The Musician who survived the Lytcott Road Bomb

I read Alan Woodfield’s article Bombed Out in the winter publication of the Dulwich Society Journal with special interest. Two years ago I was in a funeral cortège that paused at Lytcott Grove during its journey from my house in Dulwich to the Honor Oak Crematorium.

It was the funeral of Olive Wright, my close friend and professional colleague of many years.  The second daughter of a Post Office worker and his wife, Olive was born and brought up in Lytcott Grove, attending Dulwich Hamlet and, later, Honor Oak School for Girls.  Showing exceptional musical talent from an early age, Olive also studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) Junior Department on a scholarship, learning the clarinet.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Olive and her sister were evacuated with Honor Oak School to Redhill, where they lived with several other evacuee children in a large Victorian house. In January 1943, however, a lull in the bombing raids over London allowed Olive and her sister to return to Lytcott Grove for a weekend with their parents.  On her first night home Olive, feeling unwell after a bout of hepatitis, crept into her parents’ bed, whereupon her father obligingly moved into her room.  Later that night, the Luftwaffe mounted a reprisal air raid on London, in response to the bombing of Berlin.  A stray parachute bomb destroyed nearly the entirety of Lytcott Grove.  Whilst Olive, her sister and mother all survived unscathed, the father was killed outright.

Olive’s mother returned to Redhill with her daughters on that fateful night and was welcomed by the kind owner of the Victorian house, to stay there with her daughters while she searched for a job and a flat to rent. 

Against this background of upheaval and loss, Olive continued to play the clarinet, demonstrating her musical aptitude and eventually winning a scholarship to study full-time at the RCM.  To save money which was in very short supply, she travelled on the early milk train to her lessons in Kensington where she sometimes had to dive under a table during a bombing raid.  Her studies proved fruitful for, at the age of twenty-two, she was appointed Principal Clarinet to the Covent Garden (now Royal) Opera House Orchestra  which was re-assembling after the war. It was almost unheard of in those days (1947) for a woman to be appointed to such a prominent role in an orchestra and Olive maintained her position for thirteen years, sometimes finding herself the only woman in the orchestra.  On one occasion, a performance of Tristan and Isolde was delayed for nearly an hour whilst the conductor Karl Rankl summoned Olive from her sick bed, insisting that she and not her deputy played the principal clarinet part.

I met Olive when we were both appointed as principals to the Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra which was soon to move to the Coliseum, where it was renamed English National Opera (ENO)...

The circumstances of Olive’s life being spared when the Lufwaffe bomb devastated her home were especially sad and something Olive never ever spoke about. For me and her friends though, it was a privilege to have known someone who inspired so many with her wonderful clarinet playing.

Olive died in Wales where she had retired and, as her executor, I decided to bring her home for her final resting place.

Judy Fitton