Olaf to right the wrong


Several events shaped my early life. None more so than going to a grammar school. One of the biggest social changes after the War was the possibility of kids from poor backgrounds taking the 11+ (an IQ test) and gaining admission (admittance is perhaps a better word) to a secondary school of this kind. My school was originally founded for the poor kids of Bermondsey but over the years had been hijacked by the middle class, who did the equivalent of “busing in” their kids. The school, St. Olave’s and St. Saviour’s, is over 400 years old. One early student was John Harvard, who went on to found a little educational establishment of his own in Massachusetts.

You can see a picture of St. Olave’s here. And an 1810 drawing of an earlier building that housed the school here. The older drawing gives you an idea of just how rural south London was in the early 19th century. It was inhabited by the Romans, who even built a bridge across the river, but most of the city grew on the northern side of the Thames. The school was named after the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014.

In England you move from primary to secondary school at around the age of 11. The photo is of my first-year class (late 1961 or early 1962). I’m the one fourth from the right in the front row. For the first few years, I found the experience traumatic.

I was a shy, working-class boy. Perhaps 10% of the school’s intake consisted of people from a similar background. We were looked down upon by the headmaster, who was a first-class tyrant. Beating was still allowed (with canes or “chillilos”). Obviously not enamored of the grammar-school system, which heralded a real sea change in British society, he regarded us local boys as louts and hooligans. He referred to us as “barrow boys,” a term used to describe cockney types who sold (and still sell) fruits and vegetables in the street. The closest translation I can think of is “chinamero.”

That’s why I chose the name for the blog. Going to that school was the defining moment of my early life and everything that came later flowed from it.

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11 Responses to Olaf to right the wrong

  1. Don Ray says:

    So the journey begins! Great title for the blog and a very interesting start.

  2. Alan Worrow says:

    Peter, from one ‘barrow-boy’ to another, I can confirm what a culture shock it was going to that School. I don’t think I had quite as hard a time as you did – there were things I had to adapt to, or cope with, but I can’t really say I was ever unhappy at the place.

    You mention the origins as a school for poor boys. In fact it was founded under a charter from Elizabeth I, and the original charter allegedly referred to Bermondsey as a ‘land of dolts and simpletons’.

    I can put names to quite a few of the boys in the class photograph – I even recognise myself – what a scruff!

  3. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Alan. You really got me chuckling with the bit about the charter. When your comment came in, I was listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “We don’t need no education…”

  4. Giz says:

    Pedro, dear boy, your assessment of Stogs hits the mark. Oaf was without doubt a class-obsessed psychosadist from hell. One of the great lessons the school taught me was to distrust and loathe authority in all its forms. Particularly painful was the encouragement by the masters of bullying by thug pupils (because the latter were good at rugger and therefore to be encouraged). Even more hurtful was the proof of Orwell’s ‘Power Corrupts’ hypothesis – I lost count of friends who became vicious power-hungry martinets when elevated to ‘supervisory’ (i.e. the handing out of punishments to lessers) status of monitors. You, my dear friend, were the only exception.
    As Boggie Newmarsh might have said ‘quid semper…’

  5. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi. Giz (do they still call you that?). I’ll send you an email with some info about the Oaf’s demise.

  6. michael r lewis says:

    “Guttersnipe” was another favourite oaf epithet. Fond memories of being given a few “taps of the magic wand” for talking during dinner as a first year…….what it taught me was “never get caught”, a principle I still cling to today.
    It seems that we were close in year groups…………my younger brother also went to STOGS.
    We were collectively known as “the Lewis brothers” strangely enough.

  7. thebarrowboy says:

    Hi, Michael. Your brother and I were in the same year. I remember him well.

  8. jeremy lawford says:

    My Dad Patrick James Lawford went to st olaves from 45-50 ish i think and was very proud to have gone to the school, He would of been one of the 10 % for sure. Great to see your comments.

  9. Simon Evans says:

    – spivs and barrow boys – a few taps of the magic wand – his grand entrance to assembly heralded by the ringing of a handbell – I was out of there as soon as I could, – he was totally unhinged and wrecked my education – Oaf is one letter short of an Olaf – it was also the mid sixties and something else was in the air, a wiff of freedom

  10. Simon Evans says:

    in fact ‘Oaf wronged the right’

  11. hey fellas, I’m top row second from the right, Malcolm Bennett ……………… quite enjoyed the life enhancing experience and hated bullies too but found standing up to them helped ……….. I was a bit too fat for them to take me on for real I guess. Many many happy memories and a few being totally pee’d off too ………….. that’s life ……………… and I don’t think the rigours of being at Stogs did other than help me for my future, exciting, always looking forward and positively looking at life !

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