From the comments and letters I have received, it seems that many readers have been entertained by my reminiscences of fifty years of shop-keeping in Dulwich Village. It is a fact, perhaps an oddity of the English that their own recollections of the past and place are invariably tied up with the shops that served them and the people who ran them. Thus, some of the subjects of my tales of the Village have brought back memories to long-term residents. I do have the advantage of also observing my customers and some of these have presented their own memorable moments.
I suppose that of all the customers down the years ‘G’ must rank with the most intriguing. You perhaps remember ‘G’, from ‘Castaway’, the film in which he was portrayed by Oliver Reed. Oddly enough I served in the army for a short time with Oliver Reed and on the occasional evening when we socialised I was able to observe his brooding and intimidating persona at close hand. ‘G’ - Gerald Kingsland, by comparison, I found altogether different. Happy-go-lucky he seemed to me; a cheerful man and slighter in build than Reed, with curly red hair and a beard. Yet his own lifestyle was just as lurid and his soul just as tortured so perhaps Ollie was well cast. ‘G’ lived in Calton Avenue in the1970’s early 1980’s and was a regular visitor to my shop.
He told me about his experiences of living on Robinson Crusoe Island some six hundred kilometres off the coast of Chile and other such stunts which he wrote about for various publications. He outlined his plan to spend a year of self-sufficiency on yet another island called Tuin off the coast of Australia, the experience of which he proposed to turn into a book. Soon after, his story made the headlines, largely because of the unusual step he took in advertising in ‘Time Out’ for a ‘wife’ to spend the year with him. A bored tax clerk named Lucy Irvine applied but the government of Queensland required the couple to be married to mollify the sensitivities of the native population of nearby islands.
A year or more later, perhaps it was two years, Gerald reappeared in my shop. He bore, he said, no malice towards Lucy Irvine who had stolen a march on him by returning from the desert island first and promptly writing her best-selling book also titled Castaway on which the film was based. “ I don’t blame Luce. Good luck to her”, was his perhaps unexpected pronouncement on her conduct. “I’ll write my own book about it.” He did, a year after Lucy Irvine’s. It did not do well.
I did not see Gerald after that visit, although I know that years later he returned to Calton Avenue to spend his final days being cared for by the second of his five wives.
I have to confess that I have never seen an episode from Coronation Street; which is most remiss of me since I shared a classroom at Alleyn’s with one of its earliest stars – Ken Farrington, who (I am told) played the part of Billy Walker in over 400 episodes. The reason I raise the subject of Coronation Street, apart from the fact that it roughly covers the same the timescale as my career as a Village shopkeeper, is that one road in Dulwich always struck me that it might be the southern real-life personification of the road in that particular soap opera. Of course, if you a regular at the Rovers Return you have every right to correct me if I have made false assumptions.
The road in question is Dekker Road. Or rather Dekker Road as it was up until about fifteen or twenty years ago. Do not confuse it with the Dekker Road of today, now largely let by the Dulwich Estate to the upwardly mobile who appreciate its cottage-like charm, generous gardens; and within the catchment area of local schools. No, I speak of the Dekker Road when the rent was £8 per week and most of the occupants were direct employees of the Estate. There lived the gardeners, plumbers, toll-gate collectors, builders, decorators, assistant bailiffs and even surveyors.
The resemblance of Dekker Road to Coronation Street was the closeness of that community. Its menfolk worked together and lived almost shoulder to shoulder with each other. When they were young they joined the local football and cycling clubs and when they retired they played whist in the afternoons at the Parish Hall or at the Old Grammar School. There was a great deal of mutual help among the families, as well, no doubt, as plenty of gossip. In addition to this large number of Estate workers there were a handful of other residents some of whom veered towards eccentricity and were often the subject of the gossip.
Mr Ruston-Kipps was tall and thin and slightly bent and lived by himself and in addition to possessing an impressive name also possessed an impressive briefcase. The briefcase was made of leather and had the royal cipher in gold below the clasp. You see, Mr Ruston-Kipps was civil servant and in those days, that’s what civil servants took to their offices. But Mr Ruston-Kipps had a second job. Quite unexpectedly for a bowler-hatted briefcase-carrying civil servant, he also composed the flowery verses which once embellished the insides of greetings cards which he then sold on commission.
On the other side of the road lived the Duchess. Her neighbours, in one of their more uncharitable moments, dubbed her the Duchess of Dekker; a masterful piece of alliteration, because of her colourful clothing and liberal use of make-up to cover her advancing years. Robert Worley, another friend of mine from the Alleyn’s days has penned his own reminiscences which will appear in due course. He recalls: “Although clothes rationing was still in force, she always turned out in great style – usually a navy blue and white ensemble, down to her ‘co-respondent ‘ two-tone shoes. She was known locally as the ’Duchess of Dekker’, and as a small boy, I considered this a fact.”
The next door neighbours of Mr Rushton-Kipps were the Young family comprising a father and his two unmarried adult daughters. One of these, Norah, had been Dekker Road’s co-ordinator for Civil Defence during World War ll and was one of the mainstays of the road’s solid character afterwards. Among the many interesting wartime effects she passed on to me when I was collecting material for the booklet Dulwich: The Home Front 1939-1945 were three mimeographed letters written to her from a neighbour who was serving with the RAF in Ceylon. Maybe there were other letters she did not pass on although I doubt whether there was any element of a romance between Norah and the airman although wartime censorship may have eliminated traces of affection. The letters certainly looked forward to a time when the young man would return to Dekker Road. The last letter was sent just prior to his departure for home when the war ended. He never made it. His plane crashed on take-off. Norah never married.
Another single lady with an equally strong character was Mildred Thompson who lived in a house in the Village. Strangely she would share a destiny with Norah. Mildred Thompson was engaged to the son of Sir Harry Lauder. He too was killed in a plane crash. She too never married.
The strangest romance I have ever encountered also focussed on Dekker Road. An elderly gentleman who lived at the Woodwarde Road end of the road answered a ‘For Sale’ advertisement for a double bed belonging to a widow who lived above Bartley’s Florists. Not only did he buy the bed, but fell in love with the seller and the subject of the sale became the matrimonial bed for himself and the former widow in his house at Dekker Road.
Next door to the newly-weds lived Mrs Bunn. Mrs Bunn had been rehoused in Dekker Road after she and her daughter Ethel’s house in Park Hall Road was destroyed in World War ll. Mother and daughter were in their beds in the house at the time when a Vl Flying bomb exploded, destroying the shops and bank at West Dulwich. The floor of Mrs Bunn’s house collapsed and they found themselves covered in debris in the basement and still in bed.
Mrs Bunn had grown up in a street in Bermondsey but had applied for a vacancy for a maid in College Gardens because her prospects of marriage to any of the young men she had known vanished with the news that all the eligible bachelors had been killed in the trenches in the First World War. She became a maid to Dr Lillian Clarke, the brilliant but eccentric botany teacher at JAGS who founded the now famous botany gardens. It was as a maid in College Gardens she met her future husband, thus proving her intuition of better marriage prospects in Dulwich to be correct.
The story of the Hermit of Dulwich is well known – Samuel Matthews, the mentally unbalanced jobbing gardener who attained fame from living in a cave that he had constructed in Dulwich Woods at the end of the eighteenth century and where he was murdered in 1802, an outrage reported in “The Times” of the day. Matthews, we are led to believe, was given permission by the Master of the College to live in this cave and where he, not surprisingly, was the object of much curiosity. The reason I relate this story is because only a few years ago there was a remarkable corollary.
The connection with the Samuel Matthews story is that there was a latter-day hermit also living in Dulwich Woods, in not quite a cave, rather more a shack built on the site of ‘Beechgrove’, a handsome Victorian mansion once used as a nursing home where King George Vlth received treatment. This latter day hermit was a Jamaican named Solomon.
Solomon made his home in the woods very comfortable. His tools, cutlery, pots and pans were conveniently hung along a surviving old wall of Beechgrove, a wall on which on its street side had its mortar pointing between the bricks picked out by Solomon in of an attractive shade of mauve paint which contrasted nicely with the red of the bricks of the wall along Sydenham Hill. The Royal Mail was able to deliver letters to Solomon because he nailed the former house number of Beechgrove to an overhanging tree.
Solomon lived in the woods on Sydenham Hill for a number of years, and like his predecessor two hundred years earlier, apparently lived with the blessing (or the blind eye) of the Dulwich Estate, the present day successors to the Master, perhaps because Solomon was exercising squatter’s rights.
Eventually a more attractive option presented itself to Solomon. He was invited to enter Mais House, a charitable sheltered housing development operated by the Corporation of London, conveniently situated across the road and only 50 metres from Beechgrove. As far as I know, he lives there still.