cafés, so much a feature of the Village today hardly existed. Even the Crown & Greyhound had largely eschewed its heritage of being the reincarnation of a Georgian coaching inn with a widespread reputation for good food. It was I suppose all to do with food shortages and austerity which followed the Second World War. By 1957, the year I started, these shortages were a thing of the past. Rationing was now a fading memory but the interval required between demand and supply had not fully elapsed. Indeed, the supply had been further curtailed by the closure of the British Restaurant at the Grafton Hall in Village Way - a well-used wartime emergency facility. The sole establishment equipped to cater for the taste-buds of the village's population was The Village Cake Shop.
The Village Cake Shop was in Calton Avenue, in premises now occupied by Aqua. It was owned by Miss Ensor. She was a very good cook, producing for her lunches; excellent roasts and splendid English puddings like apple crumble or Eve's Pudding. During the war years, and before she realised her life's ambition of owning her own little teashop, Miss Ensor had been head cook at Kings College Hospital. Miss Ensor shared a physical handicap with her single member of staff, let us call her Ellen for her name real name escapes me; both were very hard of hearing. Ellen was I suppose in her late forties, she wore an unusual shade of orange hued lipstick which she often inaccurately applied. Having lunch at the Village Cake Shop was like being amongst the audience of a floor show, indeed no cabaret could match the experience.
What contributed to what I called the Floor Show was determined both by the hearing handicaps of the participants and physical layout of the teashop. The kitchen was on the floor above and food was delivered by a lift operated by means of a frayed rope. If an order had not been received or was found to be incorrect in the teashop by Ellen what followed was a dialogue conducted by shouting up the bare stairway to the kitchen by a flustered Ellen and received, invariably inaccurately, by Miss Ensor. This difficulty was compounded on Fridays when The Village Cake Shop offered fish on its menu. The problem was that the establishment only possessed five sets of fish cutlery. The waiting time on Fridays for lunch was therefore protracted. One Friday the entire crew of a road surfacing gang entered the cake shop en masse for lunch. Ellen very nearly collapsed on sight.
The Village Cake Shop had its regular customers. Amongst these was the scholarly, balding and bespectacled slight figure of Mr W. G. Hoskins, the author of a spectacularly dull tome entitled The Life and Times of Edward Alleyn. On one occasion even the mild Mr Hoskins, sitting in the window corner seat behind his copy of The Times was alarmed when Ellen bellowed up the stairs for the umpteenth time - "Mr. H. still hasn't had his coffee!", a statement accompanied by much inaudible muttering under her breath. Two bachelor neighbours who were regular customers for lunch on Saturdays then entered, their arrival announced by further bellowing up the stairwell: "The one o'clocks are in!"
One day each week Ellen had the day off. On these days Miss Ensor took over Ellen's duties in addition to her own. How she managed to both wait at the tables and prepare the food I never discovered. Was there another invisible hand helping in the kitchen? I don't think so. With the double duties Miss Ensor had to move about quickly. This she did by rapidly weaving her way around the teashop, body and arms swaying around the tables, holding a tray aloft. Her elbows and shoulders were raised parallel to the tray and those who were uncertain of her name called her 'Miss Tennis Elbows'.
Sadly, Miss Ensor could not make the Village Cake Shop pay, and when she sold up to an Italian couple who later would introduce pizza to the village, she and Ellen were much missed. Surprisingly, Margaret Ensor did settle immediately into retirement, although by this time she was approaching sixty. Instead she took a post as cook at an Outward Bound Centre in Wales, and after that became cook at Westminster School.
The expansion of the Crown & Greyhound into providing food was also not without incident. Of course it had a purpose built coffee lounge to the right of the entrance but the intervening war years curtailed this facility. When the new licensees, the Kitchings decided to restore catering they resolved to eliminate the public bar and make the entire pub into an open area.
The public bar occupied the left hand side of the building and to this day it still retains a different atmosphere to the remainder of the premises. The attractive other bars were more popular and the public bar was less and less patronised, despite its prices being marginally lower than the others bars. It did however have two die-hard regulars, two elderly widows named Alice and Ivy. Alice and Ivy were outraged by the landlord's proposal to convert the public bar into an extension of the lounge bars and to show their disapproval, for about a month made a nightly pilgrimage to The Greendale, a small pub on the Bessemer Estate. The long walk along the ill-lit Green Dale finally proved too much of an effort to save a penny on their pint of Guinness and their protest made they returned to their regular seats in the now open-plan Greyhound.
In my first collection of memories I mentioned the 'Lucious Linda' who had the amazing good fortune to win a large sum on the National Lottery, not once but twice. There was another character in the Village, and no one deserves the appellation of 'character' more than 'Bernie', who had a similar stroke of good luck arriving at a similarly opportune time.
Bernie, after leaving Dulwich Hamlet School, turned his hand to decorating, window and office cleaning and had his own little firm. He was a capable and reliable tradesman but perhaps not the most efficient book-keeper. Whether it was the Inland Revenue, the VAT department of Customs and Excise or his bank that were making his life a misery I do not know. What is a fact is that almost overnight Bernie appeared reborn. Gone were the frayed decorator's overalls and instead Bernie was to be seen sauntering about the Village in an expensive overcoat complete with a fur collar of the Arthur Daley variety. Bernie began to stand drinks at the bar of the Crown & Greyhound on a regular basis and hold court there to a throng of newly acquired cronies.
The story I heard was that a substantial cheque had arrived from the National Lottery, the amount of which Bernie wisely never disclosed. He took this down to his bank at Herne Hill, clutching with it the latest letter from the bank regarding his overdraft that he had received, apparently in the same post. He then thumped both cheque and letter down at the counter and walked out and started to live his life of Riley. As far as I know he never took up decorating again, his van lay abandoned on the forecourt of North Dulwich station and instead of cleaning windows Bernie began a new career of cleaning up Dulwich by entering politics and standing as a Liberal Democrat councillor. He laid great emphasis on his newly acquired responsibilities, letting potential voters know that, if necessary, to get to an appointment he was prepared to use a helicopter air-taxi at his own expense.
Bernie's character however had some unexpected facets. One of his first actions following his new-found wealth was to buy a small valley in Wales for his wife, which in spring blossomed with snowdrops. He declined the idea of moving to a smart new house in this valley, preferring to live in the home he was born in at North Dulwich station. Behind the house, in the long but narrow rear garden he continued to maintain his menagerie of all manner of animals and birds. He had considerable skill in restoring sick creatures to health and was often brought such animals to nurture by the local RSPCA. Visits to see the menagerie by classes of local schoolchildren were continued. In the garden beside the house he strung coloured lanterns which gave a cheery welcome to weary commuters arriving on evening rush-hour trains from London Bridge. These same commuters had been given a rousing send off to their offices on the morning trains by Bernie's two raucous peacocks which sometimes escaped onto the platform roof canopies of the Down Line. Spare a thought for Bernard Webb as you pass or sit on the seat to his memory outside Barclays Bank in the Village.
It is only in recent years that banks have dispensed with their managers. Now business enquiries are handled by call centres spread throughout the country and abroad. A significant figure in the community has thus been lost, and just possibly some of the bank's profits also. The manager of Barclays Bank in Dulwich Village, in addition to his other duties, was invariably appointed as honorary treasurer of a number of charities connected with the village. He handled the financial affairs of the Village Infants School, a task which today requires at least one full time school administrator. He was also treasurer of the Dulwich Rotary Club and thus came into social contact with many of his business clients - what better way to understand their strengths and weaknesses.
Jack Gibson was manager when I began my career in the village. He succeeded Stanley Turpin who was friendly with my parents and followed them into retirement at Bexhill. Jack Gibson, in common with several other managers was a pipe smoker. Like Harold Wilson, Jack would thoughtfully puff his pipe when considering enlarging or granting an overdraft or some other proposal which could compromise the bank. The pipe would be removed, a page turned and the pipe restored. It gave Jack a margin of thinking time to arrive at a decision.
When I proposed expanding my business to add a third shop to my small empire, Jack reviewed my plans, asked a few questions, drew on his pipe and gave his blessing. And the necessary finance. Soon after this interview there was an armed bank raid at the bank in the village which in those days had no security screens, merely a raised wooden counter separating the customer from the cashiers. Jack confronted the robbers and was shot in the arm. He returned a few months later, still as cheerful and still puffing his pipe.
I am not quite sure what he would have made of one of the bank's later cashiers named Janice. Fortunately Jack had retired by the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1978, when in a burst of patriotism Janice displayed her Union Jack patterned underwear at the Village Business Association's party. Perhaps he would have approved, certainly the revelation did not appear as a charge on local bank statements.
On your way through the Village today you will pass Panino D'Oro, the cheerful deli where harassed Dulwich mums catch their breath after the school run. I remember the premises many years ago as The Village Dairy; presided over by 'Tommy Tomsett'. Mr Tomsett's shop was a cornucopia of tins arranged into pyramids, stacked boxes and assorted jars. Tommy himself was tall and thin, and occasionally the ghost of a smile hovered about his mouth. He seemed to glide around the shop in a state of perpetual slow motion. His actions were careful, deliberate and S- L- O- W. By contrast, his wife was short, plump, jolly and quick. He had what is called a 'helping hand', a device which had opening jaws on the end of a long rod and operated by a lever. With this Mr Tomsett would carefully remove whatever jar or tin was on the shopping list of his customers. At the request for some cheese, he would unwrap a large whole cheese from its muslin cover and place it on a marble slap. He would then carefully cut the cheese with a wire and rewrap the required slice in greaseproof paper, taking great care to fold the corners neatly. If there was customer in front of you at The Village Dairy you were in for a long wait. Which was probably why there was a cane backed chair for customers' use beside the counter.
Of course The Village Dairy had competition from other grocers' shops in the Village - not that that made any difference to its speed of service. Next to the Crown & Greyhound stood Mercer's Stores, run by Mr Page, next door to which was a branch of the United Dairies. I have to confess a minor misdemeanour in connection with this local UD. When putting up a lighted Christmas tree on its roof one Christmas I was unable to resist switching the letters on its fascia and for several months it bore the legend United Diaries.
I did not think I believed in ghosts, not that is, until I heard that the Dulwich Estate's bailiff, Mr Clout had died. I had never actually been introduced to Mr Clout, merely knew of him by reputation, but I did know his wife. Mrs Clout was a diminutive, smiling, white haired lady who lived in one of the cottages opposite the Crown & Greyhound. The Mr Clout I thought I knew was a robust figure, tall and well built. I was therefore surprised one day in the early 1960s to hear that he had died. A day or so after I had heard this news, the Mr Clout I knew walked into my shop. I had never seen a ghost before. "Can I have a bottle of ink please?" the apparition asked as it approached the counter. Not quite knowing how to converse with my first ghost I replied "How are you?" to which it responded, "I'm not dead yet!"
I went an even paler shade as the tall and burly figure of the ghost of Mr Clout left my shop. It was only later that I discovered that his name was not Mr Clout, but his neighbour Tom Bruce.
Yet that is not quite the end of my ghost story because about eighteenth months ago, and more than 40 years after the incident described above, the resident of another of those little cottages came in to ask me if I had ever heard of a tragic event in his cottage, because his wife (who like himself had a most balanced disposition) was convinced that she had on several occasions seen what she was thought was a ghost in her house. I was unable to say that I had.