The Dulwich Society Journal for Summer 2020.
Whether, by the time this magazine reaches you, the corona virus lockdown is either relaxed or not, is at the time of writing, unclear. Despite the traumatic side of the pandemic, the period of enforced closure and leisure has had its compensations.
The first, and possibly the most important factor was that the weather was benign, certainly for the first month or so. This, after a dreadful beginning of the year with constant rains and floods came as a blessing, not only to gardeners but to all required to stay at home and advised to take an exercise walk or cycle ride daily. In so doing, people began to take notice of Dulwich’s attractive parks, woods, roads and byways with a fresh and unhurried eye. Fathers spent more time with their children, previously nervous cyclists discovered their confidence on the roads, a weekly jog became a daily jog, a turn round the park, usually reserved for a Saturday or Sunday became a regular outing.
Access to sports fields was in many cases generous; Alleyn’s School’s Townley field, the Edward Alleyn’s club in Burbage Road and some of Dulwich College’s ground were open to the public and the Dulwich Estate traded the closure of the gardens and quadrangle at the Old College to protect its almshouse residents, by opening the Village Orchard for the benefit of all.
The blossom trees were beautiful everywhere and walkers on exercise were able to digest the new historical information boards set up last year to mark the 400th anniversary of the Alleyn Foundation. Equally novel and interesting to a new breed of flaneurs, were the historical panels placed at key locations by the Dulwich Society.
The more adventurous found new routes around the locality and runners and fast walkers covered an even wider area than usual in their recommended time. Cyclists of all ages enjoyed virtually empty roads for the first few weeks and once the situation returns to its former normality many people will no doubt view Dulwich’s usual density of traffic in a more critical light.
The tremendous value of local shops selling foodstuffs was a dominant feature of the lockdown and residents were well served by them and those other shops which, although closed still offered a delivery service, some even by bicycle.
What will become of our local cafes, restaurants and pubs only time will tell, but if the experience of WW2 is anything to go by, they will quickly bounce back. Less certain are the vacant sites around Dulwich that were expecting the new occupants. What is clear is the Dulwich Estate will take a massive hit in lost and reduced rents, vacant premises and falling investment income.
How different things are from the previous Journal. For those who have been able to get out of their houses for daily exercise it has been a pleasure to walk around our parks and woods, and appreciate the beautiful environment we have in Dulwich, not least the rhododendrons in Dulwich Park. I have also really enjoyed seeing the glorious wisteria on many of the houses.
I trust that all members and their families are keeping well. We know that quite a few will be in self-isolation, or following the guidelines for older citizens and those with longstanding health conditions. It is impressive how quickly a network of local mutual aid groups has sprung up and many roads now have their own WhatsApp group to help neighbours with shopping and errands in addition to the national support efforts. Many Dulwich residents are working as part of the South London Scrubbers making PPE equipment for Kings and St Christophers; and Dulwich College and Alleyns have been using the 3D printers in their technology departments to help with the manufacture of protective visors. Several schools have also opened several of their sports fields to the general public and in East Dulwich there has been the community raffle.
Many of our local shops remain open (the food shops, post offices and pharmacies) while others are able to take orders online or over the phone for home delivery (see https://dulwichdelivers.com/) and we must support them as much as we can. The regular monthly Society eNewsletter has more up-to-date information on local trader deliveries and mutual help groups. The local co-ordinator for ‘Covid-19 Mutual Aid Herne Hill and Dulwich Village’ can be contacted on 07514 134568 or
In line with Government advice, we have postponed or cancelled our Annual General Meeting, the Garden Group’s Coach tour, and other events, until the emergency is over. The Society continues to monitor local planning and licence applications on line, as well as licence applications to the Estate.
Please take care and look after yourselves and your families, and we look forward to seeing you at events later in the year when hopefully things are easier. Also follow our Twitter feeds for latest local news and information: @dulwichsociety/@dulwichhistory/@dulwichgarden
New the green wall
The Dulwich Society contributed £3000 towards the installation of a 'green wall' at the Dulwich Village Infant's School. It had previously given a similar amount to the Goose Green Primary School in East Dulwich.
The Covid crisis means that garden openings for charity have been suspended, in the case of those opening for the National Gardens Scheme until the end of June. The situation beyond that will depend on Government advice, and we will pass on the position to members through the Society’s monthly eNewsletter. In the meantime there are “virtual” garden openings on ngs.org.uk.
The Society was pleased last year to make a grant to the garden volunteers at the Old Dairy Health Centre in West Dulwich, towards tools and plants, and it is a pleasure to see the fruits of their labours coming into bloom.
At the outbreak of WW2, Dulwich Picture Gallery selected 79 of its most valuable pictures for putting in a place of safe keeping in case the Gallery was bombed - read the full story on page 10 - The Journal invites you to reprise Royal Academician Melton Fisher’s task in selecting which 79 pictures from the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection you consider the most important. The entire collection can be viewed on the Gallery’s website - click Our Collection to view over 600 pictures and list your selection in order of preference and using the accession number of the pictures. Email your selection to the Editor
The signage outside Dulwich Picture Gallery advertising the exhibition of British Surrealism has been very appropriate during the lockdown crisis - the sub-title: ’Season of The Unexpected’, seemed to admirably suit the mood of the times. Accompanying the signage was an example from the show - Conroy Maddox’s The Lesson. This was also a spectacularly appropriate choice, especially with added captions (with apologies to Conroy Maddox and The Lesson)
Green Dale (and elsewhere) blooms
This pleasant ancient route from Dulwich to Camberwell continues to be a useful connection for cyclists and walkers alike. Not only is it a pretty lane, bordered with sports fields but it also has a spur of even better aspect towards the wilds of Sainsbury’s on Dog Kdennel Hill.
Greendale is looking even better these days thanks to the initiative by the children of Bessemer School in planting a wildflower meadow along its length. This thrived last year and again this spring. It will be even better in the summer months with a great variety of species and colour.
This admirable effort compliments the adjacent superb Green Dale Fields initiative created by local residents in the area in recent years, culminating in turning what were fenced-off and derelict fields into a wildlife park, with explanatory signage, metalled paths and continued care for the band of woodland on the higher areas incorporating Dog Kennel Wood.
On the other hand, Gallery Road is disappointing. Great efforts were made several years ago, not least by the Dulwich Society’s wildlife group, to clear detritus from the verges and plant a line of hawthorn whips to compensate for the failing elms. It is time perhaps for another communal effort for another clearance.
Dulwich College makes face masks
3D visors were produced by the College’s Design & Technology teachers in March. It started with an email from a Governor connecting Dr Joe Spence, the Master of Dulwich College, with an anaesthetist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital and less than two weeks later, the Dulwich Design and Technology team, using the College’s own 3D printers, produced over 50 full-face visors every day for health workers across south London. The production increased further with the addition of five 3D printers supplied to from JAGS. In addition, the College distributed over 650 pre-existing forms of eye-protection from the Science and DT departments, supplying 12 local surgeries, two hospitals and a care home.
Mark Evison Foundation
The Charity which was established ten years ago to commemorate the life of Mark Evison of Court Lane who died as a result of wounds suffered in Afghanistan, has celebrated a record year, giving 105 awards to 320 students - a 65% increase. Several schools received multiple awards, the highest number at the London Academy of Excellence in Newham. Altogether the Foundation has helped 1000 young people so far, most from poor backgrounds.
It was the mention of the origin of Dulwich’s name - Dilwihs - The meadow where the dill grew, in Brian Green’s ‘Dulwich - a History’ that provided the inspiration for an added botanical in a newly crafted locally made gin -. Dulwich Gin not only includes dill in its ingredients, but its creators generously give a donation to Dulwich Picture Gallery with every bottle sold. This is a smooth, very palatable gin and is highly recommended. It is available from Dulwich Vintners, Dulwich Village.
Blue Plaques on Hold
Due to the cancellation of all events because of Corona virus, two Dulwich blue plaque unveilings, arranged for May, did not take place. A British Heritage Blue Plaque award to writer Gerald Durrell who lived in Alleyn Park has had to be postponed. An account of Durrell’s life in the Who Was Who in Dulwich series and written by Mark Bryant will appear in the next issue.
Also a casualty and a postponement, is the Southwark Heritage Blue Plaque awarded by popular vote to the World Dance champions 1960-61, Bob Burgess and Doreen Freeman, who ran their dance studio attended by all the champion dancers of that time. The pair ran their studio at the Grafton Hall, Village Way from 1968-2001. The Grafton Dance Centre continues to maintain their legacy.
The story behind the Burgess and Freeman Dance Studio sign.
Dulwich Society member Robert Holden found the Burgess and Freeman Dance Studio sign in a skip in Milkwood Road many years ago. He took it home and has kept it in his garden ever since. The only dance studio of which he knew in the area was the Grafton Ballroom in Village Way. From the Herne Hill Heritage Trail (pages 143-144) he knew that the children's dance classes had moved in 2010 from the Grafton Hall to the former Postal Sorting Office at 130 Herne Hill, and also that adult dance classes were continuing in Grafton Hall.
However, the entry for Grafton Hall in the Herne Hill Heritage Trail did not mention Burgess and Freeman. He found out about their considerable involvement with Grafton Hall only when an article about them appeared in the Dulwich Society Journal. He has been in contact with Paul Burbedge, the present proprietor of the Grafton Dance Centre, and he hopes the sign will go on display in Grafton Hall.
Grafton Hall has an interesting history. It is a handsome building on the outside, and it has a delightful interior, not unlike the Rivoli Ballroom at Crofton Park. Robert will be leading three heritage walks in Herne Hill in
September, and his walk on Sunday 20th September will end at Grafton Hall. He says, “We shall certainly be able to admire the outside of the Hall, and we hope to be able to visit the interior as well. Prepare to tango.”
Gnomes of Dulwich
The 1970’s sit-com The Gnomes of Dulwich seems to have come back to life as walkers taking their daily exercise in Sunray Avenue will have found. The sight of this splendid collection of gnomes of all shapes and sizes certainly provides another reason to take a turn around the block.
Wendy French has four full collections of poetry published and won the inaugural Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011. She facilitates creative writing in healthcare settings. With Jane Kirwan she wrote the book ‘Born in the NHS’. They are both passionate that the NHS should survive.
She was Poet-in-Residence at the University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre in 2015. The book ‘Thinks Itself a Hawk’ arose from that residency.
She has changed direction temporarily with her writing and is exploring her ancestry. This book is due out later this year.
For Ewan on the Isle of Skye
The picture in the newspaper takes me to hills
where you’re helping your parents with lambing
but you’d rather be with your new wife in the heat
and busyness of tuk-tuks, the frenzied way of Bangkok,
finishing your PhD, deciding on a future far from here.
Your parents too elderly to fly over mountains and oceans -
you travelled to them, the long, cold nights you had left.
And over the road from our house Clare sews gowns
for the most at risk in the front-line. Protective clothing
from Turkey held up on route. One particle is capable
of destroying lives. Meanwhile in the road children are
happy on bikes, one family at a time, out to play.
And your video has clicked in - the sea in the distance,
twin lambs just born, licked clean by their mother
and you are content to be as one, there, for now.
I have recently retired form 50+ years of Medical Practice, which I have enjoyed and found it a privilege to have an interesting and varied career. I started writing poetry about 8 years ago, at an unusual moment of boredom ! I keep returning to rhymed verse, which has its limitations and is rather out of vogue.
I wrote this poem recently, and it may reflect my feeling of slight craziness and disorientation that has been creeping up on me recently !
Together Robert and Wendy run the poetry evenings at Bell House, Dulwich. See Bell House website for events listings and read poems from regulars at Bell House Poets.
Reincarnate me as a porcupine !
So all my prickles show through
In another life, I am inclined
To search for things that are new
I’ll be down to earth and not afraid
To go past a Pride of lions
I’ll grubble along without being paid
Hoping to get over the horizon
I’ll be self-sufficient and a selfish git
I’ll take no truck from the missus
Others may call me a pile of shit
But I’ll beat them all at quizzes
I’ll be a hopeless father and lonely as a toad
Eating herbs will be a boring diet
No danger of conversation overload
The forest seems awfully quiet
So, why did I choose to be a porcupine ?
With those prickles and antisocial behaviour
In this alter ego, I will reside
Looking for a different flavour
By Brian Green
Very few people will have heard of the artist Melton Fisher, and those who have might be forgiven for thinking that some of his work was of the late Victorian ‘chocolate box’ variety. However, a closer look at his exceptionally long career will reveal a very wide range of styles. Fisher was a versatile artist, whose career encompassed contemporary genre, romantic subjects, portraits and examples of British Impressionism, he was a very successful artist commercially; many of his paintings were reproduced as prints.
Melton Fisher, he seldom used his first name, Samuel, grew up in a close-knit artistic Dulwich family, His father was an interior decorator, probably an associate of his neighbour John Crace of the famous interior design business that bore his name. Both lived in Half Moon Lane, Crace at his house named Springfield and the Fisher family, which included four boys and a girl, lived nearby at Union Villa. It was a talented family, three of the sons became artists, two of whom won gold medals and travelling scholarships at the Royal Academy Schools. All four brothers attended Dulwich College. The eldest, Melton Fisher left what was then called the Upper School in 1868 to go to the Lambeth School of Art, located near Vauxhall, and importantly, close to the Doulton pottery factory. In 1876 he was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools. During his five years of study there he gained bonze and silver medals and was awarded a Gold Medal for historical painting and a travelling scholarship worth £200 in 1881.
During his short time at Dulwich College, he was a contemporary of several other later distinguished artists, Stanhope Forbes, Herbert La Thangue and Thomas Goodall. Quite an amazing array considering the role of the school at the time was only 130 boys. All went on to become students at Lambeth School of Art, the guiding light of which was John C L Sparkes (1833-1907) who was simultaneously the art teacher at Dulwich College and seems to have funneled off these talented boys towards a full time art education.
The same talented group of young artists continued their education at the Royal Academy Schools and although Stanhope Forbes and Herbert La Thangue would remain life-long friends, it seems that Melton Fisher remained closer to his artist brothers than his fellow art alumni.
John Sparkes’ contribution to the teaching of art was extraordinary. In addition to his Dulwich duties which he assumed soon after the school was reorganized under the headship of Alfred Carver in 1857 he also was principal of the Lambeth School of Art from 1858-1900 and principal of the Royal College of Art from 1881-1898. He also remained as art teacher at Dulwich until 1881. In 1876, at the request of the governors, Sparkes found time to compile his ‘Descriptive Catalogue of the pictures in the Dulwich College Picture Gallery with autobiographical notes on the painters’.
.It might have been the coincidence of Melton Fisher’s father’s profession as a specialist in interior decoration with Sparkes’ involvement of the Lambeth School of Art with its students designing for the tile and pottery manufacturers, Doulton and Company that initially led to the artist’s departure from Dulwich College to the Lambeth school in 1868 when Melton was only aged 12.
In 1882 the philanthropist and Dulwich resident Francis Peek, who had made his fortune from tea importing, commissioned Melton Fisher to paint the portrait of Alfred Carver, the Master of Dulwich College from 1857-82 which now hangs in the College’s boardroom. Melton Fisher’s connection with Dulwich would remain until the end of his life yet oddly enough he has completely fallen off Dulwich College’s own radar and no mention of him seems to exist on its extensive alumni sites.
When Melton Fisher began his artistic travels, he stayed in Paris and then toured Italy, spending time in Capri. He arrived in Venice in 1883, where he would spend the next ten years, paint everyday life and marry a local girl, Alba Stefani. They had a son, Stefani Fisher who also became an artist and tutor at the Royal Academy Schools. During his sojourn in Venice, Melton Fisher was able to enjoy the company of a colony of English and American expat artists, which included James McNeill Whistler. and John Singer Sargent. While living there he was joined by two of his brothers, Percy and Horace (who was also awarded a Gold Medal and Travelling scholarship at the RA). Both the brothers would later move to live and paint on Capri.
When Melton Fisher returned to England he continued to paint contemporary genre subjects (Clerkenwell Flower Market 1896) as well romantic studies such as Realms of Fancy (1898) which was exhibited at the Tate Gallery. He was invited to join Whistler to exhibit at the Exhibition of International Art in London in 1898. Gradually Melton Fisher extended his style to encompass more fanciful subjects, often including children which were popular subjects for prints.
Although portrait painting remained his main field of work he also turned towards British Impressionism with his flower paintings such as Hydrangeas (c1900). It was a popular style and he stayed with it, for example Pink and Red Roses exhibited at the Royal Academy.in 1929.
Melton Fisher was elected an ARA in 1917 and a RA in 1924. He was also elected Senior Academician in 1935 and represented the Royal Academy on Dulwich College Picture Gallery’s committee. He thus was involved in the decision made in 1937 to build a replica room on the north end of the Dulwich gallery, matching the room at the south end. The gallery shop occupies this room today. The enlargement was completed in the following year and he supervised a successful rehanging of the collection which attracted a 20% increase in visitors.
At the same time as this was taking place, the threat of war with Germany was growing and the advice of the National Gallery was sought on how to protect the collection should war be declared (see Dulwich Society Journal winter 2015 for the full story). The essence of the advice was that art collections should be dispersed around the country. As the Academy’s representative on the Gallery committee, Melton Fisher was asked to identify the most important pictures in the collection for special protection in case war should break out. Following the advice to disperse the pictures, the College’s clerk Mr W Connop had made enquiries and reached agreement that the National Library of Wales, located at Aberystwyth that it would accept the selected pictures
Melton Fisher listed 79 pictures which he considered the most important (and probably what a removal lorry might hold for the journey to Wales) Unfortunately his list does not seemed to have survived but the pictures were duly sent as soon as the government warned the nation’s galleries and museums to set in hand plans they had drawn up to protect their collections. Mr Connop had sensibly obtained permits from the Ministry of Transport for fuel and the specialist removal company, Evan Cook and Company, based in Peckham, drove the selected pictures to Wales.
Tragically Melton Fisher died a few days later, on 5th September 1939, his last duty to Dulwich carried out. He and two of his brothers and their families had moved to join their sister living in Camberley in Surrey towards the end of their lives, so the close-knit family was reunited once more.
In December 1940, at the height of the Blitz and following bomb damage to the gallery, a further 292 pictures were sent for safe keeping to the National Library of Wales.
In this difficult year it is perhaps our wildlife that can give us distraction and hopefully some light relief. We have the record of the Friern Pheasant reported by Stephen Hepburn in my last article who remained in Friern Road most of the winter tapping on french windows for her regular meals of suet. She appears to have departed for pastures new on or about 9th March. Two years ago I reported the case of the lame duck that landed in the garden of Jan Welch and gradually recovered her mobility under Jan’s watchful eye. This year a duck reappeared together with a partner (ducks have partners unlike geese and swans which have lifelong spouses) that Jan believed was her very own recovered bird. Mallard do go a bit stir crazy in the Spring and often drop into gardens perhaps to evade the marauding gangs of testosterone driven unmated drakes that can sometimes be seen pursuing hapless females. Ornithology in springtime is rife with abuse and promiscuity but nature remains beautiful!
Come in Carlton 11!
On a more scientific note the British Trust for Ornithology have been running a migration project of which one line has been the radio-tagging of Cuckoos to track their migration journeys. This year the front runner has been a male Cuckoo named Carlton 11, so called because he was tagged in Carlton Marshes near Lowestoft in May 2018. Having left Liberia on 24 March this year he took about seven days to cross the Sahara via the Ivory Coast, was in central France on 18 April and on 20th April had a brief stopover at 10. 20.a.m at no less a place than the Dulwich and Sydenham golf course. So if anybody was on the golf course or perhaps the surrounds heard a Cuckoo on the morning of Monday 20th April Carlton11 was your bird. The opportunity was short lived because on 21st April he had headed west into Berkshire. After he left us he toured two more golf clubs in Berkshire before heading east to Suffolk and by 5.30 p.m. on 25th April had reached his presumed destination near Great Yarmouth having travelled 10,377 miles. He could have raised millions for the NHS!
A saving grace of this April has been the brilliant warm weather that has enabled our natural world to take advantage particularly in the emergence of our native hibernating butterflies. Remarkable has been the numbers of our beautiful lemon yellow Brimstones. But also we have been able to see once more Peacocks and Commas and most pleasingly the once very common Small Tortoiseshells that have had such a hard time over recent years. The fine weather will have given them opportunity to find each other, mate and lay eggs, their main function of their Spring before dying and leaving it for the summer broods to take over. Other native butterflies such as Holly Blues and Orange Tips, Small and Green Veined Whites have emerged from chrysalises and add to the show. The migrants such as Red Admirals and Painted Ladies will hopefully follow later.
In my long series of articles I have neglected the flora of Dulwich and what may be termed the wild flowers of Dulwich. At one level it may be said that there are hundreds of wild flower species here and in compiling a flora it is difficult to know where to start. Although we live in one of London’s green oases most of the open land is cultivated either as garden, park or sports field. For native wild flowers in wild places we have to go to the Sydenham and Dulwich woods, our historic remainder of the Great North Wood. There the London Wildlife Trust has been fencing off areas to enable flowering plants that have historically existed to regenerate. A large proportion of these are flowers of the spring and early summer that can go through their life cycles before the trees take over the light and soil moisture. Walkers in the woods will see Wood Anemones, Wild Garlic, the Yellow Archangel, Bluebells and Primroses. None of these is particularly rare and unfortunately Bluebells in particular have been contaminated by the intrusion of the related Spanish Bluebell growing widely in our gardens.
Our gardens are of course full of wild flowers most of which we regard as weeds, these being plants that we wish not to be there. In a quick spot check of my garden I have immediately identified fifty species that I would regard as weeds, but they are of course a population of the survivors of more rural times. Many of them carry names to match their countryside origin such as Shepherd’s Purse, Jack-by-the Hedge (Garlic Mustard), John-go-to-bed at noon (Goatsbeard), Scarlet Pimpernel, Self Heal, Creeping Cinquefoil and Herb Robert. The irony is that we marvel at a field full of Meadow Buttercups but Creeping Buttercups in our lawns are a menace and Stinging nettles are the food plant of our best loved native butterflies. This week I watched a female Orange Tip butterfly diligently laying eggs on the Garlic Mustard that I would have wished to pull up, so it will have to live on and alas reproduce.
It would not be an easy job to draw up a flora of Dulwich and not least because it is complicated by the fact that many of our wild flowers have been adapted as cultivars such as Foxgloves, Primroses and Snowdrops and can self seed and grow freely. This year I have had a marvelous show of the Snakes Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) which exists in the wild as a two star rarity but self seeds very happily here from a purchase made a few years ago and will probably now outlive me.
In these locked down times we are able to use extended leisure to observe and record. The Blackcaps are singing vociferously everywhere and I recorded a Whitethroat in the Green Dale field. With the world much quieter it is an opportunity to listen and enjoy the concert around us.
Peter Roseveare Wildlife Recorder (tel: 020 7274 4567 email:
By Duncan Bowie
Wilfred Vernon was MP for Dulwich between 1945 and 1951- the first Labour candidate to be elected for the constituency. He was also a Soviet agent, in that he provided confidential documents to the Soviets, though he was never publicly exposed. As far as I am aware there has only been one published reference to the story, a paragraph in a recent academic study of the Attlee government and the security services by Dan Lomas : Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments 1945-51. In searching for information on Vernon, who gets only passing mentions in books on the post-war Labour Party, I discovered that four volumes of MI5 files on Vernon were publicly available.
Vernon, who was born in October 1882 and was educated at the Stationers’ Company Foundation School in Hornsey and then at the City and Guilds Technical College in City Road, London, had worked in electrical and mechanical engineering before the First World War. With the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Naval Air Force as an engineering officer and was apparently involved in the development of flying boats. He was promoted to the rank of squadron commander and was demobilised in 1919 with the rank of Major, a title he used for the rest of his life. He worked for a private aircraft company before joining the inspection department of the Air Ministry in 1924, then transferring to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough in 1925 as a technical officer until 1937.
Vernon appears to have been politically active from 1921 and was a member of the League of Nations Union. In 1931 he set up an informal political study circle in Farnborough and joined the local Labour Party and Co-operative Society. The circle was known colloquially as the ABC club - ‘Anarchists, Bolsheviks and Communists’. Vernon later became a member of the Socialist League, an organisation of left-wing Labour Party members initiated by Stafford Cripps in 1932. He was also involved in founding self-help groups for the unemployed in the Farnham area and wrote a self-published pamphlet on ‘the transition to socialism’. His activity clearly generated opposition from right-wingers and on 22nd August 1937, his house was burgled, and papers as well as money and various household items were stolen. The stolen papers included a pamphlet on ‘Foreign Affairs in Parliament’, published by the Union for Democratic Control of Foreign Policy, known as the ‘UDC’ and a pamphlet on ‘the Communist Party’. Vernon claimed that the burglars were fascists, and apparently the burglars had a Fascist flag on their car windscreen. The burglars claimed that their intention was to expose Vernon as a ‘prominent Communist worker’. One of the defendants, Ford, who was a soldier, alleged that Vernon had recruited him to distribute Communist propaganda among the troops in Aldershot, that he had been paid for this, and that Vernon had encouraged him to desert. The head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment however considered that the documents revealed in court showed that Vernon ‘had acted prejudicial to the service’ and he was suspended from his job.
When the burglary case came to trial, the alleged burglars were represented by Mr Lawton, who was a parliamentary candidate for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). Although Vernon was the victim of the burglary, Lawton was able to cross-question Vernon on his politics and reading material. Vernon admitted to being active in the Farnham Labour Party but denied being a Communist. His reading material included a number of Left Book Club volumes. Ford claimed that the purpose of the burglary was to seize Vernon’s ‘Bolshevist literature’ and take it to the police station at Scotland Yard. Ford and his three co-defendants were found to be guilty of theft.
The stolen papers included some notes relating to Vernon’s work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment including a note on the vulnerability of cities to air attack, notes on aircraft type and engines, the accuracy of bomb dropping from a 1934 exercise and notes on different types of bomb sights. Vernon was then prosecuted by the Air Ministry under the Official Secrets Act for ‘retaining information’ and not taking proper care of information’. He was defended by D N Pritt, the left-wing lawyer and Labour MP for Hammersmith North, whose earlier legal achievements included the defence of Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh, from extradition by the French from Hong Kong.
It was not until 1948 that MI5 was able to confirm that Vernon’s storing of technical material at his home was not just a lapse of procedure. A former soviet agent, a naturalised German and released wartime internee called Ernest David Weiss, informed the security services that, using the pseudonym Walter Lock, he had in 1936 and 1937 collaborated with Vernon, and a Farnborough colleague, Frederick Stephen Meredith, to provide this information to a Soviet agent known as Harry II. Weiss had photographed the documents before returning them to Vernon and Meredith. MI5 files also refer to another intermediary in the espionage, known as ‘Pauline’, but identified as Germaine Schneider, who is recorded in MI5 files as a courier for the ‘Rote Kapelle’ (Red Orchestra) German anti-Nazi communist group.. The meetings and the copying of material apparently happened on a regular basis from May 1936 until shortly after the burglary. The documents copied include blueprints of the Avro-Anson aircraft and notes on its performance. On being interviewed in 1952 by MI5’s top interrogator, Jim Skardon, (who had interrogated atom spy Klaus Fuchs and the Cambridge spy ring members, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross), Vernon admitted to having spied for Soviet Russia in 1936 and 1937, having been recruited by Meredith arguing that while he was not a Communist, he had many friends who were and that at the time of the Popular Front ( the campaign that left wingers should collaborate with communists) he felt entitled to take the action he did as the then Government was acting ‘ in a way inimical to the country’s interests’
In March 1939, Vernon was secretary of the Eastern Counties Food Ship for Spain campaign, based in Cambridge, and giving lectures to Left Book Clubs around the country. In January 1940, MI5 recorded that he was having lunch in Kensington with Ivan Popov, the second secretary of the Russian embassy. It was noted that he spoke Russian. A warrant to intercept his post was obtained - at the time he was living at Crouch End. In March 1940, Lewisham police passed to special branch a report by Inspector Taylor on communists in Brixton and East Dulwich, naming Vernon as organiser of communist meetings in Brixton. Vernon was recorded as living at Pembroke Villas, Pembroke Square, SW8. His colleagues, both from Brixton were G Henderson and L Peck, both of whom worked for the East Dulwich branch of the London and Manchester Assurance Company at 4 Melbourne Grove, East Dulwich. Len Peck was a member of the London Trades Council and a playwright, having written plays on the Means Test and the Chartist movement.
With the start of war, Vernon had attempted to rejoin the RAF, but this was blocked given his previous conviction. However in July 1940, Vernon joined the ‘unofficial’ Home Guard school at Osterley Park, where he was a colleague of Tom Wintringham, former leading Communist and later a co-leader of the Christian socialist Common Wealth Party. Hugh Purcell’s biography of Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, refers to Vernon as a ‘mixer of Molotov cocktails, inventor of new bombs and rather mad’. Vernon’s group apparently involved a group of ‘Basque bombers’.
The Osterley Park school was closed in Spring 1941. Vernon then apparently moved with Wintringham to the Home Guard school in Dorking, where he taught aircraft recognition, and the use of warfare explosions and grenades. By 1944, Vernon was living in Southsea, where he was a tutor for the Workers Education Association and the regional committee for Adult Education in the Armed Forces. His subjects covered a diverse range and included the sciences, aeroplane design; particularly flying boats, current affairs, India, China, the Versailles treaty but his lecturing in army education was cancelled, however, on security grounds. Vernon appealed to the Labour MP, Leslie Haden Guest, but without success.
He was still in Southsea when he was contacted by Bertha Clark from Dulwich, who may have been an electoral agent, inviting Vernon to be the Labour parliamentary candidate for Dulwich. In the election of 1945, Vernon defeated the sitting Conservative MP, Sir Bracewell Smith, with a narrow majority of 211. Labour had not previously won the seat and it is likely that Vernon had not actually expected to be elected.
Vernon appears to have had a fairly low profile in Parliament. Hansard has very few references to any substantial interventions. Vernon’s maiden speech on 25th November 1945 was on world government and support for the United Nations, though he also argued the case for more aerodromes and retraining bombers and fighters to join a world police force, as with world government there would be no need for bombers and fighters.
He also suggested that to protect industry and population from attack, both people and industry should be dispersed as widely as possible, suggesting they should be located underground beneath concrete shelters - He went on to suggest that “ Not only must we think of moving this House to some other part of England—that is not good enough—but we have to consider the headquarters of our Empire being moved to some place as safe as it possibly can be. I should think of Northern Rhodesia or Tanganyika, or Arctic Canada, as sensible and suitable places for the centre of the British Empire.” This must have been one of the most curious maiden speeches ever given.
Vernon also made a speech on defence policy which appears to have opposed increased British defence expenditure while supporting a UN army, so long as that was supported by all the Great Powers. On one occasion he spoke up to support Mao Tse Tung, who was fighting a civil war with Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists, apparently the only MP to do so. Vernon claimed that "the Chinese government are running one of the most ruthless and cruel police states in existence," and called for Britain to adopt "a policy of friendship and trade with the liberated areas" under Communist control. The MI5 files have records of his contacts with Jack Chen and Raymond Wong, who were Chinese communists based in London at the New China News Agency. Vernon was a member of the Parliamentary Far East committee.
Vernon was a member of the group of left-wing MPs who opposed Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy. He came to public attention in April 1948 when he signed the Nenni telegram, supporting the Italian socialist Nenni who collaborated with the Italian communists. A number of the members of the group, including John Platts Mills, were expelled from the Labour Party, though Vernon was not, which implies that he signed the required undertaking to desist from such conduct in the future. The Dulwich Labour Party supported Vernon, the chairman C L Allen commenting that “we will back Major Vernon in whatever course of action he takes. We know he holds strong left-wing views”. Vernon was also a member of the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee. He had apparently visited Russia in 1935, though he claimed also to have attended the Berlin Olympics in 1936. In 1947, he was noted by MI5 to be giving support to the Camberwell branch of the Communist Party, having agreed with the Communist Party’s criticism of the Labour government’s position on the Greek civil war, where Bevin was supporting the royalists against the communists. Vernon was also recorded as opposing the security components of the Atomic Energy Bill in August 1946. Vernon had also voted against the government on the issue of conscription in November 1946. MI5 was clearly closely following Vernon’s political activity, both within and outside parliament.
The released MI5 files on Vernon start in 1938. However, the first released file is marked as Volume 9. The 4 volumes released include over 400 pages of documents, with the last entry being in 1952. That the files refer to earlier material suggests that there remains significant unreleased material. Presumably much of this relates to the 1937 burglary and Official Secrets Act trial and it appears that MI5 had been following Vernon since as early as 1934. Much of the content in the released files refers to Vernon as having committed espionage which implies that the security services were aware of his keeping confidential documents at home and was more than just a procedural breach. One later file notes that he had been known to be involved in communist meetings and subversion as early as 1934. This makes it all the more curious that the security services did not actually interrogate Vernon until after the information received from Weiss in 1948.
In October 1948, Attlee as Prime Minister was informed of Vernon’s espionage activity. Attlee was reported as being surprised and shocked. He however decided that action should not be taken against Vernon, and that he should not be interrogated, given he was a sitting member of parliament. Vernon was therefore not interviewed by MI5 until 1952, when this restriction no longer applied. MI5 continued to monitor Vernon after he lost his parliamentary seat in the October 1951 general election. Vernon continued to be politically active after losing his parliamentary seat. He was a member of Camberwell Borough Council and in 1952 was elected as member for Dulwich on the London County Council, serving until 1955.
In one of MI5’s debriefs of interrogation of Vernon, the officer recorded that:
“ I gained the impression that VERNON is a straightforward and upright person according to the dictates of his own conscience. I think it is unlikely that he would be guilty of any petty meanness, and there is a simplicity about him which may have led MEREDITH to describe him as ‘Christlike’. He is, I should say, a man of moderate education and not particularly intelligent. He has probably been a pretty honest though not very brilliant Member of Parliament. “
It was however decided by MI5 that Vernon should not be exposed. Vernon was viewed as being a sincere supporter of the Labour Party, and presumably no longer a threat to national security. It was therefore decided t ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.The last time the file was read was March 1975, at which point the file was closed and franked as historical;.
Vernon died in Bristol in 1975 at the age of 93.
By David Beamish
In 1977, as part of the Dulwich Society’s celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Tree Committee produced a Jubilee Trees Walk, beginning near the Old Grammar School, going south on Gallery Road, along Lovers Walk, south to the junction of College Road and Dulwich Common, and back again to the Park gates and the Picture Gallery garden. Twenty-six tree species were included. The Walk was featured in the Society’s Newsletter No. 39 (January 1978, downloadable from the Society website), and again as an insert in the Society’s Newsletter No. 61 (July 1983) at the time of a guided walk along the route.
The Walk consisted of a map, originally hand-drawn but later replaced by the computer-produced version reproduced here, with each tree marked by a letter of the alphabet (some letters appearing more than once), accompanied by notes dated May 1977 crediting “R.D. and E.J.B.”
“R.D.” was Rosa Warburton Davis (4 June 1911-23 November 2009). For many years Rosa lived at 118 College Road and was active in the Dulwich Society Tree Committee until she moved to Beckenham in 1998. She also served on the Wildlife and Gardens Committees. In July 1987 she was co-author (this time with Stella Benwell) of a second College Road tree walk, this one going south from the Millpond to the woods. An oak tree planted in her memory near the Old Grammar School now has a commemorative plaque, added when the new Village Orchard opened in 2019.
“E.J.B.” was another Tree Committee member, Esther Joy Blackburn (24 May 1926-30 September 1977). Sadly Esther died soon after the production of the Trees Walk, aged only 51. Two Norway maples were planted in her memory by the Society and her family in Grove Meadow (south of Lovers Walk) in March 1978.
Unsurprisingly, several of the trees featured in the Walk are no longer there. Dutch elm disease was presumably responsible for the loss of the English Elm tree originally featured. I have not been able to establish whether the October 1987 storm brought down any of the others. In updating the Walk I have retained the original letters but substituted different trees
in some cases (marked with an asterisk). I have also expanded some of the notes.
*A: Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). This tree, quite similar in appearance to the swamp cypress (Y), was discovered in China as recently as 1941. Another specimen is in Dulwich Park, near the Old College Gate.
*B. Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Now common on Dulwich streets. There is a line of them in the Picture Gallery garden. The leaves are strikingly coloured in autumn, ranging from yellow to deep crimson.
C. Dawyck Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’). Two of the four beeches in the Picture Gallery garden alongside Gallery Road are the Dawyck variety, a formal tree with upright branches named after Dawyck, near Peebles, Scotland.
D. Common Oak (Quercus robur). A large, long-lived tree. Note the long stalks of the acorns, in contrast with the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) which has no stalks to its acorns (none on this walk).
*E. Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica). Recognisable by, among other things, the relatively smooth grey trunk, reminiscent of an elephant’s leg.
F. Lucombe Oak (Quercus × hispanica ‘Lucombeana’). A hybrid Oak raised in an Exeter nursery in 1762 by William Lucombe. It is a cross between the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) and Cork Oak (Quercus suber), both of which may be seen in Dulwich Park.
G. Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘purpurea’).
H. Common Lime (Tilia × europaea). A hybrid of the Broad-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos) and Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata), now much more commonly planted than either. It has sweet-scented flowers and is often recognised by its suckering habit.
I. Pyramid Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’). Quite narrow as a young tree but broadening as it matures. Grove Meadow and Dulwich Park both have several examples of this elegant tree.
J. Purple Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus f. purpureum).
K. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus Hippocastanum). It is said that many were planted in Dulwich because it was Edward Alleyn’s favourite tree. As well as those on this walk there are several on the east side of Dulwich Village between Christ’s Chapel and Gail’s bakery.
L. Cappadocian Maple (Acer cappadocicum). Attractive trunk and beautifully coloured leaves in autumn.
M. Caucasian Elm (Zelkova carpinifolia). A rare tree characterised by scores of stems. This striking example, thought to date from around 1780, has done well to survive - it leans towards the main road and needed “drastic pruning” in November 1977 and again in August 2010, when it narrowly escaped being felled on safety grounds. Another example has been planted, on the initiative of Society members, just across the pedestrian path.
N. London Plane (Platanus × hispanica). A fine specimen of a tree much grown in towns because the bark flakes off, helping it to tolerate pollution.
*O. Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignonioides). A tree with a broad profile, notable for its dangling bean pods in the autumn. The tree near the A205 was planted in memory of George Clout (died 1962), Dulwich Estates Bailiff from 1914 to 1957. The tree in the Picture Gallery garden is the golden variety (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’).
P. Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Leaves deeply divided and sharply lobed with pin-pointed ends.
Q. Cut-leaved Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Incisa’). Some of the leaves are like the Oak and others like the Hornbeam. Often thought of as an Oak growing on a Beech.
*R. European hop-hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia). So-called because its fruits are in hop-like clusters. There is a large one in the Old Burial Ground in the Village.
S. Chestnut-leaved Oak (Quercus castaneifolia). A rare tree with leaves like the Sweet Chestnut.
*T. Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus). Produces striking plumes of creamy petals in late spring.
U. Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Distinct-shaped leaves and attractive tulip-like flowers in late spring. There is another in Dulwich Park near the Old College Gate, and several in Woodwarde Road.
V. Cypress Oak (Quercus robur f. fastigiata). Two young examples of an elegant oak variant with the “fastigiate” growth pattern and thus some resemblance to a cypress.
W. Variegated Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus f. variegatum).
X. Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum). A member of the pea family, the rosy-pink flowers often develop before the leaves.
Y. Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum). A tall, narrow tree with leaves appearing late, good autumn tints. The tree which was standing in 1977 was 25m tall and once described as a “magnificent tree”. It was felled in October 2008 when, according to the then chairman of the Tree Committee, Stella Benwell, it was “old and dying”. Happily another swamp cypress has been planted close by. There are two more in Dulwich Park, near the Old College Gate, and another in Calton Avenue outside St Barnabas Church.
Z. Black Mulberry (Morus nigra). A long-lived tree with blackish red fruit. There are two in the Picture Gallery garden.