Friday, 4 December 2015

'Project Sydney' (2/60): Wartime heartbreak comes to Camberwell


Sydney Wooderson.
 
ACCORDING to Sir John Betjeman it was “a strangely beautiful place”, a relatively unspoiled haven tucked away in a quiet corner of busy South East London.
The poet was referring to a little Victorian urban park and its adjacent Camberwell streets, the place Sydney Wooderson was born in 1914 to the second wife of a successful fruit and veg merchant.

But the attractions of Myatts Fields Park, which so enchanted Betjeman, were denied Sydney in early childhood. He was born in a smart eight-room Victorian villa exactly 200 yards from the main gates of the park, just a week or two after the start of the 1914-18 Great War. But sadly for him and other local youngsters the park closed after being requisitioned to help the war effort. It became an annexe to the First London General Hospital which was hastily created at the former St Gabriel’s College which loomed tall over the western end of the park. The park accommodated the soaring number of British casualties returning from battle, those men in need of urgent surgery placed in beds that were crammed inside newly-erected wooden huts. Night-duty nurses slept in other huts in the park.
Sydney's Camberwell birthplace.
Many soldiers breathed their last in this little park, and the sombre atmosphere would be heightened on overcast days by the dramatic and brooding presence of the enormous hospital building, formerly a happy place when occupied by carefree college students.

During my visit this week on stage two of ‘Project Sydney’ (see * below) the gates were welcomingly open and the well-kept paths lent themselves nicely to running a few laps of the park. I passed a handsome bandstand, The Little Cat café incongruously blasting out Latin American music, and some thoughtful council gardeners doing a fine impression of Monty Don as they discussed design plans.
Sydney was seven years old by the time the park was able to re-open in 1921 for its original use. As he lived so close by, it’s reasonably safe to assume it was here he did the very first running of a life that would be defined by his achievements in the sport. It wouldn’t be long, however, before he’d be packed off out of the capital to the fee-paying public boarding school at Sutton Valence, 50 miles away in deepest Kent.

No doubt he left the family home in nearby Baldwin Crescent with heavy heart. Of considerable comfort would have been the fact elder brother Alfred was already a prominent Sutton Valence pupil, performing well on the sports fields and thus a perfect role model for the shy, quiet, but energetic younger brother.
The family unit had recently comprised his elder half-siblings Violet, Rhoda and George, his brothers Alfred and Stanley, parents George senior and Jeanette Emma, and a domestic servant called Elizabeth Shields.   George, whose fruit and veg business was evidently thriving, had married Sydney’s mum not long after his first wife Caroline died aged just 37 in 1909.  

Their impressive bay-fronted villa (Monteagle House) was part of a well-to-do neighbourhood. In 2015 little has changed in that respect, for I note it is currently undergoing renovations having been purchased not long ago for a price approaching £1 million. And next door to the former Wooderson home is a house once occupied by acclaimed writer Dame Muriel Spark, in which she wrote her first eight novels.

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which – conveniently – will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!
Details of other books: www.robhadgraft.com

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