St. Olave’s School was in the environs of Southwark, in the district called Bermondsey, on the south side of the Thames opposite The Tower of London and the City of London. The nearest church was Southwark Cathedral in which took place an annual thanksgiving service. The school was so close to Tower Bridge that from the chemistry lecture room on the top floor you could see the occasional rising and lowering of the bascules of the bridge as the equally occasional boats passed through to the Pool of London. The name of the school descends from the name of St. Olaf. St. Olaf was one of the ‘Vikings’ – a Danish invader! Since he was the first destroyer of London Bridge in 1009, it always seemed to me a bit much to commemorate him. The school itself was at the eastern end of Tooley Street – the name ‘Tooley’ is also derived from St. Olaf.
Bermondsey in 1944 retained the industry of the pre-war days. It had industries more akin to those of a country town and a country port than a modern city, though the port was even then one of the largest ports in the World. Bermondsey had tanneries and a vinegar brewery. A substantial part of the transport about the port and the industry was by carts drawn by horses (no doubt partly in consequence of the fuel shortage during the war). Electric trams travelled along Tooley Street, the power being provided in a central rail buried in the road. Alleys to the North led towards the river. These were bordered by the tall warehouses which housed the cargoes from the ships which docked in the Pool beyond. The air carried the pungent odours of the tannery and the vinegar brewery. A chocolate factory, which manufactured cocoa, added its perfume. I never pondered on how they obtained cocoa beans at that time – other foods – bananas, oranges did not exist.
These industries needed transport. Lorries and carts occasionally carried the sweaty heaving wet hides from or to, a tannery. Oak bark from the countryside was delivered to the tanneries. Raw hides from cows were soaked in open pits and mixed with the tannin from the bark. The vinegar brewery needed birch twigs carried from the countryside. The process included the brewing in the first place of an alcohol from malt which could have progressed to the making of whiskey, but it was interrupted and the brew was filtered down through tall casks filled with birch twigs. Out at the bottom came malt vinegar. This in turn needed to be transported away. Then whatever entered the port had to be transported. There was, I recall, meat from South America. All this activity went on whilst German u-boats attacked our shipping, and convoys of merchant ships were guarded by the Navy. The German bombing of London concentrated on the City and the docks and relatively little of the inner or outer suburbs were too much affected, except for the south eastern district when the Germans bombed the main arterial roads. The doodle bugs and V2 rockets in the last years of the war were more frightening.
There were some small trees along the pavements of Tooley Street. As evening fell and the boys hurried along the street to London Bridge station, to catch their trains for home in the suburbs, large flocks of sparrows cackled in the trees as the birds settled to roost. They would have fed themselves on the oat grains fallen from the nose bags of the horses. In the daylight hours some of the boys, including me, amused themselves dragging magnets tied to strings in the roadside gutters. When lifted they were covered in iron filings, worn from the wheels of the trams and the shoes of the horses. When the evening came, and so it did by 3.30 in the winter, it was dark. There were no lights. The wartime blackout still was there.
And there were the frequent fogs. Fogs so dense that sometimes you could not see fifteen yards ahead. The trains on the railway crawled. On occasions the fog made the sky yellow. Frequently the air had an acrid smell from the many coal fires in household hearths.
The school itself carried the scars of war. The playground was host to two large emergency water tanks. These circular tanks were about five feet high and many yards in diameter. There were there to supply water to the Fire Service to put out the fires caused by air-raids. In winter they froze over thickly and we used to slide bits of wood across the ice. The five foot high walls made the idea of sliding on the ice but a dream.
Most of the railings which in pre-war times had surround the school had been removed and used to supply iron to munitions factories, but with some foresight, the headmaster had contrived to arrange the removal of the huge and highly ornamental gates and had stacked them in the derelict ‘fives’ courts behind the high wall which bounded onto Tower Bridge Road.