My parents acquired The Art Stationers (then called the College Press) in 1947 and of course I was a frequent visitor and later I occasionally did odd jobs. Their taking over of even an existing business just after the war ended, was challenging. Everything was in short supply or completely unavailable. For example, pencils were unlacquered, with the title; ‘War drawing’ stamped on them and came in a single grade. Most supplies were on allocation and the utility logo appeared on many goods. Anything mildly decorative was undoubtedly from some supplier’s pre-war stock; indeed the term ‘pre-war’ was banded about as a definition of quality, no matter that it had lain in some warehouse for the previous six or seven years. Some of it might even have ‘Made in Germany’ marked upon it. Certainly the tin trombone my parents purchased for me from a stall in Whitehall on Victory Night 1945 bore such legend – a tribute to the patience of that particular wholesaler who had dared not sell it during the hostilities.
Between 1939-45, a number of Dulwich firms were engaged in producing components for what was called ‘the war effort’. One such was SG Smith Motors who had a car-body repair shop on the corner of Underhill and Barry Roads. Their number one priority was to manufacture a safety clip to slide over the firing trigger of the machine guns on Spitfires. Before the introduction of this safety measure, inexperienced pilots, in the heat of a battle might accidentally press the firing button and loose-off rounds at the airplanes of fellow RAF pilots. Another component SG Smith’s were called on to make was the metal carcase for hand-held flame-throwers.
Robert Smith who succeeded his father Stanley in the business recalls his father telling him of the occasion when, accompanied by his best welder, he was instructed to go to Salisbury Plain, to advise the army on the attachment of ‘waterproof skirts’ to tanks for amphibious landings on D Day. Whilst there he met Winston Churchill whose pet idea it was to adapt the tanks. During the drive back Stanley was flagged down by the military and asked to take two passengers, whose car had broken down, back to London. One turned out to be Lord Rootes and from that chance encounter SG Smith & Co were awarded their first car franchise; selling the new Hillman Minx in 1946.
By contrast, Lily Jones war effort was to be a warden at Post 60, the air-raid wardens’ post located in a cricket pavilion in Burbage Road. Lily Jones was a spinster of small but independent means. She fully entered into the spirit the social mix which wartime conditions had brought and to her surprise found she was a natural darts player. To her delight she became a member of the Post’s darts team. In the early 1950’s Lily purchased a Morris Minor car and would make the journey from her house at the end of Burbage Road to Barclays Bank in the Village. Lily probably never took a driving test, her license dating from pre-test days. As a consequence she never mastered the three-point turn and her journeys were always of a circuitous nature to avoid such a necessity. The short journeys rarely required Lily to change gear and in time the gear box seized up. This did not disturb Lily who thirty years later only used first gear, the car’s only functioning gear, on her shopping trips to the Village.
The difficulty in obtaining stock for any kind of shop in the austerity years following the end of the War, when Britain was helping to feed Germany, as well as itself, required a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Mr Timms was an entrepreneur. He had a small factory in Green Dale in a Victorian house, the site of which today is covered by a either the small row of council houses or the Naval Cadets hut. Mr Timms was an industrial chemist with a talent for meeting some of shortages which beset post-war Londoners. He developed an attractively packaged range of ladies cosmetics including face creams and powders. It had the word ‘Beautiful’ in its trade name but I regret the passing of time has eliminated from my memory the rest of its title. After a while the sale of these beauty products fell off, a problem caused not by the packaging which was irresistible, but rather the absence of essential ingredients in the product itself caused by post war shortages.
Mr Timms did not despair. He succeeded in turning his range of ladies cosmetics into shoe-polish. “A very clever man is Mr Timms” , my father would often remark. My father acted as an occasional agent for Mr Timms’s newly invented products including the less than successful foray into ladies’ cosmetics. He got very excited about a new range of products which issued from the manufactory in Green Dale. Household paint was very difficult to obtain and Mr Timms had created a gloss paint which he named ‘Cherrygloss’. He gave my father a few tins as samples.
My father’s cousin Percy was keen to decorate his kitchen dresser and was therefore delighted to receive a couple of tins of ‘Cherrygloss’ paint. The paint was duly applied, and very nice the dresser looked. Percy was delighted and my father became excited by the potential of sales of such a scarce commodity as gloss paint. A week later an irate Percy informed my father that the paint had still not dried and his plates were stuck to the dresser. It was back to the experimentation for Mr Timms, and a search for other alternatives to driers like linseed oil and turpentine which were still in short supply. My last memory of Mr Timms was visiting his factory to see him turning out coloured wax crayons from bronze moulds. From personal experience I know these at least proved very satisfactory.
When my parents took over the shop, their first winter was a very cold one. German prisoners of war were employed keeping Dulwich streets clear of snow and ice and were still to be seen in Dulwich wearing a kind of battledress with a large yellow circle on the back thirty months after the war had ended. One bleak day that first winter, a P.O.W. came into the shop with an oil painting under his arm. It was a snow scene of his village which he had painted from memory. He was desperate to sell it to send some money back to Germany to his virtually destitute family. I recall the sorrow I felt for him as my mother had to refuse his request because things were difficult for us also.
The Alleyn Stores was a favourite shop of mine in the Village. It was a confectioners and had been owned from before the war by a Mr and Mrs Warwick. In this time of rationing I was able to negotiate what I considered a good deal with them. I purchased those sweets which had been on window display and had melted in sunshine. The fact that they had become stuck to one another, were faded and misshapen mattered little to me because the deal was that I was able to buy them ‘off ration’ and did not have use my ration book coupons.
Mr and Mrs Warwick retired and in the late 1950’s their shop was taken over by Mr and Mrs Steward. ‘Stew’, as he was called by his wife was short and slightly built with fair hair and had served in the RAF during the war. He looked after the cigarettes, cigars and tobacco side of the business which stretched down the shop’s right hand side. The confectionery was on the left hand side and was the domain of Mrs Steward who had an assistant. Each lady vied with the other in the extravagance of their bouffant hair-dos. Speciality cakes, manufactured by Kunzle occupied the end space between the two opposing counters. When Dulwich’s first post-war recession arrived around the mid 1960’s, ‘Stew’ was obliged to take a job at Harrods in order for the Alleyn Stores to survive for few more years.
Next door but one to the Alleyn Stores was, (and still is), Rumsey & Son Chemists. Sadly their double bow windows have been replaced by flat glass and aluminium. At the time of the Alleyn Stores, Rumsey’s had a large staff, two pharmacists, a dispenser and an assistant, all presided over by the kindly Mr Andrews, a grey haired figure with half-moon glasses everyone took to be Mr Rumsey. The curious thing about the staff, male and female, was that they and Mr Andrews all lived en famille in a house owned by Mr Rumsey in Hillsboro Road. Rumsey Chemists shop is also recalled by my school friend Robert Worley who writes:
“It had that special chemist smell – a mixture of perfume, soap and T.C.P. Quality lotions and potions were always on show. And one’s prescription – usually simply labelled, ‘The Tonic’ was delivered to one’s home by special van, always wrapped and sealed with red wax.”
Another shop which both Robert and I frequented, was Mr Salkeld’s second-hand bookshop, which stood opposite the Crown & Greyhound which would close in the recession of the1960’s, another victim of rising rents and changing shopping habits. Robert recalls:
“As a schoolboy, I was a regular visitor to Salkeld’s second-hand bookshop. Mr Salkeld resembled a sort of old man Albert Steptoe. He always looked slightly down at heel and wore a black trilby hat which had seen better days. My quest was for ‘William’ books – the original thick ones with hard red covers. And here I picked up some real bargains as Mr Salkeld dismissed Richmal Crompton’s works of genius as, ‘Rubbish’.”
Like Robert, I too had had dealings with Mr Salkeld. He showed a decided reluctance to sell me a late18th century edition of Robinson Crusoe (price 6/-), and an even greater reluctance to allow me to buy a book on cookery of a slightly later date (price 2/-). Mrs Salkeld on the other hand was most hospitable and on one occasion I was invited into the shop parlour for tea. I was surprised to discover later that she made a weekly trip to Worthing with Mrs Fordham, the wife of the owner of the electrical shop, to play Bingo on the pier.
As I said in a previous article, my customers have always been a source of interest and amusement. Let me recall a couple for you.
Bob was a heating engineer by occupation and lived in great contentment with his wife Aggie in Court Lane. A walk up Bob and Aggie’s front path in late summer was a delightful experience because of the profusion of Michaelmas daisies lining the route to the front door. Bob and Aggie were devoted to each other and supported each others extensive charity work. Bob was devastated when Aggie died. He built a sort of shrine on the rockery at the end of his garden and buried Aggie’s ashes there as a comfort and constant reminder.
I don’t know what happened to the little shrine when Bob remarried a charming widow with similar interests and an equal enthusiasm for charity work. I do know that the Michaelmas daisies were soon rooted up.
At my shop we are never sniffy about our customers, although I have to confess that we came close to it when Mr Culley brought in one of his pictures for framing. William Culley lived at Herne Hill and might have been a retired schoolmaster or perhaps a civil servant. His efforts at art always seemed very childish to us and when one day he brought in his latest oeuvre we looked at it with a mixture of amusement and alarm. The oil painting was a three-quarter length portrait of a woman. The alarming thing was that the she bore a nose made of ‘Polyfilla’ which protruded from the canvas a full two inches. We were understandably nervous that in the process of framing the subject might be disfigured by the breaking off of her nose. In fact all went well and Mr Culley was delighted with the result. The laugh was actually on us, because a week or two later the portrait was reproduced in full colour on the front cover, of The Sunday Times Magazine.
Of all the happenings which have taken place in the fifty plus years of my career in Dulwich Village what has been the funniest and probably one of the most tragic, was the affair of the St Barnabas fire. Even the events leading up to it have the flavour of theatre, in fact so theatrical was it that I sent an outline of the events to Alan Ayckbourn suggesting it might have the ingredients for a play.
The first Sunday in December 1992 was Christingle Sunday and St Barnabas was about to enter its centennial year. Christingle, a recent Church of England initiative in support of the Children’s Society demonstrates to children a need for worldwide compassion and uses an orange and sweets stuck on cocktail sticks and a candle pushed into the orange as symbols and one is given to each child and it is lit during the service. A modern hymn was selected for the service with a chorus including the lines “Blaze spirit blaze, Set our hearts on fire”. A most happy service was thus enjoyed by the large congregation of adults and children. That evening, apparently, a new lay assistant in a moment of misguided Christian charity invited a homeless man to sleep for the night in the vestry. What happened subsequently is uncertain but fire broke out in the church in the early hours and by dawn it was totally ablaze. Daylight showed its total destruction, with only the tower apparently intact. No charred body was found, and the recently arrived lay assistant despatched to his home in the north, no doubt older and wiser.
In the best British tradition, committees were formed to sort out insurance, temporary accommodation and make plans for rebuilding the church. It was over the question of choosing a new design that dissension set in and where black humour took over. The planners did their best to consult everybody but a divide became apparent between those who wanted to replicate the old building and those who wanted to create something different. The former suffered a setback when the tower was declared unsafe and had to be dismantled. Thus, no longer inhibited by the tower remaining, the backers of a new design allowed their imaginations to run riot and a number of new and revolutionary ideas were exhibited in a competition for the best design.
The winning design was by a distinguished firm of architects, HOK Partnership. It had the attraction of having no supporting columns impairing sight-lines and having the first glass spire of any church in the country. A selling point was that the illuminated glass spire would be seen from a long distance at night time. The traditionalists on the other hand were quick to point out that HOK had never built a Christian church before and that some of its best examples were Middle-Eastern mosques. In a moment of brilliance, one of the detractors described the proposed design as representing a traffic cone on the top of a tea chest.
The fact that the architect was American was also considered by the opposition group to be something of a handicap; a handicap which did not restrict this very long-suffering and charming architect becoming engaged to be married to a member of the new church’s planning committee. Eventually the application came before the Planning Committee of Southwark Council. Acknowledging the now wide public interest in the proposed new building, (there had been a house-to-house petition against the design carried out by the lobbying group), the Council decided to hold the meeting in public in the Great Hall of Alleyn’s School.
The meeting was packed, indeed I suspect half those attending had seldom set foot in a church, and the chairman explained that he was an agnostic himself. Each side eloquently argued its case and the application came to be voted upon. In the event the planning committee voted six for and six against the application. It was therefore I thought totally hilarious when the agnostic chairman made his casting vote in favour of the application; it was with the reservation that the illuminated spire, which was to be such a feature of the new church should not be used after dark as it would produce ‘light pollution’.
I suppose Alan Ayckbourn would have considered it fitting that I found myself subsequently landed with the task of chairman of the fund-raising appeal for the rebuilding.