Tuesday, 28 December 2010
The British Library retains one published sermon of the Rev. George Ainslie, Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, in the mid-nineteenth century. The bound copy is signed by the Rev. Ainslie to his “affected friend” Samuel Smith, M.A. It was preached to his congregation at St Peter’s, on the morning of Sunday 24th September 1837, on relinquishing the Ministry of that District. The message was written down word for word as it was delivered.
The sermon, delivered by a man assured he is about to depart from his flock for good, is on the well known text of Philippians 4 v 8. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
After a brief exposition of each clause in the verse, he exhorts the flock to embrace them. Ainslie then deals with the first word in the text. Like the Apostle it was finally that he must appeal to them on this theme. He had been their beloved pastor for seven years, and they had gathered together within the walls of St Peter’s on so many joyous as well as sorrowful occasions. His ministry unto them was drawing to a close, and indeed within a week he was to hand over to another’s care that which he so long had treasured.
He makes no statement of the actual circumstances that brought about his imminent departure, or induced him to “quit a sphere of duty, in all respects but one, more satisfactory and congenial to my desires.” That “one” exception, to what was otherwise so perfect a calling, he found alone “in the overwhelming nature of the services I had to perform, and for which each day’s experience told me I had not sufficient strength either of mind or of body.”
Perhaps he could not cope with the child mortality rate, with its constant stream of infant burials and the overwhelming grief that undoubtedly caused. Or the general poverty and suffering all around him in an area which was fast becoming known as the Walworth slums. He had now been called, he felt, “to a different sphere of duty, one in which by God’s help, I trust I may be able to advance the cause of Christ and strive for the salvation of the souls entrusted to me, without the fearful conviction that I am daily leaving much that should be performed still undone, whilst I yield to those better qualified for so arduous a post as this, the task I have but inefficiently though heartily fulfilled here.”
He further urges those he leaves behind, to alleviate the condition of their poor neighbours, especially during the cold winter months “when the pangs of poverty are most acute”, and not to fail in cheering the destitute and friendless. These were days when there was no ‘welfare state’ as we know it today, and relief more often than not came from good old Christian charity. New poor laws had also taken effect and great workhouses had sprung up in every parish, bringing scenes of degrading cruelty and indescribable horror.
“Having been much in the abodes of wretchedness I am indeed competent to declare how through your exertions many deserving families, the sorrowing widow, the neglected orphan, have been year after year comforted and relieved when but for such a systematic distribution, they might have been utterly disregarded. Such have been the benefits resulting from your charity amidst the crowded population of this vicinity, from the alteration lately made in the laws I cannot but fear that the ensuing winter may witness an increase in distress, and though I feel also confident that you will be ready, as formerly, to aid the children of want, it would have ill become me to withhold now my word of approval from the plans we have so repeated and successfully pursued.”
The humble pastor thanks his fellow-labourers at St Peter’s, especially those who formed the Visiting Society in the district, “though verily they have their reward without the dross of my poor acknowledgments.”
The liberal offerings collected at St Peter’s had continued to feed and fire the less fortunate in the locality for over a decade, proving the great generosity of spirit and practical Christianity of the believers. But of all the various charities connected with Ainslie’s ministry at this favoured church, there was one that was most dear to his heart – the Sunday Schools. “I might almost call it the youngest child of my affections.” he said. And he could not but bring this great work before them, continuing, “If only to proclaim the regret with which I give up my connection with it, and all its ties of interest, and bequeath it to you as an institution of fair promise, if not already of abundant fruitfulness.”
Although he was leaving these Sunday Schools in their infancy - only the second year of existence having begun in 1836 – they were in such a healthy condition that justified the expectation of a long career of usefulness. “May the Almighty bless and further the efforts of all who strive to make them so; indicating that most precious of all sciences, the knowledge of God the Saviour, and of His Holy Word in the yet untutored mind, and implanting in the breast of many a neglected but enquiring child, those truths which will improve hereafter of inestimable price, and which, for such friendly interference in our part, perhaps, would never be attained. It cannot be denied, that in this age when the seeds of error are industrially scattered abroad to the hindrance of the true, and pure and heavenly doctrines of Christianity, all who love the Lord in sincerity should join in their attempts to train up the little ones, over whom they can exercise control, in the knowledge and fear of God, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; and what a help it is to such a work to have an assembly like this of ours in which the day appointed for the rest and refreshment of soul, is made available to its real and lasting improvement, and the heart becomes imbued with the first holy principles of a spiritual life! For the sake of him then who has said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not’, for their sakes, who are enriched by your instruction, for your own, for mine, brethren, think on these things and fulfil my joy as you strive thus to reveal the source of eternal and incalculable joy to others.”
Ainslie repents if he has caused any offence, or brought discredit to his office. He was clearly a very sensitive man and of exceeding humility and charitableness. Although worthless in his own sight, he displayed an immense love for Christ’s kingdom in Walworth, visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keeping himself unspotted from the world.
Postscript: In the end Ainslie’s departure from his beloved parish turned out to be quite brief. He made a welcome return to St Peter’s Church in 1839, founding the day school, and continuing in the work until 1848. How glad he would be to know that a hundred and sixty odd years later St Peter’s Anglican Church and its associated School would still be in existence. But then how sad he would be to see how far we have departed from that “most precious of all sciences, the knowledge of God”. A knowledge and science that is on too few present day teachers list of principles.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
Thursday, 23 December 2010
In the Victorian days it was not unusual to find twenty people living in a small house that today may be occupied by only four or five. Several families living in the same house was a major characteristic of the vastly overcrowded St Peter's district of Walworth. In such conditions ventilation was all-important, especially regarding young ones whose delicate lungs were more injuriously affected by the stuffiness of the bedroom. However, keeping the bedroom door open all night was out of the question, but it was always possible to have a window slightly open allowing air into the room. The night air was not as unhealthy as the highly polluted day air, but nothing, wrote Rev. Horsley, was as “unhealthy as the atmosphere of a closed room breathed over and over again by its sleeping inmates.”
Following his induction Horsley soon became one of the most familiar faces in the neighbourhood and regularly visited his parishioners. His advice to parents on hygiene and good health is well known, as are his labours to bring about better conditions for poor people. His answer to many local ills was to educate the people and get them to change their habits. “I visit a case of consumption, I say to myself, what else but consumption could you expect. You have caused it as much as you cause a fire when you put lighted match to paper.”
Thursday, 2 December 2010
The very first Sunday School Account Book dating from April 1836 to March 1845 reveals much about the beginnings of St Peter’s School, which developed from the original Sunday School. The book contains the list of subscribers and contributors to the fund that initially got things going, and kept them running smoothly for many years. Without these people St Peter’s School would not exist today.
Commencing the 25th April 1836, the first name recorded is that of the Rev. George Ainslie, vicar of St Peter’s Church, with a donation of ten shillings and a five shillings annual subscription. (Note: A shilling equals 10 pence today but was obviously rather more at the beginning of the Victorian period.) The list of subscribers continues with dozens of church members and friends of the minister all wanting to partake in this venture. [This, of course, is of great interest to the local historian, for it supplies us with actual names and addresses of the folk who made up the congregation in the early days of the parish church here in Walworth.]
Edward Jones, one of the first contributors was a local worthy, living in Carter Street. “His purse” we are told, was “ever open to the appeals of the really destitute and deserving, and [his] heart ever warmed to the plea of the widow or the cry of the orphan or distressed.” Born in 1780, Jones was a liberal contributor to local charities and the poor of the district.
One gentleman, Mr Potts of Queens Row, made a large donation of £5, which was twenty times the annual subscription! Within a fortnight there was over £16 in the treasury, ample enough to begin to supply the Sunday School with essential equipment and various sundries. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was contacted by Mr William Cripps, the Sunday School Superintendent, and an initial quantity of text books were ordered for the schoolchildren at a cost of over £7.00. A further four pounds four shillings was spent on twelve chairs and two tables, provided by a local carpenter Mr H. Roe. Another tradesman of the same craft, Mr W.J. Twiner, put together ten forms [benches], three bookcases and some cloak pins. But perhaps his charge of eight pounds fourteen shillings and sixpence was thought to be a little bit too steep, for as soon as another table and six more forms were required Roe’s workshop was returned to.
Although the St Peter's Sunday School began in the mid 1830s the day school did not open until 1839. A new school building was moved into in 1851, followed by the present one which was opened in 1905.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
Wednesday, 1 December 2010
No picture of St Peter’s School in the Victorian age would be complete without making reference to the Rev. John W. Horsley. The 48 year old Rev. Horsley arrived at St Peter’s Church as the new Rector in January 1894. He was six feet tall and had had a beard since he was 16. He immediately created an impression in the area, and is almost singularly responsible for opening up the crypt of the church to community activities, turning a disused graveyard into a park and later securing the deal that would give St Peter’s its present school building in Liverpool Grove.
He was a regular visitor to the school, and eventually taught the children religious instruction daily. His keen interest in botany and zoology meant he was more than just a teacher of religious education. He specialised in Conchology, and often brought an assortment of shells from his large collection in to St Peter’s School for the pupils to study and draw.
The menagerie was fondly remembered long after Canon Horsley's demise. Even today, a century later, there is still a part of the church grounds that is known as 'The Monkey Garden' or 'the Monkey Park.'
This illustration of the new St Peter’s School building appeared in the Illustrated London News on the 3rd July 1852. It was situated in Shaftesbury Street, which is now called Aylesbury Road. The present allotments on the corner of Brettell Street and Aylesbury Road is approximately where the building was positioned.
The architect responsible for the design of the Shaftesbury Street school building was Mr Henry Jarvis, who gave his services free of charge. There is a marked similarity with St John’s Church in Larcom Street, which was another of Jarvis’s designs. The Schoolmaster and Mistress lived in the house attached. On Sundays the main building was also used for divine worship.
The school comprised of two large well-ventilated and efficiently warmed rooms, measuring 15 metres in length by 8 metres wide: the boys upstairs, the girls downstairs. The Infants School until 1885 was on the site of the present St Peter’s Rectory. By the end of the 19th century, and in keeping with its surroundings, the old St Peter’s School had fallen into such a state of disrepair that plans were underway to erect a new building. This eventually took place in 1905, but only after a vast area of the local slum dwellings were cleared away to make way for nicer homes. The old St Peter’s School building stood in the way of a new street, so it was a good opportunity to relocate to its present position in Liverpool Grove.
Notice the condition of the road in the top illustration. Tarmacadam was not in general use in 1852. Road surfaces were made up of gravel, crushed stones and waterbound grit. It was also forty four years before the invention of the motor car, and most vehicles were horse-drawn.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Following the death of Mr Christopher in January 1877, his widow the Headmistress to the girls, continued teaching, and remained as a tenant in the schoolhouse. The Managers of St Peter’s made it known at their midsummer committee meeting that they wanted a married couple to run the Schools. This meant re-housing Mrs Christopher and finding a suitable partnership for the scholars as soon as possible. During the interim temporary masters and mistresses came and went, some only remaining for a few days.
Mr [and Mrs] William and Emily Down visited the school in September and accepted the respective Heads’ positions. Husband and wife began in earnest on October 30th 1877. The St Peter’s boys now had their fourth Headmaster in less than a year; whilst the girls were on their fifth Mistress in less than six weeks!
A little over two years later during another scarlet fever epidemic Mr and Mrs Down lost a son to the killer disease. They were half expecting it. Mr Down wrote in his brief account of 28th November 1879, “Owing to the almost sudden death of my son on Monday afternoon I did not attend for the remainder of the week.” Mrs Down also appears to have taken the sadness in her stride, “Mistress absent” she wrote, “owing to death in family.” They returned to work the following Monday. It was bitterly cold on Shaftesbury Street.
Tragedy seemed to stalk the occupants of the St Peter’s School house. Mr Church, another late Head and the first resident of the home, died whilst abiding there in 1864. In the winter of 1872-73 after six months in the house as Master and Mistress, Mr and Mrs Daniel Taylor lost two young children in quick succession to scarlet fever. After Christmas Mr Taylor recorded, “Death of my little girl during the holidays.” followed only a few days later by, “Death of my youngest child.” Mrs Sarah Taylor echoed with “Mistress absent from prayers during these four days. Illness. Death.” And “Mistress out of school during the afternoon, and one [sic] home in the morning. Domestic trouble.” Referring to the death of one’s child as “domestic trouble” may seem rather cold to some of us, but infant mortality was common in Victorian times, and mothers accepted it more readily.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
One St Peter's Headmaster, Mr John Corris, on the 21st July 1870 wrote, “Punished the boy Mudd for truanting.” The next day, “Punished Thos. Allen for truanting.” “Webb” is punished on the 26th, “Chas. Webb” again on the 2nd August, followed by Edwin Jones a day later. Mudd and Dolby, Miller, Livingston follow in quick succession.
Mr William Down, the Headmaster of St Peter’s School from 1877 to 1883 strongly believed that truancy from school led to further mischief. On the 23rd May 1879 he wrote, “A parent called this morning to inform me that his son, a boy of the 4th Standard was absent from school the whole of Tuesday and Wednesday without his permission. Received instructions to punish him as thought proper. Spoke to the whole school at 12am on the evils arising from contracting bad habits in youth.”
The same evil was addressed a year later on 23rd April 1880. “Three boys of Standard 3 played truant the whole of Wednesday. After-wards spoke to the whole school on the disgrace boys bring upon themselves who idle about in the streets in this way.” Years later, at the beginning of the 20th century one Walworth street urchin expressed a similar thought vividly, concisely, truthfully: “First you hops the wag, then you nicks, and then you bashes the copper.”
The next Head was Mr Alfred Down, the brother of William. He was less lenient. “Made an example of a boy who played truant by dismissing him from the school.” That recording was made on the 5th November 1886. Mr A.S. Down remained the Headmaster of St Peter’s for 35 years! He finally quit in 1919.
Exclusion is sometimes the only option for very naughty children. At the Girls School in October 1873, Mrs Sarah Taylor “Advised Mrs Clayton to remove her daughter to another school as her conduct had a baneful influence on our elder girls.”
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
The St Peter's Girls School logbook for November 5th 1883 reads, “Numbers poor in morning, and worse in afternoon owing to it being Guy Fawkes Day.” The Victorians did not have the access to the amount of pyrotechnics we have now, but they celebrated Guy Fawkes Night with bonfires and firework parties in remembrance of the foiling of the gunpowder plot and treason of 1605. For a while in the nineteenth century the children were officially given the afternoon off school.
A few days later the “School Board Officer found many children away from school looking after the guys in the street during the week.” Guying is not as common a sight today, but in the past, at the end of almost every street you would find groups of children parading an effigy of Guy Fawkes made out of old clothes and newspapers. This was an exciting time of the year for the poor youngsters who would ask passing adults, “A penny for the guy?” It was an easy way for them to make a little bit more money.
The School Board Officers worked for the Local Education Authority, and part of their job was to look out for children playing truant or not attending school. Parents would be in a lot of trouble if their child continued to be absent without a proper reason.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
Mr Samuel Christopher was employed as Head Master of St Peter’s Boys School from 12th October 1874. His wife Mary took charge of the Girls School. Just two years later, almost to the day, Mr Christopher suffered a severe bout of illness, which kept him at home for four weeks. The couple lived in the house attached to the school. This was very convenient, for although his sickness prevailed for some time, he was able to pop in to school several times a week to see how things were progressing. In his absence the Assistant Master covered his duties.
Mr Christopher did not fully recover from the illness he protracted, and as the school broke up for Christmas he resigned from his position as Head of the School. The illness continued into the new year, and sadly Mr Christopher died on Tuesday 23rd January 1877.
On Friday January 26th 1877, Mrs Mary Christopher noted in the Girls School logbook, “In consequence of the death of my dear husband – late Head Master of the Boys School - the school has been conducted this week by the Assistant Mistress and Pupil Teacher.” A week later the children were given the afternoon off to take the opportunity of seeing Mr Christopher’s funeral. Mrs Christopher gave up her job six months later.Note: Mr and Mrs Christopher had at least four children. Included in an October 1877 list of girl pupils are Kate and Alice Christopher, aged ten and twelve respectively. Both children were admitted in October 1874 as one would expect. In the corresponding list for 1875 we find eleven year old Mary.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
Bullying other children and mugging is not just a recent occurrence. A recording in the St Peter's Girls School logbook for 12th April 1877 shows that on some occasions drastic measures were called for. Mrs Christopher, the Headmistress notes, “Several rough boys have all this week stopped the girls going out of school and obliged them to give up their pencils or anything else to which they take a fancy. I therefore sent to the Police Station requesting the inspector to let a policeman come round this way occasionally.”
Something similar happened during the Great Dock Strike of 1889. Headmistress Mrs Andrews wrote, “Had to let the girls go home at 4 o’clock because of a number of boys ‘on strike’ annoying the girls in the morning. Policeman stationed outside for remainder of day.”
Like the fire-fighters and tube workers today, the dock workers were striking for higher pay, and received the support of employees from other industries who also came out on strike. With nothing to do all day, some unscrupulous working boys hung around the school gates causing bother. These boys were probably 14 and 15 year old ex-pupils of St Peter’s.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
In October 1869 Mrs Harriet Church, the Headmistress of the St Peter's Girls School suffered another dire calamity. Only six years earlier, her husband, the late Headmaster, died following a long illness. The School logbook, written up by Mrs Church at the end of each day, reveals that scarlet fever* had become prevalent among the families that lived in the vicinity of the school. Scarlet fever was a contagious disease that sometimes proved fatal. On Monday 11th October she writes, “Pupil Teacher from school nursing my own children who are suffering from it.”
On Thursday two schoolchildren were taken ill with the disease. Three more children were sent home the following day having become very ill. Over the weekend Mrs Church contracted the disease herself and was absent from duties on the Monday. She left the school in the hands of her second daughter Harrietti and Mr Crampton, the Master of the Boys School. She returned later in the week to pen the sorrowful words “My dear child died.” continuing, “Miss Pound kindly conducted school on Thursday and Friday.”
Studying the corresponding logbooks of the Boys School we discover that Mr Crampton made a similar recording. “The death of the Schoolmistress’s elder son and the prevalence of the disease from which he died (scarlet fever) determined the managers to close the school for a few days.” In fact the fever in the neighbourhood had become “very alarming, and the attendance has consequently suffered.” Within a fortnight “the cases of fever [were] more numerous.”
The committee ordered that Mrs Church be allowed a month’s holiday to mourn the tragic loss of her dear son. As a mark of respect, both Girls and Boys schools were closed for a week.
Note: * Once upon a time scarlet fever was a very serious childhood disease. Today it is easily treatable with antibiotics. The symptoms begin with a fever and sore throat that develops into chills, vomiting and abdominal pain. A rash develops on the neck and chest and then spreads around the armpits and groin. It is spread by direct contact with an infected person or by droplets exhaled by an infected person.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010
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.”