By 1939 only the most dogged optimist believed that war with Germany could be avoided. A brief interlude of hope followed Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich in 1938, but it soon became clear that it was only a matter of time. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st there was no alternative but to confront Hitler. Mr Chamberlain’s ultimatum was snubbed and subsequently he addressed the nation at 11am on Sunday September 3.
But whilst most of the nation gathered around their wireless sets to listen to his fateful broadcast, the Dulwich Paragon Sunday Club Ride was out as usual. There was an admirable determination amongst the members that life (and cycling) should go on as normal for as long as possible – a decision supported by the large turnout. However, as elevenses were being taken at Hayes, the air-raid sirens sounded. It was obvious what they portended and the grim reality of what lay ahead could no longer be ignored.
After the initial shock of the declaration of war, thoughts turned once again to the club. No-one could possibly predict what might happen, or who would survive the coming conflict – the effects of which were already becoming apparent with the call-up of several members to the militia – but a collective resolve to keep the club running was growing. The belief that peace would return some time in the future and that the club would pick up from where it left off would be an important psychological focus for members posted all over the world in the six years of war that followed.
The declaration had an immediate impact. On September 11th the committee met at 44 Upland Road where Jimmy Starling lived and decided that Friday club nights and Sunday club runs were to be suspended until further notice. Those who still wanted to ride were advised to meet at 9am at the Grove Hotel (now the Grove Tavern) on Lordship Lane. The suspension of club nights didn’t last long: black-out curtains were fitted and it was business as usual as regular Friday night gatherings resumed at the end of the month.
By now nine members had left to join the armed forces and with the realisation that many more would soon be in uniform a “comforts” fund was established, which would subsidise parcels for the men overseas. On re-opening night it is reported that many of the ladies were already busily knitting socks and scarves.
Much has been written about the influence of war on human relationships and of the quickening effect it has on the courtship process. This impetus may have been behind a burst of intra-club matrimonial activity that autumn. Although the racing programme had been curtailed, there was a new competition – to see who could be first up the aisle (winners: Fred Morley and Doris Clark) Racing talk no longer dominated the conversation on a Friday night, it was replaced by who would be next to the altar – or receive their calling-up papers.
Plans for the fourth annual dinner went ahead, although choosing the club champion was made difficult by the curtailments and cancellations to the club’s racing programme. The criteria for qualification were extended to include open events, the whole membership voted and the DP club champion for 1939 was the popular Percy Brown. He received his pot on a cold January night in Gatti’s restaurant in the Strand – a fine old place, established in the Edwardian era by Luigi Gatti, who also ran the a la carte restaurant on the Titanic and went down with the ship. These unfortunate antecedents didn’t affect the evening and maybe there was a hint of the eat-drink-and-be-merry about the occasion which was notable for its liveliness – and the sight of Percy staggering off homewards through a snowstorm clutching his trophy.
Six days later, on February 2nd 1940, the AGM was held at the Epiphany Hall in Bassano Street, East Dulwich, where the mood was rather more sober. By now twenty-two members had been called into the forces, five more were awaiting calling-up papers and a further two dozen or so were expected to be drafted during the next few months. That would represent about 75% of the total membership and the thirty-nine members in attendance at the AGM recognised that if the club was to survive, it would be largely down to the women to shepherd it through the war years. Jimmy Starling made a plea through the pages of the 3rd war edition of the Dulwich Paragon News – Vol 4, number 45: “With the AGM we shall need a lady member to act as deputy for each of the jobs taken on by a male member, so that you can carry on the work as they are called in the Forces…” He also announced that for the duration of the war, all members who had been called into His Majesty’s Armed Forces would be entitled to free membership – a saving of 5/- (£0.25) a year.
Harry Pascoe took over as chairman, with wife Lily elected as Secretary and Ivy Stotter as Treasurer. AC/1 Jim Starling continued to edit the magazine, assisted by Fusilier Allan Mobbs, who was awaiting marching orders with the “Glorious Glosters”. Don Bowdidge took over Racing, as his age would keep him out of uniform until the end of the year.
1940 was a crucial year. The Battle of Britain – and the imminent threat of invasion – meant that opportunities for recreation were few. Those that did come along were eagerly taken, the chance to forget the war for a few hours gratefully seized. Despite the inevitable restrictions, Sunday runs remained as popular as ever and the club still managed to promote a programme of six time-trials. The club-room was the scene of many joyful reunions when members returned on leave, glad to get out on their bikes for a few hours.
The Battle of Dunkirk came to an inglorious conclusion on June 4, with the evacuation of retreating Allied forces. 330,000 fighting men were rescued from the beaches, including several Paragon members: James “Gus “Gidden was hit in the thigh by shrapnel; Allan Mobbs and Jack Neighbour came home unscathed.
But racing went on. On Sunday April 21st a medium gear 25 TT was held. Frank Hart won in 1.09.09 but a strong wind and a herd of wandering cows was responsible for some less impressive times. The rivalry between Frank Hart and Frank Gosney was conducted in the right sporting and friendly spirit, but was keenly fought nevertheless. Both were on the start sheet for the first handicap 25 of the season, which was remarkable for a new rule that had just come into force, permitting use of shorts for the first time. Freed from the restrictive black alpaca tights Gosney took this round, beating Hart by 11 seconds with a scratch time of 1.05.47 on the Polhill course. Hart responded later in the second Handicap 25 TT of the year, clocking 1.02.57 in a field of nineteen starters.
The war had brought competition to a halt at the Herne Hill velodrome. Barrage balloons filled the skies above the track and an Army anti-aircraft unit were dug-in on the infield. The NCU shifted events to the Paddington Recreation Ground track, which opened in 1888 (3 years before Herne Hill) and vanished in 1990 when the park underwent a multi-million pound makeover. The 1940 Good Friday meeting attracted the usual dynamic field, but favourite Reg Harris had been putting in 14-hour days in a paper mill in the winter and was well off the pace in the Invitation Sprint which was won by Dave Ricketts – later a member of the GB track team in the 1948 Olympics events at Herne Hill along with Tommy Godwin. Doug Bennett competed for Dulwich, but was also suffering from a lack of preparation forced on him by life in the Army and retired after a few laps in the 3-mile heat for the BSA Gold Vase. It was left to Rose Martin – the new club Track Secretary – to fly the flag for Dulwich that day by winning the half-mile handicap on a disqualification, which led to some mutterings in the cycling press. She quashed that criticism with an outright win in a similar event later that year.
Club nights were now held on Fridays at the Upland Tavern in Northcross Road (these days rebranded The Actress). Keen to maintain contact, the lads in uniform popped in whenever they could and it became a collecting point for Jimmy Starling’s leather glove appeal – they were needed for Percy Brown and his crew in the Merchant Navy. He was on the convoys and was reported to have his Claud Butler on board with him. The club purchased three pounds of wool and urged all lady knitters to get cracking making socks.
By the end of the year thirty-six club members were on active service, many of whom were overseas. The committee worked hard to keep the club going, but the DP magazine looked finished when temporary editor, Joan Dolby found the task too much f0r her. Mindful of how important the Dulwich Paragon News had become to those away serving, General Secretary Lily Pascoe appealed to former editor Jim Starling, who was now away in the RAF. “The committee, having received so many requests from the members, ask that you will endeavour to take over your old job and produce a mag whenever you can, as it is felt this may be the only real link between us all if this war goes on.” It was hard to resist such a call. Jim agreed and the magazine survived.
The 1941 annual club dinner – the fifth – was held on March 1st at the White Hart in Bromley (long-since vanished beneath the shoptropolis eyesore that is The Glades). With food rationing now in full force it was something of an achievement that it went ahead at all. A coach was hired to transport the revellers at 2/- a head (£01.12) in addition to their 4/6d dinner ticket. It was hard to ignore the absence of so many Paragon personalities, but with the usual formalities of toasts, speeches and awards out of the way, the floor was cleared and dancing commenced, continuing until well after closing time at 11pm.
Having put the invasion on hold, Hitler now tried to bomb Britain into submission instead. From September 7 1940, German bombers attacked London for fifty-seven consecutive days and nights. The Blitz lasted until May 1941, when Hitler turned his attention to the invasion of Russia. It didn’t however deter DP members from attending the Friday night gatherings in the room above the bar of the old Upland Tavern, although declining attendances became a cause for concern later in the year.
The club ran six racing events: four 25s, one 50 and the annual hill-climb that year and there were club runs most Sundays. These ventured out into Kent, Surrey and Berkshire, and often featured stops for lunch as well as tea. The August 10th club ride was billed as a “Mystery Run” The tea stop was advertised as the Fox & Castle, Old Windsor – which rather spoiled the mystery. In the summer months there were Wednesday evening runs to either the Pavilion in Green Street Green or the Ivydene, Epsom.
Forty-seven members were now away in the armed forces, and efforts were made to fill the gap by recruiting new members. Dulwich was represented in twenty-two open and association events with some success – Frank Hart gained 1sts in the Catford CC and the Apollo 25s and was 2nd in the SCCU 25. His times 1.07.09, 1.05.26 and 1.04.18 respectively. One member – Dick Wallace – managed to compete in twenty-five events over the course of the year and several more were regulars on the start-sheets. However, the annual DP hill climb attracted insufficient support and was cancelled, although the handful who did turn up at White Hill, Caterham held an impromptu contest between themselves and a couple of riders from Tooting BC. Dulwich won.
Percy Brown – club champion of 1939 and now Able Seaman Brown – sent a letter about his experiences at sea. In particular he described one memorable moonlit night when his ship was attacked by a lone German aircraft, which dropped bombs and strafed the vessel. Percy lay flat on the deck for over an hour with bullets flying around him and his shipmates. They were lucky to escape and limp back to port with damaged engines and hundreds of bullet-holes; he made no mention of casualties.
Jim Starling’s editorial in the 1941 Christmas edition of the Paragon News praises the women who had spent that year working so hard to keep the club going. But he criticises the men for failing to turn out for club nights and weekly runs. This – he says – lets the club and those hard-working ladies down, and does a huge disservice to the lads who were away serving. The notion that Dulwich Paragon was continuing unhindered by the war was vital for their morale… “We shall soon be entering into another New Year. I appeal to all of you to give your support in full to whatever may be organised… There is one thing we lads in uniform will never give up and that is the Dulwich Paragon and all that it means…” He concludes by thanking the anonymous donor who sent a huge parcel of cigarettes and chocolate for distribution to the serving men of DP and urges his readers to write to them whenever possible. A letter from home, with news of the club, was what the lads craved most.
The 1941 Christmas party was held on December 21st at the Three Horseshoes, by the grassy triangle in Knockholt Pound, with lunch and tea at a cost of 4/6d (22p) per person. The annual club dinner followed on Saturday February 21st 1942 and was held at the Manor Arms, on Mitcham Lane in Streatham (price 7/6 – 37p) The challenge of organising a dinner in a time of food rationing was met by breaking with tradition and joining forces with Fountain Cycling Club. It was a great success, despite the wartime economies and Paragonites outnumbered Fountaineers by 2:1, helped by the dozen or so DP members who managed to ‘wangle’ some leave to be there.
Early in 1942, it became impossible to find a printer to produce the Paragon News. It was a vital lifeline for members away fighting and no-one was more aware of that than Jim Starling, so in order to keep this important link intact, Jim reverted to typing the magazine by hand, as it had been in its early days. However, as a minimum of fifty copies would be required each time, and with his activities severely restricted by life in RAF Fighter Command, Starling realised that typing-up regular, monthly editions would be impossible. Nevertheless, with the aid of Fred Morley and a plentiful supply of midnight oil, the magazine continued to be produced and all members were assured of receiving it for the duration of the war.
The few racing men of the club left in Civvy Street decided to leave the club for a rival outfit, much to the annoyance of their clubmates, who felt they should have shown some loyalty and expended their energy on keeping racing going for DP.
It wasn’t all bad news, though, as several of the married couples did their bit for the club by producing future members: Frank and Dorothy Gosney were first across the line in the delivery room with a daughter.
Despite the best efforts of the committee, as 1942 drew to a close the active membership had become so tiny that the decision was taken to abandon the club room. Instead club nights, such as they were, now took place in the home of Joe and Ivy Stotter. Club rides were curtailed, as those still at home were toiling under such pressure that the little free time they had didn’t allow for much cycling. For all these set-backs, there was still huge enthusiasm for the club and the sport – and a renewed determination to keep Dulwich Paragon alive until the war ended and the boys and girls came home.
If 1942 was bad 1943 was even worse. Defeatism in wartime is frowned upon, but it was hard not to feel that DP was close to the end. Club life was practically zero and it was not even possible to hold the annual club dinner that year. Despite the gloom, Jim Starling still managed to turn out three editions, often gallantly working through the night to satisfy the demands of what had become the magazine’s global circulation. Contributions came in from all corners of the world, enabling everyone to keep abreast of what their clubmates were up to, maintaining that pyschologically invaluable connection.
April brought tragic news: Joe Stotter was reported Missing in Action, Presumed Killed. It was some time before his grave was found and the circumstances of his death confirmed. On the night of April 28, the Lancaster bomber of 101 Squadron in which Joe was an air-gunner, was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and crashed on the beach at Erromardie, near St-Jean-de-Luz in SW France. Joe was remembered as a lynch-pin of club life, an experienced clubman who helped run events and taught the value of proper support for those competing. His 193-mile ride in the Anerley 12-hour is remembered in the first section of the club history, but it’s worth repeating that he was the first DP member to start and finish an event of that nature. Sergeant Joseph William Stotter of the RAF Volunteer Reserve is buried in Du Sabou communal cemetery in Biarritz. He was 33.
Further sorrow followed that summer when Gus Gidden – the eldest of the Gidden boys – was killed. Having been wounded at Dunkirk, his luck ran out on August 11th 1943, when he was a victim of the battle for Sicily. The Road- and Massed-start Secretary was well-known at Brooklands where he competed in many of the massed-start races held there before the war and was always in the mix at the finish. Lance Bombardier James Frederick “Gus” Gidden of the Royal Artillery is buried in Catania War Cemetery, Sicily. He was 26.
The deaths of Joe and Gus were terrible reminders of the human cost of war and their bereaved clubmates grieved for them.
As 1943 drew to a close the committee decided with enormous reluctance to suspend all club activities until peace – and the many members overseas -returned . The solitary element of club life still functioning now was the Paragon News.
1944 brought renewed optimism as Allied Forces made significant gains and the hope grew that the war was finally approaching a conclusion. The Dulwich Paragon committee started to plan for the post-war period with an initial decision that no new members would be recruited until most of the men in the forces had returned. This would ensure they returned to familiar faces and the club could pick up from where it left off in 1939.
This optimistic mood was cut short by the news that Albert Kirsch had been killed in action in the first battle of Monte Cassino, Italy. Private Albert Charles Kirsch of the 10th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment died on February 7 1944, aged 28 and is commemorated at the Cassino Memorial. After the war, Wally Kirsch donated a silver trophy – the Albert Memorial Cup – to the club in his memory. It is still awarded annually to the member the committee deems has done most for the club that year.
Albert’s demise was followed by two more deaths that summer. On July 16, Don Bowdidge – by now a wireless-operator and air-gunner attached to an RAAF flight wing – and his Australian crewmates were aboard a Lockheed Hudson on a routine meteorological reconnaissance sortie when it crashed shortly after take-off. A tailor by trade and a stylish man, on and off the bike, Sergeant Donald Henry Bowdidge is buried in Fossvogur Cemetery, Reykjavik. In September, as the Allied Forces fought their way through Normandy, the club learned that Stan Dicker had been severely wounded in the lead-up to the attack on Le Havre. He was brought home to England where he died on September 1st. Private Stanley Walter Dicker of the Hallamshire Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment is buried in Gloucester Old Cemetery. He was 28.
May 1945 saw the cessation of hostilities in Europe – and a Victory In Europe edition of the Paragon News. The club celebrated along with the rest of the nation. A grand supper was held, which forty or so members attended. It was a jubilant reunion and so great was the joy of being reunited that it was hard to believe they had ever been separated. All shared a simple, but fervent desire – to get back on their bikes and get the club up and running again. But six arduous years of war, deprivation, rationing, despair and loss had inevitably left a mark. Some members would never return – and for those who’d survived the war the world would never quite be the same again. Some had lost interest in cycling and in club life, as other priorities took their place. And as peace-time conditions returned to the country and life slowly returned to normal, it became apparent that if Dulwich Paragon Cycling Club was to continue and to thrive new blood would need to be found.
David Joss Buckley