A photo taken on a school trip to the Geffrye Museum, in East London. They dressed me up in a Victorian outfit and sat me in a Victorian room. It was taken in the winter term of 1963, when I was 13.
I always tell people I was born in Victorian London. Though I was born a few years after World War II, Dickens’ London was still very much in evidence, at least in my neck of the woods. When Dickens was a child, his father was sent to a debtor’s prison situated at The Borough, close to where I was born.
I was born in Bermondsey (now part of Southwark), just south of the River Thames, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge (that’s the one that goes up and down, it appears in many movies). London Bridge is a straightforward, modern affair. On 18 April 1968, the previous (also quite undistinguished) London Bridge was sold to American entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch, of McCulloch Oil, for US$2,460,000. A popular urban legend is that he mistakenly believed he was purchasing the much more impressive Tower Bridge, although McCulloch denied this (see Wikipedia for further details).
London seemed quite a dark, dingy place when I was small. There was still a lot of smoke and soot caked on to the buildings. Only at the end of the 1950s did the government pass a law to clean up the air. It transformed the city – and the entire country. People’s health began to improve. The fog you see in movies of old London was caused, in part, by pollution from soot and all the chemicals and waste dumped in the river. It was not just down to the wonderful British climate.
My primary school was called Snowsfields (you can see pictures of it here). The name is interesting (fields that obviously belonged to Mr. Snow) because it confirms that the south side of the river remained undeveloped for many centuries. That was because there was only one bridge and people had to cross in small boats (like getting to Cacao from Golfito, to those of you who know what I’m talking about).
The school is a Victorian building and there are many similar ones in England. That is because of the Elementary Education Act 1870. That law was a milestone in the struggle to improve the lot of the majority of Britain’s population – the poor. Most of my family belonged to that class (remember that word, it will crop up a lot as we move along).
Wikipedia has the following to say about the Act: “There were objections to the concept of universal education. One was because many people remained hostile to the idea of mass education. They claimed it would make labouring classes “think” and that these classes would think of their lives as dissatisfying and possibly encourage them to revolt. Others feared that handing children to a central authority could lead to indoctrination. Another reason was the vested interests of the Church and other social groups. The churches were funded by the state, through public money, to provide education for the poor and these churches did not want to lose that power.”
Most of what I know about my family begins at around the time of the new law. Britain began to change in many ways but it was a real struggle. Trade unions are becoming something of an anachronism now but they were a powerful force for 100 years or so and achieved great things for their members, most of whom were poor.