The Dawlish plaque to dancer John Gilpin

Torbay Weekly

A perfect story for those interested in history, although on this occasion the Blue Plaque is not in Torbay but in Dawlish (a first for us) as the approach came from an owner there in January 2011.  

They had wanted to know if it was possible for a Blue Plaque to be unveiled at their home in Dawlish to honour the ballet dancer John Gilpin.

Knowing there was no Civic Society in the town, we met the owners Mr and Mrs B Williams at their home in Penfield Gardens Road, and weeks later, the plaque was on order and the final arrangements were in hand. The Dawlish History Society had been contacted, although they thought town locals would be unlikely to support such an event. Meanwhile, Mr Williams had also contacted English National Ballet and "fingers were crossed".

John Gilpin was born on February 10th, 1930, in Southsea, the smallest of twin boys. Always frail since birth, he was not expected to survive. His father was always at sea (in the Royal Navy) and with the family spending most of the early years at 7 Penfield Gardens, (a family home), John and his brother Tony spent much their childhood swimming, running wild and becoming "cherubic choirboys" as part of a daily life in Dawlish. John danced whenever he heard music, which was often, as his brother Tony was a very good pianist.

From the first moment he leapt on stage, John radiated joy, enthusiasm and charisma, which immediately brought him loyal support. By the age of sixteen, he was said to have made the role in Le Spectre de la Rose his own.

But in 1947, he suddenly announced, to his mother’s chagrin, that he was leaving home and joining a ballet tour of Australia and New Zealand. This became so successful the Company actually extended its stay, before John finally came home in February 1949. At the dockside, the boy, now man, was virtually unrecognisable, he was tall and very well-tanned and it is recorded that his parents amusingly, walked straight past their Rambert ballet soloist son.

Having left Rambert Ballet Company, John joined Roland Petits Ballet de Paris, until on returning to London he met the famous Ashton, who had just taken over the choreography of the disaster-ridden Le-Reve de Leonor. By 1950, this amazing ballet had made him a lead dancer with the likes of Alicia Markova, Natalie Krassovska, Ana Cheselka and Anton Dolin.

John now toured widely on stages in Monte Carlo, Paris, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, although the majority of his work was still in Britain. Finally, in 1959, the great Noel Coward mentioned him in his formal diaries noting "John Gilpin, I think is the finest male dancer I have ever seen".

Having married Sally Judd in August 1960, his family, many friends and the Company, plus Antony Dolin who escorted Princess Antoinette of Monaco, all attended the wedding ceremony. In 1968, he danced with Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty and Night Shadow, although by now was noting a problem with his legs, they became increasingly more painful each time he danced. It still took until 1969 before he was forced to go to a doctor, who immediately diagnosed he had suffered a massive blood clot in a leg artery.

Our Blue Plaque was fixed to the outer wall of the semi-detached house in Penfield Gardens on September 11th, 2011, before being formally unveiled by the Mayor of Dawlish - Councillor John Petheridge and his escort and boyhood friend or John Gilpin, Mr Derek Ledbrooke. A large number of locals did attend including members of the History Group and Museum before everyone was invited into the house for refreshment.

A brilliant 13 page biography on John Gilpin (1930-1983) can be found at the website - or by writing to Torbay Civic Society Office 1, at 4 Palace Avenue Business Centre, Paignton TQ3 3HA when a printed copy will be sent - for £3.