A Dulwich Institution: Jean Halden’s Story

Part of our work here at Southwark CAN is to try and inspire people to get more involved in their local community. What better way to do so than to highlight the role that individuals can play in enhancing the world around them and the day to day lives of their neighbours and friends?

This brings us to Jean Halden. Jean is an East Dulwich institution who has been active in her local community nearly all of the 84 years she has lived in area. An ardent campaigner and community stalwart, hers is a story worthy of the telling.

I wanted to find out more about Jean’s experience of living in Dulwich for many decades and how her efforts had woven her into the fabric of the local community, so I sat down with her for a cup of tea and a chat…

Like most people of Jean’s vintage she endured a tumultuous start to her life. Jean vividly remembers the terrible damage dolled out to Dulwich during the war. Her home was one of the many to be hit during German air raids. She was even home on one occasion when a bomb fell nearby and can still remember the shattering of glass to this day.

The lifelong Dulwich resident was one of millions of children who became evacuees. She first went with her brother to Surrey, came back to London, and was then evacuated again.

“I can remember walking from Heber road school to North Dulwich station and my mum went by on the 37 bus and we waved at her with our gas masks round our front.”

She was treated very well by those who looked after her but her brother didn’t fair quite so well after they became separated – although they did both attend the same school.

One memory from that time does stick out:

“I can remember that we were only allowed 2.5 inches of water in the bath and my brother and I had to share the water so I used to make sure I had my bath first!”

I think we’d all agree with that sentiment…

Christ Church East Dulwich

Lordship Lane has become more boutique-like and modern

One of her first tastes of campaigning came at a young age when the local authority wanted to build a block of council flats on the grounds of her primary school. Such a fuss was made that those plans were eventually shelved. The building is still there – although Jean is quick to add that they had outside toilets when she was at school. To avoid the spiders and the cold she used to pop up Crystal Palace Road at lunchtime to more welcoming facilities at home!

Aside from a couple of stints in Worlingham Road and Beauval Road, she’s been a resident of Crystal Palace road practically all of her life – about as local as you can find.

With this in mind I put it to Jean that Southwark has a transient population and that every year around 20% of the borough’s population moves on and is replaced.

Turns out that Dulwich is no different: “Quite a lot of that happens round this way. There is a core group that is permanent but you do get a lot of people here for a little while and then off they go again.”

Living in one corner of the world for a lifetime, Jean is perfectly placed to comment on how Dulwich has changed. Perhaps surprisingly she believes that it has only been relatively recently that major change has come to Dulwich.

“The ethos in Lordship Lane has become more boutique-like and modern, whereas before there were a lot more old fashioned butchers shops and things like that. I don’t think the people have changed that much – I’ve always thought that there has been a close community here.”

Jean has been a member of Guiding UK ever since she joined the Brownie Pack at the church at the age of 7, right through to the Trefoil Guild, which still meets for lunch at the Bread of Life Cafe once a month. She was a Leader for 48 years and also served as a District Commissioner in Peckham, Nunhead and East Dulwich.

Jean and her husband are founder members of their local Community Centre, which opened in 1981. The Barry Area Residents Association (BARA) still meets there and Jean attends meetings to this day. Two other local residents associations have since disbanded.

“We always used to have a social once a month which kept everybody together. At the annual dinners we would get the whole community involved. The local Guides would be the waitresses and boys from the Youth Club would be dressed up as waiters and they got to serve all the residents.”

She later became involved in the Community Centre when her and a few other residents decided to set up the Post Box Project youth club.

Named after the sorting office (in Silvester Road) that young people used to gather at, the club came about after the community rallied together to provide a space for young people to get off the street and have a place to go. Jean’s involvement spanned 5 years until Southwark Council took over the running of the club but she is still a keen advocate for Dulwich’s young people.

Jean also founded a support group for a home for children with learning difficulties, which used to be situated where the Fred Francis Centre is now. She also ran a D.A.B.A. Club at East Dulwich Community Centre which was for able bodied and disabled youngsters.

Politicians perhaps listen to each other a little more these days

The conversation swiftly turns to local politics as Jean mentions that the deputy Mayor is a local councillor. So was she ever involved much?

“I wouldn’t say I was a political animal but I am a member of the Liberal party, mainly because their beliefs linked closely to what I believe in terms of religion. I shall stay Liberal whatever happens.”

Jean was one of the local party campaigners instrumental in getting Simon Hughes elected to Parliament in 1983.

“When I met Ron (Jean’s husband) he was ‘Liberally inclined’ as well and even stood as a liberal candidate when he was at school. So it was a common interest. I used to go to a Liberal club when I was about 6 or 7 and every child got a prize when playing games (even if you didn’t win) and I thought that was good!”

“I think that politicians perhaps listen to each other a little more these days, especially local politicians. It used to be quite vicious in the past. Before, if you were a Labour member you wouldn’t speak to a Conservative but now they seem to be working closer together locally. At that time it used to be quite adversarial.”

If politics doesn’t define who Jean associates with, then Christianity certainly does. Faith has played a big part in Jean’s life and is an important driving force behind why she tries to bring people together.

“I’m not a very good speaker about my religion but I try to let my actions do the talking. Not to say that I’m an angel or anything but I try to live out my life accepting people for who they are regardless of of religious belief or sexual orientation or race or gender – we are all God’s people.”

Have we moved away from that kind of society or is it still quite strong?

“I think that around here it is still quite strong. When I was church secretary at Christ Church we used to work with the resident’s association and the community centre – do things together. I’ve always tried to get the church as a whole to be more community minded.

“I think that most of our pastoral work is done through the café.”

Jean at the Bread of Life cafe

A church has got to take a risk otherwise it will die

So what is this café? Well, a very nice place to grab a cup of tea for a start. Now an integral part of Christ Church East Dulwich, it opened in 2004 and has been a thriving part of the local community ever since.

It all started as an Open Out project as it was feared that the church was not being utilised as the community hub it should be. 

“The original idea was to have a sandwich bar as we needed a reason for people to come in. People don’t like going into churches – being pressured – then we came across a couple who used to do the catering at Dulwich park. They wanted to run a proper café.

Jean was one of a group of people who got the Open Out project underway. She carried out a lot of the fundraising activities and was a key advocate at church meetings. “A church has got to take a risk otherwise it will die.”

“It took a lot of doing. We had to keep going to Council meetings and pleading for money for the disabled access and it finally paid off. There was a sense that we wouldn’t get the funding we were after as some people seemed to suggest that the church should pay for it.”

Next door to the café is a Fair Trade centre which has been running in some form or another since 2000 and was a millenium initiative backed by all the local churches.

Jean’s latest endeavour is a great way to illustrate the new ways in which the space is being used. She is one of the founder members of the Breathe Easy Choir which was launched in 2015. Breathe Easy sessions are used to help people with breathing difficulties and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

Jean can fill us in on the rest:

“It was only a few of us to start with and it was a research project, funded by Guys and St Thomas’, to see how singing could help with our breathing. We all had to do a test at the beginning and at the end to see if there was any difference in our breathing.

“Apart from helping your breathing it is such a good social environment. People come from all over and it’s been so popular that we’ve managed to secure funding so that we could continue after the research was over.

“We do all of our exercises then just have a good old sing song which is such a lot of fun!”

Recent numbers include John Lennon’s Imagine and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

Jean and the gang have sung at various events and are always looking for more opportunities to perform.

Jean reading a poem that she had published in Around Dulwich

Jean was a familiar face at the Elm Lodge GP surgery in her final working role as a receptionist and she remained working there until she retired aged 80 years old.

Her community work has evidently been on the radar of royalty as she has been a guest of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Garden party and has even met the Queen herself!

Despite all of Jean’s hard work there is still a sense of frustration about the lack of involvement from some people within the community.

 “More people should get involved. I get cross with people who moan about what’s going on but won’t lift a finger to do anything about it. I just wish I could stir up more of the local community.”

I could have spent hours talking to Jean and listening to the many stories that she has to tell. I might be accused of hyperbole but I think that we’d all get on a hell of a lot better if there were more people like Jean around.

Before we parted ways I put one final question to Jean: what makes Dulwich special?

Jean’s answer is short and sweet: the people!

If you want to get more involved in your local community, or find out what is going on in Dulwich, drop us a line: enage@communitysouthwark.org. Alternatively, why not come along to the next Dulwich Community Action Network meeting? More details here.

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