My mother’s maiden name was Eleanor Alice Hunt. She was born at London Fields, Hackney. On the birth certificate her father was shown as Arthur Hunt and her mother as “Ellen” Hunt. This should have been “Eleanor”, and was an example of my grandfather’s airy disregard for detail in official matters. He always called my grandmother “Ellen”, and if it was good enough for him, it should be good enough for the Registrar. My grandfather’s profession was shown as “Butcher”.
My mother spent most of her life up to the Second World War in Frampton Park Road, Hackney, she and my father taking possession of the two top rooms in the house after their marriage in 1921. As a boy, I used to climb a sycamore tree in the back garden that had been planted by my mother as a seed when she was a child.
My mother did well at school scholastically, but with money needed to help with the household expenses, she left at the age of fourteen and started work as a machinist at a local shirt factory. She pursued this occupation until her marriage to my father, after which she devoted herself to looking after the household and her children.
My earliest recollections of my mother are of a fair haired, very attractive, bluish-green eyed woman who loved me probably above all else in the world. To my father, she was “his girl”, and he cherished her and remained scrupulously faithful to her until the end of his life. My mother had long, naturally wavy hair that she subsequently had bobbed in the fashion of the time, and used to curl with hot tongs. She never wore make-up, which for some reason she disliked. Many women eschewed make-up in those days. I think it may have had something to do with the Victorian concept that only “fast” women wore that sort of stuff.
My mother had a true Cockney sense of humour and like my grandmother, she worked hard. She kept our two rooms scrupulously clean at Frampton Park Road, and I have a whole range of memories of her kneeling on a piece of sacking and scrubbing the lino flooring (we used to call it “oil cloth” in those days in London). I also remember her and my grandmother stoking up the copper in the Wash House to do the weekly wash, manipulating the heavy mangle amidst clouds of steam, scrubbing on the scrubbing board, and hanging out interminable rows of sheets and clothes in the back yard.
Having lived all her life in the east end of London, and drawing the conclusion that any sensible person would arrive at, my mother’s ambition was for her children to lift themselves out of the ignorance and poverty of our environment, and to this end she always tried to direct us.
When I first went to Infant School, in Paragon Road, Hackney, opposite the Public Library and the big Telephone Exchange, my mother used to take me there in the morning. Every afternoon she would bring with her an old tin can that we would place on the tram lines running along adjoining Mare Street. When a tram came along I would shout with laughter as it rattled past and squashed the tin flat in a most satisfying manner.
After the Infant School, I received my education at three other schools. These were, the Hackney Free and Parochial School, which was the elementary school and stands to this day in St. John’s Churchyard, Hackney. Then by the grace of scholarships and my parents’ scheming to finance me, I progressed to Upton House Central School, and one step higher to Parmiter’s Foundation Secondary School.
However, the Hackney Free and Parochial School will always be My School, for there I spent my happiest childhood days. There the teachers seemed to have a real interest in their pupils.
Of all my teachers I remember best Mr Bowles, a small man with large horn rimmed spectacles, but how well he knew his job of handling boys. Tragedy struck him during my later years at the school when he lost his wife. I wonder if Mr Bowles ever knew how my childish heart overflowed with sympathy for him then? I remember too fierce, bald headed Mr Atkins, the history master. He stirred my imagination with tales (delivered with fine histrionics) of the sabre toothed tiger, prehistoric man, and the first Roman invaders of Britain. On one occasion also, when I was standing in front of the class he gave me the biggest clout I had ever received from anyone for turning away when he was speaking to me. I suppose I deserved it. The next year Mr Atkins offered a book as a prize for the best historical essay and I won it. Mr James, too, springs into my vision, the kindly, grey moustached headmaster who called all his pupils by their Christian names and always had time to listen to any one of them. We all rather looked up to Mr James. Apart from his kindness and obvious ability, he was the only member of the staff who had a university degree.
And, of course, no Hackney Parochial boy who was there with him could ever forget “Jimmy” Hollick, a veritable Mr Chips. Jimmy had himself been a pupil at the school in the eighteen seventies, subsequently becoming a student teacher, and then being promoted to the full status of master. He was tall, hoarse voiced and very short sighted. His suits were always impeccably tailored and sat well on his broad boned but spare frame. He wore pebble glasses with extraordinarily thick lenses, and had to hold papers within a couple of inches of his wrinkled face in order to read them. He was the deputy headmaster, a Hackney local boy who had made good.
After Mr James’ retirement, Jimmy Hollick became head until, in the early days of the war, a piece of shrapnel received during an air raid put out the sight of one of his failing eyes and ended his teaching days for ever. He was a good man with a fine understanding of children. Jimmy specialised in the teaching of geography. It was he who slung a map across the blackboard one day and first said to me the magic name “Australia”.
Jimmy Hollick and Mr Bowles used to take the swimming classes together at the local (indoor) baths. At different times during the day, classes of boys would form up in a row in the school playground, “quick march” through the little gate into the silent, tree-filled Hackney Churchyard, then up and across to busy Mare Street. We used to get about half an hour of actual swimming, two boys sharing a small “box” with an inadequate wooden seat to dress and undress. Leaning precariously over the edge of the pool, and generally getting themselves soaked in the process, Jimmy and Mr Bowles would encourage breathless boys to hang on to the bar and make appropriate leg movements, yelling to make themselves heard above the din. Or else they would induce some intrepid young man who had almost mastered the art to allow his arms to be fitted into a couple of loops hanging from an overhead wire and then be lugged up to the deep end, puffing and blowing and madly waving his arms and legs.
I never saw Jimmy Hollick actually swim, but Mr Bowles once donned a bright blue costume and volunteered to take part in a race. However, he gave up half way, informing us that he was unable to see where he was going without his glasses. We all readily accepted the explanation at the time; indeed it rather tickled our boyish sense of humour. However, in the light of adult experience, I look upon it with some scepticism, believing that Old Bowlsiefound the exertion of the race too much for him and decided to give it away.
Every Christmas, partitions which divided three classrooms at the school would be folded back so that one large hall was formed. A wooden platform was erected at one end, curtains were rigged up, and each class set about devising a sketch or short play. I remember that I took the part of the heroine in a cowboy melodrama at one of these Christmas shows. I can’t remember the plot. But I know that all rules of chivalry went by the board, because I had a tremendous life and death struggle with the villain of the piece, falling over and severely bumping my head on one of the iron desks in the process. The villain was well and truly plugged by the hero’s six guns, and the curtain fell as I swooned (very nearly literally) in his arms. The gun reports, horses’ hoof beats, and so on were provided by our effects man who stood hidden behind a small curtain, knocking the usual coconuts together and striking the blackboard with a hammer. We looked forward to Christmas at that school, and thoroughly enjoyed our annual show.
I left eventually and went to other schools, but I never enjoyed them half as much, except when a very fine linguist by the name of Algernon Montgomery taught me the first elements of French at the Upton House Central School. I learnt the elements of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and mechanics and promptly forgot them. I gained some knowledge of biology, physics and chemistry. At Parmiter’s Foundation, history meant mostly learning long strings of dates and any understanding of this subject I may possess was picked up mostly from reading books after I left school. The best thing that I retained from my education was an excellent knowledge of French phonetics and later of the language itself. I liked this and had a bent for it. I was then spewed out into the world equipped with a School Certificate and good for little else but pushing a pen.
I had failed to matriculate because in changing from one school to another I had missed out on some basic mathematics, and had never been able to pick them up. Mathematics was a compulsory subject in matriculation in those days, and if you failed in that it mattered not at all how good you might be in other subjects. After the war I found that every worthwhile avenue of study was barred to me unless I went back to the beginning and matriculated all over again. This I was unwilling to do, and the absence of any concession in this regard was one of many reasons why I finally left England and went to Australia.
I mentioned at my last school that I would like to go in for journalism. I personally wrote to some forty or fifty newspapers, but was unable to get a traineeship with any of them. Thankfully, my school found me a job on The Hairdressers Journal, a trade paper run by Messrs. Osborne and Garrett, known as “Ogee’s”. This was a Soho firm that made hairdressers’ equipment and ran a large department store for the public and the trade. It was at this office that I started work at the age of sixteen some months before the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 World War 2.