It is odd that none of the Summerstown182 have so far been found to have lived on Fairlight Road, especially as so many nearby roads suffered extensive casualties. Perhaps it is the Summerstown street equivalent of one of the ‘Blessed Villages’, the fifty or so communities in England and Wales which were spared loss of life in the First World War. Aldren Road also appears to be in this category. The more likely reason for this is that although it would seem to be reasonably close to St Mary’s Church, the parish did not extend into this area until 1930, so it was a little far-removed from its orbit. It was a separate world and yet very much connected. The main religious and social presence was the enormous Fairlight Hall Mission and its driving force for almost half a century was a man called Leonard Shepherd, known as ‘The Shepherd of Fairlight’. The Mayor of Wandsworth, Archibald Dawnay recalled that the population of Tooting which was 5,784 in 1891, had grown to 38,000 by 1914. The area was undergoing, according to local councillor Alfred Hurley ‘an invasion of tiny houses upon its fields and pasture lands’. The Fairlight area sandwiched between the two huge cemeteries of Streatham, on Garratt Lane and Lambeth on Blackshaw Road, rapidly became the centre of the very poorest people in this infux, many being emigrants from central parts of London. There was building work but it was irregular and badly paid, consequently food was in short supply and infant mortality was high. The area comprising Fairlight, Khartoum, Pevensey, Rostella and Alston Roads was poorly lit and unsurfaced. In winter the roads became quagmires. There was a reputation for crime and drunkeness, and it was considered unwise for policemen to patrol some of the streets alone. Raggedly-dressed half-starved chldren swarmed to the Smallwood Road School on a Sunday to get their breakfast. Into the midst of all this came Fairlight Hall. Leonard Shepherd was part of a group of enthusiastic young men from Trinity Road Baptist Church who had established smaller missions on Beechcroft Road and Broadwater Road. At one open-air meeting in the Fairlight area, young boys threw stones at them and an urgent need for some sort of endeavour in the area was identified. It was the nineteen year old Shepherd who persuaded the philanthropist Sir John Kirk of the Shaftesbury Society and Ragged School Union to support this venture. Fairlight Hall opened officially on 1st July 1905. This was not without controversy as the area was labelled by some as ‘drink-sodden’ and ‘poverty-stricken’. Any doubts were soon alleviated by the good works that were done including the establishment of a Sunday School for 500 children and an adult school. A soup kitchen was set up and daily meals provided. The work amongst disabled children was probably the most astounding feature at a time when such children got no assistance from the state. They were encouraged to read and write and learn a trade and the work here acted as a springboard for other similar endeavours in the area. In the 63rd Annual Report of the Ragged School Union in 1907, the great impact of Fairlight Hall is specifically mentioned. ‘Is there continued need for the Ragged School Union? The answer to this enquiry will be to give a description of one of the latest local centres of the Society. A very few years ago there were open fields for grazing and vegetable products all around Tooting. These are being rapidly covered with houses and a dense populaton is already on the ground. The clearances of unsanitary property in the region of the Strand and other quarters have driven slum dwellers to the suburban districts, with little or no provision for religious and other elevating influences. In the centre of this area a sort of institutional Children’s Church has been planted, which has already become a most powerful auxiliary of the Churches. Over seventy voluntary workers, most of them with a life’s work in front of them, and led by an enthusiastic Superintendent have developed into good working order every kind of agency for body, mind and heart. These comprise Sunday Schools, Bible Classes, Girls’ Clubs, Boys’ Brigade, Cricket Club, Mothers’ Meetings, Children’s Services, Domiciliary Visitation, Penny Dinners, Boot Club, Cripples’ Parlour, Visitation of the Sick, provision of Surgical Instruments, Spinal Carriages etc. These and kindred operations are largely maintained from local sources and the whole constitutes a warm house where young plants may be shielded from the cold blasts of temptation and nurtured until they are strong enough to be planted out in the garden of the Churches.’
Leonard Shepherd wanted to embrace all ages and the hall was used every night for concerts. A month before the outbreak of WW1, Princess Christian, daughter of Queen Victoria opened an extension to the hall and it could now cater for gatherings of over 1,000 people. There were talks, recitals, sports, day-trips, community involvement at all levels. During the First World War, over 200 of the social workers attached to the mission joined up, Leonard Shepherd was one of them, serving with the YMCA in France. The work went on, more necessary and vital than ever with so many men away. In 1915 an Infant Welfare Centre was opened. Many influential locals supported the organisation and benefactors ensured that development and improvements continued, such as a ‘sunlight department’ for disabled children. In 1920 Queen Mary visited Fairlight Hall, a grand occasion when the whole area was decorated with flags and bunting and thousands lined the route. The publicity from this helped launch yet more initiatives which over time considerably improved the character and reputation of the area. In 1942 Leonard Shepherd stepped back into an advisory role, he had made Fairlight Hall his life’s work and most certainly left the area a better place. The photo of a party leaving Fairlight Hall on some sort of day-out is dated 1924 and was kindly lent to me by a resident of Fountain Road. I’m not sure why the captions were added to cover up the advertisements on the side of the bus – could it be because they were promoting the demon drink? Note the 153 foot high Dust Destructor chimney poking out from behind the rooftops, now the site of the Fountain Recreation Ground. The original hall was demolished in the seventies and the main new building is currently the headquarters of the Fairlight Christian Centre. Adjoining this is a block containing a sheltered housing scheme for elderly people. A day centre on the premises was closed in 2005 but with local residents using the building to cast their votes in the elections a few weeks ago, over a century later, the spirit of The Shepherd of Fairlight continues to touch all ages and resonates to this day. Unfortunately there were no open-top buses going to the seaside when I took my picture. Instead there was an ambulance picking up an elderly lady, who given any other circumstances, I would have loved to have shown the old Fairlight Hall photograph to. I hope she gets home soon.