Harry Bilson, Tam Joseph and the "Rock Man". Somewhere in Iceland, 2016.
Barry Page’s aunt Winifred
Growing up in Islington between the wars.
London in the 1920s was not the best of times to be born. The great war had ended just two years before, and the aftermath was only too apparent. Many ex-service men, homeless, unemployed and desperate, formed little groups and shuffled along the streets singing or playing a musical instrument whilst one member of the group held out his cloth cap for coins. There would be the lone entertainer, sometimes minus a limb, who would try the cinema queues in hopes of enough for a bed for the night or a meal. I suppose we were more fortunate, in that we had a father in a regular job with a weekly pay packet that ensured food and rent and clothing.
My father had been in the army in India, on the North West Frontier, and came home from Rawalpindi just as the war started. He managed to survive four years in the trenches and was able to get a job as a postman, and then met and married my mother. We lived in my grandfather's house in North Islington near Essex Road, which wasn't unusual, as most married sons or daughters lived with parents until they could afford to rent or buy a place of their own. It was a terraced house and quite big enough for us. The basement had a large dining room and a small bedroom, where my uncle slept, and a kitchen and scullery. My parents had the three ground floor rooms and my grandparents had the first floor, which had the large parlour, one bedroom and a study for my grandfather.
My uncle was also an ex-army man, but wouldn't have got into the army but for the war. He was born with a harelip and cleft palate and these afflictions were never treated or helped by surgical operations. I suppose that was why he never married; girls did not look with favour on one so handicapped. He was also in a gas attack in the trenches and his health was never very good after that.
The houses in William Street, a name changed in later years, had a variety of residents. It was not a long street and each family was well known to the others. Next door to us was a middle aged couple with a son of about eighteen and he was what we used to call a mongol. He used to walk up and down their garden for hours, sometimes wearing his mother's hat and holding a handbag, and pick up bits of stone and soil. Many a time I used to run indoors to tell my mother that "That funny man next door is throwing handfuls of dirt onto our clean washing". My mother would be furious and rush our to remonstrate, but he would be long gone indoors by then. The Down Syndrome victims had a hard time, because people regarded them as idiots or insane! He was quite a big and strong lad, whereas his mother was quite small and she could hardly control him. I don't think he was ever taken out anywhere.
The Jacob family, who despite the name were real Cockneys, lived in the corner house. There were numerous children and various adults, probably cousins and relatives. Such a large family and goodness knows where they all slept. The children played and squabbled in the street most days, whilst the adults watched from windows or, on summer afternoons, sat on the doorstep. They were rather tolerated by the rest of the street and a huge sigh of relief would go up when hop picking time came around. A large, battered old lorry would arrive in late summer and out went the pots and pans, bedding, kids and pets and finally the adults. The house was locked up and away went the family singing their public house songs, which faded away as the lorry disappeared around the corner. This was their annual holiday of five or six weeks in Kent, picking the hops by day and invading the village pubs by night. I shouldn't think they brought back much in wages.
The Morris family opposite us had three daughters, one of whom used to take me out in the pram, a wicker-work sort of pushchair with a hood. It was quite usual for the local girls to call at the house to "take the baby out". Mothers were only too pleased to be freed of one chore for a while and there was no fear of harm to the baby, unlike today. Actually these young future mothers were very proud and protective of their charges.
I went to the infants school nearby at Queens Head Street. It was a low building with infants classes on the ground floor and junior classes upstairs. It had a roof playground. The usual hard surface playground surrounded the school and was enclosed with iron railings and a secure gate. On cold, wintry days, some mothers would be outside the railings at playtime to pass hot mugs of cocoa to their children from the jugs they had brought. In winter, my mother would sit me on the table and put on my buttoned boots. These were fastened with a button hook and it was a tedious task. If it was very cold I would wear gaiters-like topless leggings - to keep my legs warm, and a wool hat and scarf and mittens. In icy and snowy weather, I had an old pair of woollen socks pulled over my boots to make walking easier. The infants had little chairs with a half round back to sit on and some tables, which were upturned in the afternoons and fitted with a canvas strip which had a ring at four corners to fit over the table legs and make a kind of hammock. The infants had an hour for sleep on these days.
Playing in the streets after school and at the weekends was our usual outlet for energy. Games were favourites and, although there were no set dates, the fashion drifted from one game to another. The whip and top game was a challenge. Pennies were saved up to buy a top. These were wooden mushroom shaped objects about four inches high, which would be decorated with designs in chalk or paint or even coloured silver paper, to the owners choice, and this top was wedged into a suitable crack in the pavement. The whip was a stick with a length of string or bootlace at one end. This string was wound a few times around the top and a quick jerk would bring the top out spinning. The object was to keep it spinning by whipping it and the winner was the owner whose top outlasted the others.
Marbles was a favourite game with the boys and many a quarrel would flare up if someone's favourite "glarney" was taken in battle. The glarney being a large glass ball with interior colours. To win one of those was a triumph. This game was played along the gutters, which were ideal channels for the marbles, and the dirt and horse manure was totally ignored.
Skipping was the girls choice, and a new skipping rope with painted wooden handles was a treasured Xmas or birthday gift. There was one communal skipping game we loved. A clothesline would be coaxed from a tolerant mum and taken out to the waiting friends. It was stretched across the street width with a `turner' at each end. When the turning began, we would run into the rope and stop - or run through it - and in and out trying not to stop the rope by treading on it. It was a heavy job turning such a long rope so the `turners' had to be replaced as soon as they wilted under the strain.
Ball games lasted longer than others, as there were so many different games. A tennis ball was favourite, or a hard solid rubber one we called a "Sorbo". Individual games entailed bouncing it against a wall and doing various twists and turns before catching it back. Then there was `Rounders', a sort of baseball game, also played in the street although sometimes the unlocked school playground was available if the school caretaker was in a good mood. We had one game which didn't meet with approval from the local shopkeepers. The chemist shop had the trade sign outside of two huge apothecary's glass bottles - bulbous with long thin necks - coloured blue and green. These rested on a ledge above the shop window and we tried to knock them down with our balls until the irate shopkeeper chased us away.
Another game guaranteed to infuriate residents was the stick game where, starting at one end of the street, we would run the length with the stick against the iron railings in front of each house - and the noise was terrific like the sound of a machine gun -and was only ended when, on rounding the corner, we were given a hefty `clip 'round the ear' from an angry neighbour, whose rest we had disturbed.
There was a small parade of shops at the top of the street. The baker's shop proprietor was German and I would go there to buy a cottage loaf and a `coburg' or `Cobbog' as he would say. If we were lucky, we would get stale cakes or biscuits left over from yesterday for just a few pennies. Then we children would fight over who got the creamy ones. Next door was a sweet shop and we would gaze into the window at the jars of sweets and silk lined boxes of chocolates, choosing which ones we would buy for our mother if only we had the money. The oilshop, or ironmongers, was a dark gloomy place smelling of creosote, wax and rope. The sour-tempered owner did not encourage us standing around. The provision store drew us like moths to a candle. Amongst the tins and packets arranged in the window there was a large centrepiece. This was a glass ball rotating on a platform. Inside the ball was a picture of a charging black bull and, as the ball moved, the light inside made it look as if it was moving and getting larger as it charged. We watched this performance for ages, our noses pressed against the window. It was one of OXO's advertisements. Sometimes the picture was changed for one of a peculiar little man dressed in stars and strips and a top hat with what looked like a horn protruding from the back of his neck! He was called "Johnny Force" and advertised a cereal. Where that connection was I never did see, and it wasn't half as interesting as the bull.
The dairy was a favourite - especially in summer. It was so cool to walk into. The walls were tiled and the counter a slab of marble or stone. Bowls of eggs and squares of cheese covered with muslin placed around, and a wooden platter on which stood a big slab of butter and two wooden spatulas. The butter would be cut off and patted and shaped by the spatulas before being wrapped. The milk was frothy and filled the large churns. Small measuring jugs hung on the wall and everywhere was spotlessly clean. A Welshman and his wife ran the shop. He delivered milk and had a small chariot shaped cart, into which a large churn of milk was strapped, with various jugs hanging from the sides. He would wear a straw hat and blue and white striped apron, and led his horse along looking for customers as well as delivering whilst his wife served in the shop.
One thing I remember well were the winter fogs. From the cold misty white ones to the thick yellow 'pea soupers' where each cart or tram was led by a man walking ahead with a flare or a storm lantern. Sounds became muffled and ghostly shapes loomed out of the dark. On these days - games were forgotten - and we sat kicking our heels on the wall, whilst we ate our bulls eyes and eucalyptus drops and paregoric tablets - these being a brown lozenge sweet that took the skin off the roof of your mouth. Another winter warmer was a little flat tin of "Imps" - a tiny black sweet also drastic on the mouth, leaving the tongue as black as a Chow dogs'.
Houses looked very cosy at night, though, in the fogs. The gas lamps glowed through the curtains and the open fires flickered warmly on the glass window panes. Ironically, it was these same fires that contributed so much to the fogs. Cheap coal and sooty chimneys and worst of all, tarry blocks. When roads were being repaired, the children would be sent out to get as many tarry blocks as they could. These were solid wooden blocks - brick sized - covered with thick tar; and formed the road surface. When they became worn, they were dug up and discarded, and new ones set in. Every road repair scene had its gang of youngsters, scooping up the blocks and loading up the go-kart or the baby's empty pram, and taking this free fuel home. The Fire Brigade was kept busy in winter, as was the chimney sweep, but those blocks made a lovely blazing fire to sit around in the evenings.
At dusk the lamplighter would be on his way to light the corner lamp posts. These standards had an arm protruding about a foot below the actual lamp - just the thing for throwing a rope over and tying the ends together to make a loop swing, and it was fun to "swing the lamp post". But an eye was kept open for the lamplighter coming along on his bicycle with the long pole he used to put through the glass lamp frame and turn on the gas lamps. It was a race to get the rope off the arm and run for it - before he reached you.
The rumble of carts along the road and the noise of trotting horses gave you plenty of warning to get out of the way; especially as a lot of streets were cobbled. The big brewers drays were much slower, and the huge shire horses, two to a cart, were quite resplendent with colourful ribbons and cockades in their head straps and brass plaques on their harness. The barrels rattled as they plodded by, and an odour of stale beer wafted out from the impregnated wood of the cart. This was one cart we avoided when playing our "Dare Rides", and milk carts and bakers carts, as they were too fast, and the drivers too near. Some, like the ice cart, were fair game, and many a time when sauntering home from Caledonian Market, we would wait until it had passed and then we would run and grab at the tail board, then, lifting our legs, we would have a ride. How long depended on how soon someone shouted "Look behind guv'nor", where upon the driver would look back and with a lot of cursing, crack the whip back at our fingers, which were hastily removed, but not before they had grabbed a piece of ice. Heaven knows what germs we were risking, as we ran off sucking the dirty grey slabs.
We would stop to watch the barrel organ playing and, if lucky, there would be a group of men dressed in long skirts and wearing heavy make-up, who would sing, turn cartwheels and dance. I could never understand why I was dragged indoors if they came down our street. The word transvestite had no meaning for me, but horrified my Victorian parents.
Of course, life wasn't all games and street escapades. Growing up meant being involved more and more in household chores. I was now the eldest of three, with a brother eighteen months younger, and a sister four years younger and still a baby, so I was expected to help around the house and run errands.
Monday was washday, and the copper was lit in the scullery after breakfast. This was built into the wall, being hollow halfway down, with a small fire grate underneath. The water was poured in and the fire lit, and when the water was hot, the clothes were put in and a wooden circular lid put on; after soap was added. One of my chores was to take a large bar of yellow "Sunlight" soap and grate it up. Boiling water turned it into a soft jelly and this was used for washing. A wooden copper stick was used for stirring the clothes and lifting them out into a tin bath to be rinsed. Very dirty clothes or linen were first scrubbed on a board at the sink before going into the copper. The sink was filled and emptied endlessly to rinse and scrub. The white wash was finally give a "Reckitts" blue rinse: - a muslin wrapped cube of blue powder - and the collars and frills were dipped in "Robins" starch - a powder added to the rinse. Heavy things were put through the mangle and my job was to turn the heavy wooden rollers. The handle was stiff, and my arms nearly left the sockets.
More than one clothes line was needed in the garden, and the clean wash was pegged out with the little round headed wooden pegs sold by markets or gypsies at the door. Not surprisingly, washing took all day, and so our dinner was stew, which could simmer unattended all morning.
Tuesday was ironing day, and even more exhausting. It was done on the big wooden table in the dining room. Two or three flat irons would be placed against the fire - and a folded blanket on the table and covered with a cloth. When ready to iron, a pad was used to pick up an iron, and a quick spit on the flat side would tell if it was hot enough - then it was tried on the cloth to make sure it wouldn't scorch. This too was a day long chore, ironing being aired on pulleys until ready to put away.
Tempers were a bit frayed by teatime, and we were careful not to misbehave. I'm not surprised women didn't go out to work - they wouldn't have had the time. None of my aunts went to work or my mother. My grandfather firmly believed a women's place was at home, and while we lived in his house my mother was obliged to comply. He was a very big man and wore a top hat which made him look taller, and worked as a compositor for a Fleet St. newspaper. He was quite fond of music and had made all his children take music lessons, and they were all pianists and other instrumentalists, indeed one aunt taught music. I never really got to know him, and in fact was quite in awe of him! He was a bit of a tyrant, and woe betide anyone who displeased him.
One day he came home and fell down halfway up the stairs to his study, where he used to read or cook recipes on a little stove, and use us children as guinea pigs for the testing. He was taken to hospital where, after a few days, he died of poisoning by the chemicals used in his work. It would have been a scandal these days, but compensation was unheard of then. A large wreath and a letter of condolence was all my grandmother received and expected from Fleet St.
Two chores I hated most were cutlery cleaning and black-leading the grates. There was a fireplace in every room. Knifes and forks were cleaned with emery powder, a horrible reddish black grit that took the skin off your hands, and grates were spread with this horrid black grease and polished off until they shone. Some fires had an oven built in at the side, and delicious Yorkshire pudding and baked potatoes were in ours.
In winter the toasting fork was often used for crumpets and kippers. The chenille tablecloth (a velvet square edged with bobbles) was taken off and the oil cloth cover underneath was laid with tea things.
The mantelpiece above the fire had a velvet strip and edging to match, and a huge mirror with ornate brackets and shelves covered the chimney breast. Photos and ornaments abounded and each end of the mantelpiece had its tall glass vase with hanging glass strips.
We had to go to bed soon after tea, but were allowed to talk or read for a while. Sometimes my mother would play the piano, and I would hear my grandparents pottering around upstairs and smell the pipe or cigar smoke.
Christmas time was a wonderful time for us. The days preceding it were full of bustle and preparation. Decorations were put up and a Christmas tree dressed. Shopping around the markets increased, and the furniture was shifted around in the large parlour upstairs. Bowls of fruit and nuts appeared, and paper hats, bottles and cigar boxes were placed out of reach of small hands; and the whole house had a lovely smell of roasting and baking.
My grandfather did not stint when it came to festivities and family gatherings. We children had Christmas dinner first, and with my cousins there were nine of us, and when we had finished we were left to play with our toys whilst the adults sat down to dinner. My grandmother was given a rest, and my aunts did the serving, and grandfather the carving; quite a jolly atmosphere with a clink of wine glasses and hum of conversation between relatives who had not seen much of each other throughout the year. The tables were cleared and the youngest tucked up for an afternoon nap. Christmas tea was also luxurious, but appetites were somewhat faded after the dinner. However a large ham and a beef sirloin were ready to be carved for sandwiches during the evening. Our Christmas party began after tea, and the piano was in no shortage of players; and my grandfather could play a banjo and oboe.
As the night wore on, the Jazz songs changed to Wartime nostalgia, and `Pack up your Troubles' and `Roses of Picardy' took over. The songs and the drink and the tiredness had effect and people gradually drifted off to bed. The children had been asleep for hours, tucked up four to a bed, but echoes of neighbours parties could still be heard. Christmas parties were kept up on Boxing day and even longer. Those were Christmases to be remembered and I never saw the like again.
Pantomimes were another treat. The Collins Music Hall in Islington Green was only a short walk for us, and we went there for shows and pantos. We'd gaze entranced at the stage, and how I envied the troupes of child dancers. Once I sat near a stage wing and was somewhat disillusioned to see ladders in the dancers tights and far from clean costumes. I did not know then the conditions back stage where glamour was replaced with squalor and bad pay. Years later I was myself a member of a dance troupe and experienced back stage conditions. Fortunately mine was a hobby not a career.
There was no shortage of entertainment at home either. We had a gramophone, the usual box with a large horn, and played our little records of music hall songs by Florrie Ford and opera songs by Gigli. Sometimes the spring broke, and we would turn the record with our finger giving a hilarious variation of speed. As the record slowed the voice got deeper, so we had a mixture of high soprano to deep bass. My father made us a crystal set, a sort of wireless, and we got a lot of pleasure from that. He was good at this, and my brother in later life also showed a talent for such things. There were plenty of card and board games like Ludo and chess, so we were quite content.
The recession grew worse, and things began to get difficult for some. After my grandfather died, one of the aunts came to live with us, and she had two children, and a husband still in work fortunately.
My grandmother must have had adequate means, as she carried on as usual running the household. I was very fond of her, she was very gentle and tolerant lady and on looking back, I think she must have had a very restricted life with my domineering grandfather.
Talks of a General Strike and miners unrest were over my head at my age, but the cutting down on clothes and treats were one of the hardships. The second-hand clothes stalls in the markets had more customers and people looked grimmer. The men wore cloth caps mostly and to this day I have hated them; they spell out poverty to me.
It was about this time that I fell ill with scarlet fever. I had pneumonia when a tiny baby, and was operated on in the Royal Free Hospital to drain the abscess which developed. This left me with a deep scar under the right shoulder blade, and my mother had to take me as an outpatient in taxis, which was expensive, as I couldn't go by tram because of the jolting. Kaolin powder was first used at this time. The fever was an "isolation hospital" job and I was in Hampstead Hospital for some days. The ward was on the ground floor, and the doors opened out onto the grounds of shrubs and trees. Once I was awake all night and heard a bird singing. The nurse said it was a nightingale. I used to love the lunches of minced beef.
Illnesses were treated at home unless they became serious enough to call in a doctor. A bad cold or bronchitis meant having camphorated oil rubbed into your chest, which was then covered with a layer of thermogene wool, or, if it was less serious, we were sent out to breathe the tar and creosote fumes at the road repair sites. Ear ache was treated with warm olive oil drops and cotton wool plugs to keep it in. Many other remedies were given for what you had, and quite often, what you didn't have, such as brimstone and treacle, liquorice powder, or syrup of figs. I did like the cod liver oil and malt though. Scratches and cuts were painted with iodine and spots and pimples dabbed with Zinc ointment.
There was no N.H.S. then, but if you couldn't afford a visit to the doctor there was a medical clinic in Essex Road where for a small fee you could get medical advice and medicine. I was taken there for a persistent chest infection and my mother was given a bottle of some thick emulsion for me, which tasted horrible.
The weekly shopping was done in Essex Road or Chapel Market at the Angel, Islington. This was a large market with stalls of fruit, vegetables and clothes. The side turnings were grubby, little alleyways, and one was called `Paradise Alley' - a misnomer if ever there was. I was taken shopping to help carry the bags home, but I hadn't much interest in it, my mind was usually elsewhere, and I was always wanting to explore my surroundings.
At the market, I looked up at the pigeons flying around and wondered how they'd found their way home from Bethlehem. This was because we sang a hymn at Sunday School about the "Little Lord of Bethlehem" which contained the words "and overhead the pigeons fly, in silver wheels across the sky". Fancy leaving Bethlehem to come to places like Paradise Alley I thought. From an early age I wanted to explore and see what was round the corner. I should have been an explorer, but I was to travel more than I could have dreamed of in later years.
The house was a bit crowded now, and my parents started to look for a place of their own, and obtained the tenancy of a top flat in a block of buildings in Highbury. They were substantially built and quite nice. The ground floor flats had iron railings and bushes and each block opened out to a flat roof. There were two large avenues with plane trees around which were wooden seats. A caretaker swept roofs and avenues and locked the gates after dark. Any children playing in the avenues at night were sent home with some rebuke. The tradesmen and postmen could go up the blocks and over the roofs, which saved much stair climbing. The chimney stacks were quite high, so any washing hung on the roof was safe from smuts. The top residents had a roof door key, which wasn't used much because the access of tradesman was for the benefit of all and thus avoided them going back to say we were "out", which happened to residents in a neighbouring block of different buildings with no roof access to other blocks.
Each flat had a small coal bunker which held two sacks of coal, and the coal cart would come round everyday. The coalman, with his leather head and back protector, would call out and look up for customers. If he was tired and had just a few sacks left, he would pretend not to see the top floor customer calling from the window. The scullery had a chute which was very useful. A flap in the wall, which revealed a chute down to the ground floor rubbish container, although sometimes some idiot would put ashes down which were still hot and set the rubbish alight so that smoke came up into the flats and the fire brigade was called.
The dustcarts were disgusting. A large cart with open sides which you could smell streets away. The men had leather head protectors, and ties around their trouser legs. To stop rats running up their legs I was told once.
There were plenty of tradesmen. Every Sunday the barrow men arrived selling winkles, cockles, celery, jellied eels. Fruit and vegetables were quite cheap and you'd hear the call "Plums, apples, pears twopence a pound". The muffin man with his hand bell and tray of muffins covered with a cloth, balanced on his head, and the chestnut vendor with his charcoal burner and roast chestnuts. A knife grinder was a useful tradesman, and he would sharpen the knives and scissors on a wheel he turned by cycling on the spot. The cat meat man, with his slices of horse meat on a wooden skewer, would deliver to his regular customers. If they were out, he would put it through the letter box. I can just imagine the comments should that happen in this day and age. He had a little shop in Holloway Road that looked like "Fagin's Den". A dark, dusty, grimy place with stacked piles of old newspapers and comics, and a mangy cat or two curled up on them. A fly specked window and empty bottles on the counter. We added to our pocket money by collecting empty bottles and exchanging comics. The bottles fetched us a halfpenny each, and comics a penny or an exchange. Lemonade bottles with a glass ball top fetched a penny.
The public library was next door and I spent many hours in there. I must have read every Fairy book and adventure book in the children's section. We would walk through the gardens of St. Mary's Chapel on the way home, a church I was to be married in one day, and the flower beds were always a blaze of colour. I picked a bunch of dahlias once, but felt so guilty that I left them on an ancient grave stone. It must have been decades since that was last done.
I was about seven years old when we moved, and the flat seemed to be the top of a mountain to us children. We had a view of North London right across to Alexandra Palace on the skyline, not that I looked out after the first glimpse. I wouldn't go near the window for days, after that first feeling that the flats were going to topple over. It wasn't long before I found the stairs even more of a shock. Five flights of seventeen stairs meant that if you forgot the shopping list or anything else, you had to go right upstairs again and being the errand girl that happened to me more than once. I wasn't to know, that when married and also in a top flat, I would have to take the pram down step by step, and then go up for the baby. There was only one shed at the bottom and the ground floor flats commandeered that. I found it easier to take the pram onto the roof for the baby's airing.
Being now seven years old, I was taken to enrol at Laycock Junior School, which had been built on the site of Laycock's Farm, as once was all this area, now well built up. I was introduced to my classmates by the headmistress, who said I was a very good reader, and would read a chapter out. This was not a good idea, as I was immediately labelled a "show off" and it took a long while to live it down.
I can't remember much about this school, so it was probably plain sailing during the Junior years. We had the eleven plus exams, and I was transferred to the Senior School which was in the street where I lived. It was a tall Victoria building with high arched windows and two playgrounds, with a school caretaker's cottage at the gates. The ground floor was teachers staff rooms, and a laundry for teaching. The first floor was for girls, and the top floor for boys, there was no mixing of the two in those days.
The school bell would ring about ten minutes before school and we would assemble in the playground and march in file into the big hall where morning prayers and hymns were sung. Latecomers would have to run to get in or woe betide them. We marched into our respective classrooms to the piano played by the Headmistress. She was about six feet tall and had a bosom like a prima-donna and a voice like a sergeant major, and played the piano dreadfully. The music teacher must have been wincing at every note.
My first years there were not very happy. The teachers were mostly spinsters and indeed, two of them had been my mother's teachers. They were inclined to have favourites, and you were wise to keep on the right side of them. The teaching was good in all subjects; although when I think of the hours spent chanting our "times tables" and learning weights and measures, only to have to change to metric in our later years it is so annoying for my generation.
The recession was evident, in the fact that some children didn't come to school, as they had no shoes to wear, or were minding younger children, whilst parents were out trying to earn money. It was quite common to see the children from the poorer areas walking down our street to go to Highbury Fields, which had a paddling pool and an open air swimming pool. They had ragged clothes bare feet and the boys had shaven heads with just a forelock in front. We had classmates who were poorly dressed, and those who were obviously from more fortunate homes, and sadly, it was the latter who were the teachers pets. There was one teacher though who was very kind and she was the Laundry mistress. We were taught how to wash linens and woollens, and starch frill, etc. Not that I needed it, I had had plenty of practice at home. We could bring a few things in from home to practise with, and one girl who came from a very large family, brought in practically the whole wash. Miss Wills turned a blind eye, and let us share it out. There weren't many teachers like her.
After a while I began to enjoy my schooldays, and started to make headway. We had a music teacher who arranged concerts and outside venues, and I found I had a voice. I was put into the school choir, and enjoyed many visits to halls and churches to sing. Strangely enough, my brother in the boys Junior School also found himself in a choir. My deeper interest however, was in art and I had quite a talent for that with some painting bringing me a prize. It was a hobby I kept up for years.
Each teacher seemed to specialise in one particular subject and so we moved from class to class during the day. Our geography class was popular - especially for me, although lessons about the Industrial Revolution, and the posters of the Black Country with its dark steel factories and chimneys belching smoke against a fiery sky, depressed me. I preferred pictures of exotic places and strange people and animals.
History was interesting, but the majority of the pupils found remembering battles and dates, which we recited like parrots, was very difficult. To this day I can only remember 1066 Battle of Hastings.
The nature study class also enabled us to go out to places like Highgate Woods and Waterlow Park and even Kew Gardens, where we gathered autumn leaves and fruits and took them back to paint in class. The classroom was always full of glass jars of flowers, sticky horse chestnut buds and bulbs; and when I smell hyacinths, it takes me back to those days. On some occasions we were taken out for the day on a coach to Brickett Woods, which was real countryside for us. The air in London must have been awful, because the fresh smell of grass, trees and wild flowers almost stunned us. We loved it.
Wet days were not the best of times. The cloakrooms smelt of damp coats and wellingtons, and playtime was spent sitting on the wooden floor of the assembly hall chanting our "time tables". We did have one bright interval though when the milk crates were brought in by prefects, and we collected our little bottle of milk and a straw. This cost one halfpenny a day, and my father, who was very careful with money, was very slow in parting with the coins. There were three of us, so I suppose it was an expense for him.
Sunny days were bliss. We would sit on the sun warmed grounds, backs against the school wall, and gossip and giggle, and from the open windows on the top floor, the singing of the boys choir floated down "Drakes Drum" and "Where Lorals Lie". A few of us would be practising running for the School Sports Day.
Our school activities were many. We had the Maypole dancing and country dancing in Spring, and on Empire Day we had a parade of pupils dressed in national costumes of countries in the British Empire, after which we sang patriotic songs. For our cookery and housewifery classes we had to go to other schools; but they were local. Westbourne Grove and Thornhill Square were about twenty minutes walk.
On one day a week we attended cookery, where we made dinners, puddings and other basic meals and towards end of term progressed to more skilful things like jam, brawn, meringues, etc. With the recession still on, a lot of children were given free school meals, and our individual Yorkshire puddings and boiled cabbage was only two of the things they suffered. However, hungry stomach didn't mind, no doubt.
I found the housewifery lessons very dull, and especially since we used an unoccupied house in the school grounds, which had drab furniture and curtains. We had to polish wood which already had layers of polish from previous classes and make beds - already made, and scrub spotless floors and table tops. I had black marks from the beginning after one little episode. Two of us were detailed to clean a bedroom, and my colleague had a bag of peanuts in her overall. We shut the door and ate the nuts, but the problem was the shells. This was solved by stuffing the bag of shells up the chimney. Unfortunately, when the teacher came to find out what we were doing and opened the door, the draught brought the shells down and all over the floor.
I realise today, what a variety of activities we had, and what a good all round education we were given.
Trips to Westminster, St. Paul's and the Tower gave us an insight on British history. The museums fascinated us, especially the British Museum with its creepy gas lit Egyptian Mummy Room.
Swimming was taught once a week, and although it meant more expense for my parents in providing a costume and hat, I did repay by winning certificates and finally the Bronze Medallion. Now that we were growing up fast, they found some difficulty coping financially. My brother had passed a scholarship and was going to Dame Owen's Grammar School in Holloway Road. His uniform and sports gear were expensive and he got a paper round to provide his own pocket money, but as he had to have a bicycle too - for school - this was hardly a saving. I suppose I could have been resentful but I wasn't. Boys had the first chance when it came to education - so my grandfather and parents had taught us.
I had plenty of outside interests too. One of my classmates was a dancer in a children's troupe. She persuaded me to go and see the studio and try and join, which I did. It was in Camden Mews and my mother was a bit doubtful, as it was a rather unsavoury neighbourhood. The Mews was quiet and had respectable residents, but the streets and pubs we had to pass had their rough element. However, with a group of us going, she gave in, and with my new red tapshoes and red and white check tabard, I started to learn the routines. We were called Corals' Young Ladies, and were aged from 5 or 6 years to 15 and 16 years. It was run by an attractive young women, and her dancing partner - a tall swarthy looking man, of whom we didn't see much of except in the shows we gave when he danced with Coral to Strauss's waltz music or the French `Apache' dance. We older girls did tap dance routines or can-can and kick dancing in formation. The little ones were good, but I think Coral got a bit fed up with the mothers dressing them up like Shirley Temple and wanting their photos taken at all the time. The lessons were evening ones, but sometimes a dress rehearsal in daytime was needed, and that's when we had to be careful, as very often a herd of cattle would be driven down the streets to Caledonian Market where there were cattle pens and slaughter houses. The smell was dreadful around the market on those days.
The market on Saturdays was quite big. Stalls selling everything from sets of crockery to pots and pans. The sweet stall had home made fudge and coconut ice, and we'd see the toffee being made. The man would mix and knead, and pull the toffee out like a skein of wool. When it got dark the gas flares on the corner of the awnings were lit, and they hissed and spluttered quite cheerfully.
Saturday was also our "cinema" day, and most children went to Drayton Park off Holloway Road where a large circular building, with huge doors, housed the children's cinema. We queued up outside after buying our sweets from the corner shop and streamed in when it opened. Inside was seating and a balcony and a small platform in front of the screen for the piano and pianist. We had to sing a hymn before the film started, and whilst the pianist played a little white ball bounced onto the words on the screen for our benefit. The pianist played according to the film action - softly for sentimental scenes, and rapid for exciting ones. In fact, if it was very exciting, he forgot to play at all and just watched, like us.
One day we had sung our hymn and settled down to watch "The Count of Monte Cristo". Over the chatter and laughter, we realised the piano wasn't playing, it was orchestral music, and people were talking. This was our first talking picture, and we were stunned into silence. I wonder what happen to the pianist!
Copyright: Winifred Harrington ©, 2006