Post War Dulwich Memories
The idea for this project came from discussing when in Dulwich’s history we have ever faced such turmoil and upheaval, and in true Dulwich style, have adapted and made the best of a very difficult period in time.
We can draw parallels with a post-war Dulwich, in many ways very different with the heavy bombing and physical destruction of parts of the Campus, but dealing with adversity, that remains true.
We have collected a number of accounts from Old Alleynians who experienced a post-war Dulwich, and we are delighted to share the full transcripts here.
All the following accounts reflect the general state of South East London in those post-war years, with clear evidence of bomb damage across the site, with direct hits to the squash courts, swimming pool, fives court and the science block. The Barry Buildings were lucky to remain pretty much unscathed with the exception of broken windows.
DULWICH EMERGES FROM WORLD WAR 2
Written from the eyes of a 9 year old boy, going on 18 years old.
It will perhaps be helpful to start by describing what life was like in England while hostilities were still under way, in order to provide context for what came after the armistice. Bear in mind that whatever shortages might have been experienced in England, there were enough supplies of food and clothing to enable rationing to take place, compared with occupied Europe where people often went for days at a time without any food at all, especially in the cities, and rarely had the luxury of butter or cheese to accompany the indifferent bread that was available, albeit in short supply. Not only that, but every time that people went out, they were confronted with hostile, armed and jack booted men in black helmets and uniforms, leaving them scared for their very lives – remember the revenge assassinations that killed 15 locals for every German that died at the hands of the Resistance fighters. The worst that English people had to fear was that a bomb or a “doodle-bug” would fall on their neighbourhood.
Life in London – I grew up in Streatham, just “over the hill” from Dulwich – was normal, in the sense that people got up in the morning and went to work, or to school, worked in the garden or the allotment at the weekends, and had enough food on the table, despite, or perhaps because of, the rationing régime. Some of the food was processed, such as powdered eggs, powdered milk, concentrated orange juice, meat and fish paste, Spam and corned beef – fresh fruit was mostly locally grown like apples and pears, but fish seems to have been comparatively plentiful, especially perhaps shell fish. We all had a gas mask in a brown box, and had to take them to school, and rehearse putting them on in a hurry – just in case – the memory of the awful smell of them lingers with me still. Children roamed the streets or the neighbourhood parks to their heart’s content, and had many adventures in the rubble of bomb damaged sites – I well remember the excitement of playing in a derelict Rover motor car, on which the windows still opened and shut, but very little else would ever work again. With acute petrol rationing, there were few motorised vehicles on the street other than buses and trams, partly because there were few people who actually owned their own car.
Local deliveries, and there were many, were by horse drawn vehicle – the milkman, the baker, the coalman, the rag and bone man, and Council rubbish collection all spring to mind, and they continued well after the armistice. One of my jobs was to follow the horses and collect the droppings for the vegetable garden.
My father was too old for active service, so he was a member of the Home Guard, who routinely patrolled the darkened streets for breaches of the black out (he narrowly escaped a falling bomb one night), or manned the search lights.
I stayed with my grandparents for the duration of hostilities, and rarely saw my mother, who was nursing war wounded at Basingstoke, or my father, who worked in London, and was living on his own in Epsom, and had few opportunities to visit his parents, or me. At night fall, the adults closed the blackout blinds, and the wooden internal shutters on the windows of the room where we spent most of our time, a kind of cosy dining/living room, which was heated in winter by a coke fired pot belly stove, that also heated the hot water system.
Our entertainment was the BBC radio Home Service and the Light Programme, which provided news bulletins, music and sitcoms, although I was very often hustled out when the news bulletins were running. There was acute fear among children (I was still under ten years old at that time) every time that the air raid siren sounded, mostly at night, a fear that remains to this day to a diminished extent, whenever the call goes out for the volunteer firemen – the same kind of siren that announced an impending air raid in those days. My sister and I slept under the dining table, to give us a feeling of security, even though I don’t suppose it would have given us much protection in the event of a direct hit. That all came to an end for us, when my sister and I were evacuated to Penmaenmawr in North Wales in 1944, effectively bringing our war to an end.
Newsreel of the time records the euphoria of English adults when peace broke out in Europe, and to a more subdued extent when all other hostilities ended after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the horrific price paid by the Japanese people for having been part of the global war.
At nine years old, I was more interested in train spotting with my friends on the neighbourhood railway lines, and in collecting pieces of shrapnel (apparently also defined as a 19th Century cluster bomb), stamps and cigarette cards. Most of the trains carried goods of various kinds, many of which were coal as I recall, and were drawn by steam locomotives. The electric passenger trains were units of three, or eight in the case of commuter trains. Walkthrough corridor trains were available only on some main line, long distance units, and even they were composed of separate compartments, as were the suburban coaches. One end unit in each coach was “Ladies Only”, with another one at the other end for non-smokers. Each compartment had an overhead baggage rack above the seats on each side, made from string netting, and there was a mirror at eye level on the wall on one side, with a map of the rail network or an advert on the facing side, very often for Hovis bread. The routes of South London electric suburban trains were characterised by a single identifying capital letter, enough of them as it happened, to spell out the word H-O-V-I-S, a coincidence of which the company took full advantage in its advertising programme, showing five trains lined up in a siding, side-by-side, reading “HOVIS”, and with no other text required – brilliant!
We played marbles in the summer, conkers in autumn, and went skating at the Streatham Ice Rink in winter – now apparently in a new location where the old tram/bus depot used to be. We roamed the streets with our hands in our pockets, and a tennis ball at our feet, from Streatham Hill in the north, to Norbury in the South, and from Tooting Bec Common in the West to the Rookery in the East. However, the derelict bomb sites that were all around us, meant that we were unable for a very long time, to shake off the fear that aerial bombing might not have actually come to an end. Rationing of food and other commodities continued until well after I started at Dulwich, with sweets finally being released as late as 1953.
Once again, I was sheltered from listening to news bulletins (I never found out why that would have been), so I had little awareness of the world around me. However, my parents were dyed-in-the wool Conservatives, and did not attempt to hide their profound dismay at the landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1945, and the unceremonious ousting of their hero Winston Churchill, which they regarded as akin to treason – “after all that he had done for our country” they were very fond of saying.
Otherwise, our world as nine-years-old boys was focussed on Cricket (in my case it did not go so far as Soccer or Rugby – sorry about that), school of course (socially segregated to such a degree that we had no contact with girls, even after school was out), stamp collecting, car and train spotting, borrowing books from the Streatham Library on a Saturday morning (Swallows and Amazons were popular titles), and on one giddy occasion, an outing to the cinema to see The Wizard of Oz – the second of only two outings to a cinema in my pre-teen years (the other was Bambi when I was in North Wales).
Bread loomed large in our diet, but there were only two kinds, both of them slice-your-own, namely white and Hovis. Hovis was half the size of a standard white loaf, and brown, although it now seems that it was made with white flour and made to look brown by the addition of secret ingredients. Although food and other goods rationing remained in place for several years after the end of the war, some restrictions were eased, and I well remember the heady moment on the day when I was able to eat, for the first time in my life, one egg and bacon from the same plate, at the same meal – pure exotic luxury! We were also fortunate to have good access to eggs from my uncle’s free range egg farm, perhaps not altogether legitimately. We had a fabulous large walk-in larder/cool store in which the eggs were preserved in a large terra cotta urn filled with isinglass (a type of sodium silicate). Cheese (maybe only cheddar or similar?) was probably available in limited amounts, but I have no recollection of eating any until well after the war. The closest we came to actual meat was probably corned beef, occasional sausages, tripe and offal (which I enjoyed well into adulthood until cholesterol monitoring forced me to give it up), but there was plenty of Spam and Shippam’s meat paste and fish paste in small jars, from which the paste was necessarily used sparingly. On the other hand, there was an adequate supply of vegetables and local fruit, made more difficult for the family by my unreasonable refusal to eat any kind of vegetable – or salad - other than carrots and peas – no greens at all, not even beans! Chicken was the most expensive meat for a long time, and was sold by the fishmonger.
Another aspect of rationing was the Government regulation of clothing and hardware manufacture under the brand name Utility 41, with its own brand logo stitched onto the clothing, or shoes, or furniture – whatever product it might have been. The idea was that all clothing and furniture was confined to a very small range of styles, from a limited range of fabrics, and a limited quota in each garment. For examples there was one style for men’s suits, single breasted only, and very little choice of colour or fabric. The same applied to women’s clothing as I recall, and shoes as well. The limited supply meant that second hand clothing was in high demand, with most of my clothing during that time acquired from bring and buy sales at one or other of the local churches. I still cringe at the recollection of the non-conforming second hand gym gear that my parents provided to me, that was probably also quite a challenging issue for adults at that time.
It would have been around Easter 1947 when I started to hear about being tested, in relation to which secondary school I would be able to attend later in the year. I had absolutely no idea of the significance of this event, and treated it, if not with disdain, with indifference – which might be the reason that I was successful in being invited to show up at Dulwich one morning, no doubt with one of my parents, for an interview and yet another test. The test itself was on a multi-fold single sheet of paper, comprising maybe eight or nine separate pages full of multiple choice questions. The candidates were assembled at desks in the Great Hall, and had maybe half an hour to complete their answers. After reading an excerpt from Black Beauty to a nice woman, I was eventually informed that I had been accepted.
The school embraced good manners (as mandated by the Founder), and multi culturalism, as evidenced by the wide range of foreign students from places as far apart as Thailand, Nigeria, India, Ceylon, Rhodesia, and even North America, and there was a strong history of graduates going into foreign service, as evidenced by the honours boards in the Great Hall. This set the tone for the rest of my adult life, moving gradually, if rather slowly, from being non-racist to actively anti-racist, in part as the result of living for some four years in South Africa in the early seventies.
I was part of the “Dulwich Experiment”, set up to accept state funded scholars by the mighty Christopher Gilkes when he was Master, and was allocated to what was initially called Elm Lawn Junior boarding house, which was housed in the cricket pavilion – no sign of any sand bags by that time. We were eventually renamed Bell House when we moved (a year later ?) off the school grounds to the eponymous building further down College Road near to the Chapel and the Art Gallery.
We had little say in what class we would begin our life at Dulwich, although to be fair, it is entirely possible that our parents were consulted without our knowledge. The cut-off date was 31 August each year, and with my birthday falling on 29 August, I was always the youngest boy in the class. I was assigned to Science 2c, but was transferred not long after to Science 2a for reasons that were never explained to me, and I remained in the “a” classes for the rest of my time at school. The other options would have been Modern Languages (simply known as Modern), in which the two streams were “a” for achievers, and “b” for strugglers, and they both did History, German, French, some Geography and Mathematics, and very little Science. Then there was Classics, two streams as for Modern, and which did History, Greek, Latin, French, some History and Mathematics, and very little Science. The Science stream classes were “a” and “c” (for future doctors), with Biology and Chemistry based topics and a small amount of Physics, and “b” and “d” for Physics and Chemistry based topics (for future engineers and scientists), with a small amount of Biology. Common topics Mathematics, with one class a week for French and English, and very little else. There was a very strong emphasis at the school on the science subjects, underpinned by the support of the Master. Most of my peers that year applied to colleges at Cambridge, with the rest applying to Oxford, not only for Engineering (although there were few of them), but mostly for Medicine or Law, or something which anticipated a diplomatic career, for which Dulwich had, and no doubt still has, a strong reputation – witness the Honours Boards in the Great Hall. I was the only boy to apply to Imperial College, London, where I was eventually accepted for a three years degree course at the City & Guilds College in Kensington, after successfully applying for deferral from National Service. I was fine with that, as I was able to stay at home and commute to South Kensington direct by the number 49 bus or bicycle.
The only two sports that were played against other schools, were Rugby in winter (Michaelmas Term) and Cricket in summer (Summer Term), with the hated Athletics in the Lent Term, which was limited to internal competition. Swimming was another strongly supported activity, but was mostly confined to inter-house competition. Tennis was available, as was Gymnastics and Boxing, but they were not a competitive option, and there was no hint of Basketball, or Hockey, or Soccer. The big game of each sport was against Bedford College, especially if it came to Rugby, but the annual calendar included a number of other schools from Christ's Hospital and Bedford to Haileybury and Mill Hill. I finally came to understand the historical significance of the six House names, Raleigh, Marlowe, Drake, Grenville, Spenser and my own house Sidney – in my day I recall that Raleigh seemed to achieve the distinction of being cock house more than any other, with Marlowe tending to be tail-end Charlie more often than not. In the sporting arena, it remains a matter of enormous satisfaction that I escaped being compelled to get in the boxing ring as most of the boys did, not even once – I now learn that Boxing was abandoned in the 1960s, and not before time. Coming a close second, was having managed to skip Athletics over the last two years at school, largely because I made myself indispensable to the Master in Charge of Athletics – the daunting and redoubtable Mr. Treadgold, who was also my Latin teacher.
The Master for most of my time at the school was Christopher Gilkes, a dyed-in-the-wool Classics man, and the son of Arthur Gilkes who was Master in the early 20th century. He could, nevertheless, often be seen on his battered old bicycle, taking the slops from the kitchen in a bucket back to his house on the other side of Thurlow Park Road to feed his chickens, his mortarboard firmly on his head, and his robes flying in the breeze. Despite his background, he was nevertheless very modern and forward looking in his thinking, having initiated a strong investment in much bigger science classes. He was at times quite provocative, for example, initiating vigorous debate with senior science classes over the proposition that the Earth is flat.
It is tempting to say that there was something after school for everyone, from Debating, Madrigal Group and Theatre, to Cadets (Army, Navy and Air Force) and Boy Scouts (two troops), but dominating all of them were Sports practice on Monday and Thursday after school, to competitive inter-house games on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, in place of academic activity. There was also a two hours long lunch hour on Fridays to allow the school choir (me again) to rehearse for the Founder’s Day concert. Tuesdays after school was for Cadets and Boy Scouts (one troop only), leaving Friday afternoons free for more intellectual and leisure pursuits, like the Debating Society. The second Scout troop was active on Saturday after Games, largely because it was run by working adults from the local community who were not free to turn up on Tuesday afternoons. That left Sunday mornings for boarders to attend chapel, and to pursue their own interests on Sunday afternoon. It engaged in the usual range of scouting activities, including an annual camp in the woods at a variety of locations around the South of England, which usually lasted about ten days, including a fantastic one week long winter camp in the snow one winter, which for some reason far outshone by a country mile, any of the other summer camps. I finally capitulated in the sixth form, and signed up with the Air Force branch of the school Corps, as the result of which I was able, at one point of the year to visit a real Air Force base (I forget which – Biggin Hill maybe, which was not too far away). The visit included a few minutes “flying” in a flight simulator of a fighter plane – the high point of the day. I seem to remember that I followed the planned route quite well, but made a spectacular crash landing on arriving at the destination, from which I am pleased to report that I emerged unscathed. The last and very good experience was in my last year, when I took part in an initiative by one of the English teachers called The Gallery Club. He would choose a play, or opera, or musical, that was showing in London, and the members would pay a small amount to go with him on a Saturday night and sit in the Gallery up in “the Gods” – a fabulous cultural experience, especially for the boys from the science classes, who had little exposure to such things.
I was a resident of the Blew House, which ran smoothly under the iron hand of the House Matron – we never discovered what her name was (Miss K. Hutchinson), until after we left school, when it was printed underneath the house group photograph – until then she was only ever known as “Matron”. She was unobtrusively and successfully responsible for organizing everything, from the laundry twice a week, keeping the place clean, changing the bed linen once a week, and caring for the health of the boys, such as making sure that they never missed taking their regular medication. Despite her austere demeanour, Matron was immensely fond of all the boys, as I am sure was the Ivyholme Matron.
On the other hand, the House Master, and/or his deputy, watched over the evening homework sessions for the juniors (seniors did their homework in their own rooms upstairs, without supervision), ran the evening prayer and bible readings at the end of the evening, and held court while we all drank hot chocolate and ate macaroons (one each). They also distributed largesse in the form of pocket money after lunch on Saturday, which had increased in my case from three pence when I started, to the enormous sum of half a crown, by the time that I left school – I was more fortunate than many of the boys, who were unable to enjoy so much income. In the early days, we would all rush down to the tuck shop and spend it all within minutes of receiving it, but eventually came round to more responsible management of our financial resources – in my case the money had to cover my own consumables like razor blades and toothpaste, as well as “luxuries” like chocolate.
As a junior (the lowest form of life) in the Blew House, I fagged for my first year for the Head Boy of the House, and was rewarded with comparatively handsome pay at the end of each term. The duties were not onerous, and were mostly confined to making the prefect’s bed, and running small errands for him – as far as I am aware, none of the prefects abused the privilege, either then or when my turn came to enjoy the benefits. Fagging was practiced in both senior boarding houses, although unlike us, the fags in Ivyholme were not paid for their trouble.
The ground floor shower room was furnished with lockers for sports gear like rugby or cricket boots, or running shoes, as well as the corresponding clothing to suit the season. We were responsible for keeping our own sports equipment in good shape, including keeping it clean – washable clothes were washed out in the hand basins in the shower room, and dried on the racks in the heated drying room next door. There was a very strict code of conduct that meant that, even if some items were occasionally “borrowed”, nothing was ever stolen from that room. The shower room itself included a communal bath, capable of holding some 15 boys (always ranked in order of seniority of course – juniors at the shallow end naturally). The bath was normally used only after games afternoons, and was always an occasion for hilarity and a lot of singing.
Blew House boys had the privilege (not enjoyed by Ivyholme boys) of going into Dulwich Village and Dulwich Park, without having to seek specific permission, other than signing out in the book. There may have been other benefits we enjoyed that I no longer recall, but those two definitely led us to believe that we were a cut above the rival house next door.
Daily routine at Blew House started at about 7.30 am by leaping out of bed, and heading towards the bathroom where I would hope there would be a vacant basin available for a quick shave, and groom the hair. Back to my room to dress in a hurry (clothes all laid out the previous night – trousers under the mattress to preserve the creases in good condition), before racing downstairs and out the side door at a run, in order to be inside the dining room and standing at my place before the bell sounded for Grace on the dot of 8 o’clock. There was hell to pay for anyone who was late for Grace, but some kudos for the last one to get out of bed and still make it in time on a regular basis. The more sensible boys would get up earlier and get dressed in a more leisurely manner, before heading downstairs to the Common Room to read one or other of the several daily papers that were provided, ranging from The London Times and Manchester Guardian through the Daily Telegraph to the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and a couple of tabloids – we were spoiled for choice.
All four boarding houses (comprising some 200 boys in all) used the dining room at the same time. The seating was formally arranged, in the case of Blew House, by strict order of seniority – House Master at the head of the “top” table, and Deputy House Master at the head of the second table. A Duty Prefect sat at the other end of the main table, and the Matron at the foot of the other table. The House Captain sat next to the House Master, with the other prefects adjacent to and opposite him, and so on down the top table in order of ranking in the house pecking order, followed by the rest of the boys on the junior table – a place for every one, and every one in his place! Breakfast would be cereals (corn flakes, or porridge in winter, with cold milk and sugar) followed by a rasher of bacon or one fried or scrambled egg (fried egg came as a white cube with a dried up yellow dome of overcooked yolk at the centre – scrambled egg on the other hand, resembled a rubbery yellow cube cut from a very large tray, not unlike a small slab of bean curd), or one sausage with mash, followed again by a piece of toast with a small pat of butter and marmalade, or your own jam. Tea was available from an urn for those who wanted it.
The food was served onto plates by the kitchen staff, and delivered to the tables (and cleared away again afterwards) by a daily rotation of the boys (excluding the prefects of course), two on each side of the table – we became very good at carrying up to four plates full of food, thereby limiting the number of trips that had to be made before being able to sit down for one’s own meal. I now understand that the indifferent quality of the food was a least cost reflection of having been contracted out to an external caterer.
Then it was back to the house to make the bed (and the prefect’s bed as well in the case of the fags), drop the laundry off on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the huge laundry basket at the end of each floor, brush the teeth and pick up the books for the morning classes in time to be in the class room for roll call by 9am sharp.
Daytime activities kept us occupied until shortly before six o’clock, when we would have to front up (with clean hands – the junior boys were subject to a hands and finger nails inspection before heading off to the dining room) for “tea” – usually a hot dish followed by bread and jam – most of the boys had a private supply of their own favourite jam – or honey in my case – kept in a cupboard at one end of the dining room, which was subject to a strict “hands off” policy, that was never abused, to the best of my knowledge. Tea was available for those who wanted it.
As soon as we were back at the House, we had to knuckle down in the Common Room by 6.45pm for homework (no talking allowed) until 8.45pm when it was time for evening prayers (by the House Master) and a scripture reading by a House Prefect, followed by hot cocoa and a macaroon dispensed by Matron, when talking was allowed to resume.
The rest of the day (such as it was) was our own, until lights out at 10pm, after which talking was not allowed – but reading by torch light under the blanket was widely practiced! This was the only time of day when I would be able to call home – I would have to announce my intentions, and then head across the darkened school grounds (unless it was high summer) to the Pavilion side gate next to the railway bridge, then under the bridge and up the slope of Alleyn Park Road to the nearest call box, two pennies at the ready. I would always press “button B” first, and would occasionally be rewarded by the return of the previous caller’s unused coins. Two pennies would give me three minutes calling time, enough to arrange the next weekend visit, and then back through the scary darkness to the warmth of the boarding house.
I must have been the only boy in Blew House to make regular weekend visits home, which earned me the nick name of the “weekly day boy” – interesting to me therefore, that this seems to be available to parents these days as a normal option. Most of the Blew House boys who had not taken a weekend pass (limited to one a month) would stay at school for Sunday lunch and tea at the usual times, or take an outing on their own or in groups – curfew rules required them to stay within the village and park boundaries, but that allowed enough scope to enjoy the Dulwich Gallery or the park or the local shops – the other boarding houses were not so accommodating – the boys were confined to the school grounds.
Sundays were different – breakfast was still at 8 am, but we had until 10.30 to ourselves before heading off down College Road on foot to the school chapel for Morning Service – I usually went an hour earlier because I was in the chapel choir, and we had rehearsal before the service, before dressing up in a white surplice for the actual service. After Chapel, I normally went off to Dulwich North railway station to catch a train to Streatham to spend the rest of the day with the family, and back in time to see the Sunday evening film. One of those films was a silent movie, for which the necessary narrative music was played by our House Master, Eric Parsley – a fantastic and memorable achievement accomplished without benefit of sheet music. Cinemas were not open on Sundays to the best of my recollection, but I do clearly remember the only occasion when we were allowed out in a group on a very wet Saturday afternoon (all sports activities had been cancelled) to see The Glen Miller Story at a cinema at Crystal Palace – what a great story that was! We felt privileged that we had been trusted to behave ourselves while out of school, which we did.
Assembly took place in the Great Hall on level one of the main (centre) block, and was led by the Master (or his deputy if he was not available) where the routine was to sing one hymn out of the Anglican hymnal, assisted from the raised platform by the small and elite choir (in which I was one of the singers), followed by a passage of scripture read by each of the school prefects in turn throughout the school term, and a prayer recited by the school Chaplain. Catholics and non-Christians (mostly Jewish and a few Hindus, but as far as I can recall no other religious faiths at that time, despite the variety of nationalities) were left outside up to that point (and somewhat envied by the others for that concession), but were then invited in to listen to whatever were the notices of the day.
It occurs to me now in writing this narrative, that school life was punctuated by religious (Christian) activity of one kind or another, more or less compulsory and not just once a day, but twice daily, in addition to saying Grace at each meal – three times a day – compulsory attendance at chapel on Sunday morning, and forty-five minutes of religious instruction in class once a week – inconceivable sixty years later, and little recognition of boys of other persuasions, especially not for atheists or agnostics.
Classes started at 9.30am and continued until one o’clock, with a break of half an hour that included ten minutes of formal aerobic exercises in shirt-sleeves in the school yard – regardless of the weather unless it was actually raining at the time. This would be followed by drinking the free bottle of milk (one third of a pint), and a visit to the bathroom – a very necessary precaution as such visits were simply not allowed during classes. If the weather was exceptionally cold, the exercise regime was replaced by a run round half the grounds outside the fence, out by the Library, and back in past the Cricket Pavilion – some people actually preferred the formal exercise regime as taking less time, and being less energetic. Lunch was from one o’clock, and was generally a main course and a dessert (but never ice cream, sad to say) with water to drink – those day boys who sat down for lunch were in a separate dining room, emphasizing the elitism of the boarders. Many of the others would have brought a cut lunch, and had a favourite spot for consuming it with a bunch of their friends. There was usually enough time to have a walk round the grounds, or hang out in one of the buildings, before going back into class at two o’clock for another hour and a half until three-thirty. The school bell rang manually for a full minute at the end of each time period – six times a day.
The first of several highlights of that period was the funeral procession of King George the Sixth, which was a public holiday for which we were given a day off school. We were half way through a chemistry class when the news of his death came through. I went with some of the boys from my boarding house to watch the funeral procession in Hyde Park (my first trip ever to central London, despite living so close to it), a sombre and highly memorable occasion. We all trotted off to West London (Earl’s Court) after the procession had gone past, to spend the afternoon at that year’s Motor Show, where we collected a huge pile of glossy brochures of shiny motor cars, before returning to school in time for dinner at six o’clock. A never-to-be-forgotten day out for a sixteen-year-old boy, who had never embarked on an independent adventure of any kind before that day.
A close second was watching the annual Oxford and Cambridge rugby match on a very cold and snowy February day at Twickenham – the school had arranged for a bus full of senior boys, and we arrived early somewhere near the ground – we then had to walk several blocks before we got there. Then it was a simple matter of standing on the snow covered terraces for the next two hours, waiting for the start, and then watching the game. I can’t recall which team won, but by the end of the game our feet were frozen senseless, but fortunately the walk back to the bus was far enough that circulation was restored back to our feet once again.
We had another royal event, when the Queen Mother came to the school in 1953, as part of a visit to Dulwich for re-opening the Dulwich Art Gallery, after completing all the restoration work. I do not know what the formal entertainment was for her after she went inside the school (there were no speeches outside), but the main activity was before her arrival. The school had decided that it was necessary to put fresh gravel on the main driveway from College Road, but had not had the time to compact the new gravel before the rain arrived. The result was a boggy mess, quite unsuited to the delicate royal feet, so a red carpet had to be procured in a great hurry, to preserve the dignity of the visitor’s shoes, but not made available to the school reception committee. There was no word on the cost of the carpet.
It was in 1953 that it was decided to hold the school concert at the Royal Festival Hall, on the main site of the Festival of Britain (which had taken place in the summer of 1951). The 200 or so strong choir performed the whole of Handel’s Messiah that year, and the rehearsals became gradually more intense as the big day approached. I was in the bass section of the choir that year, and the harmonizing was inspiring, to the point that I could sing the part again today with little trouble – voice permitting of course. Various teachers performed the male solos, but I can’t now recall who the female singers might have been, other than one virtuoso treble who sang one of the arias. The whole experience was overwhelming, and remains a vivid memory to this day.
Another momentous royal event in 1953, was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June that year, which gave me my first TV experience at my aunt’s house (my parents did not take possession of a TV set until 1966, so that my father would be able to watch the soccer World Cup). It was all in black and white of course, but the pomp and circumstance was self evident, even if I eventually became rather bored by how long drawn out it all was.
Interestingly after all this time, I never saw any evidence of serious bullying or overt inappropriate behaviour, either between pupils or between staff and boys although, when I was head of the Blew House Juniors, I was asked by the House Master, Eric Parsley, to “keep a look out” for one of the junior boys from a Jewish family, who was seen to be a bit vulnerable. Nothing came of it, and any tendency towards either type of behaviour would have been regarded as inappropriate, and was quickly stifled by the other boys.
When I left school in 1954, I was aware that those had been the best days of my life in many ways, and I would never again have the freedom of action that I had enjoyed over that time – despite the regulated environment of a boarding school. My time at Dulwich truly shaped me into the person that I became as an adult.
I should have arrived at Dulwich in Michaelmas 1944 but the flying bombs were still flying, so I deferred until April 1945, just in time for VE day. I remember celebrating it at school that evening with a bonfire and fireworks. I also remember Churchill being driven past the College to cheers shortly after, though whether that was part of the celebrations or of his election campaign, I do not recall.
The College seemed to me to have suffered surprisingly little from bomb damage. The swimming pool no longer had a roof, but remained in use. The squash courts were no more. The windows of the Barry Buildings had been replaced. Teaching was pretty normal, though the masters were initially all of an age that exempted them from military service. By 1948, the age profile was noticeably younger.
Given that the war was only just over we were, unsurprisingly, obliged to join the Corps (the Officer Training Corps, the Sea Cadets and the Air Training Corps) or the Scouts. This stood us in good stead when we did our 2-year National Service on leaving school, giving us a very good chance of being commissioned.
The late ‘40s was the time of the Gilkes experiment, named after the Master, C H Gilkes. He negotiated arrangements with the education authorities of London, Essex, Kent and Surrey that they would send successful 11-plus boys to the College without their parents having to pay fees. This led to a near doubling of school numbers and to a noticeable increase in academic ability. When I left, the majority of sixth formers went up to Oxbridge or to the London medical schools. That was, of course, a time when only 6% of school leavers nationally went on to university. At that time, Dulwich gained record numbers of university scholarships, competing with Eton and Manchester Grammar for the highest score. The honours boards of this period are preserved in the Great Hall. In fairness, I should mention that Alleynians were well represented among the tutorial staff of Oxbridge colleges, which helped at least to gain a place. Those of us awarded scholarships received our tuition, accommodation and meals virtually free, regardless of parental income.
Of course, sport played a major part in school life, but with rather more compulsion than is the case today. We were also obliged to watch 1st XV home matches. Curiously little effort was made to coach those of us with meagre sporting ability and, when house matches were played, we were relegated to what was called “the Dump”! Gilkes was a great fitness fiend and every morning at 11am we all did PT for 20 minutes with him on the South gravel – it was not a car park in those days.
School uniform has evolved somewhat in the meantime, most notably in that we wore school caps on the back of our heads and saluted, not by removing them, but by momentarily covering its badge with our right hand. Only prefects were allowed to wear their jackets unbuttoned. We wore our shirttails inside our trousers, and these were often grey striped.
I was initially a boarder In Ivyholme and slept in one of two dormitories of 8 younger boys in each. Only teenagers had cubicles with a desk, a bed and a cupboard. Fagging was then the norm, which was not a wholly negative experience as it could provide mentoring in return. Corporal punishment was then practised in the school as a whole, mostly administered by the School Captain.
Finally I must mention what was for me one of the highlights my school life - Drama. There was no Edward Alleyn theatre then and most plays were performed in the less suitable Great Hall, but they were ably produced by Philip Vellacott. My most vivid memory is of playing Miranda opposite Trevor Baxter’s Prospero and Diana opposite Kenneth Fortescue in French Without Tears. Both of them went on to very successful stage careers, but my voice broke and I bowed out gracefully.
Much younger generations reading this will see how extremely fortunate was mine: we were too young to fight in WWII, many of us were educated at little or modest cost to our parents, our pathways to university and subsequent career-long employment were less challenging than today and the majority of us are probably now enjoying guaranteed final salary pensions.
Detur soli Deo Gloria!
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