By John Walters
I was born at 22 Carson Road in March 1943, and almost from the start I was in the wars - or, at least, the War. During the 1940-41 Blitz my father had rigged up some bunks in the cellar of our house, and it seems that the family was taking shelter from V1 flying bombs in the late summer of 1944, when the bunks collapsed. I escaped with nothing worse than an enormous lump on my forehead, which (particularly after a couple of glasses of wine) is still just visible. As older residents will recall, the local air raid siren was situated on the roof of the police station, which was then the building beside West Dulwich station, and I remember it being tested from time to time long after the War had ended. It was also at West Dulwich station that my parents recalled seeing trainloads of exhausted and mud-caked soldiers passing through in the early summer of 1940, having been evacuated from Dunkirk.
Like many other parts of London, Dulwich was left after the War with numerous bomb sites, which provided abundant opportunities for young boys to play, run about and explore, the most accessible and interesting being the space on which now stands the Alleyn’s Head. The chief meeting place in West Dulwich, however, was the bomb site and open land between Croxted Road and the alleyway beside the railway , now covered by low-rise Council flats. It was there that we created an oval track for bike racing, and there was also a pond, which contained not only an old pram and other rubbish, but frog spawn. This paradise was known, simply, as The Field, and “See you at the field,” was the shout as we left school on a summer’s afternoon. Another favourite meeting place in the light evenings was the railway bridge in Hunt’s Slip Road. This is where we did our train-spotting, the highlight of which was the appearance every evening of the Golden Arrow express, with its splendid set of luxury Pullman cars, racing up to Victoria, with French and Union flags flying at the front of a magnificent steam locomotive.
My mother used to take the number 3 bus once a week to shop in the Brixton open market, but she also patronised the Rosendale Road shops. These were such as would then be found in any suburban location, and they included Dale (the cobbler), on the corner of Eastmearn Road, then Dent (oil and hardware), Nex (greengrocer), Dawson (confectionery, news and tobacco), Rumsey (chemist, and incorporating a post office counter), Coldrey (baker), Wood (butcher), and Lucking (greengrocer). Other retail outlets in this parade included a fish and chip shop - after all, this wasn’t Dulwich Village - and a drapery shop called Marion’s.
The latter was run by Freda Punter, who lived a few houses away from us, at 10 Carson Road, while further along, at number 2, lived Margaret Lewis, who ran the post office counter mentioned above. Dent’s proprietor was Fred Pretlove, father of John, who attended Alleyn’s school and went on to Cambridge, where he embarked on a career in first-class cricket which lasted till 1968. During the winter I was frequently sent round to Pretlove’s (we never called it Dent’s) to buy a gallon of paraffin, and decades later John told me how hard his dad worked during snowy weather to ensure that his “old ladies” weren’t left without oil. In 1958 John Pretlove married the aforementioned Freda Punter’s daughter, Ann, and he went on to be a governor of Alleyn’s and, in 1996, President of the Edward Alleyn Club (Alleyn’s School alumni).
The main source of domestic heating, however, was, of course, coal, and my childhood job on delivery day was to stand in a prominent position counting in the sacks, which were emptied into the coal bunker via a metal hatch set into the front door step; each sack held a hundredweight of coal, and the delivery men were almost as black as miners. Where houses had a sideway, dustmen in those days came right into householders’ back gardens, and would carry the metal bins on their backs to and from the dust van (which in my very earliest days was horse-drawn). On a cold day my mother would offer them a cup of tea at the kitchen door.
Further south along from the main Rosendale Road shopping parade were Franklin’s, the garage, and Angel’s, the barber. Franklin’s provided a chauffeur service, and part of our summer holiday treat was being driven up to Waterloo for the train and boat journey to the Isle of Wight - the only time we saw the inside of a car. I didn’t use Angel’s for long because of his unpleasant habit of pushing the waiting boys on a Saturday morning ever further down the queue, as adult men arrived. “You boys don’t mind waiting, do you?” he would repeatedly incant.
Occasionally my mother shopped at Buckle’s, a “proper” grocer, complete with bacon slicing machine, which stood on the site in Croxted Road now occupied by Tesco, and I remember the large Elephant sign on the side wall, advertising Fremlin’s Elephant Ales. My mother once told me that she didn’t particularly like using the shop because of dark rumours about the manager that had circulated during the period of rationing. A few steps from Buckle’s, in Park Hall Road, was Kirkby’s, which sold and repaired bicycles, and at the appropriate time of year also sold fireworks. Mr Kirkby ran the shop with his two sons, and when he retired, he told me that it was partly because of the break-ins he had suffered.
My parents had an aspirational tendency, and so, when the time came for me to start at primary school, they walked me down to Dulwich Village Infants’ School. Having been turned away, we then walked to the far end of Turney Road, where Rosendale Road school proved less fastidious about accepting a child from Carson Road. I remember it as a happy school, with some brilliant (mainly female) teachers, and I still marvel at the fact that those teachers handled classes of up to 45, and still sent children in large numbers to Dulwich College, Alleyn’s, JAGS, Mary Datchelor, Wilson’s, Archbishop Tennyson’s, St Martin’s, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, and so on. Perhaps we partly benefited from the fact that we had a full day’s school, finishing at 4.30. The classrooms had open fires, and in the winter Mr Wright, the schoolkeeper, would spend much of his day carrying coal around the school and topping up the fires. The infant school building at Rosendale stood beside some railway sidings, which served the Rickett Cockerell coal depot opposite the school entrance (the railway bridge leading into the depot has long gone), and the clanging sound of trucks being shunted about was constantly with us.
So determined were my parents that I should go on to a good secondary school, that, although far from wealthy, they sent me for two hours of coaching every Saturday morning in the months preceding my taking the 11+ exam. This tuition took place at the home of Miss Hutt, a retired teacher from JAGS, I think, who lived very near the Court Lane end of Dovercourt Road.
A large part of my life until around age 13 seemed to be spent at All Saints Church, in Rosendale Road. I went to Sunday school from a very young age (taking along my penny for the collection), and on Monday evenings attended meetings of an organisation called King’s Messengers. I was in the choir from about age eight, which entailed Evensong on Sunday, full choir practice on Friday evening and another practice just for the boys on Wednesday. Miss Hart ran the KMs and Miss Miller the choir. The latter’s father was a minister in Scotland, and every Christmas he paid for a party for the boys at her flat in Stradella Road. One of my fellow choristers was Chris Vernon, son of Russell, the architect who was closely involved in the post-War development of the Dulwich Estate. The annual Sunday school treat consisted of a train trip to Leatherhead, where we went on a long circular ramble, and I can still picture the vicar, Mr Capron, complete with dog collar, leading his flock along Thurlow Park Road to Tulse Hill station.
As far as we children were concerned, West Dulwich boasted two “fields”, the second being the sizeable space which still lies open between Rosendale Road and Croxted Road. I don’t recall spending much time in this field, but it was accepted that on the way back from school one climbed over - or through - the fence at the Dalkeith Road end and returned to the pavement on reaching the church. We didn’t do this on the way to school - perhaps because time was more of an issue.
It would be an exaggeration to describe The Nook, beside West Dulwich station, as an institution, but over many years it certainly provided great pleasure - as well as regular work for local dentists - for thousands of mainly Dulwich College boys. With a wave of his arm, the portly Mr Hudson would indicate “the penny section”, where one could buy a variety of sweet, chewy objects, which, according to the then strict College rules, were - like any food - not to be consumed in public. Another Dulwich College rule (which continued at least into the seventies) was that the whole school must watch and cheer on the 1st rugby XV at home matches, and thus a sound to be heard around West Dulwich on a Saturday afternoon was the intermittent roaring of 1400 boys.
One could go on, but suffice to say that, like others who have spent their lives in Dulwich, I consider myself very fortunate, my only regret being that so many figures formerly on the landscape, both known and unknown to me, are no longer to be seen about the place.
By John Walters