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Monkey made his mark

In the middle of the 19th century Gipsy Road was a country lane known as Gypsy House Hill, bounded by small fields and farmland.

It was while strolling down this lane that James Hollis noticed a vacant plot of land near the site where Gypsy Road School now stands.

Image: Gipsy Road School around 1920

Seizing the moment, he decided to set up home there. Using some rough timber he erected a small wooden hut and set about cultivating the surrounding land.

Within a few months he was growing a variety of vegetables and plants and had developed a small orchard.

Over the years James became a well-known local character. He would often be seen outside his little timber shack in his straw boater, crumpled waistcoat and corduroy trousers.

When not hard at work on his plot, he would relax by puffing on his old clay pipe. Picture taken around 1890.

As his plants grew he would advertise his produce for sale on a wooden board by the side of his front door.

James was born in Dulwich in 1818, and was widowed early in his life. Over the years he became use to living by himself and as he grew older he became irascible and grumpy.

In the Autumn the local boys would go scrumping in his orchard and as he chased them down the lane they would taunt him by shouting out "Monkey Hollis", in reference to his facial features which were similar to those of an ape being framed by his large white mutton-chop whiskers.

Although the landowner refuted Hollis's claim to have squatters rights to the plot, as they had no immediate use for the land they suffered his occupancy. But when he died they were quick to reclaim their property.

Their action infuriated Hollis's son who had anticipated taking over his father's smallholding.

His ill-will towards the landowner quickly turned into a vendetta as he pursued his claim through the courts. When the Judge ruled against him, there was no hiding his anger at the decision.

With the ownership of the property confirmed, the landowner lost no time in employing a local builder, Charles Abbott of Chapel Road, to demolish the old wooden shack.

In anticipation of an entertaining scene between Hollis junior and Abbott, a large crowd gathered in front of the hut on the day it was to be knocked down.

Charles, heavily fortified with liquor, arrived to jeers and boos from the crowd. He clambered onto the roof of the hut and berated and harangued the crowd with oaths and curses befitting the occasion.

Hollis's son obviously thought better of challenging the non-too-sober builder, who was left unhindered to smash up the shed that had for so many years been the humble home of "Monkey" Hollis.

The tale of "Monkey" Hollis and other local characters are recalled in "The Story of Norwood" by JB Wilson.


Last modified: 14th January 2013 - Copyright Canning and Clyde Residents Association