Strictly Come Dancing - the story of Grafton Hall
by Brian Green and Ian McInnes

The person responsible for the building of the Grafton Hall in Village Way was local resident Mr Charles Day who lived at Coombe Lodge, Half Moon Lane. He leased a large number of houses in the area including Fife Lodge, the next house along Half Moon Lane, and several houses in Hillsborough Road, and Warmington Road. He was also an early car owner, building himself a garage in 1904.

In May 1908 he leased the one acre field adjoining his garden for £5 per annum. Not long after, in February 1910, he asked the Dulwich Estate for permission to build a public hall on part of this field - using an area approximately 55 feet wide and 200 feet deep. He offered “to erect on the land, within two years, a detached hall, one story in height, in accordance with the sketch plans now submitted, at a cost of not less than £850”. Mr Day told the Manager that the possible uses to which the hall would be put included “badminton, club whist drives, musical evenings, gymnasium, social and other meetings, lectures, private theatricals, bazaars for charitable objects, and receptions.” He added that admission would be by invitation or ticket only, and that no money would be taken at the doors. The Manager was clearly impressed by Mr Day saying that he thought “he was not likely to allow the premises to be used for any purpose detrimental to the neighbourhood.”

Work started in June 1910 and in September Mr Day asked for consent to “add to the south east side of the hall a wide corridor with a glazed roof, and with wide exit doors at each end.” The Surveyor thought it an improvement - it is still there. The hall was completed by 24th November and the final cost was reported as £1235. In March 1912 Mr Hetherington Palmer produced drawings showing a proposed extension “a large supper room, kitchen and lavatory accommodation”. The Surveyor’s report said “I consider the addition a distinct improvement on the premises, and think the plans should receive the sanction of the Governors.”

Mr Day was secretary of the hall from 1912 to 1920 and also secretary of the Grafton Lawn Tennis Club which was based here for a time - presumably they played on courts on the remaining section of the field.

In 1925, following Mr Day’s death, the lease of the hall was taken over by the Misses E G and E H Harper and in June 1931 the Misses Harper applied for permission to let the back hall very Sunday evening, from 7-8pm, for the purpose of bible lectures by the Christadelphians. They said that “there will be no money taken and no music but a small poster is to be exhibited in the front garden.” The Christadelphians were considered acceptable but they were not allowed to put up a poster.

In April 1933 the Misses Harper tried to obtain a licence from the Estate to allow them to sell ‘intoxicating liquor’ when they wished but they were told that they would have to apply every time they wanted to. The Apostles Golfing Society Dulwich appeared to be one of the major users of the hall as they had temporary ‘intoxicating liquor’ licenses in October 1937, and January and April 1938.

In 1942 the hall was requisitioned by the London County Council and turned into a ‘British Restaurant’. British Restaurants, originally named Communal Kitchens, were created during the Second World War by the Ministry of Food and run by local committees on a non-profit making basis. Meals were purchased for a set maximum price of 9d or less. No-one could be served with a meal of more than one serving of meat, game, poultry, fish, eggs, or cheese. Restaurants in the UK were not subject to rationing.

The walls of British restaurants were decorated with posters issued by the Ministry of Food emphasizing the importance of avoiding wasting food. Most were designed by Dulwich artist James Fitton RA in the studio of his home at Pond Cottages.

British restaurants were more popular in London than in the rest of the country, although they were not at first welcomed in Dulwich - when the Grafton Hall’s British restaurant opened in 1942 a number of people remarked that they could not eat in such centres as “it was not meant for their type but only for people who were in ‘difficulties’. Miss J. W. O’Reilly MBE, the local agent for the London Meal Service remarked, “It is a part of an individual’s war effort to eat at the centre. Another thing to remember is that it provides meals quickly and is a great help to war workers. I want to get into the minds of Dulwich people the necessity of using the centre and not feel it is the thing not to do”.

The Grafton Hall remained a British Restaurant long after the war had ended, finally closing in 1950, after which it was retained by the LCC for two more years for use as school classrooms before becoming vacant. It took a further two years for the Estate to notice. In October 1954 the Manager reported that “the building has been empty for a considerable time and has assumed a very neglected appearance and is suffering damage”. In September 1956 an offer was received to use the building for the assembly and storage of plastic decorative work and floral decorations. However, a more promising offer for the lease was then made by Phyllis Walker ANATD to use the building as a dance academy.

The dancing school started in the autumn of 1957. Within a few years the Grafton would become one of the leading dance establishments in the world; South London, at the time, was the epicentre of dance. Grafton, along with ‘Starlight’ in Streatham, ‘Top of the Stairs’ and Semley’ in Norbury were the places anyone in the dancing world would frequent. In 1968 the 1961-2 World Professional Dance Champions, Bob Burgess and Doreen Freemen took over the Grafton, running it until 2001. The couple won a host of amateur and professional British and World titles over the years including joint and individual Carl Alan Awards. For eight years, Doreen partnered Victor Silvester in the very popular BBC television’s ‘BBC Dancing Club’. They were succeeded at the Grafton by Brenda Bishop, who with her husband Paul was senior British dance champion. In 2010, the present owner, Paul Burbedge and Anna Chan took over. Paul is a former Scottish Amateur Ballroom Champion.

Among the current instructors at the Grafton are Stephen Hillier, the former British and World amateur champion and holder of numerous professional titles. In 2009 Stephen was awarded the MBE for services to ballroom dancing and last year was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Ballroom Dancing by Japan. His wife, and dancing partner, Jennifer was a semi-finalist in World and European championships. Michael Stylianos and Lorna Lee are Latin American champions and Carl Alan award winners. They are the only Latin American dancers to have performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Barbara McColl was runner up in World Latin American Championships and is a former European and International Champion Latin dancer.

Today the Grafton is enjoying a revival in interest in ballroom dancing, no doubt partly due to the popularity of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. It offers two different kinds of programme; a social or ‘community’ side and a competitive side. Flamenco and Latin instruction are included in the programme and earlier this year a course was also offered in Argentine Tango which proved so popular that it is to be repeated. Classes for all styles of dancing are held every evening.

For more information contact Paul Burbedge on 020 7274 0157.

The Grafton is also the home of the Dulwich Ballet School and classes for children in ballet, tap and street dance are offered by the Dulwich Ballet School on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays from 4pm and Saturdays 9.15am-4.30pm.

For more information, including enrolment, for The Dulwich Ballet School at the Grafton contact Sally-Ann Hodge 020 8659 6354