Alastair Hanton (1926-2021)

When Alastair Hanton retired as chair of the then Traffic & Transport sub-committee (now renamed Travel & Environment) he remarked that one of the outstanding issues he would leave to his successor was the question of poor passenger access (especially for the elderly or disabled ) to and from the platforms at North Dulwich, West Dulwich and Sydenham Hill stations. He dryly said that the issue was slowly rising up the pile on Network Rail’s list of things to do.

There is no question, that Alastair would have ensured that Dulwich’s application would not be overlooked. Playing the long game was his forte and coupled with his logical mind and command of mathematics he must have been a formidable chess player. He had a strong commitment and hearty appetite to serve on the many committees which aroused his interest and concern. This dedication gave him opportunities to sow the seeds for future major shifts in national and local transport policy especially towards greater emphasis on cycling.

He also practised what he preached, invariably turning up at Dulwich Society executive meetings with his bicycle clips in place having sprinted from another, earlier meeting. His dedication to local affairs dated back to the earliest days of the Society and he served as secretary in 1968 and treasurer in 1970-71.

Few of Alastair’s initiatives were carried out in his name, he preferred to work through existing structures. He was always alert to any ‘loose’ funds available from local government which he referred to as ‘a little bit of money’ and which he often managed to earmark for local traffic initiatives - pedestrian crossings on Dulwich Common and Gallery Road or improvements to road junctions with sympathetic tree planting at places like Alleyn Park and Half Moon Lane. He was one of the drivers of the rescue of the Herne Hill Veleodrome when it faced a very uncertain future and would later serve as one of its trustees.

What was so interesting about Alastair’s various campaigns was that they were so varied. He was no one topic enthusiast. While his first love in later life might have been cycling,he was equally active in other areas such as children’s road safety and traffic calming. He also found time to serve as deputy chairman of Christian Aid and fostered the creation the Fairtrade movement to improve the livelihood of third-world farmers. He set up the Ethical Investment and Research Information Service (EIRIS) to advise pension schemes and investment trusts on how ethical the companies were that they were doing business with. And of course, all of the forgoing took place after Alastair had retired!

Alastair Hanton was born in North London in 1926 and attended Mill Hill School but spent the war years as an evacuee at St Bees, Cumbria before going up to Pembroke College, Cambridge to read Mathematics and Economics in 1948. Newly graduated, he was recruited by the Colonial Development Corporation, being posted to Malawi (then Nyasaland)to plan public works projects. His next career move was to the Industrial & Commercial Finance Corporation, party formed by the Bank of England to provide long-term finance to medium sized companies. From there he progressed to Unilever and in the 1968 to Rio Tinto; in both of which companies he worked at financial analysis and capital investment projects.

It was while at Unilever’s economics and statistics division that he hit upon a scheme to cut the costs of collecting and processing the small amounts due from the company’s ice cream vendors by obtaining their permission to allow the company to deduct the amount due, direct from their bank accounts. From this process sprang the concept of Direct Debit which was accepted by banks in 1964, but only after six years of relentless campaigning by Alastair Hanton. From here his attention turned to concern that so many of the population did not have a bank account, either because they could not afford the bank charges or were handicapped by the restricted opening hours. His solution was to provide a national bank through the post office system. The idea was taken up by Labour politicians and in 1968 the National Giro was created.. Hanton was appointed director of operations and was later deputy managing director of the new National Girobank. Once, when asked why he had been awarded his OBE in 1987 when he retired, he modestly replied that ‘he worked for the Post Office’.

Future of KIngswood House

Since the start of the pandemic, Kingswood House with its library and community rooms has been closed to the public. The much-valued public library has been relocated to an empty shop in Seeley Drive as a click and collect facility. Naturally, the Friends of Kingswood House, who have supported the house over so many years are disappointed. They claim that the building is in a poor state of repair and water is entering through the roof and damaging the once splendid interior. They have made representations to Southwark Council over the matter and believe that Kingswood House requires a major institution such as a charity or university to take over the building.

Southwark Council is now seeking to select a private sector partner to bring forward new proposals for the operation and management of the property. It is keen to see Kingswood House become a centre of activity for people who live, work or visit the south of the borough, and to bring the House up to modern day standards while ensuring it remains an asset for the local community. The invitation to tender says that this is an opportunity to create a multi-purpose centre that provides a mix of studios, co-work spaces and spaces for activities and events that could generate an income and better serve the local community. This would help the upkeep and maintenance of the House, which needs investment for its restoration. It also adds that it expects the successful proposals will be anchored in a philosophy of added social value for the local community. The building is being offered on a ten-year lease with a possible extension to 25 years depending on the offer. Tenders were due in at the end of August.

Kingswood House is a Grade II listed building located in the middle of the Kingswood Estate, in the southern end of Dulwich. Constructed in 1811 as the home of a wealthy lawyer, William Vizard, it was substantially rebuilt in the early 1890s by John Lawson Johnston, the inventor of Bovril, indeed it was sometimes known as Bovril Castle. In WW1 the house was used as a convalescence home for wounded Canadian soldiers and it was later acquired by Sir William Vestey, a prominent meat retailer. The LCC compulsorily purchased the site for Council housing in the late 1940s and the early 1950s construction of the surrounding estate retained the building as a community centre and library. It has been run on that basis for nearly 70 years, thought it has always been difficult to find users from the wider Dulwich area as it is hidden away within the estate and few realise it’s there.