Written by Paul D. Olsen in 1993
Mabel Morgan, my mother, was one of seven children born to Alfred Morgan and his wife. I only knew six. The youngest, Sydney, volunteered for the army in late 1917 – he was still under eighteen. Before the end of the war, less than a year later, he died as an undernourished prisoner working in the Kaiser’s coalmines. Mum’s grandad had come from Rhyll, in North Wales; drawn to London like so many country folk by the hope of a better living. All his son, Alf, could find was a job as a butcher’s assistant in the Walworth Road.
They lived in a tiny rented house in Merrow Street and the space for the nine of them was further reduced because hard-working Grandma turned her front room into a ‘corner shop’. There my mum had her first lessons – in being polite to the customers; learning how to screw sugar paper into the blue cones that were used to hold anything not actually liquid. There she did her first sums; working out the change to be given. Grandma was one of the ‘deserving poor’ – never defeated by overcrowding and poverty. She ‘never owed a penny’. She filled eggboxes with earth and somehow coaxed a few scarlet runner beans to grow in their sunless backyard.
Grandad’s job gave them the perks of a decent joint, most weekends. My mum would tell how she would sit with him as they roasted it before an open fire, turning on a spit. A bowl beneath would catch the fat which she had to spoon back over it to stop it drying out. A real treat was to have a crust of bread dipped in the tasty juice which oozed out.
All the children went to St Peter’s – they were a church going family – except the most devout of them, my mother. I think St Peter’s was too full for her entry and she went to the great barracks of a London Board School, ‘Michael Faraday’s’ just down the road. But she loved her school, all the same. Surprisingly, perhaps, it had its own school song – just like Eton! Sometimes she would burst out: “O Michael Faraday we praaaaise thee.” She did exciting things in Nature Study – and, because her Dad was known to be a butcher, she brought a bag of real bull’s eyes in for a lesson on vision.
She gained an early love for poetry and learned by heart long extracts from Tennyson. When, forty years later I was peeling potatoes for her, she would declaim how Arthur returned Excalibur to the Lake, where it was seized by an “arm, clothed in white samite: mystic, wonderful”. Although it was not a Church school she also learned that “Charity suffereth long and is kind, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” To me, the astonishing thing is that all this happened before she was twelve, for, then she was given the Certificate of competence – and left school!
In 1927, when I was four, and my twin sisters, just two, we moved into the new flats in Liverpool Grove, opposite to the rather stately Rectory. There they had that unknown luxury – a garden you could play in. For a time there was even a small collection of birds and animals. St Peter’s had always been ‘High Church’ and, in my mother’s childhood, ruled by a firm but loving priest. His enterprise extended to taking groups of young lads walking in the Alps, as well as mounting parish excursions to Epsom or Southend. In our days the Rector was Father Reakes; tall and reserved, you were as likely to see him in cassock and biretta, striding down East Lane market as leading Evensong, or possibly Benediction among unearthly clouds of incense. My mum said that the Rectory children were allowed either butter or jam on their bread. We had the luxury of both.
In a flat in front of St Peter’s School lived my Aunt Edie, Mum’s oldest sister – and her six daughters; my lovely cousins. They would call to take me to the Children’s Eucharist and we would rush, breathless up the great steps to be inside, before the church bells stopped, so that we could claim our stamp. This went into a kind of Bible Stamp Album and the sermons for the week were built round the picture on the stamp. Outside, Walworth was sooty and somehow permanently grey – even on a hot summer day. Inside the church, with its white and blue and gold, angels on the walls and around the altar, and always a hint of incense, was a touch of Heaven. My mum’s eldest brother, Alf, like his dad, was a church warden there for thirty five years. He was a clerk in the City and, for many years walked daily in and out on foot – saving his tram fare. Under the church was the Crypt, which was a social centre where I went to my first boys’ club. In the 1939-45 War it became the local Air Raid Shelter until the bomb that hit the church and destroyed the altar area also blew down into the crypt, burying people alive. Alf was a lucky survivor, pulled from the rubble the next day, with a broken leg which left him with a limp all his life.
In September 1927, aged 4, I was taken to join the Reception class at St Peter’s. [School registers actually record: Admitted to St Peters: 10 Jan 1928. Removed: 28 Nov 1930. Father’s name: Lars Olsen. Birth: May 1923. Address: 8A Liverpool Street.] A lovely, motherly lady, called Mrs Tinkler, took us in hand. She led us through the narrow cloakroom where each of us had his peg. We tiptoed past the room of Mr Spinks, the Headteacher, to Class 1. There was a large open fire in one corner, which warmed only those within range. All round the top of the wall were letters and pictures of the Alphabet, whose sounds we chanted each day. “A is for Apple – Ber is for Ball”. After lunch on that first day I sneaked off home, through the dusty shrubs of the churchyard and was spotted by a neighbour, the only child, playing in front of our flat. I protested that I’d done school! But it was no use. I was hauled back – and sixty five years later I’m still “at school”.
My favourite time was at the end of a long afternoon. We lay our heads on the desk while Mrs Tinkler read something like ‘Three Little Pigs’. I can still feel the tension until they all got into the house of bricks. We started making our letters in small tin trays, with a thin layer of sand in which we had to show that we flowed in the right direction. As a natural left hander I did it all the wrong way round. No nonsense about that! I was made to use my right hand instead. We did simple body exercises in the playground – but what we liked most of all was creeping furtively up behind our teacher in ‘What’s The Time Mr Wolf?’ Left to myself I gravitated towards the prettier little girls, like brunette Rose Perry or blonde Phyllis Embleton. Their games were so much more enterprising than ours – skipping, handclapping, ‘statues’ and so on. Sometime in May was Empire Day, a great excuse for coming to school dressed up as a native of one of those of the world coloured red – of which almost nothing is left.
The next year took me into Miss Nicholson’s. She was tall and angular. As someone who found learning rather easy I had a hard job not to be teacher’s pet. My worst moment was once when, at the age of five I was put out in front to be ‘in charge’ of the class while she briefly left the room. ‘Arry Winter challenged my tiny authority and I duly ‘shopped’ him when the teacher came back. He threatened to ‘get me’ on the way home – and I had to run very fast to escape the consequences of ‘grassing’. We learned our Times Tables from large sheets on the wall and graduated to writing and numbers on slate boards with a slate pencil, which needed a damp sponge to clean it off. It may have been my left handed tendencies that me add up my sums properly – then lose marks for writing the answer down back to front!
At Christmas this year we put on a concert for parents. All the partitions were opened up to throw three classrooms together and a stage was rigged up one end. We infants had to mime Nursery Rhymes and I – perhaps slightly less Cockney than the rest had to learn the lines to introduce each act. What I really wanted to do was to get out of the impossibly creamy white suit I was forced to dress up in and be the Spider that frightened Miss Muffett – but that privilege went to my buddy, David Withers.
The year after we left the security of the ‘Girls and Infants’ playground for the wilder world of the ‘big Boys’. They included huge fellows of fourteen years! I was in Miss Longbottom’s class. She was a gifted teacher – firmly in control of dissident seven year olds, while retaining a nice humour about it all. The best sort of teacher. I can’t recall anyone having fun with her name! Now we actually started writing on paper and with pen and ink. I made a poor job of the copying the ‘copperplate’ example line at the top of each page of our Writing Books. But I greatly enjoyed Reading and Story Writing. I found Craft rather tedious – after a year I’d not finished the raffia mat for my mum! Miss Longbottom had me marked down as a candidate for the Christ’s Hospital Public School scholarships awarded by the LCC for this, former City School; but it was not to be.
My sisters and I caught every disease that was available. Dr Moore, the wise old man who had ‘seen us all into the world’, was in and out of our house all the time. Each time my mum’s face grew longer as she went to her savings box to find another five shillings for her visit. My dad, a chef in a London hotel, was well paid for those days. But even with £5.00 a week coming in, the doctor’s bill for three or four visits was a nasty shock. I recall his first question always, “Have his bowels moved?” If not it was Syrup of Figs or, worse still, Liquorice Powder –‘gunpowder’ we called it, and it had just that explosive effect. The crunch came when I was so ill that a ‘second opinion’ was called. The grown ups mumbled secretly in corners, and before it was dark I was a Contagious Disease – Scarlet Fever – and whisked away to the Dartford Fever Hospital, isolated from family contact. It ought to have been traumatic, but it wasn’t. Once I started to convalesce (I picked up Diptheria while I was there, too) I enjoyed the daily company of a Ward of lively London boys and girls. I still recall responding to a ‘dare’ to kiss the prettiest blonde in the Ward, while the Sister’s back was turned! After that coming home, after three months absence, was almost an anti-climax. So my parents had had enough. A rash of new houses was covering the Outer London Suburbs. These were supposed to be ‘bracing’ and healthy – and after those impenetrable fogs which could cover the inner city days of choking days on end I don’t doubt that they were.
Still, it took about a year more to find our terrace house in East Barnet, and I was getting old enough to be allowed out to explore the streets of Walworth. For choice I would take the Sunday walk with my girl cousins along the banks off the Surrey Commercial Canal, to watch the barges loading with timber imports. Next best was to go down to Uncle Will’s forge. There were more horses in London than in the country still, and Will Crawford was the local Farrier [a maker and fitter of horseshoes]. I would be placed where there was no risk that the great cart horses would kick back – as they did from time to time even with Will – and watch the sparks fly at the anvil, and wince as the hot shoe bedded into the huge hoof and acrid blue smoke filled the air. The Costers had stabling near Phelp Street and the Pearly Kings and Queens rallied there before going in convoy to Epsom for the Derby. I envied one coster kid whose pram-wheel trolley was adapted to be pulled by a goat, and he rattled along in as smart a turnout as ever any prince.
I forget the moment in the year when we set out a Grotto in front of our flats, with shells and flowers to decorate – and invite the pennies of passers-by. I’m sure the Guy, in November, is as popular now as he was with us. With the pennies he raised for us we let off our own Crackers and Catherine Wheels in the Yard behind the flats – but where the Telephone Exchange (I think?) is now behind our flats was for many years a waste ground, and there we had a huge community bonfire, made with greengrocers boxes.
The Walworth Road was a danger to kids, even then, and I took years off my mother’s life by leaving her skirts (she had twin sisters in hand!) and dashing, just in time, in front of a Tram. I got a memorable smack to relieve her feelings when she knew I had survived! Once the workmen were lifting the tarred blocks of wood which, I think, reduced the vibration of traffic on the road alongside the granite setts in which the rails ran. They were excellent burning on our our open fires and we were allowed to take as many broken ones as our sack would hold. East Enders [sic] had a taste, then for shellfish and jellied eels and there were a number of these shops nearby; pease pudding was another cheap delicacy. More than just the East Lane street market flourished on different days, off the main road. I liked the stalls best after dark in winter when the carbide gas lamps hissed and flared to light up the scene and I always wondered why the canvas roofs of the stalls did not go up in flames.
Phelp Street, where Uncle Alf and Aunt Jenny lived, actually had small gardens.[Register records No.2 Phelp Street in 1911. Children at St Peters from 1905: Clara and Arthur. Previous address No.6 Brettel Street] Jenny was a wonderful lady – who never threw anything away, and as she also had a passion for Jumble Sales she acquired quite a lot too. Behind the house Alf erected a ramshackle structure of corrugated iron and glass fanlights where she did her washing and kept her canaries or lovebirds. But it was an antique store of old household goods kept since her mother’s time; useless but never disposed of. Beyond this was a patch of ground, some twenty feet by twelve, where she grew all manner of plants, for she had wonderfully green fingers. No horse and cart passed her window without her rushing out to check if Dobbin had ‘obliged’, and if he had, she would be straight out with her coal shovel and bucket to transfer the treasure to the manure heap. This had a special fascination for me because there her tortoise chose the gentle warmth as a place to hibernate. On a bright Spring day I always wanted to dig down to see if he was ready to emerge but Jenny fiercely protected his peace and quiet. Next door to Alf lived Ted Broadribb, the Boxing promoter, who saw fighters like Len Harvey or Tommy Farr to the British – or even the World Heavyweight Championship. Once I saw Tommy drive up in what few in Walworth could own – his own motor.
The side streets were still pretty safe for us kids. The pace of horse and cart gave time for you to retrieve your ball – or even take a ‘single’ from your cricket wicket chalked on one lamppost to the one on the opposite side. These were Gas-lamps, lit by a man with a long pole who turned them on at dusk. A horizontal bar at the top permitted him to lean his ladder safely while he changed a gas mantle – and also provided us with a kind of metal tree branch up to which one of the older boys would clamber and fix a rope for us to swing on. We did have an off-street playground. It was Faraday Gardens. The gardens were completely covered with concrete and all that grew there was one of those Victorian roundabouts, which swayed excitingly as you climbed on, and a huge Maypole thing with chains onto which you hung and swung your feet off as you hurtled round. For the girls and us smaller kids a safer concrete area was Saltwood Grove, where Auntie Edie later had a ground floor flat, and where we could whip our tops or play ‘off-ground he’ [probably the same game as Feet off London] on the drain covers or skip to those age old chants: “Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper – I spy Peter hangin’ out the winder – shoot – bang – fire.” Not for years later did I date this back to Winston Churchill’s handling of ‘Peter the Painter’ and the ‘Sydney Street Siege’. Another [game], which may have passed on was: “1, 2, 3 a-lary, my ball’s gone down the airy – don’t forget to give it Mary- not to Charlie Chaplin.” Chaplin, the kid who had made good was our hero.
My first film-going was in the cinema nearby, in the Walworth Road, where I saw Chaplin, and also the cowboy star Tom Mix doing some amazing things on the back of his white horse. A different sort of fun was running out into the street on a Sunday afternoon at the sound of a bell. It might be the Muffin Man, with his tray on his head or the man selling Shrimps and Winkles by the ‘pint’. I learned to ‘winkle’ the latter out of their shells with a pin, discarding the ‘hat’ – but I found them just as rubbery and tasteless as I have later found French snails.
Of course there was widespread poverty in Walworth. When Will the Farrier died young of Tuberculosis, his widow had a desperate struggle to bring up six girls alone. Unemployed miners or legless ex-soldiers begged in the streets. The man with the monkey on the barrel organ livened up the markets. Out of work my Uncle Wally paid for his beer at the ‘Lizzie’ [The Queen Elizabeth Public House] by banging out honkytonk tunes on the pub piano. When, unemployed, he failed to keep up his Union Dues he could never get back into printing. But, for a child, Walworth could be a much happier place to grow up in than you might think when you look at the old black and white photos of ragged children and worn-out women in the drab streets. Out in my suburb I did to everyone’s surprise – fulfil Miss Longbottom’s ambitions for me. I got ‘the Scholarship’ to the local Grammar School, and much later one to Oxford. I came out of the War as a Naval Officer to teach and become in 1963, a Grammar School Head – so I know, at 70 what I owe to St Peter’s.
Paul Olsen was born in May 1923 and left St Peters School with his twin sisters Gwyneth and Eveline in November 1930. He eventually won a scholarship to a Grammar School in Barnet where his family had moved to following his young life in Walworth. He later went on to Oxford University and was a Naval Officer during the Second World War. After the war he became the Head of a Grammar School. His pupils included Chris Patton one time Governor of Hong Kong and the controversial playwright Dennis Potter. His second school was a Comprehensive, from which he retired as Head in 1982 aged 59. He then ran a private Kindergarten with his wife in Burnham on Sea in Somerset. When St Peter’s School was featured in an article in the Times Educational Supplement in March 1993, he took the opportunity to write to the School encouraging the Head teacher (Wynn Evans) and staff in the work. He also included his memoirs (six pages of typescript reproduced above) which are a great addition to the history of St Peter’s School and the local area. Although he only spent three years at St Peter’s, leaving at just seven and a half years of age, the school left its indelible stamp on him. “By the sound of it” he said, “I would recognise the school today as exactly the one I left.”