Obituary - Russell Vernon MBE (1916-2009)

Russell Vernon was educated at Alleyn’s School where he shone as sportsman, captaining both the Cricket First Xl and the Soccer First Xl.  He also was a fine Rugby Fives player.  On leaving school he reluctantly buckled down and studied architecture part time at the Regent Street Polytechnic while working for his great uncle, George Vernon (1870-1942), an architect with a very successful commercial and residential practice in central London.

Russell volunteered with his brother Ken into the Artists’ Rifles in 1939 and at the outbreak of war was transferred to the Royal Engineers and was soon in France.  He was posted ‘missing’ following the Dunkirk evacuation but two weeks later appeared with all his equipment and unit intact, having sought an alternative means of escape via Cherbourg.

In the years waiting for D Day, Russell was charged with building defences along the South Coast against a possible German invasion.  It was whilst engaged in these duties that he became friends with the historian Norman Mackenzie who was commanding a Home Guard unit. It was comforting for both that in their later years they were neighbours at Ryecotes Mead, Dulwich Common.

Following the Allied breakout and advance after D Day, Russell, by now a major in command of an engineer company RE built a bridge across the Rhine to speed the advance. Later his unit was ordered to enter Belsen Concentration camp and Russell was faced with the harrowing task of burying hundreds of rotting corpses, a task he reserved for himself by driving the bulldozer which pushed its human cargo into mass graves. For his work at Belsen, Russell was awarded the MBE.

Following demobilisation in 1946 he joined his uncle, Austin Vernon (1881-1972), the Surveyor and Architect to the Dulwich Estate, in practice locally and became his partner in 1948, after completion of his RIBA exams. The first major projects of the new practice, Austin Vernon & Partners, were the building of the new Dulwich College Science Laboratories and the almost complete reconstruction of the severely bomb damaged Dulwich Picture Gallery - opened by the Queen Mother in 1953.  The restoration of the Gallery was a particular triumph for Russell and would lead to him and his wife Ruth maintaining a close association with it.

During the late 1940s he took a town planning degree and was heavily involved in the negotiations over the Dulwich Development Plan which received London County Council approval in 1955. This set the pattern for the redevelopment of the area over the next twenty years - its main objective being the regeneration of the Estate and the Foundation Schools.

The plan envisaged the demolition of many of the bomb damaged or run-down larger old houses that had suffered, not just from bomb damage, but also from a gradual drop in value since most had un-mortgageable short leases and to redevelop the sites at more realistic densities. Replacing them with more affordable small family houses would bring in new families to the area and hopefully create a supply of pupils to attend the Foundation Schools, which had declined in size and standards through the 1930’s and 40’s.

Although not widely publicised at the time, the work produced by Russell Vernon’s office during the late 1950s and 1960s is now appreciated as some of the highest quality spec housing in the country. Great care was taken to respond to the natural contours of the sites and existing trees were generally retained. Great efforts were made to keep all new developments below the tree line on the tops of the hills around Dulwich and with the sole exception of the block of flats on Sydenham Rise this was the case.  Extensive hard and soft landscaping schemes were an integral part of all the developments and several received architectural awards.

He succeeded Austin Vernon as Architect and Surveyor to the Dulwich Estate in 1959 and was joined in the partnership by Victor Knight, a friend from his college days, and later on, Malcolm Pringle, Harvey Borkum, Victor Janes and Derek Fricker.

The practice designed well over 2000 houses on the Dulwich Estate, as well as buildings at Dulwich College, Alleyn’s School, JAGS,  Dulwich College Prep School and St Dunstans College, Catford. The practice worked extensively with Wates and other housing developers in Croydon, Norwood, Windsor, Tonbridge, Oxford and Leeds. Their commercial work ranged from shop interiors through to offices and factories - particularly notable examples are in Crawley in West Sussex. In the early 1970s the firm worked extensively in Saudi Arabia rebuilding the Al Kharj Military Cantonment near Jedda.

Russell Vernon was an active member of the Dulwich community, being chairman of many local charities and he was also, for many years, architect and surveyor to All Saints Church, West Dulwich where he was also a parishioner for some 70 years. He retired in 1982 and the practice closed in 1995.  By nature he was a cheerful personality with a ‘can-do’ character which his service in the army had demonstrated.  Seemingly always dashing from one place to the next he nevertheless unfailing had time to stop and talk and encourage all those he met.