The Sugarloaf, the school and the lost Lawrence connection

What hope for Croydon’s future when so little interest is shown in its past? Local author BRIAN MELICAN on how the area’s links with one of the outstanding novelists of the 20th Century have been ignored, forgotten and … re-developed into a Tesco Express

Croydon author DH Lawrence: the author's first teaching job was at a new elementary school, Davidson Road, between 1908 and 1911, on an annual salary of £100

DH Lawrence: the young author’s took a teaching job at a then new elementary school, Davidson Road, between 1908 and 1911, on an annual salary of £100

With the Red Deer pub under threat from conversion into (yet another) supermarket, there’s a sense of déjà vu: landmark pub, architecturally significant, on a sharp corner off of the Brighton Road, facing into the town centre… Swan and Sugarloaf, anyone?

You might muse on Croydon’s congenital lack of interest for its own history, especially when you learn that the Swan and Sugarloaf was a pub of literary pedigree, mentioned in a short story by DH Lawrence.

Granted, that side of things may have been hard to imagine during this particular watering hole’s latter years, what with the blaring big-screen TVs and mid-morning drinkers with toddlers in tow. But in its halcyon days, this was a pub of renown.

So how did the Swan and Sugarloaf soar to the lofty heights of English literature? And what was the notoriously elitist Lawrence doing in one of Croydon’s less salubrious establishments? In fact, scratch that: what was DH Lawrence doing in Croydon?

The surprising answer for a man known for his novels about landed ladies and his liking for the Italian Riviera is that he lived here. Lawrence taught at Davidson Road School from October 1908 to December 1911 and lodged with families during term time.

Davidson Road School: Lawrence was an inventive English teacher at the school, which he noted was in a poor area

Davidson Road School: Lawrence was an inventive English teacher at the school, which he noted was in a poor area

His first hosts lived on Colworth Road, a “still little street”, today backing on to the Tramlink lines, in those days, plied by the mustard yellow locomotives of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which rushed by “as if suspended in the air… bright and yellow”. This is how Lawrence described the road in a letter, and soon enough, his surroundings were working their way into his short fiction: in The Fly in the Ointment, Lawrence took the family house as a setting, with its “hand’s-breadth of garden backed up by a railway embankment”.

During his years teaching at Davidson Road, Lawrence wrote short fiction in his spare time, producing stories such as A Lesson on a Tortoise and Lessford’s Rabbits, which drew more or less directly on his professional life. The important role Croydon as a setting in his early writing is well charted by John Worthen in an appendix to Love Among the Haystacks and Other Stories in the series of Cambridge Editions of Lawrence’s works.

Here, Worthen picks out several other details, including the mention of The Swan and Sugarloaf in The Witch à la Mode, a short story written much later but reminiscing on Croydon days.

Croydon doesn’t make much of its DH Lawrence connection, and it’s tempting to see that as symptomatic of a place more concerned with commercial than cultural issues, always looking to the future and not the past.

Then again, that might be unfair, inasmuch as Lawrence’s life after he left Croydon became so unusual and so noteworthy that it simply overshadows his three-year interlude teaching here: while we worked on and revised The White Peacock and what would become Sons and Lovers during his time in Croydon, other major works such as Aaron’s Rod, The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were conceived and composed in exotic locations such as Italy, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.

Author Brian Mellican:  "How much history is there in Croydon just waiting to be researched?"

Author Brian Mellican: “How much history is there in Croydon just waiting to be researched?”

In fact, just after leaving Croydon, Lawrence’s life started to read more like a prototype James Bond novel than the career of a Croydon teacher. In March 1912, he began an affair with Frieda Weekley, a distant relative of Manfred “The Red Baron” von Richthofen who was, inconveniently enough, married to Lawrence’s former professor of modern languages at the University of Nottingham. The pair eloped to Germany, leaving her children behind, where Lawrence was arrested as a spy and only freed after Frieda’s father, a sapper in the German army, put in a good word for him.

During this phase, Lawrence composed what he considered his finest short story, The Prussian Officer, and it was in researching a book on English language writing about Germany that I came across DH Lawrence’s Croydon roots. I also stumbled across the path of another interesting Croydon literary grandee: Francis Bond Head, a governor of Upper Canada in the early 19th century, and a writer, under the pen name “Galloping Head”, who lived in Duppas Hall, overlooking Duppas Hill.

These kind of chance discoveries certainly do make you wonder how much history there is in Croydon just waiting to be researched – and how much of it has already been quietly and unwittingly removed or replaced. Croydon might not have “a great writer” on whose back tourist tat-shops and cafés (or old pubs for that matter) can keep afloat, but there’s plenty literary history here closer than we think.

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2 Responses to The Sugarloaf, the school and the lost Lawrence connection

  1. ndavies144 says:

    A fascinating piece Mr Melican. More please!

  2. Rose says:

    Thank you Mr. Melican for this very interesting article.

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