Hidden away in south east London, between Brixton and Peckham is an apparently timeless and romantic idyll that is Dulwich village. A small but gentrified and wealthy area, we will find no charity shops, pawn brokers or betting shops in this part of South East London, and at first glance it would appear it has remained unchanged for over a hundred years or more. The word Dulwich
means village in the valley and is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon Dsel, Friesian Del, a cleft or valley, and Wic, a village. At the time of the Doomsday book Dulwich was not large enough to warrant a mention although neighbouring Peckham and Camberwell were. Dulwich is famed for its connection with Edward Alleyne and the expensive boarding school for boys, Dulwich College, designed by Charles Barry Jnr.. Dulwich also holds within its bosom the first art gallery ever to be opened for the public and bequeathed by Sir John Soanes. However both these venues are well discussed for not only their historic value, but also their picture postcard beauty, and it is not my objective here to continue that discussion further. I am interested in the not so perfect Dulwich Village, the Dulwich that lurks beneath the postcard image. As London has grown to surround this once small hamlet, it has retained the feel and atmosphere of a bucolic and wealthy village. I begin my leisurely stroll at the entrance to the main thoroughfare, a straight road running North to South, and aptly called Dulwich village………
In Edward Walford’s article, ‘Peckham and Dulwich’, printed in the journal Old and New London during 1887, he tells us that “notwithstanding the active building operations that of late years have fenced in London and its suburbs with miles of bricks and mortar, the village of Dulwich still presents a rural aspect.” ( Walford, 1886, p.286-303)
Writing her perambulations in 1803 Pricilla Wakefield describes the village as ‘pleasantly retired, having no high road formally through it.’ (Walford, 1886, p.286-303) Although this fact is somewhat changed and today and there is a main road running through the village, it could still be described as ‘pleasantly retired’. Indeed apart from the brief weekday gridlock of a variety of four wheel drives and other tank like cars, driven by a multitude of young women – the modern-day bourgeoisie and nicknamed yummy mummies, as they drop their small angelic looking children off at the old infant school in the morning, and repeating the process in the early afternoon – the road is relatively quiet and remembers the more peaceful times when carriages and not cars swept along it.
I cross the road…….
Opposite Dulwich Village Church of England Infants’ School – a seat of learning here since 1888 – I am confronted by the village’s parade of shops. From just looking at the various window displays and passing the open doors, my senses are captivated by the smell, feel and appearance of wealth this village holds within its centre. A new sub post office has recently opened which strikes me as interesting, as in most places they are being closed or privatised, and speaks volumes about the area through which I am walking. An expensive optician sits snugly next door to the very plush Scobie’s, a “premier valeting service” who apparently do a hand finished dry-clean. I for one do not even know what this means. Further along this rather grand parade can be found an expensive toy shop, obviously intended for those cherubs as they relax on comfortable car seats in the back of mummy’s range rover, and a quaint and cosy coffee shop selling homemade cakes, herbal teas and fresh coffee.
These shops appear to have a history of being plush as an advert for what we would nowadays call a cab service shows us. ‘Chas’s Pick-Up’ was in fact a private Daimler service, and, advertising itself in the Dulwich Village Gazette during 1923, price one penny, it promised its customers “all the joys of a private motorist” and is “always at your disposal” the advert ends, “with confidence assures you of efficacy in every detail.” In the same Gazette a Fishmonger and Poulterer insist their reputation will be “maintained” at 35 Dulwich Village. (Chapman, 1923, Dulwich Gazzette)
I continue my stroll….
I am pleased to say that not all of Dulwich reflects the razzle dazzle of upstanding and wealthy inhabitants, and my next stop shows me the darker side of Dulwich’s long history. Tucked around a quiet corner behind the delicatessen and plush hairdressers is a stark reminder of Dulwich’s grim past. Here formerly was situated the village stocks. A plaque remains and has the motto on it saying…”it is a sport for a fool to do mischief, thine own wickedness shall correct thee indeed.”
We know of at least one of these unfortunate fools as she is interred in the burial ground on the opposite side of the road. One Dorothy Miller, a poor sister of the college, was caught and punished several times between 1759 and 1761 for drunkenness. On the last occasion, she was placed in the stocks for two hours and had a week’s pension deducted. These stocks, the grisly reminder and symbol of public authority, were ordered to be moved to the end of what was then Croxted Lane in 1847.
The burial ground itself is a place that fascinates me and is situated on the other side of the road from the site of the stocks. This year (2016) marks the 400th anniversary of this burial ground, unusual for not being connected to any nearby church, and although on full view to the public, it still retains a tranquil ambience all its own.
The dead include victims of the plague during both 1625 and 1655. The death rate in the village of Dulwich was the same as that of the City, with one in every six falling victim to the disease. Children, including several nurse children who were farmed out to Dulwich between 1700 and 1820, also constitute a large proportion of the people who can claim this burial ground as their final resting place. Not only are the graves of these children particularly upsetting, but they are also evidence to me that not all was perfect in our picture postcard Dulwich of the past where maybe behind the respectability of Victorian middle classes, unmarried women came to Dulwich to hide their shame. I imagine the pain of the mothers who had to give up their illegitimate children, who by paying a weekly price believed them to be safe left in the hands of so called nurses. Often these women took money off the mothers long after the child had died, which many of them did. I cannot help but compare the lives of children in the 19th century to those of our chubby Dulwich cherubs with their modern day nurses, the army of silent, underpaid, and mostl Eastern European nannies, whose chatter I hear as they sit outside the coffee shop on the parade once their charges have been dispatched.
The last burial on this consecrated ground was performed in 1918 and aside from general maintenance the site has been left virtually untouched since that time.
Its late afternoon, the evening is drawing in on a cold and damp November day. Dusk is settling in, the artificial street lights making the damp mist almost fog like, and my imagination wanders to a Dulwich village of over a 150 years ago, to an epoch of gas lamps and night watchmen. I close my eyes and imagine I hear wheels of a carriage as it rumbles down the uneven lane, the breath of the horses almost touching my neck as they go by. But my stroll is finished and I must leave the dead and the living of quaint Dulwich village and head for home. As I have no Daimler service I turn around, walking the way I came, and walk out of the village to catch the bus back to Peckham….
Edward Walford “Peckham and Dulwich”. Old and New London; volume 6. London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin. 1878 pp. 286-303.
The History of Dulwich Collage. William Young, Morrison and Gibb. Edinburgh 1889
Dulwich Village Gazette, for the inhabitants of Dulwich and its environs. Ed. And produced by Albert Chapmen, Collage Press Dulwich Village. October 1923