The Elephant to Dulwich
In compiling the Hamlet Historian cricket issue (HH25) we were greatly aided by John Gornall, who supplied us with several anecdotes about his former colleagues. John sadly passed away in 2013, but not before he wrote up his memoirs “so my grandchildren can know where they came from.” The document, titled The Elephant & Beyond is a valuable record for his family, who kindly sent me a copy. The memoirs contain many domestic and occupational anecdotes, including a catalogue of catastrophic injuries, some hilarious, that plagued him in his more mature years. It also highlights the major milestones in his long life, providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into a bygone age.
Much of the content, of course, is personal, relating to family and business matters – he worked as a rep for oil giants Shell for many years – therefore we have selected certain portions that might interest our own readership and give us a flavour of the life and character of one of Dulwich Hamlet’s past players.
I was born in 1926, to a young couple Lily and John. Lily was a very pretty fair-haired girl of 20, employed as a floor maid of the famous Savoy Hotel. John, a year or so younger, was dark and handsome with a fantastic sense of humour. John was completing his apprenticeship as a monotype setter.
Times must have been very hard for this young couple. Lily’s family lived in a very small three-roomed flat, at the military-named Ladysmith Dwellings, Lion Street, Elephant and Castle – a very rough and tough neighbourhood. There were seven flats per floor and these apartments were truly primitive with no running water or toilet within the flat. These facilities were available on the communal landing, with three WCs and two large sinks served by three cold water taps, with communal dustbins beneath. Heating of the flat was by three open coal fires with the coal box housed in one of the bedrooms. Lighting was by gas mantles. The luxury of a hot water bath was obtained at the Manor Place Public Baths for tuppence, which included the use of a towel and soap. Laundry facilities for the seven families were available in a communal wash house on the flat roof of the apartment block where a ‘copper’ was used for heating up water before it was transferred to wooden tubs, for the washing to be completed. As was the practice in those days, families invariably lived in homes adjacent to each other; consequently my mum and dad took a one-roomed flat at 42 Ladysmith Dwellings. The rent was 4 shillings (20p) a week.
Local pubs included The Weymouth Arms and The Railway. Both pubs sported their own darts, dominoes, shove ha’penny and crib teams. The Weymouth was a little unique in as much as they had a successful Sunday morning football team for whom my dad played. Before marrying, dad had been given a trial with Tottenham Hotspur but family pressures were brought on him to complete his apprenticeship. Who knows, he may have become another Stanley Matthews – certainly in my young eyes he was the best winger who ever played.
I became the team mascot, resplendent in my own complete strip of team colours. I well remember when The Weymouth won the cup. The charabanc did a trip of honour round the local area, with yours truly sitting on the roof of the coach, helping to hold the cup.
My dad was obviously a talented sportsman in his youth – story goes that, soon after he was married he had his last fight as an amateur boxer at the Holborn Empire, a variety theatre. Nevertheless at that time, a famous fight manager, Ted Broadribb, tried to get him to turn professional but Nannie Gornall sent Broadribb on his way.
We played street games like cricket with a lamp-post as wicket, football with a ball made of old rags packed tightly together and tied with string, hopscotch, skipping and knock down ginger – all in the streets virtually devoid of motorised vehicles, and only the occasional horse and cart going past. The atmosphere at 48 Brandon Street, Walworth, [a later childhood address] was very much like that of a village community – front doors always open, with visitors coming and going.
Sunday morning was a routine ritual visit to see our ‘other Nan’ and all of dad’s relations. At the same time we would pick up a few coppers for pocket money. One of the tasks involved was to visit ‘Blind Nannie’ (Great Gran). She would know us by our voices and feel us to see how tall we were growing. She would also be able to know if we were wearing any new clothes. Part of the ritual would be to go to the tobacconist for ‘Blind Nannie’, and pick up half an ounce of snuff before calling at the Jug and Bottle for a half of Old Ale where our great nannie always counted her change closely, recognising the coins by feel. Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose were always good for tuppence, although we rarely saw our cousin Harry [another future Hamlet player] as he was always on a similar trip to see his ‘other nan’.