Wednesday, December 26, 2012

London 1944 - The Choice of School

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Before, during and after the War there were in the region of South London a multitude of ‘Grammar’ schools and minor independent schools, where able children could be educated. I could have attended:- Shooter’s Hill School (which my mother considered to be of inferior standard), Colfe’s, City of London, Eltham College, Emmanuel School, Haberdasher Aske’s, Archbishop Tennison’s, St. Olave’s and probably more. These were all for boys only. There were also Girls’ Grammar Schools such as Eltham Hill, and St Saviours – that being the female twin of St Olave’s. All were a channel of improvement for able children from poor backgrounds. Before the 1944 Education Act either one passed the Junior County examination which opened the door to these or if one was of borderline ability one might be able to go to a ‘Central’ school- as was the case with my elder brother. If you did not ‘pass’ then you might stay at school till fourteen and then leave to get a job, or apprenticeship.
This pattern for social improvement or ‘social mobility’ was destroyed by a later socialist Government, in the desirte to promote the impossible, - equality-. The socialist intelligentsia never grasped the notion that equality of ability is unattainable, though equality of opportunity is not.
My mother, with some idea of social enhancement for me, first proposed Eltham College. She and I went along for an interview with the head master. The broad wide acres of playing fields did not appeal to me. I was never a sporting type, indeed my physique was hardly inspiring to any one looking for a sportsman. When I had a ‘physical’ before evacuation, so later my mother informed me, I was described as ‘below normal’. The headmaster turned me down.
I ended up at St. Olave’s school next to Tower Bridge.
Some of the boys who attended with me were from even more impecunious families than mine. Example:- William Ainsworth. It was not until the VIth form (the last two years of schooling) that I understood his circumstances. At sometime around then, the headmaster put his name forward for an adventure holiday, fully paid, to Canada. Jealous, I inwardly wondered why he should be so selected. Later I realised the justification. I invited him to visit me at home and he came. I took him to Oxleas Woods and the long meadow beyond. These woods are the joy of Eltham. He spoke in the same terms that I had used when I visited Robin Angel on Shooter’s Hill. He felt that compared to his family, we were well-to-do. I visited his home. He lived in Peabody buildings. These flats were built by a charity for poor working folk in London. The toilets were on a communal landing, the flats were small and a pervading odour of rot or urine seemed all about. William later won a County Major scholarship to Oxford, where we were for some time close friends.
Now, sixty years later I am appalled at the political jealousy whereby the socialist system destroyed this pathway to a meritocracy which was well on the way to refashioning the brilliance and commanding position of Britain in the World. These accursed politicians still assert that prior to them only the middle classes could aspire to University. It is an absolute lie. In the years after WWII very many poor boys and girls went to the best universities at the public expense.
I digress! And look back in anger.
St. Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School Tower Bridge was sited on a very small patch of ground near Tower bridge. In 1943 the school was for the most part in evacuation but some classes for new entrants had opened. Again, I suppose the staff had in some manner avoided the War. The war was still on. The doodle bugs had been replaced by the V2 rockets. These you did not hear coming. They were the forerunners of space rockets, sent up from Holland or Northern France and took a high parabolic trajectory before coming down vertically on London. There was no protection from them, nor was any warning possible.
I went to school by train from Eltham station to London Bridge station. On one occasion Eltham station had been blasted by a V2 between my going and returning in the afternoon. I saw one explode in the distance from the train window.
Four years of War had seriously modified London. I, with an exploratory mind, suggested to a friend that one day, instead of going home from London Bridge station, we should walk across Tower Bridge and traverse the City of London to Cannon Street Station and catch our train home from there. We did just that, encircling the ancient walls of the Tower of London, and passing across the bombed area of the City, we passed by small rough built brick walls protecting pedestrians from falling into the basement holes of buildings, whose remains had already been taken away. The rosy red fireweed blossomed from all the broken brick and stonework. It was extraordinary that so few important buildings or monuments had been destroyed. The Tower itself, St. Paul’s Cathedral, The single column of the Monument to the 17th century Fire of London are all still intact. Some renaissance churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren were seriously damaged, but he designed a great many, and some few were not missed.
The journey home was nine miles by train. The cost was entirely borne by the London County Council. I had a free season ticket. It enabled me to go to London at any time, and I used it to visit Museums and to go the theatre in later years with my mother.