diamond geezer

 Monday, January 09, 2023

If you've been to Sidcup High Street over the past four years [Quick estimate: maybe 5% of readers] you can't have missed these historical banners. Dozens of them are strung up from successive lampposts, each commemorating a 'Famous Person of Sidcup', none of whom look to be terribly famous at all. Possible own goal there, I thought.

So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the existence of a special downloadable leaflet called Famous People of Sidcup which provides a potted biography of each of the famous twelve. It's been produced by the Lamorbey & Sidcup Local History Society, a distinguished organisation which evolved out of an evening class in 1952. Best of all it includes addresses and a map so you can actually walk round the area and see where these famous people lived, as well as the more important job of discovering why they were famous in the first place.

So that's what I did, despite the fact it was more like a suburban orienteering challenge and ended up as a rambling five mile walk via occasionally non-existent buildings, and the main thing I discovered is that famous people in Sidcup sometimes lived in pebbledash houses.

Here are the twelve people we're going to meet. Score yourself two points if you've heard of any of them and one point if, later on, you go "oh yes, I guess somebody of that name probably did that".

Famous People of Sidcup

Tom Mann (1856-1941) - trade unionist and socialist
We start with a campaigner for change born in the West Midlands and most noteworthy for being General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers between 1919 and 1921. He only spent the last six years of his life in Sidcup but continued to exhibit socialist vibes including a) addressing workers in Trafalgar Square b) sailing to Russia by boat. Annoyingly his bogstandard pebbledashed semi on Norfolk Crescent was quite a way out of town, almost in Blackfen, making a generally unnecessary start to my travels.

Doreen Bird (1928-2004) - founder of Bird College Conservatoire of Dance and Musical Theatre
Doreen is renowned in Sidcup's artistic circles, as befits a top choreographer, and has prepared many a wide-eyed protégé for a grinning life astride the West End stage. I can now say I've seen the Lamorbey semi where she first gave lessons as well as the college where her important work continues, and given the choice would much rather live in her house than Tom's.

Rose Bruford (1904-1983) - founder of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance
A few streets away we discover the dramatic face behind the name on the top theatre school in Lamorbey Park. Rose first hired the mansion for £5 in 1950, then eventually took it over and moulded it into a college of national renown whose acting alumni include Tom Baker, Pam St Clement, Gary Oldman and Diane-Louise Jordan. She's the second famous Sidcup resident who once lived in a pebbledashed house, which just goes to show this shouldn't hold you back.

Sidney Frank Godley (1889-1957) - awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I
Not only has Sidney's cottage in Alma Road been demolished but a retirement home named after him proved scant visual reward. Sidney earned his gallantry medal for defending the Nimy Railway Bridge single-handed for two hours under heavy German fire, an exploit celebrated not just here in Sidcup but also in East Grinstead (where he was born), Tower Hamlets (where he was a school caretaker) and Loughton (where he retired). Every council loves a VC.

Sir John Pender (1816-1896) - pioneer of undersea cabling
John was a Scottish textile magnate who pivoted to intercontinental communication and became extremely rich in the process. He was a director of the pioneering Atlantic Telegraph Company which in 1866 successfully laid the first submarine US-UK cable, then made his fortune by controlling the price of transatlantic messages sent. His wealth allowed him to buy Foots Cray Place, the area's most magnificent mansion, and also got him into Parliament and earned him a knighthood and has now got him onto a flappy banner.

1st Baron Waring (1860-1940)- industrialist, public servant and benefactor
This Liverpool-born cabinet maker is best known as the first half of the furniture company Waring & Gillow. He might therefore be the first famous Sidcupper you've semi-heard of. Samuel was the last owner of Foots Cray Place which alas was destroyed by fire in 1950, although this did at least result in the Meadows being opened as a public park. He also gifted part of Birch Wood to the council for recreational use after it had proved popular during an early Scout jamboree, although modern Waring Park is unimpressively birchless.

Douglas Macmillan (1884-1969) - founder of Macmillan Cancer Support
You may have scored another point here. Civil servant Douglas lost his father to cancer in 1911 which encouraged him to set up a charity to support sufferers and their families. From 1924 his Macmillan work was based from a new home at 11 Knoll Road, which is easily the finest of the semis we've seen so far. It has impressively swirly woodwork in the pebbledash on the main gable, and these days a set of electric gates and a BMW in the garden. In a depressingly ironic twist Douglas died from cancer in 1969.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) - composer and suffragette
If you've ever hummed the suffragette anthem March of the Women, that was one of Dame Ethel's compositions. A meeting with Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910 caused this feisty lady to devote two years to the cause of women’s suffrage, much to the disapproval of her family and friends. Ethel's childhood home was Sidcup House, the largest residence on the High Street, although it's long been demolished and today you'll find KFC, the Cheapsites newsagent and Frali Mediterranean restaurant on the site.

Sir Harold Gillies (1882-1960) - pioneer of modern plastic surgery
Born in New Zealand and educated at Cambridge, it was Harold's medical experiences in the WW1 trenches that led him to urge the creation of a special hospital for treating facial injuries. The Queen's Hospital opened to the south of Sidcup in 1917 and swiftly became an international centre of excellence in reconstructive surgery. You don't actually need to go to the acute district general off the bypass to appreciate Sir Harold's work, feel free to applaud him from home.

Henry Robertson ‘Birdie’ Bowers (1883-1912) - polar explorer
When Captain Scott died in a freezing tent on the hike back from the South Pole, Bowers was one of the other two men whose bodies were found beside him. He was Scottish by birth and spent most of his childhood in Streatham, though the 1891 census caught the family in this rambling house on Carlton Road and that's been good enough to get a commemorative plaque by the door. Dead famous, if long overshadowed.

Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971) - journalist and historian
Elizabeth was born at number 14 Carlton Road a few years after Henry moved out of number 13 across the street. A trip to Berlin in 1930 saw her become increasingly interested in, and outspoken against, all things National Socialist. She spent the ensuing war in Switzerland handling intelligence gathered inside occupied territories, and the postwar years writing acclaimed books about European dictatorships. Her plaque's at Edinburgh University where she was the first woman chair of any academic subject.

John Mercer (1923-2015) - Normandy veteran, local teacher and historian
The last name on the list is the least famous of the bunch, included I suspect only because he was a long-term member of the Lamorbey & Sidcup Local History Society. Hurrah for his dedicated efforts to make Sidcup a better place to live, and boo for sticking him on the map... but thankfully without an address which did at least mean I didn't waste my time going to see where he lived.

So successful were these High Street banners that the society have since added another six Famous People of Sidcup. One of these is genuinely famous, the novelist Nevil Shute, although his house is long demolished under rows of flats so I can see why he never made the first tranche. If you're local and would like all the fabulous details, click here. If not then at least you now know several Famous People of Sidcup, and hopefully enough to convince you not to come looking.

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