By Jim Hammer
Alastair Hanton’s delightfully comprehensive article on ‘Fifty Years of Change in Dulwich’ in the Spring Journal provoked me to think about the perhaps even greater changes in life here from the thirties, the very different world before the war, although I can necessarily only offer rather fragmentary glimpses.
This was a time when three different milkmen made daily deliveries in our road, the United Dairy and the Express already mechanised, but the third was an independent, flicking his reins from a platform between the churns at the rear, who as a bonus left the occasional offering of fresh horse manure. A butcher called for custom at least once a week and there was a busy fishmonger in the Village. Payment was made to a (to me) venerable lady seemingly incarcerated in an elegant mahogany and glass cabin at the rear of the shop dispensing uncontaminated change.
The grocer at Price’s Stores, (now Gail’s bakery) still cut butter to order from an enormous slab of it, patting the purchase into a rectangle with the traditional grooved bats, and cheddar was sliced with a wooden handled draw wire from a large chunk. Biscuits nestled in transparent lidded tins set at an angle in front of the counter.
The Bartley brothers owned rival greengrocers, one occupying the site of the optician’s and Howard’s where the family still sells flowers. The two very ladylike proprietors of the ‘Village Tucke Shoppe’ next to Howard’s, did brisk business dispensing sweets (4oz at a time) from large jars and later Cadbury’s filled blocks, including Caramello all at 2d, about 1/5 of 1p today, but still quite a bit of pocket money then. Next along the Fordham family were contractors for and purveyors and repairers of all things electrical. In the days before the throw-away society our irons and kettles and toasters were regularly restored to working order in the den behind their shop.
Mr Rumsey was a lovely chubby Mr Pickwick of a man with oval owlish spectacles and rosy cheeks. Next door was Gibbards the shoe shop (now the hairdresser), where unwary mothers were persuaded to let their darlings’ feet be X-rayed to convince them and their offspring that the fit was correct; (in practice of course entirely useless as all one could see were the bones and the nails.) Although disapproved of, as children we always wanted a longer look to wiggle our toes - fascinating but a piece of new technology now thankfully consigned to history.
From time to time my mother would tell me to get my hair cut, the signal to jump on my bike for a ’short back and sides’ where Café Rouge now serves ‘steak and chips’. More importantly it freed me to go down afterwards to Mr Salkeld’s wonderfully fusty little antique bookshop (now the Beauty Salon) which was crammed floor to ceiling with book stacks. Somehow I always managed to come across some source of esoteric information or obscure reminiscence to read, sitting on the floor, knees cramped up between the presses . From time to time I felt obliged to make a purchase and indeed still have ‘Secret Remedies - what they cost and what they contain’ price one shilling (but still priced at 1 shilling 6 pence) - being a denunciation by the BMA of the overcharging and spurious claims of sellers of patent medicines. For instance the cost of the constituents (namely aloes, powdered ginger and powdered soap) of 56 “Worth a Guinea a Box” Beecham’s Pills, sold for 1s 1/2d was about half a farthing (a mark-up of X 108). They were said to cure (inter alia) constipation, headaches, insomnia, indigestion, all nervous affections, pimples, ulcers, maladies of indiscretion and other more embarrassingly intimate conditions. On a later occasion Rasputin’s biography provided a rather prematurely mysterious insight into the preoccupations of the adult world.
But the childhood idyll of the thirties came to an end on 3rd September 1939 as we listened to the now oft repeated sombre tones of Chamberlain “to-day the British ambassador in Berlin ….no such reply has been received. We are therefore at war with Germany”. This was followed almost immediately by the siren’s Warning wail followed later by the All Clear. That afternoon I was ‘evacuated’ to the front line in Kent.
Dulwich in the Thirties & Forties
By Jim Hammer