The aroma of cabbage and the punishment book are just a couple of the memories of Gospel Oak primary
16 January, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Cookery class at the school in 1953
THEY were the first generation of children to grace the classrooms of a school that has become a much-loved Camden institution – and now, seven decades after Gospel Oak primary was officially opened, the class of 52 have joined forces to cast light on what life was like for youngsters in the immediate post-war period.
Twelve former Oak pupils met at a celebration marking the school’s 50th birthday in 2002. The school friends recalled their childhoods – and vowed to stay in touch.
Following another reunion in 2018, they teamed up to produce a book that tells the story of the school, their reminisces of life in Gospel Oak, and also draws on an archive of previously unpublished photographs taken over a 30-year period by photographer Henry Grant.
The photographs were presented to headteacher Ron Lendon at his farewell party in July 1982, and show not only how the school was built, but the faces of the children, parents and staff who walked through the gates for the first time.
Gospel Oak cost £89,000 – around £2.5million today – to build and was officially opened by Dame Ninette de Valois, the director of ballet at Sadler’s Wells, on November 10, 1952.
Built on a bomb site, Blitz maps show how bombs fell across Parliament Hill Fields as rail tracks snaking along past the Lido were targeted.
Its design was considered ground-breaking at the time.
School assembly at Gospel Oak in the 1950s. Teacher Ifor Williams is far left
“Built of light steel construction with pre-cast iron concrete external cladding, the school, has four spacious classrooms and a general purpose room for infants and five similar classrooms and a general purpose room for juniors,” a reporter wrote for the St Pancras Chronicle.
He also noted the “medical inspection department” and praised the grounds, which he said were “exceptionally laid out with shrubs and flowers with lavender growing all year round”.
The contributors speak of a very different world to today – but one that is still well within living memory.
“There were few cars about so we could kick a ball or play cricket or hide and seek along Mansfield Road,” they recall in the preface.
“Milkmen delivering bottled pints on carts drawn by horses were a regular sight.
“Feeding their horses sugar lumps on a flat outstretched hand was a delight as their soft rubbery lips and hair tickled your palm,” they add. “We also had to contend with a magic world of smog, hidden doorways and people emerging as if it were from nowhere, while being advised to stay indoors.
“This was topped only by the irregular calling of the rag and bone man, ‘old rags and lumber’ with his cart filled with odds and sods looking for iron and things people wanted to throw out.”
And so to school: Eleri Evans, born in 1944, recalls walking from her home in Constantine Road. “I loved my new blazer emblazoned with its gold acorn badge. Sadly Mum could not afford the coveted beret.”
She also remembers the “pale blue Formica-topped tables for lunch in the cabbage-smelling dining room”.
Five years after the founding of the NHS, schools now had a role in public health to play. There was “Nitty Norah”, the school nurse, on hand to comb out hair nits using a milky disinfectant, or dishing out spoonfuls of Virol.
Eleri recalls Miss Strongman, described as “a kind, soft, tweedy person who was keen on spelling tests”.
The spectre of the 11-Plus loomed over the children.
David Duke, Eleri Evans and Ken Woodgate
Another teacher, Mr Williams, was “stout and Welsh and warned me I would be a very small fish in a big grammar school,” remembers Eleri.
Another stand-out memory for her was the excitement caused each year by the Oxford and Cambridge boat race: pupils would pick a university, oblivious to why they might back one side over the other – though it would become quite an issue in the playground.
Her best friend was called Catherine who lived in a prefab in Savernake Road. “They had everything we didn’t have at home – a proper kitchen, bathroom and lavatory – compact, warm and bright.”
Elsie Bartholomew was the headteacher. She would commute from Kew each morning. She took a shine to Eleri and her brother Jeff, who were invited to her home at the weekends for lessons in etiquette – “the difference between a lunch and dinner napkin, how to manage a plate of sandwiches and a cup of tea on your lap or how to look after guests and be helpful”.
Ken Woodgate recalls buying “penny home-made ice lollies” from a “miserable figure in the familiar Open All Hours brown shop coat,” lollies that would turn into flavourless blocks of ice after one suck.
Ron Lendon, who became an iconic figure for generations of school-goers, appears as early as 1953, when he came to the school as a visiting teacher writing a thesis on helping bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
David Duke notes how much the war played in shaping them and their environment. “Reflecting, I became aware how our lives and experiences were affected by the war, no doubt far more than we realised at the time,” he writes.
“The evidence was all around, but I simply accepted it as being there, not conscious of the significance and in many case the tragedies.
“The bomb crater in the paddling pool next to the swings behind the Lido… the shrapnel holes in the iron bridge that led to Parliament Hill from Roderick Road. Here and there a gap in a long row of houses. ‘Oh it’s a bomb site,’ I was told and thought no more of it, unaware of the tragedy that, in many cases lay behind them.”
Book editor Leeroy Murray, whose three boys would go to Gospel Oak, lived next to the school in a prefab.
He remembers playing on the land before the builders moved in.
“We used bricks, wood and general rubble to build a club house. We made a see-saw from bricks and a plank of wood,” he writes. “War games were played, and cowboys and indians.”
Once the school opened, he recalls Mr Williams being known as “Whacker” Williams for his use of the cane. The school’s punishment book is included, and makes for depressing reading.
But the kindness of other teachers was pronounced. “My lasting impression was of Miss Green,” he said. “Her kindness and gentility made coming to school a pleasure.”
Above all, the book recalls with clarity endearing childhood memories – and provides a wonderful record of how life in Gospel Oak has changed within living memory.
• Gospel Oak: Primary School Memories 1952-1956. Email: email@example.com