Dulwich Memories


Coal-fired oven range

I was one of the original ‘Baby Boomers’ born in Dulwich Village just after the end of World War II. It may seem strange if not difficult for those trying to recall their earliest memories of life, particularly the first five years, but, even after six decades, such memories are still as vivid to me today as they were at the time. I have been told by various people it is just not possible to remember our earliest tender years, but I disagree. It may well be those who cannot recall their own earliest memories believe this to be true, but that is their personal perception of truth, not mine. What I do not have in my earliest memories, is an understanding of circumstances. Such things develop a little later in life.

I suppose all through history, each generation has seen changes in dress, customs and practices to that of their preceding generation. I cannot help but wonder however, if during my lifetime, my generation has possibly seen more rapid changes from one way of life to another than any other preceding generation. From a post war Britain still heavily endowed with the legacies of Victorian and Edwardian values through the rapid transitional process of modernity into the modern electronic age. Social values have also undergone equally swift transformation from a time when the mention of an unmarried mother would set numerous neighbourhood tongues wagging, to an era where such things have found commonplace acceptability in society without any stigma attached. Unfortunately other values like politeness and respect and general civility for ones fellow-man appear to have taken a tragic decline.

This set of my initial memories of life are however firmly set in a world and a time much different from today. A time despite all its problems, is one that I sometimes secretly yearn for.

My earliest memory is of being breast-fed by my mother. Before anyone says so, this is not some hidden Freudian desire, it is an actual memory. Much else of this early time remains a bit foggy but being breast-fed remains crystal clear. My families Dulwich home like most housing at the time was a rented property. It was never-the less, a large house in Desenfans Road lit by gas only. There was no hot water system and the only heat came from an ever lit oven range in the kitchen. A small scullery adjoined the kitchen and contained a sit up an beg type gas cooker, a butler sink and a copper boiler set in a large block of concrete. There was no room for anything else. A separate fire needed to be lit under the copper to heat water if sheets were being boiled. The boiler was also useful for cooking the Christmas pudding. At that time it was common practice for the kitchen to be both a cooking and dining area. In winter due to the cold, the kitchen became both a play and general living area too. The amount of livable space in most homes expanded or contracted throughout the year according to the seasons. All other rooms in the house did contain fireplaces but to have these all alight at the same time would prove prohibitively expensive.

I have looked recently at the outside my old home on Google Earth and it is reassuring to know that a full-grown rhododendron bush in the front garden which I remember from my childhood is still there.

The oven range served a secondary useful purpose when it came to bathing. With no bathroom in the house, bathing was normally conducted in a shallow tin bath in front of the oven range. The bath normally kept outside hanging from a hook by the outside toilet always reminded me of a large frying pan without a handle. The bath was filled with hot water from a couple of kettles left to boil on the range to about four inches deep. It was not until later in life at Leyton Slipper Baths that I would experience the wonderful sensation of hot bath water that completely covered the body. Bathing was in strict rotation with the eldest first and the youngest last. Water was not emptied between bathers but simply topped up a little by the kettle from the adjacent oven range. Even as I write this article, I find the thought of this arrangement somewhat repulsive but it was the same arrangement that occurred in most homes just after WWII and would have been thought of as completely normal.

Bedtime followed the bath which was something of an ordeal in winter. It involved a quick dash through the cold and darkened house carrying a candle and jumping into bed as quickly as possible. A hot water bottle was always placed in the bed during winter. It was the round ceramic type with mottled brown patterning. Greaseproof paper was wrapped around the stopper to prevent it leaking. It was possible to burn ones feet if accidental contact with the hot water bottle was made. On arising in the morning in winter it was also a case of an equally quick dash back to the warmth of the kitchen. The inside of bedroom windows were always covered with ice in winter caused by condensation from breathing freezing on the icy cold glass.

I suppose the second recall I have of this slightly time disconnected period is sitting in a high chair at meal times while being bathed by the gentle warmth from the ever lit oven range. The high chair was a wooden type which had a hinged flap that lowered over the head to provide a small tray table in front of ones chest.

Lighting for the house was provided by gas and electricity blackouts in nearby houses were still a frequent occurrence. In today’s modern electrical age we simply flick a switch to turn a light on and think no more of it. We probably do not even give a second thought of passages and hallways that can be illuminated by using a switch at one end with the light being doused by different switch at the other end. Gas lighting however is entirely different. Either a pipe terminating with lighting rose descends from the middle of the ceiling with a see-saw chain valve to turn the gas on or, the lamp projects from a passage wall with a thumb twist valve. The lamps would normally be lit by a wax taper ignited in the eternally lit cooking range fire. The lamps are set too high for a child to light. The disadvantage with hallway gas lamps is they can only be turned off at source leaving an individual in the dark. In practice they were rarely lit and candles for moving around the house were use instead.

Occasionally the gas mantle which looked like a fine mesh incandescent white ball when lit required replacing. I recall seeing my father tie what looked like a little white babies sock around the gas lamp outlet. When the gas was turned on and lit, the little sock immediately shrivelled up into the familiar white ball. The gas mantle also became delicate and flimsy once in reached this shrivelled state and would easily break if touched. I do recall going to bed with a lit candle holder which I was allowed to carry even under the age of five.

The only toilet was set outside the house. I think at the time this was considered by planners to be a more hygienic arrangement. Little thought was given by the same planners that to visit the toilet in the middle of the night or in inclement weather was something of an ordeal. It was for this reason that use of the bedroom potty continued to thrive until more modern homes with indoor bathrooms were built or, older but still good properties eventually converted to indoor sanitation. I think it is probable that the requirement to run to the toilet through torrential rain or sit on the loo in bitterly cold conditions, accelerated the growth of indoor bathrooms from about the 1950’s onwards.

My Grandmother, a more kindly and informative woman whom I have never met, also used to live with us. Granny was born in 1881 and possessed extensive knowledge of both World Wars and the Boer War prior to that. Unfortunately her husband, my grandfather who I never knew, died a few years after the Great War possibly from after effects received during the war. Granny was the daughter of a farrier and one of six children born in Camberwell, London. Her family name was Pawsey who are believed to be direct descendants of Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France. My grandmother’s family heritage is something she was immensely proud of. I have looked at maps of Camberwell at the time of my Granny’s youth which was then part of the county of Surrey. The maps show large areas of fields and I often think of how much change my Grandmother must have seen as the area rapidly transformed from rural countryside into an urban conurbation.

Apart from creating meals and delicious Eiffel Tower size Yorkshire puddings on the cooking range, Granny also thoroughly cleaned the range once a week. Apart from raking the flues, the process also involved applying a tin of Zebo liquid lead polish to the metal surfaces and then polishing it all to a shine with a stiff black brush. The polish steamed from the heat of the cooker.

Granny also took me on outings and shopping while my parents were at work. Memories of the electric trams which continued to run along Lordship Lane at this time still fill my mind. Being very small, the conductor would always lean down from the tram and lift me aboard by my arms. The seats were a wooden bench type arrangement and quite uncomfortable for a young tender bottom. At the end of the journey the conductor would walk through the tram pushing the upright backs of the seats which were hinged at the base. The seat backs would then face a different direction for the return journey. I am sure my Granny would have pointed out places of interest on our tram journeys but I think my eyes were always glued on the driver. The driver stood at the front of the tram with his hands on two large rotating metal levers. I never really understood how they worked but the driver always appeared to be twisting the levers to and fro. I was fascinated by these levers and like all little boys, I imagined it was myself driving the tram.

My Granny would also take me to Dulwich Library located on the Lordship Lane/Eynella Road junction. I was still being pushed in an upright pram at this time and our journey took us along a long road named Woodwarde Road. All along this road every morning could be seen housewives on their hands and knees scrubbing and polishing the front door step as well as the entrance stone to their garden paths. This is a practice that has long since died out but at the time it was considered that well scrubbed and polished doorsteps were a public reflection on a well-kept house inside. If a dirty doorstep was spotted, tongues would soon start to wag.

Rationing was still very much a way of life during my early years and was something well beyond my understanding. I do recall however when I went shopping with my Granny at the Co-operative Store in Lordship Lane, watching the lady behind the counter scooping butter from a large tub and then patting it into a brick shape on a marble slab with two wooden paddles. My Granny then paid for her shopping and recited a long membership number while the shop assistant cut a little paper square from a ration book that my Granny carried.

On one shopping trip my Granny was pushing me in an upright pram when she met a group of friends also shopping. To a young child, this little group appeared to be chattering away to each other for hours as they gathered in a small huddle, oblivious to the rest of the world. To make matters worse, the group were chatting directly outside a baker’s window and staring at me from inside the window was the most wonderful ginger-bread man I had ever seen. I recall continuously touching the window trying to get at this tasty relish that kept smiling at me, but a small belt with clips I was wearing kept me firmly anchored in the pram. Finally to my childish dismay, I saw the ginger-bread man being picked up by a shop assistant, my eyes never left this little edible creature for a moment. A few seconds later my dismay turned to great joy as this member of staff came out of the shop and thrust the ginger-bread man in my hands much to my Granny’s surprise. On reflection I suspect the staff probably saw my pram-bound gastronomic dilemma and took pity on me. There was at least one happy little boy in the world that day.

Occasionally my parents would take me to Brixton Market. Although this was not far from Dulwich Village, the difference in environmental surroundings between the two were a stark contrast. For some reason my parents did not appear to need the ration book when buying food in the market and always came home with bags laden. I particularly remember the smell of the paraffin lamps that burned on every stall during the winter months as they spread their golden glow into the surrounding street. In many ways the market after dusk was like a fairy land with lights everywhere and people hustling and bustling as they went about their business. The winter months also meant crumpets, (muffins), were on sale and during the evening my siblings and I would sit around the cooking range in eager anticipation as our father toasted each crumpet in turn on a toasting fork in front of the oven range fire.

Our garden in Desenfans Road was an average suburban garden but my father did maintain two bee-hives. Under rationing regulations, bee keepers received an additional quota of sugar. My parents also used the honey which was hard to come-by as a form of bartering tool for obtaining other foodstuffs to supplement our otherwise meagre rations.

The outside street was paved and I could hear an occasional rumbling sound like thunder as older children coasted down the gentle slope on their home-made scooters. As virtually everything was rationed, metal for large toys like scooters was still considered an unnecessary luxury. The home-made scooters consisted of two lengths of wood joined by a hinge for steering with wheels made from ball-bearing races. It was these metal wheels that caused the low rumbling sound from the scooters along with a clickety-clack noise as the wheels went over the gaps in the paving slabs.

The other regular visitor in the street every day was the milkman with his cart. The cart with rubber wheels was pulled by a horse that must have known the milk round by heart. Apart from going to and from the dairy at the start and end of his round the milkman never rode the cart. The milkman simply walked up each garden path in turn to deliver fresh bottles of milk and return the empties to his cart, repeating the same process for each house in the street. As the milkman threaded his way in and out of each front garden to the doorstep, his horse would follow him without any form of instruction and obediently wait for him at the next house.

Sometimes my father took me to Dulwich Park which was a short walk from our home. I can recall gentle rowing sessions on the lake with my father rowing. On one day a number of people were flying kites. In those days kites were either a flat triangular shape or like an oblong box with material wrapped around each end. I still have a vivid image in my mind of one box-shaped kite which had a small dog lying prone inside the kite between the ends of the box. When the kite eventually landed, the dog jumped out and ran around before sitting back in the kite awaiting another flight.

My father also had an allotment located in Grange Lane. Our journey would take through the village where I recall a drinking fountain located at the College Road/Gallery Road junction. I think there may also have been a horse trough there but I am not certain of that. There was also a public house near this junction and on one occasion a large group of men had gather outside the public house encircling two men fighting each other with broken beer bottles. My father soon hurried me past this grisly scene. A duck pond was located at the College Road/Dulwich Common junction and we always had a small bag of breadcrumbs to feed the ducks. In the late 1940’s there was very little traffic at this junction but the last time I saw this location it was a major highway with high traffic volume and full of choking fumes.

Invariably our journey to the allotment was on a Saturday afternoon and on our route we passed the Dulwich Art Gallery and Dulwich College itself. As we passed the college, on the opposite side of the road, pupils from the college always seemed to be playing cricket on the sports field dressed in their immaculate white outfits.

Dulwich Toll-Gate by kind permission of dulwichonview.org.uk

When turning into Grange Lane I was always fascinated by a white fence and open gate that straddled the road. This was the Dulwich Toll and which I believe is the only toll gate left in London. Apart from there being little traffic at that time, very few vehicles used the toll road either. I did however see a few cars stop at the gate waiting for the toll keeper to come out of a nearby house before continuing on their way. It always made me wonder just how expensive in might have been to travel in days of old if one had to pay a toll fee at different locations throughout ones journey.

While my father tended his allotment the remainder of our family used to play. A little further up the hill where my fathers allotment was located were woods where we sometimes used to go to play. My father did tell us the woods were private but woods and children are drawn together like irresistible magnets. The allotment being on a hill that forms one side of the Thames Basin it was possible to see across the whole of London. My father used to point out salient landmarks of places which we did not know in our as yet young lives.

Set on the top of a hill in Carlton Avenue was the imposing structure of the church of St Barnabas where I was christened. I understand the church was completely destroyed by fire several years ago and wonder if my name on the christening scroll was destroyed as well. The church did not have a hall that was attached to the church but located in the village. My Granny took me to pantomimes held in this wooden hall at Christmas time. A line of large trees fronted the road between the hall and North Dulwich Railway Station all which had wide bands of white lines painted around them. In the recent war due to blackout regulations, these trees presented something of a hazard to drivers in the dark unable to use their headlamps. The painted white bands were an attempt to make the trees more visible in the dark. When I visited Dulwich a few years ago, the white bands had faded away with time. I did however inspect the trunks of a few trees closely and sure enough, little flecks of white paint still remain lodged in cracks of the bark to this day.

As I approached my fifth birthday my mother took me to be enrolled at the village school located at the junction of Turney Road/Dulwich Village. Although I only attended the school for a short time due to family circumstances, it is reassuring when looking on Google to see that the original building is still there.

On Sunday afternoons, we children went as a group to Sunday School at Herne Hill Baptist Church about a mile away. Most people did not have cars and even small children like ourselves were expect to walk as the norm. It was one of those Sundays that changed my family life forever. I remember at the school we baked tiny loaves of bread in a small oven and this I put in my pocket to proudly show my parents when we got home. Alas it was never to be. Even at that tender age we could all sense something was wrong when we arrived back at our strangely silent home. My parents obviously had a violent argument during our absence and I saw my mother sitting down crying unable to speak due to extensive dental injuries. It was a gut wrenching sight and one that it is not possible to deal with at such a young age.

The rest of the day was one of complete confusion as large numbers of strange people entered and left the house. I cannot remember who put me to bed or got me up again the next morning. All I know was I awoke to the rare site of a large black car outside our home waiting to take me and my younger brother to Waterloo Station and from there to an unknown children’s home where I would not see either of my parents for several months. After that I went to my dreaded maternal grandmothers home in Leyton.

As the car pulled away all I could see through the back window was my home and the only way of life I had known disappearing in the distance. In my pocket I still had the tiny loaf of bread I baked the day before. To this day, I sometimes wonder in reflection, if people or parents ever appreciate the damage they do to others with their petty squabbles.

 

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